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The Evaporators, Ripple Rock (Alternative Tentacles)
Vancouver institution Nardwuar the Human Serviette has been entertaining Canadians since the early '90s; his celebrity interviews (ranging from such subjects as Mikhail Gorbachev to Kurt Cobain) are uproarious combinations of performance art and social commentary, and his band, The Evaporators, had been one of Canada's most underrated garage punk bands in recent years. I say "had been", because it looks like Canadian indie rock fans have caught on to The Evaporators in a big way, as their new album Ripple Rock recently topped the national college radio charts for a month. For good reason, too; the album is a charming, catchy, and endlessly silly collection of tunes, whose range of subjects reflect the mad genius of Nardwuar himself. He's either singing the praises of cheese ("Chunks of cheddar make me feel better/Slabs of brie set me free!"), his weight problem ("I Feel Like a Fat Frustrated Fuck"), Canadian history ("Ripple Rock", "Gerda Munsinger"), covering old Canadian punk bands like The Pointed Sticks and The Hot Nasties, or reeling off sophomoric novelty songs ("I've Got Icicles on my Testicles"). Plus, how can you not like a guy who sings a loving tribute to his website's message board ("Nard Nest")? If that weren't enough, the CD comes with loads of multimedia features, including videos, download links, and best of all, classic Nardwuar interviews, including Gorbachev, Dan Quayle, and Jello Biafra. You won't find a new album that's more fun than this one. Doo doodle-oo doo!
Empire State Human, Liquid Blue EP (Ninthwave)
After Depeche Mode's mainstream breakthrough in the late '80s, the record bins (if not always the airwaves) were loaded with an international revue of Mode sound-alikes. Germany had Camouflage and Celebrate the Nun, England had Red Flag, and even America had Anything Box. A decade late, but just in time for the '80s New Wave revival, Ireland gave us Empire State Human. Taking their name from an early Human League song, the trio combine pulsing, moody synths and earnest vocals with danceable electronic rhythms. This eight track EP, featuring several remixes, makes a few concessions to house music, but mostly stays rooted in "classic" synth pop. "We Are Industry", for example, is nothing more than a re-interpretation of Heaven 17's 1983 "Crushed by the Wheels of Industry". Despite the references to royalty, though, Liquid Blue is decidedly second tier.
Club 8, Strangely Beautiful (Hidden Agenda/Parasol)
There is nothing inherently unlikable about Sweden's Club 8. They sing perfectly pleasant, airy pop songs with just the right mix of acoustic instruments and modern flair. Their lead singer, Karolina Komstedt, is a lithe beauty. If one of their albums came on at a dinner party, no one would leave. On the other hand, no one would notice them, either. They're pretty, yes, but unremarkable. Strangely Beautiful, their second album in 18 months after 2002's Spring Came, Rain Fell, will satisfy fans of the band's trademark soft pop, but it's not likely to make them many new ones. Like the album title states, the songs are indeed beautiful, but beautiful through a mother's eyes rather than a more objective observation. The arrangements are also shockingly abrupt, with several songs finishing cold after the chorus has played for the last time. Time seemed to be money when making this record, and it definitely feels like corners were cut. The one intriguing moment is "Between Sleeping and Waking", the acoustic instrumental performed by jack-of-all-trades Johan Angergärd. It sounds like something from a Windham Hill project, and as damning as that may sound, it's actually quite lovely. Perhaps that is a direction Angergärd can explore in a solo capacity in the future. It would certainly be preferred to clunky disco bits like "Saturday Night Engine", where Angergärd falls flat on the last note in the chorus by a good half step... every time he sings it. Instead of Strangely Beautiful, a more appropriate album title may have been Not Bad Looking, Not Great Looking Either.
The Legends, There and Back Again (Labrador)
The Legends sound like they could have been among those bands discovered in Liverpool in the wake of The Beatles. The band, which formed in Sweden in January 2003, has the bright optimistic sound that characterized the Mersey bands, though their punchy, guitar-pop has been run through a more contemporary and edgier filter. Its four-song EP (really an extended CD single) There and Back Again sounds like the kind of music a band like the Dave Clark Five might have made (listen to "Thanks for Nothing" and "Wish Me Gone", with their hand claps and accelerated rhythms) had they listened to bands like Jesus and Mary Chain or the Cure. There is a musical edge here in the fuzzy production and snaking guitar lines that was absent from the Mersey bands, but that does not undercut the pop textures of these songs. Given the rather limited success that most of the Mersey bands ultimately had, it'll be interesting to see if the Legends can build something from this very listenable, but ultimately limited sound.
Mark Mallman, Live from First Avenue, Minneapolis (Susstones)
Mark Mallman found infamy with his 26-hour non-stop live performance of his song "Marathon" in September 1999, and his particular brand of obscure theatric rock is well showcased on this live offering. Even though his frenzied stage presence and wild performances can't be adequately captured on a live CD, his songwriting and talent still captivate. His audiences always leave his show entertained, and the raucous "Who's Gonna Save You Now?" is testament to that. His rendition of "Natural Blues" also goes down a storm. The wonderfully odd "Butcher's Ballad" is delivered with Mallman's trademark gusto and passion, while "Life Between Heartbeats" leaves a lasting impression. Elsewhere, more genre-defying music is performed with heartfelt conviction to a grateful audience glad to have witnessed a true artist first hand. The mainstream would never understand him, but Mark Mallman's Live from First Avenue is the most fun you can have with your headphones on.
Johnny Parry, Break Your Little Heart (Lost Toys)
Recorded in both Toronto and England, the debut album from this musician is a soft and rather ambient project. "Brave and Good" sounds as if Parry is on the verge of either a nervous breakdown or another broken heart, bringing to mind Neil Young at his most vulnerable. The supporting harmonies of Emily Mover play off Parry's whispered lead. "Buried In Leaves" pushes the envelope a bit further into a folk-like singer/songwriter melodic model, sort of like a cross between Nick Drake and Devendra Banhart. Parry likes to keep things simple though, especially on the piano-driven "Keepsake", a track that evolves into a lush arrangement a la Sigur Ros. The minimal approach is Parry's biggest strength, as "Little Ghost" contains no more than two sentences of lyrics as a haunting piano continues on. But not all is dreary. "Paws" sounds like a collage of Rickie Lee Jones and Canadian Hawksley Workman, a jazzy tune that has a nice swing to it. A highlight is little of Parry's doing however, as "Paws" is a contemporary homage to Pink Floyd's "The Great Gig In The Sky". Another ghost ditty, this time "Attached To A Ghost" is also strong, but not "the" song of the record. It's charming though thanks to the children providing harmonies during the chorus. The title track is bleak and depressing, but there is a glimmer of hope buried deep in it. It's an interesting debut from a musician who should be interesting to watch.
Astrud Gilberto, Astrud for Lovers (Verve)
Just in time for those lazy summer afternoons comes the Astrud Gilberto entry in Verve's new …For Lovers series, which also includes Ella Fitzgerald and Johnny Hartman among others. The title is redundant, of course, as all of Gilberto's best-known music is for lovers. This collection of twelve tracks recorded in the mid-to-late 1960s does not include "Girl From Ipanema" but does feature collaborations from fellow Brazilian jazz luminaries saxophonist Stan Getz and Gilberto's husband, guitarist/songwriter Joao on the favorite "Corcovado" and Rodgers and Hammerstein's "It Might as Well Be Spring". Astrud goes great with a hot sun, a cold drink and a little romance. Take away any of those elements, though, and her appeal fades before the end of even this relatively brief overview.
Another Blue Door, Haulers (Stinky)
Hailing from Oshawa, Ontario, located just east of Toronto, Another Blue Door's debut album has a lot of credibility going for it. Produced and mixed by some of Toronto's finest, the band begins with a Cars-ish "Nova Scotia", but it's far from the slick polished pop of Ocasek and his henchmen. Plodding with an alternative sound, it slowly builds over time into a fine piece of Reed-like work circa New York. Influences like Neil Young, The Replacements and even Roger Waters can be heard on "Dirty Fingers" and also the thoughtful and somber "Christmas '98", a melancholic acoustic tune about returning to an empty bed as an old flame has a new beau. "Streetlight Song" follows a similar pattern with a bit more Americana meat tucked into it. "American Guitars" is another solid pop rock tune that hits you in the gut immediately with its Richards-like pickin'. The alt.country twang is a common thread throughout the album, particularly on the pretty "Muzzled", a tune that doesn't do anything outstanding, just everything very well. Only on "How're Thing?" do they seem to be giving less than a stellar effort, perhaps due to the rather straightforward pop rock sound, despite name-dropping Leonard Cohen and Canadian cult icons The Rheostatics. A very impressive album from a band you should hear much more from. Look no further than the adorable closer "Ithaca, N.Y."