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Soft Canyon, Broken Spirit, I Will Mend Your Wings (Alien8 Recordings)
Don't let their home town of Montreal, Canada, or the Godspeed-like album title fool you, Soft Canyon is not a post-rock band. They are, if anything, a Pre-Rock band. Building on the remnants of its members' former band, Tricky Woo, Soft Canyon stand firmly as classicist rock and rollers, with equal shakes of psychedelic freak outs and Pink Floyd-induced touches. And while, for the most part, the album doesn't lag, Andrew Dickson's growl and its overall sound comes across as a sort of dated tribute to many legendary bands of rock past (of which the Laurel Canyon sound is borrowed from liberally). There are touches of Phil Spectre's work here, some Neil Young there, some Van Dyke Parks, Deep Purple, and some Floyd... though it's hard to say if any of this is any exciting, moving, or worth your time. There's no doubt their brand of no bullshit rock is a killer live, but on record it's also very easy to overlook.
Lesa Carlson Off Blue, Evolution into the Conscious Revolution (Strange Fruit)
If you're gonna do a fully improvised jazz album, you'd better have one hell of a rhythm section or it's all gonna fall apart faster than a house of cards in a wind tunnel. Fortunately for Lesa Carlson, she does. Bassist Miles Mosley and drummer Robert Perkins jam almost telepathically throughout Evolution into the Conscious Revolution, anchoring down a record that easily could have lapsed into self-indulgent, abstract noodling, but instead bristles with hypnotic grooves and jazzy incantations that recall the post-psychedelic experiments of Sun Ra and Miles Davis. Carlson belts over this like the love child of Jim Morrison and Grace Slick, a chanteuse-turned-shaman, twisting familiar standards like "Brother Can You Spare a Dime" into weird, beat-poet meditations and crooning hypnotic originals like "Lessons of the Leaves" like she's summoning up some old pagan earth god for a little jam session. Add some wacky turntablist effects featuring Martin Luther King samples, a trumpet, and a flute, and you've got an album that sounds like nothing else out there. As you'd expect of an album recorded "unrehearsed in one take with no charts or nets", not all of it works -- slow jams like "Evolution" and "Serenade the Sea" lurch along in search of a groove, and Carlson's vocals sometimes lurch a little too far into Morrison's bad poetry intonations for comfort -- but a surprising amount of this material is really in the pocket. Especially good are "Nature Boy" and "Your Face", on which Mosley and Perkins lock into taut rhythms that give Carlson and trumpeter Bryan Lipps something sweet on which to hang their expressive interplay.
I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness, I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness (EP) (Emperor Jones)
The self-titled debut EP by the Austin, Texas band I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness is a brief but effective document of angular guitars and patient immediacy. The band instrumentally communicates like the Smiths or Interpol, but the hushed vocals lend the songs a distinctively dreamlike intimacy. Multiple tracks of guitar methodically churn like solar systems in a planetarium on songs like "Your Worst Is The Best" and "The Less You See". The first and best song of the bunch, "We're Still the Weaker Sex", is driven by galvanic embellishments of tambourine and handclaps as the band implores, "We want change". Even when the tempo picks up and ILYBICD gains momentum, it's a relatively restrained affair; they work in areas that breed tension. Produced by Britt Daniel of fellow Austin band Spoon, ILYBICD showcases a wealth of potential possibilities. It's not unreasonable to hope that their debut full-length will deliver the goods.
Lamb of God, Terror and Hubris [DVD] (Epic)
In the past few years, Richmond, Virginia natives Lamb of God have emerged as one of the finest metal acts in America today, as their first two albums, 2000's New American Gospel and 2003's As the Palaces Burn possess both great intensity and a surprising amount of creativity. Combining the dexterity of Megadeth circa 1986, the stuttering time signature changes and oddly syncopated vocals of Meshuggah, and the good, old-fashioned, no-frills riffs of Pantera, it's not hard to see why many people view Lamb of God as one of the most exciting American bands to come around the pike in years. A special treat for their growing legions of devoted fans, as well as a nice introduction for new listeners, the bargain-priced DVD Terror and Hubris is quite an entertaining, charming, and often very funny little disc. It's a bit on the skimpy side, with a running time of 54 minutes, but what's there is fun, including an interesting 22 minute documentary, promo videos for As the Palaces Burn's "Ruin" and New American Gospel's "Black Label", four great live clips, and an air band contest home video that has to be seen to be believed. Especially noteworthy are a hilarious clip that has the band searching in the New Jersey woods for a pair of stained jeans that one of their guitarists discarded after, er, soiling himself the year before, and a short clip where vocalist Randy Blythe shows his ability to command an audience by ordering a massive circle pit stampede a la Braveheart. The mayhem that ensues is astonishing. A neat little bonus is the additional commentary by the band on all the clips; relaxed and lighthearted, it's easy to see how much fun these regular guys are having playing their self-styled "Pure American Metal". Very reasonably priced, this one's well worth picking up.
Valley of the Giants, Valley of the Giants (Advance Music)
A Canadian collective featuring people from Godspeed You Black Emperor and Broken Social Scene, Valley Of The Giants take a long and longing approach to its craft. Deft Ry Cooder-esque guitars moving through accordions and other barren instruments makes the opening "Claudia & Klaus" sparse yet quite inviting. It's comparable to Syd Barrett conducting one mini-symphony after another -- filled with tension and acoustic psychedelica. This is particularly true of "Whaling Tale" which contains a story told by a fisherman, falling in the vein of Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. "Westworld" is a somber and dreary Wilco-ish ditty that is also extremely dreamy thanks to Dierdre Smith of Strawberry and her whispered offerings. The minimal Latin-tinged "Cantara sin Guitara" is also pleasing despite the departure from an Americana foundation, bringing an instrumental from The Doors to mind circa "Alabama Song". "Beyond The Valley", which seems perfect for riding into Dodge or a Sunday night jaunt in a slight drizzle, works itself up into a calm and deliberate frenzy with guitars and keyboards. The only mistake is possibly "Waiting to Catch a Bullett", which brings to mind John Cale and the Velvets still tuning their instruments. But the tranquil finale "Bala Bay Inn" atones for the faux pas. The album borders near insanity brilliantly.
Burns Out Bright, Distance and Darkness (Deep Elm)
Kicking off the new year is another silver disc of faceless emo from our friends at Deep Elm. Distance And Darkness, a six-song EP and Burns Out Bright's first release for an independent label, bears all the standard markings of an emo CD. From minimal, spare artwork designed to evoke emptiness and loss, to the major and minor chord changes and vocals that move from a whisper to a scream in the same song. The EP even includes the trademark "ballad" ("Twenty-Two"). The band themselves do play with a sincerity and intensity that can't be denied. However, even the passionate playing can't overshadow the perfunctory songwriting. Distance And Darkness leaves a stale, dry taste in the listener's mouth. With nothing new to offer to the genre, Burns Out Bright provide a dull paint-by-numbers indie rock exercise. I'm not sure what's worse: that bands like this keep breeding or that Deep Elm is continually the home for these watered down power punk groups. Uninspired, unimaginative, and derivative, Burns Out Bright certainly do, and quickly.
Grain, The Bad Years (Orangeworld)
Grain's sound is both polished and raw, a sound that somehow encompasses in its guitar-driven rock echoes of the Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth and the classic rock radio bands of the '70s. The Bad Years, produced by Al Weatherhead and the band, is a swirly, edgy bit of rock and roll, a bit psychedelic but exceedingly tight and focused. At its best, the album, the second disc from the Pittsburgh-based quartet, explores these echoes, riding on the powerful foundation laid down by bassist Matthew Augustine and drummer Matt Lawrence. The guitar lines of Wayne Smith call up memories of Blue Oyster Cult and strands of Luna and Matthew Sweet, while Carla Simmons' reedy vocal moves from the etherealness of Sarah McLachlan to the earthier feel of Sheryl crow. On "Landmine", "I Ruined Your Love" and "Everything You're Not", Smith is in hard-'70s mode, fuzzy, fast and focused, while Simmons offers her most effective vocal on "Landmine" and "Can't Lose", a song on which country-rock meets Luna and on which she sounds most like Sheryl Crow. But it is the instrumental "Third Floor" that is most intriguing, its repeating guitar lines and fuzz tone set atop perfectly calibrated drumming -- all shimmering texture and atmosphere.
Kitty Margolis, Heart & Soul: Live In San Francisco (Mad Kat)
Recorded over two nights, jazz chanteuse Kitty Margolis celebrates her 15 years "in the biz" with this extensive and wide-ranging album. Beginning with the Gershwin Brothers' "Love Walked In", Margolis mixes her deep Cassandra Wilson-like tone into a style most jazz singer aspire to. Backed by Jon Evans' standup bass, Margolis goes into an Ella-ish scat early and often throughout the 11 songs. She also covers a head-bobbing and brilliant "Summertime" after a soft and heartfelt "Heart And Soul". But it's "A Sleepin' Bee", thanks to Michael Bluestein's piano accents, that ups the ante greatly. Going with the flow, regardless of how long it takes to wrap things up, is possibly her best asset as eight and nine-minute songs still maintain a very good and relaxing flow. The biggest plus for Margolis is changing gears but still being more than capable of carrying it, from the blues of Mose Allison's "Your Mind Is On Vacation" to the subtle brushes on the dreamy "Secret Love". While she never falters, the highlight has to be the melancholic "Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year", a gorgeous and lengthy rendition. Margolis offers up "My Favorite Things" to prove that she belongs alongside Norah, Diana and Cassandra without question.
Various Artists, Putumayo Kids: Sing Along with Putumayo (Putumayo)
The introduction to Sing Along with Putumayo describes the collection as "a mix of unforgettable folk, blues, bluegrass, swing and reggae that children and their families can sing along with". The operative phrase here is "and their families". The 12 tasteful tracks, by the likes of Arlo Guthrie, Taj Mahal, and Rufus Thomas, should provide welcome relief to parents who have reached their natural limit of Disney and Barney tunes. However, getting the kids to sing along may be more troublesome. While a couple well-worn favorites are featured (Thomas's reading of "Old MacDonald Had A Farm" is pure joy), little tykes will be less likely to catch on to Keb' Mo's slowed-down reading of the O'Jays' "Love Train" or Guy Davis's drab "I Will Be Your Friend". A pleasant, O' Brother-like feel pervades, but that soundtrack may actually be better at doing the trick: The version of "You Are My Sunshine" featured here, by Elizabeth Mitchell & Daniel Littleton, has to be about the saddest ever recorded.
Various Artists, Lovers Lounge (Intentcity)
The gaudy cover art to Lovers Lounge, with its scantily-clad female torso, ancient pillars and red satin, suggests an update of the "exotica" music of Martin Denny and Les Baxter. But the fun-loving, tongue-in-cheek aspect of those 1950s and '60s recordings is sorely missing from the mostly colorless electronic mood music featured here. If you can get over liner notes like, "The pulsing beats…quicken the tantric breath and beating heart of embracing lovers as they dance to the upbeat tempo through an ocean of ecstasy," there are several tracks that do an above-average job of establishing a chill-out vibe. Former The The and Daniel Ash collaborator Natacha Atlas lends a bit of credibility by singing on one cut, but for the most part Lovers Lounge is everything that gives "New Age" a bad name.
Marianne Pillsbury, The Wrong Marianne (Average White Girl)
The comparisons to Liz Phair and every other alternative femme rocker might fit, but it seems a bit too easy to pigeonhole the New York musician. When not fronting The Marianne Pillsburys, Pillsbury perfects a gorgeous sugar-coated power pop that is perfected on "Supersize". Just enough of an alternative blueprint working underneath, Pillsbury sounds as if she's aiming to get on the Empire Records soundtrack. But that isn't a bad thing, especially on punchy ditties like "Layaway Girlfriend" and the sullen yet infectious Sheryl Crow-like "Boo Hoo". Sex is a core component of some tracks, but it's more cute than shocking. When Pillsbury takes a u-turn, the hi-hat, quasi-dance buffet that is "Sweet & Sour World" and "Objects in the Mirror", both being far too slick and glossy to be much more than unmemorable ear candy. The smarmy "Swallow a Fly" brings No Doubt circa "Bath Water" to a certain extent. There are a few clunkers though, notably "Ex-Ex-Girlfriend" with its light and breezy Beach Boys feel that finally gets some bite halfway through for a moment. The great track of the near dozen has to be a groovy "Sweater" which sees Pillsbury getting out of her comfortable shell more. This also holds true for "4-Year Coma".