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By Divine Right, Sweet Confusion (Linus/spinART)
Within the first few tracks of Sweet Confusion, you'd think that By Divine Right had delivered the ass-shakin' rock party album of the year, a record with the same frenetic ecstasy of the Delta 72's 000 or Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's Orange. Regrettably, the sweet-it's-1969-all-over-again lovefest doesn't pan out to be all that it initially appears. The band's fifth album shifts gears from a time warp of British Invasion-laced singles ("The Slap", "I Can't Do This by Myself") to an attempt to recreate Electric Ladyland minus the studio trickery and guitar wizardry to back up its audacity. Sweet confusion, indeed. And to think, Canada has been so good to us lately with the likes of Broken Social Scene, the New Pornographers, and Sloan, to name a few. Sweet Confusion's eyes are bigger than its appetite; we're left eyeing the desert tray long after the band is sated. Um... are you gonna eat that? The latter tracks are each built around simple bluesy riffs, extended by minutes when they aren't really constructed for long shelf lives in the first place. Bandleader Jose Miguel Contreras said that he intended for the second half of the album to get progressively trippy; with all due respect, it could have been even trippier. The pysch-pop explorations of songs like "Soul 2000" and "Wheels Slow" feel underdeveloped, the envelope not fully pushed. Sweet Confusion isn't without its strong share of highlights, but a finished product with half the length would have been twice as memorable.
Bel Auburn, Cathedrals (The Damselfly)
Cathedrals, announced by the CD booklet's front cover, is "ten songs & ten vignettes written and performed by Bel Auburn." Inside the cover we learn that it is also the "first edition" of its pressing, hinting at future editions with a preface by John Updike and accompanying Cliff's Notes. The amount of work that went into creating the booklet alone is astounding. As an album-artwork-ophile I could write 200 words about its weight in my palm. Each song on Cathedrals is accompanied by a short story, and is also ascribed a section of the physical cathedral to represent it (narthex, nave, spire, altar, etc.). The songs are well produced and performed by the Ohio band, with yearning, dramatic choruses and loud/soft dynamics that befit the nature of the project. Highlights include "Sing What You Mean," played with such conviction that you don't even notice headscratchers like "but forgiveness recalls still / In repose we are statuesque," and the stately piano-based "How Not to Get Caught," which suggests Coldplay doing their Radiohead-with-hope thing. Overall, the music is adequate if not wholly original modern rock, a description that would be damning if the songs themselves didn't feel like one part of a larger puzzle. This is Christian rock at its most conceptual. Even if the songs don't always live up to their ambitions, it's an impressive debut, and worth tracking down and spending time with, even if it takes a semester or two.
New Black, New Black (Thick)
Hailing from Chicago, New Black is a foursome that is one half boy, one half girl and nothing short on attitude. On their nine-song debut, New Black offer a hybrid of old-school punk, '80s new wave and minimal post-hardcore creating an urgent and insistent album that unfortunately can't move progress further than the bands its influenced by. The steady electronic beats of Kraftwerk ("RobotoboR"), the polyrhythms of the Talking Heads ("Hot Box") and the orgasmic wail of Kim Gordon ("Last Wave") are all present, however, they never gel to create something cohesive and memorable. For most of this self-titled release the band seems to be struggling with their disparate influences. Opening track "Put It to Bed" and closer "The Kill" are perhaps the best examples of this. Both try to balance dark and sinister guitars with catchier synths and fail. Though the band veers ably from style to style, the performances are barely a notch above perfunctory and the tunes are instantly forgettable.
New Soul Orchestra, New Soul Orchestra (self-released)
Four years ago, older brother Dan Miller (producer and arranger) suggested to younger sibling Michael (singer and composer) that they assemble a large body of musicians to create soulful orchestral pop in the vein of legends Earth, Wind & Fire. Now they've released this self-titled, self-financed collection of determinedly backwards-looking songs that remember when white R&B meant uplifting voices singing an upbeat message, Philly strings and a perky brass section. If you like the idea of an anachronistic fusion between the disco high of the Bee Gees and Simply Red's pensive passion, leavened with a little funk and reggae, then Michael's caring falsetto will doubtless win you over. Those seeking challenging, innovative music, lyrical masterpieces or jaw-dropping displays of virtuosity will look elsewhere; for the remainder, the New Soul Orchestra will greatly enjoy temporarily taking away your troubles -- it's what they do.
The Rumours, The Mighty Can Fall (Switchblade/Universal)
It's too bad that when smart and talented folks like the Unicorns, Marcel Dzama, and Guy Maddin are making all of us Yankees wonder if there's something in the water up there that is making Canadian music, art and film so good these days that a band like the Rumours would have to come along and spoil the mood. I love metal as much as the next girl, but the tuneless guitar-mongering that is featured on The Rumours record "The Mighty can Fall" is much too much for anyone to stomach, metal-head or not. The best compliment I can give this Vancouver based four-piece is that every once in a while, when vocalist Melissa Starr isn't doing an uninspired imitation of Joan Jett or Gwen Stefanie, the band can sound a little bit like now defunct Seattle band, Hammerbox, as they do on "Pretty." "April" is the only other song on the record that comes close to succeeding, adding crunchy effects to a classic chord progression, resulting in a reasonably listenable punk ballad. Overall however, these recipients of Future Shop and Universal Music's "Future Stars" award at Canadian Music Week, have a long way to go if they want their future to coincide with a decent record.
Le Concorde, Le Concorde [EP] (Spade Kitty)
Le Concorde is the moniker for the new project from Stephen Becker, formerly of the band Post Office. This self-titled EP ambitiously attempts to cover multiple terrains of comely indie pop. Becker is a skilled arranger, but a nondescript band leader; as a result, the songs are often all dressed up with nowhere to go. The shaggy dog sheen of "People Mover" calls to mind a shy cousin of Badly Drawn Boy; the sterile craftsmanship of "Parallel Lives" is underfed Steely Dan; and "Startling Revelations" mangles words inside a performance copped from Elliott Smith. Even the soaring chorus crunch of "It's the Minor Chords That Kill You" is marred by a distracting castrato vocal performance. "The Sound of Your Name" (featuring John Ashton and Mars Williams of the Psychedelic Furs) serves as the EP's moment of clarity and standout track. Its sparkling horns, bounding flow, and reassuring chorus (despite a reserved, Air-esque vocal performance) represents everything the other songs aspire to be. Becker makes music that is easy to like, but he's obviously capable of more than effortless effervescence. Perhaps the first full-length release from Le Concorde will drop some of the fleeting embellishments in exchange for something more meaningful.
Chris Hyland, And Where Have You Been? (I-Pop)
Philadelphia-based musician Chris Hyland may get saddled with one-size-fits-all label of "singer-songwriter", but his six-song debut EP, And Where Have You Been? has more snappy energy and melodic pop-based songs than many of his slow-strumming contemporaries. A graduate of the Berklee College of Music, Hyland is obviously influenced by both the Byrds and the Beatles. The title track, "Burn It Down", is a story of youthful self-destruction with a jingle-jangling guitar at its heart. The record's stellar closer, "This Is the Place", is a sparkling pop gem that would sound right at home on Top 40 radio. In between, there are four equally catchy ditties. Hyland's got an ear for a strong hook and an appealing Elvis-Costello-y voice to go with it. His upbeat pop melodies sound a lot fresher than you'd expect -- considering his '60s-ish inspiration - and this little collection is a fine introduction to a new talent.
Vijay Iyer, Blood Sutra (Artists' House)
On Blood Sutra, Iyer continues to develop his fairly unique jazz piano aesthetic. Percussive to the point of occasional brutality, Iyer's dense textures and angular melodies sometimes bring to mind Cecil Taylor "Proximity", the CD's opening number, is relatively meditative; things quickly move into more familiar, restless Iyer territory by the second track, "Brute Facts", which fairly explodes from the speaker. Alto player Rudesh Mahanthappa helps underscore the aggressive nature of Iyer's playing, while bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Tysheen Sorey work to keep it all together rhythmically, driving Mahanthappa and Iyer's solo playing forward and helping to keep the listener from losing his way. This is not easy music nor is it music to relax by at the end of a busy day. The closes Iyer comes to a traditional performance is "Because of Guns/Hey Joe". The tune's blues trappings help ground Iyer even as he flies off into the stratosphere on one of his solos. The result is that this track sounds most like something the average listener will find it easy to relate to. That isn't meant to scare people off, it's simply a statement of where Vijay Iyer and his fellow musicians are coming from: a place where music is much more than mere entertainment and where the listener must come prepared to work just as the musicians do.
Mon Electric Bijou, If Blood Could Speak (Matchbox Recordings)
Montreal's Mon Electric Bijou was originally a one man band, but Martin Saz has opted to fill out the required band members on the sophomore album. It's a bit rawer and sparser however than the first go around, as "A Taxi Called Jesus" spews a quirky tempo that doesn't quite fit pop or rock for that matter. According to the press kit, Saz has drummer Jason Sanchez to thank for his "Keith Moon-Muppets" approach to the skins. "Optique Shov" gears itself towards crisper, thicker Who-ish theatrics. It's wraps itself around the verses rather than the chorus as Saz sings about "kicking out the jams". Mon Electric Bijou get things going on "A Public Affair" as the drum fills, riffs and tender side add to a greater good while "Abraham" conjures up slower Americana a la The Band. Mon Electric Bijou are all over the place but don't mind wearing and playing their influences. "I'll Be Your Duane Eddy" is the type of song perfected in thousands of garages across North America, nothing special but hard not to resist at the same time. "I want to hear Willie Nelson," Saz sings on the country-cum-college rock title track. "God Walks By Your Side" must have been recorded for vinyl. Here Saz offers another so-so home demo, one that has room for improvement. Only during "The Lone Killer" does Mon Electric Bijou give something new, something Neil Young did ages ago. "Universal Hiss" has Saz putting the finishing touches on a decent album with a nice acoustic instrumental.
United State of Electronica, United State of Electronica (Mannheim)
There are good reasons why jam bands shouldn't play techno, and they're all front-and-center on United State of Electronica's debut. Whether it's the incongruity of squealing electric guitars and cheesy disco rhythms, the muddy mix that makes it sound like the music's coming from the other side of a wet blanket, or the electronically-enhanced vocals that give singing and electronics a bad name, this troupe has what it takes to make you want to put on some Phish and wish you'd never learned how to dance. They're popular on the Northwest US live scene, which, based on this album, is where they should stay.
B3 Bombers Featuring Clyde Stubblefield, Live! at the Green Mill (Alltribe)
Dan Trudell and his B3 Bombers perform a live set at Chicago's Green Mill with James Brown drummer Clyde Stubblefield in tow. Stubblefield ably provides the funky drumming he is best known for, but the group plays a variety of grooves here, including soul jazz, straight ahead swing, blues, and rock. There's plenty of room for every member of the band to stretch out and solo, and everyone sounds good. Particularly noteworthy are trombonist Joel Adams' workout on the Trudell original "Cumulus Day" and Pat Mallinger's alto work on the opener, "Surrey Lane." Stubblefield steps out as vocalist on the James Brown number "Make It Funky" (not really a lot of singing, but still good) and the B.B. King number "Sweet Sixteen," which also allows Mike Standal to show what he can do with a twelve bar blues. There's nothing here that hasn't been done before, but when it's done this well, it reminds you of just how great a sweaty summer evening in a small club can be when a band that can play blues and funk this well is on the bandstand. By the time Trudell, Stubblefield, and the rest of the band bring the final track, "Baskin' In It" in for a landing, you'll wish you had been at the Green Mill on this August night.
Blair Packham, Could've Been King (Blare! Music)
Blair Packham has some of the better pop stars around him for this record. Dubbed one of the best pop songwriters under the radar in the Great White North, Packham's sophomore album shows why he's been heralded by Ron Sexsmith and others within the fraternity. With production help by former Odds singer Craig Northey, Packham's title track is the melodic highbrow pop with a hint of gospel backing vocals in the vein of Costello or, particularly, Squeeze or Crowded House. Packham gets to the punchy pop gems on "Coming Undone" although the Southern fried blues of "Happy Go Lucky" misses the mark somewhat. Another Southern attempt fares better during the sweet "Mister Bitter" and "The Opportunists" has a Celtic-tinted, down-tempo sway that is quite attractive. And he keeps raising the bar on the slow building yet melancholic "Crystal Clear". Most of the album centers on jaded musical characters, be it publicists, suits or hopeful performers looking to be signed or has-beens, exemplified on the brilliant "One-Hit Wonder" which hits the nail on the head. Finely crafted and showing the chops to boot, Packham shines on "Somebody Else" before slowing things down on the folk-ish "Little Fish". He saves one of the nuggets for the end though on the delightful, Stonesy riff during "I'll Think of You Fondly". An ample amount of care went into this clever and great album.
Eric Clapton, 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection (UME)
Slow Hand's maturation as a musician is unquestioned; from the bluesy British Invasion Yardbirds, to the psychedelic Cream, to the artistry of Derek and the Dominoes and his latter day unplugged incarnation, Clapton has covered all creative bases, establishing himself as one of rock music's renaissance men over the past 40 years. The Best of culls 11 tracks from the guitarist's career in the '70s, most of which have gradually become radio staples. There is nothing new or particularly noteworthy in this collection, simply a disc's worth of material from Clapton's most cerebral and introspective period. Old standbys "Layla" and "Cocaine" are book-ended by "I Shot the Sheriff" and "Lay Down Sally" with the Dylan cover "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" thrown in for good measure. Essentially a Clapton sampler, the material is largely repetitive, all of which is assuredly in the collections of aficionados many times over. The offering will appeal primarily to those who appreciate EC's early solo career and less aggressive work, rather than his "Clapton is God" persona.
Steve Forbert, Just Like There's Nothin' to It (Koch)
Steve Forbert's voice is worse for the wear and tear of all the years he has spent on the road singing his tales of connection and dislocation. On his latest disc, Just Like There's Nothin' to It, his bare croak adds a level of emotional weariness that makes this disc so much more interesting than the songs themselves might otherwise indicate. Forbert has gotten older, not necessarily wiser, but definitely more resigned and accepting. "Let the young have the youth / Let the old have the rest / And if you don't mind some rain / And the blood sweat and tears / What it is is a dream / For a lifetime of years", he sings on "What is a Dream". The disc is a solid one filled with mid-tempo rockers and ballads, though the production occasionally buries his vocal beneath the band. This may not be Forbertís best work, but itís pretty good and definitely worth a listen.