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The Capitol Years, Pussyfootin (Full Frame)
The rejuvenation of Philadelphia bred rock hit a new watermark over the past few years. Two bands headed in very different directions have captivated the music scene. Lickgoldensky has continued to charge the pre-teen youth with some angsty, yet empty hardcore, while the Capitol Years have diligently spit-polished the folk compositions of Shai Halperin into arena rock form. Pussyfootin predates the release of the minor sensation creating Jewelry Store EP but was held back from release so it wouldn't confuse their growing fanbase. And confound them it would. While the appeal of the Capitol Years has been the pomp and circumstance of their adherence to rock traditionalism, Pussyfootin is mostly Halperin on acoustic guitar sounding like some soul city version of David Crosby. Although there are some pleasing gems ("Old Crow" and the Dylan-esque "Hookers") this is one that should have remained in the vault for a few more decades, or at least until the Capitol Years had a chance to cement their reputation.
Park Avenue Music, For Your Home or Office (Clairecords)
On For Your Home or Office, their second CD, Park Avenue Music sometimes has the feel of a more abstract but even lighter version of the Postal Service. This husband and wife duo performs a lulling brand of glitch-pop. The group occasionally uses cliched laptop effects in place of true experimentation, but it's never an irritant. The music plays out like standard downtempo, while Jeannette Faith adds mostly unintelligible lounge vocals. Park Avenue Music keeps a steady supply of lovely music coming, but about half of the disc's tracks cross from soothing into stultifying. The hitches and cuts in the music guarantee a full electronic sound, but they don't have that contemplative air found in the best chill-out music. For Your Home or Office is a solid, 33-minute EP that's enjoyable but not captivating.
Doctor Jazz's Universal Remedy, Release 1.0 (Kriztal)
I am eternally optimistic. Every time I listen to a new CD by an unknown artist, I think to myself: "This could be something really special." Most times, however, it's not very special at all, and this is one of those times. Doctor Jazz plays the kind of effortlessly smooth jazz-house hybrid you hear so often these days. But they just don't do anything to distinguish their brand of jazz-house from the zillions of other jazz-house bands floating around. To top it off, the group's vocalist, Miss LouLou, is hampered with one of the least ingratiating nasally singing voices to come down the pike in years. Not even a surprise drum & bass track and a pile of stunt remixes can help this one. Instantly forgettable.
Young Rich, The Introduction (Too Big Entertainment)
Listening to the debut album by the Young Rich sent me into an unlikely fantasy that features the 16-year-old hip-hop artist Young Rich hanging out at a barn party with fellow Omaha native and young prodigy Connor Oberst, a.k.a. Bright Eyes trading lyrical barbs until the sun rises over vast Midwestern landscape. Admittedly, this is probably pretty farfetched. The two Nebraskans have probably never even met, for even in a city as small as Omaha, the indie scene and the hip-scene have few overlapping elements, and yet it is undeniable they have a lot in common. Both for example, are impressive lyricists. Whereas Oberst spins tales about feverish love twisted family dynamics, Young Rich waxes about cocky guys and watching girls at the mall, but they both do this with considerable skill, never resorting to cheap rhymes or conventional storytelling. What also united Oberst and Young Rich is the sense of place that they bring to their music. Oberst has forged his style by painting evocative lyrical portraits of the places he has inhabited both physically and emotionally. In Young Rich's case, you might think that a kid who wants to be taken seriously in the hip-hop world might try to de-emphasize the fact that he's from Omaha rather than Long Beach or Bed Stuy. Not so with Young Rich, who takes every opportunity to shout out to his folks in Omaha, even writing a song whose acronym title spells out the name of his home city. But what these youngsters from the heartland truly have in common is the fact that their records sound like they are trying just a bit too hard to convince their audience that what they lack in age, they can make up for in world-weary wisdom. This is not to say that both of these artists are not capable of crafting some truly dazzling songs. It's just that they would be a little but better if they were not so eager to please.
W.A.S.P., The Neon God, Part 1 (Sanctuary)
Most people who grew up with 1980s hard rock and heavy metal will likely remember W.A.S.P. as the band who were the whipping boys of the P.M.R.C. (Parents Music Resource Council), thanks to such attention-grabbing concert stunts as drinking blood from a skull, codpieces that shot fireworks, flinging raw meat into the crowd, pretending to slice up a topless woman tied to a rack, those famous sawblades, and of course, the most notorious metal single of the early '80s, the great "Animal (Fuck Like a Beast)". Well, the novelty of the whole Alice Cooper-meets-Kiss gimmick didn't last long, as most people forgot about the band as the 1990s came along, but to his credit, W.A.S.P. mastermind Blackie Lawless has soldiered on, consistently delivering new material, making him one of the most resilient and prolific of all of the '80s rockers. The Neon God, Part 1 is W.A.S.P.'s eleventh studio album, and an ambitious one it is, as Lawless revisits the ultra-heavy, highly theatrical sounds of 1988's The Headless Children and 1990's The Crimson Idol. A concept album chronicling the rise of a young messiah with the ability to manipulate the minds of the masses, the storyline gets a bit garbled and complex, but the album is saved by the music, which is Lawless's strongest work in years. Tunes like "Wishing Well", "Red Room of the Rising Sun" (which cleverly pays homage to The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows", "XTC Riders", and the passionate "The Raging Storm" are all exceptional, with tremendous vocal work by the gravelly-throated Lawless, but the real keeper here is the epic "Sister Sadie", which thunders along at a relentless pace, sounding like a cross between Iron Maiden and Uriah Heep. Part Two of this story will be released later this year, and let's hope it sounds as great as Part One.
The World Provider, Enabler (Ta Da)
Looking at the cover of this album, you think just by the way they dress and the pouting, maudlin expressions on them, The World Provider would be a Britpop band in the vein of Franz Ferdinand or others. However, this 12-song album is just over 20 minutes and isn't the hardcore punk rock or rabid rapid metal usually associates with short ditties. This album is great to listen to but annoys you because there should be simply more of it here. The militaristic marching band opening "Epidemic Incentive" has a series of cities mentioned before it goes directly into the synth pop, new wave Depeche Mode rock on "The Future Of Our Kind". Fans of Baby Dayliner would love this tune and album, each tune rarely clocking two minutes. It's this quirky pop that is the tone of the record, especially on "Heavy Metal Life" and "Big City Girls". Most of this record would be interesting to listen to but each song sounds like a good idea not made into a great one. "Hauteur Theory" is a good example with its rudimentary keyboards. Ditto for the monotone "Persistence Is Feudal" and the Attractions-esque "Maledictory Address". It's an album that is good but, with a bit more work, would've been far stronger.
The Ants, Victory Side (Sick Room)
No, these Ants have nothing to do with Adam; in fact, they hail from Kansas and this is their second album in as many years. Singer/songwriter Chad Bryan is obviously a student of the Songwriting School of Oblique Imagery, similar to Dylan and Neutral Milk Hotel, but fails to deliver immediate or irresistible results. Victory Side possesses lo-fi charm in its matchstick production and diverse variety of instrumentation, but the songs don't offer anything interesting to support. Bryan scores points for crafting intriguing glimpses of inner thought processes (the narrator in "Newlyweds" runs a stream-of-consciousness trail from noting the extravagances of the titular subject to the simple desires of himself), but the songs have absolutely no concept of construction or melody; it's the case of one step up and two steps back. Some songs featuring additional musicians offer glimpses of confident folk-rock a` la the Flying Burrito Brothers or the Band ("Sunshine", "Acres of Hobo"); others, such as "Thanksgiving" and "Cut Off Hands", struggle to break out of their stale confinements. The Ants miss the mark completely when Bryan accompanies himself solo on guitar or mandolin; these songs account for nearly half of the album and sputter out long before they get a chance to come to life.
Kate Maki, Confusion Unlimited (self-released)
"You welcomed me/and opened up your heart/now I'm some awful sin/you've left me back at the start/.../And it's all over for me now..." Starting as it means to go on, Kate Maki's solo debut belies its title; endlessly world-weary and melancholy she may be, despite her relative youth, and imbued with a flair for the occasionally overwrought, she certainly is, but her tales of woe and heartbreak are laid out with controlled understatement and the glint of determination in her eye. With Jim Bryson's steady hand at the production rudder (and on electric guitar), Maki sets easy sail on the seas of amorous mishap, propelled by a voice that hovers on the edge of huskiness yet retains a determined clarity. Hoving into view on this voyage of homey heartbreak folk-pop and country are also violas, lap steel and the welcome addition of an organ; Maki's sound is neither startling nor original, but it is well-rounded and more varied than some of her contemporaries'. Evoking a young Hope Sandoval crying into her bourbon somewhere in Ontario whilst the local band sting the heart like cigarette smoke, this is not an album for the dry of eye.
Light FM, This is the Beginning of My Golden Age (Electronic Battleship)
"I don't understand those kids these days / Poppin' those pills and going to raves", sings Josiah Mazzaschi (ex-Motorhome) on his new band's debut CD. Indeed, on This is the Beginning of My Golden Age, Light FM plays songs the old fashioned way: Solid hooks, clever lyrics, big ambitions. This is the kind of refreshingly pure pop that Fountains of Wayne exhibited on last year's awesome Welcome Interstate Managers. The tongue-in-cheek, hard-bitten romance, vintage keys and crunchy guitars are all there, but with more of the energy and soft-loud dynamics of Chicago forbearers like Smashing Pumpkins and Material Issue. While This is the Beginning... doesn't quite measure up to Interstate Managers in terms of unforgettable melodies and musical variety, songs like "Eli Miller" and "These Thoughts of You" are at least one cut above fellow pop-rock revivalists like Rooney. You don't need to understand the kids, Josiah, as long as you keep writing songs like this.
Big Collapse, Prototype (The Militia Group)
Punk rock, '90s rock, and '80s metal. Put them together and you've got Big Collapse. This band, recently transplanted from New York City to Los Angeles, combines elements of these genres on their debut, Prototype. The dictionary defines "prototype" as "an original type, form, or instance serving as a basis or standard for later stages." However, nothing about this album suggests that it is an original form of anything. Rest assured that music's future does not rest on this band. This album will not the be the prototype for rock music of the future. If anything, Big Collapse relies on rock's sub-genres for inspiration. The guitar playing is tinged with punk's heaviness. The drumming is reminiscent of generic '90s modern rock, and the wailing vocals recall '80s metal-style vocals. They're catchy and passionate for the first few tracks, then nearly unbearable by the end. If you're feeling the need for prototypical music, go for the real thing.
Eric Bibb, Rory Block and Maria Muldaur, Brothers & Sisters (Telarc)
There is down-home, up-from-your-gut blues, music that emanates from a deep place and enters the soul. That's the kind of blues John Lee Hooker sings, the kind of blues Bessie Smith sang, the kind of blues Eric Clapton found on "Layla" and that Bruce Springsteen finds on "My City of Ruins". It is the kind of blues that animates the music of Al Green, Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye, that resonates at the core of Johnny Cash's sound, of Hank Williams' sound, of Loretta Lynn's. Then there is a second kind of blues, powerful but sterile, more a re-creation of the music than an organic exploration, ore surface and style than substance. The first kind of blues is transformative, the second can be exciting and entertaining, which is not a knock when you realize just how much recorded music fails to even attain this simple prerequisite. Brothers & Sisters, the recent release by Eric Bibb, Rory Block and Maria Muldaur, falls into the second category. It is a tremendously listenable and entertaining collection of blues from three vibrant singers who mesh their vocals, creating an intoxicating sound. Block offers a powerful rendition of Bill Withers' "Lean on Me", deep and resonating, with Muldaur's voice weaving in. Bibb offers a sublime take on Bob Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody", stripped of Dylan's nasal bite, teasing out the message of connection and, freeing it from Dylan's stinging irony. Other highlights include Bibb's vocal on "Don't Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down" and "Muldaur's sweet vocal on "Bessie's Advice". Overall, Sisters & Brothers is a consistently listenable disc, but one that ultimately recedes to the background, its strength lying in its near-perfect consideration of the blues style, but failing to take that style to the exultant level of the greatest blues recordings.
Byther Smith, Hold That Train (Delmark)
Byther Smith is now 70 years old with a substantial if insufficiently widespread reputation and a decent range of CDs -- as well as some 45 rpm vinyl singles -- going back about as far as this one (recorded in July, 1981). The music came out on vinyl on a label called Grits in 1983. Aged 48, it wasn't necessarily "Smitty" who was the late developer. The extensive recording of modern blues was a fitful business and slow to start. Quite a few postwar Chicago masters had pre-war reputations on the ground but few or no recordings till small concerns began to look round and take them up after 1950 -- Junior Lockwood, Howlin' Wolf, and most notably (in his 50s) Sonny Boy Williamson II. At times Byther Smith sings like a shriek-free Buddy Guy, which is a fair enough phrase for his guitar playing on some titles. He's no imitator; he and several contemporaries sound now and then like each other. He had lessons from Hubert Sumlin (as well as from Junior Lockwood), but when he does the occasional Howlin' Wolf number which Sumlin might have graced years before on disc, his guitar is his own. There's no embarrassing pastiche of anybody else when he's doing their songs, or adding new words to a Muddy Waters tune worth the addition (a semi-original). The backing trio of guitar, bass guitar, and drums are well up to it, definitely not into clichés. Smith was a real pro over 20 years back, and if this isn't necessarily to be preferred to his more recent recordings (on, for instance, Delmark too) it has genuine strength in depth.
Robert R. Calder
Emerson Drive, What If? (Dreamworks)
I'm not sure what is more insulting: the pedestrian, instantly forgettable contemporary country pop on Emerson Drive's sophomore effort, What If?, or that the fine people at Dreamworks feel the need to print an obnoxious anti-piracy warning on the CD label. Yes, that's right Dreamworks, I use my role as a music critic to secretly make a career out of bootleg CDs. You got me. Regardless, bands like Emerson Drive don't need to rely on music critics to move units. All they need is a slickly produced single, a video in heavy rotation and the fans of new country will come flocking to them. Luckily for Emerson Drive, What If? (produced by pop maestro Richard Marx) is fourteen tracks of comfortable, safe, non-threatening and ultimately tepid country music that has more than one single ready for country music radio. As the boys in Emerson Drive don't write their own music, the songs suffer from an emotional distance and detachment. The sentiment is there but it is not felt; it feels as if the band is merely going through the motions. That hardly matters as Emerson Drive has the chops and looks that will more than make up for the insincerity of the music. Despite my review, Emerson Drive will have a success on their hands with What If? and country music radio will once again be filled with overproduced pop masquerading as country.
Eight Days Gone, Silence to the Naysayers (Ragin Grace Productions/Titan Entertainment)
member Spinal Tap and all the disasters that befell them? Well, Eight Days Gone has a long road to surpass those mishaps, but bassist Gary Bonneau is doing the work of four fingers with three due to an accident. The group has gained a loyal following in Pennsylvania for its guitar driven rock. And what this album does is only hone and perfect that style thanks to vocalist and guitarist Neill Steinke. The uplifting hard-rock on "Time Of Year" sounds a lot like Lifehouse, Collective Soul or Incubus with its polished melancholic melody and larger than life guitars. "Shooting Star" is a rootsy and yet gorgeous radio-friendly tune that again recalls Collective Soul's Ed Roland with a bit of an axe to grind. Eight Days Gone know how to pull a ballad together during the softer and stellar "Better Things To Do" and the anthem-like power ballad "Radio Love Song". "Pray" is a bad Creed tune though. Oh wait, that was an oxymoron! However the tunes tend to be consistently strong, especially the edgy and swaggering "Today I Dreamed". Ditto for "Surprise" and most of the remaining tunes. If you like or love Collective Soul or The Calling, you would do well to seek this record out.
Rita MacNeil, Blue Roses (Luprock/EMI Music)
Rita MacNeil and I have a lot in common. Surnames aside, we're also from Cape Breton Island on Canada's East Coast. So, she's definitely not unfamiliar. Her new album has her aging gracefully, looking back on her life with a gentleness and sincerity that she's been renowned for. Mixing country, folk, Celtic and even gospel at times, MacNeil's voice isn't as powerful as it once was, but songs like "Floating", "Knowing When to Go" and the pretty piano-centered "Some Things Never Change" have an adult contemporary feeling to them, all better off for it. Rarely does MacNeil venture from the slow ballad style, although "Memphis" tends to go into a Southern, soulful area with average results. Fortunately the crux of the album is reflective pieces about returning to one's stomping grounds on "You Can't Go Home Again" with MacNeil giving her best performance here. The bouncy yet folksy "Never Under 85" is another hidden gem while the up-tempo country pop of "Moon Was Rising" works nicely. But her slower ballads tend to shine greater. It's perhaps her best album since her earlier heyday over two decades ago.