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The Nanobot Auxiliary Ballet, The Nanobot Auxiliary Ballet (Ta Da)
All you really need to know about the Nanobot Auxiliary Ballet is the full title of its first album: The Nanobot Auxiliary Ballet and the Museum of Modern Insect Art With The Office of Woodland Security -- Present: TylenolandAdida The Deadly Ballerina -- featuring: The ChillbotSlider -- The PushButtonMaster -- The WhiteHotFunkBot, and maybe Dr.Idiotbot - if it can make it. That pretty much clears this all up right? Perhaps not. NAB, as we'll call them for short, is the brainchild of Patty Schmidt, producer of the pioneering electronic music showcase "Brave New Waves" on CBC Radio 2, and Jeff Waye of the equally pioneering record label Ninja Tune. So they obviously have crazy skills and even crazier knowledge of electronic music. And as you may have noticed, the first NAB release is a pretty crazy-sounding thing. It's a truly chaotic mishmash of electronics and semi-tuneless electroclash singing. But it's not the (thankfully) dying mini-genre of electroclash. NAB is a much sillier beast, a bizarre musical experiment that hits and misses in equal portions. The first track (and album highlight, such as it is), "Akshun", truly sounds like nothing more than an orchestra of free-willed robots whirring their gears and musical limbs simultaneously, and somehow managing to create music. "StopStart" takes a funky, fuzzy bass note and slaughters it with high-pitched electro squealing. "Situation" almost sounds like a remake of a Human League song, except for the stray slide-whistling of some bot in the background. Like Captain Beefheart's seminal Trout Mask Replica, NAB has a logic all to itself, and it's worth witnessing, although only folks with respect for electronica qua electronica, for the history and future possibilities of music made by machines, will find pleasure in these 31 minutes of madness.
Modulator, Don't Hold Out on Me (Pegstar)
While new wave may have thankfully reincorporated a vast number of diverging musical styles into pop music, it is mostly remembered (and reviled) for its second generation, after the synthesizer had lost its edgy futurism and simply become the normal backdrop for '80s pop. Houston's Modulator, a five-piece rock band who use the era's analog synthesizers as a gimmick and actually cite Howard Jones as an influence, sound absolutely huge on this brief EP, thanks mostly to the pristine production of '90s Britpop sugar-coater Ed Buller -- surely a stylistic descendent of Trevor Horn -- and the enthusiastic vocals of Julie Zamora, whose voice is tailor-made for such squeaky-clean, accessible pop music. Whereas their synth-loving ancestors may have turned out bleepy anthems featuring vocoders about the oncoming digital age, Modulator instead showcase the warm, accusatory pop sentiment of "You're So Analog" and the extended robot metaphor of "Major Malfunction," both of which unfortunately share the same sort of transitory currentness as any of those second generation new wave bands. The somewhat more substantial title track takes time to weave itself into a shimmering fabric of synthy sleekness and alternative '90s rock thunder, but the end result simply approximates dated MOR hybrid-fashionistas like Missing Persons or Berlin. Don't Hold Out on Me clearly demonstrates that Modular have their hearts set on big time success, but first they have to reprogram their CPUs and leave the electronics shtick behind.
Richard T. Williams
A Perfect Murder, Unbroken (Victory)
While a band like Hatebreed continues to assert its position as a perennial mosh pit favorite on the second stage of this year's Ozzfest, there's another band lurking in the shadows who, quite frankly, do it a whole lot better. Montreal, Quebec band A Perfect Murder specialize in the same kind of metalcore as Hatebreed, heavily influenced by the likes of 80s hardcore stalwarts Cro-Mags and Agnostic Front, as well as utilizing the same kind of ferocious, barked-out vocal style, but what this band brings to the table is a healthy dose of old-school metal chops that make the mighty Hatebreed sound one-dimensional. Thrash-inspired riffs, Anthrax-esque breakdowns, and melodic lead fills pepper the band's second album, Unbroken, their first for Victory Records, and one of the more pleasant metal surprises of 2004 so far. Granted, this stuff is nothing new, and the band freely admits it, but their version of no-frills metalcore has enough depth to hold the attention of teen aggro fans and older metal veterans alike. Led by vocalist Frank Pellerin and guitarists Carl Bouchard and Kevin Lemire, the band plows through 36 minutes' worth of relentless, brutal, and thoroughly fun music, highlighted by such mosh-inducing tracks as "Time Bomb", "Unbroken", "Bouc Emissaire", and "No Truce". Highly recommended, especially if shit need to be seriously fucked up. Forget about all the other metalcore pretenders; this sucker is the real thing.
The Vowels, In Cahoots With..., (The Sea Isle)
There's some good news and some bad news about New York City rockers the Vowels: The good news is that there's no bad news; the bad news is that there's no good news. On their debut album, In Cahoots With…, the band -- singer/guitarist Damion Jurrens, bassist Scott McDowell and drummer Sean Greenhalgh -- are perfectly adequate, yet bloodless. I'm damning with faint praise, I know. The Vowels are that band who has a residencey at the bar you and your buddies hit up a few times a month. You see them, tap your toes to songs like "Patience Kills, Dear", drink some beers and maybe even play air guitar to the jangly "Things Have Swum", nod to each other and say, "Hey, these guys are alright. What's their name again?", then go home and promptly forget about them. The Vowels deserve a better fate -- there's not an out-and-out bad tune in the bunch -- but their batch of blandly enjoyable songs won't earn them one yet. Faceless indie rock has a new face. Sorry, guys.
D:FUSE, Prelude to Begin EP (System Recordings)
This six-track EP is available exclusively on iTunes, which makes it something of a first in my experience, and is a taster for D:Fuse's upcoming album Begin. Unfortunately his music shows as little imagination as his titles (thank God he didn't decide to pre-empt the EP with a track called "Intro", eh?), it being progressive trance of most uninspired sort. The production is so smooth and clear that grooves lack any friction to adhere to, memorable hooks are absent, and the lyrics make you pity D:Fuse for claiming "I've been a lyricist all my life". Like his benefactor Paul Oakenfold, D:Fuse may be a terrific DJ, but his studio talent is exceedingly limited. Don't wait for Begin, get your sleep in now.
Various Artists, Hey! Where'd the Summer Go? (Humblebee)
Upstart Canadian indie label Humblebee Recordings has enlisted an international group of relatively unknown indie-popsters to capture the undefined mood of summer for their first ever compilation. Some of the tracks, particularly Evie's grinding "Day of Defeat", are way off, but, for the most part, this collection really does capture the childhood experience of summer: pleasurably uneventful with brief bursts of both melancholy and pure joy. With 24 tracks, most of them rather short, Hey! Where'd the Summer Go? is less of an album than a type of musical buffet: there'll be something captivating and beautiful here for any lover of old school turn-of-the-century indie pop, but it might not be what the next listener finds the most appealing. Personally, I would vote for the Brazilian mope rockers Postal Blue's "Rainy Day" and Canadian power-poppers Paper Moon's rollicking "Volcano" as the breakthrough tracks. Whatever one's personal favorites, this new compilation will feel like a typical summer afternoon when there's nothing really exciting going on but the time is well-spent anyway.
Hunter A. Felt
Plasmodium, Clairaudience (Dry County)
I'm sure that the members of Plasmodium (Bob Miller and Jim Thomson) have the ability to make great music; they've had success with the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Gwar, and Tulsa Drone. Clairaudience doesn't have that music, but it doesn't purport to. The album's based on the concept of exploring "paranormal" sounds. Part experiment and part pop, the album ends up being play time for a couple talented performers. At it's most serious, the album's not too exciting. At it's goofiest ("Dr. Octobongopus" the drive-thru window of "Rethinking the Raven"), Clairaudience provides a fun listen, but doesn't provide the hooks for repeat listens. Somewhere between the straightforward music and the tongue-in-cheek Andy Warhol routines, Plasmodium could land on a good performance, but they don't appear to be interested in doing so.
Salvatore, Tempo (Racing Junior)
It's a bit surprising to read that Salvatore won a Norwegian Grammy for Best Electronic Album. Their music owes as much to the epic noise rock of bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor as it does to anything you'd expect to hear on Warp or Astralwerks. I wouldn't be surprised if they made big headway into the Anglo-Saxon post-rock scene on the strength of this album -- their fourth -- produced by Tortoise's John McEntire and heavily indebted to krautrock heavies Neu! (in regards to whom the group freely admit having based their entire sound). They have yet to surpass their influences, but based on the evidence herein I think it's only a matter of time. There's a lot to like on Tempo.
Audio Out Send, ... Or Does It Explode? (A Flashcard Project)
This San Francisco Bay Area group's release on its own label is a whispery, serene, and placid album that takes an almost haunting quality from the onset. "Imagining Things?" is a primer for what's to come -- a light and almost feathery approach that has Simon and Garfunkel as its core. "The Great Lawn Competition" is a folk-cum-pop oriented number that has a series of organ-like "effects" veering in and out throughout. The fuzzy guitars are another subtle but important aspect as the quartet of Zach Moser, Benjamin McCann Jennings, Maxmillian Diez, and Jeremy Detamore create a lush, atmospheric and building bit of music. At times one gets the impression early Nirvana was another influence, especially on the eerie "Radio Elevator Rising" with its ample tension. "Rolling Heads" harkens back to Nick Drake with its elegant and at times aching folk. The first nugget is the rolling and sincere "Calling on the Girl", as is the majestic "Last Call for First Times", which mixes Brit-folk with college rock touches, kind of like Ben Davis. The latter also breaks out into a louder, edgier mold for fleeting seconds. The consistency of the album is quite good, especially on the spacey, psychedelic leaning "The Carver". If they decided to go for the "soft/hard/soft" approach they might be achieving a greater buzz, but for now most we'll gladly settle for "A Rocket up My Spine". This album has second stage at this year's Curiousa festival written all over it.
Blessed Light, Love Lights the Way (Mill Pond)
Psych-pop outfit Blessed Light hails from the outskirts of Seattle, from the mountainous and tree filled landscape known generally as "the Pacific Northwest". Lead singer/songwriter/guitarist Toby Gordon grew up in North Bend, Washington, the picturesque little logging town that was put on the map when David Lynch filmed his hallucinatory "Twin Peaks" series there. I mention this fact because many of the songs on Blessed Light's new record Love Lights the Way seem to reflect the eerie gorgeousness of that part of the country. However, the misty evergreen landscape is not the singular muse of this multi-talented songwriter. The love-child of hippy Christian folk-musicians, Gordon somehow manages to integrate elements of several disparate genres that range from the omnipresent 60's folk-pop to Moody-Blues harmonics to pre disco Bee Gees bass-led ballads. The band is at their best howewver, when they let their sunny dispositions shine through tunes that are gorgeous in their simplicity rather than weighed down by competing syles. The gorgeously poppy album opener "Suzanne Sunshine" is such a song. Shimmery guitars intertwine with cheery keyboards and a sugary-smooth bass to create a catchy melody that is just in time for the lazy days of mid-summer. Melancholic undertones take the edge off the overwhelming sweetness of "Golden Gardens", making this drowsy and atmospheric ballad one of the best songs on the record. The two 8 minute-plus songs that close the album veer away from pop into multilayered guitar rock a la Pink Floyd in a blissed-out fashion that would end up getting tiresome, if it wasn't done so damn well, much to the credit of wunderkind producer and fellow northwester Phil Ek.
The Marshall Tucker Band, Beyond the Horizon (Shout! Factory)
Singer Doug Gray may be the only original member left in the Marshall Tucker Band, but, to the latest lineup's credit, the band sounds just as good as they ever did. Beyond the Horizon is a stylistically diverse recording that veers wildly from country to southern rock, making detours into hard rock and bluegrass along the way. The band plays with a passion normally missing from latter-day incarnations of rock bands, particularly on the blistering title track. However, although the band is top notch, none of the new material is particularly memorable. Only the pure country of "The Rain" and "Angel (With a Honky Tonk Heart)" linger after the CD finishes playing. Though the material is sub-standard, Beyond the Horizon does not do disservice to the Marshall Tucker Band's reputation, a rare enough qualitiy in a new studio release from veterans of the classic rock touring circuit. In fact, the causal fan who hears the band perform songs from Beyond the Horizon in concert may not even realize that songs like "Ride of Your Life" aren't from their '70s peak.
Acme Rocket Quartet, Sound Camera (Lather)
The Acme Rocket Quartet tries to turn jazz and improvisational music on its head. Unfortunately there are about 21,000 other bands who have done this before, but that still doesn't make this attempt any lesser. "Inspirado" is a bit of jazz, some soul and a "jam" element that keeps it all together. Think Harry Mancini producing Medeski, Martin and Wood and it might give you a hunch as to what's coming at you. What is best about this ensemble is the tightness of the music, which can't be overlooked despite this style, although the Bobby McFerrin-esque middle a cappella is something not warranted at any time, day or night! "Xtabentun" lacks much oomph though and comes off a tad cookie-cutter. "Something Is Rotten In Denmark" might be an odd title, but captures the imagination -- a slow stroll down a seedy Parisian alleyway after midnight is the perfect scene for this sort of feeling. The album's centerpiece is a four part "Tracksuit Suite" that starts with a funky '70s vibe and cheesy keyboard. What's odd though is there really isn't four distinct parts, making the suite aspect rather inane. Speaking of inane, "The Airboat Pilot" doesn't quite know what it wants to achieve but tries to fart around looking for its comfort zone. An improvement is the Eno-esque "Lusitania (Long Beneath The Whelming Brine)" that finds its groove from the opening notes. The only tune with some sort of bite has to be "Spoke French" with its shining brass horns and definite influences from Pink Floyd's "Money". The warm summer islands color on "Nosegay" has its advantages also. Throw in a cover of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Seven Veils/Heaven On Their Minds" from Jesus Christ Superstar and you have an eclectic, bizarre and at times engaging album.
Gary "U.S." Bonds, Back in 20 (M.C.)
The secret to any good comeback album is to get a couple of known artists to do a couple of songs with you. Gary "U.S." Bonds has been around so long he doesn't really need that to sell an album, but when Springsteen can be gotten, you get him! His first studio album in 20 years if you can believe has him belting out feel-good blues meets roots rock tunes such as "Can't Teach an Old Dog New Tricks" which sounds like an awful lot like a faster version of either Springsteen's "Ramrod" or "Darlington Country." "Murder in the First Degree" has a bigger blues band sound but still works. Another groovy ditty is "Take Me Back" with Southside Johnny. Not all of it is great though as "She Just Wants to Dance" is a slow and mediocre soulful tune with guitarist Dickey Betts. The same routine performance bogs "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late". But "Bitch/Dumb Ass" gets things going again with a gritty and rather seedy barroom blues flavor thanks to Phoebe Snow sharing vocal duties. The highlight though comes on the delightful Otis Redding hit "I've Got Dreams To Remember." Here Bonds shows his chops and why he's still sounding as good now as he did in his early years. A close second is The brassy and funky "She Chose to Be My Lady" is also quite strong with its tone and tempo. Overall though it makes you wonder why he hasn't been around in the last 20 years.