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Minus the Bear, They Make Beer Commercials Like This (Arena Rock)
The name of this taut five-song EP suggests a playful irony, as do the song titles themselves: "Hey! Is That a Ninja Up There?," "Let's Play Clowns," "I'm Totally Not Down with Rob's Alien." But if these titles have anything to do with the chilly, clinical music attached to them, I couldn't detect it; instead the alienation evoked by these inside jokes was perfected by the emotional inaccessability of their musical approach: angular guitar lines tricked up with delay and reverb, relentlessly uptempo and utterly soul-free drum patterns, and impressionistic lyrics delivered in standard indie-rock mutter, rising to a semi-whine when the dynamics require it. As with the similarly methodical Sea and the Cake, you must be an android (or aspire to be one) to connect with this music, but perhaps the band rejects that mode of appreciative listening altogether. Perhaps they want you to grudgingly admit their efficient competence and technical precision even while you remain unmoved, the way one must often concede a Miller Lite ad's effectiveness without having any intention of drinking that piss-water.
Wale Oyejide, One Day, Everything Changed (Shaman Work Recordings)
Nigeria-born student Wale Oyejide first broke cover as instrumental hip-hop artist Science Fiction. This time around he's got a much more song-based, politicised approach and a new name for his sound, "broken jazz", which is apt as in general his grooves come off as a lounge slant on West London's broken beat scene, with some obvious production cues from Jay Dee, who guests. Unfortunately his songwriting isn't great, his singing often somewhat flat and his politics simplistic ("I don't give a good goddamn about none of these government laws/ Cause when all is said and done I'm going to answer to my God", ironically exactly the international attitude of the US government he's lambasting), whilst his compositions, though pretty and atmospheric, often fail to develop and consequently feel unfinished. Ever-reliable fellow ATL resident MF DOOM is surprisingly personal on the Mos Def-aping "This is Dedicated to...", but overall the album remains frustratingly uninvolving despite its appealing sonic sheen. From here, Oyejide could bring in live instrumentation and really go for jazz appeal, or target the dancefloor Detroit-style; I feel he has the potential to be hip-hop's Osunlade (or possibly a US IG Culture), but to reach anywhere near those heights he'll have to make music a lot more focused and fully-realised than this.
Oval-Teen, Yorkville, IL (Bi-Fi)
In its five-year existence, Oval-Teen released a disproportionate amount of music. Constantly crafting three-minute indie-pop magic, the band never got a toehold on the airwaves and disbanded in 1999. Two years later, Oval-Teen's final album was released on MOC Records, to less than stellar reviews. Bi-Fi Records has released 500 copies of Yorkville, IL, a similarly long-delayed and -anticipated retrospective, named for the fertile soils of the band's hometown outside Chicago. The 55-song double album showcases Oval-Teen's sweet, straightforward pop songs, born of an admitted lack of angst in their exurban adolescences. This general conviviality is manifest throughout Oval-Teen's catalog. Songs like the sugary, Beach Boys-inspired "Run Away With Me" and the upright rocker "Smyle" show that Oval-Teen spanned the center of the pop spectrum. Released far too late to rekindle popular interest in the band, Yorkville is nonetheless a must-have for fans of the band and of lo-fi pop in general.
Skill 7 Stamina 12, Robotics with Strings (Junior Aspirin)
As indicated by the role-playing attributes of their name, Skill 7 Stamina 12 are like a gaggle of bored gamers looking for something new to play. They attempt to compress their fondness for dissonant jazz-like improvisation and pop-free prog workouts into a more fashionable indie-rock context. The result often sounds like Tortoise, or even Stereolab minus the Farfisa (and occasional Dutch vocals instead of French, courtesy of singer Maaike Schoorel). The playful title track, the succinct, staccato "Make New Friends", and the almost conventional "Sofa" are the lone examples of deliberate songwriting here; the bulk of the material feels sculpted from casual jam sessions, which undoubtedly keeps the band relaxed, yet introverted and detached from their audience. "3rd Disco from Home" merely imitates a dance beat for thirty seconds at a time before moving on to something else, and the band never seem to turn the rhythm outward as great dance songs require. "Brie and Bones" shows the opposite approach, working the song up from a two-minute harmonic prog bit into a punk-funk groove akin to Gang of Four. "Platform" stumbles upon the underlying jazzy groove of the early Doors and runs with it. Closing the record in busy, dissonant fashion, "Spirit of the Age" ably demonstrates the band's ability to extend their playing beyond the boundaries of song for a duration fitting of their name. The low score they've awarded themselves in skill, however, is a flat-out lie, perhaps to mask the instrumental prowess that unfairly tends to handicap any semi-accomplished band attempting success via the DIY ethic, and with good cause; the rhythm section of Nathaniel Mellors and Ashley Marlowe is truly so far beyond the realm of punk that one listen to the record betrays the band's indie pretension as the stylistic exercise it is.
Richard T. Williams
The Oranges Band, Two Thousands (Morphius)
Having already padded their resume with 2003's fine effort, All Around, the Oranges are staying busy in the studio and on the road, maintaining their status as a member of Lookout! Records' stable of rising stars. As the band's visibility increases however, it might be easy to lose sight of its humbler beginnings, thus the importance of Two Thousands. An interesting glimpse back into the not so distant past, the new release packages the Orange's first Morphius recordings, (2000's The Five Dollar EP and 2001's Nine Hundred Miles of Fucking Hell), with a small handful of bonus material. Running the gambit from the garage rawness of the Seeds, to the quirky polished pop of Talking Heads, the tracks evidence the evolutionary process of a decidedly eclectic group. Although every track is not a creative masterpiece, enough quality material is included to make this offering very worthwhile for established fans or those just finding out. At the very least, Two Thousands will serve as an artistic barometer for all Oranges' future efforts, as the band continues to improve and become more accessible to the masses.
Lucia, From the Land of Volcanos (Control Group)
Fans of industrial collective KMFDM might be interested in the new solo debut by former member Lucia Cifarelli, especially because KMFDM's Sascha Konietzko co-wrote and co-produced four tracks, but many might be surprised at just how mainstream From the Land of Volcanos really is. Cifarelli has had her share of bad luck, including being abruptly dropped by Universal in early 2003, delaying the release of her album for more than a year, but she's shown resilience despite all the adversity, and thanks to some help from Control Group, the album is finally out. Cifarelli is obviously making a bid to become the next rock goddess, employing the songwriting services of longtime Madonna collaborator Patrick Leonard and producer Ian Stanley, who adds a glossy pop sheen to the record, but the whole experience leaves the listener with an empty feeling. The album is accessible and pleasant enough, but the thing is, it sounds too much like other artists, and has virtually no personality of its own, sounding heavily influenced by late-90s alternative rock acts like Garbage and Republica, and little else. The four edgier Konietzko tracks, "What You Become", "Who Asked You", "Monkey Puzzle Tree", and "Little Rose" are indeed the best tracks, but the rest of the album ranges from middling pop rock ("So Clever") to annoyingly wretched exercises in pop cliches ("We Are Angels"). If this came out in 1996, it might have sounded cutting-edge, but in 2004, it all sounds tired and recycled.
Tragedy Andy, It's Never Too Late To Start Over (Pop Smear)
The press kit says "Tragedy Andy is a high energy, indie pop/alt-rock band…." When did you ever hear of a low energy band? Anyway, Tragedy Andy's niche market is radio-friendly power pop meets Vans Warped Tour's second stage. On the stellar and suffocating, tight "Safe To Say", the youthful quartet is simply on! With three vocalists, the harmonies are another appealing aspect. To continue this momentum is the hard part, but the teeny bopper power punk oozing on "Damsel" makes it hard not to admire. Comparisons to Green-182 or Blink Day are obvious with polished nuggets like "Arrival Of Me" with its delayed harmonies. Unfortunately they stall somewhat during the mid-tempo "Three A.M. Delirium" that rhythmically goes all over the place looking for something special musically. Tragedy Andy hit paydirt again on the relentless "November", but the whiny post-pubescent vocals can be grating at times despite some fine guitar work by Justin Borgos, Dusty Brooks and Matt Fazzi. The pedestrian, punk-by-numbers approach on "Fifteen Minute Climb" might annoy some people though. All in all it's a decent effort although really doesn't separate themselves from anything else on the market. A good album though.
The Porcupines, EeenieMeenieMeineeMojo! (Maize)
Bill Retoff's latest band, The Porcupines, are a real band posing as a cartoon rock band posing as a real band (think the Monkees or the Archies). EeenieMeenieMeineeMojo! can't escape the taint of novelty one-off, but the Porcupines make a strong case that the roots of modern day indie pop line in Saturday morning bubblegum rock. The band perfectly captures the sound of the fluffy kiddie rock of yesteryear, particularly with their harmonies, and Retoff has a knack for the insanely catchy melodies. The record is so enjoyable, particularly the longing "Wilson Porter's Grown-Up Daughter", that I feel like a killjoy in pointing out that EeenieMeenieMeineeMojo! is as disposable as its animated inspirations. Of course, the ephemeral nature of the music is part of the Porcupines' charm, so it's hard to blame the band for setting their sights a smidgen too low.
Hunter A. Felt
Little Milton / Mighty Sam McClain / Reverend Raven and His Chain-Smoking Altar Boys, The Blues Is Alright -- Live at Kalamazoo (Animated Music/Verese Sarabande)
While you won't find any spectacular moments on The Blues Is Alright -- Live at Kalamazoo, you will find plenty of high-quality blues in a Chicago style reminiscent of B.B. King. Little Milton gets the first disc of this double-album, and he deserves the full space. He gives six stretched-out tracks here, ending with his best known number, the one that gives this album its title. Vocalist Mighty Sam McClain leads his band through another six numbers, including his best-known piece, "New Man in Town". McClain's set has more of an R&B groove to it than the other artists here, but he fits in well between Little Milton and Reverend Raven. Raven and the Altar Boys return to a more traditional blues sound, led by some excellent harp playing. He gives a nod to Slim Harpo before closing with "My Back Scratcher". This album, the third in the Along the Blues Highway captures three of today's notable bluesmen in good form, and is certainly worth the drive.
The Gunshy, No Man's Blues (Latest Flame)
As Jeff Tweedy is basically Wilco, Matt Arbogast is basically The Gunshy. Recording this album in two stints recently, The Gunshy sound like the distant relative of Tom Waits as Arbogast's fragile, whiskey stained pipes are delectable on the slow "Reason To Retreat". It's a perfect start that is part Celtic sway and driving power pop as The Gunshy ride a never-ending crescendo. He later perfects this on the rambling rock-tinted "Your Favorite Dylan Song". Arbogast isn't the happy-go-lucky sort on the sparse folk of "I Will Die Alone" which could make a grown man cry. "I know I will die alone," he sings as a guitar is heard in the distance. It's this depressingly yet gorgeous style that makes The Gunshy so damn good! "Congratulations" doesn't reinvent the wheel but has Arbogast spewing a tad more venom at his target. "Dead Ends" has more of an up-tempo roots rock base. The landmark moment comes during an angry "Seven Weeks" that hits a nerve. "I'm fuckin' up my life for rock and roll," he sings on the captivating effort. The Gunshy come off as if they have a gun nearby and are penning letters before they do something drastic, including on the lovable "Breakin' Some Bad Habits" featuring Michelle Moyer on cello. Going down such a dark path is not recommended, but The Gunshy has done a yeoman's job walking it and should reap the rewards from it.
Autolux, Future Perfect (DMZ)
After an excellent self-released EP and innumerable album delays, we finally have Autolux's debut full-length. Future Perfect is an instantly memorable album that presents a perfect balance between tight pop songwriting and soaring soundscapes -- dreamy melodies, shoegaze-scorched guitars, and dynamic rhythms abound. Sounding vaguely like My Bloody Valentine if they had restrained their proclivity for feedback symphonies and focused their energy on forming song-based compositions with exuberant pop melodies, Autolux may not have recorded their crowning achievement yet, but Future Perfect is a strong stepping stone that cannot be denied. Songs like "Sugarless, " "Great Days for the Passenger Element" and "Asleep at the Trigger" point toward a wondrous and beautiful future, and show promise at the intersection between pop songs and shoegaze feedback where so many other bands fail.
Gov't Mule, The Deepest End: Live in Concert (ATO)
There is such a thing as too much of a good thing. That's the basic problem with Gov't Mule's live CD/DVD, The Deepest End: Live in Concert, A star-studded night of jamming that runs more than six hours across two CDs and a DVD, the package shows off what is best about the band -- but also demonstrates everything that's wrong with the entire jam-band genre. Warren Haynes, lead singer and guitarist, is a virtuoso with a strong voice and a he's solid rock songwriter, while band mates Matt Abts (drums) and Danny Louis (keyboards) also can flat out play. The problem is they play and play and play. This six-hour show to often devolves into self-indulgent soloing and pyrotechnics -- a 15:38-minute version of "Blindman in the Dark", better on the DVD than the CD because you get to see the band as it works, pushed me past the edge of my endurance as a listener. That's not to say that there aren't worthy and truly explosive moments. Bela Fleck turns in a riveting performance on electric banjo on "Lay of the Sunflower" while the Dirty Dozen Brass Band spices up "John the Revelator." James Brown's classic "Down and Out in New York City" gets a jump-start from trombonist Fred Wesley, who played on the James Brown original. David Hidalgo and Conrad Lozano of Los Lobos help drive Cream's "Politician" and the Haynes' original "I Shall Return". I know the highlight for some will be Les Claypool's out-of-his-head turn on "Greasy Granny's Gopher Gravy" (parts 1 and 2), but I just couldn't enter the performance in any meaningful way. And that's generally how I feel about this massive disc. As a document of a night of explosive showmanship (the DVD offers more than the CD), it succeeds. But as a piece of art, as something designed to affect the emotional core of the listener, I feel as if something is missing. The Deepest End: Live in Concert is certainly spectacular, but it lacks heart, lacks that ability to connect in a deeper way. It is spectacle. It speaks at the listener but not to the listener (the exceptio is a surprisingly touching version of the Eagles's "Wasted Time" on the DVD). Fans of the Mule and the jam-band genre more generally will likely disagree.
Jordan Knight, Jordan Knight Performs New Kids on the Block: The Remix Album (Empire)
Yes, you read it correctly -- this is an album of New Kids on the Block remixes done by one of the New Kids himself. In an era where no one from even the recent boy-band onslaught save Justin Timberlake can catch any kind of break (unless you count Nick Lachey's mixed blessing), what chance in the world does Jordan Knight stand among a fickle record-buying public? What purpose could this possibly serve other than to squeeze the last drops from a forgotten fad? Even listening to this with an open mind, the only possible conclusion to reach is that this is every bit the cheapo exploitation project it appears. Perhaps there are those out there in music-buying land that think that what the world had been heretofore missing is some adult-contemporary takes on lame teen pop, or maybe the missing piece of the puzzle in some sad soul's life was a worldbeat version of "Hangin' Tough". Then again, maybe not.
Joseph Arthur, Our Shadows Will Remain (Vector)
Joseph Arthur will be one of a handful opening acts for R.E.M. later this year and for good reason. This album begins with "In Ohio" that sees the musician channeling Brian Wilson through a Neil Young vocal. But he shifts gears instantly with "Can't Exist", a roots-cum-gospel feel that sounds like a poor man's U2 behind a lovely wall of sound. Fans of Hawksley Workman would cling to the slower and darker "Stumble And Pain" with it orchestral touches but Arthur gets mired too much in the thick hip-hop backbeat near the end. If you could envision a gin-soaked Richard Ashcroft or the Stereophonics' Kelly Jones, you would get the soul-pop gist behind "Devil's Broom". "It's hard to stay alive when you don't know how to live," he sings. The highlight is the somber "Echo Park" that is his best "Unplugged" song this far but "Even Tho" smacks of being a smidgeon too Meat Loaf-ish slick. Another strong tune is The Cure-like "Puppets" that comes off quite sweet. "Failed" has ambient touches and is quite minimal for the usually eclectic musician. Fortunately he gets the album soaring again with a harder, grittier "I Am". It's another quality album from one slowly moving out from under the shadows!
Matthew Dear, Backstroke (Aum Fidelity)
Detroit producer Matthew Dear turned a lot of heads on the dance floor last year with his acclaimed Leave Luck to Heaven, his dark baritone voice lending an ominous tone to his signature sound of carefully-carved micro-house beats. His conscious pop ambitions jut from the minimal pulse of the music's rhythmic structure. His songs become updates of the black humored sex anthems of past dirty dancers like Soft Cell and Depeche Mode, only smarter and edgier, sung in husky breaths. In lyrical jaunts like "Tide", "And in the Night", and "I Know Hauser", the mood elevates to a shimmering bliss, punctuated by sprightly funk beats and swirling atmospherics. There isn't much variety here, but the parameters of minimal house music are continually being stretched by folks like Dear, so that isn't the end of the world. It's as if he's a surgeon laying open the coronary artery of house music's rounded, bulging heartbeats, grafting on capillaries of ambient drone, then injecting crackling glitches and deep bass throbs into its circulatory system. Here's hoping his instruments remain clean.
Army of Me, Fake Ugly (Pop Up)
D.C. indie pop mainstays Army of Me simply reek of niceness. Formerly Cactus Patch, the band released the Fake Ugly EP independently in 2003, but after signing with Pop Up Records, the CD has been re-released, as the band tries to build on their loyal local following. And Fake Ugly does its best to charm listeners, as the quartet, led by singer/guitarist/songwriter Vince Scheuermann, serve up 22 minutes of some earnest, affable guitar pop, which finds a comfortable middle ground between emo and mainstream rock. Trouble is, the disc tries way too hard to win you over, as Scheuermann croons in a highly emotive tenor voice, and the band engages in some of the safest, dare I say, blandest guitar pop to come out recently. Lyrics alternate from decidedly corny ("We sing songs to stay alive/Music lifts the soul about to die") to limp attempts at deeper meanings ("Too bad pretty's just fake ugly/Look beneath, your shiny surface does deceive"). It's all pleasant enough, as "Breathe" is the one song that works best, but the majority of this EP is so devoid of memorable melodies, that it all becomes too tedious, and too forgettable. The music tries to be passionate, but in the end, is hopelessly flaccid.
Asura, Lost Eden (TV Matters)
An asura, if memory serves, is the nemesis of the established divine order in Hindu mythology, a sort of personification of entropy. Quite why pianist Christopher Maze and bassist Alex Ackerman record under this moniker I'm not certain, but it gives you an idea of the New Agey influence on the French duo's dub/trance/ambient output, as evidenced by sampled vocals variously African, Turkish and Gypsy, as well as the odd classical choir. Yes, whilst they may claim to be inspired by Moby or Tangerine Dream (are you worried yet?), their compositions most resemble those of Enigma. As such, everything pulses or drifts along in a cod-spiritual manner, remaining slightly pompous without ever really saying anything. Haunting and inspiring for someone tripping out on shrooms, perhaps, but utterly pointless for anyone else.
Poor Luther's Bones, Inside the Outsider (Heavy G)
A certain super-huge music glossary site lists Poor Luther's Bones as rap, perhaps mistaking their label Heavy G with the immortal Heavy D. No matter, Poor Luther's Bones are so far out of the mainstream's ears, I can't imagine too many complaints from rap fans ending up with the Bones' psychedelic folk/pop/country/rock pastiche. But that's also a shame, because then at least someone would hear this record, and people should. This Berks County PA outfit surprised me as without a doubt the best album I've ever reviewed for short-takes (which isn't a lot, but still…). Garth Forsythe reminds me a lot of Jack Logan for his ability to handle multiple genres with easy grace. Songs like "Jagged-Cut Melody" and "Do It For Fun recall the Beatles, Velvets, Big Star, all the biggies, but not the grit-your-teeth forced way many bands of higher stature do. I'm more than pleasantly surprised. I think I'm a new fan.
Arovane, Lilies (City Centre Offices)
This is only City Centre Office's 20th release, yet already this small German label has assembled a roster of wonderful artists, peddling the finest and sublest of electronica made vibrant by carefully wielded hiphop hydraulics. Arovane made this, his second album for the label, in Berlin before dismantling his miniature studio there and moving out. Whilst the overt slant of the album, with its japanese samples and titles like "Cry Osaka Cry", remains Asian, the pieces here definitely evokes a feeling of observant grace amongst the bustle of urban existence. Like Lost In Translation this draws its strength almost entirely from affecting atmospherics rather than depth, yet Lilies is as gorgeous as it is slight; the voluptuously minimalist bloom on the cover perfectly matching the contents.
Kiss n Ride, Someone Killed My Genaration (Pop Goes the Vinyl)
If the Rapture epitomizes the first wave of recent rockers determined to get hipsters onto the dancefloor, Kiss n Ride represent the second wave. The group's EP Someone Killed My Generation contains a mixture of punk and funk as heavy as anything on the scene right now. In between the groove and the aggression, the band puts down memorable hooks drawn from the '60s garage sound, but they do a better job than most of their peers of claiming these guitar sounds as their own. Starting with "Whose Side R U on Anyway?", the disc sounds like a call to arms; the only confusing part is figuring out what these arms are for. Don't worry about it -- your head will be bobbing too much to think it through anyway.
Annie Keating, The High Dive (Annie Keating Music)
Playing around the clubs in the Northeast might not be the ideal spot to learn about "alt.country", but Annie Keating's twang is a plus for most of this solid record. "Riddler" is more of a poppy folk effort that brings to mind Victoria Williams and Julie Miller. "Saints and Saviors" goes back to a Southern coffeehouse groove before being a rather safe effort with a pinch of Lucinda Williams. Mandolin player Jonathan Beyer is the proverbial savior on this song that could've gone nowhere fast. More refined is the appealing and Southern "Riverboat". Keating has a tired and yet soothing delivery for the dozen songs, yet few surpass the slower acoustic-oriented "Baby Jane", which gets into a percussion vibe halfway through. When she opens up more, the toe-tapping ensues during "Weekend Getaway" that brings Be Good Tanyas to mind. There is little that can be deemed heavy that Keating tackles, relying on the simple but still rather alluring sounds which bring "The Bearer" to life. When she talks as much as she sings for "Summer Waltz", it has the feeling of Marianne Faithful honing her craft in Austin. By then, the Lilith Fair folk of earlier is a long forgotten memory, because the title track is excellent.
Eyes of Fire, Ashes to Embers (Century Media)
Formed by Matt Fisher and Dan Kaufman, former members of late '90s metal band Mindrot, California's Eyes of Fire have every intention of taking heavy music into new, more ambient directions. Coming on the heels of their debut EP Disintegrate, the Orange County five-piece have emerged in 2004 with a very striking debut album, Ashes to Embers. An apt title, really, because unlike most American metal bands, Eyes of Fire opt for the slow burn instead of the fireworks, churning out vast aural soundscapes, featuring broad, sweeping strokes of layered guitars, churning basslines, and downtempo rhythms. Very much like what British band Anathema has done on their most recent album, Ashes to Embers dares to introduce more subtle melodic touches that echo Pink Floyd, but like their California brethren Neurosis, the band throws in heaps of ultra-heavy tones that keeps the music firmly grounded. What really sets Eyes of Fire apart from their peers is the fact that they don't have a frontman; instead, it's the vocal interplay of Kaufman and Fisher that sets the band apart from the rest of the pack, as Fisher's smooth, melodic vocals are offset perfectly by Kaufman's hoarse, guttural howl (the best example on the album being the haunting track "Hopeless"). A CD that requires time to grow on the listener, Ashes to Embers ultimately proves to be a very rewarding metal record, as epic songs like "The End Result of Falling" and "Last Goodbye" mesh with the more urgent tones of "Empty" and "Shelter". Ideally, an album like this deserves much bigger, more grandiose production (the guitars need a less claustrophobic mix, and the drum sound is a bit weak), but as it is, it's a majestic, hypnotic, and in the end, excellent piece of work.
Various Artists, The L Word (Tommy Boy)
Neither feminist nor pruriently curious enough to have seen the show, I approached this soundtrack as I would a friend's mix CD and was surprised to find that it creates a musical mood (neo-trad pop with genuine tradition -- Ella Fitzgerald and Connie Francis -- thrown in for good measure) while telling a human story (Part one: meeting, falling, and regretting; part two: returning, make-up sexing, and, ultimately, fond acceptance. Not unlike Purple Rain, no?). Song selection-wise, things taper off after Rufus Wainwright's take on "Hallelujah" (Cohen's. You were expecting Handel?), though not by as much as you'd expect. (Big-name ringers aside, check out Shelley Campbell's "Driving You".) Moreover, though the album starts with the Murmurs' "Genius" (a song I like), its story never becomes the endorsement of eccentricity-as-empowerment that I feared it might. Clearly not just for the show's fans, though I'll stick with Purple Rain. But, again, not by as much as you'd expect.
Michelle Anthony, Stand Fall Repeat (Burn and Shiver)
Michelle Anthony's Stand Fall Repeat is her debut. She received assistance from Jay Bennett, which gives her some credibility from the onset. Her sound is an easy-going and world-weary mix of folk and Americana, to judge by the lovely opener "Mourning Song". Anthony is true to the press pitch, and her music also brings to mind Lucinda, Emmylou and Ms. Phair. Nothing is new here, but that's part of the appeal as the first song goes on and on beautifully. The snarling Sheryl Crow-ish "Don't Deny" has oodles of pop punch, although "All This Time" is too cookie-cutter. Some people might see a pinch of Wilco in songs such as "Radio Waves", but that would be a far too easy way to describe it. This song allows Anthony to shine, and she lets herself go a bit more. Perhaps the album's highlight is also its centerpiece, the funky and groovy "Family Tree (The Ballad Of Jack Rice)" which could be mistaken for a track off Crow's Tuesday Night Music Club. From here the album definitely picks up with the rowdy yet tight Hiatt-esque "Ellouise" and the slow building bounce of "Bubble Clock". This record is definitely on par with Crow's The Globe Sessions, which is quite an achievement for a debut!
Ming & Ping, MingPing.com (Monotone/Omega Point)
Ming & Ping are shooting for a clever hipster synthpop sound on their debut album MingPing.com, and they achieve their goal. The problem is that they've put too much effort into the "clever" and "hip" part of their show, and not enough into the pop. The duo's look is carefully constructed metrosexuality crossing over into glam ambiguity. I get the feeling that there are levels of irony going on here that end up cancelling each other out. If you'd rather be ironic than cool, that makes you cool, but if you know that makes you cool (and who wouldn't these days), you become neither cool nor ironic, which is pretty much where Ming & Ping are. Their music's not bad -- enjoyable if a bit dull -- but it's definitely about the style more than anything. That would really be fine if the music was better, but as it is, the twosome should put more effort into their sound. Of course, I get the feeling they're more interested in living some sort of performance art. After all, they ask their fans in their liner notes to "please make a copy for your friends." That's my kind of artistry.
Khonnor, Handwriting (Type)
Connor Kirby-Long likes ambient and industrial effects judging by the fuzzy, static-filled "Man From The Anthill". Coming off like a blend of Depeche Mode if produced or led by Trent Reznor, the song drags along without much substance but oodles of background talk and noise. Heck, even a dance beat would probably help his cause. "Daylight And Delight" fares much better with traces of Beck and The Verve on the track. Equally pleasing is the synthesized "Megans Present" which brings to mind The Cure's "Plainsong" thrice removed. And "Crapstone" is, well, aptly titled. Khonnor is better off on the darker and somber tunes that have little effects but lots of melody, as on the unnerving "Kill2" as well as the minimal approach to "A Little Secret". The obvious problem is the album's inconsistency, as "An Ape Is Loose" pales horribly to the pretty melancholia coloring "Phone Calls From You" and also a tear-jerking "Screen Love, Space, And The Time Man".
Lennon, Career Suicide (John Galt Entertainment)
Aside from the name, which evokes images of a cheeky assassinated Beatle member, Lennon Murphy can carry a melody. Whether touring with groups like The Cult or Opeth, the singer took a while to get around to making her second album I Am. Wanting to release two albums on her own terms, Lennon decided to make this album an acoustic affair with basic instruments, namely her voice and a piano. The result is quite stunning, beginning with the tender Jacob with similarities to Tori Amos. The song's ability to go over well worn ground yet still captivate is rare. Her vocal power is shown brilliantly on the strong and building "I Hear". The tenderness is consistent but isn't too slick or polished a la Alicia Keys or other one-name divas. The piano is often considered a sad or downer-like instrument and Lennon uses that to its utmost. But the playing isn't that depressing despite the lyrical content of "What You're Saying". The swinging, sultry and jazzy "Goodbye" is possible the sleeper on the album with its beat and verve. She doesn't veer from the somber Sarah McLachlan at a piano format, but it never falters. Nailing "Main Gravel Road" before a misty-eyed "And You", Lennon sounds like major label talent who'll continue doing the indie or small label thing because, well, she has the chops and pipes to do so. The only exception is the rather bland "Morning". "This is for those who never fall in love/Only living for what had been and never will be again," she writes in the liner notes. Amen, sister!