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The Campground Effect, The Flight Seat E.P. (Local Cannery)
Beneath the clear CD tray, The Campground Effect send listeners a clear message: "Rock Music Is Not Art." Great thesis, let's see if they back it up. Since a broad definition of art would be a cultural artifact which exists as a gift to the culture in question, and The Campground Effect is decidedly not art, what is art's opposite? Anti-art would be culture that demands something from its audience rather than giving. A commercial for example, might tries to pass itself off as art, but ultimately, its sole purpose is to get you to buy products. Listening to The Campground Effect, I see that they may be right, at least about their own rock music. The lackluster riffs and affected vocals of "Sex Is For Television" (how risqué!) and "Sold Us A Marathon" are the same tired-ass Nirvana retreads you've heard since '94. So I'm to assume that The Campground Effect are willful in their desire not to offer something new to the world, just stuff that they know sells: angst, irony, tough coolness, cool toughness. Yawn. At least the band has the decency of truth in advertising, but I wish they wouldn't try to speak for everyone.
St. Thomas, Let's Grow Together: The Comeback of St. Thomas (Racing Junior)
As unlikely as it sounds, St. Thomas, aka Thomas Hansen, is probably Norway's best-known alt-country musician. Lest you think it's a title given without significant forethought, listen to his fourth full-length, Let's Grow Together. Although it's billed as a comeback album, more than anything it's a step in a new direction. Where his earlier albums, like 2001's I'm Coming Home were heavy on the twang, with "Let's Grow" he has spread his wings to embrace a wider range of styles. He clearly fits in the same section as the nouveau folk of non-rockers like Devendra Banhart and Sufjan Stevens, but Thomas has a charming goofiness that brings to mind the more experimental leanings of later Beach Boys recordings. "Let's Grow" is full of cheery tunes with delightfully surreal lyrics. Since you won't be hearing this on the radio anytime soon, do yourself a favor and head over to the Racing Junior online store and plunk down your 9.5 Norweigan kroner (US$1.37 as of this writing) for track 13, "The Red Book". Let it sink into your subconscious for a little while, and I'll see you outside the record store when "Let's Grow Together" is finally released stateside.
Cheval de Frise, Cheval de Frise (Sick Room)
By now, you'd think that a simple instrumental album featuring nothing more than drums and an amplified acoustic guitar couldn't yield anything startlingly new, but the French duet Cheval de Frise have indeed pulled off such a feat. Originally released in 2000, the Bordeaux band's critically acclaimed eponymous debut album is now officially out in America, allowing listeners Stateside to delve into some of the cleverest post rock to come out in recent years. Free jazz, rock, folk, classical, and noise rock all merge into one unrelenting, sometimes cacophonous, often moving listening experience. Drummer Vincent Beysselance delivers a superb performance, displaying some very impressive percussive prowess, as you can hear him channeling the frantic pace of hardcore, not to mention an intricate, progressive rock style that dares to echo Neil Peart. That said, it's guitarist Thomas Bonvale who emerges as a supreme talent, as his nimbly-picked notes veer from beautiful melodies to more atmospheric, oblique moments that possess the same kind of chaotic precision you'd hear from pianist Cecil Taylor. The duo engage in an absolutely mesmerizing 40 minute game of musical give and take that truly defies description. Intense, energetic, and audacious, this music is thrilling, and unforgettable. One of the year's buried treasures.
Ponies in the Surf, A Demonstration (self-released)
I'm pleased that this strange little self-released CD fell into my hands. Boston's Camille and Alexander McGregor craft quiet bohemian folk songs that are perfect for cuddling, taking baths, or reading Coleridge on the banks of the Charles. The leaping melodies of "See You Happy" and the obscure Linda Rich cover "More To Living" are certainly more interesting and bizarre than most of Beantown's jazz-folk coffeehouse scene. The songs recall a variety of influences from Edith Piaf and Nico to good ole Simon & Garfunkel. The songs are brief (averaging around two-and-a-half minutes) but as the title states, this is a demonstration. Word on the street is that the McGregors are already working on a new disc to debut this fall.
Kopaz, Future Radiant Shine (We Want Action)
This band performs clear, tranquil and dreamy ambient-leaning pop that is hard not to fall asleep to. Oh wait, that's the intro "Port". The group is generally part post-punk and emo in the vein of Jimmy Eat World on the quaint "Friend Of Gwen". Fans of groups like Mission Of Burma would also find Kopaz rather pleasing if "Thirty Two" is any kind of measuring stick, especially with its driving bridge and choruses. Perhaps too winding is "Bionic Arm" with its change of gears and inane middle portion that saps the energy out of the track. One knock against Kopaz is they try to be too highbrow at times, coming off more like Faith No More on the mediocre "End The Heroics" that is nothing more than an interlude. "Put The Past Behind You" is a slight improvement but here Kopaz are melancholically moping much too much. The highlight comes during "Lithgow" where they tend to run with the tune and not wait for an intended cue. The quirky backbeat to "Pick Your Battles" won't endear them to many though as it is quite challenging to get a feel for.
Dr. John, N'Awlinz: Dis, Dat or D'udda (Blue Note)
Dr. John is such a tremendous showman that it seems his musicianship is often taken for granted, mixed in there with his "party" persona. But for N'Awlinz: Dis, Dat, or D'Dudda the former Mac Rebennack kicks into high gear on this stellar music tour/history of his 1940 birthplace. A high-spirited, groove-laden collection of original numbers and well-known classics, the CD features a top-notch cast of fellow Crescent City musicians (Cyril Neville, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Earl Palmer) and "out-of-towners" like B.B. King, Mavis Staples and Willie Nelson. Produced by Stewart Levine -- who's worked with everyone from Jamie Cullum to Sly & the Family Stone -- N'Awlinz features everything from bayou-based morality tales ("The Monkey") to sparkling instrumentals, like the John-penned let's-tour-the-neighborhood opener, "Quatre Parishe," which showcases his spidery, elegant piano playing. A long album -- there are 18 songs -- the record is surprisingly solid, mixing everything from gospel to ragtime with true flair. And it'll get you in the mood for Mardi Gras with its songs about voodoo queens ("Marie Laveau") and Cajun mysteries.
Rubyhorse, Goodbye to All That (Brash)
When Rubyhorse made inroads with its hit single "Sparkle", there seemed to be no stopping them. It's also quite a feat or feather in one's cap to have the late George Harrison make an appearance on its last album Rise. But like seemingly everyone else in the big label parade, they got the short end of the stick. Now, back with a do-it-yourself attitude, the band wants to get back to basics of some sort. What you have is a dark, brooding and somber appetizer entitled "Some Dream", resembling a cross between Keane and Coldplay. Lead singer David Farrell sings in a hushed tone early on. Gone are the high maintenance production values for an alt.country meets folk collision. "Fell On Bad Days" is another great tune that brings to mind the Bunnymen's Ian McCulloch. The layering isn't quite invisible though during "Can You Feel", a slow and straightforward track that gets mired by needless sonic add ons. There's a definite rawness on this album that wasn't on Rise and Rubyhorse are all the better for it, particularly on the soft "Long Time Coming" which gains momentum with each verse to near Oasis-ish heights. Other places have Rubyhorse coming off like The Verve during the gorgeous and delectable "She Brings Me Only Sorrow". The highlight comes during "Underneath", with Farrell sounding a bit world-weary a la Bono. The folksy Americana touches on "A Place In The Sun" is the black sheep of the album but still works better than anticipated. The album's last great track is the Brit-kicking "Warning Bells". Take of the spit and polish and you got yourself a revamped, inspired and re-energized band on the way up…again!
Various Artists, The Rough Guide to Fado (World Music Network)
Lying fallow for a couple of decades due to a residue of repulsion for the Fascist regime that ruled Portugal until the mid-'70s, Fado (meaning fate) has more recently been on the upswing nationally and globally due to the attentions of a newer generation of artists whose fascination with the genre is untainted. This uniquely urban blend of traditonal folk singing, with its attendent guitarrada, or guitar dialogues, have as romantic a past as one could wish for; evolving in Lisbon and Coimbra from outlaw bohemia to be taken up by the bullfighting aristocracy. The playing and singing is accordingly emotional, lilting and drenched in melancholy drama, as proffered by a fine selection of the old (legendary Fado singer Amalia Rodriguez) and the new (Joana Amendoeira or Antonia Chainho). With just singing and/or guitars being employed in a fashion always respectful of tradition, this guide is rather uniform of sound, but for those planning a visit to those two citadels of passionate elegance it will doubtless act as both a sensuous taster and a sentimental souvenir.
Maggie Brown, Maggie Brown (Riverwide Music)
Maggie Brown's debut disc has been more than 20 years in the making. It is certainly worth the wait. A 12-song mix of southern-rock, country, folk and blues, Brown's vocals draw easy comparisons to Bonnie Raitt and other white blues singers. At the same time, she sounds like no one so much as herself. The disc almost willfully ignores current trends, instead hewing closely to a classic rock and blues narrative, mixing funky rockers like "Forty Dollars" with storytelling ballads like "Jacob's Eyes" and sly, brooding songs like "Wasted" to create a sense of where she is from and where she wants to be. This a small-label debut that's well worth the listen.
Lisa Dewey & The Lotus Life, Busk (Bell Union/Kitchen Whore)
The Cocteau Twins' Simon Raymonde help Lisa Dewey produce her latest effort Busk, and the results certainly have that patented ethereal and dreamy Twins sound. No complaints from this listener; Ever since that group broke up, there's been a huge gap left behind. Not to say Dewey will invoke images of Liz Fraser, as she's got her own voice and style of singing, but it is certainly as pleasant and hypnotic as Liz's. It's hard to beat the opening cut "Mellow Day" here, but Dewey turns out an impeccable album with song after song of wistful melodies that may also remind one of the great indie group Tsunami during their Deep End era. Take your pick from such gems as "Rushing," Thieves & Thievery," and "Hollow." These and the rest of the tunes on this album will all take you someplace else while listening. Someplace warm and familiar. This is definitely one of those albums you'll want to return to time and again. Beautiful.
Pattern is Movement, the (im)possibility of longing
With its lyrical trills of guitar, sublime vocals and orchestral passages "Non Servium" dominates the landscape of the new album from Philadelphia's Pattern is Movement. Impossible to categorize, but somehow reminiscent of classic Eno, it sets the tone for a uniquely non-derivative musical journey. Always melodic, the delightfully arty math rock on the (im)possibility of longing swirls and pulses with moments of backward percussion and staccato venom creating a distinctive and disturbing chamber music for today's disinterested vanguard. Albeit an acquired taste, this disc has moments that will captivate even the most ardent pop purists.
Happy, Sincerely, Without Wax (Doubleplusgood)
Bands like Oshkosh, Wisconsin's Happy are way past their due date. I hear this music with its annoying adenoidal lead vocalist Andrew Johnson and I can only look to the sky and ask, "Why?" Same old tight/tense chordal structures that other bands from The K Word to Check Engine have used and buried into the ground. Same old emo-friendly dopey lyrics with just enough art class abstraction to keep them from being labeled emo, even though that's what they really are. Yes, Happy is emo as emo can be minus the warm fuzzies. Anyone who tells you differently is lying. Chances are you probably won't ever be hearing this band, anyway, and the bottom line is that that's probably a good thing. If you're at all familiar with this type of minimalistic mush, then you've heard it all before.