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The Nein, The Nein (Sonic Unyon)
They may hail from Durham, North Carolina, but The Nein sound determined to carry on the great tradition of American indie rock that has come from neighboring city Chapel Hill. On their self-titled debut EP, The Nein combine the jarring, pointed riffs and rhythms of The Stranglers and Wire, with a contemporary indie/garage rock sound; at times, the band greatly resembles The Walkmen, but with a much darker streak, and more often, the distinctive sound of Chapel Hill legends Superchunk is evident, right down to the Mac MacCaughanesque vocals of singer/guitarist Finn Cohen. Though The Nein, like nearly every indie band out there today, owes a lot to the post punk of the late '70s and early '80s, it's less of a gimmick on this EP. The extremely catchy "Handout" and "House Atreides" are the songs that leap out at the listener on the first few listens, but it's the more brooding, dissonant tones of "Giorgio" and "Clearwater" that prove to be especially strong the more you hear them. Most notable is the superb anti-Bush song "War in on the Stereo"; in a year that's been loaded with great protest music, The Nein trump all the indie rock composition with a song that echoes the potent anger of The Clash, as it builds up to a careening climax with synths and '80s-style 16th-note hi-hat beats, that hearken back to early songs by The Cure. Respectful of their influences, but never using them as a crutch, The Nein is a very confident release, a tantalizing teaser for their upcoming full-length album.
The Ike Reilly Assassination, Sparkle in the Finish (Rock Ridge Music)
Ike Reilly would like you to think he's a cigar-chompin', Harley ridin' rocker, like Marlon Brando in The Wild One brandishing a Les Paul. But as his new record makes clear, he's really more of a softie at heart. The Ike Reilly Assassination's Sparkle in the Finish, the follow-up to 2001's Salesmen and Racists, gleams with a Sugar Ray plasticity rather than, say, the corrosive nails of the Rolling Stones. Bouncy rock tunes like "I Don't Want What You Got (Goin' On)" are a testament to Reilly's sound not exactly living up to his band's name: AC radio-ready gloss, fairly pedestrian chorus, meathead declarations like "Cars and girls and drinks and songs / Make this world spin around". His band chugs along like a Fisher Price Stooges in "It's All Right to Die" and sticks out its ribs in the wiry Cracker emulation "Holiday in New York". The Ike Reilly Assassination is all about the rock and roll, but where's the menace and grit? Most likely a casualty in the band's crosshairs.
Land of the Loops/Buckminster Fuzeboard, Split EP (Unhip)
This five-track EP is split evenly between indie electronic acts Land of the Loops and Buckminster Fuzeboard. They make a good match. Land of the Loops is represented by two characteristically happy numbers that feature tinkling xylophones, gleeful major-key organ riffs and downright goofy samples of what for the life of me sounds like kindergartners playing with wooden blocks. Buckminster Fuzeboard are a bit less self-consciously happy and a bit more ominous, with a ramshackle trip-hop ethos that nevertheless manages to find a calming center in the midst of swirling electronic noise. This is a defiantly hand-crafted artifact in a mass-produced age, and if you are lucky enough to find a copy of this EP you should probably pick it up, because while these tracks may be purposefully modest in scope, they are no less enjoyable for their chaste ambition.
Murdocks, Murdocks (Surprise Truck)
Released last year, Murdocks' self-titled, four-song EP isn't anything you haven't heard before by the likes of The Strokes, The Hives, The Vines, and all those other "The" bands. It's almost tragic how that sound now seems so helplessly dated already, but then again, none of those bands were ever genuine, and it was all a matter of time before the mold crept in. So it goes with Murdocks, whose own spin on the garage sound is decidedly stale. "Dance The Vomit Shakes" and "Death of a French Whore" are better titles than actual songs, which leaves "My Scarlet Purpose" and "Maidenhead" better left unheard altogether. Seriously, the whole garage thing is becoming as rancid as emo. Just let it die already, folks.
Pris, The Kiss Off (Loveless)
Burke Thomas, formerly of Muzzle, should really have this whole power pop thing down a little bit better than the debut effort from his one man band Pris suggests. Should a power pop band really introduce themselves with an compilation album stuffed full of twenty-four remastered demo tracks that lasts nearly eighty minutes? It is not as if Thomas doesn't know how good power pop should sound, The Kiss Off is full of catchy, crunchy pop nuggets delivered with punk rock intensity. In fact, the album starts off rather fun, particularly the stupid but catchy two-fer of "Doobie Down Down" and "Tightey Whitey", but the overall sameness of sound eventually proves tiresome a little past the half-hour mark. That's the point where most guilty pleasure pop albums have the smarts to stop, right when the sugar buzz fades, but The Kiss Off just keeps plowing through tracks. Towards the last few tracks, The Kiss Off becomes an endurance test of interchangeable choruses and superfluous keyboard riffs. Certainly there could be an exciting debut somewhere within this mess, but it would take a listener a lot of time and trouble to discover it. Power pop should intoxicate its audience, The Kiss Off will just give it a hangover.
Kitty Craft, Hello Kitty Craft (Sonic Syrup)
Minneapolis DJ and producer Pam Valfer has released two previous albums under the Kitty Kraft alias, 1998's Beats and Breaks from the Flower Patch and 2000's Catskills. Whatever the reason for her lengthy sabbatical, the Hello Kitty Craft EP does not mark an auspicious return. Valfer's production is occasionally strong, as on the Luscious Jackson-esque "In Kind" and the gently brooding "You Have the World at Your Fingertips", but the project as a whole is marred by her unremarkable singing chops. Her voice is a grating nasal falsetto that manages to obscure any charm her songcraft may possess. Perhaps if she produced an instrumental album, it might be a different story, but the Hello Kitty Craft EP goes out of its way to inspire indifference.
Louis xiv, Blue & Pink EPs (self-released via louisxiv.net)
Louis XIV hail from San Diego, but, as you might have guessed from the band name, have a geeky fixation with French history. How geeky? Well, their debut, which is essentially just a collection of demos recorded in Versailles, is a conceptual song cycle about a boy who thinks he's Louis XIV. (Although I'm no expert in French history, my girlfriend, who is qualified in this area, assures me this it's quite credible in execution.) But all the grad student pandering in the world wouldn't be worth a damn without searing rock n' roll to back it up, and Louis XIV cover the difference and then some. Where their debut delves deeply into the blues and primitive Jagger-isms, the more recent EPs find the band exploring entirely uncharted waters. Handclaps substitute for guitar solos as Jason Hill alternates between covetous come-ons and growled dismissals. Dorks will rejoice while the rest will celebrate a band that dares to rock with as much sense as purpose.
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.
The Upper Room, "All Over This Town", (Sony Music Europe)
Alex Miller looks like a younger, less drug-addled version of Bobby Gillespie, he sings with a falsetto that eerily recalls Morrissey at his Johnny Marr-backed best, and his songs, well, they're good enough to make you forget any of the aforementioned parallels to rock royalty. Simply put, "All Over This Town", produced with stunning clarity by Gil Norton (Pixies, Foo Fighters), is one of the finest rock singles released by a British band in the past decade. No joke. Miller's punctilious attention to Town's structure-the symphonic grandeur of the production, the precisely plucked bass lines, the clean, serrated edges of the guitars-ensures that the song screams "classic" from start to finish. Perhaps most incredible of all: he's 19 years old. A clutch of other demo tracks, such as probable second single, "Her Alibi", confirm that Miller's dramatic, urgent pop is hardly in short supply. Scarily good.
Matchbook Romance/Motion City Soundtrack, Split Acoustic EP (Epitaph)
As four-song EPs go, there's a lot happening on this twin spin offering from emo comrades-in-arms Matchbook Romance and Motion City Soundtrack. The EP boasts a double gimmick, as each band contributes two tracks -- one old, one new -- and it's all acoustic. To oversimplify, emo is little more than plugged-in coffeehouse rock, so the stripped-down arrangements allows the bands' strength -- heart-on-sleeve lyrics seemingly plucked from a preteen's diary -- to move to the fore. "Birds will sing our song / And your scars will heal", promises MR frontman Andrew Jordan on their new track, "In Transit (For You)". On their other track, "Playing for Keeps" (from the band's 2003 release, Stories and Alibis), the liner notes repeatedly confuse "you're" with "your"; I guess when you're in the middle of a relationship heading south ("Your so good at pretending everything is alright / Your as welcome as cancer"), spelling is the least of your concerns. If you're not hip to the scene, Matchbook Romance sound like every other emo band you can't bring yourself to investigate further. Motion City Soundtrack fare better with their pair of tracks. The shimmering "Sunday Warning" (from the hard-to-find Kids For America EP is this acoustic EP's most fully-realized (or at least fullest-sounding) song, and the casual swearing of "When 'You're' Around" ("You don't fucking listen when I'm around"), in an acoustic song, makes me think of Old School's take on "Total Eclipse of the Heart". This split EP is a great treat for fans, but there's precious little for anyone not already attuned to the bands. 14-year-olds of the world, unite!
Franklin Delano, All My Senses Are Senseless Today (Zahr)
This group recorded this sparse and dark country album in their homeland of Italy. But given the texture of the songs, it might seem more suitable for the vast Nevada desert. In no rush to see the ending of numbers like "Question", this group -- led by Paolo Iocca's -- almost monotone style makes Knife In The Water seem like sugar-coated popsters. Songs easily pass seven minutes with little change from start to finish. "About These Nights" is nearly identical while field recordings of birds are in the distance. It's also a tune Ry Cooder would've lapped up circa Paris, Texas. "Fake Off" is a hair faster and wiry, featuring a roots-cum-jazz arrangement. If you have a short attention span, this album isnt for you. "He" returns to a nearly eight-minute mountain folk ditty with dobro and other traditional instruments used. Often, though, the noodling on the album is nothing spectacular or even remotely innovative! The record gets tiring during "Hello" which is a poor man's Shrimp Boat with a pinch of electric guitar. By the time you hit "You Told Me" you could be asleep, which is not a compliment in this instance.
Swissfarlo, Boxed (Data Was Lost)
This 2002 release features some nifty lo-fi pop, most notably on opening track "Oh No". For fans of this kind of sound, Swissfarlo have it down pat: good guitar hooks, nasal vocals that stick in your head for a while, and songs that get to the point without overstaying their welcome. Some tracks, like "Yr Mine" rock genuinely, while other tunes like "Cans for Money" and "And I Digress" hit upon a softer tone. Not everything is total super on Boxed; along with that lo-fi charm comes quite a bit of dicey singing and sloppy rhythms that don't always work out. But when they're hot, they're hot and that would be most of the time on this disc. If you see it, give it a listen.
Martha's Trouble, Forget October (Aisling)
This duo of Jen and Rob Slocumb bring to mind Natalie Merchant and Sixpence None the Richer with its sophisticated folk pop. From the warm "City Skyline", Jen's delicate vocals work well with the mid-tempo adult contemporary feel. Using different instruments like the bodhran, djembe, and ashkyo hand shakers gives songs like "Don't Hide Away" a great groove. It's this melodic nature that weaves through each song, such as the reflective "Waverly", as Rob adds percussion and acoustic guitar to create a country-ish tune that the Corrs might attempt at some point. Martha's Trouble never "rock out" per se, but they manage to keep each tune strong enough to stand on its own. "Through the Mystery" and the banjo-propelled "Sweet Irene" have been done hundreds of times before, but if done well should resonate. And both do! "Cold Rain" is perhaps the lone tune where they moderately loosen the pop mode for a slightly rock-oriented sound. The title track stands out, with Jen's near angelic heights that offset the dreary percussion. The duo shores things up, though, with a gorgeous "Keri".
The Departure, "All Mapped Out"
Colleges and grad schools are teeming with depressive sadsacks for a reason: overachievers everywhere are finally forced to concede that hard work will never prevail in the face of true talent. That's why most of them wind up with the safe, unglamorous jobs that put meals on tables but make blood slowly run cold. Fortunately, the members of The Departure are an uneducated bunch-or were at least na´ve enough to avoid a crushing epiphany that would have sent them scurrying to desk jobs. Instead, they've put out this debut single, a pathological mimicry of Interpol and Gang of Four as, um, interpreted by Interpol. The Factory-tweaked guitars and white-funk basslines attest to untold hours of combing through the post-punk songbook. Hard work may only get them so far, but with talent such a rarity these days, why begrudge them their efforts?