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The Dollyrots, Eat My Heart Out (Panic Button/Lookout!)
Every college had that one band that was pretty good. Sure, the band was never really groundbreaking, but when they played on campus it was always a worthwhile way to spend a few hours on a Saturday night. These bands typically remain fond memories, breaking up towards graduation, and I never expected to hear much from the Sarasota-born Dollyrots. But here they are, on Lookout Records no less, relocated from open air keg parties at my old alma mater to the larger stage of the Southern Californian pop-punk scene. Their girl-led pop-punk sound still does not hold very many surprises; they run the typical gamut from such extremes as "Kick Me to the Curb", a high-energy rocker reminiscent of the Muffs, to "Goodnight Tonight", the requisite ballad with a hard-rocking bridge. What Eat My Heart Out does have are elements missing in most paint-by-numbers pop-punk: a sense of true fun, not the forced and contrived "fun" of the Blink-182 wannabes, and an infectious energy. They actually seem to be able to translate their well-regarded live shows onto a disc without sacrificing the spontaneity their music requires. Lead singer Kelly Ogden wails through "Feed Me, Pet Me" with such ferocity that it is hard to imagine how they top it during live performances. It even ends with their gorgeous cover of "Be My Baby", which they have the good sense to perform without irony. I may, of course, be biased by nostalgia, but every college should have a band that is able to reward their old school with an anthem as vivid and catchy as the all-too-truthful character sketch "New College".
Diecast, Tearing Down Your Blue Skies (Century Media)
With bands like Shadows Fall, Lamb of God, Killswitch Engage, and Atreyu leading the thrilling return to traditional, aggressive, technically deft American heavy metal, it's up to the rest of the competition to keep up with the pace set by those bands, or otherwise be left in their dust. Boston's Diecast are very much aware that an evolution from the straightforward metalcore of their 2001 debut Day of Reckoning is not only what's best for the band, but also what many metal fans now demand. As their Beantown brethren in Shadows Fall have done over the past few years, Diecast are gradually distancing themselves from the obvious Agnostic Front and Cro-Mags influences, and incorporating more melodic, "clean" vocals on their new album, Tearing Down Your Blue Skies. However, hearing the vocal experimentation over the entire album, it's clear the band's greatest asset remains their simple, aggro riffs and Paul Stoddard's barked-out vocals. Stoddard's voice does sound refreshingly versatile, as he alternates from drill-sergeant-style hollers to more smooth singing (sounding a lot like Mike Patton, actually), but most of the melodies sound too forced, as they interrupt the great old-school metalcore riffs and rhythms. There's no middle ground on the CD, it's either aggression or clean melody, and the band can't seem to find a middle ground, and the result sounds like they're flicking a switch on and off. That's not to say that the album's awful; in fact, "Fire Damage", "Savior", and especially the strong "These Days", are especially strong, but this album leaves you hoping that Diecast's next release will feature compositions as seamless as Shadows Fall's recent The War Within are.
Fiona Renshaw, Love in a Bubble (Laws of Motion/Sirkus)
"People say I'm crazy, well/that much is true..." Leaving home at the age of 16 to become a musical director for the UK's Cirque de Soleil, this tattoo-covered singer-songwriter and her lovely, androgynous voice certainly seem to belong to that great and venerable pantheon of British eccentrics. Her music, though, will be instantly familiar to fans of Billie Holiday and Nina Simone; warm confections of jazz, folk, and blues underpinning torch songs of conviction and doubt, all delivered in the smoky tones that graced Mr. Scruff's gorgeous "Honeydew". Taking a cue from the latter, many of the compositions let the bass pool under her soulful poise, strings and guitar adding atmospheric timbre; the whole also having much in common with Sade. This alluring and sensual album comes to a close with a much rockier and rougher edge when she covers Gil Scott-Heron's "Home Is Where the Hatred Is" with much righteous ire, doubtless drawing on her own experiences. It seems a shame that, although lacking anything truly spectacular, this female singer with much more to offer than Dido will doubtless be made welcome by only a minute proportion of the latter's audience.
Canasta, Find the Time (Broken Middle C)
Here's a short EP by a Chicago outfit just starting to make waves nationally. Matt Priest's chamber-pop ensemble Canasta, plays bright and catchy songs to stick in your head as you skip down whatever lane or avenue suits you. "Slow Down Chicago" is a bouncy paean to the City of Broad Shoulders. "This town, it breathes on its own…/ El trains they rumble along" sings Priest with choir diction and amiable nature. The six-piece band also features a keyboards, piano, violin, and two members capable of playing the trombone. "Just a Star" is Midwestern night music, riding Megan O'Connor's piano and Elizabeth Lindau's violin to bittersweet effect. A cover of Kraftwerk's "The Model" is also notable. The arrangements are smart and efficient, reminiscent of the Pernice Brothers if every day was Game 7 of 2004's ACLS. Catch them if you can.
An Albatross, Eat Lightning, Shit Thunder (Bloodlink)
You can see it coming from a mile away. From the odd band name, to the provocative album title, and the standard lineup of guitar, keyboards and bass, An Albatross are here to destroy. On their now re-issued debut release Eat Lightning, Shit Thunder (first hitting store shelves in 2001), An Albatross threw their hand into the grindcore fray. All the signatures of the genre are here, from the wordy, cryptic song titles ("Mother's Day Came A Little Early This Year", "You Can't Take That Hot-Rod With You When You Go") to the equally bizarre lyrics ("Baby, baby, let it flow, child / It's the tingly brilliant sensation below now / The butterflies in our guts make it alright / Give 'em bricks, cocktails and flowers, baby, alright"). Unfortunately, An Albatross are painfully average musically as well. The energy and passion are felt, but this ground has been tread before and done much better by bands like the Locust and Daughters. However, the band has been riding a wave of hype built on their reportedly intense live show and well received follow-up album We Are the Lazer Viking. To their benefit, 2001 was three years ago, and while their debut hasn't aged well, the band has had the opportunity to move in exciting new directions. As a final note, some credit must be given to Bloodlink for their innovative packaging as the album comes housed in a unique 3.5" floppy disk case.
Various Artists, The Rose & the Briar (Columbia/Legacy)
What does the American ballad say about America? That's the question posed by the new book The Rose & the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in American Ballads, a collection of essays edited by Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus. A number of musicians, authors, and artists (including David Thomas of Pere Ubu, Joyce Carol Oates, R. Crumb, and Sarah Vowell) attempt to answer that opening question in their own way; the ballads that they chose are represented on the book's companion CD. While the disc offers up a staggering gamut of styles and emotions within its 20 tracks, most of the selections are murder ballads (The Coon Creek Girls' "Pretty Polly", Mississippi John Hurt's "Frankie"), bids for entry to the traditional folk canon (Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska", Dolly Parton's "Down from Dover"), or, in the case of Randy Newman, subversive anti-traditional (the deceptive "Sail Away"). It's a slow, weighty ride, at times a little jarring (Jan & Dean's "Dead Man's Curve" comes out of nowhere), but there's some fantastic buried history here. The Rose & the Briar is a sobering reminder that "the Great American Songbook" is ultimately more sinister, jealous, and bloody than some tuxedoed crooners would have you believe.
Lazarus, Like Trees We Grow Up to Be Satellites (The Backwards America) (Temporary Residence Ltd.)
Okay, I am about to make a declaration that may seem a little surprising right now - Lazarus' sophomore effort is a concept album. Yes, that may not be apparent according to the press releases, to the fans and even perhaps to William Trevor Montgomery, the alter-ego of Lazarus himself. However, how else can we explain the melancholic tracks that are insufficient to stand alone in its on, yet capable of bleeding into one another to form an awe-inspiring vista of beautiful loneliness, its sum definitely larger than the parts? The theme of the album seems to be about the lonely journey that Lazarus is taking, the troubadour on a pilgrimage to find his soul. A freak-folk fixation, granted, yet his mastery of electronica which eerily layers his pretty guitar plucking creating an atmosphere of lingering desolation does set him apart from the 4-track minimalism of Devendra Banhart and Sam Beam. With the opening track "The Walking Sonnet" to the closer "Yes. Roam", the song titles function as instructions. Slot in the CD, take a walk on the dark side, don't pause or look back and trudge on to the bitter end.
Jeremy, Lost and Found (Jam Recordings)
Jeremy Morris once again has issued more of his cavity-inducing psychedelic era pop to his cult following. With his near ethereal sound and style, tunes such as the almost Cure-ish "Near You" which makes Matthew Sweet sound like hard rock by comparison. Just as infectious is a Beatles approach to the summer sheen on "Be There For Me" and the title track. It's the '60s era where Jeremy makes his album shine though, especially on brief nuggets like "Here With Me" and "You Told Me" which recalls The Byrds, Roger McGuinn and Tom Petty. It's almost sickening at times how sweet the songs are. But it can't be unappreciated, despite with 27 songs that include a somber McCartney hue on the religious "Hey Judas". There are no truly outstanding moments here yet the consistency is excellent. Morris never lets the album or listeners down with a clunker, although "When The Ship Goes Down" takes a bit longer to get into. One departure is the harder and edgier "You Cry Wolf!" which takes Bo Diddley's rhythm and incorporates it into the breezy pop. A notable cover is the Pete Townshend penned "Circles". "Get It Right" is nothing more than a souped up song by The La's although the message of peace weighs it down somewhat. The second half is just as sweet, especially "Mr. Religion", the busy "If We Try", the dreamy "Dreaming About You" and the delightful "Silver Song".
Copeland, Know Nothing Stays the Same (The Militia Group)
"'Strip away all the fluff. Does the song still speak the same way when performed with just a voice and a single piano or single guitar?' This is Copeland's test of a well written song." So goes the opening to Copeland's bio on its website. Riding the success of its debut album Beneath Medicine Tree, and currently touring the country with Sparta, Copeland have released an EP of covers to sate fans while working on its next LP. Know Nothing Stays the Same is an homage to some classic pop songs, but the band fails to leave any sort of mark on these recordings. Interpreting these songs in a frustratingly straightforward manner, the band leaves the listener pining for the original. If anything, these songs reveal singer Aaron Marsh's vocals to be particularly thin and weak. Marsh lacks the vocal muscle to take on songs like Phil Collins' "Another Day in Paradise" and Stevie Wonder's "Part-Time Lovers". Only on Billy Joel's "She's Always a Woman" does Marsh's reedy voice fit the bill. Know Nothing Stays the Same is an interesting distraction, but will serve as a curiosity for fans only.
Mimi Ferocious, 250 Times Sweeter Than Sugar (Lunch Lady)
A nice break from the usual, Mimi Ferocious play good, competent straight forward pop rock that creates a nice distraction from the day. Stephanie St. John has one of those voices that sounds like it should be doing bigger things, but for some reason is currently stopped in indie land. The cover of Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" is nice, and the originals such as "Tupperware Sky", "Sister Barbara", and "Rocket Song" pack a good punch as well. They're certainly not going to stop time or make the earth completely move, but Mimi Ferocious can certainly do this brand of female-led rock a bit better than others. And sometimes, that's good enough.
Various Artists, We Owe You Nothing: Newer Wave 2004 (Upper Class Recordings)
Upper Class's compilation CD, We Owe You Nothing: Newer Wave 2004, prompts one major question: what the hell is newer wave? Anyone worried that they might be missing out on some hip new genre can rest easy, since the album proves that it's just another meaningless, cutesy title invented to sell records. Girls are Short, the Russian Futurists, and the Cansecos -- the three bands united by this album -- simply share a label; they do not constitute a new musical movement. The sampler itself is reminiscent of the Little Darla Has a Treat For You series that reliably offers up a good time with its bubbly electronica. Ditto for We Owe You Nothing, with the qualifiers that this CD is less eclectic, somewhat less enjoyable, and nothing here makes any of the five source albums sound all that essential. The Russian Futurists are the pick of the litter, followed by saccharine Girls are Short. Lagging behind are the Cansecos, who sound like a synth-based, psychedelic Sugar Ray.
The Sincerity Guild, What It's Like on the Inside (Theory 8)
Nashville foursome The Sincerity Guild modestly attempt to cross-pollinate arena rock with jazz on its all-instrumental debut, What It's Like on the Inside. The album mostly consists of short, tightly-constructed songs that appear to meander at first, but upon further listening reveal a strict attention to detail. "The Ballad of Radioman," the LP's most accessible cut, boasts a crunchy guitar riff that sets the tone for the propulsive hard-rock fury which follows. Drummer and principal songwriter Aaron Ford cites A Love Supreme as the album that best represents his musical ambitions, but the Guild's sound is much too polished to achieve the visceral impact that Coltrane's seminal recording does. The group's stadium rock train eventually runs out of steam, especially on the 11-minute "Triumph of the Ugly Duckling (Part II)," but when it sticks to basics, What It's Like... shows off a band already assured of its sound and fully capable of opening eyes on future releases.
Chris Richards, Mystery Spot (Jam)
Chris Richards is no relation to Keef, but he still has an ear for a good hook, greater chorus and foot-stomping power pop. This is found easily and early on the urgent "Is There Anybody Else?" that winds just enough to keep it from being catchy but unmemorable. "Your First Mistake" is a tad lighter and doesn't quite have the same punch to it, despite some nice harmonies. Fortunately the jangle on "By Your Side" has been done hundreds of times before but is a surefire, hand-clapping way to get things back on track. Richards also uses the Side One and Side Two method, making it sound like a cohesive album and not just a catchy song or three with nine songs o' sludge thrown in. The stellar moments come during "Everyday Girl" which recalls The Finn Brothers at their sweetest as well as the deliberate, dreamy mid-tempo and somewhat danceable "Gracefully". Another great tune is the guitar-fuelled Gin Blossoms approach to "Doesn't Sound Like You", the Costello-circa "Veronica" tone to "Don't Forget About Love" and also the appealing "Come Clean". But "Draining" is too lightweight though despite a rather folksy pop arrangement.
Scott Farr, Jazz Farm (Banana Bread)
Every once in a great while a guitarist comes along who plays so well that he knocks you on your ass. Sure enough, Scott Farr is such a guitarist. This album may ostensibly be jazz, but it rocks about as hard as you can possibly rock without being named Lemmy. Fusion is tricky business, and Farr plays the type of fusion that John Zorn would play if John Zorn had grown up listening to Van Halen. Farr has put together a strong ensemble to compliment his heavy riffing, but I'll be honest and admit I don't recognize a single one of them. They all play well, but this is Farr's spotlight. This guy probably sleeps with his guitar cradled in his arms, and I'd be willing to bet that he plays jazz scales in his sleep. But for all his technique, he never looses sight of the fact that sometimes there is nothing more profound than a fuzzy power chord. Jazz Farm is barely 25 minutes long but that doesn't stop it from sporting more per-capita rock than most CDs released this decade.
Lindy, Suspension of Disbelief (Orange Label)
Lindy Vopnfjord has a soft singer-songwriter vocal, but it's often encased in folk arrangements or picture-perfect pop hues. Sounding a tad like Wilco's Jeff Tweedy or Canada's own Danny Michel before a rather limp and fleeting guitar appears. Far stronger is "Important" that veers between Travis circa The Man Who and early Coldplay. Things pick up nicely on the mid-tempo pop of "Witness" which brings Ron Sexsmith's Retriever to mind with a touch more jangle. Far stronger though is the lovely Keane-esque "Beautifully Undone". Lindy can go down the same road mainly due to his near angelic, Thom Yorke-ish range that is evident on "While We Were Waiting" and the tender "After All The Rain Falls" which is just above a whisper. Unfortunately "Look At The Way The Wild Wind Blows" falls short with a bland string-touched moments. But Lindy makes up for it by picking at the proverbial rockface made by the likes of Sondre Lerche and Teitur -- tight and error-free happy-go-lucky pop.