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PopMatters Music Short Takes
our brief reviews of new releases
17 January 2005
Doug Gillard, Salamander (Pink Frost/Big Takeover)
Known mainly as Guided By Voices's guitarist for their post-murk albums and as composer of Mag Earwig's "I Am a Tree," Gillard proves on this, his first full-length solo album, his songwriting. Modestly produced yet never unrealized, Salamander sounds much like his collaboration with Pollard on Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department, another record like this one on which he plays nearly all the instruments himself. Through 14 songs, Gillard embroiders thick power-chord riffs with well-timed arpeggios and crafts potent hooks from humble means: a careful guitar layer, a politely stuttering lick, some syncopated strumming. However, this well-crafted power pop may be a bit too stylistically familiar to his GBV work, because it invites inevitable, slightly unfavorable comparisons with Pollard's oeuvre. While Gillard's songs are more accessible, his lyrics often seem perfunctory and his voice lacks the range to carry listeners through an entire album. And his Beatlesque melodies cry out for harmonies that Gillard can't provide himself. Consequently, it's worthwhile isolating the best songs -- the sunny "Valpolicella," the string-augmented "(But) I See Something," the folky "Present" -- and administering them in discrete doses.
Two Cow Garage, The Wall Against Our Back (Shelterhouse)
The rasp and the drawl in Micah Schnabel's vocals, even if some people see them as markers of Two Cow Garage's "authenticity," can wear you out. And while the music has a drive that can't be faked, though I don't hear a lot of warmth, the immediate appeal of a cowpunk band expelling lots of energy can wear thin quickly when the lights come up if there's not more holding things together. At this point it's not clear that there is, which isn't to say that, given the young average age of the band members, there won't be on subsequent releases. They gets hailed for their live shows and their workhorse tour schedule, and the The Wall Against Our Back, the trio's second album, feels immediate (it was recorded in just nine days) though I wonder why they bothered going in the studio at all and didn't just release a live album. It's full of songs about getting out and songs about what happens when you stay in one place for too long, with a more narrow focus than the epic sweep of Springsteen. Review references to Uncle Tupelo hold water, though Two Cow Garage's songwriting is more limited, and while Schnabel's voice is distinctive I'm not really sure that it's all that appealing. The band is young and pointed in the right direction, and while a bit one-dimensional, there's hope that they'll be able to add more before all that energy starts to dissipate.
Eddie From Ohio, This Is Me (Virginia Soul)
Eddie From Ohio is one of those folk groups who will charm you at any number of adult summer music festivals. On This Is Me, the melodies are strong, the band is tight and the singing is comforting. The songs' narratives are above average; once a song starts, you're compelled to listen until the end of the story/song. Overall, though, there's not much to distinguish this CD from others in its genre. If you're a huge fan of the folk/pop song, this will be perfect for you. For the rest of us, Eddie From Ohio should concentrate on writing more songs like those on the first half of this CD, which is rather beautiful. From the opener, "And the Rain Crashed Down" to "Fly", the band had the seeds of a great record. Unfortunately, the second half sounds too much like a bar band on a good night - decent and enjoyable but forgotten as soon as you walk out the door.
Jenny Queen, Girls Who Cry Need Cake (Laughing Outlaw)
I don't know why it is, but I find that most albums with cool titles aren't as good when it comes to the actual music. And while this is not wholly the case for Jenny Queen's Girls Who Cry Need Cake, it comes close. I'd say the thing that's the main problem for me with this disc is that Queen reminds me of Jewel if Jewel was trying to do watered down Sheryl Crow pumped through a plastic Nashville filter. It's all fine and well, but it's truly a case where sound quality here doesn't equal musical enjoyment. Queen is pretty bland and tracks like "Drowning Slowly" and "Kentucky Turn" sound like they want to be genuine country-inspired tracks, but just because you have a pedal steel guitar in your mix doesn't mean anything. Is this country pop or just pop-lite? I can't be bothered to worry about it because it's so damn fluffy, so I'll leave it up to you.
The Pine Club, The Pine Club (Debauchery)
The Pine Club's self titled debut shows a young band with plenty of promise and riffs to go around. The band's no frills approach to songwriting gets to the melody and keeps you there. Typically, the melodies don't disappoint; however, at times the band falls short and some of the songs fail to fully develop causing repetitive guitar lines and choruses to grow stale. The songs that this occurs on are not the majority; most of the tracks are pop gems, reminiscent of Big Star, Elvis Costello, and the Beach Boys. Songs like "Too Times", "Tin Horses", and "Boxing Day" showcase the band's talent for writing and affinity toward '60s melodies. Where many bands have drawn on the inspiration of the vast peace of the California countryside to give life to bright melodies, the Pine Club push their music from a more restless one-horse town, opting for more aggressive guitar tones and stripped down sound.
The Julius Airwave, Dragons Are the New Pink (Sick Room)
The Julius Airwave kicks off this album with a mid-tempo acoustic guitar pop tune that needs great lyrics to get the point home. Fortunately lead singer Rick Colado has this asset in spades with "Morning Sale" that is a cross between XTC's later work and Michael Penn. "SODA" brings The Cure to mind without the theatrics, moving into line moreso with Sloan. Although from Florida, perhaps Minnesota or Vermont is a closer state to define their sound, especially on the minimal and alluring "Pencil Box" and the winding "Tickle Me Penguin" as Colado speaks and sings about catching the winning ticket. Here they sound like a wittier Third Eye Blind. But musically they're all over the map. "Broken Tusk" is a singer-songwriter track that seems on the cusp of breaking out into a hell-raising rocker. But they sound tired on "When I Was Sent Yellow", whatever the hell the title means. The album, recorded in a green shed, has that close, claustrophobic sound often on the light and airy Radiohead-ish "Pink Fingernails". "Underneath The Weight" is one of the sleepers on the album as Colado and his two mates nail the lo-fi, shoe-gazing rock tune.
Eames Era, The 2nd EP (C Student)
The Eames Era are students of a time when all you really needed to get by in the music world was a good hook and a pretty melody. On their second ep, cleverly titled 2nd EP, the Eames Era show themselves to have mastered a not entirely original, but certainly fun brand of jangle pop. The four songs on the EP range from brilliant ("Could Be Anything") to the mildly forgettable ("I Said") but when they land on the brilliant side of that equation you'd better be prepared to spend the rest of the day with a song stuck in your head. It may be a curse or a blessing but lead singer Ashlin Phillips sounds so much like Liz Phair that songs like "Could Be Anything" and "All Of Seventeen" will inevitably draw comparisons to Phair's recent pop rock hits. Depending on your feelings towards Phair's monster hit producing Liz Phair these comparisons will either make you rush out to purchase The 2nd EP or ignore it altogether. Ignoring it would be a mistake.
Vocoder, The Collapsed Stars EP (Popboomerang)
Another day, another garage rock revivalist. Surely this machine has to stop soon. Although the twist this time is that Vocoder aren't from New York, but New Zealand. Whatever. It all sounds the same as any of those other revivalists we have here in the States. Power chords, adrenaline-amped rhythms, and safe melodies all combine together for the likes of such weak tunes as "Collapsed Stars", "Count To Six", and "Falko". I don't think a full-length of this drudgery needs to be released, but I'm sure it will nevertheless. And shame on Vocoder for making The Kinks' classic "This Is Where I Belong" just another shitty emo track.
Eric Anders, Songs For Wayward Days (Baggage Room)
This three-song EP is a mini political trilogy of tunes that this singer-songwriter has created with care and craftsmanship. Beginning with "A Man For No Season", Anders haunting folks brings to mind a mix of Ron Sexsmith and Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham as he talks about Sir Thomas More and the "travesties of state". The chorus pulls you in as Anders is helped out by a couple of backing musicians, namely two-third of Elvis Costello's Attractions in drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher. "How Low and Why" is more funky and meatier as the guitars wind themselves around Anders' strong vocals. The only knock is that he just teases the listener with three tunes, including "Warrior Kin" with a smidgeon of Celtic influence. If he has nine or 10 additional ones like these in the can, put them out my good man!
J.O.Y., Sunplus (DFA)
How to even describe this single, the latest slice of dance/punk/pop genius from New York production stalwarts/labelmeisters DFA? Basically, it's two Japanese artists, K.U.D.O. and Ken Takagi, supplying a snappy, part J-pop, part '60s garage rock, part avant-garde backdrop, as guest vocalist Yoshimi (yes, that Yoshimi) steals the show with a stunner of a vocal performance that sounds like it teeters somewhere between Japanese, English, and Esperanto. It's as befuddling as it is beguiling. Even more compelling is the accompanying DFA Remix of the same track, which eliminates nearly every single element from the original song, replacing everything with funky guitar, bass, and re-recorded drums, as DFA's James Murphy slices and dices Yoshimi's vocal track into something even more odd. If the first track was cutely weird, this one is weirdly danceable, or as the bio impeccably describes, "Bjork fronting the Slits in No-Wave heaven." The CD is only ten minutes long, but what an uproariously fun, slightly insane, incredibly charming ten minutes it is.
The Mick Fleetwood Band, Something Big (Tallman/Sanctuary)
Anyone who thinks that Fleetwood Mac didn't do much before Rumours might be shocked to learn that the band was actually established (if not overwhelmingly famous) before Stevie Nicks came aboard. With Peter Green as their not-so-secret weapon, the old Mac churned out British blues like so many of their contemporaries. A solo album from original drummer Mick Fleetwood might be expected to reach back to the music that gave him his start, and to a large extent Something Big bears that out. It is rootsy stuff, bringing Mellencamp to mind, but the surprise is that Fleetwood is such a small player on his own album. Something Big is essentially a solo album for Fleetwood's collaborator, Todd Smallwood, who wrote almost every song and plays most non-percussive instruments. It's Mick Fleetwood in name only, which might be a good thing for him, since the album is so bland. There's a guest spot by Jackson Browne to spice it up, if anyone cares.
Dizzy Gillespie, Salt Peanuts (Just a Memory)
Just a Memory Records, an imprint of Justin Time Records, is, according to its website, devoted to putting out "unique re-issues and previously unreleased gems". Presumably, this Gillespie performance, originally recorded in a Montreal jazz club in 1981, is one such "gem". But there's nothing -- nothing -- remarkable, noteworthy, or even mildly interesting about this particular performance, aside from the fact that some hepcat with recording equipment happened to press PLAY while enjoying some drinks at the Rising Sun Celebrity Jazz Club on a July evening in Montreal. Sorry, scratch that: the Diz's enthusiasm and sense of fun -- at the ripe old age of 63 -- are pretty remarkable. The stage patter is funny; the audience sounds sincerely engaged. But Gillespie's exuberance would be more inspiring if the record were less marginal. Yeah there are some great songs here, but the sound quality is, flatly, shit (the drums drop out at crucial points of "Salt Peanuts", for instance, and what's with that echo in the right channel?). Tommy Campbell and Michael Howell give good rhythm, but guitarist Ed Cherry's notes too often bump into each other, clumping together like poorly applied makeup. A search for "Dizzy Gillespie" on Amazon results in 334 matches. If you're new to his oeuvre, better to go for 2000's near-perfect Ken Burns Jazz or 1995's 2-CD The Complete RCA Victor Recordings for a more comprehensive sampling of his genre-defining bebop period. If you're familiar with Dizzy, don't even bother with this one.
Zion I, Family Business (Live Up)
As a primer for their third proper album, due in spring of 2005, the Oakland, California-based underground hip-hop group drop this 14-track "mixtape". Mixed by the group's own Amp-Live, Family Business gets off to a slow start but eventually rewards listeners with some excellent cuts. On the downside, Zion I bring Bush-bashing to its nadir ("he stank like poo") and bow to silly conventions like the telephone-answering-machine-messages-from-colleagues-who-praise-the-band track. On the upside, guest Lyrics Born provides a jolt of verbal lightning on the remix of "Silly Puddy", while several tracks are among the best ever examples of hip-hop production successfully employing elements of drum & bass. Here's hoping Zion I take those tracks as points of departure for that next album.
Feverdream, Freeze! (Coalition)
The Netherlands' hardcore mainstay Feverdream fails on several levels on this five-song EP, the most obvious being writing lyrics, singing words, and playing instruments. Well, okay, the raw playing is palatable, but one wonders if the band would have been better served to leave this collection of "rarities" on the shelf. I direct your attention to "My Johnson," which, yes, is about that Johnson. The song features the age-old question "Do you know what it feels like to be that hung?" while commanding the listener to "Shake hands with my Johnson / Shake hands with the man", all of which would be slightly easier to endure if the singer didn't sound so damn earnest. Similarly, "America" delves into what one imagines is a serious political screed in Feverdream Land, scolding Americans who think Amsterdam is a country: "America you'll pay the price / America, you roll the high dice". As a whole the EP subscribes to this level of colorless, insipid punk, devoid of any cleverness at all and not nearly as close to Fugazi as the band so obviously thinks it is. Though the record label insists that Feverdream is "for sure one of the most talented, outstanding, and prolific bands around in The Netherlands," I'm sure the Dutch can do much, much better than Freeze!.
Dusty 45s, Devil Takes His Turn (self-released)
If nothing else, I'd like to at least commend the Dusty 45s for not pluralizing the last half of their name with an apostrophe. Nothing bugs me more than when people abuse the apostrophe like that. But that's another tale entirely. What we have here is a strange little group that mixes up fat Elvis-style Vegas horns, Carl Perkins guitar riffage, and country twang. Yeah, OK, it's not the most original thing to come down the line these days (well, except for those horns; they're snappy), but these kinds of bands tend to do really well on the indie circuit with their idolization of roots music and cheeky genre twisting. So be it. Dusty 45s do their thing with much panache and who can fault them for that? I'm sure their live show's a real kicker, too. The title track here pretty much sums it all up, but you'll probably also want to hear "St. James Infirmary" which drops the country in favor of a more Cab Calloway-type bluesy sound, "Vino", which heads straight to your nearest Italian neighborhood, and "Blistering Sky", which is as good Tex-Mex rockabilly as you're likely to find. All right, these guys are definitely more than a one trick pony and this album is plenty of fun. Enjoy.
.: posted by Editor 7:49 AM