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Big Business, Head for the Shallow (Hydra Head) Rating: 5
Hammer of the gods? Pshaw -- Big Business brings the sledgehammer of the gods. Head for the Shallow, the Seattle-based band's debut LP, is a punishing strain of sludge thunder. Its detuned low-end makes Queens of the Stone Age look like the Bay City Rollers. Jared Warren (Karp) keeps his voice low to the ground with equal parts Sabbath fury, Dio fantasy, and D. Boon abandon; his bass provokes plate tectonics with its clumped, crushing chords. Coady Willis (Murder City Devils) approaches his drums like a speed bag workout: his brass-knuckled whirlwinds, sweltering and constricted, are the kinds of polyrhythmic babble that would make Dave Grohl blush. Other instruments attempt to infiltrate the fray (electric guitar and organ are faintly discernable), but the ginormous slab of bass 'n' drums is damn near impenetrable. Despite its lean runtime (35 minutes), Head for the Shallow runs Big Business' shtick a bit dry; eventually, it's difficult to match up songs to their respective names. Still, Warren and Willis are on to something here, issuing a punishing disturbance that's as exploratory as it is unforgiving. "Keep with your digging," Warren bellows on "Stareadactyl". "We're looking for fossils / Hopefully someday we'll find the impossible link." Shhh -- they're busy. [Amazon]
God Lives Underwater, Up Off the Floor (Locomotive/Megaforce) Rating: 3
As Ministry proved on their triumphant Houses of the Mole, it's still possible to create dark, industrial-driven alternative rock that still sounds inspired, but sadly, more often than not, this type of music, popularized by Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson, et al during the mid-90s, has started to sound painfully dated. God Lives Underwater's 1998 breakthrough Life in the So-Called Space Age combined cutting-edge sounds and commercial appeal, but the band never released a true follow-up album, that is, until 2004. The disappointing thing is, Up Off the Floor is still trying to sound like it's 1998, and as a result, their whole nu-metal meets Depeche Mode shtick has gotten too tiresome for listeners to care. Singer David Reilly sings in a bland voice, a pale Trent Reznor imitation, as well as mimicking Filter and My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, while the music is an uninspired exercise in a form of rock music that has lost all its relevance. It's not off-putting in the least, as the album is very competently produced, but unless someone can pull a rabbit out of a hat like Al Jourgensen did last year, most of us who listened to this kind of music ten years ago are long since past caring. [Amazon]
Matchbook Romance, Stories and Alibies (Epitaph) Rating: 3
Ugh. Yet another album of sensitive punk rock boys and their turbulent relationships with girls. On their debut full-length Stories And Alibies, Matchbook Romance lay their experiences bare to the point of nauseating cliche. The lyric booklet is literally in the form of a diary, handwritten complete with dates. For the most part, the boys seem to really miss the girls who broke up with them, and occasionally are angry with them too. All the trademark sounds are here from the whiny, pleading voice, to the contrived guitar progressions and even the odd string section thrown in for good measure, all working to properly emote all the complexities of these seemingly torrid relationships. I guess as long as there are teenage indie rock boys encountering love and heartbreak, there will be bands like this to listen to when the times are rough. But does the music always have to be this predictable, stale and dull? [Amazon]
The Knife and Fork Band, Cold Cereal and Juice (Groove Disques) Rating: 7
If ever an EP were made for those Sunday mornings spent in reflection, it's the latest offering from the Knife and Fork Band, Cold Cereal and Juice. The KFB combine gospel-tinged southern folk with chamber pop orchestration, creating songs that beg you to stare out the window of the bookstore on a cloudy day while reading a stack of magazines. Singer Meg Murphy is equally adept at singing like the soccer mom leader of the church choir or a sultry jazz chanteuse, sometimes within the space of a single song. In the background, fiddles, violas, and cellos glide and warble, while jangly guitars chime and shimmer. Songs like "Diamonds" and "Sun, Moon, and Stars" sound like literate church hymns, while others, like "She Was Sad," are reminiscent of the coy, bookish character sketches of Belle and Sebastian. Grab a flashlight and your favorite book and hide out under the covers -- Cold Cereal and Juice makes the perfectly innocent sound slightly devious. [Amazon]
Lost Cause, The Papercuts (Soft Focus)
Aeon Grey and Angle claim to be Iowa's two finest wordsmiths and they do their best to live up to the claim. Aeon Grey is the abstract lyrical tongue twister of the group, while Angle prefers to dish out easier to digest, yet nonetheless viscous tales over "Ghosts" psychokinetic beats. Taking shots a politicians and the world at large through a cynical worldview is what these guys do the best, rapping about how they relate to the world around them. The spectacular parts of this release are the jittery, electro-convulsive therapy beats (like on "Creature of Habit"), which pave the way for the two emcees to unleash their paranoid delusions on the world. It's scientific rap, a trickle down style that began with Rakim siphoned through the Wu-Tang and made it all the way to the Midwest. Both of these guys are also white and their rhymes reflect that suburban rap lifestyle. Still, it's leap years ahead of most mainstream rappers and that's a good thing.
db Harris & His Men of Action, Contagious Heartache (Nighttime) Rating: 6
It starts with "Girls Gone Wild!" and ends with "Torture". Doesn't it always? Rarely has an entire record about heartbreak been so much fun. db Harris sounds quite a bit like Chris Isaak, and therefore like Roy Orbison. Armed with a honeyed, pitch-perfect tenor, he's also written some catchy as hell little numbers for the surf-country genre. The band plays exactly as it should for the material. There's nothing world- or life-changing here, just a thoroughly refreshing and likeable collection of songs, dressed up in an amusing retro sleeve. "Back to My Guitar" is a standout, well-constructed and memorable. If you're like me and can't wait for spring to arrive, this album should help out some.
Aalacho, Electro (Aalacho Music) Rating: 3
Despite the iconic cover image and an attempt at a snappy, modern-sounding name, Aalacho's variant of "electro" sounds more like a bid for the kind of pristine rock studio-craft best left in the late '80s than any kind of contemporary love of machines for machines' sake. While the opening track ("Pompeii") hints at a dramatic emotional VAST-like flair and the kind of spaciousness that Spoon used so well on Kill the Moonlight, the album soon loses focus in a weird hybrid of conservative yuppie rock and undanceable electronic rhythms, much like a Bryan Ferry extended remix. At its very worst, Aalacho (aka Seattle's Nathan Scott) attempts a cover of "Ticket to Ride" that trades in the original's tremendous psychedelic arrangement for an edgeless blue-eyed soul approach that would be more appropriate from a clueless has-been teenybopper like Joey McIntyre. Confusing the matter even more, Aalacho adds an overbearing guitar lick to the mini-album's thankfully shortest number ("It's Not About Love"), and as a result inadvertently imitates lesser late-'80s synth-rock sellouts like Moev or Pseudo Echo. A Felix Da Housecat remix of "Pompeii" closes things off, betraying Scott's desire for credibility in a scene that will not have him. Obviously wanting to contribute something to a genre that has long surpassed the sort of electro-pop found on Sire Records' old Just Say Yes compilations, but refusing to acknowledge its advances in the last decade, Aalacho honestly has nowhere to go but away. [Amazon]
Richard T. Williams
SeepeopleS, The Corn Syrup Conspiracy (Rascalz) Rating: 6
Let's get this straight right off the bat: Nobody will ever be "the new Pink Floyd". Of course, that's not to say bands won't try, or even do a passable job of aping the psychedelic sound that the Floyd made famous. SeepeopleS is one of those bands, and it would seem that all the elements of classic Floyd are present on their latest effort The Corn Syrup Conspiracy. We have long, occasionally excessive guitar soloing, experiments with electronics, and smooth-yet-strained tenor vocals decrying the evils of The Machine. It's exceptionally produced -- better than many major label albums, actually -- and it's packed to the brim at over 70 minutes of music. There are lots of high-profile guest stars, like Tim Reynolds (famous for his work with Dave Matthews) and Dana Colley of Morphine. So what's not to like? For starters, sole SeepeopleS core member Will Bradford could use an editor, as long stretches of slow, noodling ballads make it easy to lose interest, and there's simply not enough engaging material here to maintain a listener's interest. Bradford's use of metaphor is also a bit clunky -- big businessmen are butchers, the workforce consists of dogs, and so on. Lyrical quirks and bloat aside, those looking for a new socially conscious jammy rock album to get high and curse The Man to could certainly do worse than this.
Swing Out Sister, Where Our Love Grows (Shanachie)
The phrase "big in Japan" might've been popularized in song by Alphaville, but it's been a punchline for far longer than that. Been off the charts for awhile but hate to admit that your success is waning? Just claim that you're shifting mass units in Tokyo and that, as a result, you've been focusing your efforts on setting up a tour of pachinko parlors throughout the land of the rising sun so that your fans in Okinawa aren't left wanting. I mean, really, who's going to question you? All jokes aside, however, the Japanese have decidedly diverse musical taste, keeping a lot of artists recording new material when they've been all but forgotten in their native countries; the Japanese love their power pop (Matthew Sweet has admitted to being showered with gifts when he plays), they dig the Britpop (the Trashcan Sinatras did a tour there and exclusively released their Snow EP via Sony Japan), and, yes, they quite like the jazz-pop, too. This brings us to the point of this entire discussion, which is to say that, despite the fact that you probably only remember them for their 1987 single, "Breakout," Swing Out Sister are still rather big in Japan. In a career that's heading toward the two-decade mark, Swing Out Sister have carved themselves a decidedly small niche as creators of the best lounge-pop since the 5th Dimension's heyday. It's been a gradual evolution from pop to jazz to lounge, but, after the too-jazzy-for-its-own-good The Living Return in 1994, the band discovered Burt Bacharach and Jimmy Webb and settled into a comfortable groove channeling the general feel of the best '60s and '70s work of those artists. Singer Corinne Drewery has one of the most soulful voices in the business, and it's a shame that Where Our Love Grows, another wonderful addition to Swing Out Sister's catalog and the band's first U.S. release since 1997, won't get the attention or sales it deserves. It's smooth and silky, sometimes slinky pop, the perfect soundtrack for your next cocktail party; just press play, and Love won't let you down. [Amazon]
Citified, Citified (Eskimo Kiss) Rating: 7
Rising from the ashes that were Lookwell, Citified spent less than 20 minutes churning out nine songs. With lead singer Chris Jackson instantly coming off like early Stipe and company (R.E.M.), songs like "Overseas" fly along effortlessly in a classic indie or alt.rock framework. The lone strike against it is that basically anyone can write half a great song, with this one last just over 100 seconds. "Secret Knock" has that murky feel like an early song from The Cure without the intensity yet containing the groove. Citified nail these tracks perfectly, but it wants the listener wanting far more than basically half-assed conclusions. "There's A Way To Make You Try" has its ending thankfully and is complete with its breezy, melodic nature. Ditto for "Family Owned" with its haunting harmonies! And the rather rampant "Going Places" could be cloned from any early '80s track still worth its salt. "Trainwreck" and ""I've Seen You Older" are other high moments, but it seems like a teaser or EP more than an album.
Joni Mitchell, Artist's Choice (Starbucks Hear Music)
Joni Mitchell is the latest musical icon to offer up a collection of favorite songs as part of Starbucks' Hear Music series. And while her 18 selections seem mightily light in the rock 'n' roll department, they pack a serious punch nonetheless. Mitchell's love of jazz is evident; she includes numbers by Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Etta James and Miles Davis. Add to that Marvin Gaye, Debussy, Dylan, Steely Dan, Leonard Cohen and two tracks by electronica/new-agers Deep Forest and you get a sense of how varied and eclectic her tastes run. And the liner notes are priceless: from her recounting of seeing a Ray Charles concert at 13, to the affection she felt for the New Radicals' "You Get What You Give" for rising "from the swamp of 'McMusic' like a flower of hope," Mitchell's narratives provide a whimsical, revealing glimpse into the mind of a creative spirit.