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PopMatters Music Short Takes
our brief reviews of new releases
12 April 2005
Von Iva, Von Iva (Cochon) Rating: 7
Methinks that if Von Iva released this record during the dance punk revolution a few years ago, their buzz would most probably be more NME or Uncut rather than obscure cult sensation. Their brands of rock-meets-soul-meets-dance would have brought a refreshing change to !!! and its various pretenders, setting them in the 'same spectrum, different divide' category. Now with dance punk falling out of vogue, the band has to battle against the tide. Context aside however, this is a rather good EP. Von Iva had mastered the art of groove, making feet move while piercing the heart with good ol' fashioned rock 'n' roll. Not many bands are able to merge the down-and-drrrty sound of the White Stripes with a more cerebral version of Cobra Killer flourishes while maintaining a nasty San Francisco snarl. A band to watch out for. Let's just hope the current slump is merely the product of the music cycle.
Water School, Break Up With Water School (Morphius)
There's a lot to like on the debut full-length from Baltimore's Water School. The group's sunny-but-melancholy country-rock sound comes fully-formed, with each song featuring distinct melodies, pleasant harmonies and crisp production. The Beachwood Sparks would be a good reference point, but whereas the Sparks were more willing to indulge their Fifth Dimension-era Byrds influences with some swirling psychedelia, Water School sticks with Sweetheart of the Rodeo as the main influence. Singers Chris Myers and Mike Gittings split vocal duties and balance each other well. Myers has a warmer, more traditional voice, while Gittings' is a little rougher around the edges, almost recalling Paul Westerberg at times. When the two trade off parts, such as in "All God's Children", it's especially effective, adding a welcome element to the standard dual guitar/bass/drums setup. There's hardly anything groundbreaking about this record, and the members of the band would probably be the first to tell you that. But it's refreshing to find a band so early in its career that is so comfortable with its sound and has such honed songwriting chops.
SNMNMNM, As Best As We Can (Unschooled) Rating: 5
SNMNMNM is definitely the band that you wished had played your junior high prom. With a schtick that melds the geek loving shoe-gazer rock style of They Might Be Giants and the nasality and sense of humor of beloved pre-teen idol Weird Al all under the sonic umbrella of the local community jazz band, these four four-eyed chaps from Chapel Hill are doing their best to put a little disco in your D & D. Their latest album features all the classics from their live set, including the strangely funky "Disco Barry", the sweet and saucy ballad "Right Hand Man," and the prog punk dance number "If". Although most of the album dwells in the often monotonous twilight zone between Klezmer and emo, the highlight is by far the song "Another Song Ray Hates" whose cheeky bossa nova swing and wry wit endears itself to fans of chamber pop outfits such as Belle & Sebastian or the Hidden Cameras. Most of the new material on the album, however, falls flat under the sheer weight of all that sassy brass and myopic attempts to write lyrics through nothing but coke-bottle lenses. Overall the album is a disappointing release from an otherwise dynamic group with a sensational, albeit derivative, stage performance.
Sonata Arctica, Reckoning Night (Nuclear Blast) Rating: 6
One of the most popular melodic "power" metal bands today, Sonata Arctica are hoping to hop on the backs of their friends and compatriots Nightwish, in an attempt to gain the same kind of worldwide success their fellow Finland natives have achieved over the past year. While the sextet does not have a female singer with as stunning a voice as Nightwish's Tarja Turonen, their new album Reckoning Night holds its own for the most part, thanks primarily to singer/keyboardist/principal songwriter Tony Kakko, who has a knack for composing catchy pop metal hooks and harmony vocal arrangements. Heavily inspired by Queen and Dream Theater, Kakko's ambition sometimes get the best of him, most notably on the completely over the top "The Boy Who Wanted to Be a Real Puppet", the clunky epic "White Pearl Black Oceans", and the downright awful power ballad "Shamandalie", but when Sonata Arctica gets it right, as they do on "Misplaced", "My Selene", and especially the stirring single "Don't Say a Word" (which topped the Finnish charts last summer), they prove they're as good a melodic metal band as anyone. They still might be too cheesy to connect with most North American listeners, but if you like a little melody with your bombast, this is what you need to hear.
Ana Moura, Guarda-me a vida na mao (World Village)
The latest in an ever-growing market of fadistas vying to capture the ears of world music lovers -- and the throne long inhabited by the late Amalia Rodrigues -- Portuguese singer Ana Moura adds welcome warmth to the stirring and elegant fado genre with her subtle yet potent debut. While Lisbon-based fado singers Misia and Mariza have icy, glass-shattering soprano voices, 25-year-old Moura -- hailing from Portugal's heartland -- is a full-throated contralto. She shows off her vocal prowess -- equally passionate to her peers but without the frosty edge -- with sparse musical arrangements, courtesy of producer/arranger Jorge Fernando, Rodrigues' longtime guitarist. While Moura shows her gumption by tackling one Rodrigues number with ease, the gentle "Flor de lua", she's drawn to more modern-day themes that tie in with today's complex world. Highlights include the aching Fernando-penned "Meu triste, triste amor"; a homage to her art form, "Sou do fado, sou fadista", and a breathtaking, aching duet with Jose Silva, "Vou dar de beber a dor (I'll Offer Pain a Drink").
The Cops, Why Kids Go Wrong (Mt. Fuji) Rating: 6
Punchy beats, energized singer, crunchy guitars, hooky choruses: the sort of unpretentious, unambitious rock-as-usual too few bands have the discipline (or desire) to pull off anymore. As a quick hit of punky rock energy, Why Kids Go Wrong hits the spot. True, you might find the words a touch dull. Nearly every song settles for the kind of vaguely personal lyrics (all directed at "you") that have been rock's stock-in-trade since the shit began -- except, that is, for "Protection Act", which settles for the kind of vaguely political lyrics (aimed at, no joke, "the man") that have been punk's stock-in-trade since suburbia discovered the mohawk. But who cares about the lyrics; it's punky rock energy, man! "Don't Take It Personal Dave" is the best song here, and the Cops know it, so they've fussed over it a leetle too much -- I dig the phony British accents, dudes, but what's with sticking the drums entirely in the left speaker channel? There's a way to combat this, however: play it on the stereo. And play it loud.
Nomo, Nomo (Ypsilanti) Rating: 6
While Fred Thomas keeps '60s pop and soul alive with his band Saturday Looks Good to Me, his Detroit label helps sustain Afrobeat with new band Nomo. On its self-titled debut, this group (which includes Thomas and a few other members of SLGtM) doesn't do anything unusually creative, but it does blend nicely interlocked percussion lines with sharp horns. With 17 members, the band avoids pushing anyone to the fore, relying more on group dynamic than solo performance to carry the day. Few individual moments stand out, but the album as a whole works well (unless you have a ridiculous preternatural disposition for keeping your derriere in its chair). The band sounds passionate on all 10 tracks, but not in any political sense (as you might suspect from an Afrobeat act) -- instead, they're just into making hot music. Maybe for that reason, you should block out the forgettable lyrics, but that's okay -- you should just be shaking it anyway.
The Famous, Light, Sweet Crude (Leading Brand) Rating: 7
The San Fran bay area duo of Victor Barclay and Laurence Scott mix their own brand of roots rock if delivered by a jacked-up Les Claypool on the opening "Son of the Snake". It's an eclectic number that contrasts totally between chorus and verses. But this is the anomaly of the album. Supported by drummer Chris Fruharf and bassist Jack Dunham on several tracks, the band also sounds like they've been influenced by The Handsome Family or Tarbox Ramblers. "It's Done" is an old-fashioned but edgy country romp. A tad gentler is "Tear" which harkens images of Slobberbone or a twangy Marah. Just as solid is the groovy rockabilly "True Believer" while lyrics such as "I would do anything for a ZZ Top keychain" ingratiate themselves on "Midway". What you find here is very good rock tunes with no filler at all. The highlight might be the infectious "Lost" which shifts gears often but the honky-tonkin' "Overtime". But the sleeper pick is the softer, twang-fuelled "Deconstruction Worker" which cites philosophers.
Various Artists, Escape: St. Barth's (Solphonic) Rating: 6
Unless you're a DJ or a regular at the clubs, finding a quality progressive house compilation can be a real crapshoot. Here's a tip: the Solphonic label's escape: st. barth's is a winner. With its abstract, aquamarine packaging, it looks like one of the myriad "chill out" packages out there, but it's actually a solid, soulful sampling of progressive house, presented in a continuous mix by Urban Rhythm. As with many such comp's, most of the tracks are one to three years old. But well-worn favorites like DB Boulevard's lush, sexy "Point of View" and Tim Deluxe's irresistible stomper "It Just Won't Do" are worth revisiting. Interesting side note: on his website, Urban Rhythm waxes with a rare candidness about the mixing process. In particular, he wasn't very happy with the copy of Roger Sanchez's "Anther Chance" that he was given to work with: "It sounded like Sanchez recorded a bowl of Rice Krispies and mixed it in with the vocal." Thankfully, the finished product is a much more melodic, enjoyable affair.
Kerosene Kondors, Kerosene Kondors (self-released) Rating: 7
A ragged caravan of dreamers, cowboys, drifters, and a washtub bass player recently passed through the City of Broad Shoulders, and they dropped a few of these four-song samplers off on the way. The Kondors, from northern California, play a loose and raw blend of bluegrass, old-timey, and outlaw country. Head Kondor Will Stenberg writes, sings, and plays with a tough earnestness that belies his age. Songs like "Shim Sham Shimmy" are fun without irony or hokum. Banjo, washboard, lead guitar, and drums flesh out "The Hard Way" and "Drink That Whiskey Down", abetted by Angie Heimann's spot-on harmonies. These cats got hipsters to dance, and not just friends of the band. Be warned, be prepared, be well.
Oosterdok, Some Day We Will Part Forever (Brown House) Rating: 4
Oosterdok's product isn't nearly as interesting as their name, the vibrant cover art, or the title of the EP. Some Day We Will Part Forever sounds as if it were pulled from Thomas Hardy prose, but the lyrics fall miles short of such luck. Deep pulsing beats open "Bob's Last Day", but all novelty disappears when the vocals enter, as singer Becky Naylor cribs an Enya-like persona that wears thin sooner than old Spandex. This is adult contemporary electronic music, done like Michael Bolton. The London duo doesn't travel any new ground, and instead revisit bland '80s tones and sodden Casio-like beats. Leave that to the American indie kids, they do a better job of boring the living hell out of everyone.
Haymaker, Music from Ed's House (Honey Bucket) Rating: 5
Haymaker come direct to you from Long Beach, California. If it were only the '70s, these guys would be huge with their countrified rock. But here it is, 2005 already -- can the decade really be almost half over -- and the big country rawk is coming from the likes of pop leeches like Shania Twain. Yawn. So take a listen to Music from Ed's House and have a toe tapping good time. "Morphine Pump" has a bit of a Byrds twang to it, while "You Don't Know Me" bounces along on a sprightly honky-tonk groove. These guys probably deserve better than the handful of listeners they're going to get, but such is the way of the Machine. So if you enjoy good, down home roots rock with just a little polish, then Haymaker is the group for you. And if not, then just keep your Hollywood Nashville tastes to yourself, thank you very much.
.: posted by Editor 6:46 PM