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The Happy Bullets, The Vice and Virtue Ministry (Undeniable) Rating: 7
The Happy Bullets, to my surprise, are from Texas. This is surprising considering how completely British they sound. The Vice and Virtue Ministry, deviating nicely from a countless stream of bland, neo-psychedelic indie rock albums, seems less like an attempt to revive the spirit of Revolver and more like an attempt to update The Kinks' The Village Green Preservation Society. In other words, there's no sitar but there's lots of trumpets, and the singers sing with impossible to ignore English accents about ministries and pound notes. They don't avoid all of the clichés, they do feature the obligatory female-led sugary pop tune that every psychedelic revival album must have, "If You Were Mine" (which is still pretty ace), but the rest of The Vice and Virtue Ministry explores a wider range of sounds than its countless peers. "Mr. Gray" is a bouncing British music hall number. "Drinkin' on the Job", in contrast, is sort of a strange Kinks/Gary Numan combination, a quirky character studies accompanied by an equally quirky synthesizer melody. The Happy Bullets are all about variety, but their Anglophile bent helps keep the album together thematically. In fact on tracks like "Weights and Measures", "A Proper Rifle Assembly", and the delightfully arch title track, the Happy Bullets make a case for themselves as being the best fake British group from Texas since the Sir Douglas Quintet.
Unwritten Law, Here's to the Mourning (Lava) Rating: 3
After releasing two albums for Interscope - 1998's self-titled effort and 2002's Elva -- San Diego-based pop-punk quintet Unwritten Law now finds itself on the smaller boutique label Lava (home to Simple Plan, O.A.R., et. al.). On paper, it's a good matchup for the band, who despite a catchy breakthrough '02 single, "Seein' Red", has always leaned more AAA than major leagues, and especially these days, with pop punkers not named Green Day getting lapped by the phalanx of New New Wavers like the Killers and the Bravery. Sensing this change in the musical landscape, UL downshifts to by-the-numbers pop punk on their fifth album, Here's to the Mourning. The band says it's their most sonically cohesive album, but that just might be code-word for "same sounding". Producer Sean Beavan (Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson) casts a dark shadow over the album, and only a few memorable riffs escape -- the bass on the funky "I Like the Way" or the opening riff of "Rejections Cold". That said, the best tracks on Mourning are the ones that hew the furthest from Beavan's gameplan -- the shiny Linda Perry-produced "Save Me" is a blatant stab at radio airplay, but it doesn't pretend to be anything more than that. And closer "Walrus" invokes the Beatles' "Day In the Life" and matches a cello and violin to lyrics like "Everything is gay / Everyone is fake"; if nothing else, it proves that the band does have a sense of humor. Still, it's too little, too late. Last I checked, pop punk was supposed to be fun, not slick and overproduced. [Amazon]
The Lovethugs, Babylon Fading (Rainbow Quartz) Rating: 4
On Babylon Fading the Lovethugs head to directly to the psychedelia of the '60s. The sound has less of a retro feel and more of a time-machine quality. With keys set to "trippy" and sitar popping up every so often, you'll be transported to another time. These guys are the marijuana to Mando Diao's alcohol in the Scandinavian throwback party machine. As long as you're looking for background music to a bead-infested party, the Lovethugs will take care of you. While the melodies are functional and the sound soothes, but there's little to separate this album from any other in its genre. [Amazon]
Steve Bedunah, Hand Me Down Land (Dog Trot) Rating: 7
Soaked in southern singer-songwriter skills that Townes, Guy Clark and others have done before him, Steve Bedunah draws songs such as "I Need to Go Home" out with a drawl that complements the great but simple roots-ish arrangements. The tempo picks up and goes from good to great a la Kevin Welch or Kieran Kane. This groove continues on the lovely "Love Thy Neighbor" with its infectious blues-meets-Americana vibe. Timeless and put together to near perfection, the weary, barroom sound emitted from Bedunah's pipes are soothing and rough at the same time. The percussion-driven title track is laidback and shows Bedunah's fine songwriting talents as does the somber "There He Goes (Say a Prayer)". "The Johnstons" is a toe-tapping kind of ditty that is nice but not outstanding. At other times Bedunah comes off as a cross between Mark Knopfler and David Gilmour on the favorable "Melissa's Garden". Another gem is the rocking-ish "Rocking Chair Lullaby" which chugs along perfectly. [Amazon]
Ceramic, Ceramic EP (Mother West/Paper Cup Music) Rating: 6
The five-song debut EP from Ceramic is a touching albeit brief trek through lush pop melodies and atmospheric production. Dreamy keyboards and subtle effects are layered in a way that brings singer/songwriter John Scheaffer's naked voice and sparse acoustic guitars to life. On the opening track, "Wake up the Rain", Scheaffer's sweet pop melodies are brought to life by gorgeous backing vocals from Kendall Meade (Sparklehorse) while "Down to the Bone" finds Sheaffer in more traditional folk territory. Both songs are anchored by Sheaffer's vocals and intimate guitar, and both songs resonate with emotion. At times, Sheaffer's lyrics can be overly sentimental, but that's the price paid for trying so desperately hard to inspire. The only other drawback to the album is that, with only four fully-formed songs to choose from (one track is a brief instrumental interlude), the Ceramic EP is too short.