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Mint Condition, Livin' the Luxury Brown (Caged Bird) Rating: 7
Mint Condition was neo-soul before neo-soul was neo-soul. Before Maxwell rocked his blowout, before Erykah Badu dispensed her "weed deep" lyrics, before D'Angelo perfected the "naked cornrows" look, Mint Condition was one of the few acts who bucked the aggressive, synthesized trend of hip-hop in the early '90s. The band formed a bridge between the '80s funk of Prince and The Time (It's no coincidence that they were signed to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis's Perspective label.) and the upcoming neo-soul revolution, flexing a live-instrument blend of classy R&B ballads and mid-tempo funk.
After 1999's Life's Aquarium however, the band went on an extended hiatus from recording to experiment with side projects and to "live life". One thing they weren't doing though, was "livin' the luxury brown". The title is a metaphor for their experiences growing up blissfully oblivious to their poverty. The song is a dark slice of funk, but the message is one of nostalgia and celebration and is an indication of how deeply personal this album is.
Releasing the album on the group's own Caged Bird label (the Maya Angelou residual check is in the mail) perhaps allowed the group the freedom to explore the pop rock sound in which they dabbled on previous releases, resulting in effectively brooding cuts like "Runaway" and "Doormat" (which could both easily supply atmosphere for some angst-ridden teen drama), plus the Lenny Kravitz-esque "One Wish". But fans of the group's trademark sultry R&B ballads should find plenty of solace in "I'm Ready", "Love Your Tears", "Fallin Apart", and "Half an Hour", an engaging tale of infidelity that provides the sage advice that "It only takes a half an hour to do something that you can't undo." Half an hour? Showoff. The rest of Luxury Brown is mostly mid-tempo and funky, what would today be called neo-soul; but in Mint Condition's case should be O.G. soul.
Foxymorons, Hesitation Eyes (Heatstroke) Rating: 6
Say hypothetically there was a sequel to the Wizard of Oz, and it took place in Texas. This would be the story of the band formed by the Lion and the Tin Man (after they had kicked out the Scarecrow and Dorothy for their "unprofessional behavior"). Now imagine while the Tin Man and the Lion were in the studio, writing songs about coming to grips with their new-found heart and courage respectively, they were listening to Pavement, Wilco, and Big Star on constant repeat on their iPods. Think about it. Got it? That is the sound of latest release from the Foxymorons, Hesitation Eyes. If you don't like the Wizard of Oz, 1) you should seek professional help, and 2) I will provide you with this more lucid description. The Texas duo's latest release is a collection of pop songs that alternate between lo-fi, half-spoken indie rock, and sweeping guitar pop tunes. At times the songwriting is bold and confident; at others it is cynical and self-doubting. In both instances, the songs are brimming with effortless melody. [Amazon]
The Tah-Dahs, Le Fun (Undeniable) Rating: 7
The Tah-Dahs are quirky, but in a very good way. Led by Roy Ivy and his merry men and woman, the band conjures up images of a fully fleshed out Elephant 6 group starting off with "Alcoholic". "If you were a loan shark I would never repay you/ I would want you to break my legs," Ivy sings on the catchy opener. Think of a U.S. version of Scottish band Dogs Die In Hot Cars and you should get the idea here -- intricate pop tunes with some fine surprises sprinkled on top. "Mix Tape = Love" is harder sounding but Ivy gives the lyrics a monotone delivery. It's an infectious party tune though that builds and builds. Fans of Violent Femmes would also identify with the up-tempo "Temporary". Ivy knows what makes a great tune, whether it's The Futureheads-lite of "Chix", the powerful "John and Yoko and Ted And Alice" or the catchy "Why'd It Take You So Long For You to Fall in Love With Me?" which has the style of a radio-friendly They Might Be Giants ditty. The band also delivers "Huge Eyes & Ha-Ha's" with highbrow pop charm. The only tune missing the mark is "New York" which has a "We Three Kings" melody to it. But "The Clap" more than atones. Like one of the song titles, this album will make you go "Whoo-Hoo-Hoo"! [Amazon]
A Static Lullaby, Faso Latido (Sony/Columbia) Rating: 4
California screamo outfit A Static Lullaby specialize in perfectly harmless, emotionally wrought hard music, a sound whose popularity was cemented by the recent A Taste of Chaos tour, which the band participated in. Like every other screamo band, A Static Lullaby are all about mimicking At the Drive-In's late '90s style, and like practically every screamo band on the planet, lack any of the originality, not to mention musical chops, that made At the Drive-In so great. Faso Latido is inoffensive enough, as vocalist Joe Brown, bassist Phil Pirronne, and guitarist Dan Arnold trade lead vocal duties, meshing hardcore screams and melodic singing like every other band out there, which is all well and good, but the album would work much better if these boys were talented enough to compose memorable hooks, instead of the cookie-cutter melodrama they deliver. "Stand Up" holds up rather well, but the album runs far too long for a sound this redundant. They want to come off as passionate, which is admirable, but without memorable songs, how can we ever care about whatever it is they're whining about? Anyone in search of a young band who knows how to write good, aggressive screamo music should seek out Canadian aces Alexisonfire instead of these pretenders. [Amazon]
Nomo, Nomo (Ypsilanti) Rating: 6
While Fred Thomas keeps '60s pop and soul alive in 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. 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. On all 10 tracks, the band sounds passionate, 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.