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Run Chico Run, Shashbo (Boompa!)
It's very, very rare to come across a band with the ability to craft eclectic, eccentric art rock that's not repellent to listeners. Hailing from the sedate little West Coast city of Victoria, British Columbia, the duo Run Chico Run make music as strange and unclassifiable as their fellow Victorians Frog Eyes, but unlike that band, the Chico's music, for all its weirdness, contains some surprisingly warm and inviting tunes. Trust stalwart Vancouver indie powerpop label Boompa! to pick up on that; on Run Chico Run's newest release Shashbo, underneath all the dissonant sounds and peculiar arrangements (think Danny Elfman writing songs for Clinic) is a very accessible, oddly comfy pop sensibility to the proceedings. The multi-instrumentalist duo of Matt Skillings and Thomas Shields plunder every genre imaginable, from the psychotic blues/jazz of Captain Beefheart, to the krautrock genius of Can, to modern rock (think Radiohead, pre-2003), to even a bit of cabaret, but instead of sounding like a hodgepodge of disparate sounds, just for the sake of being quirky, the pair combine it all into an fascinating pastiche of 20th century music. Tracks like the cool, catchy "Jacques and Madeleine" (the most instantly catchy song on the record), the deliriously schizophrenic suite "Star Booty", the simple beauty of "Ol' Blue Pants", and the simultaneously slinky and creepy (not to mention perfectly titled) "Loose Body Shuffle", are the ones that leap out at the listener the most, but that said, Shashbo is best experienced as a whole, a wild 51 minute ride that's as enigmatic as it is fun. It's one of the better Canadian indie rock records of 2004.
Akufen/Freeform/The Rip Off Artist, blu tribunL (Inflatabl Labl)
This is the second in Inflatabl Labl's "let's get artists to attempt a genre they have nothing to do with" compilations. Labl owner The Rip Off Artist returns, aided and abetted by Canadian random-radio-sample-slice'n'dicer house don Akufen and electo oddball Freeform, and they each mutilate a third of the thirteen tracks here. Traditional blues tracks are ripped into minute fragments, then thrown into micro house collages of surpassing strangeness. Inevitably, some of the results end up right back in mundane territory, and only Freeform creates compositions that feel genuinely bluesy. That said, amongst material that is fascinatingly weird (but lacking in much else by way of attraction) there are some lengthier tracks where a comforting groove sets in, only to be subverted in a beguilingly unpredictable manner. One for the glitchheads rather than genuine blues lovers, however hip: after all, seeing your favourite dog reincarnated as a stole and some sausages remains horrify!ing, no matter the tailoring and seasoning.
Motel Creeps, Pleasantries in the Parlor (Noreastermedia)
The most noticeable thing about Motel Creeps' Pleasantries in the Parlor upon the initial listen is the immense production. The debut, 4 song EP sounds like the band took more than a couple of production cues from '90s rockers like Catherine Wheel and the Stone Roses. In today's post-punk and garage rock climate, the production alone has considerable effect making the band stand out among many of its New York City peers. However, Motel Creeps don't rely on production alone to captivate the listener. Throughout the EP, Eric Butler's melodic guitars couple with the very capable rhythm section to provide a lush sonic backdrop to Greg Welch's vivid lyrics. The opening track, "Moon Boots," is immediately engrossing. Deep, layered guitars flood the speakers, setting the stage for the cadenced, celestial lyrics. On "City Girl," the driving rhythm provides the backbone of the song's '80s-pop melody and arching chorus. Pleasantries in the Parlor combines the most accessible aspects of two decades of music by couching '80s pop melodies with '90s Brit-rock guitar and production. At times the EP simply alternates between the two styles, but is at its best (during "Moon Boots," and the chorus of "City Girl) when they are fully in stride.
Kasey Anderson, Dead Roses (Resonant Noise)
Kasey Anderson is one of those young artists critics call "promising" when reviewing his work, typically critic-speak for "it's not very good, but we'll give him the benefit of the doubt anyway". That's not to say that Anderson's second album, Dead Roses, isn't worth spinning, but at 24, he knows how to write a competent country-rock song, just not one that distinguishes himself from a Steve Earle or Ryan Adams. Dead Roses is a straight-ahead, somewhat clichéd album, in the vein of Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, but not nearly as penetrating. Anderson peppers his narratives with "sirs" and common-folk characters who have fallen on hard times, the kind Springsteen has based a career on: "I broke every promise I ever made and lost any hope I'd found / Now I just walk along the streets of this old town". There aren't a lot of surprises here, but thanks to standout tracks such as "Weary Heart" and the hypnotic closer "Emaline", a lack of excess (the album clocks out at 39 minutes), and yes, an abundance of promise, Anderson is just compelling enough to warrant your time.
Avion, Avion (Columbia)
Avion's self-titled Columbia release (a major-label makeover of the band's Image Entertainment debut from earlier this year) is corporate power-pop du jour: 13 catchy, finely crafted songs with polished, radio-ready production and not even the faintest whiff of sincerity. It's not that bandleader Steve Bertrand (formerly of the Tories) doesn't throw himself into his music. He's a talented singer with a sweet and slightly husky tenor voice bearing a strong resemblance, in its upper registers, to that of Jellyfish's Andy Sturmer. The hooks are solid, the lyrics earnest. But it's all just too "L.A.", too pat, too by-the-book. Sort of how Matchbox 20 sounds to these ears--it's clear the musicians are playing well, but their music consistently fails to connect with me on any meaningful level. Avion's "Starting Over" and "Where Are You Now" come mighty close, though. Typical lyric? Beyond the penetrating "I just wanna be loved (by you and no one else)", how about "They say don't sweat the small stuff / I guess I must have missed that class" (from the valediction-ready "The Best is Yet to Come"). Less distinctive but more poppy than Everclear or 3 Doors Down, Avion is nevertheless bound to appeal to fans of those bands, where churning, heavy guitars are the order of the day but soloing is verboten.
Matthew Carlson and the Pantones, Memory Is All (Phonophore)
Matthew Carlson and the Pantones possess many of the elements of a good band. The music is nearly flawless, pretty without being boring. The press kit lists influences of the Byrds and Mojave 3, and both sound right, but Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is also in the works, as the band brings quirky keyboard swirls and 'atmosphere' into the mix. Carlson's voice is lulling, with a slight edge that keeps you listening. The production is excellent, instruments and voices fading in and out in such a natural manner that it feels like breathing. The problem lies in the lyrics, primarily, but also in the dull construction of some of the songs. Carlson's songs can sound so specific as to negate the casual listener from becoming interested. He's singing directly to the people in his life. Over the course of a record, that quickly becomes sentimental and tedious. There's hope here in the pieces, but something is missing from the whole.
The Fiction, I Told Her That I Like Living in a Box (Level Plane)
Hailing from New York City, the Fiction's second album, the ponderously titled I Told Her That I Like Living In a Box, is a familiar tread through screamo territory. With eleven songs barely totaling a half hour running time, the Fiction serve up a frenzied platter of screams and thrashing guitars. And with all three members sharing vocal duties, there isn't room for much more. It's somewhat curious then, that with the sinewy guitar lines, impassioned screaming and precision drumming, the Fiction aren't quite the auditory overload they seem to be on paper. The album suffers from a somewhat dry, oddly spacious sound that doesn't quite deliver the visceral experience one expects. And that's a shame, as the Fiction show a capable aptitude for some serious riffage. Though their chops won't bring them to the forefront of the genre, a capably produced record could help them capitalize on the potential shown here.
Tucker B's, 29 Serious Girlfriends (Grimsey)
Tucker B's are caught somewhere between Wilco and The Flaming Lips, making Americana music with a pinch of lush, orchestral touches and harmonies. This is exemplified on the strolling "Suss Servicios". Led by Matt Rudas, songs like "The More You Smoke" come from "Alt. rock for Dummies", with sweet harmonies and a rudimentary arrangement before evolving into something Yo La Tengo perfected decades ago. It doesn't make it any less enjoyable however. This five-song EP goes back into a mid-tempo melodic path with the pretty "Brown Bag". The slow dance "Los Alamos" is also worthy of a listen or three, bringing to mind The National in certain respects. A military drumbeat near the homestretch keeps it all together as well as Struthers mentions facial hair. The song titles might seem like they're an EPA sponsored band ("Our Polluted Run Off") but Tucker B's merit a B on this effort.
A.C. Cotton, Notes for the Conversation (Ahab Was Right Music)
It's really cold outside so you duck into this bar. It's not much more than a brown wooden door, but you can hear music creeping out from under. Inside the place smells like stale beer and everything that was wrong with college. There's smoke in the air even though it's illegal to smoke. The ceiling is too low but there's room at the bar because everyone in the place is packed towards the stage; practically in the laps of the band. I don't know for sure but this is how I imagine an A.C. Cotton show looks. This is certainly how their music feels: gritty, heartfelt, and honest. Notes From The Conversation is the second record from A.C. Cotton following up the bombast of Half Way Down with a set of songs that Paul Westerberg would have been proud to have written. A.C. Cotton plays rock and roll music with a hint of the south lurking behind the chords, and in lead singer Alan Charing's less than perfect, haggard and true vocals. For the most part Notes for the Conversation doesn't let up. It's one rocker after the next, but the whole affair is so well written, played with such passion, that it never feels forced. When the band does slow down a little the results ("Over And Done", "Right At Home") are spectacular. Folks seem to have a tendency to compare A.C. Cotton to classic rockers like Neil Young and Crazy Horse and The Band, but I'm more inclined to point you towards Kevin Salem, Dumptruck, The Replacements and Pylon. A first class record that will amply reward repeated listening.
Blow Up Hollywood, Fake (Mj12music)
"Blow up Hollywood's name is a reactive statement to the crassness of the entertainment industry. They prefer anonymity and therefore do not credit the members' names in Fake's liner notes nor do they release photos of the band." So goes the one sheet for this album. Big deal. Bands that do the "we're too cool for the industry" pose are too damn pretentious for me straight out of the gate. In Blow Up Hollywood's case, the pretension is extremely pointless. The guys churn out slow and mopey meditations on the usual slow and mopey junk. They're sort of a washed-out version of Portishead, but not even half as mildly interesting as that band was. This is music to slip into a boredom coma to, so if you're into that kind of thing, pull out the pillows and blanket and snooze yourself a good one. Blah.
Naked Blue, Five by Five (Bluetick)
Folk-pop duo Naked Blue cut eleven tracks for their latest album; shouldn't it really be called Eleven by Two? (Actually Five by Five refers to a radio rating for signal strength and clarity, on a one to five scale. It's also the band's fifth album, if you're keeping score.) Semantic snarkiness aside, Naked Blue -- husband-and-wife team Scott and Jen Smith (along with a little help from their friends) -- have turned in a charming, grown-up adult contemporary album with Five by Five. Singer Jen out-Crows Sheryl on clever tracks like "Miami", where her narrator leaves a trouble relationship for sunnier climes, her boyfriend stuck holding the snow shovel, and out-Colvins Shawn on the smoky, sexy, bluesy "Break Me". It's not just Mrs. Smith having all the fun, either. Scott's guitar lends a friendly twang to album opener "Pink Hat", and his choogling dobro propels the sweet (but not saccharine) love song "Extraordinarily". A simple, intimate album about being in and out of love, Five by Five is adult contemporary for people who think "adult contemporary" is a bad word.
Ron Flynt, L.A. Story (Zip)
Ron Flynt came around the same time Tom Petty did, but whereas Petty sold a couple of records, Flynt never really made much of a dent. His sophomore album is a concept album in some respects about heading to California and "living in a dream world" as "Waiting" has him in classic folk pop-cum-rock mode. This is despite the quirky quasi-galloping melody. It's generally pleasing power pop on gems like "Hollywood Life" and the cozy, charming small-town "The Sun's Gonna Shine". Flynt is quite adept at creating shiny, cheery pop nuggets like "Mary's World" that sounds like it was on the shortlist for the Welcome Back, Kotter theme. The highlight is perhaps the sparse and heartfelt "One Thousand Different Pieces" that is like a Petty clone to an almost scary degree. Just as precious though is the fantastic "Misery at the End". Flynt might never reach Petty's heights, but his style is one that fans of Mr. Free Falling will definitely appreciate.
Chris Church, Let the Echo Decide (Jealousy)
I come with the humble conviction that there should not be a crossover between the genres of pop-punk and singer-songwriter. A marriage of these two genres seem unholy, a sacrilegious union. How do you reconcile the oft-soullessness of pop-punk with the introspective expressions of a singer-songwriter? It seems like some unsolvable alchemic conundrum. Sadly, Chris Church is no alchemist, and the songs of Let the Echo Decide -- though pleasant and spirited enough -- falls into the pop-punk genre trappings of triviality and lack of memorable tunes. I have to give credit where credit is due though, it is admittedly workmanship-solid, with catchy guitar riffs where catch guitar riffs should be, and inoffensive lyrics where inoffensive lyrics should be. Chris Church does live up to his surname. Like the institution's music of choice, his album is typical CCM, only thing just secular without Jesus to redeem it from the sin of mediocrity.
Boyskout, School of Etiquette (Alive)
Now here's a groovy band that everyone should be tuning into. Boyskout sound like early Cure (Boys Don't Cry and Seventeen Seconds specifically mixed with a dash of The Sundays. This is the kind of lean and mean post-punk/whatever-you-call-it rock that everyone tries to make these days, only to fail by miles. Luckily, Boyskout have what it takes to rock and then some. The band is comprised of four ladies rocking together, with Leslie Satterfield on vocals and guitar up front. Sometimes, as on tracks like "Secrets" she sounds like she's twisting Robert Smith and Harriet Wheeler through a tight keyhole. On others, like "Sunday Morning", she sounds darker, almost like a different person, cranking out strange skeletal rock from some grimy rooftop. Whatever the case, School of Etiquette is a real charmer and shouldn't be missed by anyone out there with a true sense of taste.
Neal Casal, Leaving Traces: Songs 1994-2004 (Fargo)
Neal Casal had to go to Europe to end up being recognized in the States for his roots oriented sound. Over the last ten years, he's been hailed by a who's who of musicians ranging from James Iha to Lucinda Williams. This collection of songs is a fine testament to his strong writing and music, beginning with the lazy and weary "Free to Go". The catchy and bouncy "Real Country Dark" is perfect roots folk that rambles on and on with no hurry to finish. Fans of Son Volt, Wilco or Blue Rodeo's softer moments would lap this disc up quickly, especially on the tender "St. Cloud". The guy who comes most to mind is Tom Petty, especially on the slow jangle engulfing "Eddy & Diamonds" and also "Reason". "Oceanview" is far too sweet however, resembling a sixties summer pop ditty while "Just Getting By" is eerily something from Ron Sexsmith's tattered songbook. There's a reason he's been around for 10 years and that is he's quite talented, particularly on the morose "Free Light of Day". Some lovely duets also add some color on "Lucky Stars". Overall it's a fine primer of a finer musician.