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The Anomoanon, Joji, (Temporary Residence, Ltd.)
Like their fellow Kentuckians in My Morning Jacket, the guys of the Anomoanon like their jams countrified and Southern-fried. On their seventh album, the band, led by Ned Oldham (brother of Will [Palace Brothers, et al] Oldham), strings together tunes that manage to be dusty, swampy and gothic all at once. Whether it's the eight-and-a-half minute loping opener, "Down and Brown", where a reverb-soaked Oldham sonically kicks at the dust on the ground, the Neil Young/Crazy Horse-esque "Green Sea", or the ten-minute-long waltz of "Wedding Song", the band explores country-rock at a leisurely, but confident pace. But unlike My Morning Jacket, the Anomoanon have the good sense to only put eight songs on their album; any more tracks and folks would get lost in the band's dense forest of songs. Too, credit Oldham and co. for jamming without devolving into aimless wankery; they pull apart songs like "Leap Alone" and "After Than Before" and stitch them back together before the listener gets disoriented (or disinterested). Jam bands could learn a thing or two from the Anomoanon; sign these guys up for Bonnaroo.
Channels Open (DeSoto) Rating: 6
J. Robbins has never been one to rest on his laurels. He first got his hands dirty with music in Government Issue, before forming Jawbox in the mid-'90s. Jawbox would become an indie rock success story, and the group eventually made a jump to the big time, signing with Atlantic (though that earned them equal criticism). After Jawbox parted and went their separate ways, Robbins formed Burning Airlines, who fizzled after just two albums. In between all these bands Robbins found the time to start a label and earned a name as an engineer, recording albums for the likes of the Promise Ring and Hey Mercedes. Fast forward to 2004, Channels, formed with ex-members of Kerosene 454 and Shonben, marks Robbins' return to the stage, and Open is their debut EP. Though the six songs on the release are accomplished, one can't shake the feeling of being stuck in a time warp. There are no surprises on Open and that's precisely the problem. Robbins and company deliver another disc of mid-'90s D.C.-sounding punk but lacking any new spin or vitality. The songwriting is sharp and the performances are dead on, so I can't say this is particularly a bad record, but those looking for something new from this D.C. legend would be best advised to stick with their Jawbox records for now.
Character, We Also Create False Promises (Fictitious) Rating: 7
Rock's biggest crutch is its vocalists; so big, in fact, that when they're stricken from the equation, things feel incomplete or unresolved. We long to hear the voice's timbre, for at the very least, it humors our expectations. This is no one's fault, least of all rock itself, which was built on the vocal and its identity, borne of it really, intended from the start to express emotion through angsty verbiage. So the challenge for an instrumental rock band becomes twofold: to survive in a voice-ist industry/environment and to do it by convincing the listener to forget that a singer is conspicuously absent. Like its brother-in-spirit Tortoise, Character is one such instrumental band, composed entirely of musicians from the hidden rock recesses of Nashville. The band's sophomore release, We Also Create False Promises (co-produced by Roger Moutenot and released on his Fictitious label), sounds like hands squeezing juice from fruit: jazz-flecked instrumental rock, dueling Philip Glasses piped through tube amps, post-whatever, rinds stuck in fingernails, knuckles kneeding fleshy pulp into palms. With a meaty mix of arpeggioed guitars, deep pocketed grooves within grooves, and even some seemless theremin, Character easily proves that some bands just don't need a voice to rock.
Imperanon, Stained (Nuclear Blast)
Imperanon certainly mean well. After all, the Finnish quintet's debut album Stained has a lot going for it, such as the melodic guitar harmonies that swirl exquisitely over a perpetually churning mass of staccato riffs and double-bass drumming, as keyboards add a classy accent to the proceedings, but as crisp and technically impressive as the musicianship is, it turns out to be little more than an all-too obvious homage to Finnish metal stalwarts Children of Bodom. On the surface, it's not that bad, but the compositions themselves are painfully devoid of any originality, as guitarists Aleksi Sihvonen and Lauri Koskenniemi play cliched solo licks, and keyboardist Aleksi Virta goes on and on with the flashy scales and arpeggios (so much, that he sounds like a guy practising in the background). Sihvonen does possess a good voice, displaying excellent range on "Hollow Man", and "Shadowsouls" is bolstered by a fine female vocalist, but sadly, the weak songwriting renders both songs instantly forgettable. Imperanon is a young band, so hopefully their songwriting will improve the next time out. Otherwise, despite all the flash, they're just wasting our time.
Greater California, Somber Wurlitzer (Earthling/Wishing Tree) Rating: 6
Here's a record that'll sooth your senses as it piques your curiosity and draws you into its silky sonic folds. Greater California's second full-length release, Somber Wurlitzer, is a sit-and-listen kind of album. Nothing screams "single," but then, nothing and nobody really screams at all. Reportedly recorded in dimly lit rooms between midnight and 5 a.m., the album simply and tastefully renders the Long Beach, California quintet's exploration of its newly acquired Wurlitzer electric piano. These guys and gal may have been inspired by Brian Wilson, Nick Drake, and other '60s luminaries, but the dominant influence seems to be early REM, however more subdued the sound of Greater California. And, while the instrumentation and melodies do at times hearken to the '60s, the band makes a massive break with greater pop tradition in eschewing love as a song subject--a characteristic that makes its moody and strangely affable music all the more interesting. The 10 songs that compose this 36-minute collection are nothing if not wholesome, presenting the band's fundamentally guitar-bass-drums-Wurlitzer arrangements with a minimum of fuss and processing. The band isn't afraid of silence, and the musicians have a pleasingly elastic relationship with time signatures. So turn the lights down, pour yourself a glass of a decent California cab, put the disc player on "repeat," and indulge in some refreshingly off-kilter pop.
Stellarscope, Wasted Time (Dreamland)
The best music hits your system like heroin. So Stellarscope is methadone, a heroin substitute for addicts trying to wean themselves off psychedelia. Their dope is 100% pure My Bloody Valentine, but cut in a way that dulls the dream-inducing soundscapes that made the former so appealing. Attempts to recreate the Radiohead sound on "Out of Time" and "Moon Mode" are unsuccessful, in part due to the lyrics, which are barely audible and the absence of something new. Whoever mixed up this batch of tunes deserves the blame as the sounds simply merge into one ambient heap. The diluted delusions bob and weave their way throughout each song's psychedelic tapestry, but they're not vivid, so you never get hooked. Wasted Time does have some addictive qualities. On "Tesseract Blues", Stellarscope surrounds the listener with spaced out paranoia, moaning melodies, and artificial loneliness. It's enough to make you float, just not very high.
Cattle Decapitation, Humanure (Metal Blade) Rating: 5
Cattle Decapitation have to be the least subtle band in history, spewing their uber-vegan, eco-terrorist opinions in such a brutally direct way, it would make Ted Nugent cringe. On 2004's Humanure, the San Diego grindcore stalwarts have outdone themselves, as Humanure is one of the most fascinatingly disgusting albums to come around in a while. It all starts with the now infamous cover image, that of a cow defecating a heaping pile of human remains, and the bluntness does not end there, as vocalist Travis Ryan launches into an endless diatribe, decrying humanity's rape of the earth and misuse of animals, not to mention displaying a very disturbing obsession with fecal matter, as evidenced by such tracks as "Cloacula: Anthropophagic Copromantik", "Polyps", and "Lips and Assholes". When he growls, "Everyday you ingest some sort of disease," you have to wonder if he's got a little hypochondria problem, as well. As for the music, the rest of the band, most notably guitarist Josh Elmore, steals the show, delivering plenty of high quality grind tinged with some great, melodic death metal riffs, adhering to the sound created by the great Napalm Death, but it's Ryan's voice, a dull imitation of Cannibal Corpse/Six Feet Under vocalist Chris Barnes, that threatens to bring the album crashing down. Fortunately, the songs are good enough that the band is able to get by, despite Ryan's unoriginal growling, as the truly horrifying "Men Before Swine" proves, which comes close to matching Pig Destroyer's blend of grind and shock rock. Though the band still needs to perfect their sound (seriously, those vocals have to go), one listen to Humanure is enough to put you off hot dogs for a while.
AM, Francophiles & Skinny Ties (AM Mayhem)
On Francophiles & Skinny Ties, the Brooklyn-based AM turns out punk-infused pop about life in New York City as a band trapped by its own design in a world of dark bars and late-night streets. Songs like "Monster Heart", "Life for Sale", and "Sex Drugs" are heavily reminiscent of the Clash, performed with hints of '70s guitar bravado, while a song like "Quiet in Dayglo" pays homage to AM's pop roots. The varying styles are held together by Scott Cleveland's tight, infectious bass lines and Jarrod Ruby's acrobatic drumming. The rhythm section enables James Jones' guitars and voice to scrape the album with considerable abandon. Jones' voice occasionally becomes unintelligible and collides with the caustic guitar crunch, causing the songs to derail such that the rhythm section can't even keep them together. The moments on which this occurs are sparse and don't detract from the best songs on the album. However, these moments do keep the album on shaky ground. Francophiles & Skinny Ties is a fast-paced, debauched ride through New York City with enough drunken swagger to keep AM balanced between rock-excess and absolute disaster. The Libertines would be proud.
Mike Plume, Rock & Roll Recordings Volume 1 (Clann)
Mike Plume would be a Midwestern roots rocker if he was living in the U.S. But fortunately for those in Canada, he's living north of the 49th and crafting lovely little roots rock nuggets on this new album. Beginning with the melodic, toe-tapping and mandolin laced "Birmingham, 3am", Plume and his band seem to evoke images of Steve Earle circa Exit O. It's a great start and Plume continues this momentum with the rowdier rocker "One Of Those Days" that never falters. The same can be said for the mid-tempo "Somewhere Under The Rainbow" which falls somewhere between Mellencamp and the Cash Brothers. "Ride" is another solid tune that you can't help but enjoy if you enjoy any type of roots rock. The consistency of the album is its biggest selling point as Plume does little to reinvent himself on the fine "Shreveport To L.A.", "Fall Down Day" and the lighter ballad "Dancing On The Wind" that resembles Springsteen's "I'm On Fire". The homey and comfy nature to "If I Had My Way" is also quite pleasing. I'll shut up now, but you can't go wrong with this one.
The Irises, Not Good in Bed (ANKA)
This may very well be my favorite album of 2004. I haven't been able to stop playing the damn thing since I got it a month ago. So why relegate it to a capsule review? Because I can say what needs to be said succinctly here without needless elaboration. The Irises are the best thing to come around in a long time in indie pop land. They sound sort of like a Darling Buds for 2004, but 1000 times better than that, as the Buds never had one solidly amazing album as Not Good In Bed. Lead vocalist Roxanne Heichert is everything you'd want in a female lead vocalist; funny, sexy, sensual, and singer of many amazing melodies. You won't find two better pop songs this year than "Perfect Boyfriend" and "I'm That Fool". The ten tunes here are compact and perfect, with nary a stinker in the bunch. I guarantee you'll love it. Give it a listen, and then listen a few hundred more times as I already have. Beautful.
Love of Everything, Handjob Community (Redder)
Bobby Burg is Love of Everything, plus a few other friends included. I don't know what to really make of his sound. It's another one of those lo-fi cutesy things where the vocals aren't that good, and the playing is quite a bit off but still somehow manages to form into a song when all is said and done. So it's really not that good, but interesting for a listen or two. Burg's voice really is pretty lousy throughout, so it's definitely going to be the make or break it point for a lot of listeners. His grating falsetto on "Beginning With Parties" will surely make you snap the CD off, so don't start with that track. Actually, I don't think there is a good track to start with here, so just put the damn thing on, let it hit you like a truck and see if you're still interested after 30 seconds.
Tyler Hilton The Tracks Of... (Maverick)
Blessed with James Dean's youthful looks, and Elvis Presley's style pompadour hair, its no surprise that Tyler Hilton, in addition to playing music, dabbles in acting, and will be playing the King himself in the upcoming Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line. But music is this 20-year-old's first love. After being discovered on a Palm Springs radio show, he was quickly signed by Madonna's Maverick label and history was made. His debut album, featuring no less four producers, is completely homogenous, bland MOR rock. Falling somewhere between Tom Petty and John Cougar Mellancamp, the songs Hilton penned himself are safely surrounded by thoroughly uninteresting production, that mask an otherwise distinctive, gravelly voice that is certainly beyond his years. It's shame then that Hilton and his producers alike don't bother taking any chances. Hilton is certainly a talent, and the fact that he writes his own songs is promising, but rock 'n' roll is about youth, rebellion and danger, and if he doesn't bring it now he won't get his chance later. On The Tracks Of... Hilton is the kind of scruffy kid you want to bring home to meet your parents, but not yet the reckless wonder that will make him a star.