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Grizzly Bear, Horn of Plenty (Kanine) Rating: 6
Music of the early 21st century will one day be remembered for, among other things, its cast of furry-themed band names, a veritable list of creatures great and small: Animal Collective, Wolf Eyes, Modest Mouse, Dogs Die in Hot Cars, Cat Power, the Unicorns, Super Furry Animals, and so on and so forth. It's a creature comforted epidemic of animagus envy. Like Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear looks beyond the realm of Homo sapiens for moniker inspiration, originates in Brooklyn, and is in the business of mutating common conceptions of folk music. Grizzly Bear -- a duo of Edward Droste and Christopher Bear -- subsists on a disparate diet, plastering Bear's pirate radio soundscapes over Droste's minimal folk mantras. The timidity of the guitar and vocals finds an unlikely ally in the impressionist effects and embellishments; the duo's ambient, hazy, lo-fi methodology never locks into a definable focus. The formula works well on Horn of Plenty's best tracks (the shoegazy "Deep Sea River", the haunting "Campfire"), but stretches a thin line when it indulges in near-grating cyclical repetition ("Showcase"). The biggest compliment one can give Horn of Plenty is that, for most of its duration, it's slow moving and captivating, a record of patience that rarely requires use of your own.
Necro, The Pre-Fix for Death
Necro is the brother of underground MC Ill Bill. Like Bill, Necro channels his psychological addiction to violence, fusing metal and rap with string of bloodstained nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Track seven is a walk along the razor's edge. Trumpets sound as Necro tries his best to keep you awake with tales from the dark side. At times, it's way over the top, especially when a voice shrieks the chorus "Push it to the Limit!" The production isn't as dark as the lyrics or album cover would suggest. Unless you're an impressionable teenager or an overly sensitive individual, this isn't scary at all. A ghetto survivor, Necro's forces his hatred to surface of his rhymes, unleashing colorful tales that could double as satanic verse. The name of this game is shock value, and there's plenty of it here. Rap fans will trash it; metal fans might adore it. Either way, Necro's finds success in marrying two volatile opposites.
Amon Amarth, Fate of Norns (Metal Blade) Rating: 6
These guys are old school... 11th century old school. Few do the whole Viking Metal gimmick as well as Stockholm, Sweden's Amon Amarth, skirting the razor-thin line between the powerful and the cheesy. Using more of a midtempo, melodic Iron Maiden influence, as opposed to the darker, tighter sounds of their Scandinavian peers, Amon Amarth, which takes its name from Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, not only sing about Vikings, but they consider Nordic mythology a philosophy by which to live, and man, do they sell it with conviction on their fifth album, Fate of Norns. Fleets of Norse ships take to the seas, they pray to Odin, Valkyries are sighted, they capture the hated King of Denmark, not to mention lots of talk about swords, axes, and bloodshed. As goofy as all that may seem, the songs themselves rescue the album from becoming a self-parody, as the dual guitar work of Olli Mikkonen and Johan Soderberg and the double-bass drumming of Frederik Andersson provide an immense, monolithic backdrop for vocalist Johan Hegg's wracked howls. At a tidy 40 minutes, the band knows how much is too much, and while Fate of Norns isn't going to take the sound into new territory, it pulls off the whole Viking shtick so convincingly, it's hard to dislike.
The Hollies, Reunion (Fuel 2000) Rating: 4
It is hard to fathom why this album, documenting the brief period when Graham Nash rejoined the Hollies in 1983, is being released now. Is there a huge demand for live reunion albums over two decades old? In any case, the first few tracks are almost a revelation. "I Can't Let You Go" begins the album to a breathtaking start, revealing that the harmonies of Nash, Clarke, and Hicks still had the power to enchant long after the band's youthful days. The problem is that the band gets hijacked by newcomer keyboardist Paul Bliss, whose very '80s keyboards sound more dated these days than the band's own 40-year-old hits. Some songs, such as the once gorgeous "Carrie-Anne", do not survive their new AOR arrangements. The new material is generally slight, with only the Asia-wannabe "Casualty" (written by Bliss) withstanding repeated listens. If the Hollies add some sort of beauty to the Crosby, Stills, & Nash numbers "Teach Your Children" and "Wasted on the Way", Nash adds nothing to the sappy hits that the Hollies made after his departure. "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress" sounds like it should be the ideal closer, but the band turns it into a tedious 10-minute jam full of bass solos and, of course, plenty of opportunity for Bliss to show off his keyboard skills. One listen to Reunion makes it clear that Nash had his reasons to rejoin his old band, but it also makes it obvious why he left the band immediately following the tour.
Moth Wranglers, Never Better (Magnetic)
The Moth Wranglers are an unusual musical collaboration led by Chris Xefos (King Missile) and LD Beghtol (Flare). The two artists are located on opposite coasts of the United States; despite (or perhaps because of) their geography, they have managed to create an album as cohesive as it is eclectic. The band's first album, Never Mind the Context featured an amalgam of instruments and musicians, at times sacrificing cohesiveness for experimentation. In contrast, Never Better is decidedly more album-centric. However, the songs are far from monotonous: headphones are recommended. The Moth Wranglers again enlist eclectic musicians and instruments to create a unique blend of musical styles, ranging from the quintessential indie-pop of "Never Said 'I'm Sorry'" to the sprawling psychedelic pianos and guitars of "Love and Jump Back". While there are a couple of times at which the album fails to reach its intended peaks, the Moth Wranglers refuse to shy away from musical experimentation, even in their quest for a fluid album. Throughout, tracks segue seamlessly into one another, providing a unique seven-song 33-minute escape from the world for the nights that it just doesn't seem sane enough to engage.
Eleni Mandell, Afternoon (Zedtone) Rating: 7
Eleni Mandell returns here to her more eclectic muse following 2003's stylistic departure, Country for True Lovers, but with a certain rootsiness that evokes a timeless era that is both retro and modern, like the town in Blue Velvet. The title track is a slice of sock hop rock Americana that creates a sense of nostalgia, even though it's not all that clear for what. Mandell follows that up with the balladry of "Can't You See I'm Soulful" and the soulful rock of "Say Goodbye." Other tracks aren't that different from Mandell's familiar territory ("Just a Dream," "Sun's Always Shining In Rome") but still manage to be infused with a new sense of intimacy resulting from the stripped-down sound achieved by Mandell and musician (electric guitar, pedal steel, organ, piano) and producer Joshua Grange. Mandell has remained influenced by country, as heard on "County Line." While her country album wasn't as intriguing to many as her more eclectic work, it's clear that her work on that project influenced her songwriting and makes her country leanings ring true rather than seeming like one more style to try on. Mandell's a truly talented songwriter and performer who continues to produce outstanding work whether it seems like anyone is listening or not. Do yourself a favor: check this CD out, and seek out some of her other work as well. You'll enjoy any afternoons you choose to spend in Mandell's company.
Something About Vampires and Sluts, We Break Our Own Hearts (VMS/Morphius) Rating: 7
Any band called Something About Vampires and Sluts starts out with a strike against it in my book. It's tempting for a band to respond to its anxiety about drowning in a sea of anonymity by deploying a quirky name, but this strategy is beyond clichéd. Points off to SAVAS, then, for such a labored moniker, but from the start of We Break Our Own Hearts, their first full-length after the I'm Not Afraid of Sex EP, it's clear that the band needn't have worried so much about being overlooked. Reviving the elements of '80s synth-pop, SAVAS channels Robert Smith's vocals while they're at it, but rather than the days-without-bathing self-pity the Cure specialized in, lead vocalist Michael Wood sounds positively bubbly. There's plenty of gloom in the lyrics, but Wood's singing manages to make it sound like a party anyway. Anyone who likes the '80s revival but hates the attendant kitsch factor should pick this album up posthaste for a taste of a band that takes their source material seriously while making that attitude look perfectly appropriate.
A.M Sixty, Big as the Sky (V2)
If I had to imagine Big as the Sky -- the debut album from A.M. Sixty -- as some sort of allegorical insight into high school archetypes, I could only characterize it as the "safe" kid. Sure, all the girls might confide in him, but -- as hard as he tries -- A.M Sixty isn't getting any ass on a drunken Saturday night. The pet project of Chris Root, of the bossa-nova/indie pop combo The Mosquitos, the album transplants that band's lightly-strummed, summery aesthetic into a much more conventional, poppy framework. "Like everything in spring, she's blooming," he sweetly sings in "Summertime Girlfriend," but the naïveté he so clearly wants to capture seems almost laughably cartoonish. It's harmless, I suppose, but Big as the Sky seems about as believable -- and possibly as unnecessary -- as former-Blues Clues star and human Muppet Steve Burn's Songs for Dust Mites. Innocent charm is hardly a commodity, and, just like Burns before him, Chris Root over-exploits this quality with an almost abhorrent shamelessness.
Old Garbo, Walking on All Flaws (Spitoon)
Old Garbo are merchants of melancholy rock. Andy and Russell Prothero are apparently offering up something that "is truly independent in every sense of the word." OK, great. So they made the album on their own time, etc. So are hundreds of other indie bands these days. Is Walking On All Flaws any good, though? That's the only thing that matters. I predict 200 copies will be sold, and then the whole excitement of being "truly independent" will wash away. All in all, this sounds like The Jesus and Mary Chain at their least inspired mixed with whatever radio-friendly '90s act that perpetrated some version of "rock" that you'd care to name. "Like Nothing" says it all in the title. Old Garbo truly is like nothing, therefore they are nothing. It's hard to get even the least bit excited over entertainment this canned and predictable. Modern rock that sounded like this went out in 1995. Someone needs to tell the Prothero brothers this, since they don't seem to have paid any attention. And really, who wants to get nostalgic for the '90s?
Various Artists, Everwood – Original Television Soundtrack (Nettwerk)
You can tell a lot about a television show by the artists who appear on its soundtrack. The O.C., for instance, features Spoon, the Doves, Turn Brakes, and the Dandy Warhols in a solid mixture of quirky alternative pop and atmospheric melancholy. Smallville, instead, goes for a mixture of punk-pop and psychedelia but with a solid dash of mainstream pop: Weezer and the Flaming Lips sit side by side with Lifehouse and Five For Fighting's inevitable "Superman." In both cases, the soundtracks sound and feel totally appropriate for their respective shows. I've never actually seen an episode of Everwood, it should be noted, but when a show's soundtrack consists almost entirely of mellow '70s covers done by some of the more mellow artists of this millennium, well, you have to figure that most every heartstring you have is going to be tugged before the end of each episode, and that the emotion is going to be telegraphed before the events actually occur, courtesy of the musical cues. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm totally off-base. But to know that the show's about the relationship between a father and his son, and then to find that the soundtrack includes Leigh Nash's cover of Cat Stevens' "Father and Son"...well, does anything more really need to be said? If so, then also consider that there are also covers of songs by America, Jackson Browne, Seals and Crofts, and Jim Croce, and I think you'll be in my camp before nightfall. With all this having been said, however, the soundtrack itself is fine, if placid, listening. When the artists performing these covers include Jars of Clay, Kristen Hersh, David Mead, Guster, Travis, and Stereophonics, it's hard to really screw them up. Jason Mraz provides the obvious adult-alternative hit with his rendition of "Summer Breeze," and, while it's maybe a little too moderned-up for its own good, Type O Negative couldn't ruin it and Mraz can't, either. The addition of "Cathedrals," by Jump Little Children, is nice, and the bonus track of Treat Williams performing "Love Song" (not a Cure cover, sadly) proves that he has it in him to be the next David Soul. Nice soundtrack...but I think I'll stay away from ever seeing an episode of Everwood, just in case my theory about it is on the money. I'd hate to have it ruin the music for me.
The Stereotypes, The Stereotypes: 2 (Earthling)
Eight tracks of more of that basic garage-inspired sound. How many more bands are going to go down this lane, I ask? I'm not going to be fooled. While songs like "New Situation" and "Stars" sound really good at first, I'm just waiting for them to get old fast and then go, "Yeah I knew that would happen" and then toss the disc. But it's kind of hard to do when these guys are calling forth the specter of The Flamin' Groovies and doing it with such panache. So to hell with it. I'll give in and see how long it lasts. Hell, ten more plays of this disc surely wouldn't hurt, would it? Probably not. Besides, the Groovies haven't put anything out in a while that sparkles this nicely, so kudos to The Stereotypes for genuinely rocking while regurgitating the old sounds. Every now and then one of these bands actually does sound fresh. Go figure.
Bobby Seals, Daddy's Home (Keane) Rating: 1
The best way to describe Bobby SEals' three-song CD single Daddy's Home is with the phrase "sentimentality run amok." The disc mixes country music with early rock and pre-rock styles, creating a nostalgiac stew that made my teeth hurt. It opens with the "Daddy's Home Medley," which runs through snippets of seven songs, including the classic "You Send Me," three-plus minutes that lack any energy and remove any real feeling from the songs. The Alabama Christmas song, "Christmas in Dixie," and The Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody" are no better. This is saccharin pap at its most sentimental.
Valley Girl, Valley Girl (Sick Dog)
OK, I'll be frank. I don't like it. All right, so I'm always frank, but this stuff sounds like really bad disco warbled by some crazy woman loaded up on 'ludes and scotch. Valley Girl can't really carry a tune and the loops are pretty rote. Only four songs are here, but if you can honestly get past the first song "Flow" without laughing and writing Valley Girl off as well, I'll give you a penny, because that's all it's worth. "Addicted" goes for a more contemporary sound, but man…that singing just isn't going to cut it. At best this stuff sounds like porno soundtrack muzak. Ah yes, Peter North and Christy Canyon and…oh wait, you usually just turn the sound down on that junk, anyway, right? Right. So I suggest you do the same with Valley Girl.