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The Paybacks, Harder and Harder (Get Hip) Rating: 7
Due in no small part to the ubiquitous White Stripes, Detroit has once again emerged as a hot spot in the naughty aughties, and area bands like the Paybacks have attained an almost undeserved special attention. Certainly, in the darkness since the Motor City's hard-rockin' heyday, dozens of like-minded bands have attempted to emerge from an unforgiving bar scene, churning out the overly-familiar juggernaut combination of blues riffs and power-pop that, prior to the phony garage rock "movement" a few years ago, would have secured an otherwise hard-working group's place in total obscurity. But despite a newly commercial climate that allows decent but unspectacular bands like the Von Bondies to score minor hit singles, the Paybacks -- led by a force of nature known as Wendy Case -- would have undoubtedly shone through the city's polluted haze anyway. As principal songwriter, Case knows how to balance hooks with power; songs like "Bright Side" and "Today and Everyday" may rock hard, but they compel the listener to scream along. The Paybacks' major distinction, however, is Case's voice, a natural, throaty roar that begs the question of why women in rock must always sound like they're trying so hard to sound as pretty as they are tough. Harder and Harder never panders to MOR balladry or oversaturated sexual cooing; by sticking to their timeless, classic rock assault (and, in the process, easily demoting the fiercest Hole record down to a mere notch above the soppy Sheryl Crow), the Paybacks' approach remains one of the most genuine and unaffected that tough rock has to offer. As if to prove themselves to be the real rock-loving deal, Harder and Harder ends with a cover of T. Rex's "Celebrate Summer," which in this context sounds like Case's well-deserved catharsis. [Amazon]
Richard T. Williams
Water School, Break Up With Water School (Morphius)
There's a lot to like on the debut full-length from Baltimore's Water School. The group's sunny-but-melancholy country-rock sound comes fully-formed, with each song featuring distinct melodies, pleasant harmonies and crisp production. The Beachwood Sparks would be a good reference point, but whereas the Sparks were more willing to indulge their Fifth Dimension-era Byrds influences with some swirling psychedelia, Water School sticks with Sweetheart of the Rodeo as the main influence. Singers Chris Myers and Mike Gittings split vocal duties and balance each other well. Myers has a warmer, more traditional voice, while Gittings' is a little rougher around the edges, almost recalling Paul Westerberg at times. When the two trade off parts, such as in "All God's Children", it's especially effective, adding a welcome element to the standard dual guitar/bass/drums setup. There's hardly anything groundbreaking about this record, and the members of the band would probably be the first to tell you that. But it's refreshing to find a band so early in its career that is so comfortable with its sound and has such honed songwriting chops. [Amazon]
Rennie Pilgrem, Pilgremage (TCR) Rating: 5
Pilgrem has long been one of the stalwart institutions of the modern breaks scene, and the endearing quality of his prolific remixes and 12" releases have insured his music a place of honor in the crates of conscientious breaks DJs the word over. But, unfortunately, he doesn't quite have a grip on the art of the solo artist album. Pilgremage is patchy, bold and energetic in places but uneven throughout. Whereas Pilgrem's peers Uberzone and the Plump DJs have both produced fun, accessible and compelling long-players, Pilgrem seems somewhat adrift. Of special note, however, is his collaboration with the aforementioned Uberzone, "Fuego 2", which picks up where the first "Fuego" (a track off Uberzone's 2004 entry in the Y4K series) left off. It's not quite as good as Pilgrem and Q's previous team-up, the scorching "Black Widow", but its still a load of fun. [Amazon]
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.
Piers Whyte, Piers Whyte (Ache) Rating: 5
Piers Whyte has this traditional musical side to him, but he buries it in the drone, wash, click, blip, and squonch of his electronic majority. He knows when to release that standard musicality on his self-titled album, though, letting it out for striking moments like the end of "Winter '03", when the buzzy mechanics smoothly coalesces into a moving chord. But Whyte's not here to move you emotionally or physically; instead, he offers up a challenge to the mind and ears. He rejects dissonance in favor of unusual assemblages of the normal avant sounds. Whether click or static, Whyte's concoctions are more listenable and accessible than those of many of his peers. At the same time, he breaks little ground. It's a craftsman's album, and whiles it's interesting, it's not fully developed. It does offer a partially open door to a style that's too often obscurantist in nature, welcoming you in with just enough clarity to make a point of the clutter.
Gym Class Heroes, The Paper Cut EP (Fueled By Ramen)
This is what happens when hip-hop meets indie rock; the instruments take control, eliminate all samples and loops, but retain the emcee as lyrical provider. For the crowd that gets down with Jurassic 5 or Blackalicious as much as they dig on YellowCard and Death Cab for Cutie, this EP's for you. Built on funky jazz-backed instrumentals and fatback bass lines, Gym Class Heroes capture some of what the group Sublime was upto before the death of its lead singer, especially on the mellow mood of "boomerang theory". Schelprock commands the mic without violent-filled taunts, instead taking his high school memories and wrapping them around the songs hallucinogenic funk. "Makeout Club" is a tad too juvenile and formulaic, what with Schelprock getting caught up in the age-old hip-hop adage of writing a song about his past lovers. In the end, the music is nothing spectacular, nothing horrendous, just something you rarely hear of these days. [Amazon]
Xrayok, Reflex (self-released) Rating: 5
So you're a three-piece band out of Phoenix, Arizona, and you've got a place to play, you're solid instrumentalists, you've even got a sound in mind. Now all you need is some songs. Easy, right? On Reflex, Xrayok establishes its sound as that of a rock band with synthesizers and a late '90s bent -- something along the lines of Grandaddy, except lower-fi. It's a sound that works for the band, a sound that Xrayok's members are obviously comfortable with. They've even got a song that would be a tremendous hit in a perfect world with the quirky, soaring "Novacaine". Unfortunately, the rest of the songs on Reflex just don't measure up to "Novacaine," and by the end of the album, all the tracks start blurring together. Xrayok is making noise on the college charts, and "Novacaine" is as good a reason as any to be doing just that. Maybe it'll only take one more try to make a whole album's worth of songs that good. [Amazon]
Lock & Key, Pull Up the Floorboards (Deep Elm) Rating: 5
On the surface, Lock & Key are your typical Deep Elm band. Their songs feature personal if not overwrought lyrics, and musically the band mines the usual cathartic pop punk of their labelmates. However, what makes them stand out a little bit more from the rest of the Deep Elm roster is singer/guitarist Ryan Shanahan. Unlike the whiny, desperate voices of his contemporaries, Shanahan growls with a determination and sincerity that offers hope instead of despair. Pull Up the Floorboards, Lock & Key's debut long player, is a fine first effort. Though it won't win over anyone who is already disinclined to this sort of thing, Lock & Key show flashes of a band who just may very well mature into a group worth seeking out. For now, the group is still working their way around standard emo songwriting and its perfunctory delivery, and as such Pull Up the Floorboards won't find much praise outside of emo circles. But Shanahan's voice and delivery, which sounds very reminiscent of Shawn Brown's from Swiz, promises (and deserves) something far more mature and rewarding from this quartet in the future. [Amazon]
Draw Tippy, Draw Tippy (self-released) Rating: 3
Another day, another one-man-band geek rocker issuing music from his bedroom. Draw Tippy is no one but Dave Pachence, and no one needs to really hear this disc. That is, unless you're a fan of phony ironic twee pop drowned in retro-sounding synths. Pachence does the usual turns here: amped energy, layered vocal harmonies at the choruses, and guitars a-plenty with vacuous hooks to sucker a couple people in for at least one listen. It's as bad as any emo dreck and twice as sugary. The "catch", I'm sure, is supposed to be the lame cover of "Rainbow Connection" at the end. Now there's a song that was just screaming to be remade. However, Pachence sums it all up best in one of his own song titles, "15 Minutes of Lame". Too bad this disc is 48 minutes of just that in total. [Amazon]
The Invisible Cities, Watertown (Self-Released)
Marco Polo: When you arrive, oh Great Khan, in the city of San Francisco, you will at once be struck by the grandeur of its hills and the winding streets its citizens have laid down to traverse them. These hills are alive with the sound of music. As your rickshaw stops you hear a group, curiously dubbed The Invisible Cities, perform songs from their album Watertown. "Synaptic Gap" recalls both the Spinanes and Ida, whom you may remember from other travels. Other songs, like "Instaglo" and "Bumper Cars" are like spun sugar you ate when you were a child, dreaming of cities with red, bay-spanning bridges. At the end of the evening your stomach aches from the airy sweetness, and you wish to depart. But all travelers to the city of San Francisco inevitably wish to return to see how its hills, its bridges, and its bands, have grown.
The Pierces, Light of the Moon (Universal)
Record label merger woes doomed the self-titled 2000 debut of this talented sister act -- and for a while, it seemed they'd sunk without a trace, too. But four years on, Alabama-bred sisters Allison and Catherine Pierce are back with this surprisingly confident-sounding collection of catchy guitar and synth-based pop songs. The former professional ballerina sisters wrote or co-wrote all 11 tracks, which are filled with breezy, radio-friendly melodies that meld pop, folk and even touches of country. Despite the stickily slick production by Brian Sperber, [I]Light Of The Moon[I] soars with the sisters' Indigo-girlish sounding harmonies. Even the songs with lyrically dark cores sound disarmingly "light"; thanks to the duo's honey-dipped vocals. Standouts include the ethereal opener, "Space," the gender-bending breakup number, "Louisa," and the aching, unrequited love tearjerker, "I Should Have Known." [Amazon]