PopMatters home | short takes home | archivesPopMatters Music Short Takes
DJ Jester the Filipino Fist & Quad Rod, Table For One (Fever Pitch Music)
My introduction to DJ Jester was the turntable outrageousness of River Walk Riots. That record was fun, funny, chock full of beats, and unusual samples that made the record as much fun to dance to as to listen to. With River Walk Riots DJ Jester The Filipino Fist made an impressive addition to the burgeoning world of turntablism. Championed by Aquarius Records and Kid Koala, DJ Jester rapidly made a name for himself as a master on the wheels of steel, as likely to drop in a sample from "The Greatest American Hero" as Public Enemy. With Table For One Jester has paired with fellow San Antonian Quad Rod to make a record dedicated to the heart breaking work of strained personal relationships. Mixing slow brooding beats with sinister guitar lines and what sounds like hours of voicemail messages left by friends, lovers, enemies and co-workers, Table For One is definitely not another River Walk Riots. The emphasis this time around is on an emotional framework that elucidates the challenges of relationships. It's a fun though barely distracting listen, don't come expecting ass moving beats; DJ Jester is aiming squarely for your head on this one.
Dave Hawkins, Manchester Mornings (Mountainside) Rating: 7
What a gem this is. Singer/songwriter Hawkins isn't British; he's based in Tennessee. And, though he spends a lot of time touring the UK and Ireland, Manchester Mornings actually reflects more of a warm, lived-in Nashville sound, complete with lap steel, banjo, fiddle, and dobro. And that's classic, singer/songwriter Nashville, not modern, "country"-glazed Nashville. Whether leaning toward honky-tonk, rockabilly or straight folk, these ten songs are simple and sincere, thoughtfully played and immaculately produced. Hawkins sings about places he's been, things he's done, and people he's loved, and his lyrics feature a much-appreciated lack of pretension. The one bummer is "If I Could", a trite lament for John Kennedy. Otherwise, Manchester Mornings is full of the kind of music that reminds you that it's pretty good to be alive after all.
Page France, Come, I'm a Lion! (Fall) Rating: 7
This is a charming and fortuitous debut out of Baltimore. Vague echoes of a lo-fi Polyphonic Spree ("Air Pollution") and Lou Barlow in smitten mode ("Ribs", "Northern Light") reverberate throughout the eleven concise songs. Abetted by a cast of seeming cutie-pies, Michael Nau ventures into the mature regions of emo-pop, and expands that once meager acreage into a rolling countryside well-worth repeated visits. God and love frequent just about every number here, so if you're feeling cynical Page France may only piss you off worse. But if you're feeling open to the wide-eyed earnestness of lines like "God loves as a stranger / God loves as creator I know!" amidst clever, tuneful, and puffy acoustic clouds, then more power to you! [Amazon]
The Society of Rockets, Sunset Homes (Underpop) Rating: 6
In case you haven't noticed, we critics tend to use some pretty lazy shorthand in our reviews. The shorthand in describing the dreamy, psychedelic americana of the Society of Rockets would go something like, "if Galaxie 500 somehow evolved into an alt-country band". This would be a fair enough description, as the Society of Rockets employ a series of dreamcore effects, holdovers from their psychedelic days with the Shimmer Kids Underpop Association, to highlight with their country inspired compositions. This is reductive in the extreme as the band does not specialize in one particular style. Sure, "Little Road" is a pure country ballad, but to label them as even psych-country would be to ignore the Pavement invoking "(Untitled)" (featuring the fabulous line: "I didn't know whether to laugh or cry / So I got drunk"). "Too Many Thorns in Your Bed of Roses" theoretically rides along on a rolling honky-tonk rhythm, but, in terms of an actual music experience, the song is a snide, trashy rocker in the vein of the White Stripes. The album even ends on a slice of faux-Tin Pan Alley with the brassy "Let's Make a Scene". Even if Sunset Homes's lengthy lapses into slower tempos have a tendency to bog down the album, it is fascinating to hear the Society of Rockets synthesize a number of varied genres and styles into a single sound. So forget genres, the Society of Rockets play what the Violent Femmes once, long ago, called American Music.
Aztec Two-Step, Days of Horses (Red Engine) Rating: 6
Don't be fooled by the packaging... ever, really, but especially in the case of this folk music sleeper, by two veterans of the singer/songwriter genre. Rex Fowler and Neal Shulman have been playing music together since before your t-shirt was in fashion the first time. Looking at the cover and attendant notes I steeled myself for some kind of A Mighty Wind moment. But for the most part, this sounds more like the Jayhawks and other country-inflected whippersnappers, or maybe Neil Young's Silver and Gold. Days of Horses is full of gentle but sturdy songs like "Tonight I Wish I Was in Texas", and "Dad Came Home", each built around the duo's harmonies and tasteful playing. Solid. [Amazon]
Hyperbubble, Solid Pop (Uncle Buzz) Rating: 6
"Mommy was a toaster / Daddy was a blender," says the lead vocalist of Hyperbubble known only as Jess, and one can't help but be tempted to believe her. If the sound of their debut Solid Pop is any indication, Jess and her compatriot Jeff are fans of Gary Numan and The Buggles, simultaneously knocked into a coma as the result of a fan frenzy at a Flock of Seagulls show in 1983. Upon their awakening, they decided that modern music sucks and made an album. Solid Pop delivers just what its name suggests: solid, bubbly, straight up spunky synth-pop with pitch perfect female vocals, sans vibrato. It's a fantastic, fun listen when they stick to that formula, particularly on tracks like "Mom Dad Unit", "Psychic Connection" and the title track. Where Solid Pop doesn't do so well is in numerous instances of electronic wankery -- tripe like the repetitive, bereft of melody "Moonbuggy" and the utterly pointless "Robofreq" are really just two-minute waits for the next track. Of course, when something appears that's as charming as "Leon", an ode to Jess's cat (apparently derived from an answering machine message if the bonus track is any indication), the wankery is easy to forgive. Solid Pop is more fun than most anyone who hears it will want to admit.
Arbouretum, Long Live the Well-Doer (Box Tree) Rating: 5
The debut album from Anomoanon member and Bonnie "Prince" Billy sideman Dave Heumann is a somewhat schizophrenic journey into indie-folk jams and otherworldly explorations. Arbouretum splits between instrumental passages and straight-ahead tunes that aren't too far away from the music of his full time gigs, and offers an album that satisfies only half of the time. Cascading, with a distinct eastern music tinge, the instrumentals flow and reverberate with a mystical beauty. They seem to grow and billow out with an organic quality that is utterly compelling. Unfortunately, the conventional tunes disappoint in comparison. They are strikingly simple and beside their instrumental brothers they are strikingly dull. It's a shame that Heumann doesn't attempt the same exploration he offers in his instrumentals to his more composed "songs". Heumann certainly has the skills to make an impact on the alt-country/folk/whatever scene, but we will have to wait, perhaps until his sophomore effort. [Amazon]
Ian McGlynn, Tomorrow's Taken (Bailey Park) Rating: 8
Ian McGlynn relies on synthesizers. In spite of this though, McGlynn is able to create a warm, human thread on most of these 11 tracks, creating a jazzy, winding kind of pop that would fit somewhere between David Gray and Joe Jackson in the record collection. The dreamy, sound effects-tinged "Morning Prayer" is a great intro into McGlynn's world. But this pales compared to the lush and sugar-coated "You Might Understand" and "The Exception" with its moody tone that could be mistaken for a Savage Garden b-side. McGlynn is schooled in old-school pop, particularly on the head bobbing "No Time" that McCartney and Lennon perfected decades ago. There's an innocence rarely seen in today's music that is quite refreshing. A good example is "Southard Park" with its playground noise in the distance. Elliott Smith comparisons might be discerned throughout the fabulous "How Did I Get Here?" The lone clunker is the aimless "Be My Guide". Fortunately "Turn Away" leaves you wanting more. [Amazon]
Gratitude, You're Invited (Atlantic) Rating: 4
Gratitude sounds tailor-made for the blandness of modern day FM radio. That said, they should be a big hit, especially amongst those who don't really care what they listen to, or have a discernible taste in rock music. You're Invited is perfect for your friends who throw CDs into their player for background noise that may occasionally cause them to sing along in rush hour traffic. The music definitely sounds big with all its tremendous guitars mixed to the front and shouted, pleading vocals that are apparently there to signify something Important, but at the end of the day Gratitude's just another band who are probably going to be up for a Grammy and win like those other hacks Maroon 5 precisely because the masses truly don't give a damn what they listen to. All hail the major label Product. These guys are good enough to be the next Train if nothing else.
Culture Queer, Supersize It Under Pontius Pilate (Tokyo Rose)
Maybe it's me. Maybe I'd like Culture Queer's Supersize It Under Pontius Pilate better if I knew what the band's self-description as "fruitpie pop for God" actually meant. As it is, the album is ten songs that are neither sugary-sweet pop nor Jesus-centric. Sometimes Culture Queer - drummer/singer Dana Hamblen, guitarist/singer Scott Fredette and guitarist/keyboardist/singer Sam Womelsdorf - betrays its weird name/album title and plays straightahead rock: to wit, the keyboard workout "Baby" or the Stone Temple Pilots(!)-esque heavy riff of "Shout Therapy". But too often, the band veers into crazy experiments that don't pay off. Opener "Huckleberry" drowns in too many blips 'n' bloops; the trio of "Yanked Out of Kindergarten", "Perfect Scenario" and "Extinction List" are ethereal and dreamy… which is OK, but is at odds with the spazz-outs throughout the rest of the album. As fast food documentarian Morgan Spurlock proved last year, sometimes Supersize-ing isn't the best way to go.
Mark Dignam, Box Heart Man (Times Beach) Rating: 9
Coming from Ireland, Mark Dignam worked with members of The Frames as well as Paddy Casey before branching out on his own. This new album is a folksy but quite country-rooted album that opens with the lovely "Divine" that crosses deep in Americana. Although speaking the lines it seems at times, the music and passion comes across immediately. Dignam drives the point home again with the quirky but quite melodic "Build" and later during the stellar "Kindred". His voice has a timbre similar to the Go-Betweens but the light, airy vibe is what drives these songs. "Pinwheel" is not as strong and resembles a patio pop packaged number. An obvious cornerstone is the soft, reflective and tender ballad "Ghosts" that harkens back to early Coldplay. "Fable" changes gears with a barroom rocker Dignam manages to eke through. This is primarily a lovely folksy pop album though, especially when he sings The Proclaimers-like "Jane" and talks about that crazy bastard. Another sleeper pick is "Deceiver" which is classic alt. country. A great album! And all with one-word titles to boot. [Amazon]
Foma, Icecaves (Little Kiss) Rating: 7
Every time I listen to Foma's new release, Icecaves, it takes me back about 15 years. Not because it is stale or rehashed in anyway. In fact, it is just the opposite. Foma is as fresh and unique as anything to be released in the last year. It takes me back because I remember a time when bands like Foma and other truly unique voices in music were allowed a forum on the airwaves -- before the execs at clear channel and record labels figured out how to dig their hands into college radio. Foma is a radiant garage band with an album of 10 songs clocking in at just over 30 minutes. But even in their brevity the songs are dynamic and unique in their arrangement. Foma employs duel male and female vocals and keyboards, cellos, violins to create a playful, almost naïve sound. (Song titles like, "Message to the Interplanetary Hitman" and "Nice Dress, Asshole" keep the album coming across too naïve). At its best, on "Rooftops" and "Mormon Defense Squad," Foma's lo-fi guitars and female vocals that evoke Kristin Hersh and/or Tanya Donelly paint songs that are pure pop bliss