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Gold Coast Refuse, Yours From Ascentia (Mile Long) Rating: 7
Good, old-fashioned roots rock is a style that's been done to death, but every once in a while, you hear a young band tackle the sound with such enthusiasm, that it can be a reminder of just how fun simple, earthy rock 'n' roll can be. On their debut album Yours From Ascentia, Chicago natives Gold Coast Refuse straddle genres, with one foot planted firmly in the rough-hewn Americana of Uncle Tupelo and the Drive-By Truckers, and the other ensconced in the wide-eyed pop rock of Big Star and The Replacements, and the balance the quartet manages between the two sounds is enticing, not to mention impressive for a first release. Boasting a lead vocal duo that sounds more Guided By Voices than Drive-By Truckers, Brian McDonnell's coarse Robert Pollard style vocals offsetting Jeff Falk's Tobin Sprout-like tenor, the pair complement each other nicely on the album. McDonnell fronts the harder-edged "Sun on the Floor" and "Big Buildings", with Falk handles the more upbeat, hooky songs like "Pink Champagne" and the lustrous "Shine", which is as good a Big Star imitation as what Chicago's Frisbie pulled off on their underrated The Subversive Sounds of Love. Rugged enough to please the barroom rawk crowd, possessing a subtle twang that the Americana fans like, and brimming with enough pop sense to appeal to indie pop listeners, this little album's a pleasant surprise. Here's hoping we hear more from these guys in the future. [Amazon]
They Walk in Line, Medical Necessities (Rock Ridge Music) Rating: 4
They Walk In Line does nothing wrong. Throughout Medical Necessities, the band hits all the indie rock marks with aplomb. The band employs slow-fast tempo changes, Sonic Youth-like guitar interplay, and screaming post-hardcore choruses in a way that makes them the epitome of the Indie Rock Band. Which is precisely why Medical Necessities just fails to ignite. They Walk in Line just does not take any risks, which makes this a very consistent album while also making it a thoroughly forgettable one. This lack of individual identity would not be so devastating if the band could fallback on its songwriting, but the album is bereft of interesting material. Aided by Michael Romero's soaring vocals, the band uses its abundant energy to help lift the high speed drone rock of "Slightly Fallen" from mediocrity. The rest of the album, however, basically functions as a distillation of the Matador Records roster circa 1996 (minus the Pizzicato Five). It is always sort of a shame to hear a band that has all the tools to be potentially great fail to distinguish itself. As it stands, it's impossible to hate They Walk in Line, but, sadly, it is pretty much impossible to love the band either. [Amazon]
The Cheeks, Just a Good Boy / California Falling Into the Ocean (Eggman) Rating: 3
The satire is thick and heavy on the A-Side of this single promoting the Cheeks' upcoming Raw Countryside album. "God bless my noble clan / And our hopeful destiny / We always raise a glass / To the death of a Kennedy." Now I like a thinly-veiled poke at the president as much as anyone, but even in a vaguely humorous song I'd like to cut just a bit deeper than this. To make matters worse, the Cheeks couch their global-political angst in mildly derivative power-pop, courtesy of the umpteen bands they boldly attest to. At least they're honest. The b-side is just a wee bit better, spiraling down into strange vocal samples and sound effects. The cultural critique is no more sophisticated, "So the NRA / Is doing it the Charlton way", but at least more musical risks are taken. Still not enough to whet the appetite for the impending full-length however.
The 101, Green Street (Limekiln) Rating: 5
The New York City trio's, Green Street sounds like they are suffering from a slight identity crisis. At their best the 101 are early R.E.M. or the Stone Roses; at their worst they are Jimmy Eat World. The first five tracks on the album are jangly, power-pop songs that seem to alternate between REM and Jimmy Eat World. The opener charges forward with bright vocals and driven guitar of "The Middle", while the next track, "Wolves", could easily have been culled from R.E.M.'s early recording sessions at Mitch Easter's Drive-in studio. At the midpoint of track six, "Verve", the album takes a decidedly different turn. The 101 eschew three-minute pop ditties for slightly more expansive four-minute psychedelic pop numbers. Almost without warning the 101 transform themselves into the Stone Roses. The last four tracks on the album serve up all the charming hooks of the first half without the brevity and choppiness. The sudden division essentially turns Green Street into two distinct albums, both charming in their own right. The 101 sound like the band you would want playing at your local bar on a semi-regular basis. They rock enough not to be innocuous, but aren't so demanding they require your full attention.
Grimble Grumble, Leaves Leader (Pehr) Rating: 6
What constitutes space in space rock? I don't doubt its existence; if there's even a remote trace of the universe's infinite sprawl in a band's music, or at least one minute of sustained feedback, "space rock" will follow them like a comet's tail 'til there's life on Titan. Chicago's Grimble Grumble seems to have attracted that description at every turn, so I recline on my couch and look heavenward whilst listening to Leaves Leader and think back to my planetarium days. What I hear sounds more to me like My Bloody Valentine and those hordes of British bands that were supposedly gazing at their shoes all the bloody time. Up or down, gang, where am I supposed to look? Perhaps Grimble Grumble's music begs so many comparisons and questions because the songs themselves are built to sweep away the frivolities of conscious concerns, and instead plumb your dreams and imagination. The opening, untitled half-minute of crickets/rain sticks is the palate cleanser before the chiming "Rail Road" washes in like an iridescent tide. Bassist Christine Garcia's breathy vocals are half sunk in the mix, the words indecipherable, ambling through the haze. Most of these songs tip the five- or six-minute mark, but always pull back before overstaying their welcome. The solid rhythm section completed by drummer Mike Bulington cements direction and purpose for the twin guitars of Saleem Dhamee and Josh Hudson on tracks like "Wish Song" and "Third Song", direction that is usually lacking in a genre known for noodling.
Little Brazil, You and Me (Mt Fuji) Rating: 3
What would Weezer sound like if they went instrumental? What if they mixed their sound with a little shoegaze? What if they went all-out emo? What the fuck is emo? I'm tired of it! Well, here we have Little Brazil doing a little of all that and then some. Little wimpy vocals, a dash of indie-pop cuteness, and a whole bunch of nothing to get excited about. Someday everyone will look back at all these band doing this kind of thing and... well, they'll still be scratching their heads over it just like they're doing now. Little Brazil did not need to make this album. Mt Fuji did not need to release it. However, I'm sure someone out there, maybe one or two folks, will really dig this and think it's really good. As for me, I know better, and I'm sure you do, too. Fun for all as long as you don't care about sincere emotion. [Amazon]
From First to Last, My Teen Angst Has a Bodycount (Epitaph) Rating: 4
Hailing from Gainesville, Florida, From First to Last offer up a potent but confusing blend of dark hardcore riffs and sunny pop-punk grooves on their debut LP. The album doesn't so much fail as confound the listener, by frequently switching styles, often within the same song. The combination of aggression and melody is hardly unprecedented, but From First To Last sabotage their own songs, unable to find melodic grooves as interesting as their metallic riffing. Lead track "The One Armed Boxer Vs. The Flying Guillotine" begins with some razor sharp riffs and vocal yelps, but sadly spends the remainder reveling in cheap, sunny pop-punk territory. "I Liked You Better Before You Were Naked On The Internet" suffers the same fate, with a wickedly produced percussion section running the length of the song betrayed by whiny vocals and a seeming disinterest in exploring new possibilities. The album almost comes completely off the rails during the acoustic ballad "Emily", one of the worst flat-out emo songs I've heard in a long time. The band even attempts a stab at the sophisticated instrumental with the pretentiously titled "Minuet", but sadly this only highlights the pedestrian-bordering-on-amateur talent of the guitarist performing the track. My Teen Angst Has a Bodycount is the sign of a band throwing all their ideas against the wall and seeing what sticks. Hopefully, their next album will find the group exploring the darker edges of their songs and dropping the elements that are clearly holding them back. [Amazon]
Architects, Keys to the Building (Anodyne) Rating: 4
The problem with the Architects' debut Keys to the Building isn't that it doesn't rocks (it does), but that it does nothing to distinquish itself. For each of the album's 10 tracks, the Phillips brothers (along with guitarist Mike Alexander) plow forward with their AC/DC, Black Crowes sort of rock 'n' roll. There's nothing at all wrong with it, and the group would probably sound very exciting in a basement party, but there's also nothing that would make me reach for it instead of so many like-sounding discs. The band does show great intensity, which always makes me hopeful. If they can just manage to funnel that into some more distinct tunes, they'll have a chance.
Kelly Snyder, Oxygen (Mother West/Papercup Music) Rating: 7
Kelly Snyder has a soulful, urbane voice that moves from jazz to adult contemporary pop and back. And she molds these melancholic-meets-lullaby songs around that framework. The delicate but powerful "Fireworks" recalls early Natalie Merchant or the Feathermerchants. The gentle, soothing touches throughout the record is the key, particularly on the piano-driven tracks such as "Rescue Me". "I Didn't Know" is too moody and with a trip-hop kind of feel, losing its luster rather quickly. A brief interlude leads into the title track that resembles Sarah McLachlan and Tori Amos. She moves into a better field with the somewhat funky groove on "Innocent", sort of like a song Wild Strawberries might still record. One highlight is the initial a cappella approach on "Are You Missing Me?" It's a lovely track she pulls off beautifully without the diva-esque octave-changing vocal theatrics. She goes to the well once too often with the sullen and somber "So Bad" despite the jazzy swing it possesses. More straightforward is "Waiting" with its strings and cello thanks to Julia Kent. [Amazon]
Heaven Is a Hotel, Heaven Is a Hotel (Quartz Incorporated) Rating: 4
Blending the fast/slow dynamics of the indie song with the experimental curiosity of prog-rock, Heaven Is a Highway likes to take the confines of the pop song and twist, stretch, and distort them. On this four-song EP, drummer Shawn Pierce not only holds down the beat, but explores it, syncopating one second, and then building one menacing crescendo the next. Now-departed keyboardist Scott Boothe adds odd flourishes that sound, for the most part, like the inside of a calculator -- if math equations could make noises. Meanwhile, frontman James Swenson can sound, at turns, like a nerdy '80s new-wave aficionado or the devil himself. If all of this sounds too interesting to be interesting, you're right. This is one of those CDs you'd buy because you feel like you should like it, though you'd never really listen to it. Come on, feeling like you have superb musical taste shouldn't require so much effort. Buy Built to Spill instead.
Hoover's G-String, Elephant Parts (Red Tide)
Roots-pop trio Hoover's G-String may not be a household name, but after nearly a decade of releasing dependable albums, it seems the band likes operating away from the spotlight - hell, it says as much in the press sheet accompanying their third LP, Elephant Parts. The trio -- guitarist/singer Jeff Reinholz, bassist Jim Reinholz and drummer Bill Gatter -- have created a warm, friendly album that feels lived-in, from the chugging opening title cut, to the twangy middle of the album ("Sinking", "Drink to That") to the comfortable jam of closer "Got Balls". Elephant Parts is the sound of a band that simply digs playing together -- they're in it for the love of the game, so to speak. (Lone misstep: a sped-up cover of Springsteen's "I'm On Fire" that veers too close to Hayseed Dixie-type parody to work effectively.) Megastars, no, but with Elephant Parts, here's hoping that Hoover's G-String reach a few more ears. RIYL: early Wilco, Bill Lloyd, Breakup Society.
Jukebox Zeros, Welcome to Rutsville (Steel Cage) Rating: 6
The Jukebox Zeros don't reinvent the wheel on this album. Instead they just try to use their influences for a safe if somewhat rowdy rock and roll effort. "Static, Static" is a Southern-tinged rocker that also has a bit of glam embedded in it. The group, featuring guitarist and singer Peter Santa Maria, sounds like a northern Georgia Satellites here. This same intensity is kept throughout the 20-minute, six-track EP, particularly on the rollicking punk-ish "Stutterstop". There is nothing spectacular or jaw-dropping about the effort, but it is a very good punk rock mini-album, especially judging from the tight, play-by-numbers romp that is "Rutsville", sort of like a very polished take by The Blasters. The great tune here has to be the promising Stones-ish strut felt on "S.O.S.". A very good but not outstanding bit of tunes!