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Soltero, Hell Train (self-released) Rating: 7
In last year's The Tongues You Have Tied, Soltero's Tim Howard explored the songs of seclusion. For Hell Train, he opens up the door and lets the weather in. There are some moments of pure lightheaded pop (the jangly McGuinn guitar of "Hands Up", the luscious backing vocals in "Songs of the Season") and even some unexpected acknowledgements of pop's royalty ("The Prize" recalls both "Getting Better" and Pet Sounds in a mere matter of seconds). Howard's still the sardonic bard of black-humored lovesickness and discontent; "Another year wasted alive / Will you ever be filed in the celestial archive?" and "The obvious cure for a lifetime of pleasure / Is the lifetime I'm living with you" are but a few of his choice lines. But hearing his songs shaking the winter off their backs is almost like hearing Soltero for the first time -- they're unmistakably Howard's, yet uncommonly welcoming to dense arrangements and blustery sonic abysses. "Bleeding hearts, pull together," Howard implores in "Bleeding Hearts", "And never talk about how we've given up on it all / And never talk about how far we've got left to fall". This precedes a climactic confluence of noise and metallic howls; the bleeding hearts are either drowning in their reverb-lacquered sorrows or rising from them. You root for the latter. [Hell Train is currently available only in a limited edition pressing of 500 hand-numbered CDs at Soltero's website.]
The Cloud Room, The Cloud Room (Gigantic Music) Rating: 5
You can be sure of this: The Cloud Room is the best album ever buy a guy who was screwed out of a job working for cult indie film director Hal Hartley. That's the case with The Cloud Room's leader, J. Nice angle! Hartley's loss is a gain for fans of broad, melodic, New Order-influenced rock everywhere. The guitars are jagged and sinewy, the rhythms are disco-danceable, the vocals are somewhere between Bowie and Tom Verlaine, and the lyrics are of the "the world is so messed up; I don't know what to make of it but it's also pretty cool" variety. "Hey Now Now" is so relentlessly catchy you just give up. "Sleep in the Ocean" is a jangly, midtempo, Sumneresque number; while "The Hunger" employs Devo's clinical electro pulse. At times it's unnerving and too tense, but J's pop-art ambition is to be applauded. [Amazon]
The Get-Outs, Get the Message (Avebury) Rating: 6
From all appearances, The Get-Outs seem to have taken the same path of mediocrity that their label-mates Twinkie took. Juvenilely dystopian song titles like "Drowning" and "Temporary Suicide" and the initially uninteresting music contributed to this impression. However, upon further hearing, this reviewer is pleasantly surprised. Although still not producing any epiphanies, the pogo-stick energy and infectiousness is rather impressive. Amidst the noise, there is a hint of cerebral activity that can be read in between the lines of melody, showing virtuosity in arrangement and tone unrivalled by most three-power-chord punk bands. I am happy to report that Get the Message doesn't shit on the grave of the Ramones and the Buzzcocks. In fact, the Get-outs have adorned those tombstones with pretty pink punk flowers. [Amazon]
Scott Hamilton, Back in New York (Concord Jazz) Rating: 7
Scott Hamilton matches his relaxed tenor saxophone to the exceptionally elastic Bill Charlap Trio on this first-class passage through ten standards. Though Scott made his name as a young turk who embraced swing style playing, this session proves (again) that he can play post-war jazz too, and the highlights are a pair of faster tunes by Dizzy and Bud Powell that force the band to play beyond its obvious comfort zone. These guys can play this stuff in their sleep, and that's the problem on the ballads -- they're gorgeous, and it you don't have a dozen tenor-plus-rhythm records already, these will suit you right up, but they're not distinguished by any excitement, innovation or drama. The faster tunes elevate everything, particularly when Charlap is soloing. He will always be compared to Bill Evans, but it's apt -- his playing bristles with invention and a rhythmic nimbleness that forces his Maserati band mates (Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington on drums) to up-shift. On "Blue 'n' Boogie" Charlap plays lines that dodge every cliché of jazz improvising (no easy blues runs or cheap quotes) and seem to be inventing a new language. It's a thrill and shows why this trio is considered one of the best in New York today. Hamilton, back in town after moving to London, seems to understand that the stakes are suddenly higher, and his burnished tone takes just a hint of Getz-ian urgency. It's a nice pairing, but there a few too many ballads that make you feel that you've heard it all before. [Amazon]
Madison, Dress Them One by One EP (Gables) Rating: 7
Twenty-four-year-old Madison is an indie artist who sounds like she should be on VH1. I mean this, surprisingly, as a compliment. Dress Them One by One is a rarity, a four song EP where each of the songs could be a potential single. On her first recording, Madison sounds like she's been huge for years, it's like she's arrived as a readymade pop star. Madison's mastery of the pop hooks are aided by her gritty, yet undeniably forceful, vocal styles, but she tempers the undeniable poppiness of her songs by adding just a hint of trendy post-punk edge. She has the stuff to breakout, but Madison may never get anywhere with her rather dark subject matter. The killer hook on the opening "Happy Days" is "I'm off the pills and my head's all clear" and the song "PPS" is an acronym for "Personal Porn Star". Still, Madison doesn't seem to want to become the next Patti Smith, she seems to be gunning to be the next Pat Benatar. Again, oddly enough, I also mean that as a compliment. If she can come up with an entire album filled with songs this good, there's no telling where her career could go.
The Curtains, Vehicles of Travel (Frenetic)
San Francisco's The Curtains have made a curious little record with Vehicles of Travel. The album contains 23 songs, which seems a bit overwhelming, but none of them is longer than two and a half minutes. In fact, only four reach the two-minute mark, as most of them come and go within 90 seconds. These aren't so much songs as mini-musical explorations, from guitarist Chris Cohen, keyboardist Greg Saunier (both members of Deerhoof) and drummer Andrew Maxwell (of Open City). Most songs feature some sort of noodly guitar riff from Cohen, which is then mimicked by Saunier, with Maxwell infusing some odd time signature. There is hardly anything resembling a verse, and certainly nothing resembling a chorus. It certainly keeps things from ever getting monotonous, and the trio takes what should be difficult listening and manages to make it both inviting and soothing. There aren't too many singularly memorable moments, but the album floats along quite enjoyably.
Crash Kelly, Penny Pills, (Liquor and Poker Music)
Remember Gilby Clarke, the erstwhile Guns 'n' Roses guitarist who released a handful of serviceable rock records back in the mid-'90s? Clarke may be off most folks' radars these days, but Sean Kelly, frontman and driving force behind Toronto, Canada, quartet Crash Kelly sure hasn't forgotten Clarke and his modus operandi. On Penny Pills, his band's debut, Kelly borrows liberally from the Clarke playbook: borrowing liberally from '70s rockers like T. Rex and Aerosmith, and '80s gritty/glammy types like RATT and, well, Guns 'n' Roses. It's all pretty standard cock rock, from the swaggering opener "She Gets Away" to the adrenaline buzz of "Easy and the Fifth". Kelly also shares Clarke's affinity for cover tunes; while Cheap Trick's "ELO Kiddies" works just fine, Kelly and co flub Rainbow's "Since You Been Gone", draining all the urgency from the song. By and large, though, Penny Pills is done well, and these days, with seemingly every guy with a guitar slung over his shoulder going ga-ga for New New Wave, it's fun to hear a band just plug in and kick ass. Instantly dated, but enjoyable. [Amazon]
Various Artists, Narnack Records Is... A Fist-First Sampler of New Music (Narnack) Rating: 5
Packed to the gills with seventy-minutes of music at half the cost of a regular CD, Narnack's sampler is a fine introduction for anyone looking to explore the roster of out-there talent the label has assembled. Mixing unreleased and previously available material, there is something among these 21 tracks that will catch the ear of any fan of adventurous music. For me, I was pleased to discover the gospel-noise-punk rave up of the Coachwhips, and "I Made a Bomb" -- from that band's Peanut Butter & Jelly Live at the Ginger Minge album -- is a great track. I had a lot of hope for the Tynodai Braxton track, as I have been reading much about him of late, but "October" disappoints with a nearly 10-minute running time that never seems to go anywhere. The roster's true surprise, among the glut of bands cranking their amps to 11, is Langhorne Slim. Falling somewhere between Dylan and Banhart, I will be eagerly anticipating his forthcoming longplayer. As with most compilations of this sort, you probably already know whether or not you're going to be picking this up, but if you're undecided, I urge you to at least check out the group's I've mentioned. [Amazon]
Spike Priggen, Stars After Stars After Stars (Volare) Rating: 4
Why? What reason could Spike Priggen possibly give to convince me that, as an up and coming singer-songwriter, a covers album was the correct route to take with his second album? Stars After Stars After Stars is that album, and to his credit, Priggen manages to fit each and every song neatly into his pleasant, melodic power-pop template. Less fortunately, that template is a bit lacking in originality and excitement. Most of the songs sound as if Priggen is merely going through the motions, singing a song he knows for the sake of singing it, and then giving it a slick polish via the wizardry of modern production. Sometimes it works -- the sinister undertone of The Jacobites' "Big Store" is convincing, and Hot Bodies' "In the Inside", which opens the album, is pleasant enough to drive on a sunny day to. Still, The Ramones' "Questioningly" is sapped of all its sincerity, and Priggen just can't pull off the youthful vigor of Alice Cooper's "Eighteen". Priggen would be wise to stick to showing us more of himself before he tries something like this again -- there's just no personality to grab onto here, making Stars After Stars After Stars an ultimately too-taxing listen. [Amazon]
Later Days, Songs of the Watchmaker (Scarcelight) Rating: 4
Wayne Jackson likes computers. How else to explain this album of computer generated or machine oriented blips, bleeps, quarks and quirks. The album opens with "Evimx 15" which sounds like a kitchen that is about to explode thanks to Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker. Later on this style returns during "Evimx 6". It's a song/experiment that is difficult to explain unless heard (endured?). Think of a Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music if done by Eno and you might get the gist. Ditto for "Differentiation" although there is more of a rumbling undercurrent to this baby! Throughout there are moments of "music", especially on the haunting, worldly and eerie "Family Inharmonic". "Audiomata" is pushes the boundaries with whirling soundscapes, but generally this is an album that would fit well in a Star Wars film. That is if they were lacking the sound of an inter-galatic internet connection on dial-up.
Scott Fisher, Scott Fisher (Tazmoe) Rating: 6
I suspect it's impossible to dislike Scott Fisher's eponymous debut, seeing how piano-based rock is enjoying a full-blown renaissance-albeit the sterile, workmanlike kind perfected by Five for Fighting and Keane. Fisher's brand is far more energetic and soulful than that, and by virtue of its clever use of Wurlitzers and Fender Rhodes, much more interesting. Fisher is no doubt a talented keyboardist, but he sometimes falls into the trap of making sure we all know it (to worst effect on the ponderous "Interlude"). He's at his best when he allows his piano to complement his songwriting and not the other way around, showcased brilliantly on "Nothing" and the Spoon-like "Chemicals". The obvious comparison here is to Ben Folds (the ska-jazz of "Struggle" echoes Folds' "Battle of Who Could Care Less"), but I reckon if the guys from Train relied more on the piano, they'd sound a lot like this. Make of that what you will, but a guy with Fisher's chops should aim for more ambitious comparisons on future releases. [Amazon]
Mt. Gigantic, Old Smiler (Friends and Relatives) Rating: 4
This group from Bloomington, Indiana would bring to mind a young and spry Violent Femmes judging by the odd singing and bizarre effects used at times during "Bring Back The Healthy". Singer Wayne Sebastian mixes a rampant indie rock with various changes in tempo and mood over its six minutes. "Dip Into My Daddy" follows a similar blueprint but features more of singer Megan Downey before over-dosing temporarily on the hi-hat. The group could be mistaken for the Polyphonic Spree if they practiced in a very cramped garage. "Granpa Plays The Drums" is another tune that you would have to listen to at least three or four times to appreciate, with the distant Neil Young-ish vocals complemented by a military drumbeat. A complete waste of time though is "Raechel And Her Children" which is a cross between At The Drive-In and Controller.Controller. "Bells" is another difficult song to get into with the band resembling a poor man's Devendra Banhart. This is only an extremely select few's cup of tea.
Folk?, Folk? (Vibrating Needle) Rating: 5
Bill Fletcher and Mike Detmer have set an admirable goal for themselves with their Folk? project, by asking themselves and listeners to consider what the definition of "folk music" really is. The common perception falls somewhere between the dust bowl realism of Woody Guthrie and the polished harmonizing of the '60's revivalists. But folk according to Folk? seems to fit the broader description of "music of the people." And these people from southern Indiana have crafted a record that is filled with electronic beeps and blips and traditional pop constructions instead of whiskey, sawdust and mandolins. "Nintendo Pop", "Love at Point Blank", and "Float Away" fall in line with many of Folk?'s forebears from the same general region: GBV, Swearing at Motorists, Pere Ubu. About half the songs stick, catchy and strong enough that they could exist without the quirky gadgetry just fine. The rest gets repetitive and old real quick.
The Distortions, Exploding Teenage Body Part (Blank) Rating: 8
Teeming with the sort of tight and infectious pop rock that has saturated the airwaves a la Interpol and The Killers, this L.A. trio hit the ground running with the pleasing ear-candy title track full of short, choppy guitar riffs. Lead singer "F" also shines throughout, especially on the garage-like Westerbergian power pop of "Getting What We Deserve". "I'm no better than the East Coast small town hell you see," he sings before turning into verse two. The strength of the album is the consistency of the songs, although a tad low-key is the mid-tempo "Books" that name drops Pulp's Jarvis Cocker among several others. Nonetheless they mine this format brilliantly on the aptly named "Shoegazer". Just as stellar is the slow-building "Hinterland" that sounds like The Cure singing "Crimson And Clover". The greatest of the lot though is the shimmering and airtight Mats-ish "The Dogs" that is pure 4/4 rock glory. A close second however is the feathery, almost dreamy "Mansion". It's a well-crafted, well-rounded nine songs. The only problem is you'll have to wait for more!