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Montag, Alone, Not Alone (Carpark) Rating: 7
Antoine Bedard's effervescent electro-pop floats like bubbles blown from a bottle in shiny, otherworldly orbs. At once stylized and idiosyncratic, the Montreal native's songs lull with dreamy French-accented English lyrics. Notable here are his enlisted collaborators, among them members of the group Stars, an ensemble of strings and horns, with mastering by Canadian producer Sixtoo. Bedard writes in circular strokes of lilting harmonies and swooning vocalizations. Heartbreak and casual crushes get prime time in this world. The overall pastoral homage to everyday surroundings filters through a gauze of gurgling electronics and percussive arrangements. A myriad of textural instruments like marimba, vibraphone, and harp open up the subtle, pensive tone of these songs, not unlike British provocateurs Monochrome Set. Mr. Bedard's unique penchant for mixing bittersweet and bliss rings true here, as a new French-Canadian songwriting voice. [Amazon]
James Apollo, Good Grief (Aquarium) Rating: 4
With dust flaked on its lens and multiple states' worth of soil caked on the soles of its boots, James Apollo's Good Grief is a baker's dozen of Americana hallucinations. Led by visions of crows, mercenaries, and the Alamo, Apollo works a back porch/side barn vibe that's full of crooked atmosphere but lacks more immediately memorable moments. He can't be faulted for not trying; throughout the course of Good Grief, his third full-length release, Apollo tries on the slo-hysterics of Ryan Adams ("The Alamo"), the antiquated minor jump blues of Tom Waits ("Spring Storm"), and even spurts of left-field psych-folk ("Long Rope"). But despite these restless stylistic taste-tests, the album never connects with strong melodies or hooks, leaving it somewhat anonymous in the end. Listening to Good Grief is a bit like looking at a photo album of unidentified landscapes; while you get a sense of what they are, you don't feel compelled to pack the car and plan a trip anytime soon. [Amazon]
Great Lakes Myth Society, Great Lakes Myth Society (Stop Pop and Roll) Rating: 6
Great Lakes Myth Society is sort of like that uncle who has been rooted in the same place for 50 or so years. He can revel with stories of greatness and extreme sadness, all of them filled with absolute wonder and a good deal of lies, but it doesn't matter because the stories are just that damn good. Similarly, the aptly-titled eponymous debut from Great Lakes Myth Society is full of fantastically spun yarns about the great American North. Not all of the stories are mind-boggling and a couple sound like that uncle may have lost some of his lucidity. It's no matter. Tales with subject matter swinging broadly between Big Jim Hawkins to the Northern Lights are rooted in the great American tradition of songwriting. [Amazon]
Girl Friday, Swimmer (Get Fresh) Rating: 5
On its debut album, Girl Friday manages to keep its music intense without ever losing control. The band restrains itself even as it reveals a secret stash of energy. The key to group's sound lies with Amanda Dora's vocals. She shifts effortlessly from aggressive pop vocals to soft lilts over more ambient tones. Along with guitarists Dora, the musicians show flexibility in creating their atmospheres as well as their hooks. The production on Swimmer (although a bit heavy-handed at times) is very clean and gives the band a true sound. The group's only problem is that it doesn't do anything to grab you. Careful listens are rewarding, but Girl Friday hasn't quite found that way to demand repeated spins yet. It's a talented trio, but one still discovering how to make its mark. [Amazon]
Slightly Stoopid, Closer to the Sun (Stoopid/BMG) Rating: 6
Slightly Stoopid might be seen as a very silly punk band, but that name gives off a very different vibe. Here is a lightly and extremely soothing reggae (are there any other kinds?) that starts with "Intro" and leads into "Babylon Is Falling". Although it's not reggae throughout, it's an acoustic/island/roots feeling on "Somebody", sort of like if Jack Johnson was tutored by George Clinton. This is a very summer sounding album you would have to be a twit not to get into, especially listening to "Bandelero" and "See No Other Way". And there are some songs about various medicinal products such as "Fat Spliffs" and "The Joint". Other tracks keep the same vibe, be it "Older" or "Don't Care" with its infectious groove. Aside from a few punk rock attempts, tunes such as "Up on a Plane" and "Waiting" will put you to sleep. And I mean that in the nicest, most complementary way. [Amazon]
Bearsuit, Cat Spectacular! (Microindie) Rating: 6
What we have here is a band that gets by on copious amounts of quirk. Bearsuit is a six-piece out of the UK that combines the lo-fi aesthetic of the indiest of independent rock with the anything-goes oddness of the outer fringes of J-pop, an influence illustrated in song titles like "Cookie Oh Jesus" and "Itsuko Got Married". The disc begins on a majestic note in a non-traditional 5/4 time signature, as washes of noise threaten to destroy some really pretty melodies from xylophones and some sort of unidentifiable wind instruments in the appropriately titled "Welcome Bearsuit Spacehotel". Other highlights include the dancepunk-turned-Atari anthem "Rodent Disco" and "Kiki Keep Me Company", which alternates passages plaintive alternating male/female vocals in a pop song played three times faster than originally intended with the math-rock inspired idea of playing measures of one, two, three, and then four beats. Got all that? Quick, frantic, and always in grave danger of falling apart, Cat Spectacular! is an oddly engrossing half-hour of power that somehow feels like it's at least twice that long.
Overkill, ReliXIV (Spitfire) Rating: 4
Part of the original New York thrash metal underground twenty years ago, Overkill, along with Anthrax, Nuclear Assault, M.O.D., Carnivore, and Biohazard, helped usher in a strong blue-collar quality to the then-burgeoning sound. In contrast to the ambition of Metallica and Megadeth, and Slayer's pure speed, the New York bands focused on huge, crunchy chords and chugging rhythms; this was metal for moshers, pure and simple. While only Anthrax managed commercial success, Overkill never matched their peers' album sales, but they remain undeterred, and now fourteen albums and 21 years later, they're still going strong. Led by vocalist Bobby "Blitz" Ellsworth and bassist D.D. Verni, the band has remained true to its metal roots all this time, and their newest, ReliXIV, is more of the same reliable, old-school thrash. It's not a bad thing, as this band does it as well as anyone, but it's not a great thing, either, as the recycled riffs do tend to get tiresome after half an hour. There are several tracks that will perk up listeners' ears, such as the ferocious "A Pound of Flesh", the grooving "Keeper", and the opening cut "Within Your Eyes", all highlighted by the distinctive growl of Ellsworth (who has always sounded like the legendary Udo Dirkschneider), but too many of the songs bleed into one another, making it a challenge for a casual listener to care. Although the fun sing-along tribute to metal's halcyon days in "Old School" props up the album's sagging second half, this remains a CD for fans only. New listeners would be better off seeking out 1987's Under the Influence and 1991's Horrorscope. [Amazon]
Mashlin, Pushing Through the Seasons (One Eleven) Rating: 6
This Orlando quartet has that melodic hue circling their songs, but too often a song like "The Shore" has the oft-repeated whine-tinted vocals that bands like Simple Plan have taken to the bank. "Arrive Like a Thief" is decent but really doesn't go anywhere, mired in an almost Mercury Rev kind of self-important bombast. The better moments come during the winding rock of "Autumn" but the piano-driven "66 Books of Cleansing" tries too hard to be too dreamy. It's a highlight but could be improved on but they strike paydirt with the Smashing Pumpkins-ish "Violet" which brings to mind "Disarm". Unfortunately this leads into one of the low points, a routine and directionless "Cold Kiss of a Liar" which tries to find something to base itself around but comes up empty handed. "Letter to a Mentor" wraps this album up. It has some good points, but generally it's not an album that will grow on you with repeated listens. [Amazon]
Audio Fiction, Songs in the Key of Orange Alert [EP] (self-released) Rating: 3
New York City's retro-leaning Audio Fiction cleverly named its debut EP after its city's terror alert system. The only song on Songs in the Key of Orange Alert to directly reference their hometown's beefed-up paranoia, however, is the lead-off "Tick Tock", which draws more attention for copping the riff from Pat Benetar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" than for delivering its desired anti-war sentiment. The competent, if rudimentary, band relies heavily on lead singer Mimi Ferraro to carry the weight of the EP; while she throws herself beyond the gangbuster vocal performances, her voice -- which resonates shrilly like Debbie Harry performing in a high school musical -- simply can't shoulder such a burden. When the band slows down its breezy guitar pop on a song like the introspective, bluesy "Impenetrable", it exposes itself as a group of players that are merely there to get an unexciting job done. Like a host of other NYC bands, Audio Fiction's version of the future involves a piercing gaze into the past; but unlike some of its better-known contemporaries, say Interpol or the Strokes, it's still searching for an incontestable way to deliver its sermon as gospel.
Toni Braxton, Un-break My Heart: The Remix Collection (LaFace/Legacy) Rating: 4
The club remix is an interesting phenomenon, with its ability to take the slowest, most cloying ballads and turn them into high-energy dance floor sweat-fests, sort of like Hillary Duff doing porn. Toni Braxton seems to be a perfect choice for the club mix, however. The sultry balladeer diva ("diva" having become a catch-all for any woman who's ever sung a ballad) seems to have regressed in age from the mature R&B and adult contemporary crooner who first emerged on "Love Shoulda Brought You Home" to the scantily clad vixen of recent years (see also Mariah Carey). What more logical place is there to go next than the even younger-skewing club scene?
The layperson might not realize that Braxton had several underground club hits in the '90s and the early 21st century. Then again, the layperson might not be the target audience for this album. Even the club kid fan base of Un-break My Heart, however, may not appreciate that the tracks included here aren't the full-length remixes. Plus, both the club kids and the more mainstream Braxton fans may want more than a mere seven songs spread over 10 tracks (three remixed two times each). Why not "Breathe Again", "Another Sad Love Song", or "Let It Flow"? Perhaps it's because this is a compilation of older, mostly previously released (granted, some as promos only) remixes rather than a case where the remixers were brought together to encapsulate Braxton's career.
The remixers themselves are top-notch, including three of the four winners of the now-defunct Remixer of the Year Grammy: Frankie Knuckles, David Morales, and Hex Hector. The pulsating dance beats are, of course, nonstop and unavoidably fun (though they're so typical of the genre that to some listeners, they will suffer from the "it all sounds alike" syndrome that afflicts genres like reggae and Flemish goat-herding chants). The club sound works best on tracks like Knuckles' "Un-break My Heart" and Joe Clausell's "Spanish Guitar", where the music doesn't overpower the vocals (as it does on Peter Rauhofer's "He Wasn't Man Enough") and the vocals aren't sped up to match the beat (as on Morales' "You're Makin' Me High"). Club fans should find this set adequate but unspectacular, while Braxton fans may not be prepared to find it at all.
Earatik Statik, Feelin' Earatik (Gravel Records) Rating: 5
Banging straight out of Chitown, this rather wackly named trio of MCs have the dedication and the skills to attract underground producers known (Molemen, The Opus, Rude One), unknown (Brother EL, Bathgate and the emerging Chester Copperpot) and legendary (stand up, Diamond D). Half the album plays host to guests of a similar variety of calibre, with Akrobatik, Pacewon, Edo G and even Kool Keith supplying all the credibility you could wish for whilst lesser known MCs round things off without embarassment. If you've heard the brooding, stark majesty of single "Evil is Timeless" and its grim lyrics delivered with style and determination that satisfy both the intellect and the street, then you've got a good idea of where this LP is at. For all the ill edge of their delivery, though, the trio seem to have voluntarily eclipsed themselves -- I've got no idea what their individual names are and the disc suffers from the ensuing lack of charisma and, well, fun (this is when inviting the rampantly random entertainer who is Kool Keith seems like a bad idea). So for all the well-observed stories covering a harsh reality and complex rhyme structures unleashing punchlines like razors, we're left with some intimidating but faceless assassins and an album that, through unceasing seriousness, ends up gloomy. Ironically, you end up feelin' the producers more than the group -- the Molemen still wreck and The Opus may yet go far. If ES themselves fail to, it won't be for want of the ability to lynch mainstream MCs, just an unwillingness to ease off and smile occasionally, which they almost manage on "Keep Rockin'". [Amazon]
Uber Cool Kung Fu, 3 (Omega Point) Rating: 3
Form an acronym using the first letters of Uber Cool Kung Fu's name, and you get UCKF. Really, there's little else you need to know about the mentality that this four-piece out of Minneapolis brings to its craft. Words like "electropunk" and "industrial" get bandied about in descriptions of the band, but a listen through their new album 3 finds them having about as much in common with those genres as, say, recent Good Charlotte singles do. UCKF writes angry songs about girls, the price of fame, and more girls. There are typically plenty of angst-filled vocals, guitars, and techno-ish synth noises to go around. Promising moments like the fast and furious "Feel Nothing" and the peppy Information Society stomp of "Tonite" are brought down by a mess of poor production and hackneyed songwriting -- the sneer of "Hollywood Kills" would really benefit from an instrumental explosion in the chorus rather than the simple punch-in-the-head repetition of the title, and closing track "Down" is the worst kind of power-ballad, strings and all, with cloned Trent Reznor vocals getting all sensitive on our asses. This is the kind of disc that makes its listeners wistful for the glory days of Stabbing Westward; any album that accomplishes that dubious feat is doing something seriously wrong.
Nightbreed, Immortality Through Ashes (Tragic End) Rating: 3
If you're in a hardcore band, and want to make a name for yourself, you had better make sure you have an original enough sound for people to remember you by. Otherwise, in a genre as limiting as this one, it'll be in one ear and out the other for anyone who hears it. Cleveland trio Nightbreed do not instantly strike you as an instantly memorable band, and their debut EP Immortality Through Ashes has all the production values of a crudely-made demo, but, strange as it may seem, there's some potential here, as the band teeters between traditional hardcore and the muddy sludge sound of Eyehategod, early Mastodon, and underrated Canadian act Shallow North Dakota. Guitarist Ray Terry hollers valiantly, his voice lacking the power such a band needs, but as songs like "Winterkill" and "Poisoned Tongue" attest, there's the slightest hint that the band could evolve into something good. With a good producer, and a more capable lead vocalist, Nightbreed could capitalize on the growing popularity of hardcore, but until then, Immortality Through Ashes is too forgettable to warrant purchasing.
Graham Cousens, Living Room Sessions (Spade Kitty) Rating: 7
Graham Cousens will have performed his first live gig with his new band by the time you read this. His album is part folk but primarily the sweet, summer sounds of Matthew Sweet and Velvet Crush minus the shimmering chorus and plugged in instruments. Songs like "Julia" and the slightly rowdier "Holly Roller" amble along quite nicely with Cousens nailing each track to perfection. Fans of The Moore Brothers or Simon and Garfunkel will love his voice with its sweet richness. Cousens has a knack for crafting timeless melodies around simple arrangements, particularly with the roots-y "When I Was Around" and the gorgeous "Comfort Me". Recorded at his home, Cousens has records of Harrison and Dylan in his collection shown on the inner sleeve. The album is one engaging song after another, which makes for an easy listen, especially during the lovely Yorke-ish "So Long" and the straightforward "Lucky Stars". The softness of his voice is the selling point on the crowning jewel "Help Me Help Myself" and the Petty circa Wildflowers "Anymore". This album is proof that ProTools doesn't make smart, finely-crafted pop! [Amazon]
Various Artists, Psycho Ward (Split 7) Rating: 4
Psychobilly's a perfect theory for a genre -- take the basic style of rockabilly but punk it up. Psycho Ward collects tracks from 25 underground bands (three of which have "mad" in their name). While the number of artists should suggest a diversity of sound, the acts have a fairly consistent aesthetic, causing the compilation to waver between cohesive and repetitive. Most of the tracks lean far toward the punk/metal influence than anything Charlie Feathers would have dreamt of, but the standout performance -- by Blazing Haley -- reveals Stray Cats parentage. A thread of nihilism and rock 'n' roll self-destructiveness runs through the disc, with a vast majority of the songs being about death, hell, or darkness. Pile up your hair, grab your boots, and get drinking. [Amazon]
The Vanished, Favorite Scar (Kirtland) Rating: 5
It's so easy to immediately dismiss the debut album by Dallas, Texas's The Vanished as nothing more than empty-headed emo caterwauling, but over time, a funny feeling starts to creep in, as your defenses go down enough to actually get some mild enjoyment out of the disc. Make no mistake, this is the same old radio-friendly, saccharine rock that the likes of Vertical Horizon and Hoobastank have helped make popular, and the weepy portraits of downtrodden kids and flitty declarations of self-empowerment come close to sounding as grating as anything by Good Charlotte, but the band stays on a surprisingly even keel, throwing in the odd pop hook every once in a while, managing to hold listeners' attention. For what they are, both "Wake Up" and "Favorite Scar" are two surprisingly good songs that sound tailor-made for mainstream rock radio, while "Latchkey Princess" and "Anna's Leech" blend melodrama and melody decently enough. Things do get more maudlin as the album goes on, especially on the plodding "Anesthesia Winter" and on the overwrought "Soap", and "Gospel Machine Gun" is a very awkward attempt at funk rock, but as far as catchy emo goes, Favorite Scar is less offensive than many might give it credit for. [Amazon]
Various Artists, Meet Me in the Time Tunnel: Obscure Powerpop from the Land of the Lost 1978-1985 (Wizzard in Vinyl) Rating: 3
This Japanese import compilation of 15 unknown bands existing on the outskirts of the late '70s/early '80s new wave scene has a misleading title: most of its inclusions have more in common with the Ramones than "power pop" mastheads like Big Star or Cheap Trick. It's like a new wave version of the Nuggets collection (with a predominance of "The" bands: the Zips, the Reactors, the Silencers, the Shamrock); unlike Nuggets, however, Meet Me in the Time Tunnel doesn't offer a wealth of revelatory obscurities. Instead, the selections -- by bands hailing from Connecticut to Glasgow to Japan -- play like fifth generation copies of other (better) bands in varying degrees of audio fidelity and musicianship. A few songs are noteworthy: the Reducers' "Small Talk" is a jagged shot of Graham Parker-induced electricity; Australia's the Spliffs sound like Robyn Hitchcock leading a late '70s NYC band in "You'll Know What They'll Say"; and the Foreign Objects' "You Go Home" grinds dirt in its teeth like some '60s garage redux. Still, for every good tune there's a plethora of those that would best be left uncovered, of which the Dunderheads' dreadful "Tribute to Bela Legosi" wins the blue ribbon. The compilation's liner notes are spotty at best; some bands get the full bio treatment (often written by an original member of the band) while others aren't mentioned at all. There may be some tracks of interest here for the era's obsessive collectors, but the majority of Meet Me in the Time Tunnel will remain, deservedly, in that titular land of the lost.
Lost City Angels, Broken World (Universal) Rating: 7
The Lost City Angels spent some time earlier this year touring with Tiger Army, but their own version of punk rock tends to have some edge to it. It's nothing that you haven't heard before, although the party-flavored "Liberation" is still quite good while "Final Wish" is mainstream, Warped Tour-like, radio-friendly punk as is the stronger, crunchier "Buried Dreams". They really hit their stride on the impressive "Faithless on the Floor", sounding like a cross between The Living End and Billy Talent. Meanwhile, the Rancid-ish "Broken World" is perhaps the album's highlight. It takes a while to get into the record but by track seven, "I'm Trying", you're hooked. The Metallica-like "Clutching at Shadows" is okay but not memorable yet they again atone for it with the faux Clash feel of "Lips". The real gem here is "Tonight's the Night", and no, not the schmaltzy Rod Stewart tune! But a close second is the Social Distortion groove on "Today's the Day". [Amazon]
All Hours, In Flagrante Delicto (Hybrid Recordings) Rating: 4
Think, for a moment, of this image: An oversexed teenage hydra monster spawned from the foreheads Elton John and Andrew Lloyd Weber. Now let it form a rock band in Los Angeles. All Hours is that. And its full length debut, In Flagrante Delicto stumbles awkwardly as it tries to settle into a comfortable groove between ballad and rock opera. Occasionally, such as during "Make Up" the band works itself into that groove successfully. However, most of the album buckles under melodramatic chorus melodies and uninteresting lyrics. "Never Trust a Woman" and "Chelsea Whistle" never get off the ground, while most of the rest of the album circles in a holding pattern between Max's Kansas City circa 1973 and Styx circa 1978. [Amazon]
Taylor Hollingsworth, Shoot Me, Shoot Me, Heaven (Brash Music) Rating: 5
This six-song EP featuring a "guitar slinging kid" is basically your standard power pop efforts with the various attempts at getting that perfect riff. However, songs like "You Just Wanna" don't really make the grade despite the catchy tone to the tune and the occasional hi-hat overdose thrown in. But "How Could You Be So Cold" is just really really not good, unfortunately. Hollingsworth sounds like a kid trying to do a song that sounds out of his league. When he keeps it simple and ragged he is at his best, especially during the Big Star-ish "When I Get Around". The great tune has to be the lighter, acoustic-oriented "Come Along" with its toe-tapping little groove. "You're Lost" also has its moments, but it's nothing to write or e-mail home about.