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Bassholes, Broke Chamber Music: Early Singles and Unreleased 1992-1994 (Secret Keeper)
Don Howland's prolific rock primitive project Bassholes dips into the well of home-wrecking music in all its different viscous levels; country blues, punk and tweaked-out schizophrenic visionaries all inform his spare songs. This collection rounds up 45s from the genesis-time of the group, and some odds and sods that never saw release. A dark, haunting tone pervades Howland's sound; surface appearance points to a stripped-down aesthetic, but closer examination proves the songs layered with rich textures. Much of this collection was put to four-track cassette at a funeral home. Beyond his Columbus, OH roots, Howland's choice of covers belies his singular idea of heroes or villains, depending on perspective; herein find "Pneumonia" by bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson, West Coast punks the Germs' "Lion's Share", and the twisted Frogs' "Jesus Book". Howland now lives in Asheville, NC, with a new self-titled Bassholes record out, which he confesses may not be so gloomy as the meaty marrow here. His oeuvre remains one of the country's best-kept secrets, mysterious and essential.
Jarvis Humby, Assume the Position It's... Jarvis Humby (Hard Soul) Rating: 2
"My, isn't Jarvis Humby delightful." That should be the response to what sounds like a saucy British tabby cat that solves mysteries behind his curmudgeonly owner's back. As applied to these hackneyed garage rock wannabes, it's just everyday sarcasm. This album does the same rock 'n' soul thing that has been done a thousand times before, but this time there's an exciting twist -- it's impossible to listen to. The lead singer's hollow growling makes Mikey Bolton sound like Wilson Pickett, and the plastic organ doodlery will make you yearn for the sweet melodies of the vacuum cleaner. It's all so forced and derivative that it might be part of a scheme perpetrated to ensure that Jet isn't the lamest bar band making records today. From the album cover to closing track "Man With the X-Ray Eyes", Assume the Position It's... is an overblown assertion of musical jingoism. Go ahead and remove the Union Jack from your cover art Jarvis, we're well aware of the British rock and roll tradition. Hey, that's how we know you guys are bloody awful. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a script to propose to the BBC. [Amazon]
Flunk, "All Day and All of the Night" Remixes EP (Kriztal) Rating: 5
Oslo, Norway's Flunk ably fills the Cheeky Scandinavian Indie Pop Band slot that the Cardigans vacated after their first couple albums, almost 10 years ago. Problem is, no one was particularly clamoring for anyone to fill it. No one except the music supervisors of The O.C., who have effectively taken Flunk under their wing. Looking to make the most of this, ahem, credibility, Flunk here presents its Cheeky Scandinavian Indie Pop cover of The Kinks' "All Day and All of the Night", augmented with remixes of the title cut and several tracks from last year's Morning Star album. The original version of "All Day..." is all detached cool and irony, adding wah-wah guitars without sacrificing the hedonistic rush of Ray Davies' songwriting. The rest is not nearly as good, the Bjork/Persson vocals and coldly calculated dance mixes suffering diminishing returns, even over seven tracks. Only the thumping "Tronso & Nils Noa Remix" of "All Day..." and the dreamy "Parliavox Remix" of "Morning Star" leave an impression, however fleeting.
Anagram, Songs From Far Away (0 to 1) Rating: 6
The duo of Jessica Congdon and Eric Holland are both from the school of visuals, so it should come as no surprise that there music tends to suit moods that are universal. However, few in recent memory have developed this style with as much ease and substance, with "Behavior" a glorious blend of The Cure and The Organ. Congdon's voice is pure '90s indie rock as a guitar brims under the surface. Whether it's this milieu or a dance-y kind of minimal mood as on "Qualify", Anagram's synth-tinged efforts bring to mind Wild Strawberries. "Madly" contains a subdued urgency and sense of longing that grows with each moment yet "C-Fav" would be far from anyone's favorite. Infinitely better is the somber, morose "Distance" which is part rock and part ambient before gaining strength. The song on the album to relish and cherish is the mid-tempo ambient pop of "Dazzle" which lives up to its title but the rough around the edges flavor to "Canada" is a close second. "Un" is too polished and busy so is placed as the closer, resembling Trent Reznor if he grew up on Vangelis. This mix of dreamy pop and rock will whet most alt/indie appetites. [Amazon]
Little King, Virus Devine (self-released) Rating: 6
Brace yourself, 'cuz right from the rising feedback of "All I Need", Little King bring it hard and heavy. It's all a bit copycat Rush at times, what with the galloping drum beats and lead singer/guitarist Ryan Rosoff's uncanny Geddy Lee impersonation. Plus, former Rush producer Terry Brown mixed the album. The songwriting follows the concept of a man trying to right the wrongs of the world after the Columbine school massacre. With subject matter like that it should be a major downer, but the upbeat, rich and expansive sound of these prog rock explorations won't let you wallow in depression ("Peacemaker" and "Hopefeathers"). "Antibodies" thrust blame on us, the people, exploding with a wailing guitar bit stuck in mid-song. This El-Paso-based band isn't trying to reinvent the wheel; they just want to sell you the wheel you've already come to love. So, if Rush is what you like, this shan't disappoint.
Mobius Band, City Vs. Country EP (Ghostly International) Rating: 5
"I'm so sick of music," goes the chorus of "Starts Off with a Bang", the lead track of Mobius Band's EP City Vs. Country. At the end of the 20 minutes of the EP, the listener might start feeling the same way. Mobius Band has an interesting sound, a kind of an orchestral lap-pop, where a simple base and a simple pop hook are complemented by layers and layers of instrumentation. The results are exciting, every track is a sonic experience of sorts, particularly considering how deft the band is in building up tension, but ultimately the sonic variety overwhelms the album. The intricate instrumentation acts as a distraction from the songs themselves. Now, "Starts Off with a Bang" and the thoroughly anthemic title track (clearly the centerpiece of the album) prove that the band can create some memorable songs, but the relentless overproduction suggests that the band does not trust its own songwriting. Busy production is not in itself a sin if it serves the songs, but Mobius Band has yet to find the right balance. Right now, the band just tries to impress the audience by showing us how many sonic tricks it has up its collective sleeves, when it should be trying to impress us with the songs themselves. [Amazon]
Angela Correa, Correatown (Bed Pan) Rating: 8
Angela Correa recorded most of these songs in one take... one very lovely take. The disc is as alt-country or Americana as you will like -- haunting melodies, darker edges and a solid, heartfelt vocal. Think of Kathleen Edwards and songs like "Mercurial Heart" will jump out and grab you. Touches of keyboards and drums round out the songs, but if left alone Correa would shine. Correa could sing the horoscopes and draw you in judging by the gorgeous "Super Paper Airplanes" that resembles Sheryl Crow circa The Globe Sessions. She is in no hurry on these slower, roots-oriented tunes, especially the sway-inducing "Savvy Young Punks" although this one has some subtle pace changes. The lone up-tempo track early on is "Pinwheels" which resembles Lucinda circa Essence. There are several great tunes here, whether it is the somber "Saint Dinan" or the engaging "The Songcatcher". World weary and filled with some heartbreak, Correa nails each number perfectly, particularly the gorgeous "Hardship to Be (Souvenir)". A broken heart never sounded so good... [Amazon]
Palomar, 3.5 EP (self-released) Rating: 5
Criticizing Palomar for being "cute" isn't really saying much anymore. Most listeners that are aware of the band either love this aspect of their music or have written them off entirely. I tend to fall into the latter camp (for two of my friends, "palomar" is a catch-all for bland indie-pop) but have always held out hope that I might get over it and be able to enjoy the band on their terms. Their Palomar 3.5 EP is a digital-only release of demos that is available from EMusic, a site that offers 50 free downloads as a trial for their pay service (the basic offer is $9.99 per month for 40 MP3 downloads). Palomar's musical vocabulary is still a little too limited for me, but the lyrics that I can make out here convey a genuine sense of resolution in the face of overwhelming confusion that I find genuinely engaging. Plus, I find myself singing the choruses to "Woah!" and "Washington" without being otherwise prompted. In this limited dose (six songs in about 18 minutes) I've found myself able to listen over and over without being worn out by what I still find frustrating in their music. Worth it for the above-mentioned songs and as a hopeful sign of things to come for their in-the-works fourth album.
The Exies, Head for the Door (Virgin) Rating: 5
It's a relative certainty that there are people who exist that think the best thing that's happened to rock radio in the last ten years is the stratospheric rise of Puddle of Mudd. These are the people who would love The Exies' third album, Head for the Door. If you've turned on rock radio for more than an hour recently, you know what this sounds like, especially given that there's a better than average shot that you heard first single "Ugly" among the rest of the pseudo-grunge angst filling up the airwaves. The Exies channel Stone Temple Pilots ("Don't Push the River"), Nirvana ("Splinter"), and, that's right, Hoobastank on the admittedly lovely "Tired of You", whose resemblance to 'Stank's "The Reason" can mean only one thing: There's a better-than-average chance that it'll be one of the top 10 most played songs on the radio this year. The Exies never get too fancy, keeping all of their songs under four minutes, and the music is pretty harmless, even given its blatant unoriginality. It's background music for angry teenagers, and as such, it does just fine. [Amazon]
Throttlerod, Starve the Dead (Small Stone)
Alter Bridge not quite filling the gaping hole that Creed left when they broke up? Miss that late-era Alice in Chains sound? Are you that dude who occasionally asks himself, "Hey, whatever happened to Days of the New? I liked them!" If so, well, first off, you might want to look around this here site for a few hours and discover some new music. But to ease your transition, you might also want to check out this EP from Richmond, VA power trio Throttlerod. While the name - and the band's past recorded output - might suggest a heavier, dirtier, thrashier sound, the group breaks out the acoustic guitars and big, sweeping choruses on this outing. This is radio-ready album rock for those stations that still think Interpol and Franz Ferdinand are still a little too "out there." It certainly doesn't break any new ground stylistically and each song follows the same path (quiet verse, slightly louder chorus, back to the quiet verse, back to the louder chorus, solo, biggest chorus yet), but everything is played with a professional precision and there's a definite cohesive sound. I certainly enjoyed it more than anything I've ever heard by Nickelback or 3 Doors Down. Take that for what it's worth, if anything.
Mint Condition, Livin' the Luxury Brown (Caged Bird) Rating: 7
Mint Condition was neo-soul before neo-soul was neo-soul. Before Maxwell rocked his blowout, before Erykah Badu dispensed her "weed deep" lyrics, before D'Angelo perfected the "naked cornrows" look, Mint Condition was one of the few acts who bucked the aggressive, synthesized trend of hip-hop in the early '90s. The band formed a bridge between the '80s funk of Prince and The Time (It's no coincidence that they were signed to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis's Perspective label.) and the upcoming neo-soul revolution, flexing a live-instrument blend of classy R&B ballads and mid-tempo funk.
After 1999's Life's Aquarium however, the band went on an extended hiatus from recording to experiment with side projects and to "live life". One thing they weren't doing though, was "livin' the luxury brown". The title is a metaphor for their experiences growing up blissfully oblivious to their poverty. The song is a dark slice of funk, but the message is one of nostalgia and celebration and is an indication of how deeply personal this album is.
Releasing the album on the group's own Caged Bird label (the Maya Angelou residual check is in the mail) perhaps allowed the group the freedom to explore the pop rock sound in which they dabbled on previous releases, resulting in effectively brooding cuts like "Runaway" and "Doormat" (which could both easily supply atmosphere for some angst-ridden teen drama), plus the Lenny Kravitz-esque "One Wish". But fans of the group's trademark sultry R&B ballads should find plenty of solace in "I'm Ready", "Love Your Tears", "Fallin Apart", and "Half an Hour", an engaging tale of infidelity that provides the sage advice that "It only takes a half an hour to do something that you can't undo." Half an hour? Showoff. The rest of Luxury Brown is mostly mid-tempo and funky, what would today be called neo-soul; but in Mint Condition's case should be O.G. soul.
Foxymorons, Hesitation Eyes (Heatstroke) Rating: 6
Say hypothetically there was a sequel to the Wizard of Oz, and it took place in Texas. This would be the story of the band formed by the Lion and the Tin Man (after they had kicked out the Scarecrow and Dorothy for their "unprofessional behavior"). Now imagine while the Tin Man and the Lion were in the studio, writing songs about coming to grips with their new-found heart and courage respectively, they were listening to Pavement, Wilco, and Big Star on constant repeat on their iPods. Think about it. Got it? That is the sound of latest release from the Foxymorons, Hesitation Eyes. If you don't like the Wizard of Oz, 1) you should seek professional help, and 2) I will provide you with this more lucid description. The Texas duo's latest release is a collection of pop songs that alternate between lo-fi, half-spoken indie rock, and sweeping guitar pop tunes. At times the songwriting is bold and confident; at others it is cynical and self-doubting. In both instances, the songs are brimming with effortless melody. [Amazon]
The Tah-Dahs, Le Fun (Undeniable) Rating: 7
The Tah-Dahs are quirky, but in a very good way. Led by Roy Ivy and his merry men and woman, the band conjures up images of a fully fleshed out Elephant 6 group starting off with "Alcoholic". "If you were a loan shark I would never repay you/ I would want you to break my legs," Ivy sings on the catchy opener. Think of a U.S. version of Scottish band Dogs Die In Hot Cars and you should get the idea here -- intricate pop tunes with some fine surprises sprinkled on top. "Mix Tape = Love" is harder sounding but Ivy gives the lyrics a monotone delivery. It's an infectious party tune though that builds and builds. Fans of Violent Femmes would also identify with the up-tempo "Temporary". Ivy knows what makes a great tune, whether it's The Futureheads-lite of "Chix", the powerful "John and Yoko and Ted And Alice" or the catchy "Why'd It Take You So Long For You to Fall in Love With Me?" which has the style of a radio-friendly They Might Be Giants ditty. The band also delivers "Huge Eyes & Ha-Ha's" with highbrow pop charm. The only tune missing the mark is "New York" which has a "We Three Kings" melody to it. But "The Clap" more than atones. Like one of the song titles, this album will make you go "Whoo-Hoo-Hoo"! [Amazon]
A Static Lullaby, Faso Latido (Sony/Columbia) Rating: 4
California screamo outfit A Static Lullaby specialize in perfectly harmless, emotionally wrought hard music, a sound whose popularity was cemented by the recent A Taste of Chaos tour, which the band participated in. Like every other screamo band, A Static Lullaby are all about mimicking At the Drive-In's late '90s style, and like practically every screamo band on the planet, lack any of the originality, not to mention musical chops, that made At the Drive-In so great. Faso Latido is inoffensive enough, as vocalist Joe Brown, bassist Phil Pirronne, and guitarist Dan Arnold trade lead vocal duties, meshing hardcore screams and melodic singing like every other band out there, which is all well and good, but the album would work much better if these boys were talented enough to compose memorable hooks, instead of the cookie-cutter melodrama they deliver. "Stand Up" holds up rather well, but the album runs far too long for a sound this redundant. They want to come off as passionate, which is admirable, but without memorable songs, how can we ever care about whatever it is they're whining about? Anyone in search of a young band who knows how to write good, aggressive screamo music should seek out Canadian aces Alexisonfire instead of these pretenders. [Amazon]
Nomo, Nomo (Ypsilanti) Rating: 6
While Fred Thomas keeps '60s pop and soul alive in his band Saturday Looks Good to Me, his Detroit label helps sustain Afrobeat with new band Nomo. On its self-titled debut, this group (which includes Thomas and a few other members of SLGtM) doesn't do anything unusually creative, but it does blend nicely interlocked percussion lines with sharp horns. With 17 members, the band avoids pushing anyone to the fore, relying more on group dynamic than solo performance. Few individual moments stand out, but the album as a whole works well (unless you have a ridiculous preternatural disposition for keeping your derriere in its chair. On all 10 tracks, the band sounds passionate, but not in any political sense (as you might suspect from an Afrobeat act). Instead, they're just into making hot music. Maybe for that reason, you should block out the forgettable lyrics, but that's okay -- you should just be shaking it anyway.
The Happy Bullets, The Vice and Virtue Ministry (Undeniable) Rating: 7
The Happy Bullets, to my surprise, are from Texas. This is surprising considering how completely British they sound. The Vice and Virtue Ministry, deviating nicely from a countless stream of bland, neo-psychedelic indie rock albums, seems less like an attempt to revive the spirit of Revolver and more like an attempt to update The Kinks' The Village Green Preservation Society. In other words, there's no sitar but there's lots of trumpets, and the singers sing with impossible to ignore English accents about ministries and pound notes. They don't avoid all of the clichés, they do feature the obligatory female-led sugary pop tune that every psychedelic revival album must have, "If You Were Mine" (which is still pretty ace), but the rest of The Vice and Virtue Ministry explores a wider range of sounds than its countless peers. "Mr. Gray" is a bouncing British music hall number. "Drinkin' on the Job", in contrast, is sort of a strange Kinks/Gary Numan combination, a quirky character studies accompanied by an equally quirky synthesizer melody. The Happy Bullets are all about variety, but their Anglophile bent helps keep the album together thematically. In fact on tracks like "Weights and Measures", "A Proper Rifle Assembly", and the delightfully arch title track, the Happy Bullets make a case for themselves as being the best fake British group from Texas since the Sir Douglas Quintet.
Unwritten Law, Here's to the Mourning (Lava) Rating: 3
After releasing two albums for Interscope - 1998's self-titled effort and 2002's Elva -- San Diego-based pop-punk quintet Unwritten Law now finds itself on the smaller boutique label Lava (home to Simple Plan, O.A.R., et. al.). On paper, it's a good matchup for the band, who despite a catchy breakthrough '02 single, "Seein' Red", has always leaned more AAA than major leagues, and especially these days, with pop punkers not named Green Day getting lapped by the phalanx of New New Wavers like the Killers and the Bravery. Sensing this change in the musical landscape, UL downshifts to by-the-numbers pop punk on their fifth album, Here's to the Mourning. The band says it's their most sonically cohesive album, but that just might be code-word for "same sounding". Producer Sean Beavan (Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson) casts a dark shadow over the album, and only a few memorable riffs escape -- the bass on the funky "I Like the Way" or the opening riff of "Rejections Cold". That said, the best tracks on Mourning are the ones that hew the furthest from Beavan's gameplan -- the shiny Linda Perry-produced "Save Me" is a blatant stab at radio airplay, but it doesn't pretend to be anything more than that. And closer "Walrus" invokes the Beatles' "Day In the Life" and matches a cello and violin to lyrics like "Everything is gay / Everyone is fake"; if nothing else, it proves that the band does have a sense of humor. Still, it's too little, too late. Last I checked, pop punk was supposed to be fun, not slick and overproduced. [Amazon]
The Lovethugs, Babylon Fading (Rainbow Quartz) Rating: 4
On Babylon Fading the Lovethugs head to directly to the psychedelia of the '60s. The sound has less of a retro feel and more of a time-machine quality. With keys set to "trippy" and sitar popping up every so often, you'll be transported to another time. These guys are the marijuana to Mando Diao's alcohol in the Scandinavian throwback party machine. As long as you're looking for background music to a bead-infested party, the Lovethugs will take care of you. While the melodies are functional and the sound soothes, but there's little to separate this album from any other in its genre. [Amazon]
Steve Bedunah, Hand Me Down Land (Dog Trot) Rating: 7
Soaked in southern singer-songwriter skills that Townes, Guy Clark and others have done before him, Steve Bedunah draws songs such as "I Need to Go Home" out with a drawl that complements the great but simple roots-ish arrangements. The tempo picks up and goes from good to great a la Kevin Welch or Kieran Kane. This groove continues on the lovely "Love Thy Neighbor" with its infectious blues-meets-Americana vibe. Timeless and put together to near perfection, the weary, barroom sound emitted from Bedunah's pipes are soothing and rough at the same time. The percussion-driven title track is laidback and shows Bedunah's fine songwriting talents as does the somber "There He Goes (Say a Prayer)". "The Johnstons" is a toe-tapping kind of ditty that is nice but not outstanding. At other times Bedunah comes off as a cross between Mark Knopfler and David Gilmour on the favorable "Melissa's Garden". Another gem is the rocking-ish "Rocking Chair Lullaby" which chugs along perfectly. [Amazon]
Ceramic, Ceramic EP (Mother West/Paper Cup Music) Rating: 6
The five-song debut EP from Ceramic is a touching albeit brief trek through lush pop melodies and atmospheric production. Dreamy keyboards and subtle effects are layered in a way that brings singer/songwriter John Scheaffer's naked voice and sparse acoustic guitars to life. On the opening track, "Wake up the Rain", Scheaffer's sweet pop melodies are brought to life by gorgeous backing vocals from Kendall Meade (Sparklehorse) while "Down to the Bone" finds Sheaffer in more traditional folk territory. Both songs are anchored by Sheaffer's vocals and intimate guitar, and both songs resonate with emotion. At times, Sheaffer's lyrics can be overly sentimental, but that's the price paid for trying so desperately hard to inspire. The only other drawback to the album is that, with only four fully-formed songs to choose from (one track is a brief instrumental interlude), the Ceramic EP is too short.