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Black Leotard Front, Casual Friday (DFA) Rating: 8
A collaboration between Christian Holstad, Delia Gonzalez, Gavin Russom, and DFA co-conspirator/LCD Soundsystem mad genius James Murphy, Black Leotard Front embodies everything that makes the great DFA label so enjoyable: it's ostentatiously arty, it has a wicked sense of humor, it's catchy as all get-out, and it's incredibly danceable. The epic, 15-minute track "Casual Friday" was among the highlights of 2004's great DFA Compilation #2, and has reappeared as a US-only, 10-inch single. Starting off as a decidedly Euro-tinged disco piece, featuring an enigmatic narrator carrying on like Serge Gainsbourg, the song erupts into a fun funk piece, as a refrain of hilarious, poorly pronounced French kicks in ("Bonjour, bonjour, comment allez-vous?"). It goes on to take listeners for a wacky ride that ranges from amped-up eroticism, to a creepy, ambient breakdown that seems to contain samples from Ministry's "Just One Fix", before settling into a comfy groove for close to 10 minutes, the bass line unwavering throughout. Featuring an instrumental version of the song on the B-side, this single is further proof of how the DFA is one of the most vital indie labels today, and will have you singing to yourself in bad French for the rest of the day. Bawn-joor, bawn-joor. Come on tallay voo.
Danny McGuinness, Room 809 (Heatshield) Rating: 6
It's an album with a story attached! Evidently, Mr. Danny McGuinness brought a bunch of tunes to the Bel Age hotel for an impromptu recording session with guitarist Kent Van Der Kolk, and voila! Magic. One or two takes apiece, and an album was finished, the entire thing recorded in room 809 (naturally). The resulting album, creatively called Room 809, turns out to be a pleasant enough dose of acoustic singer-songwriter chutzpah, with a guy whose voice sounds like a slightly Springsteenized Art Alexakis. The spontaneity of the session is well-captured here, as the majority of the disc really, honestly sounds like two guys making music for the love of making music. Of course, it also means that McGuinness sings a few bum notes, and the dueling guitars of McGuinness and the usually brilliant Van Der Kolk aren't always in sync -- even so, it doesn't matter, given that what we're hearing is practically a live show. McGuinness is mostly the world-weary, wise artist who's seen it all and wants to tell about it ("Good Rain", "Whiskey"), though he occasionally and effortlessly falls into the hopeless romantic role, both longing ("Waiting for You") and spurned ("Justified Loser"). If you like your guitars acoustic and your voices baritone, Room 809 is the place to be.
Glimmer Kids, Glimmer Kids (self-released) Rating: 5
Not to be confused with the Glimmer Twins (aka Mick 'n Keef), we've got Los Angeles duo the Glimmer Kids. Multi-instrumentalist Simon and singer Jimm Glimm call their synthesis of '60s garage, '70s glam and '80s New Wave "Sci-fi arena pop", but for the sake of clarity, let's call it neo-glam. On their self-titled debut, they fall somewhere between the arena rock of Stone Temple Pilots and robot rock of the already-forgotten L.A. scenesters Ima Robot, and fortunately for them, they lean a little more towards the former. Every track is filled with big, shiny hooks courtesy of Simon and Jimm's lyrics on tunes like "Plastic Doll" and "Buy It" detailing vacuous L.A. life are a great fit with the slickly produced tunes. And they get all interstellar on a spacey cover of the Cars' "Just What I Needed", Ric Ocasek and co being a touchstone for the band's hint of New Wave. One gripe, though: the love songs sound like the kiss-off songs. It doesn't work to have the same revved-up, glammy framework house both sneering lyrics like "I can't buy you / So I despise you" (from "Plastic Doll") and tender ones like "Take me to your secret place / Cuz I don't want to be alone anymore" ("Two Fools"). That minor rant aside, the Kids are alright.
The Idaho Falls, Concrete Prairie (self-released) Rating: 6
L.A.'s The Idaho Falls plays some fine laid back SoCal country on this their second full-length. The songs hop along, sounding sunny even when they're about "hundreds of horses" dying. There's a winking theatricality on songs like "Summer Camp Lament", voices breaking with slightly affected twang, but not so much as to detract or distract. The Idaho Falls write gorgeous, well-arranged country-pop songs. Heather Goldberg and Raymond Richards share vocals on most songs, including the shimmering "California Day" and pissed off "Lipstick Eagle". These tracks weave with brief instrumentals that further the good-times vibes. The band employs a host of different textures, including the vihuela, a guitar-shaped instrument tuned like a six-course lute. The title track is a standout, bookending a beautiful hazy middle section with a jaunty square-dance piece.
Dave Weiner, Shove the Sun Aside (Favored Nations) Rating: 6
This guitarist has worked in Steve Vai's band, but now is the time for Dave Weiner to branch out into a format that, on the initial first notes, sounds like he trying to come back to life by breathing new life into "Andonova", the intro of which brings to mind Pink Floyd circa The Division Bell. Weiner wastes little time saving time, going seamlessly into a rather harder, gritter, metal-lite "Long Run" that could be Metallica symphonic style. Fans of Jeff Beck's Guitar Shop would find some redeeming value in the tune also. He changes gears mid-stream into a jazz, light, interlude-like vein with some above average licks. Weiner has some good moments, but too often they're they type you've heard 20 if not 15 years ago, particularly on "Monument Shine". One also hears touches of an organic, ambient-tinted Creed on the lighter "The Ghost of Denmark St." The best tune of the lot has to be "Tourmaline" which is part Page, part Knopfler and genuinely melodic and almost wistful throughout. The title tune though is an exercise in back-patting, adding little to the proceedings. [Amazon]
Timber (The New Gentleman's Shuffle), Timber (The New Gentleman's Shuffle) (Ships at Night) Rating: 8
"Bloodhound", the first track on the self-titled debut of Montreal's Timber (The New Gentleman's Shuffle) could very well prompt one to follow the band's trail as faithfully as its namesake breed. The song demonstrates everything the band does so well: Fahey-inspired finger-picking, warm harmonies sung in odd intervals, and arrangements that tow the line expertly between busy and sparse. "How's your life been changed? / Did you find the piece of mind that you were never never never never never gonna get with me?" the band sings in a major seventh, autumn radiating in every note, sedate yet engaged. You know an album's good when it inspires images you're not even sure exist in its songs. Here and for me it's a never-ending stretch of power lines rolling alongside country roads, red-winged blackbirds alert on the wires. "Reckoning" has that quality, harnessed to the rhythm of Warren Spicer's rolling guitar figure. "To the Country" is a near-perfect synthesis of folk and country with progressive ambitions-another achingly beautiful representation of Timber's highly auspicious beginnings.
The Je Ne Sais Quoi, Secret Language (Coalition) Rating: 5
The Je Ne Sais Quoi play punkmusik -- that's Swedish for punk music. That kind of tidy translation typifies the kind of snappy song these four young caterwaulers excel at on this, their debut EP. Secret Language is a seriously direct and bare-boned punk assault. The guitars are jagged and rusty, and the drummer's kit probably consists of cardboard boxes and scrap metal. Embellished by droning keys and coarse baselines, it's all danceable fare that could serve equally well for end-of-the-night meltdowns. The CD, which implores you to "play us loud on your cheap stereo", clocks in at less than 20 minutes and doesn't offer much in the way of variety. However, it's really more of a showcase for what Jimmy O, CMG, Miss J and J Bang have in store for their full-length, We Make Beginnings. Once again, more proof that Sweden's universal childcare system is really a front for a punk rock camp for toddlers. You people sicken me -- with your low infant mortality rate, extensive social welfare, and plethora of killer punk bands. Vidrig. Absolut vidrig kraft. [Amazon]
Vinyl, Vinyl LP (btb ehf.) Rating: 5
The new sound of Reykjavik sounds like the old rock and comes from a little place called Iceland. The opening track "Miss Iceland" hauls out an indecent proposal from the devil's henchmen, masquerading like Jane's Addiction (on "Just Because") without frontman Perry Farrell. Throughout the disc, the group relies heavily on synthesizers, to the point where every songs blend into each other. Taracks like "Find My Face a Place" are so by the book that they do nothing to impel the group into the stream of popular consciousness. But again, as it is with so many bands, the vocals are the devastating blow to Vinyl's dream of ascending from the legions of mediocre bands to superstar rockers. Try as you may, the gravely voiced, sexed-up lyrics can't compensate for the fact that the best thing about these boys is that they are half-decent when it comes sounding like other groups (INXS, Jet, and U2).
Apes, Baba's Mountain (Birdman) Rating: 3
When you're a rock band who makes a point of staying away from the conventional sounds of the six-string guitar, you sure as hell had better keep things interesting enough to not make yourself sound too much like a gimmicky, one-trick pony. Washington, D.C.'s Apes caught the attention of indie rock fans with their fun 2003 concept album Oddeyesee, a lovably insane blend of progressive rock, stoner rock, and indie pop. Focusing on the low-end sounds of bass and organ, the band ably kept their minimal style sounding fresh. Two years later, though, nothing much has changed, and consequently, the music sounds tired by comparison. Baba's Mountain tries to recapture the energy and fun of the previous record, but all too often, the music rings hollow, the band coming off as sounding weird for the sake of being weird. It's all an empty exercise, there are no memorable hooks at all on the record, as listeners are left hearing repetitive organ melodies and drab vocal melodies, the band doing their hippy-dippy best to channel Vanilla Fudge on a painfully long 50-minute album. Only on "The Minds of Mortis" and "Who's Left Alive" does the music get slightly more interesting, as keyboardist Amanda Kleinman's singing offers an all-too-brief respite from Paul Weil's mad rants, but it hardly comes close to redeeming a very, very monotonous album. [Amazon]
Curtis Stigers, I Think It's Going to Rain Today (Concord) Rating: 6
At a time when Michael Buble is being heard on every radio station from Toronto to Nepal, it's somewhat refreshing to hear a guy like Curtis Stigers still out there exploring his craft. This latest batch of tracks is all over the map, from the funky jazz croon of Willie Dixon's "My Babe" thanks to organist Larry Goldings, to the standard jazz revamping of "That's All Right", it all meshes together. And the cover of the latter is 10 times better than anything found on Paul Anka's latest. "Crazy" has a dour, somber mournful-like tone to it that is definitely a nice twist as trumpeter John Sneider lays down some great horns in the bridge. And perhaps the gem of the lot is how he reworks Sting's "I Can't Stand Losing You" better than the composer himself would given his penchant for jazz renditions now of Police tunes. Stigers manages to excel on "Lullaby on the Hudson" and the tender Tom Waits tune "In Between Love" by giving enough of his shining supporting cast room to perform, leaving a lot of empty air in the song that naturally draws you in. He almost sounds a bit like Springsteen's current work (minus the jazz) in his delivery of the moody, melancholic title track penned by Randy Newman. A few come off as very schmaltzy and somewhat corny, especially the well-worn and "please put to bed" "Side By Side". [Amazon]
Acid Mothers Temple and the Melting Paraiso U.F.O., Born to be Wild in the U.S.A. 2000 (Wabana) Rating: 6
Some "official" live albums, the ones painstakingly recorded and mixed in order to best translate the live experience to record, work rather well, but diehard fans, no matter which band they're crazy about, will always claim to own several live bootleg performances that apparently trounce any kind of immaculately produced double live set can ever do. And for the most part, they're right; case in point, the legendary Velvet Underground "guitar amp" recording, which, while lacking in sound quality, more than makes up for it with one of the most searing performances ever recorded. When Japanese psychedelic rock greats Acid Mothers Temple and the Melting Paraiso U.F.O. toured the States five years ago, several of the shows were recorded by fans, and one of the bootleg recordings that resulted was a five track vinyl LP, which quickly became a popular item among fans. For good reason, too. Now released on CD by the band, Born to be Wild in the U.S.A. 2000 is an absolutely blazing 40-minute disc, in which the band tears through several of their typically epic, spaced-out tracks. The recording is very crude, as the band's massive rhythm section often overwhelms the microphone, but instead of sounding distracting, it enhances the feel greatly, and shows just how loud these dudes really are. Rolling bass lines and frantic drum fills underscore fabulous, acid rock-laced guitar solos, before veering off into moments of krautrock experimentation. The more ambient songs, such as "Pink Lady Lemonade" tend to suffer from the poor sound quality, but when the band kicks into high gear, as on "La Novia", the effect can be thrilling. [Amazon]
The Drews, The Sins of Others (self-released) Rating: 5
Never judge a book by its cover. From the album art of the Drews' latest, The Sins of Others, and titles like "Necroditty", "Make Me Scream", and "Nasty Girls", I half-expected a record of baggy-pantsed suburban stoner aggro-rap rock. What I got was far better. The Drews (husband and wife duo Andrew and Jen DiMartino) play good-natured, eccentric folk. Their earnest sense of humor seeps into both their arrangements and lyrics, and reminds me more than a bit of early Crash Test Dummies. Andrew DiMartino's voice is a blend between the Dummies' Brad Roberts and Neil Diamond, a perfect fit for both the somber and goofy moments. Bassist Jen has a great spoken word piece on "God's Green Room", in addition to background chorus of "Money money money." The song's target of crooked television evangelists is an easy one, and more than overdone, but the Drews have a light touch and likeable charm. Those qualities more than anything make the disc worthy of repeated listening, and put them a cut above more staid and uninventive folk purveyors. [Amazon]
Satellite 66, Grasshopper (Smokey Lung) Rating: 4
Chicago-based Satellite 66 is lo-fi rock and roll in the most traditional sense. The eight songs on Grasshopper are defined by the same murky guitars, detached vocals, and half-assed recording that characterizes everything there is to love about slacker rock. That is, if you love slacker rock. There's nothing really to dislike about this album, but there's nothing to really love about it either. Grasshopper treads heavily in the predictable terrain of lo-fi previously explored, never really venturing too far off to explore the possibilities of what else may be out there. "Should've Said Something" owes a big nod to Sebadoh, while "J.P. Morgan" and "Ladder" skew towards the Beatles end of the spectrum. The strongest cut is the Elliott Smith-sounding "Going Home". Through the chorus, Josh Seib's voice cracks with a hint of the vulnerability that made Smith's voice so amazing. Although the album doesn't ache with originality, if you think that what the world needs is to revisit the Pavement and Sebadoh era of rock and roll, this is your album.
The Brunettes, Mars Loves Venus (Lil Chief) Rating: 6
The Brunettes are from close to Down Under but come off as if they've listened to the Ronnettes in their spare time. This lovely old-time fun yet highly crafted pop is exemplified on the quirky, sugary title tune. Jonathan Bree and Heather Mansfield play off each other quite well. And how can you not enjoy Oriental touches on songs entitled "Loopy Loopy Love" which is part kids tune and part Puffy Yumi Ami. Fans of Elephant 6 or especially The Minders will love songs such as "Polyester Meets Acetate" although "Too Big For Gidget" is an acquired, haunting, creeping kind of taste. The lighter material fares strongly also, especially the somber, Stars-ish "You Beautiful Militant". The highlight has to be the classic '50s doo wop type of sound oozing out of "The Record Store". When they pare this down further, the better it feels on the hand-clapping, jerky "Best Friend Envy". The synergy between the two is that of an elderly couple, particularly on the melodic and strong "Leonard Says". [Amazon]
The Old Soul, The Old Soul (self-released) Rating: 3
Just about two hours north of Buffalo there's a city we Canadians pronounce Toe-ron-toe. It's the home of indie scensters Broken Social Scene, DFA 1979, the Stars, K-Os, Apostles of Hustle, and Metric. Aside from Montreal, it's what the Canadian indie hubbub is about. The Old Soul, a group that hails from TO, include members of the old vanguard -- the scene before the scene. Their sound is expansive and full of energy, but The Old Soul are just that, old. Their sound would not have caught your ear then as it fails to do now. It lacks a certain something, a certain "je ne sais quoi". That said the repentant organs and Beach Boy choir chants make "American Whore" a worthwhile listen. But then the next song, despite an obvious, almost unnecessary sense of irony, is about the joy of vegetables as if this were a record parents might get their kids to listen to. Overall, the music is alright, but nothing to gush obsessively about.
Roy Jones, Jr., Body Head Bangerz Volume One (Universal) Rating: 6
There's nothing like listening to a punch-drunk boxer, known for having a big mouth and the boxing skills to back it up, dish out some jabs of the lyrical variety. Especially when his name is Roy Jones Jr. and he's not bad enough that you'd slam your headphones down in disgust. Body Head Bangerz Volume One is a hype-filled crunk fest, littered with well-known durrty south MCs Juvenile, Petey Pablo, and Lil' Flip. But remarkably, Jones' gruff delivery holds his own as evident on album opener "Can't Be Touched". Courtesy of Timothy "Fingerz" Spencer, the production is all sinister synth lines and calculated drum beats. It has the texture of the trash-talking banter boxers engage in when they're on the ropes ("Don't Start It"). This album has more energy than 10 servings of Crunk Juice and no nasty aftertaste. A flurry of punchy singles is what Jones delivers and in the end, it's more than enough to knock your ass out. [Amazon]
Kate McGarry Mercy Streets (Palmetto) Rating: 4
Folksinger McGarry is blessed with a technically accurate yet vulnerable voice. She would've made a perfect indie chanteuse in the early 1990s. As it is, this covers-heavy set shows off her jazz background; it would sound just as at home in a cocktail lounge as a coffeehouse. Norah Jones's success may have opened a commercial door that singers like McGarry, with her tastefully mellow arrangements, can step through. Some interesting cover choices (Peter Gabriel on the almost-title track, Björk's "Joga") share space with some obvious ones (Joni Mitchell, Irving Berlin's "How Deep Is the Ocean"); but, over an hour, the tastefulness gives way to tedium. [Amazon]
Aqui, First Trip Out (Ace Fu) Rating: 4
There's a Jekyll & Hyde thing going on throughout Aqui's First Day Out. On one hand, you have well crafted, blown-out spaceship explorations populated by otherworldly beats. On the other, you have a car crash of grind and prog, with massive dreams and ear-shredding riffs. Unfortunately, Aqui can't bring the two opposing musical forces together into one any sort of cohesive sound, and tend to succeed in their more cerebral efforts. "Dawn" is a fine dubbed-out foray into trip-hop; "Open!" is a blissful two minutes of Prefuse 73-styled electronica, while the theatrical "Under the Wake" sounds like a ballad stolen from a '70s concept rock album. These tracks are breaths of fresh air between the tracks where Aqui crank the amps to 11 and dish out their tired brand of metal. Tracks like "Eye of the Battle", "Action!", and "There as It Bleeds" are forgettable and dull and no doubt serve as ample fodder for their famed live show. There is a half a good album here, you'll just have to work you're way through some mediocre pap to find it. [Amazon]
The Violents, Baby EP (self-released)
The Violents are a band whose aspirations never quite lived up to their reality. You can hear how badly the all-female trio wants to be Sleater-Kinney, but the sad fact is they never even got close. The band's Baby EP, while only their second recording, is the Champaign-Urbana, Illinois group's swan song, as the band broke up shortly before its release. It's a glaring example of hype over substance, and an over-reliance on played-out "Grrl" shtick that honestly made me cringe. It's 2005, not 1992.
Baby EP is not an easy listen, as the band is so limited by their rudimentary skills in playing their respective instruments and singing that I have to wonder if they're really deserving of a review here at all. There is absolutely nothing here to speak of musically, and the lyrics are full of tired and infantile rock clichés that are, quite frankly, embarrassing. Swagger can only get you so far, and then you have to be able to back it up with your songs. Again, there's nothing here.
There is a difference between wanting to be in a band and being driven to make music. Clearly, the three members of The Violents fall into the former camp. While I applaud their moxie, and I'm sure it was a fun ride for all of them, the fact remains that this is really amateurish stuff. From the silly songs to the lame banter that peppers the cd (including the "hidden track," which is nothing more than the band members laughing stupidly at their own ineptness; who wants to listen to this?), it's not terribly surprising that the band never made any headway. Comparisons to Sleater-Kinney, The Breeders, and Juliana Hatfield are there simply because the press release is trying to make the most of the fact that The Violents are women, and nothing more.
I love punk rock. The Baby EP is not punk rock. It's sloppy, silly and immature high school type of stuff set to repetitive one-string guitar riffs. I'm a little bothered by the fact that a band like this would garner this much attention while also being mentioned in the same breath as Sleater-Kinney and Chrissie Hynde merely because they share the same gender. Taken on its own merit, The Violents' Baby EP doesn't even deserve mention next to these other innovative musicians. If you want something by an all-female punk trio, go buy an old Babes In Toyland album instead and skip this one.
Bryan Adams, Room Service (Mercury) Rating: 6
Twenty years after his career blossomed, I got to see Bryan Adams in the flesh last summer. It's a rite of passage for a Canadian -- you see Adams, you see the Tragically Hip, you see Blue Rodeo and you're not deported. All the hits were there but unfortunately his sound and set seemed so custom-made for the casino circuit that it left an odd, unsatisfying taste in my mouth. "East Side Story" is standard easy going radio fare that doesn't jump out at you but doesn't really make you gag. Safe. Very, very safe. "This Side of Paradise" is basically the same -- soft, sappy pop rock that sounds like Adams is willing to ballad-ize his future albums to a science. It has a bit more bite, but a bite like that of a Dachshund with false teeth. "Nowhere Fast" is a song Rod Stewart has wanted the last 10 years but never got. "Not Romeo Not Juliet" has a roots-y Wallflowers-ian slant to it yet is only okay. There's nothing fantastic here, nothing really very good, although "Flying" does have its moments as does the lead single "Open Road". The highlight might be the understated "I Was Only Dreamin'" which is pop done with a well-used orchestral slant. [Amazon]