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PopMatters Music Short Takes
our brief reviews of new releases
04 August 2005
Spottiswoode and His Enemies, Building a Road (High Wire Music) Rating: 5
Spottiswoode has many enemies. It sounds like he has a lot of musician friends, too. The musical influences are as numerous as the instruments used here. There's rock, blues, gospel, jazz, folk, religious imagery, guitars, surf guitars, drums, accordions, trumpets, saxophones, mandolins, and organs bubbling into a delicious and nutritious stew. Influences range from Tom Waits to Bob Dylan and Exile on Main Street-era Rolling Stones. The CD lists 11 tracks "plus" tracks 12-17. If the album had ended on track 11, a perfect closer, it could have earned at least two more points on the rating. The "plus" tracks weigh the album down past 70 minutes and don't provide enough variety to warrant their existence. Stop the CD after the "I'm Back Up" and you're in for one hell of a ride.
Barcode, Showdown (Nuclear Blast) Rating: 7
I don't know why, but hearing a Danish hardcore singer howl, "What up! We're back, motherfuckers!" at the beginning of an album makes me smile. Not because it's such a lame cliché, but most likely because Barcode sell it, and have fun doing so. They're committed to making nothing more than no-frills, visceral hardcore, following the leads of Agnostic Front and Hatebreed, and do they ever deliver on their fifth full-length album. The forceful riffs by guitarists Dr. J and Panter alternate between the great New York hardcore/thrash scene of the '80s, evoking memories of Cro-Mags, Biohazard, Anthrax, and even Stormtroopers of Death, and touches of the European flair of The Haunted. Unlike the one trick pony antics of Hatebreed, Barcode exude true charisma, as songs like "Showdown", "For What it's Worth", "Bad Standing" and the exuberant tribute to booze "Drinkslinger" are deceptively catchy, the fun shout-along choruses offset by plenty of lively riffs. The band hits a high note on the inspired, not to mention hilarious bitch-fest "Make My Day", during which vocalist Butch complains about anything and everything ("Hairball Nickelback -- epic cry-baby/Steve Martin -- where's the fun gone lately?"). Capped off by a rowdy cover of Accept's classic 1980 tune "I'm a Rebel", Showdown is good enough to make you temporarily forget that it's all been done before. In fact, it's impossible to hate.
Saul Zonana, 42 Days (20/20) Rating: 4
One of the gifts and curses of ever-evolving technology is its application to musical production. Where once, you could tell what kind of budget and profile an artist had by what his or her album sounded like, all it takes anymore is a digital recorder and ProTools to put together something that sounds like it could have come from a major recording studio. Saul Zonana's fourth album 42 Days is a wonder of modern production, hiding mostly average songs in a wash of computer noises, stereo panning, and beat and note-perfect session playing. Some of the production (not to mention the more interesting guitar bits) can be credited to the great Adrian Belew of King Crimson fame, but most of it is actually done by Zonana himself. The result is an album that sounds a bit like Jakob Dylan fronting Vertical Horizon, with a brief bit where he sounds like Phil Collins ("Chasing It") and an odd sociopolitical rant that sounds like the adult-contemporary cousin of Moxy Fruvous' "Video Bargainville" ("Hey Now"). A lucky break could easily land any of these songs in heavy rotation as the edgy, hip tune on 102.x Lite Hits (All your lite favorites, all the time), where it would blend right in. It's harmless, but oddly lifeless--perhaps Zonana should emphasize the performance over the production on the next go.
The German Art Students, Name-Droppers (Autobahn Music) Rating: 6
The interesting thing is that nobody has taken this name before to my recollection. Nonetheless, this group from that German hotbed that is Madison, Wisconsin delivers up catchy, lo-fi instrumentals complete with triangle during "Horses, Hedgerows And Helmets". The trio of guitarists Kirk Wall, Annelies and bassist Andy Larson then seamlessly move into the hand-clapping rock pop of "Bjorn Borg", a tune even he would enjoy as it twists and turns into a psychedelic-tinted closing. The band do live up to the album title with another up-tempo alt. rock ditty dubbed "Dick Clark (Ballad of the German Art Students)" which centers around Clark listening to the band's demo tape with a quirky funny faux phone message in the middle. The band are a cross of Violent Femmes, They Might Be Giants and The Dead Milkmen it appears on strong songs like "On the Spot", the quirky, sugary "Speed Of Sound" and the softer "Triumph of the Human Spirit".
Lisa O'Kane, Peace of Mind (Raisin'Kane) Rating: 3
There's a welcome grain of grit in Lisa O'Kane's voice as she makes her way through Fred Rose's country standard "Foggy River", but with such a mild arrangement, the song could really use a whole beach. There is absolutely nothing technically wrong with any aspect of Peace Of Mind, but that's the rub: too much peace of mind renders this pop-country album quite dull. Where on "Long Gone", where O'Kane sings "Tires down the blacktop / Tears down my face / Hope down to nothin' / Love laid to waste," is there any real sense of hopelessness or loss? Nowhere. I find no "peace" here because of the essential conflict brought out in every song: the music's desire to emotionally move the listener versus the lifeless intimations of mood it projects.
.: posted by Editor 6:50 AM
03 August 2005
Duplex!, Ablum (Mint) Rating: 7
As child starlets get younger and younger (the irritating JoJo, for instance), singing songs 30-year-old men wrote for them, a record written and performed by two 11- and 12-year-old girls can sound enormously refreshing by comparison. Finally, kids singing songs about being kids. Okay, so Saorise Soley and Sierra Terhoch perform alongside a bunch of adult musicians, namely Vancouver folk institution Veda Hille, P:ano's Justin Kellam, and Beekeepers members Matt Caruso and Annie Wilkinson, but the cutely titled Ablum never lets adult points of view cloud its childlike view of the world. This is music for the six year-old hipster: Hille's "Nucat" is loaded with punk rock energy (aided by chants of, "Oi! Oi!"), "Bethlehem" is a wickedly smart social satire that builds to a rambunctious sing-along, and "Yr Mama" slyly injects a nod to the Ramones. Caruso contributes songs both educational ("DNA") and innocently scatological ("Pooing and Peeing"), but it's the girls who steal the show with songs like the hilarious "Lament of the House Rabbit" ("Little pellets in, little pellets out/Little pellets are what my life is about"), "Multiplication Treehouse", and the borderline brilliant "Salad", a funky little ode to the misery of having to eat one's vegetables ("Iceberg, romaine/It causes me pain"). Tossing his own two cents is three year-old Matt Caruso, who repeatedly answers the phrase, "You're the best little boy in the world," with a heartily defiant, "I'm not!" An enormously fun, whip-smart kids' album, recorded by people who all live under the same duplex roof in Vancouver (hence the name), it's the product of the kind of healthy, creative home environment that not enough kids live in. This CD is an absolute joy.
DJ Premier and Mr. Thing, The Kings of Hip Hop (BBE/Rapster) Rating: 4
As promising as a set of hip-hop classics mixed by one of the music's most acclaimed DJs and one of his heirs apparent sounds in theory, this two-disc package largely fails to deliver. DJ Premier -- sonic force behind Gang Starr and a platinum iPod's worth of rap singles -- sticks to the roots of hip-hop for his disc; while it's instructive to hear some of his breakbeat-free sources of inspiration (like Nina Simone's "Don't Explain"), there's little to push the collection of tracks beyond the ordinary. Likewise, British scratch wizard Mr. Thing compiles a set that can barely focus on its predilection for East Coast artists, obscure cuts like De La Soul's "She Fe MCs" notwithstanding. There's no questioning either DJ's skills -- both discs are impeccably mixed -- but it seems somewhat pointless unless you don't see the irony in looking to fill a dance floor on the cheap.
Watchers, Dunes Phase (Gern Blandsten) Rating: 4
Dance punk. Post-punk. Future funk. Call it what you will, but a handful of bands are out there looking for a way to shake your hips and get you moving on the dance floor. Chicago's Watchers are yet another one, but if you're going to throw this disc on at a party, make sure you have a few more albums handy to keep it going. The most surprising thing about Dunes Phase is how incredibly short it is. The seven songs come in and out in at around 16 minutes, creating a jarring listen. Just as the listener settles into a groove or hook, the song ends and Watchers throw out another shard of groove-inducing music. Watchers could definitely use some tips from colleagues Out Hud, whose infectious, shape-shifting compositions allow ample time to get down, and lots of room for musical exploration. Watchers definitely have a gift for creating slick riffs, but they suffer from a terribly short attention span. Curbing their output and expanding their clipped dance pieces into more organically grown compositions would practically make them unstoppable, but for now, Watchers are merely filler for your next mix.
The Gnomes, I (self-released) Rating: 5
Warm and the ramshackle vibes run through the Gnomes' songs. They've obviously spent some time listening to how Pavement builds majestic rock tracks out of seemingly-incoherent amateurism: the Gnomes know how to play but they also know how to make everything sound like its falling apart at the seams. The basic garage rock of "In Dreams I Walk With Peg's Caprice" sounds like Loaded-era Velvet Underground while the slightly disposable likeability of "I'm Not Sleeping" and "Lists of Things" can't help but bring to mind Guided By Voices' wilfullly scattered focus. Tracks like "Dance!" and "Wait", which combine bright, country-influenced guitars against loose, slightly affected songwriting, show off their familiarity with touchstones such as early R.E.M. and the Meat Puppets. There's nothing on I that manages to rise above the group's obvious influences, but there is a great deal of likeable rock that could very well blossom into something more distinctive on future releases.
John Ashfield, Distance to Empty (PopPop) Rating: 8
I have a sweet tooth for what many call "bubble gum" pop. There, I've said it. It's so simple, so rudimentary yet rarely done so well that it makes you gravitate to those do can do it very well. John Ashfield, who is better known as the lead singer of The Bobbleheads, has crafted a collection of very summery, shimmering tunes that will put a smile on your face beginning with "The Watermelon Song" and the cheerful, sway-inducing, Joe Jackson-ish vibe of "Go Slow" that makes you envision you're five years old and playing the large piano that is the top of your sofa. By the time "Lenz" hits the speakers Ashfield has you hooked with his XTC-meets-Go-Betweens rock on "Come Along," the precious "OK" and the gorgeously downplayed "The Best Part" which is, perhaps, the best part of the record. But "The Way I See You" and "Oh" are ideal also. So freakin' much to choose from here! Ashfield rarely misses the mark although "Only Dreaming" and the crooner attempt on "Sleep Tight" won't appeal to all.
.: posted by Editor 7:58 AM
02 August 2005
Silversun Pickups, Pikul (Dangerbird) Rating: 8
Dear Billy Corgan,
So happy to hear you've decided to reunite the Smashing Pumpkins! Unfortunately I'm afraid I won't be able to take part. I'm just too tied up working with another band in Los Angeles, California. Emerging from the same Silver Lake scene that's already spawned Earlimart and Irving, Silversun Pickups are poised to break big (even if only on the blogosphere). Seriously, Billy -- you should really hear these kids. I haven't heard anything like it since -- well -- when we were so heavily involved in the early '90s. The guitars roll out in syrupy waves seething with as much melody as malevolence and the vocalist coos like he's got a mouthful of cotton candy. He can spit it out in shards too but not in that piercing way you always did. It's more of Modest Mouse thing, unhinged but not harrowing. Honestly, it's just been refreshing to hear some rocking guitar pop that isn't all high hats and skinny ties. I'm telling you, Billy -- your Pumpkins reunion couldn't be more perfectly timed. Now that neo-new wave has had its day, shouldn't some kind of '90s revival be on the way? That's what I'm banking on with these kids. So, sorry I won't be able to join you for the reunion. I'm sure you'll be fine though. You never seemed to notice that I didn't show up for any of The Future Embrace anyhow. [Amazon] [iTunes]
Deaodato/Airto, In Concert (Sony/Legacy) Rating: 3
This disc presents a portion of a 20 April 1973 double-bill shared by keyboardist Eumir Deodato and the CTI All-Stars, featuring Airto Moreira. Sins of omission which dogged the original LP release are puzzlingly replicated here: the album's original release, in 1974, was criticized for including only three Deodato tracks in addition to two tracks by Moreira. This CD reissue includes two more tracks from Deodato's set but -- despite the total running time of well less than an hour -- still omits tracks from the performance such as "September 13" and Deodato's signiture piece, "Also Spake Zarathustra". Although these tracks were issued on a 1989 release of the entirety of Deodato's performance, the decision to restore the initial, confusing format of the original LP for this Legacy reissue (supposedly at CTI head Creed Taylor's insistance), is supremely odd. The mixture of Deodato's rock-based Latin jazz and Airto's extremely orthodox sound remains jarring, and the question of whether Deodato's sedate fusion has aged well is still open. The music is very much a product of the '70s, complete with shmaltzy string sections (on "Spirit of Summer") and Tower of Power horn fanfares. The cover of Steeley Dan's "Do It Again" is oddly and unsatisfyingly literal. In Concert is a jazz footnote done great disservice by puzzling compilation.
Bughummer, The Getaway With (Lovitt) Rating: 4
Before guitarist Keely Davis turned heads with Engine Down, he spent his college years in Savannah, Georgia with drummer Brian Lackey and guitarist Jon Proctor in the group Bughummer. Their first and only album, freshly re-released by Lovitt, is unfortunately hardly essential listening. The disc boasts an immediately more aggressive sound than that of Engine Down, and features the overbearing influence of "math rock" that briefly plagued the indie rock scene in the early '90s. These seven tracks rock out hard, making obvious and sometimes nonsensical starts and stops, while occasionally taking inconsequential detours. The influences (Fugazi, Maximillian Colby, Shotmaker) are somewhat obvious, but the album, instead of standing alongside those legends, is instead evidence of players still finding their own style. The Getaway With is a faded snapshot that is for Engine Down diehards or old Savannah scenesters only.
Jet by Day, The Vulture (Future Farmer) Rating: 6
This album begins in the desert as the sun's waves sending wave after wave of sweat cascading down your face. Then, with a ferocious buzz, the guitars swoop down from above to peck the flesh from your bones. Enjoy it. From here on in, it only gets louder, faster, darker. Hailing from Athens, Georgia, Jet by Day are Dave Matysiak (guitars and vocals), Mason Brown (guitar), Tom Naumann (drums) and Brett Griffin (bass). A visceral thrill ride, JBD thrash like Sabbath, emote like Death Cab for Cutie, and hit you with enough feedback to temporarily send your synapses into shock. "Paperweights" barrels along a loud, raucous excursion into the deep, murky waters of drunken excess. Nearly two-thirds of the way through, the blinders come up and there's a moment of clarity before you're pitched back into the psychological stew. The drumming throughout is boisterous, the riffs stolen from the heavy metal guide to power chords, and the vocals screamo -- an excellent third-release.
Jim Duffy, Side One (Three Dots) Rating: 5
I can imagine this album catching on with the hipsters. Chill-out's over, everybody does jazz, and the R&B grooves just aren't cutting it for the parties any more. Only problem is, there's nothing to play after this. Jim Duffy's debut album, Side One sounds unlike anything around today. It's roughly old AM radio, except that stuff like this music wasn't on then either; on this album nostalgia becomes incarnate in an aural reflection of a non-existent past. Forget Burt Bacharach, the closest (and probably most frequently made) comparison you'll find is to Vince Guaraldi (of "Linus and Lucy" fame). It's not jazz, it's not pop, but it's somewhere in that region. The 11 tracks Duffy presents are fun and mostly sunny; that's about it, and it's probably enough.
.: posted by Editor 7:18 AM