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The Clarks, Between Now and Then (High Wire Music) Rating: 6
The Clarks claim that the new compilation Between Now and Then, a fan-selected collection of 20 songs from the 20 some years of this Pittsburgh rock institution, was designed for new fans who come to their shows and then want to know which album to get first. That makes sense, as by the evidence on Between Now and Then, the Clarks are more of a band that has live shows that inspire people to buy their albums, and less of a band that releases albums that inspire people to see their live shows. While their talent and professionalism is apparent, and every one of the 20 tracks is a catchy sing-a-long, the Clarks just don't have enough spark or originality that would make them really breakout beyond the Pittsburgh area. The studio songs are fine enough, but are essentially faceless pop tunes, sounding vaguely like a variety of top 40 rock acts (Counting Crows, Barenaked Ladies, Big Head Todd & the Monsters, even, on the song "On Saturday", Sugar Ray). The best tracks are, inevitably, the two live songs "Apartment Song" and an epic seven minute version of fan favorite "Cigarette", showing the Clarks as rock and roll animals commanding the stage so powerfully that the studio tracks seem even more anemic in comparison. That said, there are a lot of acts on the radio who are more faceless, and far less talented than the Clarks, and the songs themselves, although performed without much inspiration, are all pretty good pop numbers. I would play it safe and go see them in concert if they are in town, and, if they impress you, you know what album to buy first. [Amazon]
Eau Claire, Eau Claire (Clairecords) Rating: 6
Haven't heard of Eau Claire? Well, you have in a way-either for Jessica Bailiff's work on Kranky Records and with Flying Saucer Attack, or for Rachel Staggs in Experimental Aircraft. Or maybe, just maybe, you've heard of say... a band called Low? Thought you might've. Because Low's Alan Sparhawk produced this debut EP of Bailiff's and Stagg's under the name Eau Claire. And as much as it pains to have that fact potentially overshadow the band itself, Low's influence is pretty inescapable. "Freefall" is the fuzzed-out missing link between the sub-sub-sub-genres of slow-core and shoegaze that would not be out of place on Loveless or The Curtain Hits the Cast. "Soaring" fairly does what its title implies, droning and swirling through mists and hazes for nine minutes, vocals hovering gauzily in the mix. Not a groundbreaker, but not a bad opening salvo either: in every way the musical equivalent of Icy/Hot.
Tribeca, Incident at the Metropolis (Granada Music) Rating: 6
The clear influence for Tribeca is Steely Dan. The comparisons litter Tribeca's debut album Incident at the Metropolis like so many breadcrumbs to a gingerbread house. Like Steely Dan Tribeca plays complex adult oriented ultra smooth rock. And like Steely Dan the players involved with Tribeca are uniformly excellent. Incident at the Metropolis is full of ornate sophistication. You won't be hearing any of Incident at the Metropolis blasting out of convertibles driven by nubile mid-riff baring youths, but you may hear "North American Laundromat" slinking out of the open windows of a new BMW 7 series. Incident at the Metropolis is directed at the age group that's already been through the anger of punk and the dissonance of post punk and now hungers for something a bit more soothing and upscale. Incident at the Metropolis isn't in the business of shouting down any walls. They're in the business of providing a comforting setting for a glass of Chablis while watching the walls get shouted down. It's silky smooth music, intelligent and well executed. There's absolutely nothing wrong with it as just about every one of the nine songs on Incident at the Metropolis is meticulously played and produced. If you like your music functioning more as a down pillow and less as a bed of nails than you've found a friend in Tribeca.
The French Broads, Better Wings, Better Happiness (Disgraceland) Rating: 5
The French Broads' latest album tries to bring back to life the melodic pop of bands like Fountains Of Wayne and a rowdier Soul Asylum, with mixed results at times. "Driver" is okay for an opener and has just enough bite to make is passable. "Slip" however reverts to the vein that Tom Petty has perfected years ago, a strolling folksy pop that is catchy and melodic but not something you'll remember days from now. "Siren" is okay but again nothing special, despite the fact you're rooting for it. The group hit pay dirt on "Broken Enough" and also the downplayed but very precious "Trip", a song well worth its six minutes that starts nicely and just gets better. "America Police" brings to mind classic Neil Finn with its pop smarts and swaying tone. The finale "Sonic Pillow" is a spacey, ambient closer which is okay but not as strong as other numbers here
The Graves Brothers Deluxe, Light (Good Forks) Rating: 3
You instantly think of Green Day or The Living End if influenced by Less Than Jake on track numero uno by The Graves Brothers Deluxe -- a light but very hook-tinged bass line that gives way to some great guitar from Willy The Mailman, who also plays the sax. As a result "About the Future" is a quirky but solid effort. "We'll fight and fornicate all night," the lyric goes as a guitar hits a stellar high note. "I Hear Light Coming Down" is another slow song that goes into another gear, a grunge-y, garage-like mid-tempo pop tune. Fortunately there are one or two early memorable numbers, particularly the seedy guitar all over "Legs Rub Together" which recalls Singapore Sling. "The White Devil's Death Song" could be mistaken for a Reservoir Dogs contribution. But the record tends to get a bit old too quickly, hitting a wall with the bland "Big Chain Store" and not faring much better with the almost equally insipid "Seen It All". The band seems just to go off the rails and don't care about finding the way back, especially on the average "Nerves".
Bleach 03, Bleach 03 (Australian Cattle God) Rating: 7
Bleach 03 is an all grrl trio straight out of Okinawa, Japan, ready to rock the socks off of unsuspecting worldwide audiences, now that their name has been appropriately changed for copyright purposes (in Japan, they are simply known as "Bleach"). Their newest, self-titled disc is their first to hit American soil, though it's actually the fourth album in the Bleach 03 discography, and I'll admit, it rips far more than I expected it to. They tackle speed-metal on the furious "Kuropen Bigaku Tenshi-Chan To Kangaemashita" ("My Sweet Angel and I Considered the Aesthetics of the Black Pen"), punk and polka (minus the accordions) on "Canary Teikoku No Gyakushuu" ("Canary Empire Strikes Back"), and even attempt some balladry on "Chousen" ("Challenge"), though surely the last loses some of its impact in translation. The sheer variety might sound a bit cumbersome, but rest assured, it's all done with a fun rock 'n' roll candy shell -- I get the impression that Bleach 03 would rather put a smile on your face than make you think. As a special treat, this version of the album contains "Taiyou" ("Sun"), originally from the Canary Teikoku No Gyakushuu EP, which sounds a bit like the rockin' second cousin of the intersection between "Hollaback Girl" and Middle Eastern folk dance. As the last proper track (not counting a lo-fi demo-sounding bonus), it sums up everything Bleach 03 is about better than I ever could. [Amazon]
Aphasia, Fact & Fiction (DRT) Rating: 5
When a new young band cites the Foo Fighters, of all people, as a major influence, it can make a guy feel old, not to mention highly wary of listening to these kids' debut record. After all, deriving their sound from one of the most mediocre and ridiculously overrated American rock bands from the last decade is enough to make this writer cringe in horror (the fact that Dave Grohl's songwriting is influencing a new generation of bands, and not his legendary drumming, is rather depressing). Still, despite Aphasia's naivete, their disc deserves a fair shot. Although Fact & Fiction does get stuck in a similar alt-rock rut as the Foo Fighters often find themselves in, there are a few gems that show us there's plenty of potential here. "Away From You" is perfectly suited for modern rock radio, as the song is carried by Jeff Harder's soaring vocals, while "Flatline" skillfully balances abrasive chords with layered vocal melodies. The pleasant "Push For New" takes us back to the incessant hooks of Jimmy Eat World's Bleed American, while "Then Again" adeptly pushes listeners' buttons, shifting from pensive verses to roaring choruses. The album tends to play things too safely, as the band resorts to the same emo clichés we've heard from a ton of bands before them, but Aphasia's knack for smart songwriting is apparent, and they have a solid-sounding frontman in the versatile Harder. It's only a matter of time before they'll be putting out albums that blow the Foo Fighters away. [Amazon]
Careen, Crash Couture (Careen) Rating: 5
Careen earns a few bonus points early on by straying from 4/4 time on their second song and shifting the rhythm on their first. The early tracks are not an indication of future adventurousness, however. The album is occasionally catchy, occasionally inventive. It would earn extra bonus points for including synth hooks if we weren't already smack dab in the middle of an '80s revival. That being said, Crash Couture is a decently solid album. Andrew Grow's lead vocals (listed as "leadvox" in the press release) can be grating occasionally, but many songs are pleasant enough. As a side note, the lyrics reprinted in the liner notes are infuriating because they are printed in a single block without a hard return to distinguish the different songs. Everyone should stop doing this. So download some of these tunes (legally, for the love of God) and reject the filler. That's how we get out of the '80s revival and begin an unpronounceable '00s revival. [Amazon]
Cats + Jammers, Propose Toast (Scotch Hell) Rating: 5
Can a relatively obscure indie band such as Chicago's Cats + Jammers truly have a "greatest hits" album? I'm not sure, but they've issued one, anyway. Propose Toast is a 17-track compilation of tunes from the band's three previous albums, and two new ones thrown in for good measure. But like a lot of indie power pop, Cats + Jammers are plagued with the same old, same old. Too cute at times ("Lollipop Lies"), too same-sounding ("Follower" and "Rejection"), and songs whose titles promise more than they can live up to lyrically ("People Are Stupid", "White People Can't Dance", "Zodiac Girl"). But of course at the same time these guys pull out enough hooks here and there to make this collection a halfway decent listen from time to time. Had this been whittled down to 10 songs, they may have had something, but the good old overkill has struck once again. One for the fans, but definitely not for everyone. [Amazon]
Fake Ray, The Fumes Are Deadly Star Maps (North and South Music) Rating: 5
This British act's two singles are very punchy, pop and arty, sort of like a reved-up Franz Ferdinand judging by the rapid-fire "The Fumes Are Deadly" that has lead singer John Ray giving it his all behind a tight rhythm section. Think of Gang of Four or a tamer version of The Futureheads and you should get the idea. This is a song that is meant to soar and it does. "I Was Already Dead" is a cross between The Stereophonics at their sneering best and Jet, a tune that has its share of guitars blasts. The third track on this single is "Fortune Smiles" which opens with Ray speaking the lyrics as if he was suddenly possessed by Bono or Lou Reed. And as the loop of "ringing like a bell" goes on, Ray sings against it to mixed results. The other single Star Maps begins, oddly enough, with the title track, a high-energy tune that is power pop, punk at times but filled with rock but goes into another stratosphere with the chorus, sliding into a greater, more infectious vibe. A perfect complement here is "Sister Rita" which is a garage-ish version of something Suede might have once attempted.
High & Mighty, 12th Man (Eastern Conference) Rating: 7
A long time ago, Mr. Eon and DJ Mighty Mi, a.k.a. High & Mighty, were on Rawkus Records, and had such big names as Eminem and Pharoahe Monch guess starring on their debut. However, despite their obvious talent, High & Mighty never really fit with the mainstream record industry, and stepped out of the big leagues to succeed on their own terms (all of this is recounted in their new album's funky autobiographical "Outta Here"). Perhaps it was Mr. Eon's pop culture drenched rhymes, think the Beastie Boys except a little more intense and a little less adolescent, or DJ Mighty Mi's unusually melodic and layered beats that separated them from other rappers. In any case, High & Mighty have only improved with their work on their own Eastern Conference Records, and 12th Man shows the pair growing into a pretty impressive duo. The fact that the hipsters who have idolized Atmosphere and Aesop Rock have not really latched onto High & Mighty is inexplicable, who else would better appreciate a band that makes references to Harvey Pekar and hip-hop collages based on Simpsons episodes sound downright gangsta. Although most of the songs flow into each other, creating less a collection of songs than an evolving soundscape where Mr. Eon can free associate, the stand-out tracks on 12th Man are absolutely devastating. "Unholy Matrimony" pits Mr. Eon with/against Princess Superstar in a hilarious and somewhat disturbing tale of the unfortunate marriage between two self-proclaimed "sex addicts". Even better is the closer "Dumb", three minutes of Mr. Eon rattling off a Rolodex of stupid things stupid people have done recently, featuring the funniest dis that the disee will never hear: "I'm 50 Cent dissing Ja Rule / And then twelve months later sounding just like Ja do". Classic. [Amazon]
One Umbrella, Solve (Tell-All) Rating: 5
With five tracks from their self-released Consider the Opposite EP and three from an upcoming full-length, One Umbrella's Solve serves as a calling card of sorts for the Austin, Texas-based duo of Carlos Villarreal (a.k.a. "Quebron") and Sarah Lipsante (a.k.a. "Novella"). If Austin bands can be said to have a geographically identifiable "sound", then One Umbrella is a fierce exception to the rule; the duo's music is far more in line with Houston's Charalambides than any of their hometown peers. With an arsenal of instruments ranging from the commonplace (guitars, piano) to the exotic (kalimba, glockenspiel) to the inexplicable ("Module No. PBKKL1", "Feederference"), Villarreal and Lipsante construct washed-out slabs of droning ambiance that range in length from 44 seconds to seven minutes. It's fairly nondescript overall, though the three newer tracks show the group's potential to grow from self-consciously avant-garde to stunningly orchestral with further refinement.
Rebbeca, Halfway in Love (Fat Northerner) Rating: 7
This Liverpool four-piece has brought with them a style, grace and elegance that makes current darlings Keane sound shoddy, unpolished and unkempt. The polished yet honest pop melodies are in abundance on the opening tune "Halfway in Love". It's a very lush, orchestral, "big" tune that the band delivers without any hint of being out of their league. The high notes are even higher than Keane's Tom Chaplin but not as high as Suede (now The Tears) Brett Anderson. "When Thoughts Lead To Emptiness" has more bite to it a la U2 but isn't as anthem-ic. Unfortunately, like most EPs, they're hard to judge since most bands would be idiots not to pick the three strongest tunes. "The Thousandth Man" is a lighter, acoustic tune that soars at times. On the whole we have another Brit band that is soon to eat up and spit out its influences.
Tears From The Sky, Power Symbol, (Life Sentence) Rating: 7
Bible belt preachers and upstanding moralists should pounce all over Tears from the Sky for promulgating the devil's music. Power Symbol is a raucous contribution, a part the insidious plot to tear apart the fabric of society. It is, after all, blitzkrieg rock: thunderous riffs and explosive lyrics delivered with lightning speed for maximum carnage (see every song). The sheer impact of their aural assault is enough to strip the skin from flesh, invading your thoughts with songs splattered with blood and gore. A six-song offensive, Power Symbol finds the group launching an aural attack on society. Blanket carpet bomb drumming creates chaos and the machine gun guitars are jammed on automatic. But it's the savage battle cry that will stalk you into your dreams. With a voice this grating, the harsh delivery overpowers the lyrical content, which is standard heavy metal fare. If you're gonna declare war against society, let this brand of thrash metal guide your way.
Various Artists, Delectronict V.03 (DEC) Rating: 3
Detroit is one of the most important cities in the history of American electronic music, rivaled in significance only by New York and Chicago. However, the cool elegance and quiet virtuosity that served as the hallmark for artists like Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May is in short supply on the Detroit Electronica Coalition's third regional showcase. Many of these artists are simply not ready for exposure beyond the local level. 4FR's "Who Will Survive Us?" reminds me of '60s garage rock as much as anything electronic. Enluften's pseudo-trance industrial brings to mind the worst excesses of the early Wax Trax! catalog. Doc Raymond succeeds with a pleasing slice of vintage techno ("House of Bang"), and Voltage Controlled Ficus' "The Drill" brings to mind the best of Frankie Bones, but the rest of the disc falls flat under the weight of redundant groups like Silvercord (NIN pastiche), CEOXiME (Garbage pastiche), and Humachine (which sounds, for the life of me, like "Weird" Al goofing on Stabbing Westward). Poor.
D:Fuse, Begin (System) Rating: 5
Although he's released half a dozen DJ compilations (many of which I actually own), the only reason I remember D:Fuse at all is because he always wears a cowboy hat on his record covers. Which should probably tell you something about how distinctive and memorable I find his brand of progressive house. But in any event, the cowboy hat is gone for Begin, replaced by a newfound sense of eclecticism. Unlike many house DJs who plunge into solo albums, D:Fuse wisely sticks to his strengths for a large part of the CD, laying down funky beats for tracks like "Deep Seduction" and "Living the Dream". Excursions into the realms of Latin house ("A Light Less Broken"), jazzy broken-beat ("Know It's Late") and trip-hop ("Into Me") are nowhere near as awkward as they could have been. His lyrics are a little trite and his production is somewhat bland, but his heart's in the right place. This is hardly the best album you'll hear all year, but it isn't nearly as bad as it could have been. [Amazon]
The Cat Empire, "Hello" / "How to Explain" [2-track sampler] (EMI Australia) Rating: 2
Oh sweet Jesus. It started with so much promise: ecstatic horns, hand claps, congas, a ticklish keyboard riff. A prelude to ass shaking that lasts a whole 18 seconds. And then? G. Love rapping with the square de-li-ver-y of Vanilla Ice? Line up the body shots and let the frat boys in. Whoever thought of fusing Miami Sound Machine with the Macarena probably uses dollar bills for soap, because the Cat Empire's debut album (from which these two songs are taken) went double-platinum and earned six ARIA nominations in Australia. This Melbourne sextet, which inexplicably got actual Cuban musicians and producer Jerry Boys to work on its new CD Two Shoes, describes itself as a "jazz-soul-hip-hop-Cuban-reggae-gypsy amalgamation". I think "piss in a Mountain Dew bottle" will do just fine.
Christ., Seeing and Doing. (Benbecula) Rating: 6
What do you expect when you hear a band named Christ? Contemporary Christian pop? Gothic sludge? Death metal wankery? All three and then some? Well, perhaps it should ultimately be no surprise that Christ is an electronic act, mixing ambient textures with fuzzy beats and found sounds sprinkled throughout. It's a fine little EP of sorts, but the fact of the matter is in its four short cuts (the fifth track, "Marsh of Epidemics" is a remix of itself on track two), not much ground is covered. It sounds nice, but it feels static. Kind of like a ton of other albums released in the genre. Still, one could do worse, and if you're looking for something to perhaps relax to, or have some nice background music or unobtrusive driving tunes, Seeing and Doing doesn't make for a bad choice. [Amazon]
The Thieves, The White Line EP (Liquor and Poker)
With a fat riff and a slinky vocal The Thieves tear open the lid on their The White Line EP with "You Get It Easy". It's a catchy rock song that aspires to the best that Eddie Money and Rick Springfield ever gave to us. By that I mean it's pretty shallow, vapid, and unimportant. But it's fun to sing-a-long to as long as you don't tak yourself or The Thieves too seriously while you're doing it. This is music to drink and snort lines to and the band knows it. They're aspiring to the throne of success, money, and hella chicks. There isn't a song on The White Line EP that you'll be able to remember once the hangover has worn off. It's fun for about one verse and one chorus, after that it's a quick trip the fast forward button. The White Line EP is an utterly typical and totally forgettable set of songs. Sure, there are county fairs all across this great nation begging for visits from a band like The Thieves. With a little luck they'll find each other. I'll be listening from the beer garden.
Muller and Patton, Muller and Patton (self-released) Rating: 6
Jaye Muller and Ben Patton weave some very sweet melodies over a pop-meets-rock jangle on the pout-tinged opener "I Want My Mommy", which brings to mind the Finn Brothers trying to rock out after listening to The Futureheads. "Marylou" is a slower, ballad-fuelled tune that again brings Neil Finn to the fore with a light but extremely melodic string-laced ditty. By the first 10 minutes you think you're listening basically to one long song, although the jazzy, be bop nature of "We Oughta Work Together" misses the mark initially before veering back to familiar territory. And "Life Preserver" is a bit too cute for its own good but the Beatles-ish beat makes up for it. The same can be said for "Photo of the Future" which sounds like a mellower Ben Folds. "To Be Honest" has that sappy '80 Brat pack film score feel to it -- somber but with a big beefy ending. [Amazon]
The Album Leaf, Seal Beach EP (Better Looking) Rating: 5
Seal Beach bears little resemblance to the Spain-only EP of the same name that was released in 2003. One of the original five tracks has been cut, and replaced by the exclusive "For Jonathan", while the other four have been remastered, with new, moody violin a welcome addition. Five live tracks round things out. Album Leaf specializes in the kind of pitter-pattering, borderline new-age instrumentals that make you wonder whether your speakers are blown. That's not to say it's not pleasant, because it is: perfect hangover music that's saved from banality by Jimmy LaValle's delicate arrangements and expressive keyboard playing. The live tracks are the best; the addition of backing musicians, especially a drummer, makes for more dynamics. All in all, a nice Album Leaf primer. [Amazon]
Specimen 37, The Endless Looping Game (Chronic Pink) Rating: 5
There's a good chance that the following sentence, despite not containing any specifics whatsoever regarding the album itself, will largely shape one's impression of it: Specimen 37's The Endless Looping Game is prog. Spacey keyboards, long, meandering passages that mean very little in the grand scheme, and wholly ordinary vocals that speak toward the futility of everyday life via surreal imagery and made-up words like "gogzies" define the album. Sometimes it works, as on the title track that starts as lite rock and finishes like Primus. Sometimes it doesn't work, as on the incredibly drawn-out eight minutes that make up "Thursday Morning Jogger", punctuated by a few seconds right in the middle where the only sound we hear is, that's right, someone jogging. And sometimes, it just rocks out, as on the surprisingly compact "Helix", and "Monday", parts of which could have come straight off of a Soundgarden album for all we know. At eleven songs and almost 70 minutes, it's these rocking bits that keep the album from turning into one big space-age bore; still, it's a little too willfully odd in a tedious sort of way for most people to tolerate. And for Pete's sake, they've got to ditch that flange effect. [Amazon]
The Partridge Family, Come on Get Happy! The Very Best of the Partridge Family (Arista) Rating: 8
Most of us smile ruefully and chuckle condescendingly when we hear The Partridge Family. They're a joke, right? They were not a real family and not a real band. In fact, as a musical act, "they" were primarily Wes Farrell, a producer and talent-hound who masterminded their tightly controlled studio sound. He discovered that David Cassidy, chosen for the TV show because of his teen idol looks, could actually sing a little. Farrell surrounded him with solid L.A. session players and provided him with highly melodic, upbeat pop songs written by major talents such as Neil Sedaka, Gerry Goffin, Tony Romeo, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. This is fun, well-crafted AM pop with lots of catchy hooks and terrific harmony vocals. Come on Get Happy! includes four previously unreleased tracks, but who cares. What we want, and what we get, are six or seven wonderful pieces of ear candy (several of which were #1 hits) like "I Think I Love You", "I'll Meet You Halfway", and "Doesn't Somebody Want to Be Wanted". I can't tell you this is great, indispensable music. But I can tell you that it sounds terrific on a car stereo with the windows down and the summer wind blowing your hair. (Memo to Coldplay: Come On, Get Happy!) [Amazon]
Left Alone, Lonely Starts & Broken Hearts (Hellcat) Rating: 7
This Epitaph band fits the label's mold to a tee -- havoc-wreaking punk tunes that are tight, polished and filled with youthful vigor. Lead singer Elvis and his cohorts nails the opening title track that resembles Social Distortion on high speed dubbing (remember high speed dubbing?). Nothing is wasted here, especially during the strong and brawny "Broke My Heart" that features some excellent work by drummer Ramrod. The track is under two minutes, making it feel like you expect some "Oi! Oi!" a la Dropkick Murphys but never get it. Left Alone can give you some Rancid-ish ska also on the quirky hopping "Another Feeling". But it is primarily the rapid-fire punk of "Monday Morning" that makes it shine in the vein of The Living End. Another nugget is the hellacious but well honed "My Whole Life", "Wasted Time" and "My 62" that kicks the album into another gear, the latter mainly thanks to bassist Rick. Unfortunately "Dead Red Roses" sounds dead on arrival and too clichéd. [Amazon]
Paint It Black, Paradise, (Jade Tree) Rating: 5
If this is what paradise sounds like, send me straight to hell. A punk outfit that stays true to their forbearers, Paint It Black whip up 14 songs in the key of protest, all under a minute and 50 seconds long and all of them perfectly suitable for only diehard punk rock fans. There's a song about the government "election day", soldiers "atheists in foxholes", even one on drugs "pharmacist", yada yada yada. And while they're notions are noble, generally espousing anarchy and mass revolution as a solution to the current social inequalities, each song, despite the blistering pace, blends mindlessly into the next. Abrasive by choice, the vocals are not particularly stirring and screaming for the sake of screaming gets repetitive real quick. That said, North America is in the throes of an ADD-epidemic, a fact that should render my complaints about the length of songs void. With a total running time of only 21 minutes, making it through the whole CD should be a snap but after two or three songs, you've heard it all. [Amazon]