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Electric Frankenstein, Burn Bright, Burn Fast (TKO) Rating: 7
It took them 13 years, but the rock 'n' roll maniacs in Electric Frankenstein have finally "Frankensteined" together an album, stitching together tunes that didn't make the cut from their 13 previous recording sessions and unleashing Burn Bright, Burn Fast on the unsuspecting villagers, er, listening audience. It's no "odds 'n' sods" collection, though, as all the songs were re-recorded and tweaked as needed (presumably dated references to "Baby Got Back" were dropped -- ha); consider Burn Bright, Burn Fast a brand-spankin'-new album. Of course, EF's sonic attack and DIY-ethos has changed very little over the years, but when some of the band's heroes are the set-in-their-ways guys from AC/DC, whaddya expect? Everything on BB,BF is a hookhappy blitzkrieg, a mash-up of '60s garage and late '70s hard rock, fueled by lead singer/guitarist Steve Miller's (no, not that Steve Miller) buzzsaw riffs and sneering lyrics like "Everybody's Dead Again"'s "Don't blame me cuz your life's such a mess!" And in case any doubt about EF's fun-comes-first mindset remains, dig the hilarious album cover (by Basil Gogos) and over-the-top song titles: "Hey! (Kiss Your Life Goodbye)", "New World Whore" and "Electric Misery". They even toss in a cover of the Cars' "Candy-O", just because they can. Electric Frankenstein must be doing something right, as they've released over 100 recordings throughout their career, and, as ever, I remain a champion of Big Dumb Rock. Recommended If You Like: Supersuckers, early Hellacopters, Supagroup. [Amazon]
Coastline, Sweet 'N' Ripe (Landslide) Rating: 3
Coastline is a clearly appropriate name for this Carolina six-piece combo. They're from the coast right? They sing an ode to "Chesapeake Bay"; they've got that particular, Old Bay-dusted mid-Atlantic flavor. But an even better name, if it's not already taken, would be "Band of Dudes". Soul, funk, blues, rock, and r&b congeal on Sweet 'N' Ripe into jammy dude rock, that special province of sweaty barrel-chested buddies who like their brews in plastic festival cups, and dub their women "Sweet Mama Do Right". The playing is as sharp as you'd expect from a band that gigs 300-plus shows a year, and I'd probably boogie my ass off to "Tears Tears and More Tears" at a kegger or street festival, but the recording in no way capture the raucous, live feel they're attempting. Unfortunately, it doesn't sound sweet and ripe so much as canned. [Amazon]
Manntis, Sleep in Your Grave (Century Media) Rating: 4
Although they placed third on the mildly entertaining MTV reality show/battle of the bands, Battle For Ozzfest, Southern California's Manntis appear to have not been fazed one bit, recently inking a deal with metal big boys Century Media. The label has been quick to hype the young band, declaring they will "breathe fresh air into the hardcore and metal scene," but in all honesty, although there are faint traces of talent in this young band, fresh, this album is not, as the band stays within the safe, and highly repetitive, confines of metalcore. Granted, the half-hour CD is energetic, and bolstered by talented guitarists Adair Cobley and Jeremy Swanson, and there are sporadic moments where listeners ears will perk up ("Axe of Redemption", for one), but the guitar duo only briefly flirts with ferocious, Scandinavian metal licks, lazily reverting to cookie cutter Slipknot riffs, as the monotone hardcore howl of vocalist Jake Daniels drags things down even further. Sleep in Your Grave is not a terrible album, but when compared to another recent CD like Darkest Hour's Undoing Ruin, Manntis have plenty of work to do before they can consider themselves among the elite in new American metal. [Amazon]
FM Bats, Everybody Out... Shark in the Water (TKO) Rating: 5
FM Bats don't reinvent the wheel for these songs, all six of which add up to a grand total of less than 10 minutes. "18 Is Dying" is standard garage pop fare that might go somewhere good at some point but really comes off as a pinch too listless. "All You Do Is Jerk" is better in the vein of a sneering and snippy John Lydon although is far from punk. The quartet, led by singer Todd Jacobs, don't really know when a messy sound works and when it doesn't, and "Young Man's Glory, Old Man's Blues" is proof that they fall into the latter on this number that reeks of early Sabbath. After a brief instrumental which is needless, the band then offer up "Cat Brats Theme", another half-assed attempt at trying to be half-assed cool.
The Great Distance, The Great Distance (Swine Maid) Rating: 5
The Great Distance continue the UK tradition of sparse folk in the vein of David Gray and Damien Rice. The singer's voice certainly isn't as strong as Rice's or as interesting as Gray's. That being said, the lyrics are consistently excellent. Folk lovers rejoice. Unfortunately, the music takes a back seat. Arrangements, paces, musicianship, and chord progressions are more often soporific than terrific. And the clunky blues "Tom Waits" (which is likely referring to the musician even though the lyrics are "Now Tom Waits for no man") imitates its namesake in feel. Though the guitar solo in the song sounds more amateurish than what Tom Waits puts on a record. The bottom line is if you can stay awake through the slower numbers, you're in for a lyrical treat.
The Away Team, National Anthem (6 Hole) Rating: 6
The best thing about this debut from the East Coast hip-hop duo of MC Sean Boog and DJ Khrysis is that it's satisfied to settle into its own laid-back groove. Since it doesn't succumb to the overambition that's so common in indie hip-hop, it avoids the associated pretension and lack of focus. Khrysis's beats, mostly sampled, are tight, and he adds just enough frills -- a funk loop here, a string-synth there -- to keep each track interesting. Boog's rhymes mostly fit the standard boasting/dissing/romancing protocol, and his high-pitched delivery is undistinguished. But his lyrics are sharp ("Your body's so dope / Couldn't sneak it through customs", from "One'N'Only"), and he's never wordy. No Earth-changing agenda, then, just some solid hip-hop. Oh, and that unidentified MC who says, "This is a promo" at the beginning of each track is very annoying. [Amazon]
Big Blue Hearts, Here Come Those Dreams Again (Eagle Eye) Rating: 7
Country music toes a fine line between commercial pop and traditional country leanings. Big Blue Hearts must have gotten their doctorate in this field though with the lovely and well-crafted roots pop-meets-country sound of "Lovin' You" as lead singer David Fisher executes each line as if he's the godchild of The Mavericks and Gin Blossoms. Chris Isaak also comes to mind during the mid-tempo reflection of "Love Or Something Like It", the tender "Ordinary People" and the moody, dark and dank headspace that oozes from "Dreamin' of a Woman". Big Blue Hearts are easily at home in either realm, with sugar-coated tunes like the title track resembling Kevin Welch when he was still with the big labels. Fisher and his mates continue to explore the Isaak-Orbison flow on the ballad-esque "You Can't Lose What You Never Had" as he outdoes himself here. The lone black sheep is the shuffling, swinging approach used during "Don't Mind Messin'" that pushes the envelope a tad over the bar. The track is too manufactured as Fisher name-drops Tokyo and Ohio and some clichéd rhyme schemes. However, the jewel is the roots-soaked singer-songwriter "What Would You Do" that is hard to describe as anything other than fantastic. A truly pleasing album! [Amazon]
Air Formation, 57 Octaves Below EP (Club AC30) Rating: 4
On the new four-song EP, 57 Octaves Below, Brighton's Air Formation seems to be taking several stabs at creating one perfect song. Each of the four tracks on the EP seems like a different attempt at a perfect, majestic shoegaze anthem. The band meticulously adds layers of feedback and laconic vocals into inspiring, yet soulless, soundscapes. "For the Hours" attempts to be a Sigur Ros-esque drone ballad, while "Never Far Away" takes the same structure and applies a much quicker tempo and a little more straightforward distortion. "Ghosts" follows a more My Bloody Valentine, monolithic wall-of-sound approach. "Hope" is a more stripped-down ballad, where the band layers its sounds gradually, which, with its relative clarity, stands out as the best track on the album, even if it moves at a glacial pace. Still all four of the songs sound little more than academic variations on the same general idea and none of the attempts really inspire anything more than an appreciative nod. Air Formation has all the necessary skills to create this perfect shoegaze song that they are attempting to create, but the pretty but lackluster 57 Octaves Below fails to strike any emotional chords.
Colin Hay, Going Somewhere (Compass) Rating: 8
Four years ago, former Men at Worker Colin Hay sauntered onto the stage of The Late, Late Show with Craig Kilborn to sing "Beautiful World" from his most recent album, Going Somewhere. His performance was startling: it was poignant, lyrically rich, and with a universal appeal, much like the acoustic effort he was onstage to promote. Zack Braff must have seen this performance as well, because in the four years since, Hay's songs have scored the hit NBC sitcom "Scrubs" and Braff's movie Garden State. Thanks in large part to the success of "I Just Think I'll Never Get Over You," from the Garden State soundtrack, Compass Records has reissued this intensely likeable record ("I Just Think I'll Never Get Over You" appears as a bonus cut on this reissue), giving the general public other shot at discovering such gems as "Beautiful World," "Looking for Jack" and "Waiting for My Real Life to Begin." [Amazon]
Nikka Costa, can'tneverdidnothin' (Virgin)
OK, so maybe Nikka Costa's bad-ass soul diva shtick seems a tad contrived. But the girl definitely has soul, and certainly can belt it out. With this, her sophomore album, Costa actually rises above the plethora of pseudonym-soul singers, while creating a sweaty musical funkathon. With the help of her own potent pipes, a powerful horn section, chunky bass lines and some suggestive bump 'n grind lyrics, can'tneverdidnothin' has the fingerprints of her buddies Lenny Kravitz (who plays drums on three tracks) and Prince all over it. In fact, there are several Dirty Mind-era sounding-tracks here, complete with lines like "Swing it around and put it in here/Blow my mind and I'll bend right rover." Costa is especially inspired on the up-tempo, groove-heavy tracks, making Tina Turner's "Funkier Than a Mosquito's Tweeter" her own, yet shows surprising (and appropriate) mellowness on the album's two tender closing ballads. [Amazon]
Aroah, En El Patio Interior (Acuarela) Rating: 6
Though consistent in tone -- slow and thoughtful -- each successive Aroah recording comes close to eclipsing the one before it in terms of power, both the quiet emotional force of the songs and the effect that well-placed instruments and careful arrangements can have on them. The follow-up to Aroah's spellbinding second album The Last Laugh is an EP that offers more of the same, but in a compact form that only helps accentuate Tremblay's unique gifts as a singer and songwriter. En El Patio Interior's songs, including the delicate title track and the organ-dominated "Blue Room" -- reflect the inside-your-head feeling that the title suggests. Two of those songs, plus the country-ish love ballad "Keys", were co-written with Raul Fernandez, who releases his own compelling pop music as Refree. He also produced the EP, which has a beautiful spare atmosphere fitting for songs that often feel like they're the product of silent introspection. For all its gentle charm, En El Patio Interior opens with a bang, with a riveting cover of a classic inner monologue, albeit a third-person one: Lou Reed's "Caroline Says II", from Berlin. Tremblay's passionate version is imbued with understanding, and captures listeners' complete attention, which is held through to the end, when the EP comes to a sudden close with "A Dream", an eerie and enigmatic recollection of a nightmare. [Amazon]
Richard Cheese, Aperitif for Destruction (Surfdog) Rating: 2
The press release accompanying Richard Cheese's latest offering, Aperitif for Destruction, proclaims "Just imagine: Sinatra singing Guns 'N' Roses!" I'm not sure who that would appeal to either in theory or in execution. Cheese is a bad imitation of a bad lounge singer, with nowhere near the ability of Sinatra. Cheese's band, Lounge Against the Machine, has the misfortune of having to deliver competent, technically sound music behind a one-note joke that is old before it begins. From 2 Live Crew's "Me So Horny" to U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday" (given an ill-advised Spanish overhaul), Cheese's creativity is limited to his butchering of 16 contemporary popular songs. The collection bottoms out halfway through the disc with a cover of Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney's "The Girl is Mine", remade here as an offensive "duet" between Cheese and an embarrassing Stephen Hawking sound-alike. Next time Cheese should cover The Smith's "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore". [Amazon]
Lisa DeBenedictis, Tigers (Magnatune) Rating: 6
Lisa DeBenedictis has come a long way in the last five or six years, from a Concrete Blonde covers band to Tigers: a curious collection of gentle, intriguing songs. The sole writer, performer and producer, DeBenedictis clearly has a bit of a thing about the big stripey cats that feature throughout the 13 songs on this pleasant and frequently surprising record. It's quiet music that repays careful listeners with treats such as "The Good Dancer" ("I've got a confession/ All of my songs are lies/ I never much liked you/ I just wanted to be like you") and the atypical lounge-jazz of "Brilliant Day". Given to moments of occasional medieval babe-ery, DeBenedictis is perhaps a little limited vocally, but she makes the most of what she has and in the very strangest way she reminds me more of Ivor Cutler than of any of the more likely solo female artists suggested by her label. Talking of which, you can listen to Tigers free and in its entirety on the excellent Magnatunes website, and I recommend you do. "Lions and tigers and bears. Oh my."
Goodbye Blue Monday, Help is On the Way (Loud and Clear) Rating: 5
I want to like this. I really do. Help is On the Way is the second release from the San Diego-based Goodbye Blue Monday, and for an album of its length (a mere 27 minutes or so), it sounds like a lot of effort went into it. It's a meticulously constructed rock 'n' roll album, almost math-rock in places, with lots of big distorted dueling guitar lines (like Franz Ferdinand, but less repetitive) and nigh-effortless shifts in mood and tempo. Urgent, strained vocal lines appear only when necessary, often giving way to extended instrumental passages that are long enough to feel artistic, but too short to approach anything resembling prog. Plus, there are lots of samples of what sound like old '50s informational videos. Songs like the hard-driving title track (which features a vocal melody from singer Matt Mournian that absolutely soars) and epic-ish closer "I Am the One" make Help is On the Way a worthy listen for those who want to rock all smart-like, but there's not a lot here that grabs you by the throat and holds on for dear life. Still, they tried, they really did. If they could write some songs that go for the heart as much as they go for the brain, Goodbye Blue Monday would be in good shape. Maybe next time.
Various Artists, Now We Are Three!!! (Lil' Chief) Rating: 4
By the time I was three, I could barely walk upright, was illiterate, and occasionally made clothes sticky using only my own natural powers. I was a bit of slow child, but still, it's no wonder that Lil' Chief hasn't figured out how to put together a good album sampler. I suspect most of these bands are decent (and there are almost no clunkers here), but they all start to blur together, or not "start to" so much as inherently do. Yes, we've got label cohesiveness, but it doesn't matter if I can't figure out what band I want to look into. What's even worse (or better -- I don't know at this point) is the perfection of the cover art. Look at those little cartoony dudes, especially that grinning chief guy, and take notice of what music is playing in your head. That's what the compilation sounds like.