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Scrabbel, 1909 (Three Ring) Rating: 8
Scrabbel attempt to answer the age-old question: can an indie pop band write an album in which the title is based on the actions of Ahn Joong-Gun, a Korean patriot who was executed in 1910 after assassinating Japanese governor-general of Korea, Ito Hirobumi, on October 26, 1909? The answer is a resounding abso-freaking-lutely. The album 1909 brims with creativity. One-man-band Dan Lee enjoys the frequent company of some cello- and violin-playing friends to give the album some texture. It runs from the unabashed sunshine pop of "Last Train" to acoustic finger picking backed by synth drums on the title track. Also check out the exquisite dissonant notes ringing throughout "Save the Green Planet" and "Out of Time". "All the Things We Have" would even please the Syd Barrett enthusiasts. The biggest misstep might be a cover of the Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset". It's a good song performed faithfully, but with the already strong mix of originals (even including a few instrumental interludes), who needs the Kinks?
Clit 45, Self-Hate Crimes, (Better Youth Organization) Rating: 5
To paraphrase (of all things) Baseketball, it certainly seems to be raining shit on the guys in Clit 45. First of all, they've got a band name you can't say in front of your mom, but more pressing proof comes in the form of the Long Beach, CA-area 20-somethings' grimy street punk debut Self-Hate Crimes. Unlike the whiny, girls-don't-talk-to-me mallpunk clogging the airwaves these days, Clit 45 has real problems: "There's nothing left to believe in!" lead singer Dave howls on the grinding "What's Left?" He's also got a "heart full of hate" ("Just Who The...") and is sure that his hometown "will be the death of me" ("Dead Ends and Debauchery"); like I said real problems. Their outlook is bleak, but Clit 45's got at least one thing going for them: they can actually play their instruments; no guitar bludgeoners here. Sure, tunes like "Killed By Life" and "Gimme Death" are heavyheavyheavy but actual guitar hooks and melodies abound throughout Self-Hate Crimes. Admittedly, the band's worldview is best taken in small doses, and a "sameness factor" starts to creep in about halfway through the disc, but fortunately every song is sub-3:00 and Clit 45's pain and anguish is genuine and cathartic. [Amazon]
Count Zero, Little Minds (SineAppleSap) Rating: 6
Boston's Count Zero might have the right idea when it comes to synth-pop. Rather than emphasizing the synthetic sound, Count Zero uses the synthesizer as a neutral base for a variety of electric and acoustic instruments. Although featuring a wide range of instruments, Little Minds never seems overstuffed, the band knows that interesting sounds are only useful if used sparingly, hence the brief two-note trumpet blast that acts as the hook on the opening "Bite Off the Roses", which sets the tone for the entire album. The band has a little problem with keeping songs to their appropriate lengths, the 12 songs on the album take up nearly an hour of listening time, but the band adds enough interesting sonic wrinkles to compensate for the over-extended songs. The album has the feel of a near-concept album with lyrics that seem to revolve around the loss of innocence, the liner notes are presented as a coloring book, as singer Peter Moore admits in the robotic reggae of "Hello Somebody": "Maybe I'm going through a phase/ Lately I'm hung on younger days." Little Minds is not one of those big pop albums that will capture listeners with big hooks and crunchy riffs, but it contains enough subtle pleasures to engage listeners willing to give it a few spins. [Amazon]
Various Artists, One Scene to Another: Plumline Record's Tribute to Canadian Indie Rock (Plumline) Rating: 4
Back in the early 1990s while Seattle was blowing up, another, much quieter revolution was going on across the continent. Led by the (at the time) goofy, slackerish pop of Sloan, Canada's East coast exploded with a wealth of indie rock talent including Eric's Trip, the Super Friendz, and Thrush Hermit. The buzz grew to be quite loud and was nearly deafening when longtime indie mainstays Sloan and Eric's Trip both signed big deal record contracts with Geffen and Sub Pop, respectively. If One Scene to Another is any indication, Canadian indie rock has proven to be as important as Pavement or Sonic Youth to young bands. Spanning a generous 16 tracks, the Plumline Records' roster has paid a loving tribute to the music from the Great White North that has inspired them. As one might expect, the tributes here range wildly in quality. Though Mood Elevator's lounge take on Sloan's latter period "Money City Maniacs" works as novelty, it doesn't hold up as entire song. Likewise, the Hard Lesson's slower run through the Super Friendz's "Karate Man" lacks the latter's pop punch. On the other end of the spectrum, Spy Island's topsy-turvy rendition of Jale's "Ali" is refreshing, while Anthony Rochon's straightforward crack at Joel Plaskett's "The News of Your Son" retains the track's levity while the addition of piano gives it a texture Plaskett's studio version never had. Overall, One Scene to Another is a curiosity at best and proof of the longevity and reach of early Canadian indie rock. This disc is hardly essential if you already have the source material in your collection.
Skyline Rodeo, Long Drive to Iceland (Mightyming) Rating: 7
You want to enjoy some records because they have an odd album title or there is something in the name that you think means greater promise or fine musicianship. Skyline Rodeo has all of this and a kettle of fish! The trio, led by guitarists Morgan Chen and Steve Bumgarner weave in and out of each other on the gorgeous instrumental "Peppermint Patty", never sounding clichéd or old, instill extremely fresh. "George Bailey Complex" is a jerky indie pop tune in the vein of Violent Femmes finding their niche or cult status. They also are able to turn the mood of the album back and forth between hard moments and softer, reflective pieces such as "Trim The Fat" as well as a challenging but engaging "The Advent of Indie Yuppie" and They Might Be Giants-esque "Cliches Work". The last third of the record starts with another winding, creeping cult-ish tune entitled "Fire in the Hole" (no, not a Tragically Hip cover). And the sleeper pick is easily "My Commercial".
The Static Age, Neon Nights Electric Lives (Tarantulas/Bardic) Rating: 7
The shadow of The Cure looms large over The Static Age's latest release, Neon Nights Electric Lives. It would seem that The Static Age enjoyed the hollow bass and punchy keyboards of golden-age The Cure enough to appropriate them for their own measures, not to mention vocals that occasionally croak in that distinctly Robert Smithian manner. Where The Cure use their doom and gloom to build to glorious release, however, The Static Age is content to hide in the shadows. "So put on Sunday shoes / And dance the breakdown," sings Andrew Paley in the chorus of "It Never Seems to Last" with more than a little bit of Bowie's croon, and it's easy to have visions of sunglasses and oblivion, an upbeat welcoming of the end of the world. Drummer Bobby Hackney betrays his punk chops with some rollicking beats on tracks like "Amphibian" and "Ghosts", but it's the minor epics like "Vertigo" and "Canopy" that make lasting impressions. Add a couple of remixes to pad out the playing time and we're left with a surprisingly satisfying slice of pseudo-goth heaven. [Amazon]
The Rocket Summer, Hello, Good Friend (The Militia Group) Rating: 5
I am beginning to believe that it has become federal law that all singers of mall-friendly pop-punk must sound like first-year secondary school students. It's the only rational way to explain why so many of the genre's flag-bearers sound like pre-pubescent little brats, despite being (ostensibly) grown men. While some people might not mind the affected vocals -- hell, they might even find it charming -- I personally can't stand it. And it's a damn shame, because it gets in the way of fully enjoying and appreciating a project like the Rocket Summer, the brainchild of the talented Bryce Avary. Avary's a bit of a wunderkind -- all the songs on Hello, Good Friend are written, performed, and arranged by him -- and he has a good ear for writing a big, catchy melody and hook. However, it should be noted that this is a very particular type of pop music; the style would feel more apropos on a Broadway stage or as the theme song for the latest NBC sitcom. It's commercial in almost every sense of the word, and there is nothing on the disc that could be considered even remotely abrasive, experimental, or even innovative; the album itself lacks any real impact, that indefinable visceral quality that's inherent to the best music -- pop or otherwise. In fact, I would hazard to say that the only really impressive element to Hello, Good Friend is Avary's versatility and potential songwriting chops; everything else about it is predictable, a bit milquetoast, and a little bland. I can see a bright future for Avary as a jingle-writer, but unless he learns how to throw a decent punch, prospects for the Rocket Summer seem bleak indeed. [Amazon]
Various Artists, Dead Bands Party - A Tribute to Oingo Boingo (Indianola) Rating: 3
You know you're in creative trouble when two of the bands contributing covers for a tribute album are named after Beatles songs -- The Rocky Raccoons (seriously!) and Hello Goodbye. And it's that lack of originality found throughout the disc that ultimately does in Dead Bands Party - A Tribute to Oingo Boingo. Indianola Records brings together 14 artists to cover some of the most notable songs from the Oingo Boingo catalog. Unfortunately, there is a fine line between tribute and cover, and there is not much to distinguish this from any other mediocre covers collection. With the exception of Reel Big Fish's ska-inflected "We Close Our Eyes" (the stand-out track) and Jessica Burgan's acoustic rendition of "Stay" (unfortunately, the unique arrangement can't save the vocal performance), it plays more like a remix album than a tribute. Nearly every singer does their best Danny Elfman imitation over a pop-punk update, with some horns thrown in to keep things Boingo-like. If you're into karaoke, this might be a good primer on how it's done, otherwise it's best to steer clear. [Amazon]
Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers, One Night in Brooklyn (Universal) Rating: 3
It's a cute idea: cut an EP in 24 hours' time on two-inch tape with former members of Whiskeytown as your backing band. An exercise in spontaneity... or is it gimmickry? Stephen Kellogg's One Night in Brooklyn, a limited edition release to accompany his band's self-titled LP, is about as noteworthy as it is long. It sports six roots rockers that are alternately revved up, breezy, and numbingly pensive; there are guitar strings, strumming like strummed strings do, and choruses that swell like a heart in a throat. Though the performances are spotless and assured, they're also inoffensive and anonymous. It's fitting that Kellogg would enlist the help of Whiskeytown's Mike Daly and Caitlin Cary, for his songs evoke the easily evocable templates of Ryan Adams. If slick, uncomplicated songs about feelin' bad and sad and confused are your cup of tea, One Night in Brooklyn is like Lipton: it's not your first choice, but it'll do in the absence of others.
Sugarhit, Takin' for a Ride EP (www.sugarhit.com) Rating: 4
This Sydney, Australia power trio certainly have an ear for good guitar pop, citing The Cars, Teenage Fanclub, and Matthew Sweet in their bio. But on this debut EP they never reach the euphoric heights scaled by their influences, in part due to sloppy playing. "Brand New Baby" suggests Cheap Trick (good) as covered by Veruca Salt (bad), while "Save My Love" is yet another "Brown Sugar" ripoff. But summery, slightly jazzy tunes like "Wherever We Want" and "Dream of You" offer hope for the future.
Rahim, Jungles (Frenchkiss) Rating: 7
I like you Rahim. As far as whys go, I can't be sure. Maybe it's your band name. It's easy and suits your cavalier hustle quite well. Maybe it's because I get a snaking feeling that you guys would absolutely shockshake live. The clamouring dual vocal offensive matched with the nifty guitar riffing is guaranteed to kick kids' asses on the dance floor. I imagine jumping jacks and cartwheels and suspiciously well-choreographed dance training of varying degrees of difficulty. Jungles begins with a whistle blow for shit's sake. But really, where do you three get off creating so many occasions for domestic humiliation? I don't even want to think about all of the spouses/roommates/parents/poltergeists that will have to witness the fist pumping acrobatics your EP will spawn. In bedrooms across the universe crooked faced Rahim cohorts will be clapping along to "One At A Time" and "Gasoline" celebrating the demise of Q and Not U. Now that I think about it, maybe you've ensnared my esteem because you name songs after medieval catapults (see the propulsive "Trebuchet"). But it really must be because you've somehow managed to scrounge some residual excitement off the dance-punk floor. Rahim, prince of thieves, in the crowded hardcore-lite scene you've stolen my heart. I love you Rahim. [Amazon]
Giles, Giles (Victory) Rating: 3
Remember that strange period in the mid-to-late '90s when the cool kids decided that techno was the next big thing? Didn't matter what it was; the pop culture arbiters crammed everything from Big Beat to Trance to Acid House right down our collective throats, labeling it all electronica and giving themselves a big, hearty pat on the back. Of course, most folks didn't hear the difference either; they heard electronica, they thought techno, and that was the end of that. Giles -- the side-project of metalcore outfit Between the Buried and Me frontman Tommy Rogers -- sounds like it was produced by one of those people. It's an odd mish-mash of different styles, having no real cohesion or structure in its madness; it often sounds like it was produced by someone whose only real exposure to electronic music was limited to the soundtrack for Hackers (which, admittedly, probably isn't too bad of a primer). It's perhaps best described as basic hard techno with some minor flirtations with industrial, but there's no real flair or style to the work, and the songs are a bit too short to be able to maintain a comfortable groove to. Generic, forgettable, and lacking technique, I couldn't see this being spun at any club or party with regularity; it's electronic ADD, really only suited for video games and ESPN promo spots. [Amazon]
KingBathmat, Fantastic Freak Show Carnival (Stereohead) Rating: 5
"Roll up and join the queue / To the Fantastic Freak Show Carnival," beckons John Bassett on the title track to his latest release as KingBathmat. Perhaps Bassett wishes his summons could be an invitation to escapism like the Beatles song to which it alludes, but the claustrophobic, deteriorating environment of his music isn't easy to run from. Fantastic Freak Show Carnival's psych-arena rock -- big, blunt Bends-ian chords cuddled by extravagant ELO harmonies -- feels haunted from the inside out. Bassett (who performs all instrument duties on the record) has a flair for wicked hooks, which rear their infectious heads periodically: the electrifying "Ghost in the Fire", the ballad "Sweet Iris", and "King's Ransom", which contorts like prog and thrills like power pop. While KingBathmat's music is beautifully moody, it also tends to be overly indulgent at times: The 11-minute closing track "Soul Searching Song" comes off like King's X tackling 2112. Simply put, Bassett's better left to the shorter, poppier stuff. Like all freak shows, this one's got some fantastic stuff if you can get past some of the squeamishly decadent.
Team Sleep, Team Sleep (Warner Bros./Maverick) Rating: 6
Deftones' Chino Moreno ventured into new territory with his side project Team Sleep. And if you were to measure the album by "Ataraxia", then you would find a highbrow rock album that is rid of the wails, screaming and over-the-top aggressiveness found on the Deftones catalogue. Moreno has refined the pipes to reveal something richer and elegant, bringing to mind a less electro-based Depeche Mode. "Ever (Foreign Field)" however falls off the mark immediately with the trip-hop beat rubbing Moreno's delivery wrong. Moreno tries to save the tune by bringing it into a dreamy, lullaby Smashing Pumpkins feel as does the bombastic, theatrical, quasi-Cure oeuvre of "Your Skull Is Red". And it seems to work for both, although the latter is far heavier. "Blvd. Knights" is another good attempt but tends to revert back to Deftones turf while "Our Ride to the Rectory" is another melancholic, synth-tinted dreary but solid ditty. Others are just self-serving miscues, particularly "Tomb of Liegia" and the sonic sludge and idleness of "Staring at the Queen". One bright spot later on is the concise and focused "King Diamond". And just when you think it's dead in the water the second half of "Live From The Stage" energizes the record again. [Amazon]
The Myriad, You Can't Trust a Ladder (Floodgate) Rating: 4
Most bands copying Radiohead (Muse, Ours, etc.) stick to The Bends, mainly because the more recent albums are too difficult to emulate. The Myriad can't even copy The Bends satisfactorily. They hide the fact that they're a Christian band pretty well until you read the lyrics (Internet searches showed me the light), but they can't hide the fact that many of their songs are bland and sound the same. A couple of tracks ("The Last Time", "Perfect Obligation") are radio ready. Their choruses stick with me, but that might be because so many lyrics are repeated so often. Nothing is terrible here. This is paint by numbers modern rock music. So if you like your tree trunks brown, leaves green, and suns blindingly yellow, check The Myriad out. Otherwise, wait around for someone to color outside the lines every once in a while. [Amazon]
The Hurt Process, A Heartbeat Behind (Victory) Rating: 6
It's somewhat amusing that one can often predict what a band will sound like based on name and label alone. The Hurt Process. Victory Records. Basic emo with metallish, maybe hardcore overtones. Singer's probably going to whine about how much he misses his girlfriend. So I wasn't all that astonished when A Heartbeat Behind lived up to all my expectations; however, I was a bit taken aback when the disc actually began to grow on me (Shhh! Don't tell anyone or they're going to revoke all my Indie Cred!). The musicianship involved is stellar, the songwriting is surprisingly dynamic, the boys have an ear for penning a catchy melody, and the very first track "Anchor" has a giggle-inducing '80s guitar solo that, quite frankly, comes out of nowhere. Seriously: you can't go wrong with shoving an onanistic guitar solo into otherwise incongruous moments. Sure, the songs tend to run into each other, and it gets hard to differentiate one track from the other by the middle of the disc, but the enthusiasm, energy, and brute force conveyed by the group more than makes up for these faults. This is your little sister's new favorite band. [Amazon]
The End of the World, The End of the World EP (Risk the Rook) Rating: 6
My friend Sam once got the notion that there was a mystery ingredient, which he called "The Slick", which accounted for the difference between ordinary rock and roll and the kind that inspired awe. He never could quite define "The Slick" beyond a sense of a decadent detachment, he attempted to point to various acts and songs and tried to find a unified quality, but upon listening to The End of the World's self-titled debut EP, I think I know what he's getting at. Songwise, there's nothing on The End of the World that is more than workmanlike New York rock and roll, but there's something in the band's sparkling clean guitar work and Stefan Marolachakis's soaring, sneering vocals that exudes a "cooler than thou" vibe. The End of the World aren't breaking any new ground at all, they stick true to the "the" band rulebook, but there are a handful of moments that make the hairs on my neck stand up every time. "This Little Theater" is the theoretically single, but, for me, the minimalist quasi-ballad "Tuesday Becomes Wednesday" is the show-stopping moment, as Marolachakis's vocals sour above a spare guitar riff, as the rest of the band slowly joins him. If the End of the World could harness this mysterious energy more consistently, the band could eventually be worthy of their way too cool band name.
Tim Reis, The Rolling Stones Project (Concord) Rating: 7
The Stones have been covered numerous times. However, this CD has Charlie Watts, Keith Richards, and Ron Wood on it, as well as Norah Jones, Sheryl Crow, Bill Frisell, and many others. It is a jazz version of hits ("Satisfaction" and "Gimmie Shelter") and lesser-known Stones songs ("Slippin' Away") by a sax player who was with the group on their last two world tours. "Street Fighting Man" is done in Latin style, with lounge style "badaba" vocals. Reis may be kidding a bit here, but the idea works surprisingly well. Reis does a pensive turn on "Paint It Black" with added guest solos. He plays "Honky Tonk Woman" in rock style along with soulful female vocals. Although the CD veers towards smooth jazz at times -- something that does not mesh well with the Stones -- most of the tracks are five to seven minutes long, giving time to explore the melodies and the concepts behind the arrangements. [Amazon]
Al Petteway & Amy White, Land of the Sky: Musical Inspirations from the Southern Appalachians (Maggie's Music) Rating: 6
The back of the latest CD of Al Petteway and Amy White's latest effort reads "File Under: NEW AGE, CONTEMPORARY FOLK." I don't know about you, but that's a warning label if I ever saw one. But listening to the title track of the album puts to rest all of the negative connotations those labels might have, those of Yanni and a thousand other pony-tailed/mulleted tinklers. The originals and public domain classics, from "Black Bear's Picnic" to "The Cuckoo" are all arranged and performed with great care and subtlety. Joe Ebel's violin handles the melody on "Shady Grove" over rolling banjo and acoustic guitar. The song notes are also interesting, touching on song histories both personal and geographical. It is probably accurate to dub the compositions "New Age" in the sense that they're all smooth as hell, but just because they're not field recordings doesn't mean you should turn your nose up at these fine interpretations. [Amazon]
The Crayon Fields, The Good Life (Cavalier) Rating: 4
Oh, so you like indie-rock? Especially the poppier, less-aggressive stuff that's doing okay for itself these days? Here, try the Crayon Fields. I think you'll like them. Yeah, they're guitar-based, but they've got some decent basslines that should keep you grooving. And, like, grooving in the '60s sense -- there's a real psychedelic throwback thing going on here. There's even one slow number, "Soak With Me in the Sun" that has those vocal harmonies you dig... You're not into it? Why not? Oh, I see -- it's okay but it just doesn't stand out. You've listened to enough music like the stuff on this EP that you're kind of done with it, and you don't need one more disc in your collection. That's cool; I can totally see where you're coming from.