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Via Tania, True (Chocolate Industries) Rating: 6
Chicago-based, Australian-born singer Tania Bowers takes a step beyond the smoky trip-hop of her two previous Chocolate Industries discs, recasting the song "True" -- originally an acoustic downtempo shuffle on 2003's Under a Different Sky -- as a broodingly hip post-punk arrangement for a full band. Along with "The Best Thing", another new track, the song hints at a fresh, more aggressive direction for Bowers' Via Tania alias, the extent of which will be confirmed by her forthcoming full-length. Fleshed out by the original version of "True" and "Felt Cave", a rather uneventful remix of Under a Different Sky's "In the Deep" by Tortoise's John Herndon (credited to his "A Grape Dope" alias), this four-track single generates a considerable amount of anticipation for the new Via Tania disc, slated for release this fall. [Amazon]
Joe Bonson & Coffee Run, Love Train (Arch Tech) Rating: 7
Joe Bonson and his back group Coffee Run offer up some good old country tunes that have none of the spit and polish of recent years but revert to the traditional sounds of people like Merle Haggard, Faron Young and Buck Owens. The opening Haggard classic "Mama Tried" is a toe-tapping, banjo-plucking tune that gets the album on the right track as is the honky tonk of "Jesus and Bartenders" that again harkens back to the Grand Ole Opry in its prime. The album settles down with the simple but still rather pleasing title track with some fiddle, banjo and mandolin. Just how effortlessly the group delivers these tunes is extremely refreshing from the glut of country crud out there, especially on the tender and lovely "I Wouldn't Change You If I Could" and the gorgeous "All My Bridges But One". Perhaps the fact Bonson has chosen such quality songs to cover could be part of the album's success, but rarely has someone done it this well and authentic. The only song that misses the mark somewhat is the Owens cover of "Just As Long As You Love Me". However, the Joe and Wendy Bonson-penned "Dreams" redeems itself. A very strong album that makes one yearn for a time when country wasn't all Big & Rich. [Amazon]
Chariots, Congratulations (Troubleman Unlimited) Rating: 3
Coming out of the gates like they're leading a Roman gladiator into battle, Chariots come out full throttle on their full length debut, Congratulations. Unfortunately the pleasantries, at least in this review, will be ending at the album's title. The disc was recorded with Dave Gardner, who also manned the decks for such acts as Rocket From the Crypt, Hot Snakes, and the Melvins, and the influence shows. Chariots deliver a similarly pared-down style of punk rock but nothing of it feels remotely interesting or new. The riffs feel second-hand, the grit-crusted production forced, and the vocal effects somewhat superfluous. Even the keyboard flourishes are not particularly interesting and seem to get lost in the overall mix. Guitarist Eric Odness has a knack for some lean licks, but doesn't know quite what to do with them. The result is an album that, long on ambition and short in supplies, falls into a repetitive rut. For all the bluster and heat, Chariots seem to be running around in circles. [Amazon]
Summer Blanket, Whisper Louder, (Pop Up) Rating: 3
On Summer Blanket's second album, Whisper Louder, frontman Keith Michaud has positioned his band between two genres - stripped-down coffeehouse folk and fuller-sounding chamber pop - leaving fans of one or the other feeling shortchanged. Perhaps this is a transitional record (the band's debut, Charm Wrestling was spare folk), and album number three will be full-on pop, but for now Michaud's stranded in no-man's-land. The glockenspiel and organ peppering "Compass, Cracked" and the slinky (for Michaud) "Elizabeth" will alienate those listeners who like their coffeehouse acoustic guitar, no chaser, and the over-earnest "Easy" and "Connecticut" (speaking as a Nutmegger for 20 years, my home state doesn't make for good musical material) are too bland for the chamber pop crowd. And neither potential fanbase will appreciate the Grandaddy-on-decaf opener "The Winter The Robots Fell In Love" or the extended baseball metaphor of the closer "The Long Run". There's something here for both musical camps, but not enough to go around. [Amazon]
Tom Brosseau, What I Meant to Say is Goodbye (Loveless) Rating: 3
Hovering in an airy abyss between bad and good, Tom Brosseau's What I Meant to Say is Goodbye lacks any repulsive or endearing quality. As contemporary folk goes, it's predictably pleasant enough but perhaps a bit too precise. The playing may be strong, but none of it sparkles or surprises. Even guest appearances by Jon Brion and members of Nickel Creek are rendered banal and indistinguishable by Brosseau's deliberately ordered arrangements of underwhelming songs. Everything is so as it should be that it's not just safe as milk, it's as stale as the diner coffee cliché invoked on the hackneyed vagabond anthem "Wandering". Although not exactly awful, Brosseau's lyrics are a general liability throughout as they ape timelessness but wind up aching with antiquation. Suitably pedestrian, the production is simple, sparse, and unfortunately unobtrusive as there's still something spectral about Brosseau's voice that suggests he can do better. Some smoke and mirrors in the studio might be what it takes to make an illusion of something palpable amidst what is really much too passive to pay any attention to. [Amazon]
Vytear, Breaks (Stiffeels Music) Rating: 7
If you see this record in the shop, ignore the cheesy New Age cover art and just buy it -- this album is 100% pure ass-kicker. If you remember how Kid 606 deconstructed the acid house paradigm in Kill Sound Before Sound Kills You, then you should be suitably prepared for the kind of damage Vytear does to breakbeats on Breaks. All the funkiest drum breaks you've ever heard get put into a blender and chopped at high speed, producing something just this side of Squarepusher -- all you IDM kids jonesing for a fix in between Analord installments should feel right at home here. The music is stretched out to the breaking point and emerges transformed into something occasionally horrific but with flashes of beauty. There are a few strangely familiar vocals floating through the ether as well. The hard, dense, violent stabs of mutant bass come on strong and leave you wasted. Considering that I was expecting absolutely nothing from this disc going in, I can honestly say it blew me away. [Amazon]
Mass Shivers, self-titled (Sick Room) Rating: 4
There's little doubt that the members of Mass Shivers have musical talent -- their self-titled EP contains a song called "Crank the Plank" that features alternating measures of ten and nine beats, before eventually exploding into a traditional rock 'n roll chorus. It's a nifty trick that only a talented, intelligent band could pull off. There's another song, "Swelling", that features some excellent, atmospheric tribal drumming. What I don't understand is the insistence on an empty sound, even for a band with no bass player. Ben Miolsness and Brett Sova are both credited with guitars, but both of them spend so much time playing single-note guitar lines that flit between dissonance and consonance that they create structured chaos that's just a little bit too easy to ignore. Combine those instruments with Sova's vocals, which sound like Jello Biafra without the bravado or the vibrato (which in retrospect equates to mostly just yelling), and you've got an EP that's interesting at best, and obnoxiously boring at worst. Mass Shivers have the talent, but my suspicion is that widespread success will elude them until they start from scratch and figure out how to make music that more than a few cultish fans will enjoy. [Amazon]
The Hatepinks, Plastic Bag Ambitions (TKO) Rating: 6
With Plastic Bag Ambitions, France's The Hatepinks prove that they can play melodic hardcore punk as well as anyone from the UK, America, or Sweden. This little CD is relentless, cramming 13 songs in just over 16 minutes, and while the band lacks the songwriting panache of The Hives, the quartet prove they can match the Swedes' energy step for step. It's far from original, but by channeling such bands as Minor Threat and The Buzzcocks, the band exudes the kind of tightly wound, spastic energy needed to make the gimmick work. Best of all is the band's sense of humor, as the record is loaded with such snarky, hilariously assholish titles as "I Piss in Your Swimming Pools" and "Kissing Cops With My Ass". Concluding with the ridiculous "Motherfucquer", it's good for a laugh or two. [Amazon]
Micheal Dean Damron, A Perfect Day for a Funeral (In Music We Trust) Rating: 6
Michael Dean Damron has a lot going for him with this album. First off, he can write his own material and that material is very appealing in the vein of Steve Earle and Ryan Adams, judging by the dark and ragged alt.country tone in "Little Girl Blue" and the train-chugging Blue Rodeo-meets-Mellencamp "Spit" that is down and dirty at times. Down and bluesy for the most part, Damron has a knack for giving each song a great performance, including the precious title track that conjures up images of a late night of recording by Jeff Tweedy that has some fantastic vitriol within. "Pot to Piss In" is another great tune despite the wordplay sometimes coming off a bit flat, but the Dylan approach to "Montana" is a sure bet. Fans of Canadian singer-songwriter Mike Plume would also lap up "Girl in a Box" and the lean "Blame It on the Whiskey", although the latter is a tad too forced. "Outlaw Song" follows a similar blueprint, but the Slobberbone-like "Miss Amphetamine" comes off as more authentic. [Amazon]
Stephanie Sante, Coffee Culture (Santemusic) Rating: 3
In an apparent attempt to woo Starbucks' Hear Music label, guitarist Sante takes a novel approach on her fourth album: Each song is titled after, and apparently inspired by, a type of coffee or espresso drink. But aside from the uniform background music quality, it's tough to hear just what the contemplative strumming and almost-new-age electronics have to do with espressos and cappuccinos. The nervous, jagged riffing of "Chai Chai" and "Cup of Joe" recall Durutti Column, but everything else is pretty lame. And would Vini Reilly ever name a song "Caramel Latte"? [Amazon]
Parish School, Alikeness (Record Label) Rating: 4
Parish School is the pet project of 90 Day Men guitarist/vocalist Brian Case. On his debut solo EP, Case attempts five tracks of crackling electronic moods that straddle the line between trip-hop and light industrial, but fail to work their way past the inadequate strength of Case's vocals. The musical compositions are actually quite fascinating, mixing keys, strings, random electric crackles, and bursts of guitar, all masterfully captured by John Congleton. However, Case's thin, rangeless, and often woefully out of tune voice thoroughly diminish any impact these songs might have. The six-minute-plus stretch of "Treetops" will test the patience of even the most tolerant listener. Against a backdrop that recalls Massive Attack, Case tries his best to let his deep voice carry the song but fails spectacularly. Unable to alter his speaking voice-style delivery, the music rises and falls beautifully, but Case's deep voice and performance stay rigidly locked, preventing the song from achieving an emotional impact. Perhaps in attempt to find a style that might work, "Common Nature" meets at a place somewhere between Goldfrapp and Nine Inch Nails, but even then, Case's voice can't seem to find a place to fit within the darkly jaunty pop tune. Not surprisingly, and most frustratingly, the disc's best track "New Joy" is an instrumental, a Jon Brion-esque number that is whimsical, plaintive and thoughtful all at once. But at a minute and 40 seconds (with ten of those seconds dedicated to building a link to the next track), it's far too short to make this disc worth seeking out even for casually curious listeners. [Amazon]
Santa Dog, The Chemical EP (RA RA RA) Rating: 4
In name, Bristol, England's Santa Dog conjures up images of the Simpsons' emaciated greyhound; fortunately, the four tracks on the band's The Chemical EP have just enough substance to conceal any sign of protruding ribs. "Chemical" kicks the disc off in dubious fashion, with singer/guitarist Rowena Dugdale leading the band into 10,000 Maniacs territory, a path quickly redirected by the smart changes and insistent bass line of "Nest". With an affinity for one-word song titles -- "Flame" and "Katy" complete the tracklist -- Santa Dog offers a lighter, less aggressive take on '80s revisionism that just might catch on in the wake of Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party's success. According to the band's Web site, Santa Dog was "formed mere months ago" -- quite the short span in which to release two EPs worth of music. While not life-altering, The Chemical EP is strong enough to warrant reassessment after the members have had more time to get acquainted. [Amazon]
Jesse Sprinkle, Unnoticed (Blind) Rating: 7
Jesse Sprinkle has a few things going for him. One, he can write tunes. Two, he can get them across without much effort, as on the surprisingly well-crafted but downplayed "Listen Closely as the Rivers Rain Down", which could be mistaken for something Soul Asylum mistakenly passed on. Stronger, however, is the infectiously light "The Rumor of Happy Living", which sounds eerily like smart pop bands like the Minders. Britpop oozes out of the delectable title track. Sprinkle sprinkles enough pop sensibility to make each song shine on its own, especially the acoustically fuelled instrumental "First Summer on Earth". The performer can also roots-out with the best of them, as demonstrated on the fine "Only Inside" and the radio-friendly, harmony-saturated, Brendan Benson-ish "Alexandria". The biggest problem is that Sprinkle nails these songs so well you think he's mailing it in at times, like during the jangle-tinted "Penny Pretty", which is worth many a pretty penny. Then there is the Travis attempt of "Through Blackened Hills". Too many good tunes to choose from, what a lovely problem to have!
Heavy Duty Felt, For the Time Being (Kitchen Sink) Rating: 3
I dislike trashing self-released albums by small-time singer-songwriters, so I want to start out by pointing out at least one good thing about Heavy Duty Felt's indistinguishable album For the Time Being. On the track "Pause & Reflect", Heavy Duty Felt does a fine job in transforming an Emily Dickinson poem into a catchy albeit low-key, keyboard driven pop song. It's rather difficult to successfully transform a poem into a pop song, and Heavy Duty Felt should be commended for its success. Unfortunately, Heavy Duty Felt mastermind Tony Gudwien could have used more of that quality of writing, as the album is filled with the most obvious rhymes of the "ground"/"around" variety. It would be easier to overlook the rather painful lyrics and vocals if the musical accompaniment was anything more than perfunctory. Each backing track is indistinguishable from the previous one, every one is filled with the same low budget laptop electonics, spare acoustic guitars, and plodding, midtempo percussion. The instrumentals on the album, without Gudwien's vocals, fizzle into the air as if they don't even exist. Honestly, it doesn't sound like even Gudwien cares about his own material or really anything at all, at least on the basis of his tired half-whispered vocals and the fact that half of the songs seem to be about inaction and inertia. At least, the lazy music fits perfectly with the subject matter.
George Marinelli, Postcard From Kuala Lampur (Wing Ding) Rating: 5
Another EP from this musician begins with a relaxing roots pop of "The Royal Crown" which sounds like Bryan Adams and John Mellencamp combined. However, he hits paydirt with the fantastic roots rock of "Wave Goodbye" that screams melody. It's hard to build momentum with a mere six-pack of songs, but Marinelli does a yeomen's job on the softer, ballad-ish "Learn How to Fall" with just enough edge to make it flow. "What You're Looking For" is another nugget that brings to mind a tamer version of the Odds or a rock tune Ron Sexsmith might break out or loosen up during. If these songs come so easily to Marinelli you ask why not do a full album? Nonetheless, we'll have to settle for highbrow pop of a sickeningly melodic "The Wheels Aren't Turning" and the Americana feeling of "We're Not Going Home".
Xiu Xiu, Fleshettes (Acuarela Discos) Rating: 7
If there's anything indie fans have learned over the last three years, it's that any time Xiu Xiu put out new music, whether it's good or bad, the product is sure to be fascinating. Just what the band will try to pull off musically, just how depressed Jamie Stewart is, just how engaging, or, heaven help us, repellent the music will be...it's all part of the demented fun you have as a Xiu Xiu fan. On this new CD single, which was originally sold on the band's 2004 European tour, the music neatly bridges the more polished, redemptive style of last year's Fabulous Muscles, and this year's much more subdued and murky La Foret. On the plaintive "Fleshettes", Jamie Stewart's electric and acoustic guitars are surrounded by swarms of buzzing computer effects, as he continues to display a fascination with childlike, fantasy imagery, singing in his trademark quaver, "If you pass under the rainbow/You will turn from a girl to a boy." It's the lovely "Helsabot of Caraleebot" that's the real treat for fans. A live staple, Stewart's partner in crime (and also his cousin), Caralee McElroy, takes a rare turn at lead vocals, and not only is her singing very sweet, but she serves as a perfect foil for Stewart's melodrama, the song highlighted by her beautifully understated performance, contrasting with the histrionics of her bandmate on "Fleshettes". It's enough to make you wish McElroy sang more often. The disc is only nine minutes long, but come on, you can spare nine minutes. You were just going to waste the time, anyway.
The Zom Zoms, One Brain (Omega Point) Rating: 4
I would have loved the Zom Zoms back when I was fourteen. I would have adored their spastic synthesizer sounds, the vocals that alternated between someone singing in a deadpan mimicry of Devo's Jerry Casale and another who screeched like a howling, cackling madman, and their crazy stories of compulsive urinators and something called "Stubborn Beast Flesh". Today, older and theoretically wiser, I only hear One Brain as a self-conscious act of weirdness, largely derivative of countless goof rock bands, that pretty much wears out much of its welcome past the first listen. On occasion, however, the Zom Zoms hit upon an actual song, and the results are a little more listenable. "Static" is a catchy homage to Hardcore-era Devo, and the similarly themed cover of the Judy's "TV" shows them admirably working within the context of actual pop songs. Although these moments don't quite make up for tracks like the obnoxious-and-pround "Hyper Lenny" or half-baked Residents retreads like "Recipes Resume", these tracks at least show that the band is not entirely going for weirdness-fo-weirdness's sake. And I will admit I did laugh very hard once while first listening to "Steve Martin Is Going Nowhere", when the band approaches the famous comedian with the uncomfortable truth: "You're a yuppie even though you make fun of them".
Oh Astro, Hello World (Illegal Art) Rating: 2
All right, yes, fine, I realize that experimental electronic music is supposed to be difficult. Otherwise, it wouldn't exactly be "experimental", now, would it? Still, what good does it do even open-minded listeners to listen to an album that sounds like music in a skipping CD player? Maybe that's not fair -- Oh Astro, who is actually just one person, Jane Dowe (get it?), with a couple of friends along for the ride, has put together an album where silence actually serves as a percussive instrument. Opener "Everything is Go!" is an electro-ish piece with lots of treble, while the silence in "Mizel" actually evokes a dub/reggae mood, in a vaguely annoying sort of way. Dowe is a manipulator of found sound in the vein of Negativland, except without the sense of humor, whose greatest claim to fame thus far is as a participant in the musically mostly useless Deconstructing Beck. As such, maybe it shouldn't be so surprising that it's actually more interesting trying to pick out Dowe's sources (of which she lists Missy Elliot and Aesop Rock, among others) than it is actually listening to Hello World as music. If this is the electronic revolution, pardon me while I join the resistance.
Bond, Explosive: The Best of Bond (Decca/Universal)
Keep in mind that "best" is a relative term, because nearly all of this compilation's dozen tracks are intolerable. Surely the product of some A&R man's wet dream, Bond is four Anglo-Australian beauties who wear miniskirts and belittle their classical training by bowing their violas and violins along with some of the most bargain-basement, cheesed-up techno music ever recorded. This "novel", "progressive" approach has inevitably landed them on the early-morning talk show circuit and the in-dash stereos of aging Yanni fans. Most offensive is "Exposive", which attempts a heavy-metal chug and ends up sounding like Metallica's S&M with the Vengaboys sitting in for Metallica. The Dolby 5.1 mix is shrill, though the "Victory Surround Mix" offers some reprieve. The three videos have a few elements in common: Slo-mo, violins, and fuck me eyes. Unintentionally hilarious, unless you're a women's studies professor. In that case, they set you back about 50 years.
Brian Culbertson, It's on Tonight (Verve) Rating: 5
This album is smooth, sophisticated but at times groovy jazz judging by the fluid opening of "BFO" which features Culbertson tickling the ivories with a slightly funky guitar embedded in the mix while "Hookin' Up" brings to mind the likes of Jack Johnson or Jason Mraz if stuck in a jazz lounge club with a feel to create something light and reggae-tinged. Vocalist "It's On Tonight" tries some soul over Culbertson's piano with mixed results, at time very good but also at times somewhat average or forced as does the dim-the-lights aura of the instrumental "Sensuality" and subsequent horn touches of "The Way You Feel" which is pure smooth jazz. However, there are some highpoints, especially during "Forbidden Love" which brings to mind Candy Dulfer's "Lily Was Here", her acclaimed duet with Dave Stewart. But "Wear It Out" sounds instantly like it's been worn out and clichéd. Ditto for the guitar accents on "Touch Me" that has that sensuality in spite of the guitar accents. Fortunately, the Prince-ish "Love Will Never Let You Down" should strike a nerve with many listeners.