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Binary Dolls, Too Much Thinking Sinks Ships (Perilymph) Rating: 6
Not only do Binary Dolls share sonic similarities with their venerable ancestors Radiohead, they also share some of their pretentiousness. This is weighty and ambitious songwriting, not to mention that the three band members' musical credits include "context", "realism" and "ennui". Despite this hazardous conceit, Too Much Thinking Sinks Ships includes a clever escape plan. The fact is this is a damn fine group of songwriters who back up their ambition with gripping ideas. Their inexperience shines through occasionally as they tend to the strike the same chords over and again. Nevertheless, when Binary Dolls strike it right, it's like lightning. "I Am The Only Master of The Ten Key" consists of an infectious chorus and a calumnious climax typical of the entire album. But even more than Radiohead, the band that immediately comes to mind is Menomena. Now I find it strange to reference a band that has but one album and not much of an audience. But the thing is, both bands' affinity for experimental pop and their common geography (Portland, Oregon) would suggest kinship, if not, thievery. My vote is for the former since there's room for both the intricate songwriting of Menomena and Binary Dolls. After all, a few more albums and Binary Dolls will be on the other side of comparisons. A few more albums and Binary Dolls will be even better than they think they are.
A Wilhelm Scream, Ruiner (Nitro) Rating: 4
You know an album is in trouble when the artwork is more memorable than the music. Not that Boston's A Wilhelm Scream don't doggedly try to pull off something special, as many of the ingredients for a top-notch punk/emo album are all there. Guitarists Trevor Reilly and Chris Levesque deliver strong, nimble riffs that range from staccato crunches to fast melodic licks, while Reilly's lyrics, sung by Nuno Pereira, prove to be especially passionate and perceptive, much better than the hand-wringing, self-help diatribes that most of today's emo acts blather about. What's missing, though, are the songs. The album's 14 tracks, for the most part, blend into one another too much, save for the odd impressive moment, like the raging "The King is Dead", the Teenage Fanclub melodics of "In Vino Veritas II", and the brilliantly titled "Less Bright Eyes, More Deicide" (amen, brothers). But my oh my, what brilliant, stark artwork by comic book artist Rob Dobi, a dark evocation of both bottled teen rage and karmic payback. If the music had been just as memorable, the entire package would have been a knockout, but instead, it's a waste of inspired art direction. [Amazon]
Gigantic, Some Suburban Road EP (Popboomerang) Rating: 4
Is it too soon for a '90s revival? If you're asking Gigantic that question, the answer is probably no. When you pop their Some Suburban Road EP into your player, the first thing that hits you is that this is the same polished alterna-pop sound that confounded the charts in the '90s -- the music is well done but safe, well produced but sterile. Thankfully, the Australian trio throws a nice curve ball into the set with the fuzzy, feedback heavy final track. Although "End Transmission" starts out in the same Gin Blossom-y vein as the previous three songs, Mark DiRenzo's distorted vocals playing over Drew Michael's rocking guitar and Paul DiRenzo's crashing drums leave a good final impression with this fun rocker.
Mojo Stu, Real House Blues (Mudbone) Rating: 5
The opening seconds of this album envisions the following thought: Mojo Stu loved Moby's Play, listened to it, thought about it and then picked up his own guitar to make his own music. There are some blips and bleeps in blues-gospel-electro-tinged tracks such as the kickstarter "Leave It Gone" but there's also much warmth despite the quasi-loops and backbeats. "Got a Love" got its own mojo working that hits your hips immediately and gets you boogie-ing that turns into another fun gospel-leaning ditty. Unfortunately it falls off the rails with "My Mama She Don't Love Me" and the marginally better but quite cheesy "Hootchie Mama". Thankfully Mojo Stu gets back to some semblance of basics on the blues-filled "Don't Worry" although even this stalls during the homestretch. "Lightning" isn't in this bottle in particular despite Mojo Stu talking about having thunder in his pocket.
Kicker, Our Wild Mercury Years (The Track and Field Organization) Rating: 8
I tend to gravitate towards bands across the pond more often than not. Call it a sickness. However, when a group like Kicker comes around, it's a blessing and not a curse. Think Go-Betweens in their priceless, precious heyday and you will absolutely be rapt by "One Summer" featuring Jill Drew on violin. Melodic, timeless qualities are the basis of each track, whether Drew takes lead vocals on the Beautiful South-like "Blue" or the lovely "Ghosts" featuring Phil Sutton carrying the song. It's eerie to think how easily they pull off this often attempted, rarely successful approach with nuggets like "Doris Dear" that sounds like a refined Belle and Sebastian. Only on "Local Gentry" does Kick drop the ball slightly with a dual lead vocal resembling The New Pornographers. They atone for it later on the spectacular toe-tapping romp that is "Since You Left" that brings Scottish group Texas to mind. Other A-list ditties include the highbrow pop of the Petty-like "Now That the Autumn Is Here" that conjures up images of kicking up fallen leaves. After a slower, relaxing "Waiting on a Friend"-like "After Dark", Kicker kicks it up a notch or four with "Get Rid of Him". A consistently excellent batch of ear candy! [Amazon]
Weerd Science, Friends and Nervous Breakdowns (Equal Vision) Rating: 2
Joshua Eppard, the drummer of emo-prog group Coheed and Cambria, has decided to go the solo route and drop a rap album. While this is the obvious cue for some kind of drummer joke, Eppard's album is a joke enough. Calling himself Weerd Science, Eppard has taken the goofy raps he does with friends at his home in Kingston, New York, and decided that they're good enough for the general public. Falling somewhere between the Jerky Boys and Eminem, Friends and Nervous Breakdowns is a thoroughly juvenile, completely forgettable mess of skits and songs that have all the resonance of a whoopee cushion on the math teacher's chair. Whether making the dangerously absurd claim that if he was black, he would have a record contract, or continually referring to women as "cunts", Eppard's attempts to emulate gangsta rap icons fall embarrassingly short. His press materials claim the album has "tongue in cheek smirk throughout", but it's difficult to find the humor in lyrics like: "Girl (listen up cunt) I gotta tell you something / If you really knocked up by my homie / I'ma punch you in the stomach"; "Dad? I need to borrow $300 / $300? What for son? / Well I got Jenny knocked up again! / Son did I ever tell you about your mother and the wire-hanger?" or... you know what, this isn't even worth the time. If you're a hip-hop fan, you're probably too busy listening to Late Registration or Be to be concerned with this novelty release and Coheed and Cambria fans, keep your money in your wallet -- their new album is coming out this fall anyway. [Amazon]
Hootie and the Blowfish, Looking for Lucky (Sneaky Long) Rating: 4
Chances are, you know what this sounds like. That's right, Hootie and the Blowfish circa 2005 is mostly indistinguishable from Hootie and the Blowfish circa 1994, when the band released its bajillion-selling debut, Cracked Rear View. Looking for Lucky is more jangly adult contemporary pop rock courtesy of the raspy voiced dude and his painfully vanilla band. Darius Rucker displays none of the vocal chops or evocative emoting of his surprisingly strong solo effort, insisting on adorning every song with the inoffensive growl that garnered so many listeners back in the good ol' days. Admittedly, there are a few deviations from the rule: "Leaving" and "Waltz Into Me" are surprisingly strong entries into the trad-country arena complete with fiddles and mandolins from Sam Bush, and "Free to Everyone" tempers its mid-tempo rock beat with an extended, fast-paced bridge. "One Love" even evokes some of the better qualities of early hit "Let Her Cry", except in a love-thy-neighbor sense more suited to our socially conscious times. Everyone who thought Hootie was a hoot (ha) before won't find anything to dissuade them of such an opinion on Looking for Lucky. The rest of us can wait/hope for the country album. [Amazon]
Snatches of Pink, Stag (MoRisen)
Music reviews often use words like "ethereal", "limnal" and "angular" to describe sounds and textures that seem to defy description through more pedestrian terms. Those not in the know are left to hear enough things characterized by the terms in question until they understand what they mean. Here's an easy one: Wonder what music sounds like when it is "swaggering"? Stag, the latest disc from North Carolina quartet Snatches of Pink, is all the explanation you need. The songs on this disc, all written by the lone original SOP member, Michael Rank, have a carefree, bluesy strut that oozes detached arrogance. When the band clicks, that arrogance is justified. But for too much of this disc, its stabs at ragged glory sound like an aging garage band in dire need of a metronome. Guitars slash and drums thump, but rarely do they do so in time. The sequencing here creates a disc that feels like a perfect bell curve; the songs become increasingly assured until the magnificent fifth track, the riff-driven "Painted Gun", before falling off into what sound like rehearsal tapes for a Royal Trux cover band. The early incarnations of Snatches of Pink, particularly the group that included erstwhile Let's Active drummer Sarah Romweber and which recorded SOP's best disc, Bent With Pray, were able to paint Rank's slightly menacing gothic compositions with appropriate Southern indie rock colors. His current combo is all bludgeon, no nuance. That would be a greater shame if the songs felt like they deserved better. [Amazon]
JibJab, JibJab: Early Years 1999-2004 (Razor & Tie) Rating: 4
JibJab. Remember that name? It was around this time last year that JibJab was the hottest name in the blogosphere, with a link to their parody of Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" showing up on heavy metal blogs, proud mother blogs, Bush blogs, Kerry blogs, and just about every other blog in the nation. Capitalizing on their sudden success, JibJab put 14 of its favorite shorts onto a DVD, with the assumptive title of JibJab: The Early Years 1999-2004. Now, the genius of "Our Land" was that it took the absurdity of the 2004 presidential election and mocked it relentlessly, without ever actually taking a side, unless you count the side of fed-up observer. It's a perfect snapshot of the time, and it reflects exactly what much of America was thinking in the tense months leading up to the election -- sure it was crude, and it was a touch profane, but it was funny as hell. Jibjab released two more political shorts as follow-ups to "This Land", both of which are included in this collection, but neither approach the good-natured slamming of "This Land", relying too much on forced slapstick gags, gay jokes, and Bill Clinton getting slapped by Hillary. The other shorts in the collection range from the fairly creative (an amalgamation of Al Gore soundbites pasted together in a less-than-flattering way) to the downright stupid ("12 Days of Christmas" via farts). And, you know, given that this is a DVD, a commentary track or a 'making of' featurette would have been nice. Ultimately, JibJab's collection is mildly entertaining, but JibJab's shorts work much better as blog links and e-mail attachments than as entertainment that you actually pay for. [Amazon]
Neon Blonde, Headlines EP (Dim Mak) Rating: 4
Neon Blonde is the more post-punk-y, dancefloor friendly version of the Blood Brothers (it's comprised of that group's drummer and vocalist/keyboardist). The high-pitched yelping remains, but the music takes on a groove orientation. After the recent trend of bands, apparently Johnny Whitney and Mark Gajadhar picked up their own copy of Entertainment! and decided to do something with it. At this album's funkiest, it offers intriguing sounds and even a hint of New Wave-inspired percussion. When it slows for "Savannah Nights", however, it's just another dull attempt by a group out to prove it's got nothing to prove and can therefore just chill. Dudes, don't chill. The final track, a remix of "Headlines" that offers too little new to be worthwhile. Close, but no cigar, as my colleagues would say. [Amazon]
Cartel, Safety in Numbers EP (Independent) Rating: 3
Cartel -- not to be confused with the emo band of the same name-- are the antithesis to what is commonly perceived as D.C.-based indie rock. No angular post-punk riffs are to be found here, nor any politically charged lyrics. Instead, Cartel offer remarkably poised, professionally executed modern rock that is ready for FM radio play. The problem is that it is also unbelievably dull. Delivering the same sort of airy, mid-tempo, not too loud, and inoffensive rock of Coldplay at their very worst, Cartel's debut EP quickly becomes lost in a sea of niceness. All the edges have been smoothed, the arrangements made comfortable, and the lyrics simple and forgettable. There is nothing here that is either remotely challenging or even moderately interesting. In fact, everything is so calculated and pleasant that the listener barely has to engage this EP at all. But when the listening experience becomes this passive, and this uninvolved, what's the point? [Amazon]
Jennifer Greer, The Apiary (Little Athena Productions) Rating: 6
Boston based Jennifer Greer has a delivery that sounds as if it's been culled from an early Chantal Kreviazuk, Natalie Merchant and Carole King if the tender, melancholic "Invited" teaser and the ideal "Hanging On" are measuring sticks. It's the domain that she nails time and time again -- a mid-tempo, somewhat catchy, piano-driven arrangement that makes you sway in your chair as "Honey Bee" does from the start. It's also as if she's hedging her bets that Sarah McLachlan will contact her for a revival of Lilith Fair. Teeming with fine, ambling, moody pop traits, songs such as "Walking Home to You" have a certain bluesy or jazzy feel hovering over them. Throughout it all, Greer's precision and deftness are quite apparent, although "Darkling" and its off-kilter tempo might take a tad longer to settle into as a guitar slowly comes into the fore. Seems perfect for a Sunday afternoon -- mellow and reflective as does the mildly up-tempo and sophisticated pop of "Never". Greer explores the jazzier side of her music during "A Beautiful Face" with better than anticipated results. "Satellite" misses the mark somewhat but "Stupid People Lost In Eden" more than atones for it. A solid and polished piece of adult pop.