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The Long Winters, Ultimatum EP (Barsuk)
The Long Winters self-describe their new EP Ultimatum as "an epic studio experiment" in which songs are "gilded with string quartets and analog synths," while guitars take a back seat. Listening to the disc after reading that, it's clear that this is the case. But the songs are so strong that the shift in instrumentation didn't even register. No matter, the disc proves that the wonders of this Seattle trio's sophomore long-player, When I Pretend to Fall, were no fluke. It does clearly push the band's sound subtly in new directions, however. There is nothing bombastic here, no grand sing along like "Cinnamon" or "Blue Diamonds" from that previous disc. Instead singer and songwriter John Roderick offers more contemplative songs, with arrangements that highlight his odd melodic constructions and even odder lyrics. The disc revisits "The Commander Thinks Aloud," first heard on the well-intentioned Future Soundtrack for America compilation from 2004. "Ultimatum" is a slower, more contemplative track that takes some time to sink in, while "Delicate Hands" is a quick, piano-driven pop song. "Everything is Talking" features an odd voice sample throughout that sounds like something cooked up on one of those first generation Casio sampler keyboards. It gives the song a clear but annoying hook, and probably has something to do with that whole "studio experiment thing. The EP is rounded out by live solo acoustic versions of When I Pretend's "Bride and Bridle" and the new "Ultimatum." The former shows that there is more to Roderick's songwriting than a few well-placed power chords and soaring vocals, but the latter is the real testament to Roderick's talent. Stripped of all but guitar and voice, the song shines, and is much more successful in this context than "Bride and Bridle," and even trumps the studio version. It's a welcome stop-gap between albums, and whets the appetite for more when the Long Winters return with a full-length disc in the spring. [Amazon]
Exit, The Way Out Is Through (Exit Productions) Rating: 6
Exit, or Ben Londa's one-man band, is a lighter version of something Trent Reznor might have attempted back in '94 or '95. "This Is Your Year" has just enough electro and industrial touches that make it interesting, although the repetition of the title track has a growling kind of voice sounding like a cross between the Cookie Monster and Rammstein. All is not lost, though. "Slip" is at the other end of the musical spectrum -- a somber and reflective tune that brings to mind the Cure circa Bloodflowers. Londa's songs are often hit and miss, the asset in direct proportion to how low his vocals and the arrangements go. Good example of this are "Understanding Our Razing" and "Under", both of which could put you under Londa's spell. At eight songs it's a bit stingy, perhaps, yet the lush, rich texture to the majority of tunes is its biggest selling point. And the almost ethereal "The Anchor in Your Sky" only reinforces that notion. [Amazon]
Pela, All in Time (Brassland) Rating: 3
Now that the World Series is over, baseball metaphors might be a bit out of place but bear with me for one moment. On their debut EP, Pela are like that young kid just up from the minors trying to prove himself in the big leagues. Stepping up to the plate, the kid takes big aggressive swings that yield little results. Indeed, Pela aren't lacking in ambition. In the brief 15-minute running time, the band, at the very least, establishes that their songs are built for arena-sized presentation. But to get there, the band will have to work their way through the club circuit just like everyone else, and unfortunately, while prepping themselves for the big time, Pela have forgotten how to write a memorable song. The five tracks presented on All in Time are fairly pedestrian stabs at the hook heavy, gooey sentimentalism of U2 and Coldplay at their most predictable. However, where those two bands can often deliver genuine moments of soaring beauty than transcend the trappings of their genre, Pela are still working through the basic mechanics of their sound. [Amazon]
Paperface, The Legend of Harley Knowles (Takeover) Rating: 6
Don't be fooled by their horrendous name. Paperface are actually a pretty good pop duo. Perhaps due to their youthful ambition, they attempt to overcome their unseasoned song writing ability and poor production values with sheer exuberance. Sometimes it works. The level of fun on "Loser's Game" is equal to songs on debut records by Ben Folds Five and Weezer. "Fired Up" even hints at Rufus Wainwright influences. The final track, "Dance Karate", is a mindless joy filled with cheesy keyboard tones and Jamiroquai white boy disco. Consistently is not their strong suit, though. Parts of songs are head-scratchingly dull, and "Good Times" never rises above a B-side jam. Wade through the filler, and you're left with a handful of excellent pop songs. [Amazon]
Touriste, What We Are (Touriste...Sh..sh..sh) Rating: 7
This British outfit starts off this EP with an arrangement that sounds like it came from the cliff notes to Coldplay's "Yellow" minus the loudness. The song, entited "What We Are", is a large, grandiose sort of rock tune that has its lead singer crossed between Starsailor's James Walsh and Travis' Fran Healy. Fans of Stereophonics will reap the rewards of the sullen, piano-centered "Shocks" that drags its arse around but in a lovely little way. It is in the same field as Keane's "She Has No Time" in some respects. The only problem here is you don't know if an album would be as consistent as these four gems, especially "Too Far" that glides along like a contemporary U2 ballad with the thick, juicy chorus. And "Easier" makes you want to cuddle up to your better (or worse) half after a hard day's work. Worth seeking out!
patientZero, Seemingly So... (self-released) Rating: 5
"The current state of entertainment breeds its next brood," croons Chris Sarvak, and he could be talking about his own little band, one patientZero. Seemingly So... is the first album from patientZero, and it's an intriguing little ball of intensity that wears its ancestry on its sleeve. If Seemingly So... is any indication, patientZero is a strange hybrid of nü-metal, prog, and jam-band tendencies with a dash of tongue-in-cheek hip-hop added, apparently to drive home the point that the band has a sense of humor. Indeed, for an album that contains 28 minutes or so of diatribes on materialism, fakery, and shameful ideals, closing out with a hidden track cover of Young MC's "Bust a Move" is...interesting, to say the least. At best, it allows us to like a band that's scolded our basest tendencies for the entirety of the album -- at worst, it overshadows everything else. It's too bad that the hidden track absorbs so much focus, given that on the rest of the album, the instruments sound solid in an underproduced sort of way, and Sarvak is a serviceable, if not exactly stellar vocalist. Still, there's an awful lot here that reeks of filler (multiple "transition" tracks, an instrumental version of a track that appears elsewhere). patientZero would likely do best to wait until they can fill a whole album with non-repeated, original music before releasing their next.
Dr. Frankenstein, Chapter III: The Dragon Lounge Connection, Crime Scenes and Murder Songs from... Dr. Frankenstein's Laboratory (Double Crown) Rating: 5
Surf and instrumental rock and roll collide in a reverb-heavy Molotov cocktail of Morphine's bass line mixed with Rob Zombie's aesthetic and Brian Setzer's rockabilly sensibility. The Portuguese quartet Dr. Frankenstein brings an obvious love of b-movies and trashy American culture to their music with song titles like "I was a Teenage Astro-Monster", "V-8 Death Race", "She-Devils' Stroll", and "Music to Murder Girls By". While nothing here is terribly remarkable (although the full album title is something to behold), Chapter III: The Dragon Lounge Connection, Crime Scenes and Murder Songs from... Dr. Frankenstein's Laboratory does have some nice moments, particularly in the last two of the 14 tracks on the disc: their original "Dance of the Mating Mermaids" and their cover of "Goldfinger". "Dance of the Mating Mermaids" is a dreamy, tropical adventure, complete with slide guitar and castaway percussion. John Barry's "Goldfinger" gets a lazy, lounge-y reading that would make it right at home in any swinger's bachelor pad. What the boys in the band call "InstruMental" music is interesting enough to pique curiosity, if not necessarily sustain interest over an extended period.
Erik Hinds, Reign in Blood (Solponticello) Rating: 4
The ambition of this project is more impressive than its execution. Erik Hinds, persuaded by his love for Slayer and the advice of friends, transposed Slayer's entire album Reign of Blood for solo h'arpeggione. The instrument is stringed with 12 droning sympathy strings (like the droning notes on a bagpipe). The playing is accomplished, as is the effort put forth, but do we need to hear an entire heavy metal album recast for a solo instrument? Especially one that most people have never heard of and have no clue how to pronounce. Without words, drums, etc., differentiating tracks becomes a chore instead of a joy. This will appeal only to diehard Slayer fans, and the novelty will wear off very quickly.
The Rudds, Get the Femuline Hang On (self-released) Rating: 7
If you're easily frightened when rock 'n' roll gets drunk on feverish allusions and eats its own tail in flamboyant chomps of huzzah!, walk away now. Get the Femuline Hang On, the new full-length by the Rudds, is plain nuts -- a record of dizzying fun that manages to cram Cheap Trick, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Napoleon Murphy Brock, and Todd Rungren down the front of its spandex rock pants. So is it any good, you ask? Look, this band can evoke "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", "I Saw the Light", "Jealous Guy", and "Surrender" all within the course of a song or two. How's about that, you rock charlatans? Not good enough? What about rock 'n' roll archetypes, stereotypes, legends, curses, and in-jokes? Not to mention the riffed-up odes to flakey guitarists ("Tony Savarino"), predictable sophomore albums ("Oh No! (They're Gonna Make Another One"), and studio perfectionism ("F# / C") that make Get the Femuline some kind of meta-rock high. It would all be a little too comical for its own good if the band -- a motley Boston supergroup of sorts -- didn't rock like the E Street Band in the Revolution's clothes. John Powhida, the Rudds' resident mastermind, has a set of honeyed pipes that sting like flame licking an ice sculpture. And though it loses some momentum in the home stretch, Get the Femuline maintains its infectious insanity long enough to make a wicked impression.
Xiu Xiu/Devendra Banhart, "The Body Breaks" b/w "Support Our Troops! OH!" [7" single] (5RC) Rating: 6
They each are weird and have funny voices, so working together was a perfect idea for Xiu Xiu and Devendra Banhart. On this 7", Xiu Xiu covers Banhart's "The Body Breaks," adding electronic beats and just enough noise to get the track out of the dusky fields and into Jamie Stewart's mental world of decay. Banhart takes on one of his colleague's finest and most memorable numbers, an anti-war rant that, in the original, is scary and pleasing all at once, which is even more pleasing and scary all at once. Banhart sings the words with his hippie joy that adds a further level of perversion to the lyrics. We expect our folkies to protest the war, but we don't expect them to tell a soldier, "Why should I care if you ever get killed?" The covers serve their function of pulling out extra threads of meaning, and the artists apparently are a good match, and not just because they're both weird.
Ghostface Killah, "Be Easy" [single] (Def Jam) Rating: 8
Do I even need to say that Ghost brings the heat? He's rapping like he swallowed a bag of bathtub speed, desperate to pour every ounce of soul possible into his strange, awkwardly loping syntax. Pete Rock (yes, that Pete Rock) provides the kind of head-bobbing, old-school soul-sampling funk jam they just don't make anymore -- except, obviously, they still do. Swirling strings bring the heat on the hook, while he brags "you at the bar already drinking my piss, son, / The yellow shit in the bottle ain't Crys, son, / You turned your motherfuckin' head nigga we switched 'em." He seems crazy enough that he just might do it, so maybe you should keep your hand on your drink.
Judd and Maggie, Subjects (RCA) Rating: 7
Judd and Maggie is a brother and sister tandem who has gone to the Wild Strawberries or Go Betweens School of Pop Harmonies. Witty, strong and highbrow, the music is almost too melodic for its own good during the electro-tinged roots of "Snow Song" and on the delightful "Perfectly" which is an apt description of how they go about their craft. Think of Buckingham and Nicks before the split and you would get a good idea of this dreamy sonic concoction. Maggie would give Sarah McLachlan a run for her money with "Story" and "One Year Past 20", the latter possessing a snowy sleigh ride feeling to it. Judd though isn't chop liver with his piano-fuelled ballad "Big Lights". Fans of Michael Penn and Aimee Mann would lap up the catchy pop oozing from "Sleep Interrupted (Because of You)". There are numbers that are a bit too rich, particularly the orchestral "Sponge". The tender and soothing "Late Hour" eases into a 4/4 pop tempo as gently as rocking a baby to sleep, making it the easy apex of the record. "Closer" isn't the closer but is a gear-changing gem that puts a bounce in one's step.