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Chris Pierce, Static Trampoline (Prana Entertainment) Rating: 7
Chris Pierce is a singer-songwriter with soul. Of course, such a trait is bound to be lost when it's his most vanilla piece of guitar-and-a-backbeat bliss turns into his signature song. "Are You Beautiful" has been tapped for the film Crash and a Banana Republic ad, the latter of which has likely garnered even more buzz for Pierce than Seal's appreciation for and recruitment of Pierce as the opening act for his recent tour. Granted, "Are You Beautiful" is very, very pretty in a Jack Johnson sort of way, but there's so much more to the artist than laid back beach jams. "She's Trying to Kill Me" is a funky, funny reggae romp with a coda that features some athletic jazz scat work. "Wishbone" is an affecting piece of sludge-rock. The title track is slow blues with some fantastic intermittent guitar soloing and spine-tingling shrieks of raw emotion from the mouth of Pierce himself. Indeed, the complete picture of Chris Pierce is one of a guitarist who wants desperately to conquer as many genres as possible -- at least, as many as one man can with a guitar and a laid-back demeanor. Occasionally, Pierce stretches too far, as on the obnoxious "Witchy Yeah Yeah" or the sluggish, meandering "The Slow Life", but for the most part, Static Trampoline is a quiet, soulful success.
Kepler, Attic Salt (Troubleman Unlimited) Rating: 6
Kepler open their album with a song that includes dissonant piano chords thundering over a desolate sonic landscape. It sounds uncannily like the songs Wilco have been releasing in the past half decade. Even though the reference is easy to spot, it's still an excellent opener and a complex joy. But the CD never explodes from there. Instead it flounders in goodness instead of reaching for perfection. If anything, the CD suffers from a lack of hooky melodies and its lazy pacing. In fact, the lack of attention-getting melodies is precisely what's missing here. Even when the instrumentation is interesting and beautiful (which it often is), the vocals do not push the song into the territory of excellence. The most engaging songs, "Thoroughbred Gin" and "Rented Limousine", also have the best vocal lines. Go figure.
Various Artists, Light the Fuse (Out of the Loop) Rating: 4
With the larger aim of celebrating the history of Western Australian rock and roll, Light the Fuse highlights the work of three contemporary Perth-based bands: the Volcanics, the M-16's, and Fourstroke. Each group's EP-length contribution consists of four songs -- three originals and one cover of a local classic -- that provide an effective overview of the state of music on the continent's left coast. In both the original songs and their version of the Bamboos' "Snuff", the Volcanics offer a solid reminder of AC/DC's Australian origins: raw, unpretentious garage rock played with honesty and energy. The M-16's cover of the Victims' "Television Addict" similarly bristles, but the band's original material emphasizes an overall sound at the expense of strong songwriting. Fourstroke, on the other hand, plays tuned-down grungy rock in the Kyuss mold, except with maybe a tenth of the confidence -- and their rendition of "No Dying in the Dark" by obscure early 70s rockers the Bakery doesn't even justify listening beyond the first two bands.
Various Artists, Femmes Fatales - The 12 Leading Ladies of Electronica (Toucan Cove) Rating: 4
From self-proclaimed mastermind producer Mike Burns comes Femmes Fatales - The 12 Leading Ladies of Electronica. The collection includes everything from progressive trance to drum-n-bass and beyond. The body-moving propulsive beat and Mea's pseudo-mechanical delivery make the opener, "Red Light Go", the album's strongest track. Burns' sister Andrea, a Broadway veteran, also provides one of the best moments here, performing the longing tale of "100 Stories" that was written by her sibling. In a neat trick of self-promotion, Burns presents the next single from his group Interstate here as the work of his vocalist, Colleen Kelly. The collection has a slick and sleazy feel, though, that undercuts the idea behind the concept. To appropriate the words of author Jean Shepherd, this album is the audio equivalent of the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window.
Mushroomhead, Volume 1 [DVD] (Filthy Hands) Rating: 6
Cleveland, Ohio's Mushroomhead deserve to be more popular than they actually are. By combining pummeling alt-metal riffs and rhythms with an artsier, keyboard-driven, Faith No More-derived style, theirs was a sound that was not only distinct and edgy six years ago, but potent enough to make it work in a live setting, both musically, and visually, as their highly theatric stage presence, with singer Jeffrey Nothing adorned in garish facepaint handling the melodic vocals, panda-faced JMann delivering superb hardcore snarls, and the rest of the octet wearing identical masks (their idea predating Slipknot), making a strong connection with their growing fanbase. After building a strong cult following during the late 1990s, Mushroomhead were signed by Universal, but their two albums, 2001's XX, and 2003's XIII failed to connect with a wider audience, and the band were subsequently dropped.
With the band in transition (Mann left the band in 2004 to focus on his Fractured Transmitter label), now's as good a time as any for a Mushroomhead retrospective, and the new DVD, optimistically titled Volume 1, is a mildly enjoyable look back. Few alt metal bands made music videos as well as Mushroomhead did, and seven clips are here, highlighted by such visually stylish cuts as "Sun Doesn't Rise", "Kill Tomorrow", and "Eternal". The DVD is interspersed with home video footage from the studio and on tour, and while the sophomoric, drunken antics are indeed funny (especially the onstage pranks they pull on bands like Meshuggah, Avenged Sevenfold, and Lamb of God), it would have been nice to also see a more sober, in-depth profile of the band, something that would do a better job introducing Mushroomhead to those unfamiliar with their music. We also see lots of clips featuring their ultra-devoted fans, but we don't hear from them at all. While the DVD is a must-have for fans, it's too fleeting a glimpse for everyone else to connect with. Let's hope Volume 2 raises the bar somewhat.
Channing Cope Sugar in Our Blood (54-40 Or Fight!) Rating: 4
Hey! Remember post-rock? In case you weren't there, it was the early nineties and it seemed that everyone was mining Krautrock and obscure jazz records for inspiration. Being quiet was the new being loud, and if you could throw in some odd time signatures into your songs you practically had it made. While Channing Cope won't blow your mind with mind-bending rhythms, they attempt to draw power from their carefully measured performances. Sugar In Our Blood is an exhaustingly patient record that never gets its pulse above resting. Though guitarist Kenny Schulte's impeccably clean guitar lines are intriguing the band's retro post-rock is hardly illuminating. There is little here to justify a listener's attention, when there is wealth of this kind of material from a decade ago that is still worthy of investigation. Worse, the group's painstakingly crafted compositions leave little room for any feeling, giving the impression of an album put together by committee. Instead of sugar, next time around Channing Cope may want to try a little more caffeine.
Everything Is Fine, Ghosts Are Knocking on the Walls (Tract) Rating: 6
On the surface, Everything Is Fine appears to be one of those unobtrusive quiet-is-the-new-loud bands, like Yo La Tengo or Mazzy Star dozing off in a headspace of molasses. The sparse, reverb-heavy arrangements and bone-bare vocal performances make for an isolating listening experience of arctic temperament. Excessively moody and seething with a disguised intensity, the band really shines on songs like "Cold Click" and "Half Hour", when the encroaching noise ratchets up the sleeping paranoia. It's moments like those that turn the solitude of Ghosts Are Knocking on the Walls into claustrophobia -- making things infinitely more interesting in the process.
Judd and Maggie, Subjects (RCA Victor) Rating: 6
Judd and Maggie are a brother/sister duo in which the siblings sing alike, they talk alike, they sometimes even walk alike. Actually, they don't sing alike, but they do write songs together and provide lovely gene-aided boy/girl harmonies. The CD is produced by Joey Waronker, a drummer-fire-hire who once appeared on three CDs I received in one day (Beck, Elliott Smith, and R.E.M.). Here he's providing a warm sound to the instruments, giving Judd and Maggie's music the vibe of '70s singer/songwriters. He's also brought Beck's old bassist, Justin Meldal-Johnsen, and featured Smokey Hormel on a song. It's a classy affair with well-written songs and frequent pop excellence. As long as they continue to avoid writing cute songs in which they bicker as siblings, they'll continue to improve, and that's a family you wouldn't mind hosting for Thanksgiving dinner.