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Amilia K. Spicer, Seamless (Free Range) Rating: 8
Amilia K. Spicer's Seamless, first released back in 2003, is a spellbinder. As on her previous Like an Engine, the songs here are unabashedly sensual. Sex suggestion is all over the place, yet without a closer-than-close listen, you'd never know it. Spicer's ultra-feminine lustfulness reveals itself so delicately and smartly that Seamless works both as sultry accompaniment to a summer meal and raging therapy with the power to quell some love-aggression. The key to her weird double play is Spicer's controlled songwriting. She's clever, but not too clever; always real, occasionally deeply dramatic, and sometimes quite funny. "Wasted" and "4:08" are great examples of Spicer's fun side -- both coolly addictive with rich ideas behind the jumpiness. And "Route 15" is a nice sad song about growing up and resisting regrets. It's also got a killer final line that resonates throughout much of these tracks and, indeed, Spicer's career: "I wake with a start / Holding my hand to my heart / Pulling what's inside out."
Services, Your Desire Is My Business (A Touch of Class Recordings) Rating: 6
Services are an odd lot: mixing rock with electro and basically anything under the kitchen sink. As a result, you're probably going to enjoy some tunes and cringe during others. "Element of Danger" is a jerky kind of track with a decent tempo and backbeat. It takes quite a while to get into though. "Alive" has a great groove from the onset that is quickly addictive, resembling a cross between Depeche Mode, Buck 65 and The Prodigy. Meanwhile "Cemetery" is a rowdier tune with jungle hues and a sample of guitar riffs. But as it evolves it brings to mind a Primus b-side. The oddness of the record is its greatest strength, as "Get Down" is a hymnal ditty turned nu metal rap. Think Deerhoof without as many bizarre moments and you get the gist of this album, particularly on the Devo-ish "The Chops" and the harder rock feel on "Expensive Shit" and "Yeah, The Ocean". Bizarre but in a refreshingly non-stale manner.
C, Universum (Free Dimension) Rating: 5
This is where I reveal one of my deep-seated biases when it comes to reviewing music: Anything that features a xylophone gets bonus points. Indeed, C is more than just a letter, more than simply the symbol for carbon on the Periodic Table, C is the name of a band that plays instrumental rock music. On Universum, C provides a brand of instrumental rock that actually, yes, rocks out on a regular basis, even as it incorporates things like spoken word samples and the aforementioned xylophones. Universum avoids the trap of thinking too hard about what it is, concentrating instead on being something a little more visceral, something that aims for the heart and the adrenal gland more than it does the head. At the beginning of the fiery "Expellant", an uncredited female voice says, "rarely do I feel compelled to write, except in times of love and hate," and it's likely that no better words could have been chosen for the aim of the band during the creation of Universum -- even when it's being tripped up by forced syncopation or annoying noise, Universum at least sounds as though it's trying to evoke something. Unfortunately, C falls too often into repetition, trying to drive whatever mood it is that they're trying to convey into the listener's skull over, and over, and over again, a method that tends to work better when there's a vocalist to rant over the top. C brings the feeling, they just don't quite have the technique to turn that feeling into something deeply felt by the listener.
Lost Tricks, Lost Tricks (self-released) Rating: 5
The Lost Tricks EP is piano pop as sung by an emo voice. Starting with the catchy, if not repetitive, "Freeman" and moving to the boring, slow "12", the band never displays its true colors. What do they really sound like? I have no idea. What we have is five disjointed songs, none of them spectacular. There are fantastic sections. The best are the choruses of "2nd Chance", which relies upon a space-funk synth and bass line and "All Around U", which has an impossible-to-shake melody, despite the spelling-impaired title. But mostly, it's not striking. Each of these songs is available for free download on the band's website, so there's no risk. But don't be shocked if you're not entirely impressed.
Tsu Shi Ma Mi Re, Pregnant Fantasy (Australian Cattle God) Rating: 7
Describing Tsu Shi Ma Mi Re as three young Japanese women who sing about plums, boyfriends, tea, and babies makes them sound winsome, unless you like Shonen Knife in which case it makes them sound like Shonen Knife. They have a rougher energy than the 'Knife -- more rock, less pop, more shouting, less harmonising -- and a more frenetic repertoire. "Tea Time Ska" turns from a piece of slow rock with tweeting vocals into a heavy metal growl and then into pumping ska. "O-cha O-cha O-cha!" they sing. "Yay!" The title song starts off with a creeping whisper (the singer is pretending to be a mother addressing a fetus) which erupts into a scream. (that's the fetus, who, according to the loose translation in the liner notes, complains that, "If there is no meaning of my birth / You shouldn't bear me, mom.") On the way to work I've caught myself da-de-da-ing "Ebihara Shinji", their tribute to a homeless man who watched them busk outside Chiba station in the rain; the band has a knack for melodies that stick in your brain. They're cute and noisy and I love them to pieces, not only for the warped-kawaii subject matter, but also for the balls-out enthusiasm with which they deliver it.
Last Target, One Shot, One Kill (Better Youth Organization) Rating: 7
This punk rock outfit is a Japanese band that has a thick accent but have loads of fun dishing out these catchy punk gems, especially during "Truth For You" which resembles Dropkick Murphys at an all night Japanese karaoke bar. Meanwhile, Rancid is also quite apparent as an influence on the bouncy "Don't Shine Your Boots With a Half-Baked Will" and the havoc-filled "Gods Gamble". Throughout the album, there's a playful energy and good-time feeling that a lot of punk bands on this side of the ocean have lost, but Lost Target are never guilty of this judging from the powerful "Tokyo Memories". The lone lowlight is "My Life, My Way" but they make up for it with the hell-raising "Tube Baby" that Social Distortion would be proud of. The highlight is the pop punk of "Teaching" but a close second is the frantic "Toss & Turn". The record falls more into punk pop feeling during "Ikuji" but nonetheless it's a great album.
Abandoned Pools, Armed to the Teeth (Universal) Rating: 6
Are you ready to emo? Abandoned Pools have the emo-for-the-MTV-crowd thing nailed. They've got the requisite whiny vocalist, the insistent walls of guitars, and songs that don't really bother with melodies. At least, that's how the first half of the Pools' new album Armed to the Teeth sounds. In reality, there are two little albums contained in Abandoned Pools new 12-song opus. The first six tracks create a well-meaning, if naïve emo disc, as songs like the six-minute "Tighter Noose" ride odd builds and constant high-hat clanging to little effect, while album opener "Lethal Killers" is an exercise in dissonance wrapped in an MTV-friendly structure, dancing around the key of the song without ever quite settling on it. The second half, however, reveals a decent pop band just waiting to bust out of an emo shell that's likely maintained for the sake of some sort of artistic credibility. "Sailing Seas" rides one of those new wave beats that the kids love these days to a land of dream-pop bliss, and "Goodbye Song" is an anthem that reaches for the stratosphere with big strings, big guitars, and a lovely, soaring vocal melody. Unfortunately, lines like "You're so weak / Beat up a geek / Makes you complete / Not so tough / I've had enough / Now I leave" are a bit simplistic and potentially alienate anyone over, say, 15. Even so, Abandoned Pools might just have a career in power pop, if only they'd embrace their more melodic tendencies.
Sponge, The Man (Idol) Rating: 2
It's the holidays, the so let's not dwell on the negative. The latest album by '90s grunge also-rans Sponge merits two points for being a perverse sort of guilty pleasure with its familiar head-banging riffs and narcissistic pity party lyrics. Of those two points, one is awarded specifically for aping early Stone Temple Pilots so closely that it actually makes you remember "Sex Type Thing" somewhat fondly. The second point? Because if you actually make it through the duration of The Man while sober, you will feel assured of your successful maturation into adulthood that lines like "I'm screwed down / And I'm glued down just like a fucking insect" or "I'm just a fuck up baby / I can't lie my life's all fucked up" no longer do anything for you. Congratulations!
Edu K, Popozuda Rock n' Roll (Man Recordings) Rating: 8
Hey oh! Getchyer ass song, raht 'ere! Edu K, former singer of rock group De Falla, hit it big a few years back with this worthy contribution to the canon of chocolate shake odes (popozuda is a recently revived slang term for "big-buttocks woman"). Thank the recent Western interest in baile funk for the song's revival, but remember to also give man claps to the DJs for the injections, nip/tucks and augmentations here. Hollertronix co-founder Diplo plays connect-the-dots across '80s rumpshakes while the original maestro Edu K feels up the Neptunes' Boriqua roots for his reggaeton mix. Rio DJ Sandrinho creeps in the backdoor, but gently boosts the drum track for better booty bap. Home fetishists, worry not: the original, instrumental and acappella are here for you to pave your own Hershey highway. Here's an example from one master, DJ Twombly. In the meantime, vai popozuda! Why? "I have the strength of a Jedi Knight" ("Eu tenho a força cavaleiro de Jedai"). Ah, Star Wars lines always get the ladies...
The Village Green, The Village Green (Hidden Peak) Rating: 5
A lot of new bands pepper their promotional sheets with comparisons to more recognizable acts, to help writers, record stores, radio folk and whoever to have a better understanding of what they're in for. Portland, Oregon's The Village Green is no different. Not only are they named after a classic Kinks album, but the power-pop quartet has garnered comparisons to Supergrass, John Lennon, Oasis, and even Kurt Cobain. But where that type of name-dropping is usually way the hell off, The Village Green writes and performs sassy British-influenced rock plausibly and even sometimes endearingly. This brief, self-titled EP is still light-years away from the legendary recordings of its forebears, but sometimes heart-on-sleeve mimicry is useful, and a good place for a young band to start. "Plastic Woman" and "Let It Go" are well-executed and toothy, boding well for the future of classic, attitude-driven rawk.
Nya Jade, My Denial (Katako) Rating: 6
Nya Jade was heading towards a career in medicine before a car crash changed her focus. Using the guitar as both physical and mental therapy and rehab, Jade began playing in coffee houses to larger crowds. And now she's with the big boys and girls with her debut release. Her new album starts with the soulful "One Pill" that is a cross between Alicia Keys, Sarah McLachlan and Natalie Merchant, a smart but edgy adult contemporary pop tune that flows quite nicely. But Jade is equally sultry on the mid-tempo title track. From there Jade excels on the happy, groovy "Crawl" that is a blend of roots rock and reggae. But "Live" is too cheery and formulaic. Jade is able to craft several strong songs for a debut though, particularly with the fine polished pop of "Home" that showcases her crystal clear vocals in the vein of Billie Myers. The only low point is "Molasses" that shows promise but falls off the rails quickly and relies on a harder rock guitar that is rather limp. "Sedated" is more subdued thankfully that has single written all over it. The same could be said for "Best I Can" that brews just under the surface. A bright newcomer for 2006!
The Pope, Jazzman Cometh (Wantage) Rating: 3
To its credit, Jazzman Cometh by the noise-rock outfit the Pope, does not outlast its welcome. In fact, its six tracks last just a little shorter than your average baseball inning. The band sites a huge Boredoms influence, but, unfortunately, it only surfaces in the nonsensical yelling that acts as the "lead vocals" for a handful of these songs. The Pope's shtick, at least from what I can gather by this brief sample size, is that they alternate a genuinely great guitar tone, sort of like a stoner rock adaptation of the "Mr. Brownstone" riff, with spurts of fast-paced by-the-numbers screaming and bashing. Ultimately, the Pope somehow manages to make fast-paced, full-throttle, extreme noise-rock that ultimately just blends into the background. Beyond a few outstanding quasi-guitar solos (that are all essentially the same solo, repeated) there's nothing on Jazzman Cometh that countless bands have done a million times before. The Pope is trying to be unpredictable in the most predictable manner possible, and the results are predictably dull. It's really a sin with straight-out spazz-rock comes out this boring.
Higgins, Dear Higgins (Maggadee) Rating: 7
Dreamy without being too melancholic, Higgins offer up a retro look at slightly trippy sounding ditties with a song like "Difference" that slides along without any huge hiccups. Somewhat Beatles-que, the duo of Kevin Fish and Brian Kantor weave pretty but distant harmonies in the background. Later on they one-up themselves with "Drop Off" that conjures up images of George Harrison. "Come Again" is driven by a crunchy guitar and an arrangement Matthew Sweet would be proud of. The biggest drawback is how it abruptly ends just 70 seconds into it, a riff meriting two and half or three minutes at the least. What is obvious though is how they have an ear for a hook judging by the gloriously ballsy "Come" that sounds like the Black Crowes doing Ed Sullivan. How well they do it without becoming a parody is another asset on the lengthy, Floydian, summer lullaby "Bees". Only on the languid "Town 2 Town" does Higgins seem to hit a retro-sounding rut before the coda revs things up again. Fans of Canadian Joel Plaskett would see Higgins as his American cousin.
Joel Plaskett, La De Da (MapleMusic) Rating: 7
Like a maritime Tom Petty, Halifax's Joel Plaskett makes simple, heartfelt roots-rock for shaggy-haired romantics and the women who love them. But don't take that as faint praise, because it isn't easy to deliver an album as elegantly careworn and bittersweet as La De Da, his follow-up to 2001's Down at the Khyber. Built on a foundation of lush acoustic guitars and Plaskett's lonesome, vulnerable voice, La De Da is an album about a young man's attempt to reconcile his life with the things that are supposed to make life whole -- be they religion ("Non-Believer"), aging ("Absent-Minded Melody"), or love ("Happen Now"). The ex-Thrush Hermit frontman doesn't come up with many answers, and his question-asking is often too cutesy for a songwriter of his gifts, but you'd be hard pressed to find a better musical companion for a night of Labatt induced introspection. [Amazon]
The Fiery Furnaces/Ted Leo "Norwegian Wood"/"I'm Looking Through You" [7-inch] (Razor and Tie) Rating: 6
This double a-side takes two selections from the compilation This Bird Has Flown: A 40th Anniversary Tribute to the Beatles' Rubber Soul. The Fiery Furnaces provide an unusual take on "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)", using echoed vocals, studio effects, and their typical theatrics to turn the narrative into a bad trip, one that, at least musically, is somewhat engaging and wholly original. Power-pop artist Ted Leo stays truer to "I'm Looking Through You". Energetic and well-versed in strong guitar hooks, Leo makes a natural Beatles cover boy, and his vocals and lead playing (backed by impatient toms) make this track enjoyable from start to dismantled finish.
Staind, Chapter V (Elektra) Rating: 6
It's a bit unfortunate that Staind gets such a bad rap in the modern critical community -- thanks to songs like "It's Been a While" and "Outside" (lead vocalist Aaron Lewis's immensely popular duet with Fred Durst), the band somehow ended up at the top of the "nü-metal" heap at the worst possible time. The genre was on a massive downslide, and Staind became the critical scapegoat. Now, Chapter V has arrived, and nü-metal is all but gone, but the critics haven't forgiven Staind. And it's too bad, because Chapter V could well be one of the strongest entries in the band's discography. "Paper Jesus" displays a refined sort of aggression that recalls the harsher moments of Alice in Chains (not a bad band to emulate), "Cross to Bear" is an anthem packed into a scant three-and-a-half minutes, and "Everything Changes" is a wistful, mellow lighter-waver. There are a couple of spots where they fall into the clichéd conventions they've built for themselves -- "King of All Excuses" is a repetitive and unimaginative stab at metal, and "Devil" tries for introspection but finds boredom -- but for the most part, Chapter V is a solid album that all of the stalwarts who haven't already classified Staind as has-beens are sure to enjoy. [Amazon]