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The Fire Still Burns, Keeping Hope Alive (Blackout!) Rating: 5
"Insert Motivation Here," the opening track on the Fire Still Burns' EP, so precisely replicates the melodic hardcore sound of Lifetime that it comes as little shock when the group's publicity sheets takes only three lines to cite that pivotal New Jersey band, mentioning that the Fire Still Burns consists of former and current members from Lifetime, Ensign, the Scarlet Letter, and a few other groups from the days before punk was dominated by the Warped Tour, Hot Topic, and vapid teen pop-punkers whose idea of paying dues is setting up a MySpace account. Track two confirms that the fire still burning in these five musicians is that of early-to-mid-'90s punk: "Good as New" is a dead ringer for Pummel-era All, with hardcore verses and a catchy-as-hell chorus over an arpeggiated guitar. After the exuberance of the first two songs, though, a certain sameness sets in; hooks diminish in sharpness, until by the end of the six-track EP the Embers Still Smolder seems a more accurate name. Maudlin lyrics about "empty hands and empty hearts" don't help, and the big ballad "November Days" falls a bit flat. Still, anyone who misses those archaic pre-Internet days when bands had no choice but to tour in cramped vans while building fanbases one show at a time (I can't possibly be the only person out there who still sings "Hey Catrine" in the shower once per month or so) will take a nostalgic warmth from the Fire Still Burns. The band's passion outruns its ability; hope may or may not remain alive for its future, but the group earns credit for at least a few sparks.
Various Artists, Masters of Horror (Immortal) Rating: 6
A companion piece to the ambitious, mildly enjoyable Showtime series of the same name, in which noted horror directors direct separate episodes based on stories by noted horror authors, Masters of Horror has its sights set on the same demographic whom the horror genre caters to, that being teenage boys, and for what it's worth, does a good job of it. Focusing on metal, hardcore, emo, screamo, and everything in between, this nicely-designed double CD serves not only as a tie-in to the TV series, but as an examination of the state of heavy music in America today (with a couple of UK/European acts tossed in for good measure). More melodic-sounding bands like It Dies Today, Alkaline Trio, Thursday, Armor For Sleep, and Andrew WK (dude, where you been?!) deliver decent, inoffensive tunes (which, quite frankly, seems to clash with the dark theme of the series), but it's the metal acts who really make the compilation fun. Young bands like Funeral For a Friend, Norma Jean, Every Time I Die, and the wonderfully goofy Avenged Sevenfold provide the energy, while Swedish veterans In Flames, Shadows Fall, an interesting collaboration between Buckethead and Serj Tankian of System of a Down, and the mighty Mastodon (whose live version of "Megalodon" steals the show) provide the muscle. While it might not be the best metal soundtrack of 2005 (that honor goes to Alone in the Dark…trust me), this set is still good fun.
Abdel Wright, Abdel Wright (Interscope) Rating: 3
Jamaican singer-songwriter Abdel Wright's debut comes with celebrity endorsements ranging from the ubiquitous Bono and executive producer / ex-Eurythmic Dave Stewart, which still isn't enough to cut through the gloss of Wright's overdressed roots reggae. The singer's righteous lyrical aim tackles a host of admirable social justice issues, but it's difficult to feel his passion when the record's production has about as much soul as Classics in the Key of G. A touch of dancehall on "My Decision" -- courtesy of Dru Lord -- and the a cappella "Issues" offer some welcome variety, but otherwise the bland musical backing does little to promote the strength of Wright's message. Until someone can hook him up with a better-matched producer, Wright's sound is too pop to carry weight with his countrymen and too slick to appeal to like-minded Babylonians -- well, except for Bono, that is.
Bang Sugar Bang, Thwak Thwak Go Crazy!! (SOS)
What can a punk band do nowadays to peak the kids' interest? If you've already penned a debut under the title Greatest Hits, not much else to do but jot down a few tepid songs and call it Thwak Thwak Go Crazy!! Yes, unfortunately tepid is right: on "The Machine Gun Song", a weak, Warning-era Green Day melody; on "Major Label Interest", a celebratory fist-pump underlined by quiet outro "fuck you" (for Bang Sugar Bang to be convincing, the whole song needs to scream "fuck you"); on "Sunday Night", a one-note harmony from female vocalist Cooper with a half-formed chorus, cut off too soon. Girl/Guy alternating vocal tracks is a fine idea, in theory. Trouble is, here's what we want, that we don't get: from girls, sass a la the Donnas; from guys, now, rage like new Green Day, or old Pennywise. Lo-fi punk relies on raw emotion. Live, Bang Sugar Bang may indeed go crazy, but this lackluster release isn't making me.
Amelia White, Black Doves (Funzalo) Rating: 5
Todd Fritsch, Todd Fritsch (Route 66 Productions) Rating: 5
A tale of two countries. One country is dubbed Americana, known for its gritty, rock-influenced take on the world, its landscape dotted by bars, heartbreak hotels, concrete 'n' barbed wire. The other country is referred to in some quarters as Traditional, all fence posts, pick-up trucks, and well-worn roads where mom and apple pie are just around the corner. The dress-code is strict-you must wear a cowboy hat to be taken seriously. Both countries pride themselves on authenticity; each considers itself to be the embodiment of pure musical virtue. Can you guess by the covers of new records by Amelia White and Todd Fritsch where each resides? I bet you can. And if you open up Fritsch's you're greeting by a cattle brand reading "Caution! Contains Real Country Music!" If you say so, Todd.
Listening to Todd Fritsch and Black Doves side by side demonstrates the futility in getting huffy about the imaginary line between commercial and insurgent country: both realms are centered on easily identified images and aesthetics that appeal to genre adherents. Let's say this: if you're a fan of Steve Earle's more recent material, you'll most certainly get your kicks from White's fine, rustic compositions. If you think Earle's a pinko, go with Fritsch. Either way, you're not going to be disappointed. Both artists deliver exactly what listeners are a-hankering for. White's got a Lucinda Williams thing going on on "How Far Is Down", more inspired than derivative. The harmonies on "Afraid of a Kiss" are warm and familiar, as tried and true as lyrics about chain smoking and bourbon as "tonic for the hurtin'." Fritsch's debut is session-musician slick, his smooth, twangy voice front and center on the nostalgic weeper "Corpus Christi Callin'". His claim to fame right now seems to be his cover of Eddy Raven's 1984 hit "I Got Mexico". But playing covers, or having music written for your hunky, clean-shaven self is as much a hallmark of trad-country as writing your own shit is imperative for alt-. No matter which way you turn, you're safe in both countries.
J+J+J, They Hump While We Go Nuts (Circle Machine) Rating: 6
So tell me, how would you like to be listed as a "humper" on a nationally released album? There are six such "humpers" credited on J+J+J's They Hump While We Go Nuts, and the title of the album and the fact that it lists "humpers" in the credits probably tells you all you need to know about whether the album's for you. J+J+J consists of the boyfriend-girlfriend combo of Joanna Jablonski and Johnny Ludwig (the third 'J' is for Jesus, who plays a mean tambourine), and they're the couple in the apartment down the hall that's constantly breaking stuff, playing loud music, and laughing hysterically. This is synth-pop gone brown acid. When it's not being interrupted by random cell-phone calls and dialogue snippets, it's actually pretty catchy -- making a chorus that allows for singing along to the title of "High School? You Mean Inverted Caste System" is no small feat. Even with the classically trained fingers of Jablonski, nothing here is going to impress you with virtuosity or talent; it's just synthpop for caffeinated insomniacs who like to break stuff. Yes, it's an album with humpers, snowballs, yearbooks, shopping malls, a portable ultrasound machine ("We're going to look at your baby!"), and Jesus. What's not to like?
Ronnie Bowman, It's Getting' Better All the Time (Koch) Rating: 7
Ronnie Bowman isn't reinventing the wheel here, relying instead on a seasoned supporting cast that breeze through these tracks, including "On My Way Back Home" that sounds like he's subbing for Allison Krauss. If that doesn't turn your bluegrass/traditional music crank, then "Crazy Train" with its faster tempo holds its own against the likes of a current day Ricky Skaggs. Bowman does nothing to rock this sailing bluegrass boat on a softer, slower "The Mountain" that shows off some fine picking within the sweet melody and sweeter harmonies. The same is felt for the lovely toe-tapper "Till We Meet Again". Perhaps the early highlight is the swinging feeling to "Build a Little Playhouse" resembling a cover version of some Buck Owens song. Quite forgettable however is a tired rendition of "Old Flames" that pales terribly to the bite and punch driving "The Epitaph Of Lester Moore". Bowman excels on this album for the most part, but stretches himself wafer thin on the soppy title track ballad. Leave it to Vince Gill, Ronnie. If he keeps getting better on future albums, he'll keep getting well-deserved kudos.
American Minor, American Minor (Jive/Zomba) Rating: 7
From the look of them, the American Minor guys take more than musical influence from Neil Young and Grand Funk. Hair and all, there's much to enjoy in their debut, full-length roots rock collection. The best thing about these 11 original tracks is how laid back and breezy they are -- it's testament to the boys in the band that they've paid close attention to their predecessors. I don't know if it's Rob McCutcheon's earnest vocal or the gutsy writing, but everything here just sounds authentic and unaffected. Among the better tracks are "Mr. Queen" and "Don't Jump the Gun", both gloriously somber stories about the road weary and the down and out; "One Last Supper" challenges notions of war and capital punishment, and there's a great sort of "Scarlet Fever" throwback (only less tragic) in "Break". Perhaps the only thing missing to genuinely relive the record's beloved era is a call for revolution or a song about weed. Still, it's the perfect road-tripping soundtrack that does everything it should -- it rocks, it rolls, it knows its place. A nice one for summer. [Editor's note: Nikki Tranter lives in Australia, so she's enjoying summer at this very moment.]
Freezepop, Maxi Ultra-Fresh (The Archenemy Record Company/Darla) Rating: 3
I'm trying to think of a worse forum for Freezepop's goofy yet slick and glamorous take on programmed synth-pop than this sixty minute monstrosity somehow labeled as an EP (for some perspective, it would have been a double album in the vinyl era). The first three tracks are absolute brilliant slices of future-retro fun, highlighted by the ironically named Liz Enthusiasm's perfectly frigid vocal contributions ("Tonight" is perhaps, the ideal expression of detached sensuality). Unfortunately, these songs are also straight from the band's previous album Fancy Ultra-Fresh. The rest of Maxi Ultra-Fresh takes the standard stopgap EP approach in creating product where it doesn't necessarily, you know, exist. There's a non-essential leftover, "Smoke Machine", which is about as interesting as a standard b-side. Next, the band presents a dull live medley, a fairly pointless inclusion considering that Freezepop's brand of pre-programmed music does not exactly lend itself to illuminating live performances. All of this leads to the bulk of the album, a collection of long and uninspired re-mixes that take all that is oddball and awkward in the band's songs, and flatten them into standardized remixes, effectively destroying everything that makes Freezepop a worthwhile pop act. All in all, with the best tracks all appearing on their previous album and the live track and the remixes fairly worthless, it doesn't make sense for the average Freezepop fan to spend their money on Maxi Ultra-Fresh just for the sake for one new mediocre song.
Fear Factory, Transgression (Calvin) Rating: 3
How the mighty have fallen. Granted, Fear Factory have changed little since1995's Demanufacture, one of the most influential albums of the nu-metal era, but a decade later, the band sounds tired, with not a lick of originally, nor charisma to speak of. While the ironically tepid "540,000° Fahrenheit" does benefit from Burton C. Bell's vocal melodies and the spacious production, an embarrassingly bad piece of third-generation nu-metal like "Contagion" comes along to ruin things. When the band does manage to show some life, as during "Spinal Compression", all they can manage are a few bars of uninspired death metal riffs and blastbeats before sinking back into their torpor. Some might consider their note-for-note cover of U2's "I Will Follow" to be a bold move, but to these ears, it smacks of an aging band completely devoid of any ideas. If that wasn't enough, things go from bad to worse on the abysmal, flaccid cover of Killing Joke's great "Millenium". One of 2005's most pointless albums.
Chris Murphy, Noir (Kufala) Rating: 8
The violin can be an intriguing instrument when used properly, and Chris Murphy has managed to squeeze every last drop of tension, eeriness, funk, classical and mountain style in this near hour of adventure. From the haunting film score style the opens "Tango", Murphy eases himself into the dance without shortchanging himself or the listener. The lone problem might be how long he stays with it prior to the murky "Desert Star" which stalls the album briefly. Murphy relies on some funky or catchy melodies to showcase his chops, including a lovely little stroll during "Café Noir" that sounds like a cross between Mark O'Connor and Nigel Kennedy. Less endearing is the somewhat lazy, swinging "Filbert's Rag" that leaves a bad taste in your mouth. But the sparse, engaging "Coffee And Candles" with Murphy's playing at the fore is brilliant as is the somewhat bluesy toe-tapping "Bessie Smith". The musician's knack for veering from genre to genre without it being over his head is remarkable, particularly on the hip-rattling "Eddie's Mambo" that picks up in intensity. Another favorite near the end is "Moonlight Waltz", but overall Murphy seems to be content by being a highly competent musical gypsy.
Rich McCulley, Far From My Angel (Rich McCulley Music) Rating: 6
Rich McCulley's third album is a refined bit of work that is bursting at the seams with roots rock and alt. country traits. Whether it is the safe but pleasing "First Word" that sounds like Cracker front man Dave Lowery paying homage to a Steve Earle track, McCulley is onto something good. The grittier "Hope You're Happy" as well as "I Am Free" has a cocky McCulley resembling a confident Elvis Costello from top to bottom. He takes things down to a slow Dylan-like roll on "Forget Me" that strolls along without any hiccups. However "This Ain't a Song" comes off like a bad Bryan Adams offering even with the handclaps and a better than average bridge. McCulley seems to try out a new style with each song, but a great deal of them passes with flying colors, particularly the down-tempo "Waterfall" that brings to mind Petty circa Wildflowers and the ensuing, galloping pop title track that evolves into a rowdier rocker. When he tries too hard the result is a disappointing "Stumbling to Start" and an ordinary "It's on Me". But he atones for it with a lovely little ditty entitled "8 Years Ago Today" with its simple jugband-like swagger.
Healthy White Baby, Healthy White Baby (Broadmoor) Rating: 7
There's two paths to take when writing a break-up album: get weepy and introspective, or plug in the amps and rock out. Fortunately, for those of us who want to kick a little ass while mending a broken heart, there's the eponymous debut from Healthy White Baby. Two-thirds of the band -- singer/guitarist Danny Black and bassist Laurie Stirratt (plus drummer Ryan Juravic, who has probably loved and lost too) -- were once in bands with their exes (the Blacks and Blue Mountain, respectively), and judging from the tunes on Healthy White Baby the trio knows a thing or two about imploding bands and relationships. With song titles like "It's Over", "Hard to Please", "I Was Trying" and lyrics like "Love's a disaster / I know it's after my soul" it's easy to see what's weighing on Black and Stirratt's souls. But rather than wallow in what once was, the band takes these bleak notions and molds them into bloozy, garage roots rock. Given Black and Stirratt's alt-country leanings from their days with their earlier outfits, it's a pleasant surprise to find them firmly stuck in the garage with HWB. It's not hard to imagine, say, Paul Westerberg (especially in his Grandpaboy guise), treading the same territory with equally heartbreaking and footstomping results. And the album ends strong with three upbeat songs -- "Want It", a cover of Bill Monroe's "With Body and Soul" and "Home"; call them the lights and the end of the break-up tunnel.
KTU, Eight-Armed Monkey (Thirsty Ear) Rating: 7
This is an instrumental collaboration between Pat Mastelatto and Trey Gunn (King Crimson) and Kimmo Pohjonen and Samuli Kosminen (Kluster). It's all very po-mo to the max: accordion and voice and samples from the funny Finns, guitar and percussion from the serious Americans, stretched out over five lengthy songs. Sometimes they rock in a funky electronic way ("Optikus"), sometimes they meander ambiently ("Keho"). This is the kind of adorable post-rock stuff that a lot of the kids were doing last decade, but it's done pretty well overall and Kluster sounds like a pretty good duo.
Ryan Lee Crosby b/w The Instances, Split Cassette (Sort Of) Rating: 5
Split Cassette samples Sort Of Records' two main artists. The first five tracks are from Ryan Lee Crosby and the last six tracks are from label owner Raymond Morin's band, The Instances. And the music itself is what makes this pairing work. Crosby's contributions are almost washed out in a hushed, acoustic delivery, making the words all the more chilling on the domestic abuse tale of "Big Mistake". "Maybe somebody out there's gonna call the cops / Figure I'm beating her, and they can force me to stop / But they'd only catch me at the table drinking coffee / Perfectly stable and sitting there perfectly still." It looks horrific written out, but the song is soft and almost touching. Capturing the confusion and pain of something even darker with his near-whisper vocals, "Some Serious Help" closes Crosby's "side" of the album with a self-absorbing tale of suicide. Consisting of Morin's guitar and vocals, Seth Mehl on erhu (Chinese violin), and Emily Davis on flute, The Instances sound is well-matched with Crosby's work. "Characters" owes much to British folk in its arrangements while "Metal in My Mouth" has a fuzzy and appropriately metallic feel, but the same hushed qualities of Crosby's work are present under The Instances' sometimes noisier plot points. But while Crosby's stories were gritty and unsettling, their sentiment feels genuine. The Instances' lyrical content, on the other hand, feels a bit milquetoast by virtue of their vagueness. In all, the complete package is well put-together and a worthwhile listen.
A Day in Black & White, Notes (Level Plane) Rating: 4
The only thing I hate worse than walking and getting hit by slushy snow from a speeding car is a band intent on being all arty with an intro that makes you want to yawn or bang your head off a cupboard door. A Day In Black And White succeed in being more arse-y than arty on the cleverly coined "Tinnitus" which should be dubbed "Tedious". "New Energy" sounds tired with a post punk pop that fizzles immediately, sounding like a tired Jimmy Eat World-meets-Mooney Suzuki. They turn the page for the better with the lo fi "A Literal Title" rooted in alt. rock foundations that veers into a quasi Yo La Tengo experimental rave up. "Lame Duck" furthers that idea and improves on it somewhat. The band never really does anything to make you take notice or do a double take despite better than average tracks like "Long-Distance Song Effects". Other times they seem to be, as the Brits say, "taking the piss" on tracks like "Nothing With Nothing" and "A Good Turn". The unevenness of the record is perhaps its biggest drawback with the strength of "Ronald's Right" wasted alongside "All Plots".
Ennio Morricone, Crime and Dissonance (Ipecac) Rating: 8
Ennio Morricone might be best known for his scores for such films as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, A Fistful of Dollars, and his Academy Award-winning work on The Mission, but little do many of us know how experimental, abstract, and downright creepy the prolific composer's music could get. In fact, his soundtrack music for a handful of obscure Italian productions during the late '60s and early '70s ventures as far from "The Ecstasy of Gold" as one could possibly imagine. Brilliantly compiled by Ipecac's resident mad genius Mike Patton, the aptly titled double-disc Crime and Dissonance is less a definitive anthology than an expertly sequenced mix made by someone with one of the coolest record collections around. By focusing on the more surreal moments from Morricone's massive body of work, Patton sheds new light on the Maestro, selecting a mind-bending array of diverse sounds, from dark, gloomy jazz, to strange forays in psychedelia, to jarring moments of discordant notes, to even rock 'n' roll. At one moment, sitars chime exotically, organs sing lasciviously, vibraphones echo, male and female voices breathe and pant in either agony, ecstasy, or both. Another, screaming rock guitars mesh with muted jazz trumpets, like an acid rock band colliding with Miles Davis circa 1969. So well do these songs work on their own, that you wind up forgetting that this music originally accompanied images, and it boggles the mind to figure out just what those old films looked like to warrant such bizarre music. One of the most astounding releases from Ipecac in recent years, this is one that has to be heard to be believed, and if you thought Morricone's more mainstream music was great, this disc will leave you awestruck.
BCRP, BCRP (BRCP Music) Rating: 7
BCRP is the project of Sonny Votolato with a host of backing musicians. Votolato has a style that is half singer-songwriter and part alt. country troubadour, and he walks this musical tightrope deftly on "Rocketship" whose arrangement could be broadened but isn't. He also stays well within his strengths, making a pop number like "Strong" flow as effortlessly as any underappreciated songwriter one could conjure up. He really hits his stride with a gorgeous Elliott Smith-like style on "Reality", resembling the late singer-songwriter with strings sparingly sprinkled about. "Cratered Footsteps" attempts to improve on this but seems a bit forced as Votolato sings about staying the f-k away. The highlight is "Coat Check", a gorgeous McCartney-ish blueprint that has a lovely melody and fine lyrics. But "Imaginary Halos" leaves a bland taste in one's mouth. Through it all though, Votolato maintains a very high level of quality writing and music with the Finn-like "Apathy".
Dana Cooper, Made of Mud (King Easy) Rating: 8
Despite 30-odd years in music, Dana Cooper's pop-folk style manages to sound as fresh and relevant as it did during his early troubadour years with Shakes Russell. On Made of Mud, Cooper applies his sorrowful analysis to war and politics, love and life, and the simplicity of reason and commonsense. His "Sit the One Out", for instance, skewers current policy makers with scathing verses detailing "heartless", "vengeful" political attitudes over a light, addictive pop melody. The great thing about Cooper's songwriting is his ability to be so forceful without appearing enraged or hate-filled. His manner is questioning rather than accusatory. His phrasing can be just subtle enough to miss his topical undertones ("The bravest heart grows weary looking out upon the freeway, / Looking deep inside to free dreams that seem content enough to hide"), while, at other times, it's unapologetically blatant ("I'm back in town with my gun on the table, / Trying to be as diplomatic as an able American can"). Whatever he does, though, it's all curiously and wonderfully Cooper. This one is superb.
Kiln, Twinewheel: Lost Sides + Dusty Gems 1994-2005 (Division Sound) Rating: 5
Kevin Hayes, Kirk Marrison and Clark Rehberg III make up Kiln, an arty electro trio that use blips and bleeps to create their own music that is part Morphine, part M83 and part Spritualized. "Ore Corymb (Bursting Rainbow Concourse)" is a moody, quasi-progressive rock number that weaves a different sonic tale with each interesting, inventive turn. But with the first two tracks, timing is the problem. The opener has Kiln taking too long to wrap up the track while still ahead. The sonic landscapes are gorgeous though on "Kilnplate", an airy, atmospheric instrumental (as the entire album is) that soars to some majestic high. Unfortunately this song ends too quickly. "Malle Slate" features the crashing of waves over light guitar, resembling the opening to a Gilmour lead Pink Floyd track which leads perfectly into the '70s sounding "Autumnalae (Leaf-Pile Divers)". The mellowest moments come during "October" with its jazz hues seeping in and out. And "Amethyst" maintains this mellow, musical interlude perfectly.