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Straylight Run, Prepare to be Wrong (Victory) Rating: 7
On its self-titled debut album, Straylight Run took straightforward pop-rock, complete with prominent keyboards and soaring choruses, gave it an emo twist, and ended up with something catchy and emotional, if not exactly groundbreaking. This is why the opening track on Prepare to be Wrong, a little ditty called "I Don't Want This Anymore", is causing audible gasps throughout Straylight Run's now considerable fanbase -- it's a quiet, electronic song bordering on ambient, where the primary vocals are done by Michelle Nolan while her brother John takes a backseat for a few minutes. This obviously intentional break from the band's proven formula is meant to get our attention, and it works. The rest of the EP falls back into the established formula, but not without a few more new touches. Most notably, "Hands in the Sky (Bigshot)" is a wonderful slow burn with electronic undertones that eventually explodes in a satisfying, climactic tantrum that has more in common with the musings of Trent Reznor than, say, Dashboard Confessional. The band sometimes gets caught in rote repetition, as on the xylophone-touched coda of "Later That Year", and some of the experiments fail miserably -- the cover of Dylan's "With God on Our Side" is atrocious, even if it does feature some nice little vocal harmonies. Still, Prepare to be Wrong is a statement by a band more than willing to branch beyond the sound that made it successful. That alone could make Prepare to be Wrong worth hearing; that it houses some gems only sweetens the deal. [Amazon]
TOK, Unknown Language (VP) Rating: 5
Listening to dancehall quartet TOK's Unknown Language is sort of like being in a long-term relationship. In the beginning, it's dazzling, filled with boundless energy and exhilarating trips to the dance floor. ("Hey Ladies" and "Solid As a Rock" can rock the club as well as any of the more popular dancehall cuts from Sean Paul or Wayne Wonder.) During the third or fourth track, you let the "L word" slip out. It's too late to take it back, but you don't care. By dreamy tracks five (a remake of the S.O.S. Band ballad "Tell Me If You Still Care") and six (a thankfully liberal interpretation of the ubiquitous poem "Footprints"), you've learned what makes the album tick: a fun party sound with a mix of singing and DJ chatting in buoyant, sing-along choruses. However, nothing comes as a surprise anymore. Is the magic gone? Track seven is the first real sign of trouble. Is that a gospel song? Where did that come from? What kind of freaky stuff is hiding it its closet? I don't even know who this album is anymore. At track 10, you start to roll your eyes. You've heard it all before. Maybe your mom was right. By tracks 12 and 13, though, you've invested so much time that when it asks you if you wanna get married, you say, "What the hell." You're not getting any younger, and it's not the worst album in the world. It's actually improved over the last few songs. It seems to have listened when you suggested it shake up the routine a bit. "High" uses an effective echoing sample, and "No Way Jose" is a dark slice of funk that may be the best of the bunch. So you get hitched, maybe pop out a kid or two, and settle into the humdrum final songs ("The Diwali riddim again?"), and when it ends, you reach onto the shelf to have a torrid fling with a Sean Paul CD. [Amazon]
Mark H. Harris
Terri Clark, Life Goes On (Mercury Nashville) Rating: 6
Something strange happened here. Ten years and five studio albums into her career, the excellent Terri Clark had an album called Honky Tonk Songs scheduled for release in the first half of 2005. The machinery was swinging into gear, the early promo copies had even been distributed, and then, nothing. Honky Tonk Songs disappeared; reportedly a casualty of a major shake up in A&R at Mercury Nashville. Skip forward six months or so, and an album called Life Goes On slips out in the wake of the feelgood hit single "She Didn't Have Time". Nine of the songs on Life Goes On have been remaindered over from Honky Tonk Songs. The new material includes the vibrant, radio-friendly title track and a couple of ballads: the aforementioned big hit and a slow country blues ballad called "Not Enough Tequila". It's a decent enough record, if a little less impressive than both Pain To Kill (2003) and Fearless (2000), but it all seems just a little odd. The Canadian cowgirl Clark has long been a very solid performer with a nice line in precisely the witty tomboy countryrockpop that has made a role model out of Gretchen Wilson. No Holland family roadtrip mixtape is complete without at least one of her tunes. And yet you can't help getting the feeling that somehow one of the wheels has just come off her wagon. [Amazon]
Fielding, Fielding (The Militia Group) Rating: 5
Fielding have the dubious distinction of being included frequently on MTV's Singled Out, the show that featured horny teenagers asking and answering stupid questions. The good news is that the band have overcome such auspicious beginnings. This is an album of pretty good pop music, from the great opener to the often overwrought emotions of everything that follows. Fielding is best when it goes for up-tempo pop and worst when it indulges in slower numbers, exposing vocals that are often weak and sometimes unconvincing lyrics. Though songs like "Big Surpise", with a jaunty piano and screaming outro vocals, are impossible to resist. [Amazon]
Japanther, Yer Living Grave (Menlo Park) Rating: 7
Sometimes the line between greatness and crapness is very thin. That's especially the case when you're doing things on the fringe, where excellence is scarcely separable from indulgent wankery. And here's Japanther to separate the champs from the chumps. A sound so flavourous you can taste it, so hardcore they wrote this lying on the floor in the basement. Yer Living Grave ain't no walk in the park. It's a tough, dense racket, but this two-man crew isn't so esoteric as to jettison giant charging hooks. It's repetitive, melodic groove-noise and it's immediately likeable and sufficiently provoking. Practically veterans of the Brooklyn scene, Japanther has been putting out music since the 2002. Hardly qualifying as an EP, this release is a swift eight tracks that ends with the wow-flexing "Furrs Is Gone". They've gone and drowned New Order in paranoia and violence and it won't swiftly wane from the brain. With the Japanther aesthetic there ain't no half-stepping. These hard-bitten blip punks offset a self-consciously artistic inclination with a sound that's visceral and inviting. [Portions of this review were adapted from Erick Sermon's "Full Cooperation"]
Le Dust Sucker, self-titled (Plong!) Rating: 5
It's time to put on your roller skates and DISCO! Le Dust Sucker is a project that combines the efforts of Fabian Grobe and Markus Schöbel, who together have come up with something that sounds like the well-meaning but less popular brother of Daft Punk. This self-titled album, the first CD released by the Plong! label, is a reissue of a double-LP released in 2004, which itself compiled some of Le Dust Sucker's previous singles while adding some new tracks. The most popular of the previously-released bits, then, would be "Mandate My Ass", whose title is more an excuse for a humorous vocal sample than any sort of political statement. "Mandate My Ass" is actually one of the stronger selections on the disc, with drums that go beyond the typical "boom-ch" heavy disco sound into something a little more tribal, and a second half that begs for flashing lights and disco balls. Opener "(Formally Known As) Satisfaction" is just as solid, with beats that won't quit and synths that are enough to plant images of giant boom boxes in your head. Unfortunately, Le Dust Sucker's lazy tendency toward silly sex samples in tracks like "All Day" (sample: "...feeling really horny all day") and the no-explanation-needed "Lick Lick" distracts from the beatmaking. Le Dust Sucker is perfect background for a late-night disco party -- decent enough to dance to, but breaks down if you actually sit down and listen.
Saeed Younan, Remixed (Star 69) Rating: 6
A nice, if unchallenging, mixed set from DC-born DJ Saeed Younan. It's a problem that there is only really one rhythm for a lot of these tracks, but maybe that's just great mixing. I love Nadia's cooing of "sexy motherfucker" on Stephan M & Nicky Scanni's "Go Deeper", but I'm not sure why Club 69's version of "Warm Leatherette" is included, except maybe to clear a dancefloor. For me, Younan's own tracks are probably the highlight of this disc, from the fun squelches on "Rock the Rhythm" to the sexy growly vocals on "You Know I Got It.
Aeroplane Pageant, He Is Fire (Inner Flight) Rating: 6
Can you really judge a band by an EP? Particularly when that EP is less than six songs and nowhere close to 20 minutes? Well, Aeroplane Pageant don't give a rat's behind about all that, and the four songs here are well-crafted and finely executed. "Kind as Killers" saunters along like a cross between Wilco, the Smiths, and the Killers. The lead singer brings his own style to the proceedings, although you get the idea he had a Simple Minds or Psychedelic Furs poster on his wall as a teen. "The Air Went Pink" is more subdued, despite a bouncy backbeat. The songs aren't bad, not by a long shot. I just wish there were more here like the melodic pop effort "Sunlit Chairs", which sounds like lightweight but stellar Arcade Fire. Closing with the winding, somewhat prog-like "How Distant", Aeroplane Pageant should be someone to look out for in '06. They definitely leave you wanting more!
Terry Anderson and the Olympic Ass-Kickin' Team, Terry Anderson and the Olympic Ass-Kickin' Team, (Doublenaught) Rating: 7
Rockpile (Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe, etc) never released a follow-up to their fantastic 1980 album Seconds of Pleasure, but you could be forgiven for thinking that Terry Anderson's fourth album, Terry Anderson and the Olympic Ass-Kickin' Team was, in actuality, Rockpile's long-lost sophomore disc. Anderson, who served time in the mid-'90s with the similarly-rocking Yayhoos and who penned "Battleship Chains" (made semi-famous by the Georgia Satellites), knows his roots rock. Whether it's straightforward rockers like "Hi 'n' Dry" and "Can't Get The One You Want", goofy tunes about drinking ("Feel a Drunk Comin' On", "Thunderbird") or midtempo love songs that aren't schmaltzy ("Raindrops", "Inez"), Anderson proves he's earned his slot on the Ass-Kickin' team. And with help from friends like Walter Clevenger, Dan Baird, Caitlin Cary and NRBQ's Al Anderson (no relation), Olympic Ass-Kickin' Team is a who's-who of cult-level famous roots rockers (yes, that's a compliment) and power poppers. Bouncy, silly, rocking -- basically, just plain old fun -- Terry Anderson and the Olympic Ass-Kickin' Team is an unadulterated roots rock gem. Edmunds and Lowe would be proud. [Amazon]
10 Ft. Ganja Plant, Bass Chalice (ROIR) Rating: 5
By golly, it's so very easy to make a bad roots record! Thankfully, the third release by 10 Ft. Ganja Plant is not bad at all, though it doesn't quite make the first rank of newer stuff released in the style. Comprised of members of John Brown's Body, this group's intent is simple enough: to faithfully reproduce the vibrations of classic sound-system dub in ways accessible to modern listeners. "Last Dance" is an excellent number about watching the final moments of a relationship that has all but ended already, taken at a languorous pace. The vocals trail off into the haze quite nicely; it is an effect that only legitimate roots singers can pull off right. "It was so easy / When we moved like one blood... Can I have this last dance?" "Suits and Ski Masks" is one of the few complete instrumentals on the album. The music is flavored with bits of hip-hop and European down-tempo, neither of which distract from the main line of attack, which is the brooding, meditative dub of Kingston. Another nice instrumental is the nearly noir-ish "Swedish Prison". The title track, which comes at the end of Bass Chalice, is not quite as effective, building from motifs established earlier on the album. "To Each" is another very effective ballad, while "Deliver Us Jah" would make the most interesting single for pop radio -- obviously not their ambition, but interesting nonetheless. There would be a certain perverse appeal in having teenyboppers asking Jah to "deliver us from Babylon", and troops in Iraq might like it, too. All told, Bass Chalice should appeal to fans of the New York roots music scene, but non-specialists might find the album a bit bland. There are enough flaws to make a general recommendation impossible, but more than enough goodness to merit catching their live show, as well as keeping an eye out for the next album. [Amazon]
F5, A Drug for All Seasons (Deadline) Rating: 4
There was a time when David Ellefson was defined as 50% of the Megadeth equation, the only band member that somehow consistently managed to get along with Dave Mustaine for nearly 20 years. In a flurry of bad blood and lawsuits, that partnership disappeared, and Mustaine is now serving his time as the only remaining original member of Megadeth, while Ellefson has now found a place as the bassist for a new band. F5 is the band, and A Drug for All Seasons is the debut album. It's a lot like Megadeth, actually, but less unique. This is hard rock, and it rips, sure, but there's nothing distinctive about any of it, save for Ellefson's mastery of the bass guitar -- one listen through "Forte Sonata", a solo bass track, finds Ellefson making violin and guitar sounds with his instrument, allowing a little insight as to where other atmospheric noises on the disc came from when there's not a single keyboard or string instrument listed in the credits. Fascinating as this is, however, it doesn't make up for Dale Steele's faux-Hetfield (by way of Fred Durst) growling, the hackneyed songwriting, or a truly dreadful cover of Edie Brickell's "What I Am". "Like Paris Hilton, you'll be on your knees," yells Steele in the ecstacy-laced cautionary tale "X'd Out", one of many lines that evoke laughs rather than the intended apprehension or hostility. Moments like that define the album, while decent but unnoteworthy tracks like "Dying on the Vine" and "Faded" are mere momentary distractions from the silliness. Ellefson's virtuosity aside, F5 will have you reaching for Esc. [Amazon]
The Winter Set, Smoke Break EP (Desolation) Rating: 3
Talk about a band wearing its influences on the sleeve: this quintet of Pavement-lovers from Indiana makes no apologies for a case of end-stage idol worship on its debut five-song EP. The disc begins pleasantly enough, with the dream-like verses and noisy theremin-fueled interludes of "Cowboys and Indians", but doesn't take long to head straight into Pavement B-side territory with "Home for Me and You". After that, the overuse of the theremin just gets annoying and one starts to wonder what might've happened if the two guys without last names (guitarist "Jeremy" and drummer "Peter") had stepped out from anonymity to write some songs. Pavement fans that need a fix between the next Preston School of Industry or solo Malkmus albums might be remotely interested in the Winter Set, but other than that this smoke break is about as memorable as any of the others taken during an average workday.
The Grates, The Ouch. The Touch. EP (Dew Process/Cherrytree) Rating: 9
Here's a prediction for 2006: the Grates will beat Be Your Own Pet for girl-led spaz-punk debut of the year. On stage in Sydney, Ben Lee (!) dubbed 2006 'the year of the Grates' -- but then, Ben Lee wrote "Awake is the New Sleep" -- so don't trust him, trust me. The Ouch. The Touch., the band's debut release, is a tantalizing promise of things to come: defiantly raucous freak-out "Message"; dragged-through-molasses guitar-strummed "Sukkafish"; robot-stomp sex-call "Trampoline". The whole time, drummer Alana Skyring pounds the living daylights out of her drum set, so you can't help but nod your head. Live, the Grates shine, too: singer Patience Hodgson bounces up and down the stage singing "wash me!", and she's so adorable you're coerced into having fun. I for one don't need any convincing: the Grates are definitely one of the bands to watch for in 2006. [Amazon]
Stephen Clair, Under the Bed (Valley Entertainment) Rating: 6
Stephen Clair is a smart singer-songwriter who has opened for Vic Chesnutt, Richard Buckner and The Gourds among others. And for good reason since the songs generally gel from the onset of "Gone Ten Years", a weary track that, as Clair sings, proves he's in no hurry. "It's a Riddle" is a funky, Sheryl Crow-like pedestrian pop track that is a tad forced, not utilizing Clair's strong points. After a few listens it should grow on you. He finds the best of both worlds on "My Heart's Not Broken" that Lucinda Williams would consider covering. Clair comes undone in a few places unfortunately, making "Stupid Game" sound more like "Stupid Song", a clichéd backbeat and rather routine melody. "The Moon" fares slightly better as he eases himself into the sparse, earthy, campfire ditty and the jerky but jaunty "Following Orders" that sounds like it was done in one take. "You can't catch a raindrop in a moth-eaten hat" he sings during the latter tune. When Clair is front and centre, stripped of any mediocre production, he stars with "A Woman Like You" that comes from the Kevin Welch school of songwriting. Happy go lucky during the swaying, catchy "Tomorrow's Another Day", Clair hits his stride perfectly here. [Amazon]
Menomena, "Posh Isolation / Tung Track" [7-inch single] (Polyvinyl) Rating: 6
Menomena's new 7-inch and first offering on Polyvinyl contains two tracks that were recorded during the sessions for their debut album, 2004's I Am the Fun Blame Monster. That album was a bizarre amalgamation of activity that resulted in one of the year's most fun releases. Given that background, it's no wonder that these songs were chopped. Both are moody electronic numbers that fit neither the emotion nor the playfulness of their compiled counterparts. Even so, neither one's a bust. B-side "Tung Track" actually wins out, with its snipped percussion and desolate vocals. "Posh Isolation" has the same gloom and loneliness, this time driven by a couple guitar strings and a bass and interrupted by the group's direct electronic mind before suffering slight fragmentation. Menomena maintains an aura of nerdy weirdness about them, and this release lacks that enough oddity to compensate for its missing joy. Even so, the pair of songs should keep anticipation up for this year's full-length, given that even the group's outtakes can entertain.
Dave's True Story, Simple Twist of Fate (Bepop) Rating: 4
This album of Bob Dylan covers is hardly an album at all. Yes, it is a collection of Dylan covers, but it's packaged in the guise of an album when anyone can clearly see that it is merely an EP. Only seven Dylan songs are here. Bloating the disc to album length are three "radio edit" versions and one "alternative mix." Plus, DTS add a song written by their lead singer. These extras might work well if the CD were already album length, but instead they reek of padding. After all, the radio edits simply fade out a minute early. The songs here are classy Dylan interpretations, though rarely inventive or essential. Dylan completists will likely enjoy this collection, but it will appeal to very few others, especially with a list price of $11. [Amazon]
Me Talk Pretty, Ana (self-released) Rating: 7
Imagine Tool without the oppressive gloom fronted by Bjork without the grating shrillness; now you have a close approximation of Me Talk Pretty. Sound like something different? It is, and in this case, different is good ... Very good. Sprouting from the incestuous New York underground scene, the band offers up an attractive EP of somberness anchored by Julia's powerfully melodic vocals. With Leon Lyazidi on guitar, Chris Foster on bass and James Kluz behind the kit, the seven tracks are awash in heavy rhythms and sharp fretwork. But the EP avoids traveling the well-trodden route of gratuitous darkness and doom. Instead, the compositions resemble miniature operatic productions, resonating with a wide spectrum of emotions. Song segments alternate from bludgeoning to dream-like, yet all flow seamlessly together. One moment, Julia lulls listeners into a false sense of security with her breathless semi-whisper, then without pause, jars them awake again by holding notes that could break glass. Ana is a fascinating exploration into sophisticated song craft, and is as enjoyable for its keen musicality as it is for its deviation from the standard pop/rock template. Tough to accurately categorize, but brimming with individuality and artistic potential, Me Talk Pretty dares to be different, with exceptional results.
Tommy and the Terrors, Unleash the Fury (TKO) Rating: 5
Tommy and the Terrors share more than a producer (Matt Kelly) with the Dropkick Murphys; they also proudly represent Irish Boston, with cartoonish cover art featuring a fightin' Irishman atop a mighty MBTA train and a requisite Guinness reference. Musically, they're a bit less adventurous, though with 15 songs in 26 minutes, they unleash their punk fury with welcomed brevity. Opener "Chum" couldn't recall 1977 any more if it came with a Billy Beer scratch'n'sniff card, with ringing, Clash-like guitars and gruff, raspy vocals in the vein of Stiff Little Fingers. Subsequent tunes like "Under Surveillance" and "Breakdown, Breakdown" continue in this trajectory, and they offer their fair share of fist-pumping moments. There's nothing wrong with celebrating a tradition, but Tommy and the Terrors suffer from a lyrical boneheadedness that blunts the album's punch. The need for simplistic chants of "here we, here we go" or "all together, we are one" shouted in group unison has surely been filled by three decades of punk, and I'm pretty sure the same can be said of songs about getting high and eating pizza until someone pukes ("Avoid the Noi!d" nonetheless serving as the album's most clever wordplay). When the band turns its attention to more topical concerns the effect isn't much better; "Are these still songs of rebellion," asks "Worms," "if corporations sell them?" "I Barcode," meanwhile, wonders, "Are we Americans or are Americants?" Punk groups from the Sex Pistols to the Dillinger Four have probed social politics with much more depth and insight, and in comparison Tommy and Terrors merely provide overly general sentiments about community, the importance of partying, and the way corporations, you know, suck. Still, Unleash the Fury makes for passable background or driving music, and it can't be said to overstay its welcome.
Mastica, "Uomini" b/w "Scemo Chi Spara" [7-inch single] (Crusher)
Maybe Italy is the new Scandinavia, or at least that's the suggestion of this new 7" from Mastica, who reach back to the '70s for some psych and hard rock influences. The group uses Deep Purple as a referent, but lacks the technical virtuosity of that group (or, more generously, avoids the prog indulgences). Whether the band knows how to show off or not, they at least know to skip the lengthy noodling that could undo psychedelic jams in the eyes of anyone who was seeing straight. A-side "Uomini" has some drive, but singer Matteo Bizotto occasionally lets his proto-metal vocals stray a bit to far into tremulant outer space. "Scemo Chi Spara" foregoes Blue Cheer and any other colorful bands for the Yardbirds. Approaching the maximum line on the arrangement, the song still makes space for a fantastic bassline that shows an Entwistle influence. Decent enough tracks, but notice the number of allusions in this paragraph. Put the top down and scream along (in italiano), but don't expect anything more.
David Berkeley, Live from Fez (self-released) Rating: 6
Live albums are normally reserved for established acts too soon into their careers for a greatest hits compilation or for groups who excel so strongly in improvisation that a live sound merely captures their best attributes. David Berkeley is much too fresh for a greatest hits record, and his songs are not tailored for improvisation. Instead the subdued singer/songwriter gently rocks us over the course of 75 minutes. The songs are accomplished, as are the musicians and Berkeley's voice. A bonus DVD, capturing the performance of four of the songs, is a nice inclusion. But the need for this to be a live album escapes me. Is it so we can hear the bloated banter, including Berkeley's explanations of a failed attempt at French onion soup? It's a shame because the songs are very good, especially the solo take on the gorgeous "Fire Sign". It just makes me wish I had been introduced to the songs over a much shorter period of time and without the needless interludes.