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PopMatters Music Short Takes
our brief reviews of new releases
17 February 2006
New Rhodes, New Rhodes EP (So Sweet) Rating: 7
In sharp contrast to the deliberately shambolic sounds emanating from London circa 2003 to the present, The New Rhodes craft immaculately finished pop-the sound of the bucolic, refined British countryside, far removed from the crack-addled denizens of the big city. And the band's crystalline guitar lines are offset by lyrics morbidly romantic enough to satisfy the most ardent Smiths or Suede devotee. This limited edition EP, a much-needed introduction for US audiences, provides a nice snapshot of the band's body of work thus far. "You've Given Me Something That I Can't Give Back" and "Someone's Got It In For Me" back up their epic titles with the kind of soaring pop that most of today's tie-wearing cool-mongers would sooner hang themselves than even attempt. The more modest tracks hardly offend, but when you're capable of scaling such improbable heights, why settle for safe? As they say on Wall Street: no risk, no reward.
Mon Frere, Real Vampires EP (Cake) Rating: 5
Mon Frere's debut EP Real Vampires is only around fourteen minutes long, and doesn't feature a single memorable song beyond the vaguely catchy "Up Circle", and fails to offer any deviation from a basic, riff-based, bare-boned rock and roll approach. Instead Real Vampires relies entirely upon keyboardist Nouela O. Johnston's mighty wailing which takes this often mediocre material and turns it into powerful slabs of fury that demand the listener take notice. It's a rare wailer who can project and scream this loudly while still maintaining a certain sense of melodic beauty. Johnston shows she is more than capable of both in her sultry performance in the opening of the improbably titled sludgy opus "Orcs Don't Know It". It helps that Mon Frere's musical approach, which consists of metallic guitar riffs courtesy of Kyle B. Swisher that are softened by Johnston's subtle keyboard work, a sweet and sour combination that effectively mirrors and reinforces Johnston's remarkable vocals. Still, raw talent without suitable material doesn't go far in the beyond crowded world of indie garage rock, and Mon Frere needs to find itself a memorable hook or two before it really deserves the world's attention. Johnston deserves more than what Real Vampires has to offer her.
Bobby Birdman, Victory at Sea (Fryk Beat) Rating: 7
Twenty-first century crooner Bobby Birdman aims strongly at dancefloor dreamers with this 12" record for the new Portland-based progressive electronic label Fryk Beat. He sings carefully, with grace and determination, like he's a song interpreter tackling the great American songbooks of yesteryear. Yet he does so over a frantic mix of electronics that makes the term "freak beat" seem fitting. The musical foundations which his voice soars over have only grown in electricity and invention since the lush albums he released on Hush Records a few years back. That's especially true on this release, where three of the four tracks are remixes from some of today's talented bohemian beatmasters. Lucky Dragons conducts a lightning dub attack on "I'm Not You", E*Rock takes the title track's balladry back to the hip-hop schoolyard (and out to space in the process), and Yacht gives the Heart Caves EP's "I Will Come Again" an extra boost of jittery speed. Victory at Sea is another exciting, far-from-the-spotlight release from a musician who is quietly restyling the pop ballad for our new, wild future.
Numbers / Adult., "Numbers + Adult. = This Seven Inch" [7-inch single] (Kill Rock Stars) Rating: 4
On the most aptly named 45 ever, Numbers takes the a-side with "Me Me", working the staccato guitar and a post-punk feel somewhat devoid of wave. Female vocals rip out the inward lyrics through a couple verses and choruses until their joined my a male who helps echo the title word. After the bridge, the guitar gets a little more active and melodic, but it maintains focus on the fuzz and irritation (in a perfectly fine way). Adult. do their electro thing for the b-side "Monologue", not to overwhelming effect. Like Numbers, the group relies on jerky rhythms and aggravated vocals, but they settle more on irritating than on pleasurably abrasive. The song attacks a boring long-talker, but it turns out Adult. doesn't have much more to say. The combination of these two tracks work well for when you want to grit your teeth, but their means of getting you to that point rely on different sorts of success.
.: posted by Editor 8:16 AM
16 February 2006
Young People, Five Sunsets in Four Days EP (Too Pure) Rating: 7
Young People aren't all that young. Today the members of the LA-based trio are five years and three albums older than when they started, and even then guitarist Jeff Rosenberg and drummer Jarrett Silberman were balding. But that doesn't stop Young People from churning out incredibly vibrant underground rock. They blaze a chaotic, beautiful trail amongst the indie rock underbrush with what must be a very magical Zippo. Young People's minimalist compositions forge enough space between guitars and vocals that emptiness becomes a third force. Percussion, sometimes entirely absent, ranks only as accent. Often a second guitar track will fulfill that role with rhythmic picking rather than strumming, while the first guitar, soiled in dirt, arpeggiates and strums and rips. In "The Mountain," an amp buzzes for almost ten seconds while a papery reed rats out half-notes on a snare. Yet Young People have no time for low-tempo sadness. They're an experimental garage rock band that doesn't want to wake the neighbors. On "Hot Horse," Young People are bolder, opening with brash drums, guitar, and vocals. Lead singer Katie Eastburn shows the least resistance, growling and screaming when the mood strikes. Throughout the song, Rosenberg's noise rock roots are alternatingly revealed and obscured as waves lap at the edge of melody. The listener is left begging for fast, loud power chords. But to no avail. The word tension was created for this band. Fans of Cat Power and the Velvet Underground must investigate.
With Honor, This is Our Revenge (Victory) Rating: 5
Harder! Faster! Louder! And more, uh, optimistic! This is the formula for success as far as With Honor is concerned, and it makes for an intriguing mix on the band's newest Victory Records release This is Our Revenge. With Honor plays a loud mix of punk and hardcore, combining the former's sheer speed and reckless abandon with the latter's intensity. This is Our Revenge would be an easy album to put in the CD player and thrash around and break stuff to, but the lyrical subject matter implies a desire on the part of the band for their fans to stop flailing and look at the lyric sheet for a second. The album's final track, "In a Bottle", asks the question "Will we die to darker days and break ties with the hells we've walked through?," before ultimately assuring us that "It's not too late." The album's strongest track musically ends on a coda of "I still believe that faith can move the mountains." Obviously, This is Our Revenge is far removed from the familiar nihilistic refrains of less inspired entries in the genre. Unfortunately, not even a dual-guitar attack can elevate the band's music to the level of its lyrical nonconformity -- everything is well-played and loud, but this type of music has been done faster, louder, and better, and vocalist Todd Mackey's efforts to push everything to eleven only result in a decidedly monotone effort. A little bit of musical maturity would do With Honor wonders, because lyrically, they're already a cut above the rest.
Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley, "Road to Zion" f/ Nas b/w "The Master Has Come Back" [12-inch single] (Universal) Rating: 6
Asking Damian Marley to follow-up one of the year's biggest tracks, "Welcome to Jamrock", seems an unreasonable task, but he fares well with the cool-dreaded "Road to Zion." Built around a gaunt Ella Fitzgerald loop, Marley's raspy voice, a guest verse from Nas and textbook boom bap, the cut simmers the bombast down into a rasta hip hop vision resembling more closely what headz would imagine the reunited Fugees to sound like. Thematically, the cut's somber yet power-through message feels like an appropriate coda to the cutting commentary of "Jamrock." However, the B-side wins again as "The Master Has Come Back" reaches back with a stronger kick and rhythmic nod to dancehall. Sticking to lyric-slangin', Marley sounds at ease playing a toaster to listen to, as opposed to a crooner to feel for. Unfortunately, both tracks represent the more conventional sonic amalgamations of his eclectic Welcome to Jamrock record, thought they appropriately follow-up his career-defining tune by simmering the hoopla.
Resident Genius & Howard Zinn, You Can't Blow Up a Social Relationship (Thick) Rating: 4
Okay, I love Howard Zinn's writings and I generally agree with all his political viewpoints. So the second half of this CD, where it's just Zinn talking to an audience -- and answering questions like "Why do you live in America?" is pretty good if you're a leftist, or a curious moderate, or a disillusioned conservative. But the first half, consisting of six ghastly indie-rock tracks by the misnomered band Resident Genius, proves that Zinn either has rubbish taste in music or that he really has no clue how to get his points across to that old scarecrow, "the common man".
.: posted by Editor 6:37 AM
15 February 2006
Moodfood, Ice (Soulfood) Rating: 7
Do you like Moby? Or rather, did you like Moby in the era of his sample-happy landmark albums Play and 18? If you do, chances are good that you'll like Moodfood, too. It's an overly simplified comparison, to be sure -- Moodfood's Ice actually features a massive integration of styles and cultures that's as subtle as any created in the past year. It's the type of album on which a track like "Shaken Not Stirred" can explore jazz chord progressions with a hip-hop backbeat while effortlessly coexisting with a song like "Pain" (which features highly-regarded vocalist Julia Messenger), a song that mostly amounts to female adult contemporary with thick synthwork and an electronic backbeat. There's a tremendous variety of instrumentation on the disc as well, given that instruments as disparate as steel guitar, spike fiddle, flute, and accordion are used throughout. While it's obvious that Moodfood principals DJ Free and Peter Schimke like to incorporate as many influences as they can while making music (no less than 17 individuals are granted a musical credit here), none of it comes off as challenging, difficult, or particularly striking, which may actually be to the producer's credit. Ice is like a beginner's guide to jazz, pop, and world music all wrapped in a candy-coated mellow electronic shell -- chillout music for the open-minded, and a fine attempt at that.
Vulgar Pigeons, Burning Episode (Deepsend) Rating: 6
This EP opens on a straightforward grindcore note with "Violence Begets Violence," but around the two minute mark the unrelenting abrasion gives way to a doomy sludge. Like fellow grind absurdists the Locust and Cephalic Carnage, the Vulgar Pigeons enjoy perverting formulae; "Operation: Assassination" offers a case in point, as bassist Paul Pontikoff abruptly hijacks the song for a clever little prog run near the end. Without a lyric sheet it's impossible to say what the songs are about, though titles like "Baseskull Bat" and "Coffin Honeymoon" speak for themselves. Vocals alternate between barked hardcore shouts and death-metal Cookie Monster growls, and the recording is so insistently lo-fi that the drums fade into the static, punctuated by shrill cymbal-smasing and hi-hat abuse. The Vulgar Pigeons have been around a while, and even 2001's Summary Execution (on the immortal DeathVomit Records) sounded better than this, so Burning Episode can be heard either as a sign of band poverty or as a tribute to the formative 1980s period of grindcore. I'm going with the latter; this is a band that knows what it wants and gets it, and seven tracks in 13 minutes roar past with suitable brevity.
Various Artists, Sound of the Underground (Time Life) Rating: 5
With so many great modern rock anthology series available, like Pop & Wave, Living in Oblivion, and Sedated in the Eighties, it is hard to rally behind the one-off compilations that focus solely on the widely circulated hits. What the Time Life Music's Sound of the Underground single disc offering has going for it is the generous 18 track listing, but there is little here that hasn't been captured in better compilations elsewhere. Some less predictable inclusions (Camouflage's "The Great Commandment", for example) do provide a couple of nice surprises, but for the most part, the song selections are conservative and limited to the artists' big hits. "Lips Like Sugar" from Echo, "Here Comes Your Man" from the Pixies, "Blister in the Sun" from the Femmes, "Pretty in Pink" from the Psych Furs, "How Soon is Now?" from the Smiths, "So Alive" from Love and Rockets, "Blue Monday" from New Order all appear here. There are so many modern rock compilations available today, you have to really look closely to find one that is unique enough to stand out. Unfortunately, Sound of the Underground's shortcomings are revealed by simply looking at some of the same label's other offerings.
Ladybug Mecca, Trip the Light Fantastic (Nu Paradigm) Rating: 3
It's fair to say that world-wide pop music market is saturated. Becoming even a blip on the radar is more difficult now than ever with thousands of artists from dozens of music genres vying for those few slots on the varsity team. As a pop artist, netting your moment in the spotlight requires breaking free from the pack with a fresh direction, new look, or plain-and-simple concrete talent. Once a member of the ground-breaking hip-hop outfit Digable Planets, Ladybug Mecca's debut solo release doesn't quite make the cut. Mecca's recently released album, Trip the Light Fantastic, is average in pretty much every way. Standard sounding pop songs with a smattering of R&B and hip-hop for flavor keep this album from emerging from the vast sea of artists who are 'on the brink.' The album's production and Mecca's style as a performer aren't terrible, but are without any discernable emotion leaving them with a plastic-like quality. Being outright horrible may actually have helped Mecca as at least it would distinguish her in some manner from the glut of pop-wannabes destined for a spot on Team Muzak in the not too distant future. Better luck next year.
.: posted by Editor 6:02 AM
14 February 2006
The Black Angels, The Black Angels (Light in the Attic) Rating: 8
Tending to the darker shades of psychedelic rock, the Black Angels produce a sinister sound that resonates rather than simulates. Not that this grimey, snake charming drone rock is a wildly innovative concept. But that ends up being just another reason why this is such a surprising and entrancing disc. The music is as sincere as molten lava, so notions of derivation don't figure prominently in the consumption. Like the Warriors fighting through the night to get to Coney Island, you don't question the logic because it's just so fucking cool. It's also encouraging that Jennifer Raines, Nate Ryan, Christian Bland, Stepanie Bailey and Alex Maas seem to revel in the traditions of their fore bearers. Consider two of the song titles of this introductory four song EP, "The First Vietnamese War" and "Winter '68". They even make sure to include some of their more immediate predecessors in their liner notes, thanking Anton Newcombe and The Brian Jonestown Massacre "for starting the revolution". But unlike some other black clad BJM offspring, the Angels' assault comes off refreshingly effortless.
Les Angles Morts, What's Real? (Blue Skies Turn Black) Rating: 5
Les Angles Morts make instrumental punk for prog rockers. Or prog for punk rockers, it's hard to tell which. Whichever it is, Les Angles Morts' debut album What's Real? combines lots of time signature changes, guitar soloing (both Eddie Van Halen-style and Thurston Moore-style), electronic noodling, and instrumental crashes and burns, all of it adding up to an explosive half-hour of fireworks and headaches. The Les Angles Morts approach is best utilized on tracks like opener "What's Real Summer" and "A Very Fraid", the former of which is confused, unpredictable space rock featuring an all out war of guitars versus synths, while the latter is happy-slappy surf-rock for people who have never surfed in their lives. Predictably, however, the band takes their free spirit too far when they close their album with dreck like "Struggling to Survive", which doesn't climax or progress so much as it pointlessly shifts. That two of Les Angles Morts' members split off of the then-gaining-in-momentum Arcade Fire to seek out more experimental musical avenues is admirable -- despite these good intentions, however, What's Real? is the sound of a band that still needs to learn that adventure without purpose is merely aimless wandering.
Stratovarius, Stratovarius (Sanctuary) Rating: 4
Veterans of the melodic, bombastic sounds of progressive power metal, Finland's Stratovarius have been plying their trade for nearly two decades now, but on this, their 12th album, truly sounds like their best days are behind them. More Sonata Arctica than Dream Theater, lead guitarist/main songwriter Timo Tolkki has always had a knack for focusing more on effective vocal melodies instead of meandering prog metal epics, and there is no shortage of hooks on the new record. Unfortunately, however, it all seems a touch forced, as he and the rest of the band resort to tired power metal clichés such as cornball titles ("Fight!!!", "The Land of Ice and Snow"), straight-faced spoken word interludes spewing self-help nonsense, and pop-oriented songs so generally silly it's nearly unbearable ("Maniac Dance"). Singer Timo Kotipelto possesses a voice as operatic as former Helloween howler Michael Kiske and Europe singer Joey Tempest, and Tolkki's guitarwork is as nimble as ever, but as with every power metal act who begins to lose steam, it's all a little too close to Spinal Tap territory for our comfort.
Illogic, Write to Death Vol. 2: The Missing Pieces (Dove Ink Recording) Rating: 4
Illogic's second Write to Death release, The Missing Pieces finds the emcee in a promising yet awkward place. The album's tracks are all decent, but scream for something more to bring them above this plateau that so many hip-hop artists spend their careers languishing on. The production is gritty, almost reminiscent of Vaudville Villain, but not impressive. The beats are fairly standard, and don't leap out at the listener like they would need to in order to be effective. The problem with using a shrill, rough production style is that if its not done really well it can sound sloppy, which The Missing Pieces does at points. The lyrics follow a similar trend. Illogic makes a commendable effort to tackle a number of topics with his rhymes, but he doesn't yet have the lyrical capacity to do it effectively. The combination of these two factors leaves the album feeling weak even with the air of promise that surrounds it. Illogic has the potential to rise to the next level, but could also very easily remain where he is. Time will tell which path he takes.
.: posted by Editor 6:18 AM
13 February 2006
Miguel Mendez, My Girlfriend is Melting (I & Ear) Rating: 7
"If you start a little fire, I'll stay a little while / And then we'll both have something good to say." So says Miguel Mendez toward the end of "Maniac Psycho", the second track on his debut solo album My Girlfriend is Melting, and it's a bit surprising how right he is. Mendez traffics in a brand of sleepy-eyed folk-rock that will appeal to fans of the early, lo-fi acoustic musings of Beck, though Mendez goes beyond that template into a space all his own. A deep, appealing voice, instrumental proficiency, and inventive songwriting all have a prominent place on Mendez's album, though much of the preceding is clouded by the hazy mood that covers the entire album. Look beyond the smoke, however, and there's everything from unexpected twists and turns reminiscent of The Shins ("May 9, 2002") to instrumental collage-making ("These Clouds are Made from Feelings") to electric-tinged mope-rock ("You Got Me All Wrong", a song written by Mendez but covered, released, and donated to The O.C. by Mendez's friends in Dios (Malos) before Mendez's version was ever released). At the center of it all is "Catchin a Wave", a song that somehow finds the link between Coldplay and Elliot Smith via the sounds of a trip to the circus through a THC haze. The end result is an album that's sometimes difficult, sometimes lovely, but always interesting.
Copy, Mobius Beard (Audio Dregs) Rating: 6
For the most part Copy does a smooth job of blending intricate electronic compositions with a general dancefloor vibe. The first three tracks show smart, subtle development while maintaining a groove. At times, as with "Backward," Copy loses his feel in trying to be too much of each, but those moments seldom occur. After "Backward", for example, he rebounds with "Calling You Back" and then stretches himself for the melodic and rhythmic develoments within the composition of "It's a Little Too Late". Copy makes a point of the influence old video game music had on him, but that's a bit of a ruse; he likes the lo-fi synth sounds, but he's spent too much getting everything in place to not reveal the IDM and disco at the real heart of his work. I imagine him in his little studio focused like someone trying to finish Zelda, not someone trying to soundtrack it. Mobius Beard isn't as good an album as Copy will make, but it's a good starting point for him.
Rihanna, Music of the Sun (Def Jam) Rating: 5
I should probably construct this review as one of those geneological illustrations you'd see in a museum. "The Evolution of Rihanna: A Study in Reception, Males 18-40". But considering I can't draw and that I almost failed first year Anthropology, I'm going to give it to you straight up in words - frustrated English grad style! I first came across Rihanna in music video form and she had me complete. From her baggy jeans to her adequate carib-inflected vocals, it all seemed so perfect (maybe a little too perfect). So yeah, she's barely 18 - so what? The "Pon de Replay" video should be held up as the prototype for shrewd star making. Charming and economical, it got me interested enough to listen to the rest of Rihanna's debut. Well, okay, the correlation wasn't exactly immediate. The next step was actually a high-minded perusal of the CD's liner notes. In which I noticed that there's some heavy hitters batting behind this marginally talented young charmer - Jay Z, Kardinall Offishall, Vybez Kartel. Next, on to the actual songs. And as hard as it is to get by "Pon de Replay" without pressing repeat, I eventually listened to the rest of the record. It's a soft footed mix of synthetic lovers rock and - okay, wait a second. Now I've heard Hillary Duff complain that adult male critics aren't exactly her audience and so their reactions aren't really reflective of her demographic. So now I'm going to shut up and just watch that video again [Exeunt, dirty old man].
J.J. Appleton, Uphill to Purgatory (self-released) Rating: 3
J.J. Appleton is an attractive man. One might even call his muscular chest and square jaw worthy of bearing the "beef cake" moniker. The music, however, is worthy of little. Most notably, it is not worthy of your time. Appleton seems sincere, as if when he sings, "The more things change / The more they stay the same", he truly believes that he's the first person who's ever thought of the line. Shifting between riff-heavy Southern rock and high-sheen pop, Appleton never strikes the right chords. And by the time the bonus track, "Downloader's Blues", rolls around, you can't help laughing at the line, "All I wanted was rock n' rock / But I ended up in a dingy hole". This is a novelty to be played at a party. I just hope people don't mock it too harshly.
.: posted by Editor 9:07 AM