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PopMatters Music Short Takes
our brief reviews of new releases
24 March 2006
Blue Scholars, The Long March EP (self-released) Rating: 8
Sure, grunge, coffee, and the Space Needle are nice. Yeah, Hendrix was a god. But of all the things Seattle has given us, Blue Scholars deserve the most praise in 2006. This emcee-deejay duo breathes new life into underground hip-hop with The Long March EP, a nine-song review of all that is good with the genre and an indisputable case for its continued infusion into the mainstream. The album's aesthetic is universally pleasing -- play this at a party and impress the hell out of your friends -- but also smart and deep enough to reward through headphone listens number 10, 15, 20, and beyond. Grounded in the jazz-rap movement of the early '90s and hip-hop's classic two-man dynamic, Blue Scholars are set firmly in their context just as they bust the hell out of it. Tracks about hating work as a telemarketer ("Proletariet Blues") and being the first in a family to graduate from college ("Commencement Day") are lightened by Geologic's eloquently laidback rhymes and Sabzi's creative beats, samples, and scratches. "I heard a few heads / Say that hip-hop is dead / No it's not, it's just malnourished and underfed", raps Geologic in "Southside Revival". If that's the case, then this record is a week of steak dinners. Bon appétit, hip-hop.
multiple songs: [MySpace]
Spider, The Way to Bitter Lake (self-released) Rating: 7
Sometimes you just need a good cry. Jane Herships goes under the name of Spider, to give us a modern-day update of '60s feather-vocalist Margo Guryan. "Don't Be Afraid, I've Just Come to Say Goodbye" offers lots of acoustic guitar, and very hushed flutes and horns to give the song a warm playing-in-your-backyard feel. The brilliantly titled "I Don't Know if She Had Any Teeth Because She Never Smiled" moves as slow as molasses, but still builds to a tear-drenched catharsis -- the perfect song for rainy day window-watching. The last half of the album begins to thematically lap itself, though the use of electric guitar for the minute-long "End Song" and meticulous picking of "The Bitter One" more than make up for it. Spider's just builds its web now -- you'll get caught in it sooner or later.
"The Ballad of Clementine Jones": [MP3]
"The Bitter One": [MP3]
"Midnight on the Nile": [MP3]
Voodoo Blue, Smile 'n Nod (DCide) Rating: 6
Voodoo Blue is a band in the modern mold of MTV-punk, residing somewhere in between Blink 182 and Simple Plan, melding the former's slightly harder-edged instrumental style with the latter's marginally whinier vocal style and coming up with something that could well be blaring in shopping malls across the country any day now. The lyrical themes are one merciful step up from Simple Plan's high school angst, instead focusing on a sort of coming of age that's appropriate given the early-twenties ages of the trio. "Good 4 No 1" is a decent ode to looking for one's place in the world (albeit one with a really awful title), "Drown" a harder-edged song about the difficulty of change, and "Too Old to Cry" is a breakup song as told by someone who's trying desperately to get past the high school melodramatics that come with such a topic. Fortunately, amidst all of the soul searching, Voodoo Blue still allows for a little bit of silliness ("#4 is My Favorite Song" is a particularly goofy 20-second heavy-metal piss-take), and their exuberance is infectious -- you probably won't admit to liking the band, but you'll sing along anyway.
multiple songs: [MySpace]
Three on the Tree, Dust in the Water (TOTT06) Rating: 7
Looking like they're mining for gold on the inner sleeves, Three on the Water offers a steady alt-country/roots sound. Listening to songs like "Blue Pacific", the group takes a slow, Southern drive through the likes of the Jayhawks and other similarly minded bands but in their own deliberate way. Meanwhile "Subway Tremors" features Jon Osing on lead vocals with some help by pedal steel guitarist Ken Champion, ambling along a bit like a laidback but toe-tapping Blue Rodeo or Son Volt. The shifty, swinging-meets-rockabilly "Jail House" is a rather bouncy ditty that sounds like it came from Sun Records. However, they seem to hit paydirt and their groove with the tender, light and world-weary "Ghost" that would fit perfectly on a Tarbox Ramblers or Cash Brothers album. Ditto for the mid-tempo "Fixture" that could be misconstrued as a cover of a Counting Crows track. Unfortunately they try to put a rock slant on "Flatbed Mary" with mixed results at best. However, Three on the Tree keep things simple and thus grand with "Paid to Play", a strong alt.country-by-numbers tune while the dirge-like "Black Eye in the Morning" is nailed perfectly as is the swampy "Two Glass Eyes".
.: posted by Editor 7:31 AM
22 March 2006
Stoley P.T., Lesson #1 (In Music We Trust) Rating: 8
Stoley P.T used to be the lead singer for The Lupins, a band whose claim to fame might be appearing on the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack of all things. However, since that time Stoley P.T. has often garnered a spot on Late Night With Conan O'Brien. The music here is extremely good and hook-riddled, with the singer sounding a bit like Westerberg with a bit more bite during "T.Y.S." with horns thrown in for good luck. From there, Stoley ventures down a mid-tempo pop rock song that would fit perfectly on Stinson's Bash & Pop side project with a memorable chorus. Using keys to color "Buttercup", Stoley can seemingly do no wrong thus far, although it's a tad too rich at times. Perfect pop/rock is what he aims for and succeeds repeatedly, whether it's the lighter "The Dull Before" with its angular art-rock touches or the rather routine roots-meets-rockabilly "Cat Bong". Nonetheless, Stoley shines on the thick, meaty "Amateur B.S." Tight and poppy, the album flows thanks to an ear for hooks and some well-timed, well-structured arrangements judging by the bubble-gum, foot-stomping flavor to "Sunshine". Not bad for the gun-toting, NASCAR-driving Jesus!
"The Dull Before": [MP3]
The Beautiful Girls, We're Already Gone (San Dumo/Cornerstone) Rating: 5
Smoke curls thick around The Beautiful Girls' happy-man songwriting. And no, there aren't any girls in the group, just four Aussie kids in roots-out glory. It's Ben Harper, it's Jack Johnson, it's that deep debt to Mr. Marley. Simpler and more genre-constrained than The Cat Empire, they also lack the other group's infectious enthusiasm -- it doesn't help that Mat McHugh's voice sounds like a constrained version of Harry from TCE. The group broke through back home with 2003's Learn Yourself; their follow-up effort unfortunately sounds a little like a hangover. Still, there are some truly gleeful moments, like when McHugh sings "and we'll dance on the ashes of what's left", in the song of the same name. Actually, they sound a bit like late Paul Simon on "Let's Take The Long Way Home" -- bluesy and sweet. Standouts "The Wrong Side of Town" and "Shot Down" are pure reggae -- nothing more, but done rather well.
multiple songs: [MP3]
Tom Hunter, Here I Go Again (FS Music) Rating: 6
Pianist and singer Tom Hunter starts his album off strongly, with the B.B. King-inspired "I Underestimated You." Hunter immediately reveals his penchant for both classic jazz and urban blues while letting guitarist Jon "Gunner" Gunvaldson take the spotlight. This song also has fine production (done by Hunter himself), but some of the tracks put the piano too high in the mix or sound a bit tinny. It's a shame, because these are mostly interesting takes on tracks culled from jazz, R&B, and pop traditions, including "Tenor Madness" and the especially well-executed "Basin Street Blues". The disc's only severe mistake comes on Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind", which Hunter somehow manages to add an additional layer of lounge-y schmaltz, too. Amid the 10 covers are two originals, including the title track, which shows off Hunter's virtuosity, which is usually overshadowed by his strong baritone singing.
"Here I Go Again": [MP3]
"Nothing's for Free": [MP3]
"Basin Street Blues": [MP3]
"Drown in My Own Tears": [MP3]
The Collection, Love Will Never Be The Same (Blue Room Studio) Rating: 4
Twenty seven songs in 42 minutes is a badge of honor or courage for some musicians. You don't waste time, packing as much as you can into each song. The side project of Edgars Legzdins, who works primarily in Chicago new-wave/electro band Plane, has made sure each song is memorable, but for all the wrong reasons. The album is basically one raw, live take of songs that should still be on the cutting room floor. Thirty-five seconds is devoted to the opener "Flashback to the Time", that is rough and ragged, with Legzdins trying to strut his stuff vocally with mediocre results. "Crackwhore" has talking and "clucking" one's tongue while a phone message plays over the lyrics. Think of something you might have heard on Pink Floyd's The Final Cut and you get some semblance of the song's tone. There are ideas here that are worthwhile, such as "Katie" and "More Than Love", but too often they run off the rails. "Lauren Pagni" is a keeper ballad despite being less than 100 seconds. The biggest drawback is the musician's insistence on including asinine 10-second clips alongside fully-develop tunes like the Bowie-esque "Kristen's Traffic Lights" and the troubadour-sounding "Eileen Hayes". Other rockier numbers are "Want It" while "For Sharyn" peters out quickly. One highlight is the hi-hat led "When Sex Is More Than Love". But plodding clunkers like "Hands Up" make this album more tedious than eclectic.
multiple songs: [MySpace]
.: posted by Editor 5:31 AM
21 March 2006
Various Artists, Catch Records Presents: The Cuis-N-Art (Catch) Rating: 6
The Cuis-N-Art showcases just what Catch Records does best: hardcore street-gangsta tracks by artists ranging from virtual unknowns to old-school names like Masta Killa and Black Moon's Buckshot. Catch Records actually shares a number of these artists with Duck Down and Nature Sounds, but their focuses are different: while Nature Sounds encompasses everything from keep-it-real hustlers to the more experimental noodlings of artists like Ghostface and DOOM, Catch Records casts its eye directly on the streets and takes a generally harder-edged approach. The rising star of the Catch Records line-up is clearly Warbux, with three tracks (plus a feature) here and a debut album just around the corner. "You Ain't Rich" is catchy, with an oddly Eminem-esque chorus, and he even sings a bit on the refreshing "So I Told Her". Overall, the compilation's production encapsulates its vision well, with all the sounds you'd expect from a street showcase: there are ominous bangers, there are sustained strings, there are sped-up samples, there are bouncy anthems. "Chains" is a highlight, backing R.A., Masta Killa and Killah Priest with a jaunty sax lick and dense rhythm section; Warbux's "Buck 'Em" sounds like a track from Illmatic if that album's jazzy-haze mood slowly turned sour, until the woozy horns kick in with discordant mallet percussion and a simple, punchy rap hook. Rich Mo's politically-incorrect "Girly Mouth" is a laid-back, catchy throwback to playground gender taunts, and album-closer "No Father" is a tough, soul-edged banger embellished with flute riffs that turns completely around in the choruses, softening at the edges into the hip-hop soundtrack to a pastoral morning. While some of the more forgettable tracks can blend together into an empty, bland-gangsta mood, The Cuis-N-Art has its definite strong points and represents the label well.
multiple songs: [MySpace]
Annie Keating, Take the Wheel (Annie Keating Music) Rating: 8
The follow-up to 2004's The High Dive has Annie Keating sounding like a combo of Kathleen Edwards, Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch on the bluesy, warm, toe-tapping country vibe of "Finish What You Start". Meanwhile, "Half Light" conveys a deeper, darker feeling along the lines of Edwards and Lucinda Williams. Ditto for the light, barren folk she delivers during the gorgeous title track with its pedal steel accents. And she is able to mine this vein perfectly with the alt.country hue on "Red Guitar", in no hurry to finish this song perfect for long nighttime drives to nowhere in particular. The first highlight is the tender, sway-filled "Waiting Game" that slowly builds. Another pleaser is "Sweet Leanne" which seems to use the throwaway riff from Dylan's "Most of the Time" to great effect. One slight miscue is the ordinary roots-pop of "Altitude". However, the Lanois-like production on "Burn" is fantastic, growing with each verse. Keating has a knack for writing clever, thoughtful songs, and this album does nothing to disprove that fact. If only all albums came off this well....
multiple songs: [clips]
The Morning After Girls, The Morning After Girls (Rainbow Quartz) Rating: 6
This Melbourne, Australia-based coed outfit adheres to that familiar old adage: "There isn't anything new under the sun but if you incorporate your influences wisely there really needn't be". As you listen, you can almost see the names scrolling before you: SonicYouth, Jesus and Mary Chain, P-Furs, Velvets, the Slowdive/Chapterhouse/Ride axis... this is an album that literally could have come out in 1989. That doesn't make it redundant, necessarily; the Girls know how to swirl up some badass guitar noise ("Run for Our Lives") or create languid concoctions like "Chasing Us Under" for those who think that the Velvets' "Sunday Morning" is the Perfect Song. In short, plenty of sounds and chord combos you've heard before, but a whole lot better than Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.
"Straight Thru You": [MP3]
"Hi Skies": [MP3]
Olga, Now Is the Time (219 Records) Rating: 4
Olga, usually accompanied by a small band, performs an idiosyncratic music in that space between folk and blues. A small turn one way and she'd be a singer-songwriter with more rustic lyrics; a slight lean the other and she'd be a standard country-blues singer. Staying on that line becomes her biggest strength; she never strays far from an at-home pick-up, yet she manages to travel a little in her sound. Unfortunately, her songs just don't captivate enough to keep this disc entertaining on multiple listens. Once you're past the dobros and the mandolins and other signifiers (like the regional song titles), you aren't left with anything overwhelming. A few numbers, like the bookends "Now Is the Time" and "GDTRFB" and Memphis Minnie's "What's the Matter with the Mill", suggest something better in here, but it never works its way out.
"Gotta Keep Moving": [MP3]
"Now I Know": [MP3]
.: posted by Editor 7:50 AM
20 March 2006
Erik de Vahl, Friendly Fire (Service) Rating: 7
With eight tracks clocking in at just over 20 minutes Friendly Fire, the second release for Swedish folk-pop prodigy Erik de Vahl sits uncomfortably between EP and LP. Nevertheless, there are some exquisite moments on this disc that bring to mind much more established balladeers. De Vahl's persona seems somewhat Lekman-esque, in that he's an awkward-looking, anti-cookie-cut Swede (just check out his Myspace pic); but his music is unique. Electronic effects and vast evocations of space swirl around the acoustic guitar-strums, sometimes going nowhere, but most often conjuring up a languorous, depressed atmosphere with some genuinely masterful melodic touches. He's not afraid to experiment with instrumentation, either; the sound is filled out with pan-flute, or bells, or the wail of an accordion. The highlights -- the title track, "Friendly Fire", and "My Bird"; both bring De Vahl's introspective folk leanings to the fore in closeted beauty that will haunt you for days. I wish he'd dropped some of the filler; buried within Friendly Fire is a brilliant EP's worth of haunting, beautiful music. But as a guy barely out of his teens we can cut De Vahl some slack -- promise, again, is the name of the game. Better than well worth checking out.
"She's Calling Me": [MP3] from Friendly Fire
"Elsia Pt. 2": [MP3] from The World Where No One Needs to Swim
"Take Some Care": [MP3] from Secrets Adrift
Wolfmother, Dimensions (Modular) Rating: 7
Already stars in their native Australia, Wolfmother certainly have the goods to bust out in a big way in America, thanks to their savvy blend of stoner riffs, swaggering Sabbath-style tempos, and bursts of '60s psychedelic rock, and as the word of mouth surrounding their debut, which has become very popular on bit torrent sites over the last five months, continues to grow, the trio are primed to make a rather sizable dent in mainstream rock in 2006. Interscope Records is well aware of how potentially big Wolfmother can be, and as a way to whet the appetites of those who have not heard the MP3s, we have this little teaser EP. The two album cuts are the main attractions, as "Dimension" takes the Down Under garage rock of The Datsuns and adds much more charisma and style, and "Mind's Eye" is a terrific ballad cut from the early 70s Deep Purple and Uriah Heep, a surefire stadium pleaser. As good as the songs are, there's little reason to buy this EP; "Love Train" and "The Earth's Rotation Around the Sun" are little more than toss-offs, and besides, the full-length will be in stores in early May. If you haven't already downloaded the album (don't worry, it'll be our little secret if you did), just sit tight, save your ten bucks, and wait for the album. It delivers on what this fun, yet ultimately unneccessary 15 minute CD only hints at.
multiple songs: [MySpace]
Matthew Shaw, Convenience (Burning Building Recordings) Rating: 7
The follow-up to his Ghosts in the Concrete sees Matthew Shaw being his old inventive self with the electro-rock of "The Drunk" that mixes bleeps and blips with a melody that isn't fully developed but still delivers the goods. The guitars are downplayed in the chorus somewhat yet it works quite well. Fans of similar one-man bands like Baby Dayliner would lap up "Deadlines & Days Off" that seems caught in an '80s time warp with its synthesizers and electronica. The great thing is that the songs are consistently good, even the acoustic leanings on "Quicksand". But if there is one that seems to stand out it has to be the danceable "These Lists Are Tombstones" that seems to fall somewhere between New Order and Depeche Mode. Despite being just five songs, the EP is quite fulfilling, concluding with a gentler "Late Nights" that seems to be the perfect tune to wind down to after a night of barhopping. Jason MacNeil
"Deadlines & Days Off": [MP3]
"These Lists Are Tombstones": [MP3]
.: posted by Editor 8:10 AM