November 28, 2001

Black Box Recorder "The Worst Of Black Box Recorder"

There's something annoyingly dark about Black Box Recorder.That's not to say that Black Box Recorder have a Marilyn Manson that's waiting to be released--it's just that, listening to their album, The Worst of Black Box Recorder, you can't help but feel that there's a little something sinister about them. Perhaps it is the name. "Black Box" is something that is, essentially, something only associated with death--and often a very violent, protracted, cruel death. It's not to say that their music is evil. If anything, Sarah Nixey sings with the same kind of angelic style that is found in other heavenly singers as Sarah Cracknell, Shirley Manson and Nina Persson. But, like all of those other singers, Nixey sings in a voice that's just too good to be innocent and sweet.

The Worst of Black Box Recorder is, heh, a compilation album. What is it with me and comps these days? Unlike other comps reviewed recently, this album makes no reference to the origins of these songs; if you didn't know any better, you'd swear this was just a regular album release. But, logistically speaking, it is, isn't it? When you market yourself in markets that require two disks for each single, and at least 2 or 3 b-sides and remixes, you could wind up releasing an entire album just on the b-sides for one album's campaign!

Let's not get wrapped up in semantics on this one. The Worst of Black Box Recorder is a documentation of those second-class citizen b-sides, and, well--it's a decidedly mixed affair. First things first---Black Box Recorder are an awesome band. They make a nice blend of pop and noir-lounge. Sadly, that's all they make. For some reason, however, these songs don't blend together, and simply flow one from the next, without much difference being noticed. Taken in bits and pieces, however, the individual results are stunning. Just a few highlights that should not be missed--the evil Cardigans-esque "Jackie Sixty," the rocking "Start As You Meant to Go On" and their cover of "Seasons In The Sun."

Perhaps the most telling moment of this record is the song "The Facts of Life," remixed by Jarvis Cocker of Pulp. Why? Because it seems that the main theme of Black Box Recorder is middle-class living, life, culture, and thought. Look at the cover--a domestic scene. Lyrics variously touching at bits of culture, from "the facts of life" to romance with men and the cruelty of life....could it be that Black Box Recorder are trying to be a sister band to Pulp, sans the restraining order from Michael Jackson?

While there's nothing technically wrong with The Worst of Black Box Recorder, I can't really say who they are from this release. I enjoyed every minute of this very short release, and the four videos on the multimedia section were quite good as well. The Worst of Black Box Recorder does leave one question unanswered: if these songs are just the b-sides, how excellent, then, are their regular releases?

--Joseph Kyle

November 21, 2001

Jad Fair & Daniel Johnston "It's Spooky"

Less is more.

If you have heard of either one of the artists on this album, you know that they are both artists who understand that sometimes you can make intelligent music by being as bare-knuckled as possible. Both Fair and Johnston are creators and innovators of a lo-fi scene that could hardly be imaginable without their presence.

Daniel Johnston is a man of legend; the year that he recorded this album was particularly traumatic and drama-filled, due in part to some mental problems that have plagued him. Johnston's proven, however, that despite his problems, he can create art--beautiful art that is so complexly simple, yet simply complex--in spite of his illness and not, as some would suggest, simply because of his illness. After all, sanity is as much a social concept as it is a medical condition.

The creative summit between Jad Fair and Daniel Johnston, proves nothing short of inspired. Of course, with two like-minded fellows such as these, it only seemed to be a matter of time before a collaboration would happen. The boy-child genius of Johnston meeting with the lo-fi art-damaged Jad Fair sounds like a holy meeting of two gods--and, thankfully, the resutls of this collabroation are more than satisfactory---they're BEAUTIFUL.

If you've never heard either of these two wunderkinds, then you're in for either a shock or a treat. Out of tune guitars, off-beat drums, out of tune vocals, melodies that don't sound exactly melodic, offset by lyrics that seem a bit wrong....typical fare for both artists. In fact, as far as I'm concerned, both artists are at their creative peak on this record. I'm a fan of Johnston's piano playing, and he's got some fine piano and organ work, such as on the lovely "When Love Comes" and "First Day At Work."

Johnston and Fair's lyrics tend to run between the fantastic--what with Frankenstein and Casper and Satan (all common themes in Johnston's own work)--to the utterly mundane. Not unlike the Seinfeld concept of a "show about nothing," some of these songs are "songs about nothing."
From the first day on the job, "first day at work," to people who are a little too much into their jobs "McDonalds on the Brain, " some of these ditties are nothing more than little sketches of daily life. Other songs--such as "Tongues Wag In This Town" will make you shutter with the notion that he's commenting on the sad state of affairs that affect his life--or, more correctly, the fact that he was aware of his own negative persona.

Still, It's Spooky is a good record to start for those who've never heard either artist. The songs on here are some of their best, and both sound extremely happy, jubilent, and are clearly having fun in the studio together. In 1989, when this album was released on 50,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 Watts, very few people heard it; the underground we know and take for granted today didn't exist, and so this meeting of the minds (as well as the genius and respect of the independent arts world) was virtually unheard....until now. There's a reason why this was reissued; please follow through and check this out for yourself.

--Joseph Kyle

Piano Magic "Seasonally Affective: A Piano Magic Retrospective 1996-2000"

"Too much of a good thing" is never a bad thing. Sure, there are consequences to overindulging in something that you like, but that neglects one thing: that the object in question is good. But, really, can you really have too much of a good thing? What does that mean exactly? That something good can become something bad, simply due to quantity?

On first appearance, Piano Magic's Seasonally Affective: 1996-2000 seems to be an excessive amount of a very good thing. Twenty-five tracks spanning two CDs, each running well over an hour each. Seems a bit much at first glance. Of course, such things are par for the course when you're a quietly prolific artist. Piano Magic has quietly been doing their thing since 1996, and this collection is Piano Magic's way of helping the fans to catch up with their sordid past.

For a record that's covering only a four year period, there sure were a lot of members of Piano Magic. Thirty-two, to be exact. The most famous would probably be Darren Hayman of Hefner, who served as vocalist on "There's No Need For Us To Be Alone." For the most part, Piano Magic's vocals are sung by women; Piano Magic mainman Glen Johnson doesn't step up to the microphone in this collection until disc two. I'll give Johnson credit for this; the rotating singers gives his songs layers, and helps prevent Piano Magic from becoming tedious or monotonous. Each vocalist has a different singing style that is quite distinct from the others; Raechel Leigh doesn't sing, but reads; Hazel Burfitt sings in a deceptively sweet little-girl voice; Jen Adams sings with a bit of a pitch in her voice, and Caroline Potter lifts her voice into ethereal strains. Glen Johnson's voice--slightly off pitch, with an obvious heavy British accent--also serves a nice contrast to both the lovely, electronic atmosphere and the angelic styles of his female vocalists.

Regardless of the vocalist and regardless of the musicians, you can certainly expect a blend of heady atmospherics and experimental playing around. Many, if not most, of these songs are long-ish in length, and, more often than not, contain instrumental passages that seem to create a song within a song. "The Biggest Lie," for example, contains a moody, brooding vocal by Glen Johnson, which ends with him screaming "Liar! Liar!" Song's over, right? Nope. That was only the first two minutes. The band fades out, then fades back in with a completely different melody, completely different tempo, and, generally a different song altogether. This is a common trait of most of the songs released on twelve inch format; one or two of the songs-within-a-song are even titled, such as the gorgeous "Wintersport/Cross Country."

Beneath all of the sonic tomfoolery, Glen Johnson writes some intelligently funny lyrics. From the death of Snoopy in the snow ("Wintersport/Cross Country") to "The Canadian Brought Us Snow," and the funny Christmas/love song "Sketch For Joanne," are but a few moments of lightheartedness. Looking at the cover, a bizarre children's game box with disturbing clown/jester images (is it French? I can't really tell) you sense that there's a bizarre, surreal, yet unconscious form of jest here at play...and it is. While Piano Magic's music is rather serious, the makers seem not to be, and the music, while very deep and atmospheric, can still produce a smile on the face, and a warm sense of joy.

Seasonally Affective 1996-2000 is a very heady, heavy platter of sonic goodness. Like a deli tray, there are many different kinds of good things available; it just depends on what you like. Piano Magic are a band that, like Hood, have quietly created a legacy, and whose future is all but guaranteed to produce beautiful recordings. Hell, even the weak moments on this collection are strong enough not to warrant pointing out; for, while they may seem weak with one listen, will strengthen with the next listen. Seasonally Affective: 1996-2000 is a collection that you shouldn't think about owning; you should own.

--Joseph Kyle

November 17, 2001

Love as Laughter "sea to shining sea"

Sam Jayne, the mastermind behind Love as Laughter, loves rock and roll. In 1998, when Love as Laughter released second full length, #1 USA, Jayne left behind his bedroom lo-fi experimental roots and emerged with an actual Love as Laughter band. In so doing, Jayne and company have taken a much more classic (rock) approach to their music with a pulse that came straight out of 1968. #1 USA was jam-packed with balls-out, fast-paced driving rock songs, and was quietly one of the best albums of 1998. Destination 2000, their follow up album, was a continuation of this rock style...but it didn't click. The album lacked the charm of #1 USA, and the record as a whole seemed flat, muddy, and simply didn't work. Seeing the new band live that summer---of which Sam was the only original member---didn't help. They were tired, hung over from the previous night's bender of booze and god knows what else, and were quite lackluster. Too bad, I thought--a good band so quickly down the drain.

It gives me nothing but utter satisfaction, then, to announce to the world that Love as Laughter are BACK and better than ever. After listening to Sea to Shining Sea, the weaknesses of Destination 2000 seem obvious: they were simply growing pains for what was essentially a new band. For the first time, Jayne has a solid band backing him, and their growth as a band clearly shines through.

Between the touring, the line up changes, the drugs, and the hangovers, the band got good-like. Real good-like. Instead of letting their influences overwhelm their writing--which was clearly the main problem with their previous album--they have let their songwriting overwhelm their influences. Man, does it sound refreshing, too! Gone are those blatent Rolling Stones overtones, in favor of a more original sound.

Instead of top-heavy jams and go-nowhere noodling, the songs have a definite direction and aim to them--to rock. Many of these songs go well over the six minute mark, but you don't really notice, nor does it make the songs overweight. From the fast paced "Temptation Island" to the comic blues of "Sam Jayne=dead," and the anthemic "Put it Together" and "e.h.," Love as Laughter are all about one thing: having a good time--you know, sex, drugs, and rock and roll. We've established the rock bit, the sex bit is alluded to, but the drugs--heh, they're very clearly on the map. "Druggachusetts?" "French Heroin?" Make your own decisions, boys and girls. And let's not forget to mention "The Square," which finds Jayne setting aside his love of AC/DC, the Stones, and Lou Reed, to do a little bit of a Nico tribute. Yes, I said Nico. It sounds like Nico. (Yeah, shocked and impressed me, too)

It's amazing what a little time can do for a band, and Sea to Shining Sea is a clear example of a band growing into its own. Sure, missteps were made, bands changed, but it's only a matter of time before Love as Laughter get some kind of recognition for the hard work that they do. Sea to Shining Sea is a lot like that metalhead kid you knew in high school--not the smartest in the class, but you knew a that his life was always one helluva party.

--Joseph Kyle

November 16, 2001

Ken Stringfellow "Touched"

It's 7:54 PM on Sunday night, and I've been struggling with this review. Normally, just popping on the record inspires me to write, but this week, that practice simply has not worked for me. So, here I am, in the eleventh hour, with the big review on the lie...and I can't seem to verbalize my thoughts about it in a cohesive manner. The words are in my head, but they aren't translating on paper.

Believe me, it's not for any fault of Stringfellow's. This is the man's solo debut, and, of course, there should be a lot to say about that. You know the routine: okay, he was in the Posies, who made the 60s with a 90s grunge-lite twist, to critical acclaim, and from that, he was asked to join Big Star, the little band with the ironic name, famous because they were never famous. Then, from there, he joins the touring band of a very very famous band, R.E.M., and, along the way, guests on records made by his friends. There's lots that could be said about that, but every time I write, it just seems so boring, so clinical--as if I should be teaching a class and not writing a record review.As you know, I'm not one for the idea of writing a "journal" review. This is music, and this is a pop album we're talking about; this is not a scholastic exercise.

I can't fault Touched, either. It's not a record that bodes well for the "contrast the record to the artist's background," because, really, Stringfellow hasn't made a record quite like this. It doesn't sound like the Posies at all. There's not a real hint of the power-pop retro stylings that Stringfellow helped defined all those years ago. There's not a real hint of Big Star or Alex Chilton, either. Maybe there's a little hint of REM somewhere in the back, but that's probably due to the influence of former REM producer Mitch Easter taking control of the production duties.

One thing that strikes me, though, is that Stringfellow has this voice, this angelic choirboy of a voice, that strikes you numb from the first chord. The man can sing the most cliche of lines and thoughts of rock and roll and you won't really mind. He does, indeed, sing some rather trite lines, and, surprisingly, he can get away with it. Take, for example, "Don't you see/Love breaks you open so you can heal again/But this new love fits you like a glove/and this one's on you" from "This One's On You." With a slinky, slick keyboard-driven beat, you'd think you were listening to some pap, Adult Contemporary minded songwriter-type. Nope! It's our boy Stringfellow, and he's taken the cliched lyric and has captured its soul, freed it from its triteness, and has made it all his own. Gotta hand it to him, that takes talent, and I don't think he would get away with it if he sung one degree less than heavenly.

At this point, I started to feel a little tired, and felt that coffee would be a good idea. With a bit of a chill in the air, I headed to the local coffee shop, where some local folk singer was trying his best to motivate the slightly bored college students. "Heh," I thought, "glad I don't have to review this..this...coffeehouse singer!" Coffee in hand, I dashed back to my truck in an effort to get the hell away from what I'd just heard, and, in so doing, I turned on the radio. A big smile came across my face when the familiar guitar intro to one of the best songs ever.....then the words! Those lovely, beautiful words! "Everybody's talkin' at me, I can't hear a word they're sayin'....." and then, I knew. I finally learned what Ken Stringfellow is. I learned what Touched is.

See, Ken Stringfellow is no "singer-songwriter." Save that for the amateurs. No, Ken Stringfellow is a craftsman. He's a songcrafter. He is making art for the soul. There's no further proof of this than Touched--an aptly titled album, is it not? Stringfellow is, indeed, touched. The beautifully pedal-steel kissed opener "Down Like Me" demonstrates this quite well. It's a beautiful song to a suicide victim, and that we've all "been there" at some point: "When my self-pity became less than a full-time work/I meditated on the methods and the means/and whether or not it would hurt/Then I got the call they found you swinging out over the earth/So, over me you win again." He sings with such detachment that you wonder if he's less sad of his friend's passing as is impressed that his friend actually did it, instead of backing out of doing the deed. Carry that on to "Find Yourself Alone," where he sings that "nobody wants to hear the ravings of a bad drunk/they're afraid he would speak their minds" in such a manner that makes you think that Ken's speaking to you and to me, simply because he's been there, man. Stringfellow's simply reaching in and pulling out the songs that are in him, of him, and are him. I could continue on and on and on and on about each of these songs; but, like so many things, doing so would deprive you, dear reader of so many joys to be found inside of Touched

Touched is the wonderful sounds of a man who's humbly never taken to the spotlight. He could have done many things with this record; he's got the background to do anything he wants to. Instead of delving into his storied past, Stringfellow's simply created a new notch to his creative bedpost. That he's delivered this as a "solo" project bodes well for not only future solo records, but it also points to what kind of greatness Stringfellow can and, most certainly, will bring to his future collaborations and projects. If you simply like music without the pretense of genre, styles, or labels, then quietly make your way to Touched. You'll be presently surprised, inspired, and refreshed by this red-headed cherub's songs.

--Joseph Kyle

(The Real) Tuesday Weld "Where Psyche Met Cupid"

Stephen Coates is the real Tuesday Weld. No, wait, I mean he is (The Real) Tuesday Weld. Not since the likes of Matthew Sweet have we seen a pop star so open in their admiration of Tuesday Weld. Maybe Weld won't call Coates a weirdo for his obsession.
Who knows? (The Real) Tuesday Weld has been talked about with baited breath by the indie-pop cognoscenti, and with good reason. Much like other indie pop darlings, Coates is a man with many good ideas but not many listeners. Where Psyche Meets Cupid is Coates' debut album, and, like other British artists, a good portion of this record is culled from various singles and EP's that were released over the past year or two. No matter; his previous releases were nice, lovely affairs, that seemed all too short in length. Some (including yours truly) wanted more of this exotic new musical taste--and four tracks on an EP

Wherever Coates came up with the idea of mixing sounds of 20s and 30s big band pop with a 90s techno and pop sensibility, I'd like to know. For all of the combinations and twists and turns and experiments, Coates hit on the one idea that, as far as I know, is truly original. Thank god, however, that Coates actually has the talent to back up his musical ideas--how many times have good ideas been totally ruined by less than talented folk? I could attempt to describe by mentioning more established artists that Coates occasionally sounds like, but that would simply be misleading, as well as revealing in the limits of said "influences"

Now, to do a complete turnaround. That people talk about his mixing of big band-era sounds with techno would imply that he's making techno swing music. Nope. There's absolutely nothing retro about what Coates is doing with (The Real) Tuesday Weld. That there's nothing to compare with (The Real) Tuesday Weld as well makes this even more difficult to talk about. The only band I can think of that even slightly resembles what Coates has done would be this utterly obscure group called Boulevard of Broken Dreams, a band who recorded one album in the mid-80s and then disappeared Even Stephin Merritt--who would be the closest thing to the standard-bearer of good, pre-World War II music--cannot truly be considered an equal to Coates' aesthetic. To call Coates retro is missing the point entirely--he's inspired by, but not trying to replicate, the best pop of the 20s and 30s. That it might slightly sound "retro" is simply the listener's own predilections at play.

But that's alright. Coates seems to be a man who enjoys a good tune, and whether it sounds like a lost Pet Shop Boys b-side or a romantic Gershwin tune makes absolutely no difference to him. It's good to see that there are musicians who put the needs of the song above the fashions of today's fickle music listeners. I know of some younger folk who bought this record and were confounded by it; thinking that it would be something to mix in randomly with their Belle and Sebastian and Magnetic Fields records, much to their chagrin.

From the opening "Am I In Love" to the final "Goodbye Stephen," Where Psyche Meets Cupid provides nothing but pure, enjoyable, thoughtful POP music. I find it difficult to talk about a single song out of context; this is an album that must simply be heard to be appreciated. I've yet to read anything about them that isn't a practice in cynical understatement or overt praise that focuses on the whole retro big band meets techno thing. (I guess I'm writing overt praise, but as I am me and this is what I do, I have no problem with that.) Every single song on this album is, in some form, a love song; even the instrumentals invoke pleasant images of the progress of romance. Coates has a lovely, breathy sigh of a voice, very thin, yet very smooth, and one that floats and fills in nicely with the grooves of the tracks. To say that (The Real) Tuesday Weld are the "next big thing" would be ludicrous, as well as a distraction from Coates' true talent.

Where Psyche Met Cupid is very easily and very quickly making it to the top of my "top ten" list for this year, and rightly so. He's written an album full of love songs, to express all feelings of love, and it didn't take him 69 tries to get it right. This is an album for people in love, people who want to be in love, and people who are feeling as if love has passed them by. It's a labor of love from Coates, and how could we do anything but appreciate that gesture?

--Joseph Kyle

November 15, 2001

Nice System "Impractical Guide To The Opposite Sex"

I don't know why Northern Europeans tend to gravitate towards gentle pop music. You know, music that's friendly, reserved, and slightly shy, and rather sunny in a cold way. Maybe it's because the weather's awful cold, or maybe it's because their society seems to be awfully reserved and slightly shy, but Northern European pop sure is subtle, quiet, and rather sunny (black metal notwithstanding). If it weren't for Euro-friendly labels like Radio Khartoum, bands like Nice System would never be heard outside of their native lands.

Nice System is, indeed, nice. Very rare is the band that actually lives up to its name, and, thankfully, Nice System are indeed a nice group of musicians who are making slightly warm, literate pop music. Sure, to be fair, their influences are easily recognized--a little Beach Boys here, a little Bee Gees there, a tablespoon of Bacharach, and, to make it interesting, a pinch of Stereolab and, what's this, maybe even a dash of Christopher Cross and Air Supply? Not that imitation is a bad thing at all---in fact, more gentle, heart-felt music seems to be what this world needs now.

From the ba-ba-ba's of "We Sing Ba Ba Ba" to the strumming "Sleeping By a Building Site" and the lounge jazz of "Did I Do Wrong," the album travels back and forth through gently-made pop and jazz, with the occasional experimental foray---but without ever breaking the general down-tempo mood. The only time the group ever picks up the pace is in the final song, "Elevator Disco Express," which, ahem, sounds like what Kraftwerk would sound like if they made elevator-music versions of their greatest hits.

Impractical Guide to the Opposite Sex is a record best enjoyed on a lazy, hazy, slightly cold and rainy Saturday afternoon in December with the boy or girl of your choice. With boy and occasional girl vocals, occasional instrumental pieces, whistling, and lightly strummed acoustic guitar and softly-played keyboards, this is a soft, sensual makeout record that is pleasant and lovely enough that you wouldn't be embarrassed to play to your great Aunt Martha.

Impractical Guide to the Opposite Sex is for lovers; while not so much a "guide" as it is a "soundtrack," Nice System clearly want to glorify the feelings of being in love. You can't help but feel like you're in a world where love rules, everyone's attractive, and you're all gonna get laid. Mix it in with the Beach Boys' Sunflower or Friends for some pleasant pop sedation, and I'm pretty sure that listening to this with that special someone would be a lovely half hour of "quality time."

--Joseph Kyle

November 14, 2001

Chao "hitsthemiss"

Over the past few years, I've noticed an interesting little trend of Dallas-area bands have started making perfect little jewels of albums, to very little or no fanfare outside of the Metroplex area. While this must be an utter frustration for these bands, this trend also shows that many of these groups aren't as concerned with popularity as they are with making good, relevant music. Thankfully, these bands choose to be lesser known, rather than a touring act who plays Krispy Kremes across the country. Sure, we'd all like to be famous, but we all can't be Flickerstick.

hitsthemiss is the debut album from Chao, the newest project from Regina Chellew, formerly of the underrated art-rockers Captain Audio. The project is titled "Chao," most of the songs were performed entirely by Chellew, though she does have a little help here and there, most notably on "Gotta Go" (with percussion by Earl Harvin, as well as additional percussion by ) and on "Lay Lady Lay," a duet with Pleasant Grove's Marcus Striplin. Because Chao is a one-woman show, the songs burn with a much sharper sense of direction. Without the constraints of a band, she can fluctuate between styles, without having to worry about breaking the flow of someone else's ideas, and it works. From one moment of peppy, upbeat Breeders-style pop ("Gotta Go"), to Spaghetti-western balladry ("Whisper"), arty folk-rock ("Low"), with a stop-off at a hazy, pot-tinged cover of "Lay Lady Lay," complete with a drum machine beat, Chellew is doing what she wants to do--and it all comes together rather nicely.

Perhaps the best part of hitsthemiss, however, is Chellew's voice. While she's done marvelous work with instrumentation and programming, it's her voice that stands out the most. As she fluctuates her musical styles, you can hear distinct differences in her singing--from quirky art-punk not unlike Kristin Hersh and Kathy McCarty, to a dark, sad folk of Shannon Wright and a distinct poppy punk growl of Kim Deal. She takes the album from high to low with one simple change in tone, and it really works well. Normally, when a singer fluctuates between different recognizable sounds, one could dismiss them of not having found their voice yet, but such is not a valid complaint for Chellew. Instead of not having "found" her voice, hitsthemiss demonstrates that she has a very wide range, and she's not going to simply stick to "one" voice. Her influences, while noticeable, don't overwhelm her songs. Heck, for a bit of fun, see if you can spot the melody line at the end of one of these songs that's taken from famous early-90s Dallas-area band Tripping Daisy's hit "One Through Four."

In recent interviews, she's stated that hitsthemiss is, in large part, a collection of older songs that she's had for a while, that weren't recorded by Captain Audio. ("Bugs," however, is the exception; it was recorded by Captain Audio in their formative years) If such is the case, then hitsthemiss provides a nice hint at what's to come. A solo, lo-fi record that sounds like a full band in a big studio? Yeah, and if she can fool you that way, then you know she's good. Regina Chellew is quietly one of the most talented musicians to come out of the Dallas area, and hitsthemiss is an addictive blend of bitter heartbreak and sugar-sweet pop, with just a hint of arsenic to make things interesting. I haven't wanted to take hitsthemiss off my stereo over the past week, and I bet you won't want to, either.

--Joseph Kyle

November 06, 2001

Portastatic/Ken Vandermark/Tim Mulvina "The Perfect Little Door"

In the past two years, Portastatic, Mac McCaughan's Superchunk after-school lo-fi experimental/acoustic side project, has recently taken a turn for much more interesting waters; recent releases have been an EP of covers of Tropicalia songs, to an all-instrumental score for a film entitled Looking for Leonard. The Perfect Little Door EP is a continuation of McCaughan's experimental side.

This record is a "live" recording, and is a document of Portastatic's appearance at Noise Pop Chicago earlier this year. For this show, McCaughan enlisted the help of Chicago modern jazz god Ken Vandermark and percussionist Tim Mulvenna to accompany him. Might I suggest that this lineup was particularly inspired? Apparently, McCaughan has been an admirer of Vandermark's for many years, and thus, the collaboration, though causing McCaughan to feel a bit nervous, worked quite well. Vandermark never overshadows McCaughan's simple pop songs, while McCaughan never causes Vandermark to simplify his natural approach to music. McCaughan, impressed with that night's performance, went into Steve Albini's studio the next morning, to capture the magic on tape. Albini's ideas of recording really work with this session. The applause at the end of "When You Crashed" didn't seem out of place; I thought this was a live recording, even though it was a studio session.

Personally, I'm glad they did. The older Portastatic songs take on a new dimension with the jazz backing, and I'd really love to hear more. The Perfect Little Door is a small record made by musical giants, and is well worth seeking out. In a way, The Perfect Little Door reminds me of those jazz records of the 1950s, where musicians would get together for a jam session, and then a month later, a record would come out. I guess, in a roundabout way, this is the exact same thing. Here's hoping that this wasn't simply a one-off, but, unfortunatly, I'm sure it was.

--Joseph Kyle

Brittle Stars "Garage Sale"

Sometimes, bands can't make it. The reality of this whole music thing is that it doesn't matter how good of a musician you are or how lovely your records are. Sometimes, it's sad to say, good bands just can't survive. All things must come to an end, and it's better to leave your audience with brilliance than to bore them into submission with songs that indicate your talents will not be missed.

Florida's Brittle Stars is amongst the casualty list of "good bands that died." I don't know what prompted this band to break up; if I'm not mistaken, one of the members moved to California, which probably had a hand in this band coming to an end. Garage Sale is their farewell. To their credit, instead of simply releasing a three or four song EP, they decided to give their fans a nice farewell treat.

Garage Sale contains their last recordings, but it also contains a few other rare tracks, but that's only the beginning! This EP also contains seven remixes by mix masters such as I Am the World Trade Center, Japancakes, and Steward. When these artists meld their own musical aesthetic to the Brittle Stars' pop, they highlight an electronica heart beating beneath their "never met a Factory Records release or Sundays album we didn't like" facade. From Phofo's hip-hoppish beats, to Stewards' noisy mix, to Scott Schultz's ambient touches, these remixes are a nice, welcome treat. It's bittersweet, too, because you realize that the Brittle Stars will never attempt to expand on these outside variations.

It's a shame, too, because the Brittle Stars were one of those little bands that you wanted to hold in your hands, carefully caress and stroke and protect from the cruel world around it. They were the band you wanted to remain a little kitten. Alas, that wasn't going to happen. The Stars' brand of light, unobtrusive, ethereal pop provided the pretty accompaniment to mid-Sunday fuzzy-headed "hold me" moments. They wanted to be the soundtrack of your life, the little light on a cloudy day, the chill to the air of your summer's day, the name-dropped and mid-mix tape band, nothing more. Listen to Garage Sale and lament what it is you have missed.

--Joseph Kyle

November 05, 2001

Poor Rich Ones "Happy Happy Happy"

In 2001, many bands released highly-anticpated albums that disappointed their listeners. Some bands changed their style so radically, they weren't recognizable; some bands' former glories didn't seem interesting anymore, and others were just politely bland and repetitive, showing very little artistic growth. Whatever the reason, 2001 seemed to suffer from music from talented people who simply did not deliver the goods.

One band, however, quietly stepped up to pinch hit, and in turn made an album that sounded like what two of these disappointing bands should have/could have delivered. Far away in a country that's rather cold and slightly polite and a little more European, a band called Poor Rich Ones filled in the gap left by two highly disappointing acts, Radiohead and Jimmy Eat World. Both of those bands had two wonderful albums that inspired many and delighted the listener. Radiohead is less pop-oriented than OK Computer and Jimmy Eat World completly abandoned the gorgeous atmospheric rock found on their 1998 album Clarity for a TRL/MTV friendly (and accepted) style that betrays their past glories for a more Blink-182/teen market.

Let's get something straight: Poor Rich Ones are no newcomers, and they certainly aren't biting on anyone's style. It just so happens that Poor Rich Ones singer and songwriter William's angelic, high-pitched voice also sounds not unlike Thom Yorke. While Poor Rich One's sound is not as directly moody as Radiohead, their mixture of a crunchier rock sound with atmospehric textures was experimented with by Jimmy Eat World, most notibly on their 1999 album, Clarity. Though Jimmy Eat World obviously didn't think much of that style, it's good to know that Poor Rich Ones realized the obvious quality that the J.E.W boys didn't. That they hired Jimmy Eat World producer Mark Trombino to record Happy Happy Happy shows that they at least knew where to look first for goodness.

Despite the sonic similarities, Happy Happy Happy is an album that stands on its own. Though the album kicks off with the weakest song, "Twins," it picks right back up with "Happy Happy Happy" and, all the way through to the closing stunner, "Circular World," Poor Rich Ones simply throw down some of the nicest atmospheric sounds since, erm, well, Radiohead. It's easy to get into comparisons, but seeing as Radiohead seem intent of removing themselves from the kinds of "traditional sounds" like that found on Happy Happy Happy, it's good to know someone's picked up the flag. A sadly obscure release for a band who could, who should deserve more.

--Joseph Kyle