November 30, 2003

The Jessica Fletchers "What Happened to The?"

The Swedish rock explosion contiunes unabated, but what about Norway? You never hear of this country's rock scene, and yet there's plenty happening there. Sure, they may be a bit more passive than their Scandinavian comrades, but let's not write them off just yet. Oslo's The Jessica Fletchers offer up their own musical onslaught, with their wonderful debut album, What Happened to The?. Man, who knew that a pop overthrow could sound soooooo good? It's obvious that they like classic rock and pop music up in that northern European region, and Sixties pop and rock seems to have obtained a near-religious following among all these younger bands.

Listening to What Happened to The? is like taking a walk through a scrapbook of the British invasion. Do I get the feeling I've heard all of this before? I sure do. Bands I'm reminded of--but never enough to warrant a direct comparison to-- while listening to this album are, at varying points: Beatles, The Monkees, Beach Boys, Kinks, Rolling Stones, Turtles, Yardbirds, The Troggs, Lovin' Spoonful...I think you see where I'm going with this. When they really hit their stride and pull out the killer organ, such as on "Just Another Fashion Band" and "Christopher Jensen," they recall the terribly underrated Inspiral Carpets. (Heck, "Let's Go" even sounds like an odd rip off of Talking Heads' "And She Was," The Monkees' "Steppin' Stone" and The Kinks' "You Really Got Me"!!)

Of course, it's really easy to think of classic rock when your lead singer is a dead ringer for John Lennon. Really! It's scary, but when you listen to "Early Monday," "Next Year" and "I Got News," you'll think that it's 1965 all over again, and that these kids have stolen a roll of tape from Abbey Road and called those songs their own. Not that there's anything wrong with that! It's just really, really scary, listening to Thomas Innsto sing, because the comparison is uncanny--hell, it's immediate. Lennon and his little band, influential as they may be, never had The Jessica Fletchers' raw power and toughness. The Jessica Fletchers sound like the Beatles if the Beatles had been a Norwegian R&B-influenced garage band.

What Happened to The? is a really fun debut album, and what's more, I bet these kids are even better live. I can envision them tearing up the stage and making all the girls in the audience go crazy. Ironic, though, because I bet their audience is more like a room full of twenty-and-thirtysomething men. Still, I really have to say that they've made an impression on me, and it happened immediately. Not only is that rare these days, it's to be praised, admired, and respected. Watch this young band...

--Joseph Kyle

November 27, 2003

Fonda "Catching Up To The Future"

When Lush came to a sudden, tragic end in 1996, they did so at a time of transition. Their recent album, Lovelife, had just been released, and they had handed in a lot of the ethereal melodies in exchange for a poppier, more traditional sound. While ultimately Lovelife wasn't that great of a record, it proved that at least Lush were trying something new, something that might not work initially, but could have proved interesting after some time had passed. Because Lush came to such a sudden end, this formula has proven to be the starting point for many bands.

Los Angeles' Fonda has been making dreamy pop music for many years, inspired in part by the dreamy shoegaze-pop of bands like Lush. After years of flirting with success (literally--their songs have appeared on TV shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Tru Calling, and they even composed the theme song to one of the Spy Kids movies), they've never failed to deliver quality dream-pop. Catching Up To The Future, their third album, is both a dreamy treasure and a delight for pop lovers. Though they've been busy with other things for the past few years, it's obvious that it wasn't to the detriment of their music; Catching Up To The Future is a strong, confident album made by pop-loving experts, and it shows.

Indeed, it seems as if Lovelife served as their template for their new record. Emily Cook--who sounds a lot like Miki Bereyni--sings with all the passion and conviction of a pop singer, yet she retains the cool of your hippest ex-shoegazer star. At times her singing is a bit contradictory; the words are cold and distant, yet she sings them with a warmth that quickly draws you in. On songs such as "Imitation of Life" and "Loving You Makes Me Sad," she's joined by David Klotz, and the vocal interplay between boy/girl makes these sweet little songs even sweeter. The real winner, though, is "Say Goodbye To Love," where all of the things that make Fonda great all blend together: the unisex vocals, the blissed out guitars, the tender lyrics--it's all so wonderfully wonderful.

Simple pop songs--who knew? Though it's an extremely brief affair, Catching Up To The Future is a wonderful dose of shoegazer-inspired dream pop. And, you know, I'm rooting for these kids; they've got such a lovely little sound, and kudos to them for carving a niche as a soundtrack band--these kids today need to hear good music, and if Fonda's the conduit to them discovering such bands as Lush and Ride, then, hey, it's worth it, isn't it?

--Joseph Kyle

Various Artists "Parasol's Sweet Sixteen, Volume Seven"

Ahhh, another Parasol's Sweet Sixteen compilation! About a year ago, when they released Volume Six--easily one of the best pop comps I've heard in ages--I was utterly overwhelmed at the quality and quantity of music that they released just in that year. This year is no exception, and I'll admit that I was very eager to hear their 'greatest hits' of the past year, and they've not disappointed, even though at first glance, it might seem as if there wasn't much new being offered with this volume. While only two songs on Volume Seven are unreleased and three of the songs are forthcoming, it's really not a problem, as the sheer quality level of music makes the lack of rarities a lot less heartbreaking.

Of course, it's no secret that those Parasol kids have a fixation with Swedish pop. Nine of these songs are from Swedish groups, yet these acts are so diverse in nature, there's never a redundancy when it comes to sound. From the singer/songwriter fare of Sukilove and Mans Wieslander, the twee pop of Nanook of the North and Ronderlin, dance club pop of Club 8, and the rock of The Wannadies, Moonbabies, Thirdimension and Bettie Serveert, if Parasol's guilty of a crime, it's certainly not a sonic monotony. Parasol may hype a lot of wonderful Swedish pop, but none of the bands sound remotely alike. Swedish pop? It's Swedish, but thankfully, it's not all pop.

Interestingly enough, many of the American selections are harldy what you'd call pop, either. True, Mark Bacino and Mentho, George Usher Group are power-pop of the highest order and Kevin Tihista's Red Terror is pretty much a definitive Parasol artist, bands like Absinthe Blind, Tractor Kings, and The Vertebrats aren't. This year's class seems to be gritter, tougher, and less fey than what you'd expect from a pop label; bands like The Like Young, Fonda and Menthol all have an edge that's much sharper and tougher than Parasol's usual fare. Then again, perhaps that's Parasol's secret. Underneath all of the pop and occasional fluff are some seriously unique, interesting and experimental bands, and Volume Seven like the previous volume, is the sound of a really cool radio station coming from an alternate universe. I simply wish radio were 1/23rds as interesting and as diverse as Parasol's Sweet Sixteen Volume Seven.

A fine little sampler from a most impressive label group. For cheap, you could have seventy-seven minutes of pure pop delight. What are ya waitin' for?

--Joseph Kyle

November 26, 2003

Pia Fraus "Plastilina"

I loved early-90's British dreampop bands, and part of that love was based upon the fact that so many of those kinds of bands released three-or-four track extended-play singles. The EP format ruled, for a number of reasons. First, you couldn't throw a tossed-off B-side on there; secondly, the format does have informal time-limits, which means that you really had to focus on the material. Mainly, though, was the fact that so many of those groups really took the format seriously; they would mix the songs together with the same kind of seriousness normally reserved for full-lengths. Plus, it was a fitting format for another reason: this particular style of music has a tendency to get old rather quicky over the length of an album.

Plastilina, Pia Fraus' latest offering, follows in the EP tradition, and like their inspirations, they do it quite well. Blending swirling, blissful guitars and dreamy boy/girl vocals all sung in a heavenly Nordic accent, Pia Fraus are clear descendents of the shoegazer family tree, yet they never really wear their lineage on their shoes, so don't fret about the comparison. Instead of the drugged-out guitar heroics of yesteryear, Pia Fraus have a soft pop underbelly, and songs like "Obnoxious" and "Summer Before Spring" could rival Stereolab or Pale Saints in terms of catchy tuneage. "Moon Like a Pear" and "Deep Purple Girl" are also blissfully nice, too. (I'm also fond of that hidden remix of "Summer Before Spring," too.)

This is a fun and utterly dreamy EP from one of today's underrated shoegazer bands. It's quick, to the point, and there's not one dull moment to be had on Plastilina. I look forward to hearing more!!

--Joseph Kyle

Ultramarine "Companion"

Ultramarine's Every Man and Woman Is A Star is a lost post-techno classic. Blending jazz, techno and ambient music, they created a pleasant, beautiful little record that only grows warmer and lovlier after every successive listen. When it was released, it became an instant lost classic, as their label folded within weeks of its release, assuring that nobody would hear it. Though the album was lost, Ultramarine soldiered on, and quickly followed it up with an EP of remixes from the album, entitled Nightfall in Sweetleaf. Companion is a companion to Every Man and Woman Is A Star, containing the Nightfall in Sweetleaf EP, as well as songs that were released in and around that time as well.

This compilation could not be more welcome, as it serves as a wonderful, erm, companion to one of the best albums of the early 90s. While Nightfall in Sweetleaf was essentially a remix single pasted together with three short little instrumental pieces, "Intro," "Outro" and "The Downer," it did prove that the mellow, chilled-out Every Man and Woman... could easily be transformed into dancefloor groovers without really losing their mellow, jazzy appeal. DJ's Lovebomb, Sweet Exorcist and Spooky all take turns behind the mixing board. Though the idea of remixing Ultramarine might not sound too appealing, "Panther" and "Lights In My Brain" only grow in depth once a dance beat is added.

Though the Nightfall in Sweetleaf EP is pretty much straightforward, the extra remixes and outtakes are what really makes Companion worth seeking out. "Saratoga (Remix)" is a rather obscure track taken from the excellent Volume series, and though it doesn't particularly differ much from the album version, it's still nice to have. Same with "Nova Scotia," a rare B-side taken from Ultramarine's entry in the Rough Trade Singles Club--a single that I remember hearing at a record store back then and dismissing as dull adult contemporary jazz. (My, how our tastes have changed--and I can't give away these grunge 7"s bought that day). The rest of the songs are unreleased remixes, and though not all of them differ much from the final album, they provide a wonderful variation on the Ultramarine theme, and I'm most fond of the jazzy "Early Discovery" and "Lovelife #1." There's even a live appearance, "Pansy," taken from their set at Glastonbury 1993.

Though they never really soared as high as Every Man & Woman Is A Star, Ultramarine did make some very beautiful music, and Companion shows that it was not a fluke on Ultramarine's part. If you're looking for mellow, beautiful and inspiring music for chilling out, meditating, or simply providing a nice, peaceful atmosphere, go get Every Man & Woman Is A Star. Then buy Companion. Then put them on the CD changer and hit random. A lovely collection, and an enjoyable reminder of what made Ultramarine great.

--Joseph Kyle

November 24, 2003

Hrududu Factory "Songs From The Burrow EP"

I've got to admit that this little Hrududu Factory record is an interesting little concept. In theory, Songs From The Burrow is the story of an indiepop kid who goes by the name of Tharn, who wakes up one morning and discovers, much to his horror, that he's turned into a rabbit, and these songs are the stories of his new life as a rabbit.

Yes, that's right, he turned into a rabbit.

Don't laugh, please. Turning into a rabbit is serious business. I kind of feel for Tharn. While turning into a rabbit is the ultimate realization of being twee, it's obvious that Tharn's kind of sad about this change. "I can't be your best friend any more," he sings on "Tractor Guy," and I really feel sad, because when he Tharn was a real live boy, the Tractor Guy used to be his friend, or at least I think that's what he's talking about. Now, the Tractor Guy is an enemy, for he unintentionally destroys little bunny rabbit homes in the name of farming. But that's not the only moving experience, because the whole record is touching. "A Terrible Sight" is a dreamy recollection of a bad dream, and it's quite moving. "Garfield & Family" is a song about dreaming about making the world a better place.

Of course, like many concept albums, the concept is much more interesting in theory than in practice. The story line doesn't really hold up, but don't mistake a weak concept means that the music is weak as well. For being a bunny, Tharn has some excellent musical skills. In fact, I'd say that he's pushing the needle to 'utterly brilliant.' His folky, downhome music is mixed with some pretty deep atmospheres, leading me to wonder if the Tractor Guy is either Jason Lytle or Mark Linkous. Tharn's that good, and Hrududu Factory, while a bit of a novelty on the surface, is far from novel. Just take a listen to "Family Car," which is easily a long-lost outtake from Sumday.

All of the songs on Songs From the Burrow shimmer and hum and sparkle in a way that makes your inner bunny rabbit smile. I've listened to this several times, and each time I do, I'm left with a really nice smile on my face, a warm feeling in my heart, and an overwhelming desire to hear more. Hopefully Tharn can get more time to record, because I have this feeling that when he turns back into a boy (if he can, that is), he will produce an awesome full-length album, and will get all the credit he deserves. A heartbreakingly beautiful debut record worth seeking out, and it certainly whets the appetite for more...

--Joseph Kyle

November 22, 2003

Helms "McCarthy"

The debt that Massachusetts trio Helms holds to indie-rock pioneers
Slint is made abundantly clear from McCarthy's very first song, "The
Hypochondriac's Last Words." The song gains most of its mileage from jarring loud/soft dynamics and tricky time signature changes. The guitar playing switches from arrhythmic arpeggios to slashing, distorted riffs. The words, whether spoken or shouted, are delivered in the most listless manner imaginable, and seem to concern the discursive path a pigeon takes as it attempts to follow an eagle across the city. If this doesn't strike you as a succinct description of a Spiderland outtake, you might want to dust off your copy of that record and listen to it again. (Even if it does, there's no harm in giving a masterpiece just one more listen for old time's sake.) This band is named after its bassist, Tina Helms, and its second album is named after the brotherly duo of Sean and Dan McCarthy, who play guitar/vocals and drums, respectively. Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't all of the song titles from Slint's debut Tweez come from the band members' close friends and relatives("Ron," "Carol," "Kent,"etc.)? I know that rock critics are prone to make lazy comparisons, but a band like Helms simply makes it too easy! When a band is this derivative, they'd better be able to compensate for it in some other area, in order to keep from being dismissed or ignored. After letting McCarthy grow on me for a couple of weeks, I have to say that although there is definitely room for improvement, Helms have acquitted themselves admirably through sheer talent.

The album is split pretty evenly between highlights and lowlights. "It Takes Skin to Win" coasts on little more than a pretty finger-tapped guitar riff; in the lyrics, Sean compares the feeling he gets from playing in a band to that of slowly rising out of the ocean. It is to the band's credit that even its most abstract lyrics, instead of coming off like pseudo-cerebral nonsense, can be used as metaphors for real-life situations. "The Ten Thousand Things" uses architectural images to examine the plight of a man who has willfully isolated himself from the rest of the world. "I wear this house like a head," Sean croons on the song's introduction, like a friendlier, less pitch-deficient Lou Reed. He repeats the mantra "I lock my doors/I shut the blinds/I close my eyes," and the music gets louder as his desire for solitude increases. "Horace: Age 19; Powers: None" sports the only obvious production trick on the album that helps the song instead of hurts it. The rhythm section is randomly punched in and out of the mix during the song's climax, producing a series of sharp, unexpected interjections that give the song intensity not unlike that of a chase scene.

Sometimes, though, Helms go too far out of their way to play tricks on the listener, and this is where they falter. The otherwise compelling song "The Skills You Need to Succeed in the 20th Century" is derailed in by an intentional tape dropout that sounds like a Walkman with dying batteries, slowing down to a dead halt. "Three" begins with one clumsy guitar and Sean mumbling incoherently about pornography. The rest of the band steps in mid-song, with a riff that I initially thought would pull the song out of its doldrums. Instead, the riff fades out and is restarted three times for no apparent reason. McCarthy's final song, "Cornish, New Hampshire," commits the album's worst offense by dragging the listener through FOUR MINUTES' WORTH of false endings. The band crashes into one chord after another, with the gaps of silence between these chords growing longer and longer. Only rock critics and masochists would bother to sit through the entire song for more than one listen.

I'm pretty sure that my partiality towards Helms stems from the fact
that I was ten years old when Spiderland was released; because my age has divorced me from its proper context, I haven't formed a strong enough relationship to the record to be as strongly irritated as, say, Steve Albini, would be by artists who plagiarize it lock, stock, and barrel. I still believe, though, that Helms is able to transcend its main influence through the strength of its lyrics and instrumental interplay. The band doesn't need to utilize silly production tricks and false endings to prove its cleverness. If they rid themselves of these annoying habits, they will certainly deserve the honor of being crowned the Slint of my generation.

--Sean Padilla

Graham Lindsey "Famous Anonymous Wilderness"

Remember Old Skull? In the late 80s, they were a group of younguns (none above the age of ten) who were said to be the 'world's youngest punk band,' and legend has it that they broke up when one of the members was grounded for a month. Seriously, I'm not making this up! At the time, Old Skull were viewed with a mighty hefty grain o'salt. Anyway, the point of that brief history lesson is to inform you that Graham Lindsey was one of those Old Skull kids, and now he's grown up and has made a most impressive debut album, Famous Anonymous Wilderness.

If you're expecting the Punk Rawk Rumble of Old Skull, you're gonna be disappointed. Well, not really, because this album's better than all of that. He's traded in his Doc Martens for some Justins, and he's making music that's a lot earthier. That doesn't mean it's prettier, because there's a road-weary vibe to Famous Anonymous Wilderness that most of your other singer/songwriter types could only dream of having. Lindsey really really REALLY reminds me of Bob Dylan's best years--the years he was a great songwriter and not a parody of what Dylan used to be.

Lindsey pretty much sets the tone of the album with the down and out ballad "Hutch Jack Flats Rag," His voice--sounding like a perfect replication of Dylan circa The Times They Are A-Changin', but with a little more country slant. But don't think that Lindsey's just a feller with a guitar and a harmonica, because he's not. He does have a good little backing band; they're pretty rocking on "Emma Rumble" and "My Museum Blues." On songs like "Dead Man's Waltz" and "I Won't Let You Down," he wins points for excellent use of the one instrument I love to hear: pedal steel. All of these songs are sung with an edge of experience; sure, he's a young fellow, but just look into those eyes of his: if the eyes are the mirror of the soul, you quickly realize that in Lindsey's case, it's not the age, it's the mileage.

While a mixture of country/folk music and punk rock might seem to be a novelty to some, and it might be just an extention of that whole 'emo' thing to others, but Graham Lindsey's the real deal. His songs echo through the soul and his voice rings true, and as you listen, you'll find yourself nodding your head and thinkin', "yeah, I know what you mean, son." Ulitmately, though, what is it that makes Famous Anonymous Wilderness such a rewarding find? It's simple, really: No bullshit, no pretension, and honest songwriting.

And what did you say were the distinctions between punk and country?

--Joseph Kyle

Ryan Adams "Rock N Roll"

In my review for his last album, Demolition, I accused Ryan Adams' critics of judging him too hard on what it is they expect of him, and they never allow him to be what they expect him to be. It seems as if many critics simply will not allow the man to breathe without criticizing him for doing something wrong, something they don't like--as if they own him. Reviews of his records have been less about his music and more about him, which is a real shame, because he is what they have longed for--a talented young songwriter who more than delivers, when allowed to. Seriously, Adams is no slouch in the songwriting department. The man's more prolific than Bob Pollard, and his outtakes are better than some people's best song. Unlike Pollard, Adams' outtakes and rejects are never trashy, lo-fi recordings, but are legitimate, full-band outtakes that sound real good.

But what is it about him that gets the critics in a snit? I think it has a lot to do with the fact that they built up a hypestorm around him, building up this image, and then holding him to it. It ain't fair, you know, because you should never be forced to live up to an image. But who cares? What does any of this have to do with his music? Who held him to this idea that he was going to be this big savior and leader of an revival, that he was going to come in and make things better in terms of singer-songwriter fare? I mean, isn't he doing a damn good job at it already?

Yes, he is.

Rock N Roll is his third proper album, and it's as much of a departure from Gold as Gold was from Heartbreaker. Better still, it's a better record. Gold had its moments, but it's true, it wasn't necessarily his best work. Last year's outtake collection, Demolition was a shocking record; it showed that his rejects from that time were a vast improvement, and were generally stronger. Still, not every player hits a home run up at bat, and if Gold faltered a little, so be it, and Adams showed that he still was capable. So it comes as no shock that Rock N Roll would be equally impressive, if not better than his last album.

Rock N Roll is as it is named--a rock record. Better still, it's a great rock record. And why not? Adams has already proven to be masterful at other styles of music, so it's really no surprise that his rock band experiment would also be worthy--and it is. Mostly. Just take a listen to that opening track, "This Is It," where he piles on the crunchy guitars. "Don't waste my time/This is it/This is really happening" is one helluva punch, aimed directly at the jawbone of those critics who simply dismiss him. Luckily, it's an effective punch, and the song is killer, and Adams' lays down his cards very quickly--Rock N Roll is a no-bullshit album, striking with a punch that doesn't let up through "Shallow" "1974" and "Luminol."

Thankfully, the rest of the album never disappoints. While Rock N Roll does have a harder edge than his previous records--his Rolling Stones covers should have proven a hint as to where he was going musicwise--he does occasionally pop in some really tender, melodic moments. "Wish You Were Here" harkens back to the great Whiskeytown days, sounding like a lost outtake from Faithless Street's bonus Baseball Park session. The real winner, though, is "So Alive;" it's a tender Britpop-influenced number, with Adams' rough voice becoming touchingly tender. In fact, the main complaint I have with Rock N Roll is that his softer, sadder, tender side seems to have disappeared--well, for this album at least. After all, the man did make the excellently sad Heartbreaker.

While I will admit that Rock N Roll's harder edge was a bit of a shock on first listen, it didn't take long for its groove to open up. Yeah, Ryan Adams made a rock record. Big deal. It's still good. Adams is still brilliant, and he's only getting better. Rock N Roll is only one side of Adams' talent, the Love Is Hell is another, and the only way this album could have possibly been made better is a combination of the two sides, and it should be noted that Lost Highway was wrong about Adams' rejected album. Still, I'm not complaining; Adams is a major force in music, even if nobody likes him--after all, it's hip to hate Ryan Adams, but you know what? I'm sure Adams will still be making music well after said critics have long since retired. Rock N Roll is a great album of rock 'n' roll. Period.

--Joseph Kyle

Various Artists "Greater Southbridge Soundtrack:"

Now this is odd...this is the soundtrack to Greater Southbridge, a documentary film about the town of Southbridge, Massachusettes, yet almost all of the bands on the record are from Texas--Austin, specifically. It seems a bit of an odd way to go about things, for sure. The film itself looks quite interesting; it's about a small town and all of the unique personalities that live in the town. Though I haven't seen the film, it sounds as if it has a weird kind of Slacker vibe to it. You can get a hint of what it's like by listening to the soundtrack; each song on the album is prefaced by a clip of conversation; some of them are funny, some of them aren't.

As for the soundtrack, it almost serves as a greatest hits sampler of the Austin indie scene. There are some well-known names on here (American Analog Set, Spoon, Drums & Tuba), and there are more than a few unknown acts on here as well. Some of them--like Tiara and Centro-matic's Will Johnson--aren't from Austin, and some of them are local bands who moved away. Many of these songs are previously released as album tracks or B-sides, too, but there's a few unreleased tracks I believe, such as Drums & Tuba's "Dr Small." There's not a lot of information on the bands, too, which is a bit annoying because some of the unknown acts--like Sin Pelo, My Brother Zebulon and Dan Cray (who, erm, sounds just like Britt Daniel) are excellent. Overall, the bands are mellowed-out indie rock, nothing too loud, nothing too raucious; they all have a lo-fi/stoned folk sound in common, too.

This is an interesting record, though if you're from Austin, you might have a number of these songs already. Still, I have to admit I've enjoyed the Greater Southbridge soundtrack, even if it is a bit confusing as to why Austin bands were chosen for the soundtrack, but that's no biggie. If you like indie-rock, you're sure to find some good stuff on here, and though many of the current cream-of-the-crop Austin indierock bands aren't included, there's still plenty of music on here for you to enjoy.

--Joseph Kyle

November 21, 2003

Joan of Arc "In Rape Fantasy and Terror Sex We Trust"

Dear Joan of Arc--

Tim Kinsella. Tim, Tim Tim. What's up with you, sir? Your image has gotten you into trouble. We all know about the whole controversy about your last album, So Much For Staying Alive and Lovelessness, and hey, I gotta say that the whole issue sucked. That was a really great album, man. It picked up nicely where Live in Chicago left off...and though it wasn't as grand as your earlier works (in my humble opinion, that is), it proved that you weren't to be written off yet.

I'll be fair, after The Gap, I was a bit weary of you. I mean, that was a record that just didn't make much sense, and I think I listened to it all of one time. I was disappointed, but, you know, I realize that even Babe Ruth struck out. But, again, my faith had been restored after your last album, even if it didn't fly as high as I know you can. It's okay, man, I still love you. I really do, man. I know that might not mean that much right now, but believe me, it means a lot to me.

But I'm puzzled about this In Rape Fantasy & Terror Sex We Trust. Tim, may I ask you a personal question? What happened between you and your label? Why could they not hear how awesome this record is? I mean, don't get me wrong, I love Jade Tree, but I have to say they were wrong to let this one slip by. To be fair, they did have a point, the Joan of Arc name had become a scary proposition. With the problems that are facing the music biz these days, releasing a record that people are a little afraid of might not have been the right thing for them to do. I'm not hatin', though. I just don't like the idea that this record's considered the 'leftovers' from the previous Joan record, because that's selling yourself short.

It's kind of nice to see Joan of Arc heading back into familiar waters, yet it's even nicer to see that you're also setting out for different shores. Yeah, you're still a walking contradiction, and I like that. I like it a lot. And though you've taken up a political stance, it still fits you like a nice, warm suit. I mean, man, I'll tell you this: "Happy 1984 and 2001" is perhaps one of the catchiest songs I've heard all year. I just cannot get that long list of shadows out of my head, and I find myself singing along with it every time I listen to it.

The rest of the album does me right, too. It's a pleasant, interesting diversion. I've really enjoyed every minute of it; I like the lyrical twists and turns of "Excitement is Exciting," the frantic yet touching moments of "Moonlighting," and the "Dinosaur Constellations" sections are really a nice touch, too. If I may ask you another personal question, man to man, you can tell me straight up or not, but after listening to "Them Brainwash Days," am I right in assuming that you've kind of realized the error of your ways? I wonder about that, because this album really is a return to form, and if it's done anything, it's restored my faith in you, Tim.

So, Tim, man, keep it up. I was wrong to doubt you; I was wrong to forsake you after you put out those really complex records. That wasn't right of me, and I'm sorry. Thank you for winning me back. And may I say that I'm excited to hear what you'll do next. What will you do next? Another Owls record? Another Friend/Enemy album? More Joan of Arc? Keep me posted, please.

Joseph Kyle

P.S. I love that half-beard thing you're sporting in that press photo.

Nervous Cop "Nervous Cop"

When Deerhoof played in Denton this past September, I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with drummer Greg Saunier, who has replaced Keith Moon as one of my Personal Drum Gods, face to face. When asked if he was making any music outside of Deerhoof, he raved about the Curtains (whose latest album Iíve already reviewed on this site) and added a brief aside about Nervous Cop. Upon hearing Greg say that the album was a collaborative effort with Zach Hill of Hella, a man who has replaced Damon Che of Don Caballero as one of my other Personal Drum Gods, my interest increased tenfold. Greg keeps up with my reviews (which I consider an honor), so he already knew that my mind was racing with ideas as to what an album forged from the hands of two of my Personal Drum Gods would sound like. ìI canít wait to hear it,î I exclaimed like a hyperactive schoolgirl. Greg apprehensively shook his head and mumbled, ìI donít really know, manÖî I attributed his reaction to mere humility, and anxiously awaited my opportunity to hear the Nervous Cop album.

A couple of months later, I perused the Kill Rock Stars website and read their description of the album. I discovered that it took over a year and a half to make, with lots of rerecording and remixing delaying the process. One sentence read, ìAt last ready for release, Nervous Cop has turned out to be either a surrealistic masterpiece of musique concrete (what Zach thinks) or a total disaster (what Greg thinks).î Now, I knew that Gregís reaction to my enthusiasm was a bit more than a humble faÁade, which made me even MORE anxious to hear the album. Shortly thereafter, I was fortunate enough to receive a copy of Nervous Cop. After a week or two of frequent listening and absorption of the sounds contained therein (notice that I used the word ìsoundsî instead of ìmusicî), I believe that I have reached my final verdict. Do I agree with Zachís assessment or with Gregís? Which of my Personal Drum Gods has triumphed in the Battle of Subjective Opinions?

For the most part, evaluating Nervous Cop by describing individual tracks is useless because the whole affair flows like one long song. The track indexing is fairly arbitrary: there are eleven ìsongsî in roughly a half-hour, but by the time the first four minutes have passed, youíre already up to the fifth ìsong.î Anyway, Nervous Cop begins with about thirty seconds of dissonant, cascading harps courtesy of the Pleaseís Joanna Newsome. She delivers the only sounds that are anything close to melodies on the album. After that intro, though, she disappears and is replaced by the drums. Each drummer plays on one side of the stereo spectrum. Thanks to digital editing and processing, the likes of which most likely account for why the album took so long to make, the drumming is so severely clipped and chopped up that each thwack lasts for what seems like a millisecond. If you had no idea what was going on, youíd think that your speakers were completely blown.

As the drumming slowly becomes more aggressive, various unearthly sound effects pop up at random instances. Radio dials are flipped abruptly and various shouts and croons are heard in the background. Joanna returns in the fifth ìsong,î but her playing initially takes a backseat to the cut-up drumming. There are moments in which the avalanche of percussion subsides to give her nimble, expressive plucking prominence in the mix. However, at no point do Joanna and the Drum Gods actually cohere. Even at its most consonant (which isnít very), Nervous Cop still sounds like a competition between college roommates to see whose boom box is the loudest. One person turns up the classical music, the other cranks the Merzbow Satanic-drum-circle remix, and everyone in the whole damn dorm walks around with big cotton balls in their ears.

Newsomeís harp playing is beautiful, and occasionally the Drum Godsí computer manipulation produces some fearsome and purposed volleys of white noise. However, everything on Nervous Cop is so disorganized that obtaining any real pleasure from listening to it is impossible for me. As much as everyone seems to hate standard drum solos, I think that Iíd rather listen to Nervous Copís source material than what Greg and Zach did with it. The Drum Gods beating the crap out of their kits in the same room probably sounded awesome before they chopped it up into twitching pitter-patter. This project had serious potential. If they molded their digital manipulations into something a bit more solid, Nervous Cop wouldíve really been a masterpiece of musique concrete. Unfortunately, though, I have to declare Greg the winner in the Battle of Subjective Opinions.

Oh, well, you can't win them all. At least Hella, Deerhoof, and the Curtains still rule!

---Sean Padilla

90 Day Men "Too Late or Too Dead"

Chicago's 90 Day Men have certainly changed a great deal since they first turned up on the scene, and this little CD-Single certainly proves that the changes haven't ceased. Kicking off with the piano-led title track, they set the mood quite quickly: bleak. Not unlike Black Heart Procession, this song--and that's a good thing, too. Throw in some lethargic singing, and you've won me over. The next two songs, "Harlequin's Chassis" and "Eyes In The Road," are instrumental and are similar in nature to the first song: cold, dreary and piano-based. This is the sound of a band growing and changing, and whereas their previous records were merely OK, this EP hints that the next album's gonna be a monster.

--Joseph Kyle

Christopher O'Riley: True Love Waits-Christopher O'Riley Plays Radiohead

This fascinating little record, released on the same day as Hail To The Thief, offers a different view of Radiohead. Christopher O'Riley is a classically-trained pianist, and he's also a Radiohead geek. Fanboy. Obsessive. Literally. The fifteen songs on True Love Waits only scratches the surface of his catalog; in performance, he'll play a full twenty-song set of Radiohead songs that doesn't include any of the songs on this album.
Heck, he's even played unreleased songs that even the most obsessive Radiohead fan might have missed.

True Love Waits is a pretty simple concept: Radiohead songs as played by a classical pianist. As novel of an idea that might be, it's a bit surprising when you realize exactly how well most of these songs survive the translation. It doesn't hurt that Radiohead's always been a bit sad and forlorn, because the sadder and bleaker the original song, the better the interpretation. O'Riley covers every album from Pablo Honey to I Might Be Wrong, but it's not a surprise that most of the songs True Love Waits are from OK Computer. For the complexities of "Airbag," "Karma Police," "Subterranean Homesick Alien" and "Let Down," in stripped-down form, they're even more powerful. The award for most moving composition here, though, goes to "Fake Plastic Trees," one of the few songs that never fails to bring me to tears.

While at times True Love Waits slips into monotony, for the most part O'Riley is an interesting interpreter. Ironically, it's the weaker Radiohead songs that don't really leave an impression, and it's no coincidence that these songs come from their forgettable debut album, Pablo Honey. If True Love Waits accomplishes one thing, it's the rethinking of Radiohead's later work, especially songs from the underappreciated Kid A. While many critics dismissed it as an album of bland, flat electronica, O'Riley's interpretations of "Everything In Its Right Place" and "Motion Picture Soundtrack" help highlight the missing tenderness of both songs, adding a human dimension to these cold, lifeless songs.

It would be easy to dismiss True Love Waits as a bit of a novelty. (anyone remember Grunge Lite?)
And while it's true that there is a certain novel aspect in recording an album of classical interpretations of a modern rock band, O'Riley (and Radiohead, to be honest) makes some interesting yet surprisingly faithful choices. It's interesting listening; it might not be something you listen to regularly, but it's beautiful enough to stand on its own. Personally, I'm interested in hearing O'Riley perform some original material, because if he's really this inspired by Radiohead, I'm pretty sure his own work is also as lovely and as beautiful as True Love Waits.

--Joseph Kyle

November 17, 2003

Mojave 3 "Spoon & Rafter"

The members of Mojave 3 have a history of making beautiful, lush music. From their days as Slowdive--one of the best shoegazer bands of the early 90s--they mastered the art of tempering noise with beauty, and have secured their place in rock history as a definitive dream-pop band. When they split, Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell and latter-day drummer Ian McCutcheon formed the stripped-down but just as beautiful Mojave 3, and debuted with the breathtaking classic Ask Me Tomorrow. Taking the beautiful harmonies of their previous band and adding them to a country/folk backing, they did the impossible--a complete change in direction which actually bettered their previous work.

As time went on, they refined their country sound, but as they did, they became a lot more countrified, losing a lot of what made their debut album special--namely, the decreasing vocal turns of Goswell. Their releases have never been bad, but with each successive release, they've become more solidified in their sound, and to a lesser extent, they've inched closer to becoming just another folk-rock band. A shame, really, but as their sound is really pretty and unique, it's easy to forgive them. After all, the core ingredients stayed in place: the beautiful vocals, the quiet, hushed guitar work, and the atmosphere remained in place.

Spoon & Rafter, then, is an album that's not very surprising. At this point in the game, they're not changing their sound, they're not tinkering with anything, not because they don't have anything new to say, but because they don't have to say anything new. As lazy as that may seem, when you write good songs, does it really matter? Of course not. Starting off with a nine-minute epic might seem a bit risky, but "Bluebird of Happiness" is an impressive start, and though it's long, it has about three different songs in it, so you're never bored. In fact, that's Mojave 3's saving grace--they can give you ten songs that sound remarkably the same, but they make them interesting enough to prevent boredom.

To be honest, the first few times I listened to Spoon & Rafter, I was not moved very much. No song really stood out, save for "Bluebird of Happiness," simply because it was so grand and epic. The rest of the album just didn't seem particularly remarkable. Not bad, mind you, just not particularly memorable. In fact, every time I tried to listen to it, nothing came to me, nothing stuck out--it just all seemed the same. I put it on this morning, I did so just to listen to it--not for serious critical analysis. When I did that--talk about a revelation! Nuances that I missed were suddenly standing out; little bits here and there that I'd completely overlooked because I was trying too hard to hear the 'bigger picture'--things such as the pedal steel guitar washes here and there, the soft mixture of atmosphere and pastoral greatness on songs such as "Tinker's Blues," "Writing to St. Peter" and "Too Many Mornings" just really cannot be beat.

Instead of seeing the bland folk-rock album that I initially heard, I found a lovely album of sublime folk, tempered with a gentle yet intoxicating atmosphere that easily stands up to Halstead's best work. While playing it safe is a dangerous game, Mojave 3 have safely delivered on their promise of beautiful, hushed countrified folk. Spoon & Rafter might not be terribly ifferent than their previous records, but when your other records are all beautiful, does it really matter that your album doesn't offer anything new?

Of course not.

--Joseph Kyle

Tracy Shedd "Red"

Red, Tracy Shedd's second album, is a surprisingly wonderful little album. Though her previous album, Blue, was a slice of sad-eyed folk songs, Red is a bit of a different record. Where the songs on Blue were spartian and threadbare, there's a warmth to the songs on Red that cannot be denied. Instead of making songs that were, ahem, blue, her latest collection of songs are not necessarily any happier than her first set, but there's a warmth to them that was missing the first time around.

Red's newfound warmth has a lot to do with her accompaniment. Backed up by a pretty rocking duo of Cash Carter (great name!) and husband Richard Dudley, this trio makes a racket that's very much reminsicent of another great, famous Teenbeat trio--Unrest. (It doesn't hurt that Unrest mastermind Mark Robinson produced Red, either.) Indeed, the jingle-jangle nature of Red is less indebted to the folk world than it is to the sounds of mid-eighties to early-ninties indiepop.

If you get the feeling Red sounds like a culmulation of all the things that defined Teenbeat Records, you're not alone. It would be easy to trainspot the influences and nuances of her labelmates, but that would be too easy. After all, it's never been a big secret that Robinson's partial to bands whose sounds are indebted to the label; you could say that Aden, True Love Always and the various post-Versus projects owe a certain debt to the label 'sound', and if such is the case, then yes, Shedd is simply following suit and is keeping the 'Teenbeat Sound' alive.

But might I add that such a sound is not a bad thing? From the sad-eyed "End of Spring" to the hopeful pop of "I Wish We Were Still Friends" and "Somersault," Red is never less than lovely and charming. The only flaw with this, though, is that occasionally the album tends to get a bit of a one-sided sound that's unavoidable. Still, I'm not suggesting that you write Red off; instead, you should simply approach it as it is meant to be approached--a great little album of indie-pop folk rock that never once lets its guard down.

--Joseph Kyle

November 16, 2003

Che Arthur "All Your Tomorrows Were Decided Today"

If someone asked me, “What is ‘emo’ and what does it sound like?” I would hand them All Your Tomorrows Were Decided Today and say, “This is what it would sound like in a better world.” Of course, we all know that the world in which this record could exist in its proper context doesn’t exist anymore because so many people have forgotten what “emo” really is. “Emo” is an abbreviation of “emo-core,” which is itself an abbreviation of “emotional hardcore.” Bands in this sub-genre of punk were just as concerned with volume and velocity as their predecessors, but they used their songs to write specifically about the inner workings of their hearts, something that you couldn’t really accuse the Ramones, the Clash, or even Minor Threat of doing. Nowadays, too many guys with guitars are writing either melodramatic declarations of puppy love or fake surrealist poetry and calling it “emo.” In a world where people refer to Weezer as an “emo” band without a single trace of irony, a record like this is a breath of fresh air that shows the world how “emo” is supposed to be done.

Che Arthur is better known as a member of Atombombpocketknife, Chicago’s answer to the mighty (and dearly departed) Unwound. There are much worse bands to emulate than Unwound, but so far the ABPK haven’t really brought anything new to the table. Fortunately, Che’s first solo effort sounds nothing like either band. If anything, the most direct influence on this album is mid-period Husker Du. I heard their masterwork Zen Arcade for the first time this year, and hearing Bob Mould scream “I will never forget you/I will never forgive you” while making one guitar sound like three instantly put at least a decade’s worth of the music I listened to in perspective. On some of Che’s songs, he rages like Mould (“Sunrise Motel,” “This Changes Nothing,” “Chains”), whereas on others he croons like Grant Hart (most of the album’s mellower second half). No matter which side of the coin you flip, Che’s music is pure “emo” through and through. He expresses his emotions concisely and empathetically; his guitars blur the line between lead and rhythm; his voice drips weariness and conviction. Sometimes he sounds as if he’s confused about what notes to sing, afraid that the guitars will completely drown him out. More often than not, though, his strained, croaking voice suits the tone of his music quite well.

This album’s two major themes seem to be failure and loss. The protagonist of “Sunrise Motel” feels like he’s the only one in the world who doesn’t have his life together. “Valley of Fire” inverts the theme by letting its protagonist sing about another person’s failure. It sounds almost as if the Che in this song is singing back to the Che that sang “Sunrise Motel.” “Farewell” (which rides a riff that Kurt Cobain would have killed to write) finds Che shell-shocked by a breakup that he pretends not to have seen coming. The song ends on a note of resignation and strength: “Now it’s time to learn to live without you.” That phrase pops up in a slightly different form on “The Black Hills”: “We learn to live without somehow.” In Che’s world, people find themselves unable to cope with loss, be the loss through breakup or death, and this inability grinds their own lives to a halt. “Words Are Impossible” is an acoustic gem that Dashboard Confessional would have killed to write. The title explains it all: it’s about the moments in which one’s emotions, however simple they might be, are felt so strongly that they can’t be clearly articulated.

All of Your Tomorrows Were Decided Today benefits from brevity and good sequencing. Ten songs breeze by in twenty-seven minutes, without a single one overstaying its welcome. The album’s lone instrumental, “Heresies,” comes right when most listeners would start to get sick of Che’s iffy singing. Apparently, another EP’s worth of material was recorded during the sessions that yielded this album. It is scheduled to see release in the spring of next year. One thing’s for sure: I’m looking forward to it MUCH more than I am to the next Atombombpocketknife record.

---Sean Padilla

November 15, 2003

Vicious Vicious "Blood & Clover"

To be young, smart and suave. If I were two of these things, I would certainly have Vicious Vicious score the soundtrack of my life. After all, I have this feeling that Erik Appelwick is the kind of fellow who throws good parties. From the sound of Blood & Clover, it's apparent that this young man thinks he's pretty classy, and I bet he is, too. Making organ-driven jazzy indiepop songs on a 4-track recorder might not be the most original thing to do these days, but let's not split hairs: Vicious Vicious isn't like lots of other bands. (Translation: Vicious Vicious ain't crap. No,

See, we're living in a post-Dismemberment Plan world now. Who knew that those loveable, hard-working nerds would become so definitive? I sure didn't--nor would I have expected The D-Plan to be the next big anything. I just liked 'em as a band. But, you know, there's this need for quirky jazzy nerd rock, and Vicious Vicious is certainly suited to play that role quite well. Vicious Vicious doesn't sound a thing like the Dismemberment Plan, but they have an abundance of the same weird magical quality as Travis Morrison: intelligence. Oh, and they also share a not-so hidden R&B influence.

Yes, Vicious Vicious have mixed in R&B, jazz, indie-pop and indie rock, and the end results is an album that is filled to the brim with intelligent, thought provoking slowdance numbers that make you want to go to a coffeehouse and order a latte. Really, all of Appelwick's influences are numerous, making for an album that shouldn't work. From the first moments of the slowjam "That's Not How It's s'pose To Be," the mellow grooves chill you out.

"Shake that Ass On The Dancefloor" picks things up a bit, but it's the only time the album falters; it's a token dance song, and it tries a bit too hard to be clever. That's about the only bum moment--unless you consider the fact that at times Appelwick's sincere, earnest singing sounds exactly like Anthony Kiedes. (If that's the case, just skip over track eight "Oh, I Would Do Anything For My Girl," because it's easily a lost Red Hot Chili Peppers moment.)

Blood & Clover is one of the most promising debuts I've heard all year, and I've heard a lot of promising debut albums. While it's really too short and brief to make much of an overwhelming impression, Blood & Clover really does a good job of impressing you with their charm. It's a strong debut, even if at times it's a bit inoculous; put it on if you want to feel mellow. It's a chilled-out record for those of us who want to feel the beat when we need to think.

--Joseph Kyle

Year Future

Wow! This is a four-track debut from an LA-based 'supergroup' of folks you've never heard of who have been in bands such as Dead and Gone, The Pattern, Angel Hair, VSS and The Fucking Angels, and it sounds exactly like you'd expect. It's loud, funky punk art-rock, at times more punk, at times more rock, but all in all a healthy dose. Lots of screaming on all songs, especially on "Each Others Futures" and "All Of Your Eggs," but it sounds good, believe me. It's that mixture of Joy Division and PiL and Dead Kennedys and Birthday Party that seems to be popular these days. They get really arty with sound effects on "Some Bodies" which is the standout track of the lot, but all of these songs are really strong in that loud and screaming kind of way. When they get it together and get a little more focused, I bet their debut album will be one helluva affair.

--Joseph Kyle

Label Website:

November 12, 2003

Kinski/Acid Mothers Temple"Kinski/Acid Mothers Temple"

Kinski and Acid Mothers Temple? It sounds like a mixed blessing. I've never really been convinced of the greatness of Kinski, and I'm totally enraptured by the utter brilliance that is Acid Mothers Temple. That the two would get together and jam proves interesting, yet I was a little skeptical about how Kinski's sound would influence the session. Then again, I trust Acid Mothers Temple's Kawabata Makoto, and as he asked Kinski over to tour, I figured that at least he saw something great in them, and that a jam session would at least prove interesting.

I really should not have worried. With Makoto and company at the helm, the proceedings were going to be real good, and the two songs that came from their jam sessions are indeed strong. "It's Nice To Hear Your Voice" is a Kinski-led session, and it starts off with a peaceful, quiet drone. It retains the drone for the next ten minutes, though there are a few moments of violent hiss and sound effects. In fact, the bands never use anything other than traditional instrumentation. "Planet Crazy Gold" is an Acid Mothers Temple-led session, and it starts with the sound of ancient instruments, and much like the other collaborative track, it's mainly a drone.

The other two songs, though, are new tracks by each band. The Kinski track, "Fell Asleep On Your Lawn" is not as bad as I expected it to be, making me think that I might have been a little bit wrong about them. The real winning track of the four, though, is the final track, Acid Mothers Temple's "Virginal Plain 5:23." First things first, it ain't five minutes and twenty-three seconds. It's about a half-hour long. It's total acid rock, too; the band conjurs up the ghost of Blue Cheer and everything 1971 in one fell swoop. Only Acid Mothers Temple could get away with such a thing, and this song is yet another piece of evidence to establish their brilliance.

Acid Mothers Temple is an utterly astonishing band. Kinski? Who knows, but I'm won over by their contributions on Kinski/Acid Mothers Temple. If you've ever wondered about that odd Japanese collective, then this record is most certainly worth seeking out.

--Joseph Kyle

Icarus "Six Soviet Misfits"

Being namedropped by people is peculiar. I've known a few people who have had their popularty increased dramatically by this simple little process. Person #1 says, "I've really been digging this record by (insert group or artist name here), it's really good," and suddenly the world pays attention to them (well, sometimes.) All it takes for the hype machine to get a-rollin' is a great review or an interview or something that you really wouldn't expect, and though this review's not a great place to discuss such matters, it does happen a lot in the indie world, it's even more prevalent in the electronica world.

Icarus is a great case in point. In interviews, this duo has been praised by respected electronica artists Four Tet and Manitoba, and as such, they've received renewed interest, and have received respect from the respected, even if their names mean nothing to you or me. (This is the underground, after all.) Six Soviet Misfits is a collection of three previously-released EP's, (UL-6, Soviet Igloo and Misfits) questionably compiled onto two CD's (they're short enough to appear on one disc). No matter how these songs are packaged, it's obvious that Icarus is, in every sense of the word, challenging.

The first disc is the most challenging. Soundscapes are rough, difficult and complex; there's not much of what you would call melody. Heck, there's not even a really sane beat--it's all a mesh of darkness, atmosphere and complex rhythms that are anything but linear. In fact, it's really difficult to distinguish between the songs; the only one that really stands out is the aptly-titled "Despair." If you've ever wondered what the sound of a man going through difficulty and despair sounds like, then this song captures that feeling quite well. It's a journey into hell, with no way out--and it's extremely disturbing to listen to.

The second disc, which constitutes the Misfits mini-album, fares a little better. While it's still complex and highly challenging, there are a few melodic moments here and there, and that synergy of ambient and drum & bass sounds really good--when it's allowed. The forth track of the second disc blends a whirling clarinet--or is that a sorprano saxophone--over a schitzophrenic drum beat, which is then layered with a slow, mellow ambient drone. The following track is also quite nice, and contains more of a dance beat, though 'dance beat' is a relative term.

Six Soviet Misfits is not an easy listen. At times, it's downright unpleasant. Still, that doesn't mean that Six Soviet Misfits isn't a compelling listen. In fact, it's a fascinating look at two men's idea of an ambient soundscape, and it's rather haunting. I also get the distinct feeling that this isn't their best work, but is meant to serve as a stopgap release between now and their next album. Perhaps those Four Tet and Manitoba fellows were right--perhaps Icarus do have something special, even if Six Soviet Misfits doesn't particularly make the case for it.

--Joseph Kyle

November 11, 2003

Barn Burning "Weatheredbound"

Any band that has the ability to make a jingle-jangle racket sound one-hundred percent original is A-OK in my book. That's why it gives me pride, dear readers, to introduce you all to Providence, Rhode Island's newest sensations, Barn Burning. This sextet offer up some of the nicest, heartfelt country folk jangle pop this side of the Dutch East India catalog circa 1988, and it took exactly all of two seconds for me to be utterly charmed & disarmed by their sound. Indeed, if you're old enough to remember those days, Barn Burning will quickly remind you of a time when REM was better known as a medical term, country wasn't alt, and 'indie-rock' was 'college rock.'

See, I'm a sucker for good, down-home country music, and Barn Burning are really good at what they do. With a bit of a wreckless, loose sound that borders on the shambiotic, their songs sound as if they're about to fall apart on you, but that's not because of inexperience--it's simply that they've hidden the ties that bind them together quite well, so it only sounds like they're gonna fall apart. In reality, these songs never do; if anything, they're extremely tight, well-produced and possess a live charm that's quite rewarding. I've always said that there's nothing better than a really good 'roots-rock'-style lineup, and Weatheredbound is certainly proof that, hey, I am RIGHT.

Instead of your traditional band format, Barn Burning is augmented with lap steels, mandolin, dobro, banjo, viola, piano, trumpet--and none of these instruments are add-ons to your basic guitar/bass/drum format. When you put Weatheredbound on your stereo, Barn Burning's sound will fill the air the minute the viola in album opener "Flown," but the minute the rest of the band comes in, the room will literally come alive with sound. Warm and inviting, theirs is a sound that's so new, yet so familiar--getting lost in Weatheredbound is really easy to do. Oh, and what's this? The title track borrows a little bit from one of my favorite songs, "Sweet Child O'Mine," yet they do it so innocently, they make it their own.

Every song on here is a winner. Even though some might initally be put off by Anthony Loffredio's vocals--a twang that never sounds like parody, but is an interesting combo of Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar, circa Still Feel Gone-era Uncle Tupelo. Let it be known, too, that mentioning Uncle Tupelo does not mean they actually sound like Uncle Tupelo--for shame if you think that! Barn Burning's better than mere imitation. Besides, Uncle Tupelo never gave the world anything quite like the magical "The Troubles" and the catchy "Not Falling." Heck, it's the one-two closing punch of the wonderful "100,000 Light Years" and the untitled secret track that will make you hit the repeat button. Still, after a listen or two, his voice fits in quite nicely with the rest of the band, and indeed, it's perhaps the key element that makes Barn Burning better than your Average Alt.Country Band (whatever that is).

Barn Burning's a wonderful (not really) little band, and Weatheredbound is a wonderfully charming debut record. It's full of wonderful lush sounds, homegrown melody, and a sunny, positive understanding of that thing we call melody--you know, the thing that many people neglect in favor of irony. This is a record that you MUST MUST MUST seek out, because it WILL charm you. Let's hope they get what they deserve in 2004--I know I'm rooting for this (not really) little band that can.

--Joseph Kyle

November 09, 2003

Beth Orton "The Other Side of Daybreak"

Press is sometimes a funny thing. A bad review--especially an unexpected bad review--can often leave you puzzled; after all, what happened? Why did the record not connect? What was it that was done wrong, and why did the critics think it was a bad record? It can be extremely frustrating. I'm sure it was extremely frustrating for those in Beth Orton's camp, when she released the lovely yet underwhelming Daybreaker. It was a collection of pretty albeit more traditional singer/songwriter folk, and it didn't contain as much of that special electronica-based spark that her previous albums offered.

So, perhaps to spare the album an untimely death, The Other Side of Daybreak was born. This collection compiles the B-sides from Daybreaker's singles, with remixes and live tracks and a few unreleased nuggets to boot. It's an interesting idea, to be sure. Sure, there are moments that are totally beautiful acoustic folk, such as her moving cover of "Ooh Child," a live, acoustic version of "Conrete Sky," and the would-have-been lost "Ali's Waltz." Then there's "Beautiful World" and "Bobby Gentry," which mix up her more electronic side with the prettier, tender moments that she's always excelled at.

It's those electronic moments that make The Other Side of Daybreak fascinating. Though they're remixes, they still reinvent the songs from Daybreaker, making you rethink what you heard and dismissed. Two remixes by Four Tet, "Daybreaker" and "Carmella" are highlights, but the Roots Manuva version of "Daybreaker" seems to be the most fascinating, as it adds a hip-hop beat and an additional vocalist--a rapper, though his rap is actually rather crude, compared to the beauty of her song. These remixes run the range of using her voice as an incidental sample, to simply changing the beat up, and they're all fascinating, even if some of them don't make you think 'Beth Orton.'

While Daybreaker might not have been the satisfactory album for Orton fans, The Other Side of Daybreak seems to concede that the direction she chose. It's a bit disheartening, though, to think that such a reaction would cause a label to quickly compile an alternate version of the album, with the kind of songs that were expected of her. Still, maybe this is a lesson learned--a pretty terrible lesson, mind you, that you shouldn't give the fans something new, and though there's a feeling of defeat, The Other Side of Daybreak is still a lovely collection.

--Joseph Kyle

November 08, 2003

stellastarr* "s/t"

Oh, to be young and supposedly hip band, with the support of a multinational corporation to build your credibility! You must have done something right to win such an honor--and hey, guess what, it doesn't really matter that nobody's heard of you until your debut record--we're talking about hipness here, my friend. That's why it must be awfully nice to be in Stellastarr* these days. Salad days? Screw that, it's time for lobster! Just pass me the drawn butter!

I mean, these guys are doing everything so by-the-book, I feel like I'm listening to a real-life 'How to Be a Hip Band In One Album Or Less' manual. I mean, these kids are doing everything possible to be considered cool, yet neglecting one thing: being cool. You know the things I'm talking about. Big hair, hip sounding guitars that rip off and yet somehow make the Cure and Joy Division sound utterly innovative, and--OH MY GOD IS HE SINGING ABOUT COCOPUFF CEREAL? Talk about appealing to a target demographic! This album makes me want to get a time machine and go back to 1980 and cut that damn rope, kick Ian Curtis in his skinny ass and say, "DON'T DO IT! YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT KIND OF MEDIOCRE PSEUDO-CRAP YOUR DEATH WILL INFLICT UPON THE CHILDREN OF THE FUTURE!!!!"

Stellastarr* is that kind of disposable record by an utterly forgettable band you won't remember next year. Sure, it's a cool record and they're a cool band--if you're fifteen and not old enough to know better. And those damn vocals? Good lord, David Byrne should sue...for something. ANYTHING because this album brings shame and dishonor to the history of the Talking Heads, and let's not even discuss the collective dis to the respected name of Fred Schneider. In a perfect world, nobody would ever hear of Stellastarr* and they'd be forced to sell their CD on CD Baby at reduced prices, and good bands will get the deals with RCA.

Oh, wait, that's where they'll be next year.

And, thank god, we've only got six weeks until then.


--Joseph Kyle

Star Bag

When Elliott Smith died, his place in rock history was solidified, and bands like Star Bag will do nothing if not carry on the musical ideas that he left behind. Sure, it's a little bit wrong to bring up Smith's name in such a way, considering that Star Bag's record was out several months before his demise, yet listening to this El Paso band's debut now, it's hard not to think of Elliott. Clint Myers, Star Bag's leader, is not a mere Elliott Smith imitator. In fact, I guess he doesn't really sound all that much like Elliott Smith, except for "I Just Can't Wait" and "Take it From Here;" if anything, it just goes to show how much of an influence Smith was.

Luckily, Myers takes his songs one place Smith never did: outer space. On songs such as "Everyone Is On The Moon" and "My Big Secret," Myers uses feedback, drone and atmosphere, and he gives his songs an extra depth other indie-folkies have yet to achieve. At the same time, Myers also has a firm foot in traditional country/folk; songs like "I'm So Tired" and "My Way Back Home" help to put Myers clearly in the genre. Too bad, though, because while he's good at that style, these songs don't stand out like the other, spacier numbers; in fact, some of them border on a poor parody of what some people think country music is supposed to sound like. Don't get me wrong, these songs are still of a higher standard than most, and it's clear that he's as influenced by the dusty streets of El Paso as he is the open skies of the desert.

While Star Bag might not be that spectacular right now--I get a "been there, heard that" feeling from time to time--I'm sufficiently impressed enough not to instantly write Myers off just yet. Give him some time, and I'm sure that he'll refine his sound and his style, and his next record will hopefully lose some of the weaker moments found here. Maybe he'll get lost in the drone and atmospheres found here and will produce something truly wonderful. Whatever the case, I will be listening.

--Joseph Kyle

Emery Reel "For And Acted Upon Through Diversions"

I have to admit that Emery Reelís debut album, ÖFor and Acted Upon Through Diversions, leaves me breathless. How anyone can make a record thatís so epic and larger-than-life and do so without sounding cold and distant is beyond me, but this band from Nashville, Tennessee has done so, and theyíve done it quite wonderfully. Sure, if youíre into post-rock, youíve probably heard this style of music before, and it would be easy to bring up bands such as Godspeed! You Black Emperor, Sigur Ros, or maybe even Do Make Say Think, but that wouldnít be right.

Unlike those bands, Emery Reel doesnít seem to be caught up in the pretense of being ëcomplicated.í Yes, this is very detail-oriented music; itís certainly obvious that they have spent a lot of time working on their record, too. Sure, itís quite a bold gambit to fill your albums with ten-minute epics, but when you mix and match sounds as good as they do, then you really donít notice the time. ìA New Beginningî is a great example of this. The song starts off slow and calm, then gets noisy--real noisy. Then it gets quiet again. Then it gets loud again. Repeat, as directed-and they do. And it sounds really, really good.

Luckily, the album only gets better.

From that early high point, they offer a seamless collection of melodies that change so easily and so effortlessly that song titles really are moot; if you donít pay attention to the track listing, youíd be convinced that the album contains more than seven tracks. From loud, pounding drums to the quiet twinkle of piano and the soft strumming of guitars, they really make it hard to keep your mind on such trivial things as life on earth. Their sound is heavenly, lush and dreamlike; one listen is quite enough to set your mind off on a flight into the air and down into your soul. Think Iím lying? Listen to the closing epic ìUneasy, The Crossing Guard.î If you can make it through the fourteen-plus minutes of it remaining completely alert and, um, sober, then youíve got an admirable constitution.

Iíd be half-tempted to wonder if Emery Reel simply made a bunch of records and left them unreleased, opting to debut with their third or fourth album, because itís so rare that debuts are this good. Apparently thatís not the case, which, in my mind, is the crown jewel for Emery Reel-the promise that ÖFor and Acted Upon Through Diversions is the opening salvo for a wonderful band just starting out on its journey. A fine, awesome record from a band (and record label) who have quite clearly impressed me.

--Joseph Kyle

November 07, 2003

Piano Magic "Speed the Road, Rush the Lights"

Piano Magic, 4AD's latest ex, could have been their saving grace. When they released Son Del Mar, their debut for the label, I predicted that Piano Magic could be the band that could revitalize their then-sagging roster, but sadly the relationship failed after the release of last year's Writers Without Homes. It's hard to figure out, though, why Writers Without Homes failed. Perhaps it's because the band who had previously made records that were generally unclassifiable had suddenly made a record that sounded like a Piano Magic record. Some bands don't do well when they refine and define their sound. Thus, this little three-song EP on a tiny Spanish label may seem like a big step down from the glory of 4AD, but what makes it even more irksome is the fact that Speed the Road, Rush The Lights is a major step UP from Writers Without Homes.

"Speed the Road, Rush the Lights" starts things off with a menacing beat that's made more despondant by a keyboard-driven orchestra, throwing the song back to that era of post-punk music that we lovingly called 1984. Reminscent of Cindytalk, on this song Piano Magic comes close to sounding utterly Goth, were it not for Glen Johnson's spoken-sung vocals. The next song, "Paulette," it s a pretty, albeit rather brief, guitar and viola interlude, similar in style to Son Del Mar, and it nicely links the two epic songs together (the other two songs are over seven minutes long).

"Luxemborg Gardens" is the real winner of the lot, though. Starting with spooky, haunting operatic singing, it then creeps into a loud drone, tempered with a very sad guitar part, which then gives way to the singing. A haunting blend of male/female vocals, it is a melding of the distant and familiar, the haunting and the deranged. Angele David-Guillou sings like Bjork if Bjork was from Eartu and Glen Johnson sounds like an obsessed Jason Lytle, who follows her singing with the disturbing line "Don't you ever go home." It's creepy, it's cringeworthy, it makes you uneasy, it makes you a little bit paranoid--in other words, it's vintage Piano Magic!

Speed the Road, Rush the Lights is evidence that Writers Without Homes was merely a misstep. Too bad that it cost them their relationship with 4AD; the pairing should have been perfect. Still, it's good to know that life goes on, and Piano Magic have not yet begun to fight; though they've reached peaks other bands only dream of, I firmly believe that they've yet to put out their best record.

--Joseph Kyle

Parade "Life In Ten Songs or Less"

I don't understand why, but sometimes bands just don't get the notice or the attention that they deserve. A great band can be killed by lack of interest or attention. Though some people take comfort in the fact that 'good things will eventually be noticed,' unfortunately that's not always true, and that's such a shame. It's a bittersweet prize to be recognized and respected ten years after hanging up and walking away from what was really promising. Consider, then, Austin, Texas' newest pop band, Parade. Such a fate is one that I fear for them, and as a music lover and fan, I'm trusting you, dear readers, to not allow this to happen to them.

I've fallen for Parade in a big, big way. Though the primary band consists of Ty Hurless and Kevin Sekhani, Parade is actually a wonderfully big pop orchestra, with loud, swinging brass and a trio of excellent backup singers. Throw in a relative to the Bee Gees as producer and a general upbeat attitude that's noticable from the very first notes of the mellow and slightly psych "Wake Up." When it changes into the wonderfully poppy in spite of the title "Burial Ground," Parade's sound folds over and over in bright kaleidoscopic colors. To top it off, Sekhani has a really strong, intoxicating singing voice that's immediately likeable, and with all of these things working together, Parade's a band that makes quick converts from listen number one. I know that I was hooked from the get-go.

What really, really impresses me about Parade is just how natural it all sounds. While several bands out there today (no names, please, you know who you are) play around with the whole orchestra pop sound, to some extent these groups' use of big orchestration sounds more of a novel experiment. Not so with Parade; theirs is perhaps the first debut record that I've heard that incorporates this big band sound and doesn't sound gimmicky. No, one listen to songs like "Turn me Down" and "Delicate" and "Burial Ground," Parade's sound is tight, as if they have been making this kind of music for years, and that's what really wins me over. Their sound is fresh and new and it's all theirs and it never leads you to notice the fact that, yes, this is a debut album.

Though the sound of Life In Ten Songs or Less is pure big, well-produced baroque pop, it never falls victim to the trappings of retro music, and instead of sounding like 1968 all over again, these guys find it better to be in 2003. I've got a big long list of bands who they remind me of, but I'm not going to give that to you, because I really want you to hear Parade for what they are--a great pop band. Comparisons to other bands would be absurd, pointless and would not serve them well; they are their own band; their sound is all their own, yet it's warm and friendly and familiar and it's one that's served without a hint of hipster irony. (Finally, a pop album without irony!)

Let's not allow Parade to slip through the cracks, shall we? Their sound is too good, too wonderful and too friendly to allow to rot in obscurity. Life In Ten Songs or Less is one impressive debut album, and I totally hope that 2004 allows them great opportunities. They deserve it. They don't deserve to have to be caught having to self-release their music; they deserve to be on the radio, they deserve every great musical wish and fantasy of every lesser talented artist out there. Hopefully, they will get them soon.

(I really, really want you to hear Parade. Go visit their website, and experience one of the best bands you've never heard of--yet.)

--Joseph Kyle

The Moles "On The Street"

Australia's The Moles were nothing if not weird. Richard Davies, who would shortly make an impressive baroque-pop record under the name Cardinal before setting off on his own excellent solo career, was the leader of this messy, sloppy group of Australian art-rockers. And yes, The Moles were arty. They were strange. They were weird. At times, they were utterly lovely; other times, they were--to be generous--utter crap. If you ever wondered about where bands like Olivia Tremor Control got their inspiration, then On The Street will be nothing short of a revelation.

In their lifetime, they produced a few singles, and they also produced two pretty unique albums, neither of which really sounded like each other. The first, Untune the Sky, is a weird mixture of lo-fi rock and baroque tinges, and Instinct, which was a Richard Davies solo album in all but name, was more in tune with the baroque-pop that was to come. On The Street consists of material that's all from the Untune The Sky era; it's not really a 'best-of', as much as it is a revisit to Untune the Sky. In fact, almost all of On The Street can be found on Flydaddy's reissue, which went out of print a few years ago.

The greatest caveat about On The Street is that much (if not all) of the album sound terribly, terribly dated. Their naive take on art-rock is a bit of a throwback to the days when the name Shimmy Disc actually meant something. If you're expecting the lovely pop of Davies' later records, you might be a bit disappointed. Not all of On The Street is a washout, though; "Bury Me Happy" is perhaps their greatest moment; it's a lovely, touching little lo-fi love song, full of tenderness and sincerity--much more so than contemporaries Sentridoh or Guided By Voices. Don't get me wrong; other songs such as "Lonely Hearts Get What They Deserve," "Saint Jack" and "This Is A Happy Garden" all have their charm, even if they're not things that can withstand multiple, repeat listens.

The second disc, titled Rare and Weird, lives up to its name, though it should be titled Rare and Weird and Sometimes Rather Unlistenable. These songs--a mixture of live, demo takes, alternate versions and unreleased tracks--are more for the hardcore (who?) fan. If you're a casual listener, these songs won't add anything to the first disc, other than to prove exactly how arty they were. Some of the songs do border on the unlistenable, with tape pops and hiss and such, but in one instance--the brooding, post-punk "Surf's Up,"--the poor quality actually adds a dimension to the song that couldn't have been there before.

On The Street might not be the essential document for The Moles, especially considering how nothing appears from their final album, Instinct. Why this album was neglected is a moot point; perhaps it too will see reissue soon, considering that this is the opening salvo of a full-blown Richard Davies reissue series. That said, it is still an interesting collection of songs from a band that has been neglected in being considered an influence on modern day lo-fi psych-pop.

--Joseph Kyle

Duvall "Racine"

Well, this is a pleasant little single--if not a little bit spooky. Not that it's haunting, mind you, but it's amazing to hear how much Duvall sounds like Duvall leader Josh Caterer's old band, Smoking Popes. Of course, you should expect it, because Josh's voice is extremely unique, and with his brother Eli at his side, it's hard not to make comparisons. No matter what name he may use, it's really good to have Caterer back in action, and the three songs on here are all wonderful. "Racine" is the lead single from Duvall's upcoming full length debut, Volume & Density. It's a wonderful blast of pop that picks up where Destination: Failure left off. The same can be said with their cover of Spandau Ballet's "True." Though he changes the lyrics slightly--I think that the second verse is taken from a Smoking Popes song--and it's also pretty nice, too. "Time Is Gone" is a demo of an older tune, and while pretty, doesn't stand up next to the two very well.This is most definitely whetting my appetite for that full length album, and it shows that Caterer's still one of the best of the best in the pop-rock arena.

--Joseph Kyle

Sciflyer "Fair-Weather Karma"

As shocking as it may seem, it's been my observation that a lot of people who really invest their time in dreampop are quite conservative in terms of sound. I sometimes feel as if those that do feel as if they have a need, a desire, a calling that requires them to preserve the sonic ideas of 1988-1994, when bands such as Adorable, Lush, Slowdive, Chapterhouse, Ride, My Bloody Valentine, Pale Saints and Spaceman 3 walked the earth. Not that those bands were bad--many of them were really, really good--but where do you draw the line between innovation and mere imitation?

Sciflyer's the lastest group on the scene, and though they don't do anything terribly innovative, they do have a few things that differ from your ordinary, hum-drum shoegaze bands, and the main thing that sets them apart is the fact that they're not really trying to be innovative. Sure, that sounds lazy, but it's quite obvious to me that Sciflyer is more concerned about making a lovely sounding record that's pleasant on the ears and atmosphere-creating than they are about being uber-original. In a weird kind of way, their decision to stay close to the formula is actually quite original; though they definitely sound like a shoegaze band, they don't really sound like any particular band. Plus, there's a harder rock edge to Fair Weather Karma that is definitely not in others who make similar music.

Really, though, there's nothing to complain about here. True, the vocals are so faint and distant that you really don't hear them unless you try to, but, again, I don't feel as if their point is to make some sort of grand lyrical statement. These songs are all utterly pretty and wonderful and even though no one particular song stands out-- Sciflyer almost comes across as an instrumental band who happen to have vocals--it's impossible to deny that this album is a pleasure to listen to. It's easily a record that's meant for listening to while reading books on a rainy Sunday afternoon. (You should follow the band's advice, because it does indeed sound 'better with headphones.')

--Joseph Kyle

November 06, 2003

Pearlfishers "Sky Meadows"

Pastoral: by definition , it means "Having the qualities of idealized country life, such as charming simplicity and a leasurely, carefree pace." It's a fitting adjective to describe Sky Meadows, the fourth album by Scotland's underrated The Pearlfishers. It's a shame that this wonderful Scottish group has not garnered the same amount of critical acclaim as bands like Belle & Sebastian, Mogwai or Arab Strap, because The Pearlfishers should be giving these lesser bands a run for their money--especially the bland Belle & Sebastian. Sadly, it will never happen, because The Pearlfishers are too good, too tranquil, too mellow to be in the same class as their fellow countrymen. Surprisingly, that's okay, because I'd really rather not ruin a good thing, nor would I want anything to put any kind of pressure on David Scott.

The Pearlfishers are more than a mere band, though; we're talking an orchestra of Polyphonic Spree size, but unlike Tim DeLaughter, Scott is not trying to flood the listener's soul with the aural beauty of an orchestra. Unlike bands like High Llamas, Scott's not trying to be retro; he's just trying to make a lovely pop record, and he's done that. In fact, I think he owes more to the era of 1973-1983 than he does to 1968. In fact, it's quite obvious that Scott understands exactly where Aztec Camera went wrong. Instead of overwhelming lovely pop songs with heavy arrangements, it's best to treat everything with a touch of restraint; Sky Meadows soars as high as High Land, Hard Rain, and Scott's singing is more than a little bit reminiscent of Roddy Frame.

Sky Meadow is an album of understated, unhurried beauty; it knows where it's going, and it's getting there slowly--too many flowers to smell, too many little nuances of nature to appreciate. Luckily, Scott never really overindulges in the things that make the album great; while Sky Meadows is inspired by the great late-60s albums of the Beach Boys and Burt Bacharach, you never get the feeling that they're hung-up on the era. Though "I Can't Believe You Met Nancy" references Nancy Sinatra, it's even more telling that they have a song called "Todd is God," a tribute to Todd Rundgren. The only problem with Sky Meadows is that once you really get into its groove, once you've become enraptured by its charms, it's over. Good things never last, it seems; enjoy the lovely "My Dad The Weatherfan," "Flora Belle," "Pantohorse" and the epic "Haricot Bean and Bill" while you can--and then, enjoy them again!

I will admit that I am a sucker for the baroque pop style, and thus it didn't really take much to sell me on Sky Meadows. If you like grown up, refined pop songs that have a sensible grasp of life in the country, then I suggest you seek out the comfort and beauty of Sky Meadows. It's a consistently strong album, every listen is a joy, and it's as pleasant and as lovely and as tranquil as a Scottish field on a clear, windy day. This is easily one of the nicest Scottish pop records I've heard all year.

--Joseph Kyle

Particle Zoo "Go-Go"

Particle Zoo's an interesting band. Taking a hint of pop and that whole 'modern rock' thing, they've put together a nice little blend of new-wave inspired rock-pop music, similar in nature to that whole 'emo' thing, but not really. Though at times Go-Go sounds a bit flat and restrained, it's still a promising little debut. The only time they ever really falter is with their cover of "Eleanor Rigby." The winner of the lot is "Wrecking Ball," though I kinda like the Elvis Costello-ish "Please Send Copies of You." A promising record, if ever I've heard one.

--Joseph Kyle

My Morning Jacket "It Still Moves"

This record rocks. Just listen to "Mahgeetah," "One Big Holiday" and "Steam Engine" and tell me I'm wrong, slappy. The second best album this year.

And that's all I have need to say.

--Joseph Kyle

bexar bexar 'haralambos'

Instrumental music often runs the risk of becoming painfully anonymous. I mean, you know that it's going to be limited to some extent--it is instrumental music, after all, and even the loudest screaming guitar parts and blazing drums and burning-up synths can get real boring real quick-like, especially if the musical style in question doesn't really change. True, some have made careers out of making light, tight instrumental music--Yanni, Tortoise, Harold Budd (yeah, i know, he read poems over his, it ain't the same thing, bucko) all have made their millions off of the genre.

Bexar Bexar's the lastest band to come to the table, and though they only know one trick, they do it really well, and their debut album, Haralambos, is nothing short of pleasant. It's apparent that they're aware of the anonymity of being an all-instrumental band, because they do their best to be as anonymous as possible. There's no details on who is in the band, or if Bexar Bexar even is a band. There's nothing save for some blurry photos of people on the beach, but even those look like they could have been taken thirty years ago. Nope, all we get on the cover is the tracklisting and some pictures.

Oh, and there's some music on here, too. Seeing as I've already mentione Tortoise, I might as well say that though Bexar Bexar don't sound like Tortoise, they do remind me a lot of the Tortoise-related band Brokeback, but with an occasional country vibe. Many of these songs have that whole 'soundtrack' slash incidental music feel to them, especially the lovely "Pay Attention," "Las Cruces" and "Adios." Of course, such a soundtracky vibe is to their credit; several of the songs on Haralambos appeared as incidental music on the NPR program This American Life.

Though their sound seems to combine a little bit of jazz and little bit of electronica, Bexar Bexar never sounds like either, instead, they've made a post-everything record that's as easy on the ears as a windy day. Haralambos is a quiet experience meant for those quiet moments of thought and reflection that oh so need a soundtrack. And we still don't know who did it, either--and it's probably best that way. Names are unimportant, after all; it's the moment that matters, and if the soundtrack of your life needs brief passages of instrumental reflection, then Bexar Bexar have what you need.

--Joseph Kyle

November 05, 2003

THe like Young "Art Contest"

Where's wolfie??? Wherrrrrrrre's Wolfieeeee? THERE's Wolfie!

I'm sorry, I just had to say that. See, it's hard to seperate the cute-n-cuddly Wolfie from The Like Young, even though the two bands are most certainly NOT interchangable. Sure, Wolfie was cute and cuddly and crunchy indie-pop with a bit of a punk edge to it, but The Like Young--which consists of Wolfie's husband 'n' wife duo of Amanda and Joe Ziemba--is a whole 'nother beastie.The Like Young have obtained a balance of cuteness and seriousness that Wolfie never could get right. Lambasted for being too cute to be contenders, Wolfie suffered the ultimate cuddlecore fate of being precious.

Art Contest, The Like Young's debut album, does owe a little teeny-weenie bit to Wolfie. Thankfully, it's only a little bit, and it's the best part--the bubblegum. Yes, The Like Young's a cute band, but they're also a really really good band. Every song on this disk is a one-two punch of pop-punk--and the Wolfie years were what made this duo so tough. That's right, they're tough. They had to be--Wolfie got picked on quite a lot, and so I'm sure they spent time working on their toughness. Last year's EP was a pleasant, shocking surprise--these two kids had really grown over the course of a band, and Art Contest continues that growth.

Kicking off with the wonderful "Expensive Tastes," you're quickly taken for a ride, through a land that consists of songs about snobs and slobs and leather jacket and falling in love and nice people, and they never fail to bring a smile to your face. Every song is a hit in my book; every song delivers everything a pop song should, and it's clear that the Ziembas are onto something good. In fact, I'm pretty sure they could make Rivers Cuomo jealous and his former fans happy again. Heck, when I have this one on the car stereo, I crank it up to eleven. Who knew?

While it's true that the boy/girl power punk-pop duo sound could get old rather quickly, it's obvious that the Ziembas also understand this, and they keep things short and to the point. None of these eleven songs overstay their welcome; they're in and out with flash and pop and by the time you're humming along--after the first listen, mind you--they've already moved to the next one. They also pace things quite nicely; a fast song is then followed by a midtempo or a Joe song is followed by an Amanda-led song. Believe me, it's all good.

Art Contest is one of this years better debut albums, and it's no surprise that their tours have been well-received. The Like Young are a band who may be, like, young, but I'm almost positive that 2004 will give them more. In fact, I'm sure of it. A fresh blast of pop-punk, Art Contest is a wonderfully satisfying record, and if it is any indication, then 2004 may just be THEIR year. I sure hope so...

--Joseph Kyle

November 04, 2003

The Lucksmiths "A Little Distraction"

Another Lucksmiths record--what have we done to deserve this?? Really, it's been quite a wonderful year for this Aussie indiepop trio. A well-received new album, a big, succcessful tour of the US and Europe, and a growing fanbase--what better way to celebrate a great year than by releasing yet another wonderfully wonderful pop record? They've got love and songs a-plenty, so they've decided to give us a handy-dandy little mini-album of some great new tunes.

Seriously, these pop dudes have yet to make a bum record, and considering the amount of music they put out, you'd expect some slippage, but A Little Distraction is a wonderfully strong record. One peculiar point to be made about the Lucksmiths is that their singles and EP's are often much better than their albums. That doesn't mean their albums are bad, but it seems as if they have a stronger focus when the format offers songs in small doses; they write great singles, and that's their strong point. It also helps to explain why their strongest albums are their singles collections. As such, A Little Distraction is one strong, tight mini-album.

Kicking off with the lovely and slightly sad "Transpontine," The Lucksmiths set the mellow acoustic mood quite quickly. They pick up the pace with the lovely, harmonica-laden and tounge-twistingly titled "Successlessness," an ode to love in spite of money: "One day we'll be poor no more/I'm almost sure enough before/Then let's not let successlessness get the best of us, my love." Such great lyrics, such a catchy chorus, it was a shame that I had to turn off the CD to get those lyrics (cheeky boys they are, putting the lyrics on the CD itself!) The magic continues with the title track, "Moving," and the lovely one-two closing punch of "After the After Party" and "Honey Honey Honey." If you're like me, you'll be hard-pressed to make it to the end of the CD the first few times, because you'll simply hit 'repeat' after each song is over.

A Little Distraction is a nice little distraction from one of Australia's premier--if not the premier--indiepop bands. Another fine addition to both The Lucksmiths' esteemed discography and the Matinee label's track record. If you've ever wondered why they're so well thought of, then this record is a fine introduction. Hate to sound like a broken record, but A Little Distraction is an unsurprisngly wonderful record by an unsurprisingly wonderful pop band on an unsurprisingly wonderful pop label.

--Joseph Kyle

November 02, 2003

At Dusk "The Summer of Promises Kept"

The fact that this CD popped up in my mailbox was a happy coincidence. I read a review of this Portland trio’s earlier self-released EP on another website, and was prompted to check out their IUMA site. Once there, I downloaded “I Am the Starman” and “Seventeen Fever Dreams,” both of which appear on their debut full-length, The Summer of Promises Kept. “Starman” is a two-minute miracle, an acoustic song that has all of the simplicity, catchiness, and spontaneity of mid-1990s Guided by Voices. It is worth noting that the liner notes of Promises say that “Starman” was “recorded, mixed, and mastered by At Dusk all at once.” “Seventeen Fever Dreams,” on the other hand, is an electric, professionally recorded instrumental that eschews anything remotely close to pop. All three musicians play in different time signatures, and the two guitarists play in different keys. Such gratuitous and grating dissonance might work in the hands of a band like US Maple or the Curtains, but At Dusk simply can’t pull it off. “Starman” and “Fever Dreams” clearly delineate the extremes of this band’s sound, which brings me to the double-edged sword this CD presents me with.

On one hand, At Dusk are three guys who sing and play well, know their indie-rock history, and have a grasp of melody strong enough to ensure that almost all of their songs have one killer hook, as well as the versatility to ensure that no two songs sound exactly alike. On the other hand, they’re three guys who can let their instrumental prowess get the better of them, don’t spend enough time in the studio to truly perfect their songs, and haven’t quite settled on a distinct sound yet. However, when At Dusk gets it right, they get it REALLY right. The songs in which the scales are tipped more toward melody and structure than dissonance and angularity are the clear standouts.

For instance, there’s “Sports,” a speedy Wedding Present-style strum-a-thon in which glockenspiel and falsetto singing usher in what could’ve been a drab rock song into a new level of beauty. Then, there’s “The Image,” a song about nightmares that benefits from great guitar work and a spastic drum-driven coda. It’s what Sebadoh would’ve sounded like if they took as many cues from Slint and Karate as they did from Minor Threat and Nick Drake. “When You’re Far Away” is a Microphones song in all but name, as an intentionally off-key and ham-fisted acoustic intro slowly builds up to a crescendo of bells, organs, and drums. Last but not least, there’s the title track, which sports some wonderful three-part harmony and spells out the album’s underlying lyrical theme.

“This is a prayer for what can’t be said,” guitarist Cary Clarke and drummer Will Hattman sing, “for all that we’ve hoped for and done instead.” Throughout many of the songs (at least the ones that don’t rely on vague, melancholy clichés), there is a sense of optimism in the face of adverse circumstances. If the title of “What May Have Been the Sun” doesn’t give it all away to you, the song’s opening lines will: “If nothing else, then smile, for we may be here for a while.” Other songs (“The Deep End,” “Titled Floors”) lament being stuck in cycles and endlessly repeating the same mistakes. Lyrically, At Dusk have a fairly even ratio of signal to noise. The aforementioned songs in this paragraph definitely belong in the “signal” category, whereas in other songs (“Up on Persephone,” “Rain in the House”) they stretch their conceits further than they can reasonably go.

There are many songs that would be up there with “Sports” and “The Image” if it weren’t for one or two detracting elements. Some otherwise tuneful songs have brief tangents of “Fever Dreams”-style atonality that disrupt the momentum, and others are marred by vocals that could’ve used a couple more practice takes. I get the feeling that they didn’t really give themselves enough time to edit and record their songs. Trust me, guys: wrong notes don’t necessarily make your songs more challenging or interesting, and only certain bands can get away with them. You’re not one of them. Also, if you’re going to make “I Am the Starman” your HIDDEN TRACK, why would you list the song as “Hidden Track: I Am the Starman” in bold print THREE DIFFERENT PLACES on the CD’s artwork? If you announce its presence, guys, then it can’t really be hidden! Overall, though, The Summer of Promises Kept is a good start, and hopefully next time around At Dusk will have enough money and/or time to iron out the kinks, settle on what kind of band they actually want to BE, and deliver a great sophomore effort.

---Sean Padilla