February 28, 2003

Thirdimension "Protect Us From What We Want"

It invariably happens; whenever a new, original-sounding band becomes the Next Big Thing, record labels, press-types, and fans of that new-sounding band seek out similarly-styled music. Look at Nirvana; would bands like The Melvins have been heard of had Cobain not spoke of their virtues? Nope. Fan frenzy turns to feeding frenzy quite quick, my friend; "new bands to watch out for" titles get used, causing hype among the press and much snickering from their loyal, not-new-at-all fanbase. Often, though, true talent gets dismissed as copycat, and good bands get overlooked by those whose quick-to-judge attitude is based on anything and everything BUT the music.

Thirdimension, however, are a wonderful exception to that rule. Swedish rock--apparently the next big thing, thanks in part to the brilliant The Soundtrack To Our Lives--is their game, and they do it quite well. Protect Us From What We Want is a bit different, though. Originally released in 1998, it was well-received and a critical fave...but only if you lived in Sweden. For some reason, Warner Music kept this wonderful record a secret, and most unintentionally, this record was left floating in the pool of obscurity. Last year, when a couple of Swedish exchange students stopped by Parasol's office with a Cd-R of the album, the label fell for it, and took it upon themselves to release the record in the US. That's really a great story, and a positive lesson about the respect that comes from making great music.

What could make the story behind the release of Protect Us From What We Want even better? One listen, and you'll understand why Parasol went to the trouble, and you'll want to send them a thank-you card for doing so. Thirdimension are from the same school of musical thought as their former brothers-in-American-distribution Soundtrack Of Our Lives. Had Protect Us From What We Want been discovered earlier, the story might just be reversed, and Thirdimension might be the "next big thing". No matter, though; there's plenty of room in this big, empty rock and roll world we live in, and Thirdimension's presence sure is appreciated!

For a debut album, Protect Us From What We Want is a mighty strong release. From the very beginning, you're thrown into a mix of rock that's equal parts Sixties melody and Seventies rock. Imagine equal parts Who, Kinks, and early Oasis, and you're not too far from summing up Thirdimension's sound. Throw in a few ballads, occasional strings, and the joyous sound of youth, and you've just been served a most potent potion, and, believe me, it's MOST addictive. The opening (and ironically titled) "If This World Could Only See," has some of the best breaks I've heard in ages, and I bet you'll be humming the melody long after the song is gone. They never really stray terribly much from that formula, which would be a criticism if Thirdimension were a lesser band. Thankfully, they're not, and the formula never grows old. The real killer, here, is "Other Side of Town." It's easily one of the most relentless numbers I've heard in ages; it should have been a modern-rock hit, and it finally gives the Oasis brothers a taste of what it's like to be ripped-off by a bunch of young, snotty, and talented upstarts. When you reach the one-two punch of the epic and lush "Yes Equals No" and the anticlimactic "Over," if you're not hitting repeat, then you're simply dead in the water when it comes to great music.

Protect Us From What We Want is of the most welcome reissues I've heard, even though you'd be hard-pressed to think of it as a reissue. I'm not quite sure of what Thirdimension are up to now, or if Protect Us From What We Want was nothing more than one lone, perfect album. If that's the case, it's a tragedy, but at least they leave an excellent legacy. If that's not the case (and I really hope so) then this is but the beginning of a great career, and Thirdimension's next punch will be even harder.

--Joseph Kyle

February 24, 2003

Various Artists "I'm Gonna Watch The Bluebirds Fly Over my Shoulder"

I've always had my suspicions about lo-fi music. It can be charming, cute, and fun, but in many cases, it's an excuse for mediocrity, and a trap that lots of groups can get caught in. Case in point: Smog. The man released several lo-fi tapes, but when he went into a studio, his music got better, more interesting, and he grew as an artist. Same thing with Guided By Voices. Of course, to be fair, many lo-fi-focused groups aren't attempting to have a serious career in music; they're just doing the best they can with what limited resources they have, and you can't fault a person for trying, can you?

So it came to pass that the wife of one of the masters of the lo-fi genre, Orange Cake Mix's Jim Rao, would start a record label. Sure, Twilight Furniture exists mainly to release his own work, but this little sampler proves that even in a worn-out genre, good music still is being made. Instead of amateur-sounding musicianship, these artists know how to play their instruments. Surprisingly, these groups cover a lot of stylistic ground--from The Smittens' too-cute-to-rock indie-pop to Zenith 33's bedroom electronica, these groups--most of which you've probably never heard of--really impress! The only group that doesn't really knock me out is The Knit Seperates, but even then, "Loveless Solitude" is pretty nice.

Several of the songs on I'm Gonna Watch the Bluebirds Fly Over My Shoulder really stand out. Colin Clary and the Magogos "Chiclets In a Frame" is a nice little Elf Power-esque song about candy that turns into an even more interesting electronic number that includes (I believe) a sample from Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. It segues into The Twin Atlas' beautiful, homespun "Dog With Feathered Wings." Also good is the Zelium Quang's "All Flesh Is Grass," The Youth Souvenir's "The Last Boardwalk," and "Scarves and Sleeves" by The Single Tear. The bestest song of the bunch, though, is The Smittens' utterly cute "Gentlefication Now! (The La La La Song)." With a clumpy drum beat and happy-go-lucky boy and girl singing and the heavenly la-la-la's, it's an instant mixtape classic!

Lo-fi still may be oversaturated, but I'm Gonna Watch the Bluebirds Fly Over My Shoulder is proof that there are still some jewels to be had. Many of these bands are destined to greater things, and will probably make some great music in the near future. Whether or not they decide to move the recording out of the bedroom or garage may or may not actually make a difference---greatness is greatness regardless of recording space.

--Joseph Kyle

February 21, 2003

Air Formation "Ends in Light"

That word "shoegazer." Whenever I hear it used, that mental book of rock cliches opens up, and certain things happen; My Bloody Valentine gets mentioned, and a lot of talk happens about whether or not said band does the genre justice, and whether or not their music preserves or desecrates the sacred, hallowed ground of 1990. It almost seems as if the style thrives on its past with very little growth, and artists that happen to make this kind of music have to live up to a set of impossible and pointless standards.

Case in point--Air Formation's latest record, Ends in Light. It's easy to assume --and not entirely unfair to say--that they fall into the s***g***r genre, as all of the ingredients are there. You know the drill; loud sheaths of sound; vocals so dreamy, they're narcotic; an ambient drone lurking underneath, and a sweet, haunting melody liberally splattered on top of it all. Do you mind? Should you mind? When properly mixed, all of these things make for great music.

Air Formation utilizes all of these qualities, and thankfully, they never overwhelm you with their tricks, sticking to more conservative brushes, as opposed to grand, sweeping strokes. As a result, Ends In Light never fails to be anything less than a sweet, smoked-out, blissed-out trip of a record. Sure, they're not doing anything that Guthrie and Raymonde didn't perfect nearly twenty years ago, but who cares? Listening to "Brightest Star At Night," "Clearer Closed," or the drop-dead gorgeous "Still," you really won't care.

Good music will always rise to the surface, and Air Formation fly (ahem) higher than many of their post-s***g***r colleagues. Ends In Light is a wonderful little record that makes Air Formation sounds much, much larger than three men. Perfect music for a gray, rainy day, as I've discovered today. You couldn't ask for a nicer record.

--Joseph Kyle

February 17, 2003

Second Story Man "Pins & Needles"

Sometimes a band can make complex sounds and melodies look quite simple. I've been sitting here listening to Second Story Man's debut album, Pins and Needles, for the past day and a half, and I've been struck by how utterly enjoyable their album is. I've been at a loss for words, but I'm really not too upset about that, because sometimes you don't want to overanalyze a good thing.

At times, Second Story Man are all jingle-jangle folk-pop; other times, they're silently serious, but all around, they're a listening pleasure. The lovely singing voices of Carrie Neumayer and Kelly Scullin are certainly Second Story Man's strong point, whether they are in harmony on a soft ballad, such as "What A Find," or taking the lead on their own, like the sad but pretty "You You You". When tempered with boy vocals, such as the lovely "Streets and Shadows" and "Luck," their great sound gets better. At times, Second Story Man remind me of Ida; other times, they remind me of Liquorice. Mainly, though, Second Story Man's sound is all their own.

Do you want to know what I think the best part of Pins & Needles is? That this really great debut album will be followed (hopefully, mind you) by even better music. I have yet to find one single fault with Pins and Needles, and that, my friend, is a really rare feat. They received a grant from The Kentucky Foundation for Women to record Pins and Needles, and it's great to see good art receive such funding. A thank you note should be written to this organization, because they couldn't have found a better band to support. Keep up the good work, and thank you for making a great record!

--Joseph Kyle

February 14, 2003

The John and Spencer Booze Explosion "The John and Spencer Booze Explosion"

Booze and music are two great tastes that go great together. From the too much wine and too much song of french pop, the whiskey-fuelled charm of broken-hearted country music, the beer-fuelled mayhem of punk and GBV--notice the common link here?
Since alcohol is a drug, and drugs are a part of the whole "sex, drugs, and rock and roll" creed, it's only right that booze has had a major influence on music.

The John and Spencer Booze Explosion is nothing more than John from 764 Hero and Spencer Moody of Murder City Devils (with Joe Plummer of Black Heart Procession) sitting around singing songs. It's a very hollow kind of sound; it sounds like it was recorded in an empty bar, and that may in fact be the point. I've got to give these guys credit; they've chosen some excellent songs to cover. I'll also come out and say that "Boxing" (a Ben Folds Five number) is a favorite and John and Spencer's version do it no justice whatsoever, and is perhaps the only bum moment on here.

Apparently, this record was inspired by a drunken evening spent onstage singing cover songs. I'm not sure how they recorded this, but they've captured that mood wonderfully. It took a while to really warm up to this little record--much like that first time I drank Campari--but once I did, I've enjoyed it immensly. Several of these songs, such as Velvet Underground's "Jesus" and Fred Neil's "Felicity," were already rough around the edges, so John & Spencer's work really doesn't deviate too much from the formula. On "The Girls and the Dogs" (a Jacques Brel song covered by Scott Walker), John and Spencer's boozed-up approach actually benefits the song, turning this little forgotten number into a lovely, humorous and drunken nightclub sing-along.

The John & Spencer Booze Explosion is a fun, less-than-serious but far-from-pisstake romp through some great and obscure songs. I'm pretty sure that this really isn't anything more than a fun one-off, and I doubt that it will be anything more than an occasional listen, but it's still quite a pleasure. Good to know that serious musicians such as these fellows like to blow off steam, and it was kind of nice for them to include us for this little booze-driven excursion.

--Joseph Kyle

February 11, 2003

The Delgados "Hate"

Over the last five years, Dave Fridmann has introduced more indie-rock bands to the art of orchestration than any other producer. Check the man's resume and you'll see a host of bands (like The Flaming Lips, Mogwai, Home, and Elf Power) whose sound he augmented with a flood of classical and electronic flourishes. He's got a knack for taking bands attempting florid arrangements through limited means and giving them MUCH broader palettes to work with in order to realize their potential. The first thirty seconds of Hate's opening song, "The Light Before We Land," are a perfect demonstration of Fridmann's influence: a string section, a choir, and crashing distorted drums produce a crescendo that literally bursts through the speakers. Once the first verse begins, though, the layers are stripped away to reveal the rock quartet underneath: the meandering bass, the trebly guitars, the understated drums, and most of all, the vocals of Emma Pollock and Alun Woodward. Even as they devote an entire album to the concept of hate, their voices ooze a reserve and resignation that most other bands couldn't manage. They'd either overdo it with raging histrionics or under-do it with bored apathy.

Some critics have accused the Delgados of using Fridmann to hop on a bandwagon, but a tour through the band's discography will prove that his sound is something the band has been inching toward for a while. Their sophomore album Peloton had a couple of orchestral flourishes, but they felt tacked on to songs that didn't really need them to begin with. Their next album, The Great Eastern, had the reverse problem: instead of being an afterthought, the orchestration became a necessary building block for the songs, but the songs themselves needed work. Many of them sounded like the best parts of two or three songs awkwardly stitched together. Although I find this kind of attention deficit disorder endearing in many other bands, I don't think it suits the Delgados very well. Fortunately, Hate rights the wrongs of their previous two albums, with ten superbly constructed songs that musically sound like Mogwai covering the Left Banke and lyrically examine the various stages we go through when we're absolutely disgusted with our lives. It helps that "The Light Before We Land" is ultimately an anthem of hope: in the song's chorus, Pollock and Woodward beautifully harmonize, "If we can hold on, we can fix what is wrong---buy a little time for this head of mine."

The second song, "All You Need Is Hate," is both the album's catchiest and most facile song. It's basically an inversion of the Beatles classic "All You Need Is Love," from its title on down to the intentionally hokey lyrics ("Hate is in the air/Come on people feel it like you just don't care") and the George Harrison-style slide guitar that appears in the chorus. "Woke from Dreaming" isn't as easy a read: Emma uses hitchhiking and strangulation imagery to evoke a mood of fright, while the distorted drums and digitally cut-up children's choirs turn the music into the soundtrack to an art-house horror movie. In mid-song, though, the band changes from a minor key to a major key, and this lets a much-needed ray of light creep into the darkness. Moments like these are indicative of how quickly the Delgados have grown as songwriters and arrangers. "The Drowning Years" is a personal favorite of mine, not just because it's a great song, but because I can personally relate to it, as it is sung from the point of view of a man watching the decline of a schizophrenic lover. In "Coming in from the Cold," Emma urges a frustrated and lonely friend to fix his problems by escaping town and starting a new life, against a standard baroque-rock backdrop intermittently interrupted by booming programmed beats.

"Child Killers," which Alun sings, is the album's bleakest song. My interpretation of it is based on its title, the lyrics' allusions to domestic abuse, and the alterations made from one chorus to the next ("In truth our love was the night--the truth is our lives were shite"). I believe that the narrator is singing about the demise of a relationship with a girl whose baby they aborted. "Favors," which Emma sings, tells an equally intriguing story: it begins with the narrator beating up her ex's new girlfriend, and ends with the narrator trying in vain to drink her woes away. Lyrically, "All Rise" barely makes sense, but it gets by on its sea-shanty atmosphere and indelible vocal melody. This brief slip-up is redeemed by the last two tracks on the album proper. The funereal organ and faraway distorted vocals at the beginning of "Never Look at the Sun" suggest Sigur Ros with intelligible lyrics. The song quickly blossoms into an anthem of hope ("There's one life worth saving/It's not too late"), which couldn't come soon enough after sitting through songs about schizophrenia, abortion, and violence. "If This Is a Plan" finds Alun kissing a woman off in the bluntest of terms: "You look older/You look harder and tired and colder/Is this what ten years with a dickhead can bring?"

The North American version of Hate adds two bonus tracks that, unsurprisingly, don't work well with the rest of the record. "Coalman," like so many songs from The Great Eastern, sounds like a medley of two different songs; if your ears are as good as mine, you can even hear the edits in the transition from the verse to the chorus. The otherwise brilliant "Mad Drums" would fit better on a Stereolab record than it would on Hate. However, these are minor quibbles against a record that finds the Delgados completing the process of self-actualization. Emma and Alan have matured into confident singers and songwriters, and the band has finally grown comfortable in its own sound. Now that they've done these things, I'm expecting the Delgados' next record to be amazing--especially if they keep Fridmann on board.

---Sean Padilla

February 09, 2003

Pram "Dark Island"

Odd music maniacs delight! One of the truly weird bands this side of Meco have returned, and in so doing have graced us with their strongest album to date. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Pram have decided to grace us mere mortals with a record full of interstellar sounds, sneaky film soundtrack music, and all around loveable oddness. Ten years ago, they sounded like nothing out there; a decade on, they still sound as weird, with nobody even coming close to dethroning Pram from their self-created and self-imposed rule over the kingdom of Odd.

If you've never heard Pram, I suggest that you correct this void in your musical knowledge now. When they first appeared on the scene in the early 1990s, they were lumped together with other bands on their label, Too Pure. Unlike the fashionable weirdness of Stereolab, Pram were a confounding, frustrating band way back when. "What is this shit?" one young buck asked me back then, on hearing North Pole Radio Station blasting through the speakers of a long-since-gone record store. Though this comment has long been deemed irrelevant, Pram stand firm in their oddness, and in so doing, have hit a new peak of aural bliss.

From the space cantina shuffle of Dark Island opener "Track of the Cat," you, dear listener, are thrust into a world that is both past and future; music that's equally Mad Hatter's Tea Party and Star Wars seedy bar-band fare. What's odd about Dark Island, though, is when Rosie sings, Pram have an odd, Victorian preciousness (like the weird Syd Barrett-like "The Archivist); when Pram are instrumental, such as the serene "Sirocco," the band heads straight into 2525. Pram never, ever become less than pleasant, nor do they delve into that whole space-age novelty rut. Rosie's songs have a hint of sadness that the jazz-like instrumentals tend to gloss over. Songs such as "Distant Island" and "Goodbye" find Cuckston singing rather melodramatic lyrics in such a manner that not only gloss over how weird the lyrics are, but strike right at your heart. Written on paper, you'll say "what does she mean?" When heard in your ears, you'll know exactly what she means.

The fact that there's a Pram record in 2003 serves as an example of weirdness standing the test of time. While Dark Island is far from their most challenging work, it's a testament to how the times have changed. This is a post Kid A world, after all; what once was odd and off-putting is now accepted and revered. It's good to see that a band still stands firm, and it's even better to see how the world has changed and has become more accepting of such sounds. Dark Island is a nice reminder that weird doth not mean harsh.

--Joseph Kyle

February 08, 2003

Postal Service "Give Up"

If you haven't already heard Dntel's "(This is the Dream of) Evan and Chan," you should do so before you even think about purchasing the Postal Service's Give Up. Dntel head honcho Jimmy Tamborello collaborated with Death Cab for Cutie frontman Benjamin Gibbard on this song, and no other fusion of IDM and indie-pop since has approached this song's greatness. The song was a dazzling piece of time-signature trickery awash in My Bloody Valentine-style bursts of white noise. Gibbard was able to integrate his sonorous voice and elliptical lyrics seamlessly into the music, and the result was perfection in both songcraft and production wizardry. As good as Dntel's 2001 album Life is Full of Possibilities was, if not for the inclusion of "Evan and Chan," critics wouldn't have bestowed upon it nearly as many superlatives as they did. If I had to make a mix CD of my twenty favorite songs of all time, a spot would be guaranteed for "Evan and Chan." When I heard that Jimmy and Ben would be collaborating to produce a full-length, I nearly lost my wits. The possibility of an entire album of such sustained excellence made at least a third of the records I bought over the past two years tremble in fear of the obsolescence that surely awaited them. (Capitol K would have been the first to hit the used bin, but the Notwist and Bows would've still had little to worry about.)

This makes it slightly hard for me to admit that Give Up, the fruit of said collaboration, doesn't live up to these expectations. Granted, Gibbard still has one of the most pleasing voices I've heard lately, and it gives Tamborello's music the personality that even his best instrumental ditties lack. In return, Tamborello puts Gibbard's lyrics in a much sprightlier setting than Death Cab for Cutie's staid (and arguably boring) indie-rock. It's definitely a symbiotic relationship. The music and the vocals interact with each other better than one would expect from by-mail collaboration (hey, they didn't call their project the Postal Service for nothing), and few of the songs sound lazy or rushed. That's definitely more than one can say about, for instance, Airport Five.

However, by the second half of Give Up, the songs begin to follow a predictable formula. Gibbard and his occasional female background vocalists sing about a lovelorn topic while Tamborello slowly layers dated keyboards, swirling guitars, and sampled strings on top of each other. These cheesy electro-pop confections lie closer to Land of the Loops or the Busy Signals than they would to "Evan and Chan.' This is not a bad thing by any means--even at their worst, the songs on Give Up remain catchier than the flu--but you get the feeling that the Postal Service held themselves back a bit.

On opener "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight," Gibbard wanders through an ex-girlfriend's apartment, blaming himself for the decline of the relationship. The lyrics are as detailed and melancholy as those of the best Death Cab songs, but the mid-song tempo change propels the song out of its doldrums. In Death Cab's hands, the entire song would have drowned in an emotional muck. "Nothing Better" is a duet in which Gibbard proposes to a woman who is about to leave him. The over-modulated keyboards make the song sound like a malfunctioning video game, and the woman's icy response to Gibbard's plea is killer. It's certainly a better (and less deranged) battle of the sexes than the Human League's "Don't You Want Me?" In "Clark Gable," Gibbard decides that he wants a love resembling that in a Hollywood movie, so he decides to make a film with his ex-girlfriend. Despite the extremely saccharine subject matter, these songs remain highlights of Give Up because of the strength of the melodies and arrangements.

However, it is not until the album's last three songs that the dynamic duo veers into darker, more abrasive territory. "This Place Is a Prison" is a slow, moody change of pace that lives up to its title. The rumbling, distorted beats and electric piano remind me of Icelandic trio Mum. Gibbard delivers very pointed admonishments toward a decadent friend: "It's not a party if it happens every night/Pretending there's glamour and candelabra when you're drinking by candlelight." Right after he sings these words, real drums enter the mix to drive the point home. "Brand New Colony" puts choppy organ chords against brisk two-step rhythms, as Gibbard urges a lover to escape town and start a new life with him. The ironically titled album closer, "Natural Anthem," revisits the sonic blizzard of "Evan and Chan." After an album's worth of sugar, the noise is quite cathartic, but the song still feels underwritten. You wouldn't expect an anthem to hold off on the vocals until its last forty-five seconds, but it does, with Gibbard's voice and lyrics seemingly like a tacked-on afterthought. Give Up ends by giving the listener the hope that its last three songs will serve as a gateway to less reserved collaborations. In the meantime, here's hoping that Gibbard and Tamborello don't make good on the promise made in the album's title.

---Sean Padilla

Folksongs For The Afterlife "Put Danger Back In Your Life"

I love being sucker-punched by great music. It's always nice when a band makes a lovely sound, but when they throw in elements that didn't appear initially, that's when I just lose it. Today, dear readers, while listening to New York-based Folksongs for the Afterlife's debut, Put Danger Back In Your Life, I officially lost it. I'm going to admit it here, I'm only going to say it once, but I just want to clear up any rumors that might develop: I LOVE Folksongs For The Afterlife. I love the singing. I love the guitar parts. I love the noise. I love the charm. I love the little recorded goodies like crickets chirping and scratchy vinyl between songs. I love this record. Period.

I first heard Folksongs for the Afterlife on the recent Parasol's Sweet Sixteen collection. The song included on the sampler, "Did I Let You Down?," is a bossa-nova number with a great beat, and lead singer Caroline Schultz sounds just like Astrid Gilberto, all breathy sighs and seductive singing. I wasn't surprised; Parasol's a label that specializes in this kind of music. Every time I listened to the sampler, I almost always started my listen at Folksongs' selection. When Put Danger Back In Your Life arrived in my mailbox, I was excited, because I was expecting the sounds of modern bossa nova pop.

What I did not expect was the shimmer and shine of a band with a full, lush, Lush sound. I have a strong feeling that the members of Folksongs for the Afterlife own and know by heart every recorded note that Lush made. It became quite apparent that my initial notions of them being a bossa nova/electronic pop band were way, way off. Sure, that song led me in, and there's a tinge of that kind of sound throughout the album, but it was an emotional bait-and-switch that I fell in love with immediatly. How could I not? Schultz has that voice, which quickly recalls the terribly, terribly-missed Miki Bereyni. You could make a someone a copy of Spooky, slip "Different Light" in the middle, and none would be the wiser for it.

All of the talk of Lush should not, however, be construed that Folksongs for the Afterlife are co-opting their style. While it is true that there's a definite inspiration, Folksongs for the Afterlife take that sound to new heights, creating a sound and style all their own. From dazzling dreampop numbers like "Summer Loop" to the utterly blissful pop of "Lockaway" and "Dark Room" and the utterly gorgeous "Did I Let You Down?," Put Danger Back In Your Life is an aural treat that will remind you of all the records that you love, and will happily remind you that good music never goes out of style. A beautiful debut from a wonderful band. Don't call Folksongs for the Afterlife a "band to watch," because they're already here.

--Joseph Kyle

Interview: Atom & His Package

Atom & His Package. You either love 'em or hate 'em, and I love 'em. The group is led by Atom Goren, formerly of punk rockers Fracture, as well as his own bad self. Along with his owner, The Package (a real bad-ass music sequencer that can go from G&R to Britney and NWA in a matter of seconds), these two have, for years, been makin' people smile and pissin' other people off for no reason other than the fact that it exists. I first heard him when me and my friend Kyle took a trip to Denver, and on the way back we listened and laughed our asses off. How could you not?

There's a story that I have of Atom, it involves a show that I booked for him, with Sean Na Na, Lucky Jeremy, my friend Kyle's then one-man band Tom Foolery and the Mistakes, and mundanesounds's own show reviewer, Sean Padilla's Cocker Spaniels. Here's Atom's tour diary entry from the show: "I met Sean Na Na at the apartment of the fellow Joseph, who was doing the show. We were supposed to follow Joseph to the show, but he took off without us, leaving us in his appartment building's parking lot. We eventually found the place, and the show was small but fun. I covered "Shopping Spree" about 6 times this evening. I also used nasal spray successfully for the first time in my life. Last time I turned the nasal spray bottle upside down, and tilted my head back and got nasal spray all over myself. I'm glad I'm still learning skills at this point"

The day after the show, I came down with Atom's flu. Ouch. The SOB had the last laugh! (J/Kidding!)

Any and all, his last two records, Redefining Music and his most recent release, an EP entitled Hamburgers have both won me over, and they find Atom growing and maturing as an artist. I got him to sit down for a little while and talk with me...and even though I was sure that the ensuing conversation had been a bit of a train wreck, it was actually a fun, interesting chat with a very intelligent, interesting young-ish man. Fun fact about the show: I got a letter in the mail about two weeks before the show by this band who wanted to be on that billing. Unfortunatly, I said no, due in large part to the fact that they'd not sent me a promo of their new record, because they didn't have them yet, but instead they had sent a dubbed tape copy of it--a twenty-year old Radio Shack tape that was so poorly dubbed that I couldn't really listen to it..though it did have some weird sound affects on it. The band? The Faint....I shut up now, and present you with Atom & His package...

PS. if you want to have fun, go visit Atom's website at atomandhispackage.com! (Thanks, Atom, for the pics and the interview!)

So, Atom, when did you first start playing/making music?

I've always been a big music fan/listener/buyer, but I started playing in bands in 7th grad... back in... let's see... 1987. Mostly punk, stinky bands with friends.

Was Fracture your first recorded band?

As far as recording in a studio and releasing... yes... a few older, horrible bands recorded on a four track, but thankfully, it was never released.

When did Atom meet the Package? What was it that drew you to it, and when did you discover the true potential of the Package?

When Fracture broke up, a friend of mine played me a song on a music sequencer. They're excellent because you can write/record/arrange entire songs by yourself. So, I started writing songs by myself, and recording them on my four track for friends and stuff. My friends' band Franklin was going on tour, and I was tagging along just for fun, and they suggested I bring the sequencer and play a few songs before they played, every night. So, I did and it was fun, and it went from there.

Why do some people dislike you? Is it jealousy, a lack of humor on their part?

I suppose different people dislike what I do for different reasons. I fully expect for some folks not to like it at all. It's certainly not for everyone. Some people think it's really stupid, or that the music sucks. Some people think it's annoying

Do you think that the punk rock/hardcore scene you came out of refuses to accept anything that reeks of humor?

The punk/hc scene is so big, that I'd hate to generalize about in terms of what it think and how it behaves, since there's no governing body of it... know what I mean? I've certainly received tons of support from a lot of people involved in the 'scene', and sure, a fair amount of hate mail and un-support...

Such as "funny=not serious?"

I guess there are some people who think that silly stuff is stupid, and meaningless who are involved in the punk scene... but there are many who can put it in perspective too.

Yeah, and plus, I'd assume that the longer you do your thing, the more accepting people become. Me, I totally felt that "Redefining Music" was a big step forward for you.

Hey thanks a lot.

Sure. Since you were on a bigger label, did you feel that you needed to spend a little more time on the recording process?

No. The stuff I had recorded before was all recorded at a friend's house on stuff in a day (each record, that is). In between records, I bought some recording equipment, and better sequencers... certainly not to impress the label, but because I had always wanted the stuff to sound good. The early stuff doesn't sound crappy on purpose... we just didn't know what we were doing. But since I was doing it myself, I had no time contraints, as it was just my time, so I had more time to get it to sound good, and just with experience, I knew how to get stuff to sound better.

And "Redefining Music," in a review I wrote for another zine, also seemed like it was the step away from novelty act, and your songs seemed a lot more universal than personal, if ya know what I mean. Because I'm sure you'll agree that a guy with a sequencer really is walkin' a very thin line that could easily fall under "one-trick pony".

Thanks... I think that the songs on that record stand on their own moreso than the earlier songs, as songs... rather than... background music for funny rhyming... know what I mean?

Yeah, and I noticed that they were more of a universal nature, rather than about and/or for your friends.

I take the music part very seriously and work hard on it... moreso than being a funny guy, or whatever...I like the newer songs as songs... They're still about stuff I think about, but I guess, as one gets older, one thinks about stuff in a different manner. I hope I continue to think about stuff differently, and feel like there's some sort of progression musically.

Speaking of your friends, you do sing alot about your friends. Has this ever caused any problems with your friendships, or are your friends aware of your tendency to write about them and are cautious around you? 8-)

No... there hasn't been a problem with any of the songs... I think the only one that isn't really flattering is the Happy Birthday Ralph song (even though you are fucking disgusting). And Ralph certainly knows how I feel about him and that I love him, and that at the same time, he can get on my nerves, and that I think he's gross a lot of the time. The only problem with that song, is that when people Ralph doesn't know come up to him and bug him about being disgusting, it's annoying... understandably so...but when I wrote and put the song on the record, no one was listening to my stuff at all... so I, probably mistakenly didn't even think about it.

Maybe your friends have secretly developed an attuitude of "Oh, Shit, better behave, or Atom'll write a song about us"?

I don't think so. The group of friends I have my utmost respect, and I know them all very well... and have pretty high standards... so other than the ralph song, I don't think anyone is scared of me... or cares too much about what I write about.

Maybe you should write a sequel, settin' the record straight, tellin' your listeners to hug ralph, not hate on him.

I don't think Ralph would appreciate people he didn't know hugging him either... know what I mean?

Unless they were female, perhaps?

Unless they were giraffes. He likes them.

Hah! Anyway, the point is a lot of stuff that you write is rather mundane, and last night I was watchin' Seinfeld, a self-described "show about nothing" and I got to thinking about your music, and it's really "music about nothing" in that it's about your daily life, ideas, etc. The more i kept thinking about it, though, the more i realized that this seems to be true with many jewish comics and writers. Do you have any thoughts about this, or is it merely coincidental?

I don't think that the stuff I write is 'mundane'... It's stuff I think about... What else would I write about? To me, my daily life, and ideas, and things that I have strong feelings about isn't 'nothing'. While, I'm not sure I can say why other people should like it, or why they do, I wouldn't say it's about nothing. As for a tie into being Jewish... I'm not sure what you're saying is the common thread of Jewish folks... that we do stuff about 'nothing'? That Jews tend to write about themselves, and personal stuff?

I know that there are many facets of art. Some artists make a vehement point about the fact that the personal/emotional stuff that they write is NOT about them, it's a song, and not their lives. Others write abstract things, but as I was thinking about Seinfeld's "show about nothing" concept was that the show weren't "nothing", they were something based on what someone wouldn't expect them to be based on, and I kept thinking about how a lot of Jewish writers and artists focus their art around their lives, instead of "art for art's sake"--that there's a definite link between the artist and the art, and that the two shouldn't be separated. Is that a little more clear?

I see what you mean. I don't know if there's a connection. I mean, there are certainly things that tend to be focused on by Jews... but I can't say that there's a correlation on arts focusing more personally on stuff because of their religion or culture...I don't know...sorry...bad, non-answer.

So have you always felt that your life and your art and your thoughts are one and the same, as opposed to saying, "oh, I'm going to sit down and write a song about (insert subject matter here)"? It's a question of the artist's attachment to their work.
I think so.... I think it feels most natural for me to write about personal experiences and stuff that I think about. I'm certainly not a good fiction writer.

And when you write, do you find yourself able to write better when you're not in familiar surroundings? Was your recent bout of touring a major inspiration for you?

I always write at home, but I'm sure, since touring was such an overwhelming part of my life for the past couple of years, that my experiences and life style certainly affect me, and how I think about thinks, and thus, affect my songwriting, topicwise, and otherwise. Ooh... just used the word thus. Nice.

Do you enjoy playing out?

Yes... some shows are way more fun than others, but I do enjoy playing...some times I'm not in the mood, but I imagine that comes with the territory of playing so much. It only makes sense.

Have you ever thought, "gee, maybe I'd like to get a real band going again"?

Yes. I like doing stuff myself. It's easier to be productive... (i.e. playing shows, practicing, writing stuff).... but I miss the collaborative nature of working with friends.

No hassles with drummers..


Are you getting a full band together as we speak?

Yep... I've started playing with a few people. It's definitely in the beginning stages, but we've written a few songs. We'll see how it goes.

So any hints as to what you've been fraudulent about?

Sorry... you'll have to ask me again in 14 months, if you want to know.

Oh, I will. So what's Atom planning next?

Well... I just finished recording and writing a new full length record, called Attention! Blah Blah Blah. It will be out in February on Hopeless Records. I'll be taking the fall relatively easy, and will be back to touring like a lunatic once the record comes out.

Another question about the time before "Redefining Music". I saw you live, and you made some comment about working on your new record and writing new songs. Though you didn't say it, it seemed to me like you were a bit frustrated. Were you suffering from writer's block?

Hmm... not sure... where was it?

Lubbock, Texas.

Wow... you must have been the one of four people there. That was the day after we saw the Dali Llamas.

Uh, dude.. i was the guy who booked it. surprise!

Ha ha ha.

(At this point the interview turns into a non-interesting discussion about that show and about Lubbock in general)

One last question: Soulpatches--yes or no?

No facial hair... ever

So no hot water music look for Atom?

NO way.

---Joseph Kyle

Absinthe Blind "Rings"

I like the notion of soft rock mingling with electronica and art rock; if done right, such a combination can birth some very interesting, very beautiful offspring. Bands such as Grandaddy, Mercury Rev, The Polyphonic Spree, and Flaming Lips are shining example of the possibilities of such a sonic union. Absinthe Blind are a band who may not have the name recognition of those other bands, but that's doesn't mean that they're a lesser band because of that. They've been around for a few years, and their new album, Rings, is the beautiful sound of a band blossoming into greatness.

You'll quickly notice that there's a common theme between 3/4ths of the band; yes, Abisinthe Blind are practically a family group, the brothers and sister Fein. It should be no surprise, then, that these three harmonize quite grandly. I'm going to dive into utter hyperbole, without remorse, and without ANY regret, and say that Absinthe Blind is, in fact, the only band that's really, truly inherited the Free Design torch. Unlike bands like Stereolab and other hip groups that reference them, Absinthe Blind, through their familial link, have pulled the sword out of the soft-rock and have created a wonderful, beautiful album.

Rings starts off with the haunting, beautiful "The Break (It's Been There All This Time)," which starts off with a slow, electronic hum that breaks into a beautifully-sung number. What's most telling, though, is that it seems like the song is a number about their newfound beauty: "The melody's inside of me/It's been there all this time." In fact, many of the songs on Rings seem to deal with the subject of change, of self-realization, and of inner discovery. Were Absinthe Blind aware of the enormous change ahead, from their transformation from dream-popped shoegazers to a band that can easily stand with bands such as Flaming Lips, Polyphonic Spree, or Mercury Rev? I'm not a fan of interpreting the meanings behind other people's writings, but I can't help thinking that their music is inspired by these changes.

It also doesn't hurt Absinthe Blind that they've enlisted two experts of sonic design to record Rings. Keith Cleversley (responsible for records by Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips, and Spiritualized) is a man who knows a fair share about making beautiful, blissed-out, trippy music. Matt Talbot (Hum/Centaur) has an ear for the loudness of quiet and the tranquility of noise. Together, they've combined forces, and as a result have produced one of the best recorded albums I've heard this year. Even if the music on Rings wasn't beautiful, you would still want to shake Cleversley and Talbot's hands for their production efforts! Thankfully, Cleversley and Talbot's production never wastes one note, and Absinthe Blind have really realized the potential of their music.

Regardless of whether or not their songs reflect their change, Absinthe Blind have quickly blossomed into one of today's best bands, period. The Fein's shared harmony is simply angelic; when Erin Fein sings, she unleashes beauty upon the world. Placed over the hum and the drone and the beat and the noise and the beauty of their music, Absinthe Blind have really reached a high point that many bands fail to reach.
I'm enchanted by their music, charmed by their harmonies, and tearfully thankful that they made Rings. I wouldn't really be surprised to find this one on many best-of lists, including my own.

--Joseph Kyle

February 07, 2003

Microphones "Mt. Eerie"

The Microphones are one of my favorite bands to come along in the last five years. When I first heard their 1999 debut Don't Wake Me Up, I fell in love. It sounded like a hybrid of the intimate low-fidelity grunge of Eric's Trip and the syrupy ambient soundtracks of Brian Eno. Over the course of three proper albums and two
singles-and-oddities collections, Microphones auteur Phil Elvrum quickly became one of my artistic heroes. He's far from the best singer or musician; as a producer, though, he pushes the limits of analog home recording; as a writer, he has a knack for evocative lyrics and indelible melodies; as an arranger, he is deeply acquainted with the element of surprise; and unlike most one-man bands, he is not afraid to let his talented friends assist him every once in a while.

Obviously, I'm biased towards anything that Elvrum releases, so in the name of objectivity, I'm going to give you all a couple of warnings about his latest masterpiece, Mount Eerie. It's not the best album for first-time listeners to get acquainted with. First of all, whereas previous albums shoe-horned Elvrum's whims into three-minute pop songs, this album is a forty-one-minute concept album discursive enough to make its track indexes seem arbitrary. There are no verses, bridges, or choruses--only tangents. Second of all, the album can be an uncomfortable listen. There are moments in which everything is horribly out of tune, even by the Microphones' standards, and there are frequent and jarring dynamic shifts that will scare the wits out of you if you're not prepared. However, if you're adventurous enough to handle it---or if you're already a Microphones fan to begin with---Mount Eerie will be nothing short of a revelation.

The album begins with the same field recording of a tugboat that closed the Microphones' previous album, 2001's The Glow, Pt. 2, confirming Elvrum's assertion that his first three proper albums formed a thematic trilogy about the elements. If Don't Wake Me Up, 2000's It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water, and The Glow focused (respectively) on air, water, and fire, then this album combines these albums' tangents and adds a fourth element---the earth itself---in order to give the listener a more total view of the power of nature. Frankly, if I worshipped Mother Nature instead of Jesus Christ, the Microphones would be my gospel music.

Three minutes into opening track "The Sun," a series of sub-audible clicks and pops emerges out of the field recordings, forming a minimalist backbeat that suggests that Elvrum heard a few Bernard Gunter pieces during the recording process. Real drums slowly enter the mix, run through innumerable dropouts and dub-style echo effects. At the five-minute mark, the song explodes into a calypso drum circle, with a quiet undercurrent of keyboards hovering under it. The drums fade out a couple of times, only to reappear whenever a trumpet blares. At one point, you can hear the sounds of people chanting and hollering along. Listening to this, I can envision animals calling each other from atop the mountain as a primitive tribe does celebratory dances in the valley below. Phil's voice doesn't appear until more than halfway through the seventeen-minute opus, but it doesn't need to, for the music that comes before it is vivid enough to stand on its own.

Once Phil finally starts singing, he delivers a nervous first-person narrative: "See me waving my handkerchief on the shore/See my arm raised high/See that ship sail off with its sails aloft/See me dry my eyes and/See more salty tears flow as my house is blown wide." Almost every line begins with the word "see," which makes the lyrics seem slightly infantile on paper, but the music gives the lyrics added depth by imitating them with stunning accuracy. Phil's voice is miked so closely that you can hear not only the cracks in his voice, but also the breaths he takes in between words. His clipped, tentative singing wanders in and out of tune, and he chokes on his own words as if he is completely possessed by fear. The sun is described as a "ball of fire" that watches him as he flees from death up the mountain. A chorus of spooky voices fades in and out behind Phil, and his words are occasionally interrupted by jagged shards of white noise. The guitars are digitally whittled down to tiny bits, tracing the barest outline of a chord progression, an outline that is slowly fleshed out by outbursts of fuzz bass, dulcimers, and trumpets. Towards the end of the song, Phil confronts and is then submerged by the "ball of fire." The hum of a multitude of amplifiers creeps up behind him, eventually erupting into a climax of feedback and distorted drums. Phil's voice is eclipsed by the instruments as "The Sun" draws to a close.

The hiss gradually morphs into running streams of water, ushering in the album's second track, "Solar System." A backdrop of acoustic guitar and soft percussion emerges from the water as Phil resumes singing: "The fireball has rolled away in shaded valleys/so here I am in the creek bed." He observes the decaying landscape around him, reminisces about a girl he left behind in order to escape death, and begins wishing for nature to slowly overtake him. A group of pretty female voices swells behind him as he calls out to his estranged beau: "I know you're out there..." "Solar System" is the closest that Mount Eerie comes to having a standard "song," and its fadeout brings side one of the album to a relaxing close.

Side two begins with one of two tracks titled "The Universe." In this track, a reprise of "Solar System" slowly gives way to a cacophony of distorted percussion. The arrival of nighttime is announced by a series of intricate drum rolls and an angry fuzz bass riff. Phil then reappears with his acoustic guitar to resume the narrative. The appearance of the night sky forces him to confront his own loneliness. It seems that the universe itself doesn't even want to be bothered with him. Personified by the baritone voice of K Records head honcho Calvin Johnson, the universe asks the narrator one simple, dismissive question: "What do you want?" As the surrounding voices and instruments surge into one crescendo after another, Phil finds himself unable to respond. Instead, he asks himself more questions: "How many times have I learned this before? How many times have I made up this song before? How many times have I died up here before?" The song ends with almost two minutes' worth of sustained vocal harmonies, which serve as a bridge between the first "Universe" and the album's title track.

The song "Mount Eerie" can be divided into three distinct parts, and rightfully so, since each of these parts was written and recorded by different people. In the first part, Phil stands at the top of the mountain, describing his surroundings to the very last detail as synthesizers drone behind him. The background vocalists reappear, chanting louder and louder to warn him of the inevitable: "So your big black cloud will come/and press you to the ground/the air will leave your chest/you'll fade from where you're found." At around the two-minute mark, a loud, swooping breath consumes the song, ushering in a Timbaland-style beat. In this second part of the song "Big Black Death," a character played by label mate Kyle Field of Little Wings, introduces himself. You wouldn't expect the grim reaper's arrival to be the funniest and most danceable moment of a rock album, but as you already know, the Microphones aren't your average rock band. It is to Elvrum's credit that as melancholy as Mount Eerie gets, he never lets the music sink completely into a black hole. Kyle sing-speaks his words in an almost rap-like fashion as the background vocalists melodramatically gulp and shriek. Karl Blau, Phil's own artistic mentor (and collaborator in the far inferior band D+), does the third part of the song. During this quiet, acoustic waltz, Karl sings from the perspective of the birds that pick apart the narrator's dead body. As the birds keep eating, the instruments are slowly drowned in tape hiss. As the narrator's body decays, so does the music, yet another example of the arrangements brilliantly bringing the lyrics to life.

The final track, also titled "The Universe," finds our narrator in the afterlife, discovering that death has made him one with the universe that, until this point, frightened and rejected him. The song starts out a capella, but a plodding procession of tom-toms, wordless voices, and Appalachian horns trails behind him. The last few minutes of the song sound like an African drum circle backing a troupe of chanting Gregorian monks, a sound as vast and expansive as the Grand Canyon itself.

All but the most hardened listeners will feel completely drained and
overwhelmed once this album ends. It's not the kind of album that will make most people press the "repeat" button immediately after hearing it, simply because it takes a bit of getting used to. I wasn't even sure that I liked it until two or three deep listens. I had to put it away, let it sit on my desk for a week or two, and then go back to it when I was in the right frame of mind. Now, of course, I regard Mount Eerie as indispensable. I don't want to kill my credibility with hyperbole, but I can safely say that I've never heard anything like Mount Eerie in my life. Lyrically, it confronts issues of mortality without resorting to cliches or self-pity, and musically, it embodies the unpredictability and volatility of nature itself. Frankly, after hearing an album like this, much of what I've heard since seems comparatively un-ambitious and devoid of emotion. Mount Eerie is a near-perfect symbiosis of words and music that restores a bit of dignity to the usually laughable concept of the "rock opera." After making music this unhinged, I am completely befuddled as to where Phil Elvrum could possibly go next without either artistically regressing or completely losing his mind.

---Sean Padilla

Magic 12 "high"

People watch Japanese films--especially B-movies--in part for the out-of-sync sound track. Lips moving but the words already spoken. It's kind of funny to watch conversations happening after they've happened. That's the general feeling I had when listening to High, the newest full-length from Boston-based Magic 12.

I like the music. Hell, the music is downright beautiful in places, and never falls short of being interesting. but the vocals just don't seem right. At times, it sounds like a scratch track, other times, it sounds like they're in two different rooms. This is a problem that really hinders the music--the vocals stick out way too much; they hide the music that's going on behind them, and, really, his voice, while strong, just doesn't work together so high up in the mix. At times, they're winsome, other times, such as on the should-have-been-left-off "40 Winks," they're terrible. These problems would be easily overlooked were the vocals and the music mixed better, and all of the hooks that the songs would have had are hidden by the overwhelming vocal track.

I really think that Ingalls' main flaw isn't that he can't sing, but he just hasn't found a style that works for him. At times, I'm thinking he's trying to go for a Morrissey/Bryan Ferry style, but itjust doesn't work for him. I think these problems stem directly from the mix. A voice should stand out, but it should also mix in with the band, forming a whole, cohesive song. Maybe, this kind of creamy singing doesn't quite gel with the kind of music he's working with--slightly moody rock with a country tint. Ingalls' singing is technically good, but it just doesn't work here. He's singing a lush, dark pop style over music that's not suited to such a style.

This is a problem that I'm hoping will be fixed when they work on their next record. I feel kind of bad, because it's not bad; (believe me, I've heard much, much, much worse), it just doesn't seem right for High. Having such music veterans as bassist Pete Weiss and guitar god Rich Gilbert (Tanya Donnelly, Human Sexual Response, Frank Black & The Catholics) also makes these problems even more upsetting, too. High hints at heights that aren't reached here. "Could be" is a swear word to me, and I just feel like Magic 12 could be a lot better; everything's in place, but things just don't really seem to click--at least not for me.

Perhaps Magic 12 should work on making music that fits Ingalls' vocal styles. When he's on, such as on the brief "Sadly Mistaken," he sounds like Bryan Ferry, and the band sounds great, too. In reading reviews for their past records, it became apparent that they've recently had some lineup changes, and I wonder if they've not completely gelled for the new lineup. I just feel that High is a case where the two main componants are excellently made, but they do not work together. I don't think that anyone is to fault for this, and maybe in a live setting these problems don't exist, because everything's working together.

I take that all back. I'm at a loss as to what to say about High. It's a good record, but it's not a perfect record; it's the sound of a band that's changing its style, but not quite succeeding. I listened to some of their earlier work, and something doesn't seem right. Apparently the main, cohesive factor in the band prior to High was Beth Heinberg, whose piano closed the gap between the two parties, and the band had a distinctive Mojave 3-style which was actually pretty darn good. She's gone, and in my opinion, THAT is the main factor that's holding the band back. It's hard for a band to lose a key member, and in Magic 12's case, it's an equally painful loss, as it's affected their sound in such a manner that's quite noticable.

So what's my final opinion of High? I don't really know. I'm certainly more forgiving now; in fact, I'm now wanting to hear more of their earlier stuff, because I'm not too sure about High. Like in court, sometimes one party wins, but sometimes the judge dismisses the case, because there's not enough evidence to clearly state which party should win or lose. I'd like to hear Magic 12's earlier work before rendering a final judgement on High, because I'm afraid I'm missing something.

--Joseph Kyle

February 06, 2003

Neil Halstead "Seasons"

Apparently, Mojave 3's frontman Neil Halstead likes a smoke. Or two. When you consider his track record, from the blissed-out noise of Slowdive to the mellow, country-rock of Mojave 3, and even his solo album, it's pretty apparent that there's method to his mellow. While his personal habits are not up for discussion here, these lifestyle choices do have a definite impact on his music. His solo debut, Sleeping on Roads, was a quiet stunner, and easily his best work. It certainly bridges the gap between Slowdive and Mojave 3, highlighting the man behind the music, allowing his songs to stand on their own. Mellow, slightly trippy, and, yes, extremely baked.

Seasons is a nice little compainion to Sleeping on Roads, and a nice appetizer for those hungry for Halstead's next offering. Essentially a single for the lovely "Seasons," it finds Halstead in a sun-dried mood. The "Surf Mix" of "Seasons" adds a nice little Ventures-gone-acoustic surf guitar, while the "Fort Lauderdale Remix" is a beautiful electronica acoustic remix, adding some nice electronic atmosphere, creating a new dimension of sound--as well as furthering the electronic-folk genre that only Halstead and James Yorkston have mastered.

Of course, you can't beat the new songs. "Sailing Man" is a Nick Drake-like number, which has a beautiful, ambient-folk feel, which we love a lot. "Between The Bars" is a live recording of a new number, and it's beautifully sad. Also lovely is the demo (yet somehow more intense) version of "See You On Rooftops."

Halstead seems to be incapable of making anything less than heartbreakingly beautiful music, and Seasons is certainly no exception. Certainly worth seeking out, and it will easily tide you over between now and this summer's expected arrival of Mojave 3's new album. If Seasons is any indication, that record shall be most beautiful, indeed.

--Joseph Kyle

Matt Pond PA "The Nature of Maps"

The Nature of Maps reminds me of the Beatles, but not in sound. No, Matt Pond PA's new album reminds me of something George Harrison thought about two songs, "Norwegian Wood" and "Love To You." Though these songs were the Beatles' first recordings with a sitar, Harrison admitted later in life that these songs weren't very good, because he played the sitar wrong. The average listener didn't complain; the songs are still beautiful, which should be more important than whether or not the technique was correct. The idea remains the same, though; what may not be good technically can still produce excellent music. The theory applies to a band who are constantly honing their sound; you're enjoying the music, not noticing that the band's sound isn't completly cohesive.

The Nature of Maps is Matt Pond's latest baroque indie-pop record. It's much more memorable than its predecessor, because it's a much deeper record. Still, I feel like this is a "growth" record. Matt Pond PA is a band, not just Matt Pond, but it really doesn't feel like a band. Ideas are thrown around--some pretty good ideas--but they seem a bit pink in the middle, as if they need to cook a little more. I'm not sure if they're trying to be a rock band that's based around percussion and strings, or are a string-based folk band that are trying to be a rock band, because at times I'm torn as to what exactly they're wanting to do. I'd rather hear a band who can traverse two different styles like Matt Pond PA, because it lets me know that they're trying, attempting, working on something new, and aren't limited to one idea.

It must be said that they never deny their indie-rock roots. Yes, Matt Pond PA "rock," but softer, gentler than your average rock band. Thankfully, they're not prone to the trappings of bands such as Ladybug Transistor or other groups who see the equation as "strings + folk=60s psych." Nothing on The Nature of Maps would remotely pass off as retro--unless, of course, you consider "A Million Middle Fingers" sounds like a long-lost Cars demo. I'll admit that I'm a total sucker for a band that has a string section (or in Matt Pond PA's case, IS a string section), but I just didn't feel like Matt Pond PA really understand the power of their own strength. Of course, it's easy to feel like you're being teased; by the time you get comfortable with the string section, they're quickly off to a rocker, with ne'er a trace of that cello. Once you're getting into the rock vibe, though, they're back off again, into that resin-rock. Talk about a string tease!

Don't write Matt Pond PA off; growth takes time, and Matt Pond PA are a growing band. While The Nature of Maps might slip here and there, Pond and company are certainly not slouching in the ideas department. I'm pretty positive that they'll produce a much more elegant album. For the time being, The Nature of Maps can't be beat.

--Joseph Kyle

bis 'plastique nouveau'

You've gotta give Bis credit; they grew up quite nicely, leaving behind their Teen-C ways when they left their teen years, and though they've kept their teenful enthusiasm for pop music, they've grown up, and 2001's Return to Central was a fresh breath of electro dance-pop, eurodisco (then referred to as "electroklash"), and all around new wave bliss. "How quickly they turned into Human League," was my initial reaction. Given the new dance sounds of Return to Central, a remix record like Plastique Nouveau would seem almost inevitible.

Plastique Nouveau continues Bis' development into an updated version of Human League. I wouldn't have considered Manda Rin a dance diva, but on songs such as the excellent "Protection" (here featured in two remixed forms) and "The End Starts Today," Manda's voice is totally, utterly dreamy. For those of you who haven't kept up with Bis, you'll be surprised at how strong, confident, and tough she sounds. Songs like "Don't Let The Rain Come Down" and "Make it Through" find Bis refining the sounds that worked so well on Return to Central, and it's good to know that Bis are getting better at their craft.

Plastique Nouveau is a nice little release from a band who've really changed for the better. While Return to Central is where new listeners should start, and this little stop-gap release serves as an extra little bonus for those of us that loved their last album. If it's any indication of the Bis banquet of sounds that are yet to come, it's certainly a welcome appetizer, sure to whet the appetite of pop-lovers and teen-c kids everywhere.

--Joseph Kyle

Cynthia Dall "Sound Restores All Men"

Many artists deliver promises of greatness that, for whatever reason, they never follow up on. There's nothing more upsetting than that artist who makes a great record and then never makes another record. Is it better to make one perfect album than to release an entire discography of crap? It's a tough call. Cynthia Dall's talent has certainly been missed. She was an early member of Smog, and delivered some really beautiful, moody moments, most notibly "Renee Died 3:45." She left Smog and released a self-titled record under the name of "Untitled." That was six years ago, and since then--nothing. Though the delay was certainly annoying for those of us who loved Untitled, Sound Restores Young Men is certainly worth the wait.

Luckily, Dall corrected Untitled's greatest flaw--that those whispery, dark atmospheric moments were momentarily beautiful, but ultimatly nondescript. Instead of those airy moments, Sound Restores Young Men is the sound of an artist growing in strength, building upon the best aspects of her previous work, and creating an album that's about as far away from her debut as the years between them. She's still dark and her music's disturbingly confessional, and that's all that matters. That she does it without sounding utterly whiny about it certainly lifts her above the smog. Listen to "I Play With Boys" a few times in the dark and try not to feel small and unimportant.

For the most part, Sound Restores Young Men sounds like a band record, as opposed to the vision of just one person and a bunch of sidemen. (Kudos are due to Slappy O'Rourke for his contributions, as minimal as they are). Dall's innocent, child-like singing (reminiscent of Tanya Donnelly, truth be told) fits the dark, brooding music, producing a yin-yang like record that leads you into its lair and slays you with its kisses. Spider-rock, perhaps, but let's not be too daft. Songs like "Extreme Cold" and "Be Safe With Me" remind you of why winter's so painful, and sets a torch underneath other artists like Tori Amos, simply because they're not the ramblings "poetics" of a pseudo-everything yawn bore me again art chick. Thank god she didn't put in a lyric sheet; I have a feeling these songs wouldn't hold up to the scrutiny/oh look at me I'm in pain interpretations that always come around when dealing with such..hard..music.

Is Cynthia Dall an unrecognized genius, a master musician who chooses to make breathtakingly beautiful and disturbing music with no concern or regard for recognition? All signs point to yes. Once again, Drag City has released a record that you've probably not heard about that's better than most of the things you do hear about.

Sound Restores Young Men restores this young man's faith in the ability for good music to exist. In this world of fake voices and even faker pain and suffering, it's good to know that someone actually has an understanding of the power of the verse. That she shares her skills with us ever so infrequently should be an honor that we lesser mortals should thank her for.

--Joseph Kyle

February 05, 2003

Aislers Set "How I Learned to Write Backwards"

Amy Linton's music is so easy to love. A little noisy, a little sweet, a whole lot o'pop, It's never ever heavy, and it never drags on. Pure pop is what she knows, and pure pop is what she does, mixing all the sounds of the songs that she loves into one big bundle o' reverbed ear candy. How I Learned to Write Backwards is Aislers Set's most ambitious album to date, and we couldn't be any happier to hear it, either!

It may be a bit disingenious to describe it as "ambitious," though. Luckily for us, Linton's not really tampered with the award-winning Aislers Set formula too terribly much, because it really works well. Witness 2001's The Last Match, which mixed reverb bliss with girl-group goodness that sounds OH SO NICE in your ears and even nicer in your heart. I dare you to listen to that album and NOT walk away from it humming "The Red Door" for the rest of the day. The Last Match's major flaw came from the occasional switch to Wyatt Cusick on vocals. Don't get me wrong; Wyatt's a talented fellow (witness his band Track Star), but his songs sounded out of place.

Thankfully, How I Learned To Write Backwards is all Linton, all the time, and that one little switch has made all the difference in the world, for the Aislers Set have made a record that is vastly superior to everything else they've done. From the first tinkling bells of "Catherine Says," you know that you're in for a sweet treat. The la-la-la's and the sing-along moments are warm, inviting, and charming in their own special way. "Emotional Levy" slows things down, and though it's one of their more melancholy numbers, but you'll happily be clapping along with it, too, and its "Leader Of The Pack" meets "Be My Baby" beat will leave you longing for a milkshake to crush out over. There's more trumpet, too, for those that might have noticed its presence on their earlier songs. There's also a tinge of darker elements, a bit more melancholy this time around, and a few more interesting moments, such as the quiet, near-acapella "Unfinished Paintings," the interesting odd jazz moments of "The Train #1," and the mellow "Mission Bells."

See, that's the great thing about How I Learned to Write Backwards--innocent music that's much deeper than its cute nature will lead you to believe. You'll be so fooled by the 60s girl-group aesthetic that you'll not notice that they've thrown in some 70s post-punk (dig those Joy Division-like bass lines throughout), 80s indiepop, and 90s noise (such as the Henry's Dressesque noise of "The Train #2"). How I Learned to Write Backwards is the kind of record that could have only been made by obsessive music lovers. Instead of sounding like a stewpot of inspirations, Linton and crew really mix it up so that you don't really notice their influences. Instead, they're quickly becoming inspirational, and I have this distinct feeling that we're going to start seeing Aislers Set-inspired bands popping up left and right.

It may only be the first of the new year, but How I Learned To Write Backwards is clearly a contender for one of the best records of the year. Of course, such kudos aren't really surprising. This was the record that Linton's been threatening to make for years, yet it's exactly the same kind of record they've been making. It's a rare feat when a band can break new ground musically and yet never sound much different than what they've done before. Making rhythmically complex music that you can dance The Twist to is a true sign of greatness. The Aislers Set have once again pulled it off, done it well, and will leave you smilin' all day long.

--Joseph Kyle

February 04, 2003

Har Mar Superstar "You Can Feel Me"

When one thinks of white rappers, two images come to mind: Vanilla Ice and Eminem. (If you're older, 3rd Bass, but they were more of a group than individual personalities). Of course, as time goes by, the differences between Eminem and Vanilla Ice grow smaller--when Mr. Mathers makes his live record, the transformation shall be complete. Then there's R&B singing. Michael Bolton comes to mind. Though there's a whole new world of independent rap and hip-hop being born which breaks the racial barrier, the genre is still pretty much thought of as not a white one. If you're a regular reader, you should know that we're not going to waste our time or your time talking about music made by the artists mentioned above. Why should we? Then there's Har Mar Superstar, a very talented man with an excellent singing voice, who simply defies description.

Har Mar Superstar is the "brother" of Sean Na Na's Sean Tillmann. He's an amazing fellow, too--just look at the pictures in the booklet. He's a short, stocky fellow with long hair, a pencil-thin mustache, and one helluva ego. He's not a fighter, he's a LOVER, baby, and he's already loved your girl. The man is totally comfortable with himself, and that makes me feel good, because he's not what you'd expect. Although he's sincere about his music, there's a "joke" atmosphere that is undeniably present. I don't think that Har Mar Superstar is a joke, but the air of humor to be found on You Can Feel Me is as strong as cheap cologne and Swisher Sweets. Just look to his two pals, Dirty Preston and Ric Diculous. It's good to laugh, and you'll certainly have a smile on your face whenever you listen.

It doesn't hurt Har Mar that he's enlisted some really talented people to help him out. With folks as diverse as the Busy Signals, Broken Spindles, and the Faint contributing beats and rhythms. The Gossip's Beth Ditto makes a cameo appearance on "Power Lunch" and "H.A.R.M.A.R.," and her singing is just AMAZING. You Can Feel Me is a shockingly slick-sounding record, with expert beats and studio polish and a sound that Justin Timberlake would be jealous of. At times, Har Mar ventures from rap and R&B and heads straight into pop territory--such as on "Elephant Walk" and "We Can Be Happy,"--and guess what? He kicks ass at it, too! Sean--whoops, I mean Harold--actually possesses a VERY strong voice, and it's really should not be a shock to see the Har Mar star growing larger.

Were it not for the fact that I believe that Tillmann's appeal seems to be built on absurdity--absuridty of his style, and, unfortunatly, his appearance--I think that he could be a legitimate hit-making pop star. Hell, he should be a pop star. You Can Feel Me certainly makes a case for it, but that whole "humor" aspect seems to weigh any chance of it down. If you ever have the opportunity to see him live, DO IT. He's one helluva performer, and if he ever makes it to Top 40, I'll not only not be surprised, I'll be happy.

--Joseph Kyle