December 21, 2005

Brian McBride "When THe Detail Lost Its Freedom"

For those who were and are enamored with Texas experimental music, the name Brian McBride is a familiar one. As one-half of the duo Stars of the Lid, McBride and Adam Wiltzie composed a handful of beautiful, still records that quietly stand apart from their contemporaries. Mixing drone and synthetic tones with languid melody, Stars of the Lid's music exuded simplicty and unhurried beauty. Bands such as that often tend to disappear into the eather, and Stars of the Lid has been dormant for a few years--and that Wiltzie has also released a solo record, as The Dead Texan--it's not surprising that McBride has pursued a solo release.

Where Stars of the Lid demonstrated that the beauty of classical music can be found in drone-rock if you patiently wait for it, McBride's solo debut, When The Detail Lost Its Freedom, is a much more traditional exploration of classical themes within gentle ambient compositions. Though there are natural similarities between his solo work and Stars of the Lid, by himself, McBride eschews an overreliance on synthetic instrumentation, and the songs on Detail consist of traditional arrangements and very few special effects. In fact, most of Detail's songs are guitar-based--but you'd be hard-pressed to find any guitars. You'll find other things, though, like bells and manipulated percussion, as well as piano and harmonica--and on two songs, "The Guilt of Uncomplicated Thought" and "Our Last Moment in Song," contain beautiful vocals from McBride and guest female vocalists Cheree Jetton and Cheri Keating, respectively.

Ultimately, though, the instruments don't matter--it's the music that's important. McBride's steady hand is responsible for twelve gorgeous, simple ambient pieces that invoke a grey, cold winter's day. There's nothing hurried, rushed, or frantic about any of these pieces; they're still and gentle, instantly relaxing for those who choose to listen. Songs like "Our Last Moment In Song" and "I Will" recall the works of ambient masters Eno and Harold Budd, while the melodies of "For Those Who Hesitate" and "Retenir" swirl around in a way that recalls a pedal steel guitar, and it's not hard to picture these as BJ Cole compositions. But, ultimately, McBride's work is all his own, and he's quietly created a wonderful record that's perfect for relaxation and concentration. Unhurried and undaunted, it quietly moves along, gently flowing into the listener's soul.

There have been rumblings that Stars of the Lid will be recording in 2006. While it is good to know that the duo will once again place their minds together in collaboration, When The Detail Lost Its Freedom establishes McBride as a solo artist, and shows that he's quite capable of making excellent music on his own. This is a beautiful record that transcends genre, doing nothing more than caressing the listener's mind with beautiful, unhurried melody.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.kranky.net/artists/mcbrideb.html
Label Website: http://www.kranky.net

The Triangles "Magic Johnson"

I very rarely give into my tendencies towards musical obsession, but recently I've allowed myself that luxury. I've had to allow myself that luxury, because, ultimately, I've had very little choice in the matter. Why? Because a band of five Australian kids have forced me to, that's why. I wish I'd been a bit more careful, because thanks to this band, I've not been able to get much of anything done--they've required my utmost attention, so much so that it's almost starting to worry me.

Let's back up for a few moments, and let's learn a bit more about this band, shall we? They're called The Triangles, and they hail from sunny Melbourne, Australia. They've been around for about three years now, and they've released three albums, an EP, and a single. They consist of three girls and two boys; they all play a variety of instruments and sing, and they're all cute as the dickens. They met at youth camp in the 1990s, and they've all been involved in community music and theatre projects. They play fun instruments like banjos and melodicas and recorders and ukeleles. They all seem less than convinced of the possibility of the Triangles "making it."

Internal pessimism aside, Magic Johnson is an extremly likeable record. Three of the band members share the singing duties, and they all offer up their own unique instrumental abilities in ways that are quite charming. At times, they've succesfully captured the same magic of The Polyphonic Spree and the Partridge Family, even occasionally sounding like the Cowsills, too. In other words, big, bright, sunny pop meoldies filled with gorgeous harmonies and lyrics about having fun and enjoying life. It's hard not to smile during the "bah-bah-bah's" of album opener "Applejack," and the song's catchy hooks will pull you up and into their world quite quickly. They then turn around and deliver one addictive hook-laden song after another, replete with banjos, harmonicas, kazoos, multitracked boy/girl singing and pretty, pretty harmonies. Heck, on songs like "Let's Replace the Cityscapes" and "I Am Your Valley," the background vocals are so strong, you'll be checking to see if maybe these kids stole the kidnapped the Polyphonic Spree choir!

Even on less sunny songs like "The 1850's" and "Your Heart," the band still utilizes the things that make their sunnier songs so great--and guess what? The songs are still awesome, and the band's still great!! Better still, the band's tricks and style never, ever sounds contrived, nor does it ever sound montonous; they're very good at what they do, and it's evident in their songwriting, as each song is rewarding in its own way. When a band can go from really sad to really happy is one thing--that they can do so without ever losing any of their magical charm is another. Seriously, there's not a bum note to be found on Magic Johnson; there's no song that's skippable--every song is a perfect little creation, lovely and beautiful in its own way; this album is truly a perfect record. That it's all but an obscurity is a shame--but hopefully, they won't be obscure for much longer.

Cheery, upbeat, sunny, funny, fun, cute, charming, catchy--what more could I possibly want? What more could you possibly want? This is, simply put, a damn fine record that sounds like absolutely nothing you've heard all year. It's been ages since a record's made me wave my hands up in the air, dance around like a fool around the room, and singing along to every song. If that's not the sign of pure pop perfection, then, damn, I don't know what is. Let's just hope they get over their own pessimistic tendencies, and realize how damn good they are.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.thetriangles.net
Label Website: http://www.halfacow.com.au

December 20, 2005

Rosie Thomas "If Songs Could Be Held"

When she first appeared a few years ago, Rosie Thomas served as an excellet complement to her labelmate Damien Jurado. Her songs were sweet, sensitive things; delicate as gossamer and as gentle as a cool spring breeze. Though these records placed her squarely within the folk-singer world, Rosie Thomas has apparently decided to expand her horizons beyond those limited parameters. To that end, her third album, If Songs Could Be Held eschews the precious folk stylings of previous records, and is, in its own way, a pop record.

It's clear that Thomas's desire to expand her music in a more pop direction was a wise decision. Instead of being the female Damien Jurado or David Bazan, she's proven that she belongs in the realm once reserved for Lucienda Williams, Natalie Merchant, and Joni Mitchell. Songs like "Guess It May" and "Since You've Been Around" are delicate and pretty like before, but they are deeper, stronger, and much more affecting--thanks, in part, to the more mature arrangements, namely a beautiful string section accompaniment. Pretty doesn't always mean comfortable, as her material is as dark as before--if not darker--especially on "Say What You Want" and the how-could-it-not-be-anything-but "Death Came and Got Me."

The most striking song on the record, though, is "Pretty Dress." It's a mid-tempo piano ballad that's not unlike Tori Amos; it starts off quietly, but it grows and builds up into a large, loud, expansively beautiful conclusion, complete with orchestral backing and downright beautiful singing. Haunting and instantly catchy, it's easily one of the best songs of this year. That it's not on the radio is not her fault; this little number could move a multitude of people to tears--tears of joy, tears of sentiment, tears of appretiation of hearing a song of sheer beauty.

If Songs Could Be Held is a beautiful, mature album, and it's a major step forward for Rosie Thomas. In all honesty, it succeeds because it breaks away from her previous work. It's always a bold gambit to do so, but in Thomas's case, she's succeeded. If Songs Could Be Held will quietly take room in your heart and will build a special place there--if you let it. Let it.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.rosiethomas.com
Label Website: http://www.subpop.com

LD & The New Criticism "Tragic Realism"

LD Beghtol understands one very simple concept: you don't have to be Nick Cave or The Handsome Family to write murder ballads. If the name sounds vaguely familiar, you're right; though best known for his appearance on The Magnetic Fields' opus 69 Love Songs, he's accomplished more than that. He's also spearheaded groups The Moth Wranglers and Flare, and he's one-third of the scary triumvirate The Three Terrors. You'll also find him spearheading the pages of Village Voice, Time Out New York, and the excellent Chickfactor.

But enough of those matters, as LD & The New Criticism is, as the name suggests, new. Beghtol's always possessed a dry, charming wit, but his other projects never fully explored this aspect of his personality. Sure, Moth Wranglers had some funny moments, and Flare's songs contained well-written songs with a touch of dramatic humor, but with LD & The New Criticism, Beghtol unapologetically indulges his most peculiar sense of humor, as every song on Tragic Realism provides some examination of the lighter--and darker--sides of life, love, and death. When a record's artwork contains a subject key that highlights each song's form of death and destruction, how can you expect anything less than brilliant self-indulgence?

And my, what wonderful things result from his self-indulgence! Beghtol's accrued a number of odd and unique musical toys, and he supplements his songs with all kinds of little things you've never heard of. But most of all, it's safe to assume you've never heard tragedy and death and bitterness and jealousy dealt with in such a fun, lighthearted manner. A hoedown about revenge and blackmail? Yeah, just listen to "Burn, Burn, Burn In Hell." A children's song about suicide? Just dig "DIY And Save Big." So you say you want to hear a simple song about watching your ex be hit by a train? "Elegy For An Ex" will serve you well. Plus, you'll find references to all sorts of wonderful things, ranging from the Louvin Brothers to Howdy Doody. Of course, you don't have to be erudite to appreciate Tragic Realism, but it sure does help. After all, you can't really appreciate the darkness of "When We Dance (At Joe Orton's Wedding)" unless you know the whole story of Joe Orton's life. (And we're not going to tell you the story--you won't learn if we simply tell you. Besides, it's all there in the song.)

Tragic Realism is simply, wonderfully, miserablly excellent. It's great that Beghtol's allowed the world into his inner thoughts--but if you choose to take the journey, be prepared for some rather dark, disturbing--and disturbingly funny--moments.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.thenewcriticism.com
Label Website: http://www.darla.com

December 16, 2005

Okkervil River "Black Sheep Boy Appendix'

Earlier this year, Okkervil River released Black Sheep Boy. For some, it's not merely the band's record, but it's also one of this year's better releases. It's easy to understand why; the melancholy and the darkness of Will Sheff's lyrical approach is greatly enhanced by his haunting--and hauntingly beautiful--singing. The band's accompaniment adds a dark, psychedelic touch to his words, creating a beautifully modern-sounding Southern Gothic record.

Black Sheep Boy Appendix collects several songs recorded during the album sessions but excluded for various reasons. Even though these are outtakes, the songs are still high-quality. Will Sheff is in fine, haunting voice, and his backing band is in touch with the same dark spirits found on Black Sheep Boy; "Missing Children," "Black Sheep Boy" and "Another Radio Song" have the disturbing, macabre quality of an Edward Gorey drawing. "Last Love Song" is an upbeat number, even though it's also quite disturbing in its lyrical imagery. The band's varied musical lineup and arrangements make these songs even better, and the hauntingly brief instrumental segues "A Forest" and "A Garden" (Cure references!) make the record a cohesive trip into darkness and melancholy. The one true shocker here, though, is "No Key, No Plan." It's a balls-out country-rock number that sounds a helluva lot like The Old 97s. Sheff gets all screamy in it, and though it feels quite out of place here...damn, it sounds great!

A lot of hype has surrounded this little Austin band this year--and it's well-deserved. Black Sheep Boy Appendix is a great introduction for those who might not have heard the band before, and it's a great little gift for those already fascinated.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.okkervilriver.com
Label Website: http://www.jagjaguwar.com

Elliott "Photorecording"

It's always disheartening when a good band dies in obscurity. It's one thing when a band makes an overwhelmingly amazing record that no one except a few people will hear, but to make a record that definitely could have appealed to a wider audience yet goes unheard except by a select few? Man, that's not just frustrating, that's just downright depressing. And so it was with Louisville's Elliott, who released their masterpiece Song in the Air in 2003, then quietly called it a day. For those who loved the band's epic soundscapes and melancholy melodies, this loss was especially painful, as Elliott's potential for wider success and recognition seemed assured.

After playing their final show, the band went into a recording studio and recorded their setlist live to tape, in hopes of capturing the energy of the band's live performance. This live set constitutes one half Elliott's farewell record, Photorecording. The seven-song set is an extremely tight performance; though the set is extremely brief, it's still a staggeringly beautiful set. The setlist contains their better moments, including "Drive Onto Me," "Blessed By Your Ghost" and "Shallow Like Your Breath." The songs don't differ too much from the previously released versions, except for one notable difference: passion. Elliott live had passion, and these songs definitely capture that live energy.

The other half of Photorecording consists of demo material, compilation tracks, and unreleased material. If it's true that you can tell the quality of a band by the material it rejects or neglects, then the songs found here prove that Elliott's albums were not merely glossed over in studio production. These songs aren't necessarily rejected outtakes inasmuch as they are alternate views on what the final songs would be; though "Bleed in Breathe Out," "Believe," and "Carry On" are different yet similar than the final versions, these songs do capture Elliott's studio experimentation. Perhaps the most interesting of these songs is "Drive," a dance remix version of "Drive Onto Me" that appeared in 2004. Even though an ethereal-minded band like Elliott might seem an unlikely contender for a dance remix, this song works surprisingly well; heck, it even shows that the band could have prettied up their sound for more mainstream success, and that the crossover might not have been as unlikely as one might have expected.

Also included with Photorecording is a DVD that contains a brief tour documentary of the band's last few dates, with plenty of live shots from their New York performance. This is fascinating watching, especially when the band talks about their reasons for splitting up, but it's not completely revelatory. It just shows a band having fun as they prepare to call it a day.

For a final document, Photorecording serves its purpose quite well. It captures the magic of Elliott the live band, and it wraps up any loose ends in terms of previously unreleased material and compilation tracks. That it flows together quite seamlessly is an additional bonus, too. Elliott was a great band, and it's sad that the world never had a chance to fully appreciate them. Listening to Photorecording will inform you of what the world's missed.

---Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.elliottintransit.com
Label Website: http://www.revelationrecords.com

December 13, 2005

Tender Trap "Language Lessons"

It's been way too long since Amelia Fletcher graced the indie-pop world with a new record. When you go back and listen to her records with Heavenly and Marine Research, it's hard to believe that the world would allow her lovely voice to fall silent. Tender Trap's record came out in 2002, and three years' wait is simply unfair. But not to fear! Matinee has saved them from the den of obscurity. Language Lessons breaks that drought, and it's about time, too!

Even though they're older and wiser, the band's not lost any of their charm. Fletcher's in fine, fine voice; she still sings as if she possesses the world's biggest smile, and the band's music is never lacking in charm. "Talking Backwards" is a fun little girl-group style romp that allows Fletcher to stretch her singing muscles. It is a fun little romp, and a classic pop number. "Unputdownable" is a mellower number; it's not quite as charming as the previous song, but it's still quite nice. The final two songs, "¿Como Te Llamas?" and "Friendster," were released a few years ago on a Spanish single, but they're still quite enjoyable; "Friendster" is an ode to that once-popular website, and "¿Como Te Llamas?" is a frantic-paced new-wave number that's very similar to labelmates Pipas. (Of course, with Pipas' own Lupe Nunez-Fernandez as a guest vocalist, how could it not?)

As a teaser for their forthcoming album, Language Lessons is a fun little indie-pop romp. It's good to know that Amelia is still making good music--but, really, that's not a surprise. A sweet little treat, this!

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~queenb/tt/
Label Website : http://www.indiepages.com/matinee

Lowlights "Dark End Road"

You've got to hand it to Dameon Lee; he's a man who knows a thing about atmosphere. His band, Lowlights, comes across like a mixture between a more countrified Grandaddy and a more gentrified My Morning Jacket, but he does so in such a sublime manner. He's woven the delicate gossamer of Sparkehorse into the gritty dust and sand of the old Southwest, baked it in the summer heat, and the results are simply marvelous. Okay, so maybe that metaphor is a bit cheesy, and the comparisons are a bit lazy, but the point is this: the sounds found on Dark End Road might seem familiar, but it's to Lee's credit that he's managed to make it sound completely original.

For his second record, Lee has gathered a small orchestra to accompany him; with their assistance, he's able to expand the depths of his bleak, dark atmosphere yet ironically make his music much more delicate. Under his direction, the band sets about creating music that's slightly psychedelic, somewhat sad, and more than a little beautiful. Because of the attention paid to intricate detail, it's hard not to fall in love Dark End Road, and it's these little things that seperate Lowlights from their contemporaries. The soul-piercing harmonica on "The Way You Were," the gentle raindrop-sounding keyboards on "Hide Awhile," the slight piano on "Snow Is Silver," the gentle wash of pedal steel on "Curse"--these little things add up to a wonderful accompaniment for Lee's sad lyrics and even sadder songs. The band falters only once, on the upbeat rocker "Drive Thru;" though it's a good song, the fast pace and the horn section just feels out of place. (Oh, the song's still wonderful, but it's a bit more ramshackle than the rest of Dark End Road.)

Dark End Road is a simply simple delight; it's dusty and dark and spacey and sad and pretty and all of the likeable things about country music, made by a group of people who probably don't consider themselves a country band. Making good, beautiful music is a wonderful thing, and it's hard to deny Dark End Road. It's the perfect record for those moments when you're not feelin' too good, are feelin' a little sad, or simply want to enjoy the beauty of a grey day.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.thelowlights.com
Label Website: http://www.darla.com

December 10, 2005

Interview: Fishboy

Describe the recording process for Little D.

Very gradual. Drums for the five songs were recorded on tape at a house studio in Austin. Afterwards we brought those up to Denton where we spent the next year and a half “experimenting” in the home studio of Mark Sonnabaum. We knew we wanted to make a huge album but had very little resources (other than kind friends) so Mark agreed to record this massive thing we had in our minds for next to nothing. Because he couldn’t really push all of his other projects aside everything was done in small pieces. Some times we’d go two weeks with out touching it only to comeback and record for an afternoon. All the down time gave me more time to think about the structure and layers of the album so there was also a large trial and error process of playing with sounds. On top of all this we kept meeting local musicians whom we respected and would ask them come in and record a part when they had time.

What song on Little D do you feel you put the most work into, and why?

I personally didn’t do most of the work for this song, but "Start Again" was the most worked upon. Live we would just rock out the ending as loud as we could but for the album I had this dream for the grand finale to be a large orchestra piece. Mark transcribed sheet music from a demo I had and we got to together as many music students from the university that we could. Add in some make shift studio magic and we had ourselves an epic ending. Chris Flemmons from Baptist Generals singing the duel part as the disgruntled neighbor was icing on the cake.

If someone were to ask you what song on Little D best represented your overall work, which song would it be, and why?

Little D is full of songs that blossomed out of the recording process and can’t be fully duplicated live with the current line up so lately we have mainly stuck to the straight forward rock songs at shows. "Tree Star" is a good example of studio creativity applied to one of those straightforward rock songs. The lyrics also talk about some one who is under/fed/dressed/paid but still works hard with what they have to be the best they can. This describes my whole music career.

To you, what song on the new album is the most meaningful?

My cousin wrote "Haunted Highway" when she was 11 or 12 years old with out using any instruments. I was listening back to old tapes I had of us playing around with a four track and I found the song. Even though parts of it are a little silly the message to me is really deep. It’s a lot like an old hymn where every one is singing about how great it’s going to be when they die. It would be nice to hear a large group of people sing it someday.

If you had to describe the ideal setting for listening to Little D, what would it be?

I tested out a lot of the mixes while driving around Denton so certain songs remind me of certain drives. Maybe I should make a map where I tell you how fast to go from place to place so that each song ends when you get to a certain landmark. It will be like a star map only...really boring....

Whats next?

We are currently revamping the line up of the band so that we can do more stuff on stage. I hope to put out another album before we tour in the summer. Half of the songs are already written including one I wrote last night about using Buddy Holly’s ghost as a parachute. I’m really proud of it.

December 09, 2005

The Mars Volta "Scabdates"

Live albums are normally dicey propositions. Some bands aren't well-served by a live record, as their live performance doesn't really differ from their studio performance. Then you have a band like The Mars Volta, whose live performances are so kinetic and energetic and different from their studio recordings, that the music they perform is almost completely different than their studio work.

The Mars Volta is one hell of a live band, and a live record doesn't quite serve them well, mainly because it's impossible to fully capture the band's electricity. You have to experience it firsthand; you have to allow yourself to be surrounded and engulfed in their musical power. And yeah, it's powerful, heady stuff, too; while most of the material seems to draw from the De-Loused in the Comatorium album, but much of this material is so strong and so weird and so out there, it's hard to be quite sure where it comes from. But damn, it sure is noisy, and it sure is blustery, and it sure is lonnnnngggggg.....

Considering how their records aren't so much albums as they are long, continuous sonic experiments that are merely broken apart for the sake of commerce, it's hardly any surprise that Scabdates is the same way. This is a seventy-two minute experiment in tolerance; how much of this you can tolerate in one sitting is up to you to decide, especially on the album finale "Cicatriz," which lasts for nearly a half-hour with absolutely no restraint. Much like their albums, this live set is not for the faint of heart. Enjoy...if you can take it. If you can't, don't fear, there's nothing wrong with you--just come back later and try to take it all again.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.themarsvolta.com
Label Website: http://www.universalrecords.com
Label Website: http://www.goldstandardlabs.com

Robert Skoro "That These Things Could Be Ours"

A young man like Robert Skoro is a bit of an inspiration. Skoro started making music as a teenager, quickly rising to prominence in the Minneapolis music scene. He toured with Mason Jennings, he self-released his first album Proof, and he was named Minneapolis' Artist of the Year in 2002 and Male Vocalist of the Year in 2003. That he's done a lot in the past decade years wouldn't be nearly as impressive if it wasn't for the fact that he's only twenty-four. That his music is not at all 'trendy' makes his talent even more impressive--in an industry of phonies and hyped-up hacks, Skoro is very much a real talent.

For That These Things Could Be Ours, Skoro formed a stellar backing band, then sought out the production of the venerable Brian Deck. In the process, he wrote some really wonderful songs. With a humble singing voice that recalls Eric Matthews, Skoro and his five-piece band craft lovely, gentle pop songs that are lightly peppered with a bit of country and a bit of jazz. At times, it's hard not to think that Skoro and his band are a Y-chromosome version of Spinanes, especially on the breezy and sultry "Before the Sun," "Morning," and "Old Friend." On other songs, like "Influence" and "Boo Hoo" and "Hungry Ghost" Skoro heads straight for the sleepy-eyed child, singing gentle songs that can lull even the most stressed soul to slumber. His band contributes lovely washes of percussion, piano, and guitar, and together they create truly light and fluffy backdrop. The only time the band revs their engines is on the opening "All the Angels" and the closing "The Package," and though both numbers are excellent, they don't quite represent the rest of the album. It's okay, though, because in a roundabout way, both numbers show the beauty of restraint; sure, they could make a rattle, but when the band's mellower fare is so good, why bother?

It's easy to imagine That These Things Could Be Ours as the music you'd hear in a bookstore, a coffee shop or a quiet, candlelit bar. It's gentle, but it's not lazy; it's pretty, but it's not lightweight; it's light, but it's not shallow. It is, however, one of this year's sleeper albums. Heck, from my own personal experience, it's certainly a grower. After an initial listen a few months ago, it sat by my desk, unloved and unplayed. Last week, I put it on my stereo, and something clicked; I've listened to it several times a day, and I can see myself listening to it a lot more. And that, my friends, is what makes a great record, and that's exactly what Skoro's made. Well done!


--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.robertskoro.com
Label Website: http://www.yeproc.com

Robert Skoro "That These Things Could Be Ours"

A young man like Robert Skoro is a bit of an inspiration. Skoro started making music as a teenager, quickly rising to prominence in the Minneapolis music scene. He toured with Mason Jennings, he self-released his first album Proof, and he was named Minneapolis' Artist of the Year in 2002 and Male Vocalist of the Year in 2003. That he's done a lot in the past decade years wouldn't be nearly as impressive if it wasn't for the fact that he's only twenty-four. That his music is not at all 'trendy' makes his talent even more impressive--in an industry of phonies and hyped-up hacks, Skoro is very much a real talent.

For That These Things Could Be Ours, Skoro formed a stellar backing band, then sought out the production of the venerable Brian Deck. In the process, he wrote some really wonderful songs. With a humble singing voice that recalls Eric Matthews, Skoro and his five-piece band craft lovely, gentle pop songs that are lightly peppered with a bit of country and a bit of jazz. At times, it's hard not to think that Skoro and his band are a Y-chromosome version of Spinanes, especially on the breezy and sultry "Before the Sun," "Morning," and "Old Friend." On other songs, like "Influence" and "Boo Hoo" and "Hungry Ghost" Skoro heads straight for the sleepy-eyed child, singing gentle songs that can lull even the most stressed soul to slumber. His band contributes lovely washes of percussion, piano, and guitar, and together they create truly light and fluffy backdrop. The only time the band revs their engines is on the opening "All the Angels" and the closing "The Package," and though both numbers are excellent, they don't quite represent the rest of the album. It's okay, though, because in a roundabout way, both numbers show the beauty of restraint; sure, they could make a rattle, but when the band's mellower fare is so good, why bother?

It's easy to imagine That These Things Could Be Ours as the music you'd hear in a bookstore, a coffee shop or a quiet, candlelit bar. It's gentle, but it's not lazy; it's pretty, but it's not lightweight; it's light, but it's not shallow. It is, however, one of this year's sleeper albums. Heck, from my own personal experience, it's certainly a grower. After an initial listen a few months ago, it sat by my desk, unloved and unplayed. Last week, I put it on my stereo, and something clicked; I've listened to it several times a day, and I can see myself listening to it a lot more. And that, my friends, is what makes a great record, and that's exactly what Skoro's made. Well done!


--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.robertskoro.com
Label Website: http://www.yeproc.com

December 08, 2005

The Secret Handshake "This Is Bigger Than You or I"

It's a bit tedious, this whole "emo" to-do. "New grunge," blah blah blah, "all songs have emotional content," blah blah blah, "it's a youth movement meant to help kids get in touch with their feelings," blah blah blah, "you're too old to understand," blah blah blah, "emo died when the kids graduated from high school," blah blah blah*. There's a point to be made underneath all that cynicism. Sadly, I can't tell you what that point is, because...well, I don't know what the point is, other than "emo" means less to some than it does for others. I'm one of those "means less" people. (I made the mistake of attending an Alkaline Trio show a few years ago; not that the music was bad, but the experience of feeling like a high-school chaperone at a "punk" show made me feel old.) Superficially speaking, Dallas' The Secret Handshake appear to be a ripe candidate for the "emo" tag. A young fanbase, "serious" sounding album title, and lyrics that demonstrate youthful melancholy. Superficially, I wasn't really looking forward to listening to this little record. You should never judge a record by its cover, though, as was instantly learned here. Following on his 2004 debut album, this six-song EP may be brief, and it may be a tad "emo," but it's certainly not as bad as my stereotyping-mind led me to believe.

The music found on This Is Bigger Than You or I all seems to follow the same formula; the songs are mellow, piano-based affairs, all highlighted by Luis Dubuc's earnest singing. The first three songs sound like a Coldplay/Travis/Ben Folds blend that are not without their charm. "An Outline" is a gorgeous radio-friendly pop number; the same could be said of "Coastal Cities," an otherwise gorgeous song that's ruined somewhat by some rather amateurish studio vocal effects at the end. "Don't Call" borrows a piano tag from Parachutes, and the ticking clocks are a subtle reference, too. All three songs show a great deal of promise. The last three songs, however, aren't up to the high standards of the first half of the record. "Friendly Reminder" is a seemingly incongrous acoustic singalong number; "Love of My Troubles" sounds too much like a bad Radiohead imitation, while "The Giver" is simply forgettable, generic, whiny emo-pop.

Though the last half of the record is forgettable, the first three songs are excellent and show a great deal of promise. If Dubuc escapes the more generic-sounds of the last half of This Is Bigger Than You or I, then his next record might be something to look forward to.

--Joseph Kyle


Artist Website: http://www.thesecrethandshake.net
Label Website: http://www.dollhouseinc.com

*For best effect, imitate the teacher in the animated Peanuts specials.

Rogue Wave "Descended Like Vultures"

What a difference a few years can make! Even though Sub Pop released Rogue Wave's debut album Out of the Shadows last year, it was actually released in 2002. This delay in releasing new studio material might be frustrating for some, but I'm willing to argue that this passing of time only helped Rogue Wave. Since releasing his debut album, main Rogue Zach Rogue has formed a full backing band, and they have toured the country several times. Naturally, the band's dynamic has changed--and for the better.

If Out of the Shadows is the lovely monochromatic sound of one man clapping, Descended Like Vultures is a full-blown technicolor feature. The debut--which was essentially a solo project--sounded nice, but it suffered from the same drawbacks found in other one-man band projects; the "band" is only as good as the musician behind the instruments, and it's very rare for one man to capture the same spontanaety of a full band accompaniment. While the debut charmed its listeners, it sounded charmingly awkward; one had the feeling that Rogue had the capacity for greatness, and one certainly hoped Rogue Wave's follow up would be a little bit better.

After one listen to Descended Like Vultures, it's clear that such concern was for naught. Rogue can compose a very catchy tune; "Publish My Love" and "Catform" are two songs that will not leave your head for days. Though he has the ability to make pretty groovin' rock and roll, most of the the album is mellowed-out sunshine rock that drifts in and out of your ears like a warm summer's breeze. The strumming guitars on "Salesman at the Day of the Parade" and the light electric guitars on "You" warm the heart and take the listener to a nice, calm place--one where the sun shines all day and the stars shine all night. True, times can be bittersweet (as you'll hear on "California," "Love's Lost Guarantee," and "Temporary"), but when there's love to be in, why not be in love? But don't think that because the band's music is soft and pretty, that they're incapable of making some great rockers; when the band wants to deliver its power, as heard on "10:1" and "Publish My Love," there's no stopping their full-force attack.

It's great to hear that Rogue and company have bonded so tightly, because Descended Like Vultures is, hands down, a great record. It's simple in its execution, but simplicity is often a sign of brilliance. May it not take Rogue and his rogues two and a half years to record and relase a follow-up!

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.roguewavemusic.com
Label Website: http://www.subpop.com

December 07, 2005

Saxon Shore "The Exquisite Death of..."

Saxon Shore’s latest album, The Exquisite Death of Saxon Shore, is nothing short of a blissful listening experience. That the album almost did not come into existence makes its existence even more blessed. Last year, two of the band’s founding members left, and Matt Doty was forced to put together an entirely new band. This overhaul has proven a good thing, as the new incarnation of Saxon Shore takes his music to new heights. They then enlisted magical studio wizard Dave Friddman to produce the record. The result? A drop-dead gorgeous record that burns with gentle intensity and unhurried passion.

The Exquisite Death of Saxon Shore's sound travels from quiet to loud to quiet again, but in so doing, they never tread into bombastic or lightweight territory. From the gentle lullaby tones of "This Shameless Moment" and "TheShaping of a Helpless Joy" to the epic, cinematic rock of "Isolated By the Secrets of Your Fellow Men" and "How We Conquered the Western World on Horseback," Saxon Shore explores all sorts of delicate, gentle ambient-rock sounds, treading the same ground as--but never imitating--Sigur Ros, Godspeed! You Black Emperor, Mogwai, and Explosions in the Sky. Though the band's tendency to start soft, grow loud and then grow soft again might not impress some, overall, the music is pretty enough and colorful enough to escape any easy dismissal as "generic-sounding." Indeed, it's understandable how a few of the songs could be labeled as generic, if you listened to them outside of the rest of the record. But listening to the album in individual parts seems to defeat the point; listening to it as if it were one long, continuous symphony makes the listening experience much more rewarding.

Very rarely is music this easy on the ears, but The Exquisite Death of Saxon Shore is a wonderfully relaxing record. Word has it that the band is working on a soundtrack score, and it's easy to understand why; their music and their tone is cinematic, and it will be interesting to see how their soundtrack-style music fits in with a visual element.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.saxonshore.com
Label Website: http://www.burnttoastvinyl.com

The Darkness "One Way Ticket to Hell...And Back!"

And now, the award for this year's "November Surprise" release goes to...The Darkness!

The Darkness?

That band?

Yeah. That band.

Of course, follow-up albums to highly-regarded debuts aren't supposed to be this good, especially in the metal world. After all, bands are supposed to be self-induglent on their sophomore records; they're supposed to have big choirs and loud orchestras and songs about the high-life and success and money and all the things that are associated with newfound wealth. Such records are supposed to be bigger than life, bombastic as all get-out and filled to the brim with excessively long epic-rockers that don't really sound a thing like the previous record. That these records are often more popular than the record that preceded it isn't surprising--nor is said band's disappearance from the music world shortly thereafter.

But The Darkness have escaped from falling victim to the dreaded excessive follow-up curse, and they've done so for two reasons. First, the band assigned production duties to Roy Thomas Baker, a man who understands the proper techniques for making successful pomp and over-the-top rock; after all, his productions helped make Queen a household name. More importantly, though, the band's music was already decadent, over-the-top and bigger than life. Just take a listen to their debut album Permission to Land; it's full of great rockers about the bad-boy aspects of rock-and-roll, all highlighted by some excellent guitar pyrotechnics and Justin Hawkins' super-sweet falsetto. Though slagged at the time as being a "parody" metal band, many people looked past the cynical press and discovered that The Darkness is the real deal.

One Way Ticket to Hell...And Back is a quite succinct, compact record. While their debut was a blast of retro-rock that recalled the best (and worst) of early 1980s rock, for One Way Ticket the band has eschewed those tendencies in favor of a deeper, less superficial-sounding record, opting for songs with grander arrangements. Songs now feature orchestras and string sections, and only a few numbers (most notably "Girlfriend" and "Knockers") recall their debut. This is where Roy Thomas Baker's magic is felt; at times, especially on "Seemed Like a Good Idea At the Time" and "Blind Man," the similarities between The Darkness and Queen are not only noticeable, they're unavoidable. (This is not a bad thing, either.) But when you hear the bagpipes on "Hazel Eyes" or the orchestra on Hawkins' singing is better than ever, his falsetto swinging higher and higher, and after a few years on the road, it's even stronger than before. The man can sing, damn it. Maturity's a helluva thing, and for The Darkness, maturity is a blessing.

This newfound sonic maturity also falls in line with the band's lyrical maturity; gone are the songs about lust and love and drugs and debauchery and jealousy; instead, they sing of maturity, cleaning up their act, settling down in deep relationships, and, yes, going bald. That they're already addressing such subjects by their second album is an amazing feat; most bands wait until their third or fourth album to do so. Such topics often indicate a band's decline, here, it's an indication that the band's getting better, because, well...they're not making silly rock songs like "Love on the Rocks With No Ice" or "Get Your Hands Off Of My Woman." The band's newfound sense of maturity serves a grander purpose--seriousness. If Permission to Land made it easy to dismiss the band as a bunch of novelty-act poseurs making parody metal, One Way Ticket to Hell...And Back finds the band kicking the naysayers in the balls, proving to the world once and for all that The Darkness is a serious band. That the band can do so without losing any ground or coming off in a silly way only exemplifies their point.

One Way Ticket to Hell...And Back is indeed a surprise treat. Those expecting Permission to Land, volume two will probably be disappointed, but for those who had writ this band off as being nothing more than an amusing joke will certainly be surprised. I know I was. As surprising as it is for me to admit, this is easily one of the year's best records.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.thedarknessrock.com
Label Website: http://www.atlanticrecords.com

December 05, 2005

Excepter "Sunbomber"

Listen To: "Dawn Patrol

Summer means a lot of things-vacations, new friends, trips, relaxation. But there’s one thing you can’t escape: the HEAT. Yeah, it’s kind of obvious, but the climate of summer is definitely an influence on society. What better way to document these things than by setting your experience to song? For their new EP Sunbomber, that’s exactly what New York experimental band Excepter did. This five-song EP was recorded on one hot July day in New York, and damn if they didn’t do a great job of capturing the mood and the feel of the atmosphere.

Through the five songs, the band warbles and drones and seemingly captures the vibe of New York City in the summer. It’s not exactly “noise,” but it’s something quite “ambient” in nature. The tones on “One More Try” are shimmering and warm and wobbly, not unlike the steam of a hot city street. On “Second Chances,” you hear their reinterpretation of a busy, traffic-filled street, full of gridlock and honking horns. But don’t think that all of Sunbomber is abstract; through “Bridge Traffic” and “Dawn Patrol” runs a sexy, seductive funk beat, the sound of the heartbeat of life in an urban wasteland. Think the sleazy side of Miami at night and you’re on the right track. (It’s not too hard of a stretch to say that those two songs, if edited a bit, would work as great incidental music for CSI: Miami.) The final track, the nine-minute title song, is a woozy, weird psychedelic jam epic, and though the woozy vocals are slightly irritating, it’s nonetheless quite captivating.

Some might wrongfully peg Excepter as making noise, but there’s definitely more to them than that. Sunbomber is, in its own way, an odd slice-of-life, a snapshot of a summer’s day.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.excepter.com
Label Website: http://www.5rc.com

December 03, 2005

Various Artists "Dimension Mix"

Bruce Haack was an odd fellow. He made music in his living room, and it wasn't just any kind of music...it was magical music. Some of it could be considered children's music, but Haack was much more interested in capturing the innocence of youth and the joy of innocence in song. He had a psychology degree, and he was interested in the role music played in the development of a child's mind. That he did so at a time when the music world was undergoing radical technological advances and sonic experimentation made his music even more interesting. That he lived and died in obscurity is sad.

It's no surprise, then, that his recorded work influenced a younger generation. While he might not necessarily be a well-known influence, for those more offbeat artists, Haack was a fascinating and fun little secret. A thank-you should go out to the bright spark who decided on the idea of a tribute record to Haack should also serve as a benefit record for autistic children, a cause dear to Haack's heart. As Haack is extremely obscure, there's probably little chance you know any of the original versions of these songs. (A companion disc of the originals a la The Late, Great Daniel Johnston would be REALLY nice, Santa!)

As such, it's best to simply listen to these songs with the artist's own styles in mind; surprisingly, several of these songs--especially offerings from Stereolab, Beck, The Danielson Famile, DJ Me DJ You, and Fantastic Plastic Machine sound like original compositions. Personal favorites include Irving's "Army Ants In Your Pants" and Eels' silly Middle Eastern kids-song "Jelly Dancer." Of course, there's a few unknowns, like The Stones Throw Singers' amazing "Rain of Earth," and Brother Cleve's "School 4 Robots," which are quite fascinating..

Quirky, fun music by an eccentric personality for a good cause? Sounds like fun! Dimension Mix is a great, unique little tribute.

--Joseph Kyle

Project Website: http://www.dimensionmix.com
Label website: http://www.eeniemeenie.com

Josh Joplin "Jaywalker"

Josh Joplin is a singer-songwriter with a penchant for REM. Well, there's no way of knowing whether or not that's true, but it's not hard to imagine, as he sounds exactly like Michael Stipe. He's been making music for several years, getting a big record deal during that brief time when David Gray represented the very brief 'singer-songwriter' trend. But the big deal didn't quite work out, yet Joplin's persevered, and after excellent records like Useful Music and The Future That Was--which are well worth the time to dig out of the dollar bin--he's returned, this time without the "Josh Joplin Group" moniker. It's not hard to understand why labels courted him, his voice is soft and pretty and sweet, and even though it instantly sounds like Michael Stipe, it also, in a way, reminds of Guided By Voices' Tobin Sprout: soft and pretty, though somewhat rough and imperfect.

Unfortunately, Josh Joplin isn't Michael Stipe or Tobin Sprout. That doesn't stop him from trying, though; Joplin's earnestness and sincerity is charming, even though it usually makes his songs sound terribly affected. His backing band doesn't help, either; the drums occasionally sound clunky and off beat, while the arrangements sound unfinished, resulting in songs that aren't as sharp as they could be. Case in point: "Arms to Hold Me." For the first minute and a half, it's just him busking and singing rather intensely. It's pretty damn good, but the band inevitibly joins in with clunky drums and sloppy playing that simply underwhelms this otherwise good song. The pretty David Gray-esque "A Hard Year" is a gorgeous song in spite of the overpowering drums. On the songs where Joplin doesn't try to project his voice, such as on "Jaywalker's of the World" and "Empire State," the results are quite satisfying. But these moments don't make up for the record's overall awkward production.

Jaywalker is a frustrating record, because it sounds half-assed. If Joplin had less talent, it would be easy to dismiss this record, but he's capable of better. Nothing's more frustrating than listening to a record by someone who can do better. Honestly, Joplin might benefit from a record that's truly a solo record. His acoustic demos on his website prove that he might be better served by exploring that sound next time around. Considering this is his first record without the "Josh Joplin Group," perhaps Jaywalker is a 'transition' record for Joplin. Yeah, I'll accept that, and I'll take comfort in that, for Jaywalker is a surprising C+ effort from an honor student.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.joshjoplin.com
Label Website: http://www.eleventhirtyrecords.com

November 30, 2005

Bjorn Olsson "Bjorn Olsson {The Lobster}"

Now this...this is an odd record! Bjorn Olsson is best known as the guitarist for the hard-rocking Swedish band The Soundtrack Of Our Lives. He's written some really amazing, really hard riffs for that band, but his solo work bears no resemblence to his main gig. On this record (self-titled but lovingly referred to as "The Lobster"), Olsson has collected six short, pretty yet ultimately inconsequential instrumental pieces. These numbers are pretty, but feel incomplete; they simply sound like ideas, rather than finished compositions. End of story, right? Wrong.

At the end of the record is a track called "Insomning." This number is an hour-long composition, and it is composed of the previous seven compositions. He then looped them and placed them together, and he adjusted it so that after each song had cycle, the sound would decrease ever-so-gradually, until the listener had fallen asleep and the song was nearly inaudible. It's a strange, most bizarre idea--but it's an idea that works quite well. In fact, it's a bit puzzling as to why Olsson would include these shorter numbers and then repeat them at the end. Excluding the individual tracks in favor of simply releasing "Insomning" might have been a better idea.

Regardless of whether or not the first few tracks are really necessary, Bjorn Olsson is still an interesting experiment, and in fact "Insomning" is a handy little sleep aid.

--Joseph Kyle

Label Website: http://www.gravitation.nu

The Smittens "A Little Revolution"

Last year's Gentlefication Now! was a fun blast of too-sweet-to-be-forgotten bubblegum pop. The band composed fun singalong songs that made the listener smile, and their gentle charm only added to their appeal. Peppy and upbeat, the album was an addictive treat and an all-around fun listen. But times change, people change and no matter how hard you try to Peter Pan your life, maturity is inevitably always looming around the corner. The Smittens face this fact of life with joy and aplomb.

The dark shades and tones of A Little Revolution's artwork actually sets the mood. This time around, the songs are darker; and though there are a few moments of singalongness, they've eschewed much of their first album's youthful jubilation. You'll also notice that there's a bit of a difference in their singing arrangements; Max, whose Calvin Johnson-styled crooning defined their debut, isn't as prominent; he wasn't as active with the Smittens during the sessions, and is no longer with the band. Instead, most of the vocals are handled by our fave Colin Clary. His songwriting style has always been a little more personal and heartfelt, and it's obvious that his songwriting dominated the album. It's quite okay, too; the world isn't suffering from too many Colin Clary songs.

Even though the music has a newfound melancholy, there's no way the Smittens could be anything less than charming. And while "The Garden" and "My Favorite Dream" are darker than their previous fare, it's hard not to deny their catchy power. Also enjoyable is the pretty "Jeans and Mittens," the political "Stop the Bombs" and the remix fun of "Twitterpation!" My personal fave is "Party Time," which is a cover of a great song by the sorely-missed and highly underrated True Love Always. This song's fun, not only because of its meaning to me personally, but each of the Smittens takes a turn on vocals. In an odd twist, the moments that most recall their debut album feel oddly out of place; "Guess What" and "Nate is Straight" are fun, but the darker feel of their other songs makes these joyously fun moments feel slightly awkward. You know, just like being a teenager.

Given the fact that they've recently changed their lineups and are transitioning from a five-piece to a four-piece band, A Little Revolution is a really good transitional record. Sure, it might not have as many out-and-out fun singalongs as their debut, but bands must grow. For the most part, the Smittens' maturity is pretty good. Sure, the good ol' days were fun, but the band's newfound depth is really impressive, too. Not a bad sophomore record, indeed!

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.smittens.com
Label Website: http://www.dangerfive.com
Label Website: http://www.northofjanuary.com

November 29, 2005

Bound Stems "The Logic of Building the Body Plan"

Bound Stems hail from Chi-town and make quirky and mellow indie-rock. Though they formed in 2002, and self-released two singles, they won't release their debut album, Appreciation Night, until next summer. That's a bit of a wait, especially for a band that's been around that long. In the meantime, they decided to make a formal introduction, choosing to release a little record containing two songs from their full length, three outtakes and two sonic compositions.

The Logic of Building the Body Plan is about as consistent as any record containing finished album tracks and b-sides would be. Some songs are stronger than others; there's a bit of a Bright Eyes vibe on "Totipotent" and "Wake Up, Ma and Pa Are Gone," which is either good or bad, depending on your tolerance of Conor Oberst. Personally, this world contains one Bright Eyes too many, and I'm not keen on these two numbers. (Okay, on second listen, it must be admitted that the groove on "Totipotent" is really nice, even if the singing makes me winsome.) Not surprisingly, the two songs from their forthcoming album, "My Kingdom for a Trundle Bed" and "Risking Life and Limb for the Coupon" fare better; they're mellow rock, with pretty, chiming guitars and excellent singing. Opening song "Crimes & Follies" isn't bad, either; it's a jaunty number, and though Bobby Galivan's attempts at falsetto fall short, his attempts are charming. "Up All Night" also highlights another potential strength: female singing. Hopefully, Appreciation Night will more prominently feature Kate Gross's singing.

Ultimately, The Logic of Building the Body Plan isn't bad. It's not bad at all. This is a pleasant little record, and it's quite successful at whetting the appetite. Here's to the future of Bound Stems!

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.boundstems.com
Label Website: http://www.flameshovel.com

Johnny Cash "The Legend of Johnny Cash"

What can I say about Johnny Cash that hasn't been said before? He was a great man, and not just for his music. He was a man who embodies the American spirit, that of humble beginnings and overcoming adversity. He's also a role model for the Christian faith; though his youth was full of wild behavior and sinful carousing, he turned his life around with the love and assistance of his partner, June Carter. He wasn't afraid to stand for his faith. He was a man of love, and even though some tried to adapt his persona and link him to the 'counter-culture' movement, he never felt comfortable in the role as rebel. Those who adopted him as a proto-hippie cringed when he talked of his faith, and those of faith cringed at the fact he did nothing to deny such associations. People latch their own agendas onto his legacy, but agendas, they come and go.

His music? At times the music seems only secondary to the man---this great, larger-than-life man, this man dressed in black and singing songs of praise and glory. One could argue and debate about the song listing for The Legend of Johnny Cash, but that's missing the point. It would be impossible to gather all of Johnny's best-loved songs on one disk and keep everyone satisfied, and it would require a box set to compile a complete collection of charting hits, so the compilers opted for the known hits such as "I Walk the Line," "Big River" and "Ring of Fire," with a few lesser-known numbers and collaborations. (In my opinion, the one song that's truly conspicuous in its absence is "Daddy Sang Bass," a collaboration with The Statler Brothers that was a charting hit in 1969.)

Later material, such as "A Boy Named Sue" and "One Piece At A Time," were humorous and sometimes downright silly (remember "The Chicken in Black?"), but they did help to cement Cash's legacy as a master storyteller. Cash's sense of humor never overwhelmed or tarnished his honorable reputation. After all, the Country charts of the 1970s contained numerous novelty and parody songs, and Cash was, as usual, at the forefront of the scene. That his star faded somewhat in the 1980s is not surprising, either, and it wasn't something that was Cash's fault. The times were changing, and Cash stayed true to himself, even if the country world neglected him. His most notable contribution to this decade was with The Highwaymen, a collaboration pairing him with longtime friends Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson. Though their self-titled debut was a classic--and the Jimmy Webb-penned "Highwayman" still brings chills--it's a forgotten classic, a secret joy to those who know it.

Even in his later years, when he openly faced death, he didn't turn away from his calling; his recordings were not the moribund sounds of a man facing mortality, but a jubilation and humble praise for the life he felt he didn't deserve. Thanks to a career reboost courtesy of Rick Rubin, his final years were anything but maudlin. That he recorded songs from his past ("Give My Love to Rose" and the red-hot "I've Been Everywhere") and didn't shy away from covering modern artists, most notably Soundgarden ("Rusty Cage") and Nine Inch Nails ("Hurt"). Cash didn't fade away, and he didn't spend the last years recording sentimental sap--he was working all the way until his dying breath.

Johnny Cash will never be replaced, and he will never be bettered. The Legend of Johnny Cash may be brief, and its track listing might be subject to debate, but there's no denying the power of the man's legacy, and it's hard to fault any single song found here. A beautiful collection that briefly--but effectively--defines the Legend of Johnny Cash.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.johnnycash.com
Label Website: http://www.universalrecordings.com

November 28, 2005

Attractive "Attractive"

One wouldn't expect members of the hardcore band Snapcase to start a band that was melodic new-wave power pop, but that's exactly what's happened. Attractive is a new group, formed by three members of Snapcase, plus Josh English, former lead singer of Six Going on Seven. What's even more impressive is how damn good this band actually is. The band is tight; English is an excellent singer, and although their choice of musical style might be played out, their ability to make it sound fresh and exciting again is what impresses the most. Though it's frustratingly short, you'll find yourself listening to it more than once, as the songs are all repeaters. I'm most satisfied by "The War Years," but the other two songs, "Irony Grows in Brooklyn" and "Mother Tongue" are equally satisfying. Attractive is a stunning surprise, and is simply a fun listen. This band could be big....

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.attractive.cc
Label Website: http://www.welcomehomerecords.com

Rise Paul Ric "Purple Blaze"

Talk about a musical departure! Christopher Paul Richards was a founding member of DC-area punk-funkers Q and Not U. They blended politics and music together in a way not seen since The Make-Up, and what they did, they did quite well. After the band's sudden breakup earlier this year, Richards announced that he had a new project that would be different than what people might expect. And boy, he wasn't joking!

Purple Blaze is a much different record than anything by his previous band. Instead of the loud, funky grooves of his previous band, Ris Paul Ric is pure mellow gold. Instrumentally speaking, the songs on Purple Blaze are sparsely arranged. Most songs are built on nothing more than acoustic guitar and some gentle, non-threatening percussion, though at times he includes some hushed synthesizer and beats. That he has a knack with making a lovesexy groove with such a minimal arrangement makes the record even more impressive.

Then there's Richards' voice; soft, senusal and downright sexy. He sounds not unlike a happier Elliott Smith, especially on more acoustic-based numbers like "Hanging From The Garden" and "I Wish You Love Me," but the songs on Purple Blaze aren't folk. In fact, it's not a stretch to suggest that Richards' new style is best described as lo-fi acoustic soul. Dig that sexy falsetto on "Run Up Wild On Me." Damn! Comparisons to Prince might seem a bit daft, but this song proves that there's something to such allegations. Other moments, like "Demo Was a Runaround" and "I Wish You Love Me," are soft, sensual numbers that would probably fit wonderfully on a mix CD for that hopefully-special someone.

The only time the record falters is when he inserts brief instrumental drones into the record. While it's easy to understand why he did so--to break the monotony--the record would have been better off without them. Not that they're "bad," but they're not essential to the record's pace. That one fault is more of an aesthetic criticism, and even those songs are somewhat tolerable. All in all, Purple Blaze is a great debut record.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.rispaulric.com
Label Website: http://www.academyfightsong.com

November 17, 2005

Harvey Danger "Cream and Bastards Rise" EP

Harvey Danger’s third LP, Little by Little…, is easily one of this year’s musical surprises. Long thought dead and gone, the band returned with not only their best musical work to date, but also one of this year’s best records. They’ve mellowed out the power-pop and increased the “pop,” and it’s all been quite worthwhile. But as they’ve done all of the work themselves, they don’t have the luxury of spending money on doing things like releasing singles. With Kill Rock Stars’ assistance, though, they’ve been allowed the ability to get this album’s best song out to a wider audience. The lead song, “Cream and Bastards Rise,” is a fast-paced rocker, with lyrics that make one wonder if they’re talking about their experience in the record industry. It’s a great song that definitely deserves airplay.

For those who bought the album, Cream and Bastards Rise is a bit repetitive; two of the three B-sides appear on the bonus disk. “Picture, Picture” is another rocker, a good song that simply didn’t fit on the album. “Cream and Bastards (Reprise)” is a funny 1920s-style lounge-act version of the title track. The only unreleased number, “Sad Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” is a radio session version of a song from their lost second album, King James Version. This version is mellower, with a much different arrangement, and it wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Little by Little….

Cream and Bastards Rise might not be a necessary release for some, but these four songs serve as an excellent snapshot of Harvey Danger circa 2005. And “Cream and Bastards Rise” is simply a great song, and it proves that the band is quite capable of writing other great sounding radio-worthy hits.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.harveydanger.com
Label Website: http://www.killrockstars.com

Bochum Welt "Elan"

Minimalist, simple melodies made by men with computers--that doesn’t always sound like the recipe for exciting music, does it? Generally, such records should rightly be met with a bit of cynicism; it’s rather easy for people with less-than-stellar talent to make “ambient sound-scapes” with the click of a mouse. Heck, I’ve done it, too—but I wouldn’t deign to consider releasing them to the general public. Rare is the truly wonderful computer-composed record. √Član, the latest release by Italy’s Bochum Welt, is one of them. For the past decade, Italian composer Gianluigi Di Costanzo has operated as Bochum Welch, releasing records that blended together hard dance rhythms and dark, brooding atmospherics.

Unlike previous records, Elan is a collaborative project with California-based Brian Salter. His input helps to make Elan sound a bit different than previous releases. It’s not hard-driving, and it’s not mellow pseudo-classical piano ballads; instead, it’s an appealing blend of gentle ambient passages, augmented by peaceful, tranquil beats. At times, the record sounds like the soundtrack, but not to an arty movie; instead, it occasionally recalls the sounds heard on a television police drama. Though comparisons to Eno and Aphex Twin are apt, it’s hard not to also think of Mike Post, either, especially on tracks like “Interlude (Diversion)” and “Joystick Coupler.” Other songs, like “Cinematronics,” “Vectors in Full Color,” and “Chelsea” are simply beautiful passages that are warm to the soul.

The only time Elan falters is the song “D.V.E.,” and not because the song is bad; its happy-go-lucky robotic-style dance-pop rhythm simply feels out of place. It’s too Costanzo and Salter’s credit that the two kept the record relatively brief, and their compositions concise. Tedium is often the Achilles’ heel of electronica, but the duo’s brevity makes the record even more enjoyable. It’s possible to listen to Elan without paying much attention to the passage of time, without being bored. Rarely do records of this style satisfy in such a manner.

Elan is a very pretty record. It’s one that will help you relax if you’re stressed, will lull you to sleep if you’re tired, and regardless of mindset, it’s never less than a pleasant listen.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.bochumwelt.com
Label Website: http://www.fuzzybox.com

November 15, 2005

Tarantula "Book of Sand"

I'll be straight up: Book of Sand perfectly defines the word "frustrating." The cover depicts...a Roman Centurion? Song titles make references to "empires" and "conquests" and "the fall," so I should logically deduce that this record has something to say about the Roman Empire, right? WRONG. Rule number one: if you make a "concept" record, at least have a cohesive story line that's somewhat related to the imagery you use. And, if you're going to lead your listeners to think that your record is a concept record, at least explain give the listeners some way of combining all that you're doing--especially if your art requires you to do something as asinine as dressing up in a Centurion uniform.

Frustration number two: Okay, so these guys have put together what may or may not be a concept album. They've not explained any of it--and, on top of it, they're an instrumental band. One of them is dressed in a silly costume How does it sound? Well, "The Century Trilogy I: Conquest" sets the tone, with a pretty, haunting violin creating a cinematic mood, that's then utterly destroyed...by heavy metal. By not very good heavy metal. We're talking about a riff that's quite cliche. We're talking about piss-poor Dave Mustane imitiation. The band's metal skills sounds like a high school kid playing over and over in his garage, so that he can one day prove his ability to ROCK OUT to try and score the school metal chick. The next track, "Who Took Berlin (Part I)," only continues this metal trend, and it's pretty clear that Book of Sand has, in my mind, just been written off as a sloppy, amateurish metal record.

Frustration number three arrives at song number three, "Who Took Berlin (Part II)." Why is it frustrating? Because, unexpectedly, Tarantula AD mutates in to a good band! Even though the horrible guitar riff in "The Century Trilogy" pops up repeatedly, the songs that aren't cursed by that solo have a much better chance of being good. Songs like "Prelude to the Fall" and "The Lost Waltz" are downright beautiful songs; they're cinematic in scope, full of gorgeous arrangements, and those two songs--as well as the two that follow, "Riverpond" and "Palo Borracho"--flow together like a symphonic movement. The movement sounds like an odd mixture of equal parts Explosion In the Sky, Sigur Ros, Godspeed you Black Emperor, The Dirty Three, and Calexico. Album closer "The Century Trilogy III: The Fall," is one of the most beautiful songs I've heard all year; it's an epic number and features Devendra Banhart. (Yeah, I don't care for the man much, but his operatic stylings here are simply beautiful.)

Frustration number four: this record rubs me the wrong way and it also impresses me with its musical brilliance. So is Tarantula AD a band of good classical musicians who've been a little too self-indulgent? Are they merely OK metal musicians who have a prediliction for classical music? It's hard to say, because Book of Sand could go either way. The only thing that's consistent about this record is its vexing nature. Perhaps they'd be better off to lose the bad solo and the Centurion costume.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.tarantulaad.com
Label Website: http://www.kemadorecords.com

November 14, 2005

Interview: The Earlies

In the Spring of 2003, I happened upon the website of a small Dallas-based production company. I checked out the company's roster, and though most of the bands were merely OK, the very last band on the page was this group called The Earlies. It was compared to the Beach Boys and Mercury Rev, and though the description sounded quite intriguing, I didn't really expect much. After all, hyperbole is to be expected in this music business. Boy, was I ever wrong! I cried when I first heard "Wayward Song." I think I listened to "Wayward Song" a dozen times that afternoon. I think I listened to it twice as many times the next day. I fell in love with this band almost instantly. It's really hard not to instantly fall in love with their music. Instantly, a connection was made, and I couldn't shut up about them. But a problem arose: all of the band's super-limited edition singles had simply vanished into the ether; it was impossible to hear much of their music. Thankfully, all of these great songs were not lost; they were collected on their debut album, These Were The Earlies, which appeared in 2004. Even then, it was almost impossible to find in the United States. It wasn't until a few weeks ago that this excellent record was released domestically, thanks to new label Secretly Canadian.

The Earlies are a unique band, largely because they are an orchestral pop band that's divided by an ocean. John Mark Lapham and Brandon Carr reside in Texas, while Giles Hatton and Christian Madden live in England. That their music is the product of long-distance collaborations isn't something you'd know unless you were told, because their music is
that cohesive. But the music speaks for itself, and I have no qualms in naming These Were The Earlies one of the best records of 2005. As you read this, the band is embarking on their first tour of the United States. Though they were busy preparing for tour, one half of this beautiful band was kind enough to sit down and answer a few questions for us. We're quite honored that they did.

How did the four of you meet? Was collaboration something you initially had in mind? What prompted the start of the band, or did The Earlies exist at some point before the intercontinental collaboration began?

John Mark: We all met in random ways, in a studio and record shop, respectively. Originally we really didn't have anything solid in mind, we were just doing our own thing, learning how to put songs together in different ways. Giles and I often spoke of what it would be like to work in a band context, specifically merging pop, psychedelics, and electronics (funnily enough...). When we started spending time with Christian and imagining what he and his friends from Burnley could bring to the formula, that's when it loosely began to start taking shape. However, it wouldn't be until a few years later when I bumped in to a young fresh faced Brandon Carr in a small record shop in a small Texas town (Abilene, to be exact) that what came to be 'The Earlies' would form.

Giles: Although the set up for The Earlies is unusual, the actual meeting of the band really isn't. We were just like minded individuals in the right place at the right time who share an interest in making the kind of music we do.We were all making music before The Earlies, but speaking only for myself, I wanted to move on and do something more ambitious than the electronic music I was making at the time.

Considering the uniqueness of your arrangement, could you describe the process of creating an Earlies song?

John Mark: There really is no set process to describe. Each song has a unique birth. Sometimes it's very random, say with a single loop or noise. Other times, there is a group of lyrics that has a ring to them, or sometimes a song is built from improvisations. We really try to keep how these songs come about as varied and changing as possible.

Giles: The process varies and is not nailed down which is what makes being in The Earlies so very interesting. People tend initially to work with material gathered in isolation and then pass it on to other members to embellish, so no musical idea is ever set in stone. Then, when the parts appear to be in place, we all go into the studio where the tracks are completed.

There are obvious drawbacks to an arrangement such as yours--but what are some of the benefits?

John Mark: Mainly, from my point of view, it means we can all live anywhere in the world we want to and still make a record. Also, us being apart and using computers to bring songs together means that we are forced to think of composition in different ways. Sometimes unorthodox, sometimes just different.

Giles: The band members are allowed to express themselves freely whereas the convensional band set up can sometimes seem quite limiting. We tend not to have arguements in the studio, because the tracks have already been developed outside that enviroment, so the diversity of the music is preserved and uncompromised.

Until the album came out, all of your releases were on either ten inch or seven inch records. Does this mean that you prefer to consider each of your songs a seperate entity that deserves to stand alone, or, at the very least, be presented in a very concise manner, so as to magnify the song's power?

John Mark: To be honest, I think it's more that we love vinyl. Also, at the time, we really could only finish one song at a time, and each one took us AGES. We've gotten a bit quicker now that this is a job, and all. But yeah, we love records, and those songs at the time made sense as A and B sides..

Giles: Every track we produce we see as a potential release and we try not to think of them in terms of singles or album tracks. Also, this arose out of neccessity as our first releases were self-funded, so it had to be right for a cheap format.

These Were The Earlies is a singles collection, but most listeners wouldn't know that unless someone pointed it out. Was there a particular reason why the Earlies had not released a full-length album--I'm assuming financial--and were you surprised with the record's seamlessness?

John Mark: To be honest, again, we really do consider this to be our first album. It's a shame we had to release so many of the songs before the album, but it was a long process from when we started making tracks to when we were signed. These songs that ended up on the album, some were recorded especially for the full length, some didn't make it..some were re-produced to fit the format of a full length.. or re-done in keeping with how we were changing as a band. So in that respect we do see it more than being just a singles collection. Personally, I'm not surprised how it fits together so solidly. A lot of thought was put in to sequencing, and mixing and re-mixing so the flow was there. i think by the time we were in to our 3rd single, we were already hearing how the album would sound, anyway. So from then on, we would craft the singles so they would eventually sit well on the LP.

Giles: When the album was first assembled it was great to hear how well it seemed to flow together,but not really too surprising, as that was what we had always intending--to make a record that had a beginning, middle and end and took you on a bit of a trip.It only really ended up being released as singles because of our financial position before we got funding.

Tempered within the melancholy of your music, there's an overwhelming ray of hope that shines through and makes the listening experience quite incredible. Would you say that the Earlies' mission is to deliver beauty into a dark, sad and dreary world?

John Mark: Um, I don't know if that is specifically our mission. Personally, I don't find it a sad and dreary world. I think, depending on your outlook, life can be sad and dreary or quite happy. Or both. I think we just naturally want to make affecting music, whatever effect may come. For me as a songwriter, I think contrast is very important, like delivering some very desperate, sad words over a very happy song, for instance. I think, on a good day, if we can convery honest feelings, and put our hearts in to sound, and maybe throw in a good measure of freakiness or just some strand of orgininality, then we're doing our jobs.

Giles: I like all kinds of melancholy music but it seems more affecting when some kind of pathos or sense of hope is present within the music,we wanted to make something sonically affecting but with an emotional core like the music that influences and us.I don,t see the world as a dark and dreary place,there are too many amazing things and people within it for it to ever be that,of course there are those out there who seem intent on spoiling it for the rest of us.

What's next for The Earlies?

John Mark: We're currently busy working on our 2nd album, plus many of us are gearing up for a US tour to promote the 1st. Once the touring is out of the way, we'll finish the follow-up, then after that, more touring, I'm guessing. We're all pursuing outside interests that we hope will enhance what we do when we come together. There's a lot of work to be done...

Giles: We are currently working on our next record, which we are all very excited about, as it seems to be progressing in some new and unusual directions, and we are looking forward to visiting your fair land for some live performances. We hope to see you there.

The Earlies embark on their first full American tour this month. Click here for the dates--and don't miss 'em!

The Long Winters "Ultimatium"

The Long Winters' newest EP, Ultimatum, is a nice stopgap release. Though 2003's When I Pretend to Fail was a yummy, sticky-sweet psych-pop collection of songs, for Ultimateum Winters leader John Roderick has decided to take his music in a bit of a wintery direction. The songs found here are a bit sad and a bit dreary, but that does not make them any less good. Roderick's singing--which sounds like an odd mixture of Jeff Mangum and Counting Crows' Adam Duritz--naturally sounds a little sad and more than a little lackadaisical, but it serves the songs quite well. "The Commander Thinks Aloud" has a piano intro that's similar to The Beatles' "Let it Be," while "Ultimatium" contains some rather nice guitar picking. "Everything is Talking" is pretty, although a little nondescript. Of the new songs, the big winner is "Delicate Hands." With a bouncy piano riff and gentle synthesized flutes, it's Ultimatium's most realized, most fulfilling song, and even though all of these new songs are band productions, only " doesn't feel much like a solo production. The final two songs, "Bride and Bridal" and "Ultimatium," are solo acoustic renditions.

Ultimatium is a fine little record. For those not familiar with The Long Winters, it's a nice place to start, and it satiates the appetite for those hungry and impatient for more. Does this stripped-down sound represent the band's new sound? We'll have to wait and see...

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.longwinters.com
Label Website: http://www.barsuk.com

Songs of Green Pheasant "Songs of Green Pheasant"

Ever since Devendra Banhart appeared, it seems as if labels are jumping on the whole ‘freak-folk’ thing. Some of the acts that have appeared have been extremely worthwhile, some of them…well, it’s good to remember that bands disappear when the trend ends. Songs of Green Pheasant is certainly proof that some artists can benefit from discovery. Songs of Green Pheasant is actually one man, Duncan Sumpner, recording alone in his kitchen. According to the story, the record was recorded in 2002, and Fat Cat received it as a demo, but spent several years trying to track Sumpner down. That he apparently didn’t really feel like releasing his compositions may or may not be accurate, but it certainly makes for a good story, and it makes Fat Cat’s discovery of him even more interesting

It’s kind of a good thing they convinced him otherwise, because Songs of Green Pheasant is an interesting, excellent record. Its lo-fi nature bathes the songs in a beautiful haze; as heard on the touching, distant “Soldiers Kill Their Sisters” and the gorgeous “The Wraiths of Loving,” one realizes that these songs wouldn’t sound as beautiful as they do any other way. The best numbers, like “Nightfall (For Boris P.)” and “Until…,” capture the listener’s attention in a most mysterious way. The gorgeous self-harmonizing, the simple drum beat, the mellow vibe, the simple guitar picking, the haunting atmosphere…all of these things are factors that make his music so appealing, even though the songs are ultimately quite simple. Mystery can make a record even more majestic, and it’s certainly true here; a lot of the record’s appeal is built on the fact thatSongs of Green Pheasant doesn’t really sound like anyone; comparisons can be made to all sorts of artists, but ultimately, they fail to fully capture the essence and the beauty of the record.

It’s hard to pinpoint what makes Sumpner’s music so wonderfully delightful, and one shouldn’t try. All the record needs to be magical is a listener who appreciates the simple beauty of songwriting. Since years have passed, does this mean Sumpner has made more music? Will it sound as good as this? Has his muse led him in different directions? It’s hard to say. Frankly, though, who cares? Songs of Green Pheasant captures one beautiful moment in time, one that’s not going to easily be replicated. That we’re able to experience it makes the listening even more special.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://fat-cat.co.uk/fatcat/artistInfo.php?id=99
Label Website: http://www.fat-cat.co.uk

November 10, 2005

The Montgolfier Brothers "Journey's End"

In 2000, a British pop duo calling themselves The Montgolfier Brothers quietly released their debut album. Their music--a quiet, melancholy affair awash in many shades of gray--impressed the few who heard it. Label problems and indifference to the band's gentle technique unfortunately muted the duo's output. Sure, the duo went on to solo projects--muti-instrumentalist Mark Tranmer formed Gnac, while vocalist Roger Quigley formed At Swim Two Birds--but neither quite satisfied the palate. Thus, the arrival of the four-song EP Journey's End--and the news of a new album, All My Bad Thoughts, would soon be forthcoming--has made this writer quite enthusiastic. After all, very few records have come close to matching the sheer pop beauty of their previous album, The World is Flat.

Though Journey's End consists of only four songs, it's hardly a brief affair. "Journey's End" is a long, sad tale about the fleeting nature of life and love. It's a dark, melancholy song; Roger Quigley sings with a hushed longing that's deftly highlighted by Mark Trammer's funereal piano melody. It's a sad, haunting song that feels like a dark, snow-covered English street. It's haunting and it's beautiful, and it's easily the Montgolfier Brothers' best composition. The other three songs follow suit; they're gentle, hushed affairs. "Bridestones Revisited" is a gorgeous instrumental, with gentle piano, strings and woodwinds creating an absolutely heavenly affair. "Koffee Pot Blues" and "Koffee Pot Brass" are variations on the same song; the "Blues" version finds Quigley accompanied by piano and guitar, while "Brass" finds him accompanied by harp and a brass section. Journey's End also contains two videos, one for the title track, and another for the instrumental "Operation Laff."

It's hard not to feel a tinge of sadness when listening to The Montgolfier Brothers, but at the same time, it's hard not to be wonderfully overwhelmed by the utterly beautiful music they make. Journey's End serves as a beautiful reminder of their brilliance, and it also hints that their forthcoming full length All My Bad Thoughts may very well be one of this year's best records.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.montgolfiers.co.uk
Label Website: http://www.vespertineandson.com

Sun Kil Moon "Tiny Cities"

Mark Kozelek’s interpretation of the music of others has always been interesting. From AC/DC to Paul McCartney and from The Cars to Yes, there’s just something magical about the way he strips well-known (and not so well-known) songs down to their most basic level. Just listen to his two AC/DC tribute records, and you’ll be quietly astonished at that band’s lyrical brilliance. His latest endeavor—released under the Sun Kil Moon moniker—examines the works and the words of Modest Mouse. It’s an interesting proposition, of course—but does it work?

It’s impossible to deny that Kozelek’s sound is all his own, and his voice is instantly recognizable. And, once again, he’s made these songs sound as if they were his own. Removing these songs from the quirky hands of Isaac Brock might seem a daunting feat, but he’s done exactly that. Devoid of any form of rhythm or beat, these songs are dark, haunting and somewhat disturbing—and at the same time, they’re intensely beautiful. (That’s not a word I’d have used to describe much of Modest Mouse’s music.) At times, it’s hard to even recognize some of the songs, because they sound so different. “Ocean Breathes Salty,” one of Modest Mouse’s best songs, totally changes into one of Kozelek’s best songs. “Neverending Math Equation” sounds like an outtake from The Ghost of the Great Highway. Kozelek’s instrumental arrangements are impeccable; he truly makes Modest Mouse’s lyrics his own.

Even though Kozelek’s an excellent interpreter, that doesn’t mean Tiny Cities is a perfect record. Many of the songs are brief--very brief, in fact—and the arrangements feel tossed-off. Did Kozelek half-ass it for Tiny Cities? It’s hard to say, but with “Exit Does Not Exist” and “Convenient Parking” lasting less than two minutes, it’s hard not to think that. While Kozelek may have excellent arrangement skills, and his interpretations are unique and often breathtaking, it’s still hard to rectify how skint Tiny Cities seems. The only logical reasoning for this is that he’s trying to highlight Modest Mouse’s lyrical prowess—many of the original versions of these songs are rambling affairs with quirky instrumental passages—and focusing on the lyrics naturally produces brief songs. It’s the only explanation that makes sense, especially considering Kozelek’s not known for writing brief songs.

Still, Kozelek doesn’t make bad records, and Tiny Cities, though flawed, is still a beautiful record. If anything, Kozelek has once again demonstrated that a very distinctive band wrote some rather beautiful songs.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.sunkilmoon.com
Label Website: http://www.caldoverderecords.com

Bob Marley "Africa Unite: The Singles Collection"

For years, I've scoffed at Marley; having been co-opted by hippies and Eric Clapton, it's been difficult to take him seriously, because his legacy is no longer his own. So I've had a self-imposed moratorium on Marley, and, to be honest, I didn't really think I was missing anything. His associations--mostly posthumous--turned me off, in a major way. Who wants to be associated with hippies? Friends don't let friends listen to hippie music. Also...I am ignorant about reggae. I confess to this sin, and I'm not embarassed by it. I don't know what makes reggae good or bad; I don't know the elements of style required to properly judge the music, and because of this, I've avoided reggae music for most of my life.

Still, my curiosity gets the better of me, and when given the opportunity to accept Africa Unite: The Singles Collection, I did so--because an opportunity to learn is an opportunity to grow, and a life without growth is not a life worth living. Instead of offering up someone's opinion about what Marley's best numbers are, Africa Unite is an unquestionable collection of Marley's single releases. Plus, this official compilation seemed designed for souls like me, those who might not be able to discern Marley's greatest moments, or who seem to be a bit overwhelmed when trying to enter into the jumbled mess that is Marley's discography. (If you want to witness musical insanity, consider that Marley's discography, who only released a handful of records while alive, contains well over 150 compilations.)

Even for those who don't know much about Marley's music, many of these songs are well known; "No Woman No Cry," "One Love," "Get Up Stand Up," "I Shot the Sheriff" and "Is This Love" are all classics, and all appear here. But it's the lesser-known songs that really impress and make the record compelling. "Wait In Vain" is a warm and lovely little love song about impatience and frustration, while early song "Soul Rebel" shows Marley had found his political voice quite quickly in his career. "Three Little Birds" is perhaps my favorite; it's a small, little song that's quite positive in nature, with Marley sweetly singing, "don't worry about tomorrow, 'cause every little thing gonna be all right." It's a beautiful and simple little song, and its melody will quickly place itself in your mind and you'll have difficulty getting it out. (This is a good thing, though!) The title track (appearing here as an updated remix by Will.I.Am) is an interesting political number, and the hip-hop update actually serves the song quite well. The album's rare jewel, the previously unreleased "Slogans," is brilliant and is surprisingly relevent to today's political climate. In it, he sings "Can't take no more sweet talk from the hypocrites," while he intones that he "Can't take these slogans no more."

"Bob Marley, poet and a prophet," sang the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I rolled my eyes then. I'm not rolling them any more. Africa Unite: The Singles Collection is an excellent primer for those of you who have yet to experience the Marley experience. For those who have already developed their love for the man and his music, there might not be much for you here, but this is an essential collection for the curious.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.bobmarley.com
Label Website: http://www.universalchronicles.com

Her Space Holiday "The Past Presents the Future"

Marc Bianchi's made some sad music, some depressing music and, truth be said, some dull music. It's okay; when you're as prolific as Bianchi, not every record will be a home run. But over the past few years, with albums like Manic Expressive, Home is Where You Hang Yourself and, most recently, Young Machines, Bianchi's pop skills have steadily matured; he took a step in the right direction when he ditched the lo-fi aesthetic, and with The Past Presents The Future, he's also ditched a lot of the overwraught accompaniment, settling for a lighter sound.

Unlike previous records, where his songs would be depressing first-person rants, for The Past Presents the Future Bianchi has stepped out of his one-world view, opting to comment on the world at large. Seeing as he's mastered the more personal elements, hearing him make music that's a little less personal is a welcome relief--plus, playing the role of the pity-party boy over the course of a career doth not interesting music make, especially when you know that the artist in question is capable of so much more than that. He's also not trying to be overly showy with his musicianship, either; IDM can be terribly off-putting for those who don't appreciate it, and thankfully, he's also ditched that style.

The result? Simple, enjoyable pop songs. "One, two three, let's all exploit our misery" he sings in the utterly catchy "Missed Medicine," and that's pretty much the mood of The Past Presents The Future. At times, he dives into more serious, somber moments, but those are few and far between, and even when he's being serious, his cleverness makes it hard to take him seriously. Bianchi's still miserable, but he's tempered his music with a great deal of wit. Heck, the album starts on a clever note; in "Forever and a Day," the song starts with a rather bittersweet answering machine message, followed by the line, "Misery loves company when company won't call," he sings in a serious voice, backed by a gorgeous string arrangement. It's sad...but it's also funny. Whether it's "The Weight of the World's" sardonic words or his peppy, upbeat dance-pop of "A Match Made in Texas," there's plenty of melancholy and depression and cynicism to be found. His newfound pop sensibility adds a nice dimension to his dour songwriting, and if at times you're reminded of Eels, you're not alone. Bianchi isn't E...yet.

The Past Presents the Future is Bianchi's first big step towards something greater than the bedroom. Sure, his other records were great, but this album is the first time Bianchi seems to recognize the power of his own abilities. It's a clever, smart record made for cynical love-lorn listeners.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.herspaceholiday.com
Label Website: http://www.witchita-recordings.com