June 29, 2006

Evangelicals "So Gone"

Ten songs, no muss, no fuss. That's the gist of Evangelicals' debut album, So Gone. This little band hails from Norman, Oklahoma, and their sound is a bit psychedelic, but please don't mistake them for being a Flaming Lips clone, because they're not. No, no, no! No, this young group doesn't really bare much resemblance to the Lips; in fact, the only group I could possibly compare them to would be a weird meld of David Baker's Mercury Rev with Pale Saints. That's not so far-fetched, considering that lead singer Josh Jones sings with the same sugary-sweet almost-falsetto style that Ian Masters perfected, and that the music behind him is a bit shambolic and rickety in that Yrself is Steam kind of way.

Every song on So Gone feels like it's about to fall apart, but somehow the band manages to pull it together, and the result is charming and pleasant pop. Jones's crooning on songs "Another Day" and "The Water is Warm" and "Hello Jen, I'm A Mess" is gorgeous and heartfelt, and it's a pleadingly deceptive style that makes you overlook the fact that the music behind it is frantic and sounds just damn near amateurish. Oh, and the music isn't amateurish at all. It just sounds that way; keyboards and guitars wail loudly and softly, and all kinds of sonic manipulations create the effect of swirling round and round and round, as if you're spinning around in an aural washer and dryer. Oh, and on "Diving," they simply focus their efforts and dispense with the looseness, which sends their music straight into lounge music territory. This is a good thing. This is a very, very good thing.

So Gone is, simply put, a great record; it's an excellent debut record, and it certainly makes promises about this young band's future. Considering that this record is a reissue of their debut from a year or so ago, this music's already a few years old, which means that their next record will have been preceded by years of maturity and growth. Bring on the next record, guys! And in the meantime, So Gone will suffice. One of this year's (in a way) better debut albums.

Be their friend! Evangelicals' Myspace Page
Label Website: http://www.misrarecords.com/

June 28, 2006

Smoosh "Free to Stay"

It's really difficult not to like Smoosh. I mean, there's a wholesome innocence to their music, and your natural disposition is to root for the li'l underdogs. And considering that sisters Asya and Chloe are both precocious and talented, not falling for them requires a general lack of heart. Asya plays the piano in a way that perfectly captures her youth; it's hard not to envision the runs on "Free to Stay" or "Gold" appearing on a Nickelodeon kids show. If ever there was a true alternative to the crappy teen pop, it's this record. "Find a Way" is a song that should be a Radio Disney summer hit (if it isn't already), and on first listen, it's hard to avoid saying "THIS IS SMOOSH?!?!?" and/or "THESE ARE TEENS?" Same thing with other great songs like "Rock Song" and "Organ Talk;" Smoosh has broken free of the "novelty" tag that was somewhat understandably placed upon them with their debut.

Of course, there's one thing that cannot be denied and cannot be glossed over: these girls are still children, and their musical style is, ultimately, limited. Asya occasionally sounds like she's trying too hard to push her voice into a harder, more adult level, and that's frustrating, because when she sings like that, the song winds up sounding too forced. Plus, the slower ballads like "Waiting for Something" and "She's Right" often tend to sound a bit too melodramatic. It's not that the songs aren't good, but it's at moments like these that their youthfulness is betrayed, and you're reminded that these are kids making pop music.

None of this should distract from the fact that these two girls are talented, and that they have the ability to write really good pop songs. Free to Stay is a major improvement, and with time and a little more maturity, it's not hard to suggest that they'll finally blossom into a truly magnificent pop band. No better gateway record to indie-pop for tweenagers exists, and it's infinitely better than High School Musical!

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

Sonic Youth "Sonic Youth"

When I was in high school, Sonic Youth was my favorite band, and I got as many of their recordings as I could get. But being in a small, very unindie area of Ohio, there were two rare, legendary Sonic Youth records that I could only dream about hearing. One was the double-album bootleg, Walls Have Ears. The other was their self-titled EP, their first official release. Eventually, when I got into college radio, I was lucky enough to come across original vinyl copies of both of them.

Well, I can still gloat to most people about how I’ve held Walls Have Ears in my hands and seen what it looks like and-they-haven’t-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah, but I’m happy to say that I can no longer do the same for the Sonic Youth EP. This reissue is very long overdue, and it’s a boon for those who, like me, could only read about songs like “The Burning Spear”, which is legendary for Lee Ranaldo’s “playing” of an electric drill through a wah-wah pedal; or “I Dreamed I Dream”, which is legendary for its cut-and-paste Dadaist lyrics (“Fucking youth, working youth... All the money’s gone.”) and for being the only instance of a Kim Gordon/Lee Ranaldo duet in Sonic Youth’s entire discography.

If you’ve heard Confusion Is Sex (their first full-length and the release that immediately followed the Sonic Youth EP), you’ll have a pretty good idea of what this EP sounds like. In the early point of their career, Sonic Youth was still close to the New York no wave scene’s aesthetic of blunt noise as an art statement. It wouldn’t be until a couple years later that Sonic Youth would find the happy medium between no wave-type noise and traditional rock that would cement their place in musical history. So, yes, Sonic Youth does bear a resemblance to the firmly no wave sound of Confusion Is Sex. However, there’s one important reason why fans actually perceive the two releases as different from each other: Richard Edson.

Richard Edson was Sonic Youth’s first drummer, and he was a virtuoso. Not in the way that Steve Shelley is. Steve Shelley is a rock drumming virtuoso, but Richard Edson was something else. Specifically, that something else had something to do with an Afro/Latin musical influence in his drumming. Edson wasn’t just content to drum with the type of blunt force that one would normally associate with no wave. He would try to go the more challenging route and play complex, polyrhythmic worldbeat drum parts. And yes, he made them fit really well the noisy craziness that Thurston, Kim, and Lee were cooking up. The worldbeat stuff that he did on songs like “She Is Not Alone” and “I Don’t Want to Push It” really made them a lot more interesting.

Fittingly, Richard Edson is given centerstage in the liner notes for this reissue, with a little memoir about his days with Sonic Youth and his eventual departure from the band. It’s actually worth it to buy the CD rather than download it just for the memoir alone. (Side note: It’s also worth it to get the pics of early Sonic Youth and marvel at how geeky Kim looks with the big, goofy glasses that she wore back in those days. It's like a real life version of one of those movies in which a girl looks geeky just because she's wearing glasses, but then she becomes a bombshell when she takes them off.) In the memoir, Edson describes the band’s rehearsals, how they would just play crazy freeform noise until he would tell them to turn it down and start playing with some structure. One endearing anecdote involves one rehearsal during which Thurston’s hand was cut open by a piece of metal on his guitar sticking out from where his tone knob should be, and he was splattering blood on Edson’s drums and didn’t notice until Edson told him to stop bleeding on the drums. Rock! Also, Edson touches upon what the personalities of the members of Sonic Youth were like in those early days. Actually, I won’t say much about that because I don’t want to spoil it for you. You just have to get the CD and read this stuff.

Eventually, Richard Edson had to choose between being in Sonic Youth and playing for his other big project at the time, a worldbeat-influenced dance/party band called Konk. Who’s Konk? Uh oh! I never heard of Konk until I read about the history of Sonic Youth. Oh, well. However, it might not be a bad thing that Edson left the band to be replaced by more conventional rock drummers. I can’t imagine taking away Bob Bert’s (Sonic Youth’s second drummer, for those who don’t know) drum lines away from Bad Moon Rising (Sonic Youth’s second full-length), replacing them with Richard Edson-style rhythms, and having them work.

Besides the memoir, there are bonus tracks to entice people who actually were lucky enough to get the EP to buy this reissue. One bonus track is an early studio recording of a track called “Where the Red Fern Grows”. However, that’s just an instrumental version of “I Dreamed I Dream”, and without the lyrics, it just slowly plods along, making you mentally fill in the words by yourself. Just plain skippable. There is a real treasure on this reissue, and that’s a recording of a live show from the Richard Edson era. All of the songs from the Sonic Youth EP appear on this live show, but only “Burning Spear” and “She Is Not Alone” have the same song structure as they did on the record (and yes, “Burning Spear” has the drill!). “I Dreamed I Dream” makes an appearance as “Where the Red Fern Grows” (boring!). The live version of “I Don’t Want to Push It” is retitled “Hard Work” and is played without a drum part, which really illustrates how the Sonic Youth EP sounds similar to Confusion Is Sex, since there isn’t that virtuoso worldbeat line from the studio version to distract you. Also, the previously-instrumental “The Good and the Bad” is done with spoken word lyrics by Lee and retitled “Loud and Soft”. I should also mention that the live version of “She Is Not Alone” is done with much more energy and aggressiveness than the studio version and is just amazing.

There are also two previously unreleased songs done as part of the live show. One is an instrumental called “Destroyer”. It’s actually quite unremarkable, sounding just like you’d expect an early Sonic Youth noise jam to sound, and Richard Edson doesn’t bother to do anything interesting on the drums. More notable is “Cosmopolitan Girl”, an aggressive Kim song which is an early example of the kind of spunk that she’d later show on songs like “Brother James”.

Anyway, this reissue is important because of the way it documents a unique time in Sonic Youth's history, as well as a very unique sound powered by Richard Edson's drumming. If you’re a Sonic Youth fan, you need this reissue, and you have to actually get the CD so you can read Richard Edson’s memoir and see those geeky pics of Kim Gordon. They’re just priceless.

Artist website: http://www.sonicyouth.com
Label website: http://www.universalchronicles.com

June 27, 2006

Home "Sexteen"

Home is one of the last American stalwarts of last decade's “low-fi” explosion still standing. They didn't implode like Pavement did; they didn't make futile grabs at mass appeal like Guided by Voices did; they didn't lose their edge like Sebadoh did. They just kept playing shows wherever and whenever they could and releasing album after album, all of which were titled with Roman numerals and crammed with ambitious pop songs. Of course, Home never became as popular as those other bands, which probably helped keep the band from befalling similar fates. Nonetheless, props are due to any band that can stick together for 16 albums without releasing a single stinker. Despite their obscurity, Home has lasted last enough to be cited as an influence on other bands. It's telling that Fivehead, Austin's last great practitioners of indie-rock the way Gerard Cosloy intended it to be, worked a cover of Home's 1996 anthem “Forgiveness” into many of their sets.

Home's latest album Sexteen is a landmark release for two main reasons. One is that on it, the band has expanded to a quintet to accommodate the return of original drummer Sean Martin, who departed nearly a decade ago. The second reason is that it's a concept album about...well...you know. From the album title's obvious pun to the nude couple making out on the cover to the blunt song titles (“Juicy Ass,” “Straddle Me,” “Push” and “Deep Inside” are consecutive tracks), Sexteen maintains a dogged focus on its main topic. The concept isn't that novel: anyone who has heard a Ween record should neither be shocked nor repelled by the sound of nerdy white boys getting crude and lewd. I must admit, though, that hearing Home's three vocalists sing lyrics like “Swallow me whole/Don't let go/Do you wanna feel my fingers go inside of your hole?” in the same adenoidal drawls they use to sing more cerebral lyrics like “I know for a fact that simple cell regeneration/Is no match for the hard crust of the winter ice.”

“Fucking,” the band sings on the song of the same name, “is currently my favorite form of expression.” I'm willing to bet that singing about sex is the band's second favorite: after all, Sexteen does have a whopping 19 songs about it. Fortunately, the album possesses enough stylistic diversity to stave off boredom. Opening track “Other Times (Solar),” with its rigid 4/4 tempo, warm fuzz guitars and ringing keyboards, sounds like the best song that the dearly departed Grandaddy never wrote. The grungy grind of clashing guitars makes “Tim's Entry” sound like the missing fifth track from Watery, Domestic. The mid-tempo alt-country of “Juicy Ass” sounds much sexier than any song with that title has a right to. “Bubble” is a side-splitting funk jam that uses wind-up toys as a metaphor for sexual frustration; the band stops in the middle to eavesdrop on one of its members conversing with a phone sex operator about handjobs. “Rushing” coasts on a slow acoustic groove that would do Bill Withers proud, whereas the glam-rock bombast of “Baby Yeah” sounds like Ziggy Stardust trying to coax a woman into bed. “Straddle Me” and “Moon Kiss” are delicate piano-based ballads that are as sentimental as the other songs are salacious.

is also marked by an effortlessness that betrays the circumstances under which it was recorded. Every song on the album was recorded during a marathon three-day blitz, during which Martin and Chris Millstein (the drummer who replaced him) share drumming duties and the rest of the band traded instruments as needed. Unlike previous albums, the songs on Sexteen aren't as apt to trail off into long stretches of tape-manipulated tomfoolery, or combine to form multi-part suites. Many of them are simply content to milk a single riff for all its worth, a tactic that yields glorious results more often (“Tim's Entry” and the equally hard-rocking “Cry”) than not (the overlong “Deep Inside”). Even though the band probably didn't spend more than a couple hours a piece recording each song, the music never sounds sloppy or rushed. Even the most prudish listeners will have to admit that the songs on Sexteen are skillful and charming enough to compensate for the often tactless lyrics.

Artist Website: www.screwmusicforever.com/home
Label Website: www.brahrecords.com

June 26, 2006

Robin Guthrie "Continental"

To say that Robin Guthrie is an influence on a portion of the music world is a vast, vast understatement. Traces of his distinctive guitar style, formed when he was the mastermind behind the Cocteau Twins, can be found in a list of artists way too numerous to mention in one review. You can hear his influence in the releases of labels like 4ad, Morr Music, and Kranky—not to mention his new label, Darla--but you can also find elements of his style (if not his actual MUSIC) in the most unlikely of places, such as the soundtracks to detective dramas like CSI and Without a Trace. (My original review was simply a list of thirty or so artists that Guthrie has influenced, with the final line being 'the man who made these records has a new album out.' It made sense.)

Continental, his second solo album, departs from the more ambient departure of his debut Imperial. Though that record was good, Guthrie seemed to purposefully avoid the elements that made him famous, and the absence was glaringly obvious. But with Continental, Guthrie and his guitar are exploring the sounds that people (myself included) have come to expect from him for nearly three decades. Some might think that making a record that's so unsurprising from what he might have done would be a bit of an insult, but really, it's not. Listening to the shimmering guitars of "Monument" and "As I Breathe" and every other song on this record, it's like taking a trip back in time, back to the moment you heard Victorialand for the first time. I was expecting a pretty record, but I wasn't expecting something this wonderful. If you choose to take it as a sign, writing this review has been the hardest thing I've ever had to write, because I simply didn't feel as if I was capturing the record's purity of essence. (I still don't feel like I'm fully describing Continental's beauty, but I'm just going to have to live with it.)

Continental is the most unsurprising record I've heard all year. It's also one of the best records I've heard all year. I have no qualms in saying that it could very well be the best record of 2006. It's good to have a new Robin Guthrie record—it's been too, too long.

Listen To: "The Day Star"
Listen To: "Continental"

For more excellent songs, check out Guthrie's Myspace page.

Death Vessel "Stay Close"

Death Vessel's debut record's Stay Close has been out for a while, but it's cool, because it's a good record for summertime. It's a simple record, made with the most basic of instrumentation—mostly mandolin, banjo, voice, and acoustic guitar. Their music is bright and joyful and pretty and catchy and not as near as scary as the band name might suggest. These songs all seem right for a Saturday night hoot on your front porch. The music is joyous; Joel Thibodeau's signing is extremely wonderful, and there's something that's indescribably happy about the band's music. If I had to pick a favorite from these wonderful songs, I'd probably have to say that "Later in Life Lift" and "Tidy Nervous Breakdown" are the best record here, but it's hard for me to say that, because I'm simply in love with every song found here. Also, not to be neglected is their rather excellent cover of Townes van Zandt's "Snow Don't Fall."

Listen To: "Tidy Nervous Breakdown"

Befriend the Death Vessel!

PS. That's not a woman singing!

June 23, 2006

Philip E. Karnats "Pleasesuite"

Philip E. Karnats is perhaps best known for being the guitarist in the final incarnation of Tripping Daisy. He joined the band shortly after the one-hit wonder days of "I Got a Girl," and it's not unreasonable to suggest that his joining the band played a part in the band's redefinition of their artistic sensibilities, cumulating in the release of the utterly amazingly beautiful Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb. After the band came to a sudden end, he seemingly disappeared, popping up here and there, performing studio and pick-up duties for the Polyphonic Spree. But Pleasesuite, his solo debut, doesn't sound remotely like the Polyphonic Spree. It also doesn't sound anything remotely like Tripping Daisy, either; no, in fact, the closest artistic comparison one could make is to the early recordings of Brainiac/Enon's John Schmersal. It's not surprising, considering that Brainiac and Tripping Daisy were friends and shared the same sort of musical vision. Like Enon, Karnats' style is all over the map; from the mellow drones of "Learn Defeat" and "Smoke + Sediment" and the glam-rock weirdness of "Spinning Lids (On a Holiday Retreat Beach)" to the raucous rock of "Sick of Walkin'" and the Beck-like "Too Much to Chew," there's not a style or a sound Karnats doesn't seem to want to explore.

Pleasesuite is very much a solo affair. Aside from some female backing vocals and a sampled drum bit from a recording he made of Josh Garza ten years ago, he handles everything by himself, recording his songs in his Chicago basement. That is the root of Pleasesuite's greatest flaw: the record, while interesting, lacks the variety and interplay that comes from having the input of a real band. When you're playing everything yourself, you deny yourself the dynamic that can only come from having a real drummer, guitarist, and keyboard player, and your music will often feel stunted and two-dimensional. For the few great moments of Pleasesuite, there are plenty of moments that feel underwhelming and incomplete. Still, it's quite possible that Karnats did not initially intend to make a record until after he had recorded most of these songs. In that case, it would probably not be a bad idea for him to invest in a band; he has some good ideas, but they don't seem to blossom like they should. Considering his storied pedigree—and his caged weirdness and sonic ideas—it's not unrealistic to say that Karnats could really bloom in a more traditional setting. Hopefully he'll get a band for his next record, because it would make a big difference in his sound, and maybe the results won't sound so disappointingly unimpressive.

Label Website: http://www.goodrecordsrecordings.com

June 20, 2006

Amps for Christ "Every Eleven Seconds"

Henry Barnes --- the guitar god who records under the stunningly apt name Amps for Christ --- is a jack of all trades, but a master of only some. Like its 2004 predecessor The People at Large, AFC's new CD Every Eleven Seconds skips across genres in a manner so scattershot that it feels more like a mixtape than an actual album. The only major difference between People and Seconds is that the latter album is shorter, running through 15 tracks as opposed to the former's 23. Despite such concision, the signal-to-noise ratio remains the same, which doesn't work in Seconds' favor. A bad song doesn't stand out as much when it's buffered by two or three good ones. However, Seconds is sequenced in such a way that both the diamonds and the duds tend to come in pairs.

Every Eleven Seconds is at its best when Barnes is playing a stringed instrument. It doesn't even matter which one he plays, because he's good at all of them! “Cock o' the North” and “Sweet Dove” are acoustic ditties that skip with the sprightliness of Celtic jigs. They sound as if they're being played by a full band in the same room, even though it's just Barnes overdubbing guitar, mandolin and bass on top of each other. Most of the time, though, Barnes adds tension to his folksy compositions with elements of noise. On “Out on the Moon (Slight Return),” he plays quick and winding solos on distorted electric guitar; the last two words of the title should give you a hint as to whose spirit he's trying to conjure. “El Corazon de San Vicente” is an interpretation of a song that Barnes learned from a local mariachi band. He plays it straight, aside from a whammied-out distorted guitar solo buried extremely low in the mix. Barnes' guitars on “Scotland the Brave” leap across intervals with the abruptness and agility of bagpipes. The backing track of the raga-like “Proof Man” is run through a light layer of distortion that makes Barnes' sitar playing sound even more ethereal, as if the listener is hearing it through a faraway loudspeaker.

Every Eleven Seconds falters when Barnes gives too much creative rein to his friends. Both the opening and closing tracks feature drum programming by a man named Keller. At no point in either of these songs do Keller's beats and Barnes' guitar playing achieve anything resembling synergy. On a couple other songs, an assortment of guests supply what the liner notes refer to as “caveman electronics.” The results --- usually collages of white noise, engine-like rumbling and anguished screaming --- sound like the kind of atrocities you'd expect from a limited-edition Wolf Eyes CDR. Then, there are the spoken-word pieces, which are recited by a man named White in an array of overdubbed voices, all of which are out of sync with each other. The pieces aren't long enough to be annoying, but they aren't interesting enough to reward repeated listens. All tolled, the noise and spoken-word tracks take up almost half of the album's running time, ensuring that most listeners will keep their fingers twitching toward the “skip” button.

In the early 1980s, multi-dimenstional composer Frank Zappa decided to satisfy the many fans of his guitar playing by releasing a series of albums devoted solely to it, called Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar. Perhaps on future Amps for Christ albums, Barnes can follow Zappa's lead by telling his friends to fall back and letting his fingers do the talking. It would make a world of difference.

Artist Website: www.ampsforchrist.com
Label Website: www.5rc.com

June 15, 2006

Sonic Youth "Rather Ripped"

After 1998's sloppy A Thousand Leaves and 2000's atonal NYC Ghosts and Flowers, I and many other Sonic Youth fans said “goodbye 20th century” with trepidation, fearing that our heroes would spend this century letting their artier impulses cripple their music. Fortunately, the group rebounded in 2002 with Murray Street, the first in a series of increasingly streamlined and tuneful albums that found them consolidating their strengths and reasserting their dominance in the growing noise-rock underground. This rebound could've been attributed to the addition of multi-instrumentalist Jim O'Rourke to the lineup, as fresh blood frequently gives bands an artistic kick in the pants. Although O'Rourke left the group last year to return to his own creative interests, his absence hasn't caused the group to falter. Their latest album Rather Ripped marks notch number three in Sonic Youth's 21st-century winning streak.

Sonic Youth's most enduring albums, 1988's Daydream Nation and 1995's Washing Machine, bury what would be tight, catchy pop songs in other bands' hands underneath sprawling instrumental jams that don't always resolve or return to their original themes. In contrast, Rather Ripped might be the most listener-friendly album the band has ever made. Half of the songs are under four minutes, and only two pass the six-minute mark. The album's first two and last four songs contain about three seconds of music that could be referred to as “dissonant.” Although it's telling that Rather Ripped completes the band's contract with Geffen Records, at no point does it sound like a last-ditch attempt at commercial viability. It just happens to downplay the fearsome crescendi that the band is known for, and instead showcases the band's frequently unacknowledged knack for indelible melodies, strong hooks and thoughtful lyrics.

More than anything else, Rather Ripped announces the comeback of bassist Kim Gordon. Whereas she saved face on Murray Street and its successor Sonic Nurse by simply not being annoying, this is the first Sonic Youth album in at least a decade in which most of its best songs are sung by her. Opener “Reena” is one of the best pop songs the band has ever done. Guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo weave skipping single-note riffs and drony chords atop Steve Shelley's speedy, propulsive drumming with the intricacy of latticework. Kim sings --- not grunts or strains, but actually SINGS --- about a female friend who fills her with wonder: “How does she keep her static cool?/My heart and soul are rocked up in her eyes.” It's the kind of song that I'd expect someone else to write about her. On “What a Waste,” Kim coos concise come-ons that are as seductive as they are juvenile: “What a waste/You're so chaste/I can't wait/To taste your face.” Contrast this with Thurston's merely daffy mewling on “Pink Steam,” and you'll see why Kim's still the closest thing the group has to a sex symbol. “The Neutral” is a paean to a plain yet sincere man that glides on a bed of gorgeous, folksy arpeggios. When my friend Jeremy and I heard that O'Rourke left the band, I half-jokingly said to him, “The next Sonic Youth album will still rule as long as Kim plays bass and not guitar [as she did on Leaves and Flowers].” Rather Ripped proves me right.

Not to be outdone, Thurston and Lee contribute some winners as well. “Do You Believe in Rapture?” is a ethereal, apocalyptic ballad constructed from chiming guitar harmonics and faraway percussion. “Sleeping Around,” from the title to its chugging tom-toms and brash, pentatonic guitar solos, sounds like a classic rock jam piped in from a parallel universe. Closing track “Or” is a tense piece of mood music similar to “Rapture,” during which Thurston compares the music industry to prostitution. Maybe that's his subtle way of biting the hand that feeds him one last time. Lee's sole contribution, “Rats,” is both the album's funkiest and noisiest song. Shelley and Gordon lay down a groove that would do James Brown proud (I'm not kidding); Ranaldo and Moore scatter static all over it like their amps have shorts that they can't be bothered to fix.

It boggles my mind to think that Sonic Youth have been a band for as many years as I've actually lived, yet still make better albums than many bands whose members are in my age group. These guys are all older than my mother, yet some of the songs on this album can make her ears twitch when played at a high enough volume. What more can I say? Sonic Youth are still in full effect, and you should've ALREADY bought this record.

Artist Website: www.sonicyouth.com
Label Website: www.geffen.com

June 14, 2006

Maritime "We, the Vehicles"

Here's how we got to Maritime: Teenage boy forms punk band. Band breaks up. Boy forms another band. Band releases a seminal record that later helps to define a genre called 'emo.' Band involved in serious van accident. Boy develops a brain tumor and faces his mortality. Boy seizes upon these brushes with death and decides to take his band's music in a direction that's a bit different than what his fans might expect. Boy's band falls on face and breaks up. Boy forms new band that takes elements from his previous band and glosses them in a beautifully sweet pop coating. Formerly loving music world turns their backs on the now-unapologetic boy. Boy and his band continue to make great pop music. Boy's band releases excellent second album.

Some Promise Ring-obsessed friends of mine have not warmed up to the whole Maritime thing, and that's a shame. Personally, I find Davey von Bohlen's current musical stylings to be much more appealing than The Promise Ring, and even though I liked them, I always felt that they were shell-shocked with life after Nothing Feels Good. In a way, I felt that Glass Floor was the record Davey always wanted The Promise Ring to make. We, the Vehicles, their second album--and first for new label Flameshovel--only continues the band's descent into pure pop perfection. Jingle-jangle pop-rockers? Man, there's eleven of 'em on here, and they're all wonderful. Some are a bit more rock, such as "Parade of Punk Rock T-Shirts," "Calm," and "German Engineering>" Some of 'em are a bit mellower, such as "We Don't Think, We Know," "People, The Vehicles," and "Protein and Poison." Yeah, there's a bit of a Smiths/Housemartins vibe to their sound, but it's not all that noticeable, and von Bohlen's not trying to be Paul Heaton or Morrissey, so it's quite all right that they take inspiration from those wonderful bands. It's sad, thought, to know that people who loved the Promise Ring are stubbornly resisting Maritime's pop charm. They really don't know what they're missing; We, the Vehicles is not only as good as the Promise Ring catalog, I'm not being unrealistic when I say that it is quite possibly better than anything they did. It's a wonderful record.

Resist Maritime's pop charm? Why on earth would you want to do that?

Listen To: "We Don't Think, We Know"

(Broken link has been fixed.)

June 13, 2006

The Lancaster Orchestra

I have just now heard of The Lancaster Orchestra, and i have to say i'm totally overwhelmed by how GOOD they are. I really don't know much about the band, other than they are from Malmo, and they are really, really amazing. They kind of remind me of Neil Young, My Morning Jacket, and The Cardigans. I have a feeling that if the fates are fair, we'll be hearing more of this band.

Listen To: "New Found Friends"

And go and be their friend at myspace: http://www.myspace.com/thelancasterorchestra


The music found on loscil's fourth album, Plume, is as pretty and as relaxing as you would expect from a Kranky artist. Hushed ambient tones are peppered with ever-so-subtle beats, making for a gentle soundscape that is never dull or boring. Their albumSubmers felt like the soundtrack to a film about underwater exploration, and that's definitely still true today. It's hard to feel anxious when listening to Plume, and it does nothing to raise your pulse. Plume has an earthy feel to the record, one that keeps it from being too flighty or too light. If you're in need of an evening sedative or a non-narcotic nightcap, then there's no better tonic than Loscil.

Listen To: "Zephyr"

Also, it's worth noting that loscil recently released a free album, entitled Stases. It's a bit darker than Plume, and it's definitely a bit more ominous, but it's still an utterly beautiful record, and best of all…it's free! Check it out:

Listen To: "Still Upon the Ocean Floor" (from the free album Stases)

Kieran Hebden and Steve Reid, "The Exchange Session, Volume Two"

The second volume of recordings from the collaboration between Four Tet's Kieran Hebden and legendary jazz percussionist Steve Reid doesn't quite have the same energy as the first volume. As there's no real time line about when in the session these songs were recorded, it would be tempting to say that these three tracks were from the beginning of the session, when the two men were just getting a feel for the other's creative style, or that these songs come at the end of the session, when the two men were winding down and prone to making a more mellow sound. Thus, these three numbers all seem to recall the first volume's "Soul Oscillations," a song that definitely felt like a warm-up between the two collaborators.

Despite not quite living up to the electric atmosphere of the first volume, that doesn't mean that The Exchange Session, Volume 2 is less than interesting. The first number, "Hold Down the Rhythm, Hold Down the Machines" consists of the two fiddling around for a few minutes before finally hitting a cacophonous groove that ends quite loudly. It's not bad, but one would be justified in accusing Hebden of merely pushing sound-effect buttons for the sake of pushing buttons. The randomness of Hebden's electronic noodles throughout can grow quite irritating. When they finally come together, though, the groove is spectacular, and it's easy to forgive Hebden for his self-indulgent button pushing. If you're not in the mood for it, the twinkling of wind chimes and the sound of Japanese flutes found on the second song "NoƩmie" might grow tiresome, but that doesn't mean it's not a compelling improvisation on the nature of tribal music. The final song, "We Dream Free," is more of a low, quiet rumble, punctuated by Hebden's New Age-style bleeps.

Unlike Volume One, the music found here is a bit more obtuse, and the compositions are a bit more challenging, and the music is not as easy on the ears. Still, the collaboration does have its merits, and that this is the result of their first meeting does offer some hope of future recordings. Since the release of the first volume, the duo has performed live, and I'm sure that their performances are as captivating as their recordings. Maybe there will be a disc of those live performances? Might not be a bad thing!

Artist Website: http://www.kieranhebdenandstevereid.com
Label Website: http://www.dominorecordco.us

June 08, 2006

Sensations "Listen to My Shapes"

Sensations is the side project of The Mother Hips' Greg Loiacono, with help from Paul Hoaglin and Cake's Todd Roper. If you're familiar with the boogie retro-rock of The Mother Hips and the funky, quirky rock stylings of Cake, then you already know what Sensation's debut album Listen To My Shapes will sound like. Not that that's a bad thing, either. These guys have experience making simple, down-to-earth rock, and that's exactly what they've done here. Nothing too terribly earth shattering, but it's still a mellow, lovely affair. I'm fond of the band's laid-back vibe, especially on "Slow to Show," "Halving Me," and I can't get past the catchy rock blast of "My Big Fame." So if you dig the sounds of 70s-era radio rock, then you're sure to find something to love here. (Out now on Camera Records)

Listen To: "My Big Fame"

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Thursday's Time Machine: The Toys "A Lover's Concerto"

You've probably heard this song before. In one form or another, you've most likely heard the melody. Once lead vocalist Barbara Harris starts to sing, you'll instantly recognize that melody--it's Bach's Minuet in G--and how quickly do you fall in love with this gorgeous song? If you're like me, it's an instantaneous, passionate love affair. And what's not to love? This single, released in the summer of 1965, quickly shot up to the top five of the charts. As for The Toys, they were very much a product of the times; their sound is not unlike the Supremes, and "A Lover's Concerto" is thematically similar to "Chapel of Love," The Dixie Cups' hit from the previous year. Regardless, there's absolutely nothing wrong with the music, and the two minutes mini-concerto of "A Lover's Concerto" is, simply, a timeless pop confection. The sound of three harmonizing teenage girls singing a beautiful, almost virginally pure song about their dreams and expectations for marriage and their wedding day—how could that be anything less than perfect? In the early 1960s, success instantly came to those who realized such a theme, and, really, if the times were less cynical, I'm sure such a concept could still be a chart-worthy subject.

Like childhood innocence, The Toys' success could not last, and it didn't. Their other sides proved to be fine, quality girl-group material--all of which was lovingly remastered and compiled by Sundazed several years ago--but, unsurprisingly, nothing the band released afterwards matched the "Lover's Concerto" plateau, and it seems unlikely that they could have posed a serious threat to The Supremes—who, coincidentally, covered the song on their 1966 album I Hear A Symphony. (Their version pales next to the Toys; Ross doesn't come close to capturing Harris's youthful innocence.) But for a shining moment in the 1960s, the world fell in love with the Toys, and every time that song is played, that love affair continues.

Listen To: "A Lover's Concerto"

June 06, 2006

Herbert "Scale"

This is my first time experiencing the erotic world of Matthew Herbert's music...and I have to admit something... like it. I like it a lot. What Herbert's done with his latest record, Scale, definitely has my curiosity piqued. His music is vaguely a lot of things; it's vaguely electronica, it's vaguely jazz, it's vaguely house, it's vaguely experimental, and it's vaguely funk. What it is most certainly, though, is a pop record. And though the press kit purports it to be built on the theme of "the end of the oil era and the violence done in pursuit of this finite fossil fuel," you would be forgiven for totally missing that point. But I guess the lyrics are vaguely political, even though it's really hard to notice. Main vocalist Dani Siciliano could sing American Psycho, and you'd come away from the experience simply thinking about how sexy she sounds. Placed against the dance grooves of "Birds of a Feather" and "Moving Like a Train," she's a sexy disco diva; placed against the lush "Those Feelings," she's a sultry chanteuse. Then there's "We're In Love," which starts off sounding like a song from a vintage Disney movie, but it then turns into a soft, gorgeous orchestral pop number that's not unlike Marvin Gaye's early 1970s output. Very few records this year have sounded this beautiful and this grooving.

And, oh, those grooves! Herbert's grooves are exotic, because, well, the man has a brilliant ear for odd musical sources. For Scales, he utilized several hundred different objects--all of which are illustrated on the cover art--but, once again, these samples and sources are vaguely obvious. Helium balloons, coffins, clothespins, and a parrot? I couldn't tell you where these samples are used, but it doesn't really surprise me. But the one thing that's quite obvious is Herbert's use of an orchestra. Real, actual woodwinds, strings, and brass instruments grace nearly every track--and, apparently, this is not a new thing for Herbert, which, in my mind, is motivation enough to seek out his previous work.

Though it would be impossible for me to say where Scale compares in terms of his discography, for those who have yet to experience his work, there's no better place to start than here. A wonderful treat of a record, this.

Listen To: "Moving Like a Train"

June 05, 2006

The Keene Brothers "Blues and Boogie Shoes"

Keene Brothers' debut, Blues and Boogie Shoes, is his collaboration with his band mate (and power-pop genius in his own right) Tommy Keene. On paper, this collaboration seems promising, but in execution, it's more than promising, it's downright brilliant. (After all, it's really not an impossible assumption to make that Pollard and his drinking buddies might have jammed to Keene's Places That Are Gone.) Keene, who supplied the music, has a well-established history as a quality songwriter, and as such, his sonic soundscapes are much bigger and bolder than any of Pollard's previous records. These songs are also a lot more polished and radio-friendly than most every record in Pollard's oeuvre; there's also a softer, mellower side to be found in songs like "Death of the Party," "Island of Lost Lucys" and "You Must Engage."

It's hard not to be impressed by the confident swagger of "Where Others Fail" and "This Time Do You Feel It?", and dig that hard-rocking "Heaven's Gate"--it's the closest Bob's ever come to sounding like Van Halen! Pollard's never been in finer voice, and Keene's music has never sounded this tough. Blues and Boogie Shoes has a great rock and roll vibe to it, reminiscent of Cheap Trick and The Who, though it's not a Cheap Trick or Who record. The record sounds less like a hot collaboration between two excellent songwriters and more like an unexpected comeback from a long-thought-lost 70s stadium rock band. It's that good. Let's hope that this collaboration lasts, because it's Pollard's best collaboration to date; each song is a jewel, Pollard's songwriting is topped only by his surprisingly powerful singing, and the only criticism to be had with Blues and Boogie Shoes is that it ends! (PS. This isn't Adult Contemporary, pitchdorks!)

The Playwrights “English Self Storage”

Bristol band the Playwrights couldn't have asked for a better name, as the eight songs that comprise their sophomore album English Self Storage are among the most verbose I've ever heard. Guitarist Benjamin Shillabeer, the band's sole songwriter, is in love with words, and he crams as many of them as possible in his songs. It's a minor miracle that singer Aaron Dewey can get through most of the songs without awkwardly shoehorning words into the meters or totally strangling his melodies. Each Playwrights song is rich with enough imagery and analogy to fill a short story, which makes it a crying shame that English Self Storage doesn't come with a lyric sheet. You have to access the lyrics through the band's website, which can make things difficult for anyone who isn't near a computer when listening to the CD.

Most of the lyrics on English Self Storage lament the negative effects that industrialization and expansion can have on small-town lives and relationships. “The city's rise and the country's fall were the same event,” sings Dewey on opener “Why We've Become Invisible,” “and buried in the topsoil are bodies.” Succeeding track “Fear of Open Spaces” continues this theme in what shapes up to be the album's catchiest chorus: “There are panes of glass between you and me/Lead, brick, tile, electrical circuitry.” The lyrics of “Central Heating in the Summer Season” condemn vapid hipsters who fetishize irony and nostalgia: “The present is the past in new clothes, a fresh light. Dig deep...underneath, there's some bad blood, a few bad drugs and a real lack of anything.” Ironically, album closer “21st Century Kasper Hauser” finds Shillabeer complaining about being behind the cultural curve, about being “the last village to get connected...the last hippie to take acid.”

Musically, the first piece of critical shorthand that comes to mind would be “the Futureheads gone math-rock.” Every song is built from wandering bass lines, guitars that interlock and diverge every few seconds, and drums that navigate tricky time signatures without being flashy. None of the songs overstay their welcome, but they do tend to throw in extra bridges when one least expects them. Occasionally, the band wanders too far into prog-ville (see the beginning of “Movements Toward a Paperless Life,” which puts a rushed, half-spoken verse on top of a 10/8 grind), but they swiftly regain their footing with another strong hook that listeners can sing along to...if they take a deep breath beforehand, of course.

There's just as much going on in the music as there is in the lyrics, which is both a blessing and a curse. Such sensory overload makes English Self Storage the kind of record that demands repeated listens, but not everyone will be willing to meet this demand. Some critics have already dismissed the album as “pretentious, contrived dross,” which says more about those critics' attention span than it does about the quality of the music. The lyrics read well on paper, and the music is tuneful, rocking and challenging. When fused together, though, it can be a bit much to take in all at once. Perhaps the Playwrights would do well to apply some restraint on their next album...or, at the very least, include a lyric sheet. Until then, English Self Storage will suffice as a promising release that finds the band standing on the cusp of greatness.

Artist Website: www.theplaywrights.co.uk
Label Website: www.sinkandstove.co.uk

June 01, 2006

The Dirty Projectors "New Attitude"

Dirty Projectors auteur Dave Longstreth is a refreshing rarity: an art-rock savant whose talent exceeds his quirkiness, instead of vice versa. Last year's opus The Getty Address was a self-described “glitch opera” about a man who becomes one with nature while trucking across the country. It sounded like you'd imagine it would: dense choral and orchestral arrangements run through the digital shredder, only to have the pieces haphazardly scattered all over funky drum programming. Granted, there was no good reason for Longstreth to name the main character after Don Henley, especially considering that the lyrics had no other Eagles reference. Why quibble, though, when the music was so consistently catchy and innovative? You've got to be doing something right if Prefuse 73's Scott Herren gives you props.

The Getty Address is a pretty tough record to follow --- and, wisely, the new Dirty Projectors EP doesn't even try. Instead, New Attitude performs a different, yet equally Herculean task: summarizing every stylistic detour that Longstreth has taken over the last four years into a compact half-hour's worth of music.

The first two songs (“Fucked for Life” and “Two Sheep Asleep”) are cut from the mold of 2003's acoustic The Glad Fact. Longstreth sings atop a bed of meandering bass lines, slightly out-of-tune acoustic guitars and strategically placed hand claps and percussion. The latter song is a hootenanny in which he grunts and yodels like a blues singer on Prozac.

Two other songs are cut from the mold of 2004's Slaves' Graves and Ballads, for which Longstreth composed songs for an eight-piece orchestra. The new songs are played by a string quartet consisting of two cellos and two double basses. On “Likeness of Uncles,” the quartet's slow, rumbling drones make the song sound like an RCA Red Seal recording played at 16 RPM. The amazing “Darkened Car” is slightly less ominous. The cellos play in a higher register, and Longstreth delivers his most expressive vocals yet. His warbling falsetto punctuates crucial lines with the kind of melismatic runs you'd normally expect from an R&B singer.

I repeat, “Darkened Car” is AMAZING.

“Imagine It” and “Katy at the Mall” are songs in the “glitch opera” style of The Getty Address. The second half of “Katy” is particularly impressive. Whiplash snares and staccato keyboards fight for space as a lone female voice sings about going to the mall on a snowy day. As good as these songs are, they're also the EP's most predictable.

New Attitude
's biggest surprise comes on the eight-minute live recording “Two Young Sheep.” On the tour that Longstreth did to support The Getty Address, he was backed by an eight-piece band that managed to recreate that album's chopped-up, disorienting arrangements perfectly with “real” instruments. On this song, though, they lay down a shockingly fluid Afro-beat groove in which a flute nimbly dances around dueling keyboards. Longstreth plays the role of Fela, engaging the audience in brief call-and-response sessions when he's not yelling the song's sole lyric: “Precious reciprocity/Two sheep asleep silently.”

Although this EP was initially released on 12-inch vinyl, those of you with turntables need not fear. Every copy of New Attitude comes with a CD of the same songs. Even if it didn't, I'd recommend buying it and listening to it on someone else's turntable. “Darkened Car” alone is worth DOUBLE the price!

Artist Website: www.westernvinyl.com/dirty_projectors.htm
Label Website: www.marriagerecs.com

P.S. No, seriously. “Darkened Car” is really amazing.

New Cave In!

I love Cave In. In my humble opinion, they're easily one of today's best rock bands. But they've been in a weird place over the past few years, what with a major label disaster and hassles that have, well, kept the band from realizing its full potential. Last year's Perfect Pitch Black was a great record, even if it was more of a 'clearing the pipes' release than an album proper. On last winter's tour, they sold a two-song cassette with two new tracks. Let's just say that Cave In's future is looking rather interesting. Eschewing the prog moments that have punctuated their previous releases, these two new songs definitely show a band regaining their hard, more metallic edge. Of course, they've not lost their pop druthers, and vocalist Stephen Brodsky's singing is just as good as ever. Can't wait for that new record!

Listen To: "Shapeshifter"