10 Music Reviews
by dave heaton
Bingo, The Cicada And Other Stories (self-released)
Kevin "Bingo" Richey kicks off his album The Cicada and Other Stories with a lazy-river, country-living kind of guitar-rock song about finding a place where you can lose yourself and just be. That sort of hippie-ish sentiment could theoretically ruin a batch of songs, but here somehow it helps them - throughout the album, the more he dreams along in a laidback kind of way, the more I'm right there with him. There's moments throughout The Cicada... where Bingo perfectly taps into a lonesome zen-country kind of thing, really getting at a feeling of stillness within a friendly front-porch song. On the other hand, the more he turns up the bluesy side of his songs the more I lose interest, but maybe that's just my predisposition against the electric blues (call it my Clapton phobia). And there's places where the messages get too awkwardly obvious for my tastes, with lyrics like "your media mindset programmed to deceive." But forget about those spots, pick a song like "Ghost Woman Blues" or the gorgeous 11-minute closer "Candlelight," turn it up loudly enough, and float away.
Circus Devils, Pinball Mars (Fading Captain Series)
As off-kilter as some of Bob Pollard's weirder little tunes with Guided By Voices are, the most avant-garde of his many creative outlets is probably the Circus Devils, the horror-rock trio of Pollard and the Tobias Brothers (Todd and Tim) which releases an album every Halloween or so. Their third album, Pinball Mars, came out last Halloween on Pollard's format of choice (vinyl) and is now out on CD; again it shows that Pollard goes the furthest out when he keeps 60s and 70s rock as the platform and then uses it to tap into the more twisted parts of his psyche. Somewhere between the caustic noise of 2001's Ringworm Interiors and the more reined-in, sensitive concept album The Harold Pig Memorial (2002), Pinball Mars often sounds like GBV's arena rock anthems after they've been processed by two different mechanisms: one looking to make them into death-metal hymns to Satan, the other trying to discover what would happen if classic rock and free jazz had a baby. Take the album's first track, "Are You Out With Me?", where Pollard repeatedly sings "Let's go out!," a potential GBV-ian call to drink, as if it's the most evil sentiment ever, over a thick wall of demonic guitars. Pinball Mars starts with sharp and ugly (and in their own way, beautiful) rock and roll animals and winds up with half-baked psychedelic lullabies. Pollard sings everything like he's under some dark wizard's spell (or under the influence of some strong drugs), while the instruments are played loud, wild, and all-over-the-place. It's a shame this will be relegated to the category of "GBV side project," as fans of truly out-there avant-rock might find this right up their alley.
The Diskettes, self-titled (Humblebee Recordings)
Think of Beat Happening if they were more in love with 50s vocal pop. Think of Jonathan Richman singing without a mic at the front of the stage, clapping his hands and dancing. Think of summer, palm trees, and young love. Think of bossa nova and gentle guitars. Think of a duo from Canada harmonizing over snapping fingers and a lone guitar. And you have the self-titled CD from The Diskettes. The homemade pop album includes covers of two old-time radio hits (by the Bobettes and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers) and 9 originals that are mostly in the vein of that style of pop music. Some of the songs were recorded in basement, some in an art gallery, and one on a beach - and all of them project an out-and-out enthusiasm for singing songs and living life that's infectious. This is dance music for your next beach party or for the house party going on in your head while you sit alone in the dead of winter, dreaming of the sun.
Hospital Grade, Written Axe to Trigger (Urinine)
I usually write about an album because I like it, or at least find it interesting or deserving of attention in some way. Then there's cases like this, where - to be completely frank - I'm reviewing an album because the record label's intern keeps bugging me about it and I want to get her to stop. To be fair, that's part of the game we play, so I'm not annoyed, I just feel the need to justify this review. For Hospital Grade's debut album Written Axe to Trigger is so not up my alley that I can hardly bring myself to listen to it all the way through. A Canadian punk rock band made up of former members of the band Not Funny Anymore, Hospital Grade make music for people who value the following in their music: aggression, speed, loud guitars, vocals strained from trying to sing loudly enough to rise above the din. If you put in a CD or go to a rock show for the sole purpose of hearing loud music that sends a rush of adrenaline through your body, this album might be just for you. That isn't to say that Hospital Grade aren't concerned with melody or emotion - they clearly are, just not enough for my tastes. When they do play up the hooks over the power, they inevitably end up sounding like just another in the uncountable line of Superchunk imitators. When they accentuate the crunch and power, they make me feel like an old fogie for wishing they'd turn things down and work on their songwriting a bit more.
Manual with Jess Kahr, The North Shore (Darla)
Successful ambient music often creates an atmosphere of suggestion…where your imagination can fill in the spaces. Depending on where you are and where your mind is at, a particular soundscape can seem like the perfect music for a lonely rainy night or a musical portrait of an afternoon on the beach. With Manual's latest album The North Shore - the 20th release in Darla Records' glorious Bliss Out series - if you follow the lead of the sunset cover photo or titles like "Dawn Changes Everything" and "It's Night on Planet Earth…And We Are Live", you'll be transported to a solitary place of awe, on the brink between two states of being, on a perfect precipice that feels like change and like standing in one place. In other words, The North Shore is seven dreams on a shiny disc, together forming a cohesive musical vision of beauty and anticipation. On The North Shore Danish electronic musician Manual (aka Jonas Munk Jensen), with occasional help from collaborator Jess Kahr, taps into universal, inexpressible feelings through sonic atmospheres that are melodic and always in motion, even as they often feel like one static, beautiful creature. A wondrous album, to be listened to closely and from afar, quietly and overwhelmingly loud, depending on your mood.
Marizane, Stage One (Vibro-Phonic Recordings)
It's become almost a truism in music and art that "it's all been done before," but still it's a headscratcher when you have a band that sounds so much like their idol that it isn't even gently disguised. Take Marizane's EP Stage One as an example. Here you have Tony Visconti, who produced several David Bowie albums, producing, arranging, recording and mixing an EP by a group that sounds so much like Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie it isn't even funny. Marizane singer Todd Jaeger even molds his voice to sound like Bowie's, not to mention his songs and the glam-rock style in which they're performed. The thing is, he gets it so right that I go from disbelief and disgust to kind of enjoying the EP. If you love that period in Bowie's music (and who doesn't?), and want more, this would be a nice diversion. But if you prefer to at least pretend like there's something new under the sun, like you can play music without imitating what's come before, you might want to pass on this one.
Mocean Worker, Enter the Mowo! (The Music Force)
Producer Adam Dorn's latest album as Mocean Worker, Enter the Mowo!, is a seamless blend of jazz, low-key funk, trip-hop and electronic dance music which at times feels magical and more often is a bit too safe and middle-of-the-road for my tastes. The album works best when Dorn effortlessly blends together styles and sounds, as on "Shamma Lamma Ding Dong," which introduces Rahsaan Roland Kirk to Frank Gauthier of the band Rhinoceros. Here there's a haunted, eerie quality to the track, yet it also rolls along as a funky hybrid. Kirk's flute playing retains its edge, standing in contrast with the relatively mundane horn playing that shows up on some of the other tracks. The mood of the album overall is that of tasteful, "sophisticated" music that could serve as perfect background music for an office. But there's places where the music explodes with energy - as on "Move," featuring Hall Willner - or where a vocalist takes the spotlight and transfixes you, as on the gorgeous ballad "I'll Take the Woods," featuing Shivaree. In those moments it's easy to see how exciting Enter the Mowo! could have been, how it could have earned its titular exclamation mark.
Shumai, Tastes Like Summer (Total Gaylord Records)
"It's bullshit/I mean it/they cut off the cable/I know it was stealing/but hey man they left it on," Shumai's lead vocalist sings at the start of their album Tastes Like Summer; she has a pretty voice and sings in a sly, kind of distant but quietly forceful way that somehow sounds like she's kidding around and being totally serious. Behind her voice the song has classic-pop handclaps, 90s indie rock guitars, and a playful bounce, not to mention a low-key catchy melody. They don't take themselves too seriously - check out song titles like "$18 Rubber Pants" and "Dog Lipstick" - but their songs aren't frivolous either. On song after song, Tastes Like Summer is as charming as indie-pop albums come, with infectious hooks and a fetching sound - sweet but with a touch of melancholy and a light tilt towards rock n' roll. Don't set this one aside until summer, it'll be a nice soundtrack to your days no matter the season.
The Silent League, "The Catbird Seat" 7" (Desolation Records)
The Silent League's "The Catbird Seat" is a post-nuclear apocalypse nightmare disguised as a psychological piano ballad infiltrated by eerie guitar recorded out on a lost highway somewhere. Musically it falls along the lines of a softer, not as spacey but just as haunted Mercury Rev, which makes sense since the man behind the Silent League, Justin Russo, has spent time playing with that band on tour. On the flip side is a perfectly beautiful cover of John Lennon's "How?", from Plastic Ono Band. Both songs do a great job accelerating my interest in The Silent League's upcoming full-length.
Tears in X-Ray Eyes, Wonderfully Made (Chocolate Hearts)
Wonderfully Made begins like a Valentine Day's lullaby from a guardian angel, wrapping itself around you with a musical hug that acknowledges that the world is filled with pain but says "don't worry, I'll keep you safe." The first tracks in particular, with names like "In These Arms" and "Wherever You Are (You'll Find Me There)," are expressions of undying love which take the form of gorgeous pop songs. Multi-instrumentalist Tim Closs, who is Tears in X-Ray Eyes, forms his songs from building blocks that are essentially comforting: gentle piano, pure pop melodies sung in an emotional yet friendly tone, and atmosphere galore (the nuanced mood points towards rock bands that are reaching for other galaxies, like Radiohead and the Flaming Lips, even as the songs themselves favor pop balladry over rock energy). Don't worry, everything will be fine, Closs continually reassures us, and every piece of the music backs up his sentiment, even as sadness and fear lie in wait. As you might imagine, as the album progresses, love is tested, foundations crumble, and an overriding uncertainty arrives. "All my strange love couldn't bring us together again," Closs sadly intones on one of the album's most riveting songs. As the ideal love loses its chance of success, the songs get more melancholy and darker (and, on "Who's Gonna Hurt You Know?", more rocking), but they never loss their essential beauty. By the album's end, strings are welling up, time is marching on, and the air is filled with regret. But all that it takes to bring the hopefulness back is to press play, to start again at the beginning and work your way through this stunning cycle of love and disappointment once more.