erasing clouds

10 Music Reviews

by dave heaton, anna battista

Click on a musician's name to go directly to the review, or scroll down and proceed through them all.

Ballboy, Brighter, The Buddy System, Clem Snide, Death Cab for Cutie, Kid Koala, The Minders, Norfolk & Western, U.N.P.O.C., Robert Wyatt

Ballboy, The Sash My Father Wore and Other Stories (SL Records)

Ballboy's first two full-length CDs, the recent A Guide to the Daylight Hours and the earlier EP compilation Club Anthems, offered both quiet, folk-pop songs loaded with melancholy atmosphere and full-on rock songs that took the same feelings and added energy, wit, and a big, brash sound. The tone of both CDs is what fans call "varied" and critics call "uneven." For their third full-length CD, The Sash My Father Wore and Other Stories, Ballboy has made a choice between the two modes…or rather, Ballboy singer/songwriter Gordon McIntyre has, as this CD mostly features just him, strumming a guitar and singing gentle, beautiful songs. "In the darkness of this morning there are things you'll never know," he sings a cappella to kick off the first song, inaugurating the theme of lost chances and hidden longings that McIntryre captures so well. All of Ballboy's songs feel both poetic and completely grounded in reality: as if your next-door neighbor reluctantly decides to plays some of his songs for you, and they take your breath away. When Ballboy is in quiet mode, the wit and humor is mostly forsaken for honest expressions of hurt and pain and infatuation (the sole exception is "Kiss Me, Hold Me and Eat Me," a love song between cannibals that's a bit on the goofy side). The songs are soft on top, with lovely melodies and delicate guitar (plus perfect string arrangements on a few songs), but have a real rawness too. Whether he's dreaming that he could make two choices at once ("I Need Two Hearts"), appreciating the things he and his lover keep secret ("Past Lovers"), or venting at someone he calls "a big fat, bigoted arsehole" ("The Sash My Father Wore"), his words strike a genuine chord. He gets those same twin feelings of potency and tranquility in a spot-on cover of Galaxie 500's "Tell Me," while on a revealing version of Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." he manages to remove the sloganistic aspects of the song and take it right to its core. With The Sash My Father Wore and Other Stories, McIntryre has crafted yet another splendid recording. With each release, Ballboy further wins me over; right now they're making some of the smartest, most impressive music around.--dave heaton

Brighter, Singles 1989-1992 (Matinee)

Brighter's 1991 album Laurel stands as one of the great examples of wrapping sadness in a beautiful package. Gorgeous, gently sung melodies and an overall comforting mood envelop listeners as the songs tell of heartbreak and desperation. Though its memories went on to form or play in other great quiet-pop groups (Harper Lee, Fosca, Pinkie, Trembling Blue Stars) Brighter only released that one album. Yet its singles were just as captivating, as demonstrated by the new Matinee Records release Singles 1989-1992, a 15-song collection of the three 7" singles and one 10" single that they released (all on the now-famed UK label Sarah Records). Taken as a whole, these songs present an even sadder vision of the world than Laurel did. "I say goodbye and I sadly smile/has it all been worthwhile or a waste of time?", Keris Howard sings at the start of "Noah's Ark," bringing listeners to a moment in time that's typical of the sort that Brighter creates songs around. But more than just reveling in depression, Brighter's songs explore the times when we feel at our worst in a way that reveals insights about the human condition. And as with much of the best sad music, the sheer beauty of it leavens the bleakness to make listeners feel less depressed than inspired.--dave heaton

The Buddy System, Transitions (Notenuf)

As The Buddy System, Kurt Korthais creates instrumental electronic music broken down to its elemental parts--beats and synth melodies--which has an unreal feeling to it. Its abstract music that feels almost completely removed from the concrete world of dance parties and urban settings that you often associate with electronic music. Transitions is less about getting you to dance than about taking you from your body and leading you through new galaxies; it's sonic science fiction. The tracks on Transitions are all pleasurably melodic (at times similar in tone to the sort of electronic music that the German label Morr Music releases), and at times trip through ambient, "cloud of noise" territory (see the start of "Live 27Dec02 pt 3," for example), but also have a scientific sort of distance about them. Melodies interact in a mannered, patterned way, as if they were sketched out on a chart beforehand. This gives Transitions the feeling of an exercise in technology even as its melodies have emotional resonance…it's an interesting blend, like a computerized rainstorm.--dave heaton

Clem Snide, A Beautiful EP (spin Art)

At the start of their A Beautiful EP, Clem Snide take on the task of rescuing a hit pop song, showing that under the glitz there's real emotion. The song is Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful," co-written by Linda Perry (ex-4 Non Blondes, now songwriter for the stars), and the sentiment is "I am beautiful no matter what they say/words can't bring me down." That line comes at you differently when Eef Barzelay sings it than when Christina does; Clem Snide isn't playing the song as an ironic joke, they're trying to get to the heart of it and show you that it's a good song even if you always thought it wasn't. It's a worthwhile endeavor, to show that not all hit songs are bad to their core, that underneath is something real. With "Beautiful," though, I'm not convinced. Clem Snide's version feels more honest, that goes with it saying, but the melody is still unexceptional and the lyrics still, to be honest, kind of dumb. It's fortunate, then, that the other 4 songs on the EP help make the title statement appropriate. The three originals are all witty, sensitive pop-rock songs with beautiful melodies and a down-to-earth understanding of people and the things they feel. The Soft Spot album version of "All Green" ("summer will come and be all green with the sweetness of thee") is included, along with the previously unreleased asthma tale "Mike Kalinsky" and a gorgeous acoustic version of their first album's "Nick Drake Tape." There's also a take on the Velvet Underground's "I'll Be Your Mirror," which adds a countrified charm while capturing the original's generosity and haunting mood spot-on. Maybe it just comes down to me liking the Velvet Underground more than Christina Aguilera and Linda Perry, but it feels a nice contrast to the first track, an example of a cover that generates real warmth without feeling redundant or superfluous.-dave heaton

Death Cab for Cutie, Transatlanticism (Barsuk)

Before Death Cab for Cutie began their first song at their recent concert in East Lansing, Michigan, guitarist Chris Walls announced that he had some business to take of: he had seen a couple arguing in the lobby earlier in the evening and wanted to make sure that they were OK. Turns out they were right in front of him, and they had reconciled. Walla was happy, and the band could start. That offers a snapshot of what the band is like. In other words, these aren't your older brother's macho rockers, these are sensitive rock n' rollers. That sort of sensitivity carries itself through all of the songs on the band's fine new album Transatlanticism. The lyrics could be singer Ben Gibbard's diary entries and love letters. "So this is the new year/I don't feel any different," the album starts. The rest of it is filled with similar expressions of feeling lost, trying to find the best place to plant your feet (exemplified by the stunning 7-minute title track, a long-distance love ballad with "I need you so much closer" as its central sentiment). It's also filled with honest expressions of longing and yearning…the impression of honesty is what makes the diary aspect of Death Cab for Cutie's music not just bearable but touching. Gibbard has a fairly middle-of-the-road voice, yet he uses it to squeeze out every bit of feeling that he can, overwhelming listeners with the emotions behind the songs. On Transatlanticism the band has also found a way to back up Gibbard's romantic and nostalgic leanings with gentle textures along with the rock guitars. This is "soft rock" in the best sense, rock music that whispers to you.--dave heaton

Kid Koala, Some Of My Best Friends Are DJs (Ninja Tune)

Third album for this Canadian turntablist, scratcher and sampler with a sense of humour and a talent for minimalist comics. Containing eleven tracks plus four bonuses, Eric San's, aka Kid Koala, brilliant "Some Of My Best Friends Are DJs" is really a mish-mash of sounds and genres from jazz to rock, from blues to dance, the whole spiced up with hilarious samples. The first track is actually just a 5-second intro sample saying "Yes, we're about to begin…", then mayhem starts, with the trumpet and banjo of the scratched Louis Armstrong's favourite "Basin Street Blues", (of which you'll also find a surrealist cartoon video on the CD version of the album) and follows with "Radio Nufonia", a crazy barrage of samples. There's some romanticism in "Vacation Island" (B-side to first single taken from this album, "Basin Street Blues"), a brief lecture on, well, koalas and lots of scratching and sneezes on "Flue Season". For some great fun go to the relentless ska of "Skanky Panky," which is probably the best track on the album, and to "Robochacha" a dance-y track with a dialogue between a girl and a robot, which reminds the theme of the 350-page comic book by Kid Koala "Nufonia Must Fall", love story between a robot and an office girl, published earlier this year together with its own soundtrack. The album also contains a makeshift chess board and a comic courtesy of Kid Koala himself which includes quite a few stories about some of his fave characters, from the shy DJ (a guy with headphones permanently on) looking for a match to light the cigarette of a woman he fancies, to the legendary grandmaphone, an elderly lady with ninja skills. "I'm a scientist of sound," one of the samples on the album claims, and that's a good definition for Kid Koala. Our Kid is indeed a scientist of sound and a great entertainer.--anna battista

The Minders, The Future's Always Perfect (Future Farmer)

Of all of the rock bands falling head over heels for the 60s, the Minders have always struck me as one of the more complex. They have the same winning ear for melody as their once Elephant 6 compadres the Apples in Stereo, but also a subtly dark edge that makes it seems like part of their collective mind is always longing to get completely lost in twisted psychedelic territory. Their new 8-song CD The Future's Always Perfect gets the bouncy, hook-filled thing down as deftly as ever, yet still keeps that sense of wildness and unpredictability alive. "It guess it all depends on the way we stand/I guess it's down to point of view," goes a line on the catchy first track, "It's So Hard." He's singing about a relationship, but you can't help but think that the general feeling of being on a fence pervades everything they do. Sometimes it's best not to choose one direction or another, just to let them infiltrate each other naturally, and that's what the Minders excel at. You could twist and shout to these songs all night long, or sing along in the shower, but they have a thick sound, bookended by deep bass and light but sometimes creepy synth, that haunts you too long for this to just be another bubblegum pop-rock record.--dave heaton

Norfolk & Western, Dusk in Cold Parlours (Hush Records)

Remember how the Flaming Lips' Soft Bulletin had everybody and his brother gaga about how big and dynamic their sound was? Not to take anything away from that album, but there's other musicians out there who have a sound with just as full and exciting an atmosphere but aren't trying as hard to get your attention (no fake blood or light shows). The Portland-based group Norfolk & Western sound nothing like the Flaming Lips, but their new album Dusk in Cold Parlours creates a similarly warm and expansive feeling within a quieter context. Singer/songwriter Adam Selzer (also a talented producer who has worked with the Decemberists and others), writes low-key, guitar-based songs soaked in the atmosphere of the American West, and then carefully dresses them with piano, vibraphone, harmonica, mellotron, organ, lap steel, trumpets, banjo, and more. The mood of the 12 songs on Dusk in Cold Parlours is exemplified by the title of the last song: "At Dawn or After Dusk." Musically the songs exude a hazy beauty, while Selzer's lyrics offers snapshots of people's lives, enticing us by leaving spaces for our minds to fill in. Dusk in Cold Parlours is a delightful album; its songs have an immediate appeal but also a hard-to-pin-down sense of historical and geographical resonance.--dave heaton

U.N.P.O.C., Fifth Column (Domino)

First album for this Edinburgh based computer science student with enough tunes and good inspirations to become the next big thing. Tom Bauchop aka U.N.P.O.C. has indeed written and recorded (with a little help by drummer Stu Bastiman) an astonishing first album. Mainly made of guitars, tambourines and every now and then of whistles (check "Avignon"), and never boring as albums by guitar bands a la Oasis might be, "Fifth Column" includes ballads such as the first track, "Amsterdam", pop anthems such as "Here On My Own" and "Come On" or extremely cute little tracks made of incessant guitars (check "I Don't Feel Too Steady On My Feet"). Since this was Tom's first effort in the music world, it would have been enough to expect from him ten tracks, rather than the fourteen "Fifth Column" contains. You might think he should have edited the album and made it shorter, but Tom manages to keep your attention alive and never tires you. The result is that by the time you've reached the last track, "Nicaragua", and its frenzied guitars which will have you brushing the dust off your (air) guitar, you cannot help wanting for more. And for those who really want more, well, there's also a sort of mini-album, "The Artist Paints" released by U.N.P.O.C. on Fife-based Fence Records. Just don't ask Tom what the name of his band means, cos he's not really sure about it. For the time being, there's only one thing which U.N.P.O.C. means and that's "cool". {}--anna battista

Robert Wyatt, Cuckooland (Rykodisc)

Right at the start of Robert Wyatt's latest album, you're pulled into a dreamy place filled with midnight jazz, bossa nova rhythms, blissful synthesizer clouds, and above it all Wyatt's unique voice, which rises in the air like a guru seeking transcendence but retains the smokey earthiness of the neighborhood barfly. This place we've entered, Wyatt calls it Cuckooland, yet as otherworldly as the music is, it's clear that this is no far-off wonderland, but the world we live in right now, one filled with cuckoo politicians and scared citizens. Cuckooland is both a gorgeous sleepwalk through the jazzy, psychedelic art-pop that Wyatt excels at and a stirring, powerful commentary on today's world. While songs like "Old Europe" and "Lullaby for Hamza" (inspired by both 'Gulf Wars') are obviously inspired by recent events, Wyatt isn't just offering gut reactions to what's going on now but weaving an artwork which investigates in a more holistic way the evil things human beings do to each other. The ghosts of Hiroshima and the Nazi extermination camps lurk behind every note; even a cover of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Insensatez" takes on a different feeling in this context. "Deep in the forest the omens are bad/a cloud passes over the moon," Wyatt sings at one point, before evoking images of Auschwitz and Lety. Cuckooland's vision is bleak, but also embodies the notion that art can help us understand and change the world. "The world's gone wrong again, I need your lullaby," he sings, while offering us complicated and rewarding lullabies of his own.--dave heaton

Issue 17, November 2003

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