erasing clouds

10 Music Reviews

by dave heaton

Riow Arai, Mind Edit (Leaf)

The scissors on the cover of Riow Arai's Mind Edit are key to what's going on withinůthis is 48 minutes of beats, breaks and sounds, cut up and spliced into futuristic instrumental hip-hop that's uniquely mesmerizing. The hallmarks of modern hip-hop production are all here: the enveloping atmosphere, booming bass, and off-step beat patterns practiced by the most celebrated producers (RZA, Timbaland, Jay Dee). There's also old-school breakbeats (take the sparse drums that kick off "Gyrate," for instance) and a cut-and-switch technique long familiar to hip-hop DJs. Yet the overall vibe of Mind Edit has more in common with abstract composers/scientists working with electronic sounds and beats, and the album also retains the vibrant, funky mood of a dance party. The 11 tracks, from the 30-second "Intro" through to the mellow-soul of closer "I Dine at Daybreak," run together as one piece of music, even as the whole album is as schizophrenic as you might expect. Riow Arai blurs the lines between producer, DJ, and sound sculpter, plus the line between hip-hop and "electronica." Above all he's crafted a piece of sonic architecture that takes familiar sounds and styles and forms them into something new and adventurous.

The Aranbee Symphony Orchestra, Today's Pop Symphony (Fuel 2000/Varese Sarabande)

Today's Pop Symphony: A New Conception of Todays Hits in Classical Style is in its essence a curio that only Rolling Stones collectors of kitsch lovers would care about. Created in 1966 by Rolling Stones manager Andrew Oldham to piggy back on the Stones success and reach out to classical fans, the album consists of symphonic covers of popular songs of the day, mostly by the Stones and Beatles (but there's also "In the Midnight Hour" and "I Got You Babe." The album sleeve claimed that Keith Richards directed the orchestra and produced the album (both doubtful), a mark of its position as a marketing tool (another is the fact that several of the Stones songs were yet-to-be-released, meaning this was the first place you could hear them in any form). Yet though I can't really fathom or explain why, Today's Pop Symphony is pretty enjoyable to listen to. There's something compelling about hearing these songs played seriously, as if they were Baroque compositions and not rock n' roll songs. "We Can Work It Out" marches along in a regal way, "Mother's Little Helper" is lead by sullen strings, and "Sittin' On a Fence" is light and airy without seeming like Muzak. There's no reason I should be listening to this album and enjoying it-it's a trifle to the core, but there's something fascinating and pleasant about it.

The Atlantic Manor, Failing By The Second (Do Too Records)

A marriage is what's failing on The Atlantic Manor's Failing By The Second, which has been characterized as his "divorce album" by R. Sell, the Miami-based musician behind this one-man band. A DIY rock effort with tinges of country (think Neil Young in places, or a slowcore Marah before they went all Brit-Pop), Failing By the Second is a gutwrenching trip through every feeling you'd experience during such a break-up: hurt, shame, anger, sadness, nostalgia, regret, you name it. Those emotions are projected in the bluesy guitars and the funereal tempos as often as they are the incisive lyrics. But on songs like "Every Thing Can Die Today" the music offers more positive vibes that serve as a sign of...well, maybe not hope, but at least resignation and a readiness to move on. In contrast, a song like "Strung Out Camp Talk" has a punk-rock restlessness and messiness that exudes the feeling that everything's too messed up to fix ("Staying awake for days/waiting my turn to die"). Failing By the Second's a dark march straight into a man's heart; it feels like therapy as much as rock and roll...but that's OK the songs rock forcefully and feel like real life.

Del Cielo, Wish and Wait (Eyeball Records)

The first track on Del Cielo's Wish and Wait album is titled "Full-on Confessional," and that just about says it all. This all-female trio from DC plays heart-on-your-sleeve punkish-pop that has a bittersweet perspective on life. Love is the obsession here, and it never seems to work out. From song to song, situations get increasingly dire. Vocalist/guitarist Andrea Lisi always sounds like she's been up all night crying and agonizing over lost love, and has just pulled herself together enough to articulate with clarity the hurt she feels. Del Cielo's songs are melodic and uptempo - they rock through the sadness (at times resembling the similarly heartwrenching songs of Elizabeth Elmore and her bands Sarage and The Reputation). The music isn't depressing; it's invigorating. Yet the outlook is certainly bleak. And as the album winds to a close, there's no sense that things are going to change for the better. One of the most powerful moments comes halfway through the album, on "Inhale," when Lisi vocalizes this exact fact: "I should know by now that nothing ever changes," she sings...and follows it shortly with "I'm still the same/it gets harder and harder to breathe."

The Matinee Autumn Assortment! (Matinee)

Like a fashion company unveiling their clothes for the season, Matinee Recordings often uses the time of year to remind us of the great pop music they've been releasing. Not that I need a reminderůmany of the bands on their fall sampler CD, The Matinee Autumn Assortment! have spent ample amounts of time on my stereo in recent months. But this compilation earns it keep by presenting plenty of unreleased tracks, so even die-hard fans of the label have reason to cherish the CD. The Autumn Assortment includes unreleased songs from The Would-Be-Goods, Slipslide, Harper Lee, and Airport Girl; remixes of previously released songs by Pipas and Lovejoy; freshly released but equally splendid songs by The Lucksmiths, the Pines, and The Windmills, and a soon-to-be released album track by The Liberty Ship. My favorites on this CD include The Liberty Ship's snappy "Baseball Caps and Novas" and The Would-Be-Goods' even snappier "Morning After," but all 10 songs are fantastic. If the names of these groups mean nothing to you, you're missing out and The Matinee Autumn Assortment! will be the perfect introduction to musicians writing gorgeous songs that are as intelligent and emotion-filled as they are catchy and pleasing on the ear.

Stephin Merritt, Pieces of April (Nonesuch)

Ever since the Magnetic Fields' magnum opus 69 Love Songs, with its theatrical bent and song titles like "The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side," I've associated Stephin Merritt and his group with New York City more than before. So it seems fitting that the lead character in the Manhattan-set film Pieces of April, a bohemian-ish twentysomething played by Katie Holmes, spends much of the film listening to Merritt's music (chiefly 69 Love Songs and the Sixths' Hyacinths and Thistles). The movie's soundtrack album is like a well-made mix tape of recent Merritt songs, with 3 from 69 Love Songs, 2 from Hyacinths and Thistles (itself a sort of Stephin Merritt songbook, with a different singer for each song), and 5 new songs, 4 of which are not in the film. These new songs have the clarity and full sound of 69 Love Songs--and indeed would have been right at home in that set-and further the songwriting talent (genius, even) that he's displayed since the first Magnetic Fields release. "All I Want to Know" and "Dreams Anymore" have both the emotional directness and wry nature of the Love Songs, the former song also bearing an unbelievably pretty melody. These songs, like Merritt's work in general, contain real insights into love relationships while also looking at love with a certain comic detachment. That sense of being both heartfelt and critical is part of the appeal of Merritt's songs; another is how effortlessly he seems to pull timeless melodies out of the air. One of the album's highlights is "One April Day," the one new song that is in the movie. Here he erases the ironic distance entirely; it's an entirely serious expression of love that's precious and, at less than 2 minutes, fleeting. It's proof that Merritt is a romantic at heart, even when it's sometimes easy to picture him with a smirk. It's also one more bit of proof that Merritt is one of our finest living songwriters, no joke.

Reclinerland, The Ideal Home Music Library (Hush Records)

Reclinerland's Ideal Home Music Library is subtitled "Volume 1: Show Songs"-and if you believe the liner notes (which you shouldn't), the album is Reclinerland covering long-lost show tunes from the first half of the 20th Century. These songs-by long-forgotten composers like Hamilton "Hammy" Goldberg and Edie Brounet-Brounet-were compiled in a book by musicologist Dr. T. Middling, Ph. D, and that book forms the album's liner notes. Of course the whole thing is a brillant hoax, as is made clear by the last page statement "all songs were written by Michael Johnson," who happens to be the singer/musician behind Reclinerland. But if I just put this album on and told you it was songs from obscure Broadway shows, you wouldn't even question me. Musically and lyrically the songs capture the milleau of old-fashioned musical theatre (think Cole Porter, not Rent) perfectly. The songs are entirely in the vein of old pop standards, with a touch of jazz and ragtime. Johnson has very much the showman's voice, appropriately expansive and crisp; lead vocals on four of the songs are handled just as capably by Morgan Grace, Chad Crouch and The Decemberists' Colin Meloy, giving the album a collectivist "we're putting on a show" feeling. If you appreciate the songcraft and witticisms of the Gershwins, Kern, Rogers et al., these songs will be right up your alley. Romance and glamour fill the songs, yet there's also a wry humor to songs like "Crash Site" (love as a car crash) and lines like "autumn leaves fall to the ground like dresses on Prom Night" (from "Come on Summer"). In the end, the songs on Ideal Home Music Library come off as modern-day standards, songs that are patterned after a tradition but also further it.

Small Life Form, One (Silber)

Small Life Form's One opens like a prayer, or the musical backdrop to one, with one sustained note floating in front of you like something you should be contemplating. That note holds through all 10 minutes of that first song "Small," as sounds and voices lightly flicker around it. Sound boring? It isn't, it's beautiful. The other six tracks all have this same intensity of focus and meditative atmosphere, like fog clouds of sound that grow, shrink and gently mutate as they slowly glide across they sky. In fact, the album as a whole feels much like the living being referenced in the band name ("band" being more a term than reality, as all sounds were made by Brian John Mitchell); it comes off like something growing and coming into form before your eyes. Yet each track is distinct-some rumble and shake ("Pulsar"), others carefully inch forward in a slightly creepy way ("Horns"). Most are titled after the instrument featured most prominently in the track ("Cymbal," "Melodica," etc.), and if I'm reading the liner notes correctly, if you bring the instruments together by playing all of the tracks at once, you'll have another creation entirely. So perhaps you have not just one musical life form here, but seven, which together make one. In any case, One has textures and atmospheres that are intoxicating, if you're prepared to accept them.

Sun Kil Moon, Ghosts of the Great Highway (Jetset Records)

Ghosts of the Great Highway, the debut album from Mark Kozelek's new band Sun Kil Moon, opens with Kozelek singing beautifully over acoustic guitar, "Cassius Clay was hated more than Sonny Liston/some liked K.K. Downing more than Glenn Tipton/some like Jim Nabors, some Bobby Vinton/I like em all." Writing a John Denver-ish country-folk song about which boxer or Judas Priest guitarist you prefer might seem a bit unusual, but Kozelek's always been his own man, whether working through 10-plus minute electric guitar drones with the Red House Painters or playing quiet, gentle covers of AC/DC songs under his own name. That individuality combine with songwriting skill and a beautiful voice to make Kozelek one of a kind. His songs have an immediacy that's hard to describe and impossible to replicate. That opening song named after the Judas Priest guitarist ("Glenn Tipton") ends up being about so many things, from father-son bonding to what vanishes from the world when someone you know dies. His songs are surprising in the way, in how they wind their way around your heart even when he's singing about something small or unknown. Whether they're playing a gentle, introspective folk song ("Last Tide"), getting their Crazy Horse ya-yas out ("Salvador Sanchez"), or doing some variation of the two (the catchy rocker "Lily and Parrots," the 15-minute slow dream that is "Duk Koo Kim," or the gorgeous instrumental "Si Paloma"), Sun Kil Moon pulls you into their world and captivates you entirely. In that respect, Ghosts of the Great Highway is as alluring as anything Kozelek has done. It's one of those albums that grows in depth and significance each time you hear it.

Upstate, Missing: The Official Soundtrack (Friendly Psychics Music)

Upstate's 5-song CD Missing is billed as "the official soundtrack" to "a Joe Bargdill film" of the same name. Perhaps it is, but I'm not ready to dismiss the idea that the film doesn't exist at all. For while the CD art would make you think that Missing's a crime film about guns and heists and whatnot, featuring a gang of tough guys, the sullen indie-rock songs on the CD sound more like the soundtrack to lost love than to a would-be Mean Streets or Dragnet. "I don't understand your tactics," the first song begins, and all of the songs exude that feeling of being in the dark about what somebody else is up to. An ear-pleasing mix of acoustic and electric guitars send a delicate note of hope, while vocals that recall Lou Barlow at his most serious give everything an air of hopelessness. But then again, the CD's palpable sense of mystery does fit in with the suspense film notion. The more I listen to Missing the more I think that either it is indeed the soundtrack to a crime film or Upstate are out to bring some genuine pain to the indie-label world. "Should we bring his neck/wouldn't that be fun," goes a line in "Immune Like Me." If I were a would-be rock star, I'd watch my back.

Issue 18, December 2003

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