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30 Music Reviews

by Dave Heaton, Anna Battista

Arkitekchur, Of Solids, Climate and Homes (tbtmo)

Arkitekchur's Of Solids, Climate and Homes is mostly the title track, 20 minutes of pure atmosphere. It starts with what sounds like a train going by, or is that some sort of machinery? Then there's birds…or, wait, maybe it's squeaking from any machine? Arkitekchur's music is based on aural ambiguity, on the question mark. Throughout the track sounds enter, slowly reveal themselves to us and then leave, to be replaced by others, like we're slowly making our way through a house. After a few minutes, some "conventional" instruments--guitars strumming--enter, followed by the voices of people answering phones. But as soon as the voices start they get stuck. A woman answers a phone and then gets stuck in repetition; a man does the same and gets stuck too. Are we stuck as well? It feels like we've entered a netherworld between homes, some invisible space in the air between two houses. It's both pretty and scary, comfortable and extremely uncomfortable. Then as the track proceeds, it gets louder, more intense, as if every sound that's come before is rushing into our space. It proceeds like this for a while until everything disappears, leaving only a record scratching, or is that a car trying to start? Noises give way to voices, voices to silence, and so on until the end. Arkitekchur works with places and their spirits, all the while keeping you guessing. --dave heaton

Bobby Birdman, Let Me In (Hush)

Bobby Birdman (real name Rob Kieswetter) plays a sedate sort of soul music that at the same time isn't sedate at all. He uses guitar and close-to-invisible (but important) electronics to pull you into a near-sleep state, and then sweetly croons into your ear about love and life and such. "I must admit that I love you," he starts off, then taking you on a sublimely melodic dream journey through loneliness and comfort, passion and sadness. Each song has a romantic, relaxed loveliness to it, with Kieswetter singing his heart out even when he's whispering. For me the winning lullaby here is "Blue Skies," an alluring anthem that made itself a permanent home in my brain the first time I heard it. "Your eyes were closed but your foot was still tapping/and that's how I knew that I hadn't lost you," Kieswetter sings on the last track, and he could be speaking to us. By album's end, there's no way he's lost us. Let Me In pulls us into a dream land and then kisses our collective brow with pop magic. --dave heaton

The Bloodthirsty Lovers, self-titled (self-released)

David Shouse's songs with lo-fi blues-rockers The Grifters often dealt with subjects simultaneously real and unreal...with the question mark that is the universe and with transgressing earthly boundaries, but also with the dark mystery of human relationships. With his solo projects, first Those Bastard Souls and now The Bloodthirsty Lovers, he's continued exploring those themes but within different musical realms. Both groups have prettier, less gritty sheens that help give the songs more otherworldly auras. While Those Bastard Souls did that by blending melodic rock grooves with melancholy violin, The Bloodthirsty Lovers do the same with electronics. They (actually mostly just Shouse on record, though he has put together a band to tour) take pop-rock songs and layer on samples, synth and beats. Their self-released, self-titled debut album is a rock album where the rock styles are sublimated in favor of funky electronics and gorgeous synth-pop. From the start, it's clear that Shouse's head is in a similar place here as it was with the Grifters--on the second track he sings about "getting over the feeling of losing control," and it seems obvious that that feeling's impossible to shake, that it's a fact of human existence. Through 11 songs, including two instrumentals, a few ballads and a bunch of upbeat, tuneful bursts of energy, Shouse takes listeners through places distant and near, probing into the ways that the world can feel unbalanced. If the last track, "Waking Up in a Good Place," uses synth to generate feelings of peace, it's clear from the rest of the album that those same synth sounds can be used to evoke feelings of uneasiness. (For ordering info, write to: David Shouse, 1474 Tutwiler Ave., Memphis TN 38107)--dave heaton

Busta Rhymes, Genesis (J Records)

Busta Rhymes has always been an uncomparable presence on the mic--a wild rhyme animal, he growls one minute and raps in hyper-speed the next, but never loses his truly distinct personality. To put it simply, there's no one who sounds like Busta, try as some might. His albums are monsters, usually 70-plus minutes, that travel all over the place, from radio-and-dancefloor-ready singles to unusual collaborations and stabs at new styles. From my perspective, his fourth album Anarchy was the one to find a really unique sound, a meld of styles and genres as distinct as his rhyming style. I didn't match popular or critical opinion, however, as it was mostly considered a flop, and found Busta seeking a new label and a new beginning. His first album on Clive Davis' J Records, Genesis, is superficially that new beginning, a supposed attempt to redefine his sound. That said, Busta starts it off looking backward more than forward. There's an opening intro featuring Rudy Ray Moore (who appeared in similar form on Busta's first album), a revised version of Extinction Level Event's "Everybody Rise" called "Everybody Rise Again," a song called "As I Come Back" that takes its chorus from Busta's part on A Tribe Called Quest's "Scenario" (arguably the track that really brought Busta to the public's attention), and a remake of Public Enemy's "Shut Em Down" called "Shut Em Down 2002." But just when it starts to feel like a retro-party, Busta starts to change things up a bit. While I wouldn't say that Genesis shows off any kind of "new sound," it does ultimately showcase what Busta has always done best: rhyming madly over heavy funk beats. Overall the emphasis here is on music you can blast from your car, as demonstrated by the song title "Truck Volume" as well as the rugged beats that support such tracks as "Bounce (Let Me See Ya Throw It)" and the first single "Break Ya Neck." There's also a super-hot collaboration with Rah Digga called "Betta Stay Up in Your House," a couple tracks with intersting future-pop hooks sung by Tracy Leila ("Genesis," "We Got What You Want"), and a trio of sex raps. While the album's length means there's room for some not-so-great moments (including a goofy duet with P. Diddy, a so-so Flipmode Squad showcase, and the odd "Bad Dreams," where Busta meets the devil), there's too many top-notch tracks here for me to complain. While Busta still sometimes seem unsure whether he wants to fall back on past successes or move forward into new territory, Genesis on the whole is packed with music that is quintessential Busta Rhymes, with everything his fans expect.--dave heaton

Charming®, Champagne and Magazines (Shelflife/Twee Kitten)

Charming®'s Champagne and Magazines album kicks off with a jazz-dance-pop invitation to a night on the town, "Let Me Take You Out." With horns, an upbeat tempo and Nicole St. Clair Stoops' stylish vocals, the song exudes glamour and the anything-goes feeling of a night out. Then the next song comes in and opens their world up even more: "A Year and Four Months" has the same bright sheen to it, mixing bossa nova rhythms with country guitar and elegant trumpet, but here it's supporting a heart-wrenching description of loneliness, of how empty night life can be when you're not with the one you really love. That emotional duality is as central to Charming®'s music as their musical charm, the spell they cast by placing themselves at just the right intersection of pop, disco, funk, jazz and who-knows-what else. One thing Charming® really excels at is lifting you up (physically and metaphorically) with fresh, danceable pop songs. Another thing they shine at is infusing those same songs with real heart. They capture the shiny surfaces of urban nightlife while also revealing the feelings and stories of the people involved in those same scenes. The album travels all sorts of emotional ground without ever seeming false or superficial. While a song like "Charlottesville, 1997" paints the magic of a night where it feels like "all the stars came out for us," there's also songs like "April," a detailed depiction of human interaction dissolving. The album's ending song, the peaceful, sublime title track, asks the question, "Are you a believer in human connection?" Charming® infuse their sexy dance-pop with touching tales of human connection and disconnection, making music that is immeasurably fun without being trivial in any way. Charming®'s music is charming, yes, but it's also emotionally stirring in a truly genuine way.{www.charmingpop.com}--dave heaton

The Chemical Brothers, Come With Us (Virgin)

Fourth album for Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons, the chemical fraternity which has shaken the world of electronica in the last years with their frenzied rhythms. The crazy violins and frantic rhythms which open Come With Us threaten to bring you to astral electronic platitudes and summon up the demons of The Brothers' musical soul; "It Began in Africa" is a block rocking beats of an afro-adventure messed up with some percussion, but, unfortunately, it doesn't manage to bring you to Africa or to the next level of altered consciousness, though it will surely bring you the nearest dancefloor; "The State We're In" featuring the rarefied voice of Beth Orton and the heavenly "The Test" (which contrary to the initial expectations doesn't turn into "Bitter Sweet Symphony") featuring Richard Ashcroft, are just failed attempts at recreating the same atmospheres that on the album "Surrender" were created by Hope Sandoval and Noel Gallagher. The all-breakbeats looped up "Star Guitar" and what at the beginning sounds like an electro-psychedelic track, "Hoops", complete the album which though might be trying to straddle many genres, it only ends up in being a joyful crescendo of messy sounds which will be cherished by club devotees and superstar DJs.--anna battista

Circus Devils, Ringworm Interiors (Fading Captain Series)

Noisy, abrasive, scary and just plain weird, Circus Devils' Ringworm Interiors lives up to its title, and then some. Most of Robert Pollard's work under names besides Guided By Voices gets the critical reaction that it's only for diehard GBV fans. While on one level, this album, a collaboration with Todd Tobias (brother of GBV/Gem bassist Tim Tobias), deserves that reaction more than any other release, on another level this isn't necessarily for GBV fans at all. This has little in common with GBV's arena-rock, and is likely to appeal to music fans interested in extreme rock, in music which is rooted in rock but which pushes the usual boundaries. This is a psychedelic mindtrip into a confused, damaged mind. Heavy metal textures meld with non-sequitur lyrics delivered by many means of vocalizing (few of which would be described as "good singing"), and everything's cloaked in more feedback and fuzz than you can imagine. There's also searing guitar-work (some courtesy of Tim Tobias) from start to finish. While some of the more direct songs (like "World 3," for example) demonstrate that hard rock is at this music's core, this is rock music that's been transformed into something dark and strange. With Ringworm Interiors, my first reaction was to yell "What the hell is this?" and quickly throw it aside…those who give up too soon, however, miss being taken deep into a unique musical world. It's not a world likely to appeal to mass audiences, but it is an unmistakably distinct one that you won't soon forget.--dave heaton

The Cum Engines, Live at the Athens Time Change Riots Featuring The Cannot Changes (F 'n E)

With an album title that enigmatic and collage cover art, it's not too hard to guess that this is another of the myriad undercover Guided By Voices releases. Of course, the only way you're likely to find out about this record is if you're already a diehard GBV fan, so the undercoverness of it is less about hiding than about creativity, Anyway…Live at the Athens Time Change Riots is a single LP of live songs from a show the band played in Athens, Georgia some time in the last couple years (no date is given but it's obviously fairly recent).Of high quality in both sound and performance, it's a great treat for fans of the bands, and most of the tracks (minus "Postal Blowfish," where crowd members are given the mic for half the song and, of course, don't seem to know any of the words) should prove the power of GBV as a live rock and roll machine to anyone who hasn't already experienced it. A tight 20 songs (tight by live GBV standards anyway), the setlist has a nice mix of the old and the new, in general leaning more toward "the classics." There's even some songs the band doesn't play all that often ("Big School," "Liar's Tale," "Official Ironmen Rally Song," "Tropical Robots"), which is nice. All in all, this is another GBV release that's meant for the diehard fans…but unlike some such releases, it should appeal to other rock fans too.--dave heaton

De La Soul, AOI: Bionix (Tommy Boy)

De La Soul wants money, now more than ever. Their last album, the first installment in their three-album Art Official Intelligence series, was a blatant attempt to reach more mainstream success. It saw them collaborating with an assortment of hip-hop and R&B stars, and in general had them adopt a more pop sound. It was a form of selling out, though it didn't keep Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump from being a solid, fun album. The same is generally true of AOI: Bionix, the second installment in the series. While the guest stars are mostly gone, pop hooks and lightheartedness are dominant. And now they're not hiding their intentions at all; at least five tracks outright mention their desire to make more money (sample lyric from Posdnous: "money ain't everything, but everything makes me want it"). While diehard De La fans have to be a little sad, as a fair amount of the group's creativity seems to have gone out the window, we also need to give them a break. De La do deserve success, and so far they haven't sold out their talents too far. AOI: Bionix isn't a perfect album (there's a few songs, especially the clunky sex-rap "Pawn Star" and the awkward Slick Rick collab "What We Do For Love," that are hardly worth mentioning, not to mention listening to), but it has its fair share of pleasures. De La's love for wordplay, creative use of samples and their increasing introspectiveness are all here. There's also an infectious energy to the first half of the album which is absolutely irresistible, particularly on the title track, the first single "Baby Phat," and "Simply," which features both a clever Paul McCartney sample and Pos adopting the rhyming style of Nice and Smooth. There's also a pair of heartfelt, critical looks at society--"Held Down," featuring Cee-Lo singing the chorus, and "Trying People," a call for us to try and change the world for the better. If AOI: Bionix seems to fall apart a bit as towards the end, it's probably because De La are trying their hardest to take on as many personas and styles as possible, hoping one of them appeals to mass audiences. Still, the bulk of the album is a feel-good party that nicely showcases De La's still-strong rhyming skills and their capacity for fetching musical tracks.--dave heaton

Dilated Peoples, Expansion Team (Capitol)

Dilated Peoples are all about getting back to the basics of hip-hop--focusing on rhyming and DJing over glamour and glitz. What makes them stand out among the traditionalists is that they have talent to match their purists' love of hip-hop. Even more so than their last album The Platform (considered an instant classic by many), Expansion Team is a remarkable showcase of straight-up skills. Both MCs, Evidence and Iriscience, are masters of wordplay; their DJ, Babu (of the Beat Junkies), is brilliant at crafting funky, soulful tracks out of the sparsest of elements. Both MCs also continually succeed at getting their personalities across through their rhyming styles, at putting their selves into their songs. And above all, Dilated Peoples have loads of energy and motivation, in particular the desire and ability to put in the work it takes to really rock a crowd (either live or on wax). Some of the most prominent themes in their music are teamwork, a strong work ethic and having the self-assurance to do what you want. Those ideas come out as much in their actions as their words, as Dilated Peoples' persistence and talent consistently come together in just the right ways.--dave heaton

DJ Ordeal, "Maureen" 7" (Johnny Kane Records)

On this two-track 7", DJ Ordeal builds sonic collages rooted in old-school mystery film sound clips. On the first track, a voice repeats the question, "Maureen, where are you?" while piano, strings and bass create swatches of theme music, cut-up style, that conjure up for listeners every black-and-white detective story they've ever seen. Everything on the track is jumbled, like we're peeking into various movie worlds, but parts keep repeating, like we're stuck in some kind of bad dream. The music plays a disappearing act to match Maureen's, with themes and ideas coming forth and leaving, returning for a second and then vanishing forever. On the flip side is "Left Alone," a faster-paced trip into terrorization, with children begging, "All I want is to be left alone," while adults cruelly laugh. It's a nightmare funhouse of a song which together with "Maureen" forms an alluring portrait of suspense and horror. Last year Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin released a critically acclaimed short film called "Heart of the World" which compressed an epic silent film into 5 minutes. This 7" accomplishes something similar. By using so many musical styles at once and utilizing pieces of our collective subconscious movie memory, DJ Ordeal builds entrances into larger creative worlds. It's a captivating experience, one listeners will want to repeat often. --dave heaton

Edison Woods, self-titled (Endearing)

Edison Woods' self-titled debut swirls around you, not in a rush, but like a vapor, quietly surrounding you. With guitar, bass, cello, violin, piano, harmonium, drums and probably other instruments too, the group play mesmerizing multi-dimensional mood music, music that is quiet and gentle but also haunting and slightly spooky. Delicately smooth vocals by lead singer/songwriter Julia Frodahl add to the gorgeousness of their sound, but the music itself is always pretty, as well. It has the slow-motion feeling of certain sublime moments, like catching the sun shining through the trees or seeing an abnormally large flock of bands appear suddenly over your head in the middle of a city street. Edison Woods' lyrics are sometimes love letters ("You Are Bright"), sometimes messages to people struggling to find their way ("Vivian"), but always interesting, and floating at the top of the band's sound. "Can we drive out to the farthest places and dream of things to come?", Frodhal sings on the final track, where everything slows down to a hazy pace and her voice rises above with its message. That traveling, dreaming, and transcending is what Edison Woods' music is all about. Their music is comforting but also otherworldly, like an afternoon nap that leads you to dream your way into all sorts of unique places. {www.edisonwoods.net}--dave heaton

The Extra Glenns, Martial Arts Weekend (Absolutely Kosher)

Usually when two of your favorite musicians team up, the expectations are so high that it's bound to be disappointing. What results is more likely to be an interesting but flawed work than a masterpiece. The Extra Glenns aren't your usual one-off supergroup, however; more like two friends with similar artistic interests who have finally put those commonalities onto a record. John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats and Franklin Bruno of Nothing Painted Blue have played shows together over the years, since they met when they both lived in Claremont, California. Though on the surface their music isn't that similar, they both write pop songs that tap into things bigger than themselves. Darnielle has an uncanny knack at taking varied histories, cultures, ideas and geographies and filtering them through hyper-emotional tales of human struggle (interior and exterior). Bruno likewise deals with human interactions in a seriously emotional way, yet also draws on his own unique way of phrasing things, tinged with wit, poetry and heart. Though Martial Arts Weekend, their debut album, sounds a lot like a Mountain Goats album, it's only because Darnielle sings lead vocals on all the tracks. In a way it sounds like the songs on the most recent Mountain Goats album (The Coroner's Gambit) if it had the layered, pleasurable musical backdrop of Franklin Bruno's last album (Kiss Without Makeup) behind them, but even that description doesn't take into account the extent that the two have joined their creative voices together. It's a collaboration that's so cohesive, it sounds sort of like both of them but is also something entirely new. That something new is gorgeous from start to finish. Guitars and piano perfectly back moving pop songs that tell people's stories through little snatches of fear, hope, wonder, confusion, and so on. The lyrics say so much with so little. Take a line like "Outside the Opera House in Sydney, I saw my life come crashing to an end" or "I know you hate it when I get my headaches, I've got a real gem tonight" (both from "Somebody Else's Parking Lot in Sebastopol")--they're heartbreaking even though they don't reveal all that much. That's the magic of these songs; they capture something honest and true-to-life, but it's hard to explain how they do it. With nearly half the song titles referencing the names of places all over the world, Martial Arts Weekend has a journeyman's feel to it. But the journey here is as much inward as outward. The Extra Glenns traverse through the many levels of human emotion and behavior, holding a mirror up to what's beautiful, strange, complicated and ugly about all of our lives. --dave heaton

Fridge, Happiness (Domino Recordings)

Electromasters Fridge are the only ones who can teach us a very important lesson: sometimes you don't need too many words to convey a state of mind or too many instruments to fill more than ten minutes of music. Happiness is the living proof that melodica, trombone and some rattling maracas can build the pattern of a musical track or that an electronic sound that reproduces the constant dripping of water from the tap, as in the endless "Drum Machines and Glockenspiels," can create a dreamy atmospheric soundscape. Arpeggios and tinkling plink-plonking noises dominate "Five Four Child Voice" and "Harmonics," though the best track is "Cut Up Piano and Xylophone" which sounds like a flower blossoming and like a rebirth to life. Fridge: they haven't got too many words to say it, but they're surely "happy." {www.brainwashed.com/fridge}--anna battista

Gem, Sunglare Serenades (Pitch-a-Tent)

In 1995, 2 years before Doug Gillard became Guided By Voices' guitarist and 4 years before Tim Tobias became the same band's bassist, the two created Gem's Hexed, an album related in spirit and demeanor to the majestic arena rock-sound that GBV has turned to in recent years. In addition to being criminally underrated (and currently a reliable presence in nearly every CD-store bargain-bin), the album marked the debut of a remarkable rock band that until now has released very little (just Hexed, on Restless Records, and the "I Am a Tree" 12" single, on Scat Records, as far as I know). A "turn it up loud" guitar rock album, Hexed also showcased strong melodies and smart, sensitive lyrics. Now, six years later, comes Gem's second album, Sunglare Serenades. While the lineup has changed from the first--with Tobias and Gillard, the two songwriters/vocalists/guitarists, now joining with Tim's brother Todd Tobias on bass and Eric Vogt on drums (though half the album was recorded with earlier drummer George Collins)--the sound has stayed pretty much the same. That's no criticism, however…rock music that has both power and heart will never go out of style. The power comes both with the efficient guitar attack and the contagious pop-rock melodies, the heart lies under everything they do. This is rock music played by people who love playing rock music, and it shows in every note. Gem's sound takes a little bit of everything that is rock--crunch, energy, force, emotion, hooks--and throws it in with solid songwriting and lyrics that combine real-life emotions and circumstances with slightly poetic images. Gillard in particular supplies the latter with a habit at following straightforward statements and feelings with enigmatic phrases and evocative strings of words (see, for example, "Carcass and Crow" or "I Today"). Tobias' songs are a little messier, but I don't mean that in a negative way--this sort of beautiful messiness is as much a part of rock and roll as a guitar is. One of his songs, the ballad "A Slow Crawl," also delivers perhaps the most touching sentiment of the album, the thought: "I thank you for the, bless you for the, days I'll never forget." Though at least three of the songs on Sunglare Serenades have been released in some form before ("Good to See You," "When They Pull You Out," "J.H.S."), but since I can't even figure out where I've heard all of them before I'm guessing it won't matter to most listeners. Plus they're great songs and deserve to be heard by everybody, so it shouldn't even matter to the diehard Gem fans who do know where they're from. All in all, this is a hell of a rock record, one that makes you hope that even if GBV hits the big time, so to speak, Gem will never disappear. Bob Pollard may be an unbelievably gifted songwriter, but he's not the only one in Guided By Voices. --dave heaton

Granfaloon Bus, Exploded View (Future Farmer)

Many a song has been written about drinking in the past, and many will be again in the future. With their latest album, Exploded View, Granfalloon Bus add 13 more songs to that list. Every track here in some way references drinking, but these are by no means your average "drinking songs." In fact, there's nothing about Granfaloon Bus' style of music--laidback pop with a country-rock tinge and poetic, nearly surrealistic lyrics--that's average, so why would these songs be any different? These are not rabble-rousing songs to sing while you're drinking; nor are they "woe is me" tales of the horrible things you do when you're under the bottle's spell (not mostly, anyway). Instead, they're like snatches of feeling and glimpses of stories, given from a melancholy, dreamy sort of perspective, like a drunken man singing to himself, ruminating, imagining, dreaming. There's bountiful human stories here, stories you'll recognize (including people trying to escape parts of their life, lonely people seeking emotional connections, out-of-control people living on dangerous edges)…but they're not told in conventional, straightforward ways. Instead they're brought to listeners through more impressionistic, oblique lyrics that are emotional, intriguing, and at times humorous (catch the line "You make me hurt and my insurance won't cover hurt" from the song "South"). That varied approach to songwriting is accompanied by music that alludes to traditional genres (especially folk and country) without tying itself too closely to them. Exploded View artfully matches nonlinear storytelling to superb melodies and musicianship. --dave heaton

Handbags at Dawn ( Human Condition Records, Evol Records, KFM Records, Path records, SL Records)

Rule #1 to survive the cruel world of music biz: be competitive and destroy with your music your enemy, be it another band or another record label. It usually works, except with Scottish labels and bands, though. You see, when Scottish record labels want to promote their artists they don't compete one with the other, they just get together, record a cool compilation which collects the new found glories of the music scene and release it for your own pleasure. This is more or less the idea behind this anthology courtesy of Human Condition, Evol, KFM, Path and SL. Cruiser, El Hombre Trajeado, Fridgehopper, Toaster and The Zephyrs are just a few of the artists appearing on this comp. You just need to decide which kind of music appeals more to your tastes, so you can go from the dreamy "McCoy" by Cruiser to the pop "I've Got A knife" by Fridgehopper, to the guitar ballad "Generation Galactica" by I Am Scientist or to a violin drenched melody such as Khaya's "Husbands" and to the sambatastic "Blink Again " by Obaben, while "MM" by Sputniks Down is an electropopguitary lullaby and pastoralism is instead infused in The Zephyrs' "The Most Revealing Hymn". Honourable mention also goes to "Ratcatcher" by Pilotcan which despite the title sounds like the wind blowing on a sunflower field and like a promise of new found life and new found hopes. Rule #2 to succeed in the cruel world of music biz: get together and collaborate, it's better and it's much more fun. {Path records: 6 Pathhead Court, Kircaldy KY 12PQ, Scotland, UK}--anna battista

Hey Mercedes, Everynight Fireworks (Vagrant)

One thing I often find hard to comprehend is the short attention span of music media and music fans. One example is the difference between the constant (and deserved) raves that the Champaign, Illinois punkish pop-rock band Braid got a few years back, compared with the relative silence I've heard about Hey Mercedes, which is weird considering that 3/4ths of Braid are in Hey Mercedes and the two bands sound pretty similar. Oh well…I just stop worrying about other people and just sink myself into Hey Mercedes' debut full-length Everynight Fireworks, which continues with everything I loved about Braid--a well-timed guitar attack meeting great hooks, a slightly abstract approach to song structure, and smart, sensitive lyrics--while adding an extra layer of melodic haze which furthers the side of their music that's about reaching toward the sublime, about highlighting what's beautiful about rock. (A nice complement to that is the album's cover art, a series of photos of people setting up chairs in the grass to view a starry skyscape.) The band kicks off the album with "The Frowning of a Lifetime," about struggling to keep an optimistic perspective on life. Their songs, whether it's the gleeful anthem "Our Weekend Starts On Wednesdays" or a bright, heartfelt rocker like "What You're Up Against" (which ends with the poetic wish "Wait I can see/our selves set free/the shimmering sea and you and me"), inject guitar-rock with a realistic and wide-eyed dreamy sort of hopefulness which I'm really thankful for. Everynight Fireworks rocks and glows. {www.heymercedes.com}--dave heaton

Himself, Providence Plays No Favorites (galapagos4)

One-third of The Netherworlds, Himself uses his solo debut to express his feelings on the struggle it is for an individual to make it through this life unharmed. He taps into his inner being to bring an album that's part reflection and part inspiration but leaves room for party rhythms and on-point rhyming. When Himself starts a track with the line, "I hadn't cried in a long time, but I cried last night," you know that this is an artist who's not afraid to be his true self on wax. From track to track, he describes the hard work that goes into making it through life with your head above ground. He sets forth a portrait of a world where it's hard to make a dollar, hard to walk down the street without getting harassed by the police, and hard to keep a smile on your face when you don't see much to smile about. Then he takes that portrait and turns it into an autobiographical speech on how to survive, one filled with motivation but also with the knowledge that life is hard. He describes real-life moments in a way that's real and truly heartfelt, whether he's reminiscing over dead friends or talking about using friendship to alleviate pain and anger. The music rocks along in a straightforward way, supporting Himself's adept rhyming throughout. Whether giving a litany of shootings he witnessed in L.A., telling the story of a train ride or criticizing our country's education system, it's clear that Himself has his eyes open to the world around him. He takes those observations and forms them into a clear-eyed, album-length tale of overcoming hardship and pushing your life forward.--dave heaton

Ides of Space, There Are No New Clouds (Better Looking Records/Architecture)

The Sydney, Australia quintet Ides of Space dream when they rock and rock when they dream. Pretty, slightly hazy vocals float over guitars that attack in a soothing way, moving forward with rock energy while also gliding along with a wide-eyed sort of serenity. At the core of things, they play melodic pop-rock songs, catchy and attractive. Their lyrics deal with love and life and other things in a way that's vague without being incomprehensible. They communicate feeling more than stories or lessons. Stripped-down to a guitar and a voice, these songs could be appreciated on one level, but in the from they take on There Are No New Clouds they can be admired on that level and on many more--Ides of Space take pop songs and build iridescent clouds around them. With guitars and synth they weave songs into rock and roll lullabies of the best kind. And when Ides of Space really get going, like on the jaw-dropping, magnificent rocker "Random Noise Generator, they pick up off the ground and soar, taking you with them on an unforgettable ride.--dave heaton

Isobella, A 24 Syllable Haiku (Clairecords)

Isobella's second album A 24 Syllable Haiku is like a fuller, more realized version of the ambient pop-rock contained in their equally enjoyable debut Akasha. Their second album feels more complete, deeper than the first, though musically it's quite similar--on both they're placing a marvelous, colorful cloak of sound over pop songs, sending listeners off into a dreamlike state while delivering fantastic pop melodies. The trio, from Tampa, Florida, takes pop songs and swirls them into big sonic atmospheres by adding layers of guitar, synthesizer, beats and other programming. On one level their music is all about textures, about the way instruments sound when placed over, next to and in between each other, about carefully crafting beauty in steps. But on another level everything is propelled along by rhythms and beats, giving the music a groove often missing from ambient soundscapes. And on an entirely different level, there's simple, pretty melodies underneath, sung by vocalist/keyboardist Laura Poinsette. It all ads up to music with a profound sense of what sounds can accomplish, the diverse feelings and impressions they can deliver. A 24 Syllable Haiku is an evocative, open work of mystery and beauty. It's music for real life, which is never easily explained and doesn't come in a clearly labeled box.--dave heaton

Jane magazine CD, with November 2001 issue (Jane)

Good music can show up in unlikely places, as demonstrated by the CD that accompanied a recent issue of the magazine Jane. It's the hippest and maybe the smartest of the mainstream magazines directed at women; it also appears to be well-connected in the music world. The CD features tracks from several highly anticipated 2002 releases (Wilco, N*E*R*D, Sonic Youth, Mary Timony, Cornelius), as well as exclusive tracks or alternate versions of tracks by other well-admired groups (Sigur Ròs, Chicago Underground Duo, Silver Jews, Stereolab), recent album tracks from some others (Faith Evans, The Avalanches, Kelis, D12, Mystic, the Beta Band) and one track from a less-well-known group (Glass Candy and the Shattered Theatre). The mix of genres makes this CD rather like flipping channels on the radio--there's little continuity. But it's hard to complain when a $4 magazine yields unreleased tracks from some of your favorite bands. One high point is Wilco's "I'm the Man Who Loves You," a bouncy melodic rocker from their Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album, to be released sometime on some label. Another is Sonic Youth's "Plastic Sun," a spunky Kim Gordon-sung riff on Brittany Spears and other "plastic girls" that will be on their next album. Then there's a live version of an unreleased Sigur Ròs song called "Halfsol," which has the same dreamy ambience that they've displayed in the studio, a demo version of the Silver Jews' "I'm Gonna Love the Hell Out of You," a moody country song about religion, an especially rocking new Cornelius song called "Fly," and more. Search your local magazine racks well, or write Jane to see if they have any left…there's a lot here that'll make your ears happy.--dave heaton

Bill Janovitz, Up Here (spinART)

To me, Bill Janovitz is one of the most successful vocalists around when it comes to getting sheer feeling across to listeners. Buffalo Tom's music (which for some reason gets an iota of the attention it deserves) has great emotional power, and a lot of it comes from the way Janovitz can take the simplest sentiments and make them feel like the most important thing you've ever heard. At his best he sings so completely in the moment that it can cut right to your center. Of course it doesn't hurt that Buffalo Tom can rock the house with the best of them…but even with Janovitz is on his own he can get that same feeling across, as demonstrated on his second solo album Up Here. This is an acoustic pop-rock record that has as much feeling to it as any Buffalo Tom ever did. Some of the songs sound like Buffalo Tom songs slowed down and acoustic, but others travel different stylistic paths, sounding more folksy or more jazz-inflected, or displaying more pop crooning. Performed mostly by Janovitz, with help from friends here and there (most notably singer Chris Toppin, whose gorgeous voice shows up on a few tracks), Up Here contains an assortment songs that display Janovitz's knack at writing both catchy melodies and lyrics that take a detailed look at the world around us, particularly at people--how they behave, how they interact, what they feel. Janovitz's lyrical outlook often seems like that of the hardened romantic, with a silent hopefulness. Here at times he wears the hopeful side on his sleeve more than usual, particularly on a pair of touching ballads ("Like You Do," "Light in December"). There's love songs here both sweet and bittersweet, as well as a great, in-the-wee-small-hours lonely ballad ("Your Stranger's Face"). Above all, this is a gorgeous pop record, one filled with light.--dave heaton

Kid Loco, Kill Your Darlings (Warner Music)

It took a while for this sensuous French sound designer to release his new album and, in a sense, it was worthwhile waiting. So, is Kill Your Darlings elevator music? No. Restaurant music, the sort of music you hear on the background playing while you're tasting some kind of French delicacies? No. This is simply the apt music for the most funked up brothel of the world. Kid Loco's new fatigue is nothing more than the result of a healthy mix of dope and mild pornography. Though Kid Loco's personal intake of dope seems to have gone behind the ordinary levels with this album, he still seems able to build cascading harmonies and angelic melodies, reinvented and re-proposed through the smoke of a very fat joint, as the lyrics of tracks such as "Three Feet High Reefer" or (the double meaning lyrics to) "Here Come The Munchies" prove. Master of spaced out sensual rhythms, Kid Loco doesn't seem to have lost it completely. The mellow and mellifluous opening track "Cocaine Diane" is followed by "Lucy's Talking" which contains in the background what sounds like the twisted trumpet of some track out of "Interstellar Space" by John Coltrane, whereas "Gypsie Good Time" is a mass of infectious drugged up grooves. The orgasmic "Horsetown In Vain" is undoubtedly the best track, it has the majestic sound that "Relaxin' With Cherry" had on Kid Loco's first album "A Grand Love Story" and sounds like two bodies surfing under covers while having sex. Sensuality abounds in the album so that it is easy to find tracks such as "I Can't Let It Happen To You" that reminds the typical soundtrack of a cheap porno movie. For Kid Loco it's good to be alive and feeling sexy. And it's good to be alive and being stoned of course. {www.kidloco.com}--anna battista

Kings of Convenience, Versus (Source)

Yeah, you know 'em, they're Norwegian Eirik Giambek Bøe and Erlend Øye, also known to the music world as Kings of Convenience, guilty of having spread around last year the slogan "Quiet Is The New Loud", the title of the album which took them to success. Apparently, they weren't so happy of being that quiet in the end and, to relieve themselves from this frustration, they called a couple of friends to give them a hand in turning their lulling melodies into dance-y or fractured and disconnected experimental tracks. Wait for Andy Votel or Alfie to put their hands on the Norwegian duo's songs and see what will happen. Best remixes are undoubtedly Röyksopp's version of "I Don't Know What I Can Save you From", Four Tet's "The Weight of My Words" and the '80s electro-frenzied "Little Kids" by Ladytron. A successful experiment: out of their Red-House-Painters like reclusive lullabies King of Convenience even sound like a band to dance to. Have fun.--anna battista

Mark Kozelek, White Christmas Live (Sub Pop)

As far as I'm concerned, the Red House Painters are nearly unmatched at using pop-rock songwriting to creating vivid atmospheres, bringing you right to a particular place, time and feeling. One of the most remarkable things about White Christmas Live, a limited edition recording of RHP singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek playing solo live shows (recorded at three shows, in Sweden and Norway, in fall/winter 2000), is how that same sensation comes across even when it's just Kozelek's voice and a guitar. While some groups cast their spell by the way their instruments come together, Kozelek can do it just as capably through just his songs and the way he sings them. What's really amazing are two songs at the end where he stops playing guitar and all you have is his unaccompanied voice--the two stunning acapella versions of "Dragonflies" and "Things Mean a Lot" show really prove the force of these songs and his voice. This collection's 12 songs span much of his career, including a varied selection of Red House Painters songs, from their debut??? to their last album Old Ramon, plus four of the AC/DC covers that he's been playing lately. Fans will no doubt go gaga over this, as I'm doing. These performances are remarkable, and while they don't quite make up for how seldom he performs anywhere near where I live, they're awfully nice.--dave heaton

Peter Lacey, Thru a Glass Brightly (Pink Hedgehog)

Peter Lacey's Thru a Glass Brightly is a pop album with some obvious comparison points. While I hate repeating the influences mentioned by the promotional materials for an album because I feel like it seems like I'm just repeating them, the two influences here are absolutely unmistakable: Brian Wilson and Burt Bacharach. Lacey sings a lot like Wilson, and loads his songs with pretty melodies and harmonies that take a lot from the Beach Boys. He has the sense for melody that Bacharach has, too. Yet I should admit to you that while I like Bacharach as a songwriter, as a singer he always strikes a wrong chord with me. To put it plainly, his style of emoting seems just plain cheesy to me. Therein lies my dilemma with Thru a Glass Brightly--the album has melodies I can't get out of my head and musical passages I find gorgeous, but is also has a certain slickness of sound (a very 80s, casio and drum-machine pop sound) that I'm a bit uneasy about, and is at times in the same almost-sappy place as Bacharach. The best moments for me are when Lacey plays in the shadows as much as the brightness, when he deals with more ambiguous feelings and words. There's also some moments--like the acapella "The Tower"--when he really hits the emotional target he's going for, when he touches the part of my heart that he seems to be continually in pursuit of. --dave heaton

Le Coupe, self-titled (Shelflife)

California pop duo Le Coupe play sweet, pretty songs that have a laidback type of funkiness to them. It's music that has an ineffable something that instantly wakes you up and makes you want to dance…but then once you're up dancing you realize everyone's staring at you, because the songs are relatively relaxed and don't fit most people's definition of "dance music." In other words, these aren't club-ready dance hits, yet they have real energy to them. It's gentle energy, though, and that's part of the immense charm of Le Coupe's self-titled debut album. Le Coupe's songs are built from a few parts--mostly guitar, bass, beats, keyboards and (on two tracks) trumpet. As these things go, it's not always what you're playing but how you play it that matters, and Le Coupe have a really pleasurable approach to their instruments, particularly the fetching, melodic guitar parts and the beats, which are simple, drum-machine-style beats, but always infectious. The key components I haven't mentioned yet are Stacy Michelson's gorgeous vocals, which have a graceful coyness about them but also loads of pure feeling, and the songs themselves, which concentrate on the ubiquitous topic of love but do so without any empty reliance on convention or cliché. The lyrics take on human relationships in a way that reveals the inherent complexity of it all, a way that elegantly captures the dreamy optimism of infatuation, the heartbreak of love's dissolution, and anything you can imagine would be in between those poles. There's songs that embody the most hopeful vision of love (one encompassing the ideas of love that's destined to be, of love above all else, of love as the most perfect thing one could imagine) and songs that complicate that vision by delivering honest snapshots of relationships under stress. By giving a vision of love (and life) with that much depth to it, Le Coupe also complicate the notion that a simple pop song is necessarily simple, that bubblegum melody and a sense of style necessarily equal simplicity in thought or emotion. Here, the simplest of melodies can deliver the realest of emotions--Le Coupe play pop songs that have genuine depth to them. {www.lecoupe.com}--dave heaton

Little Darla Has a Treat for You, Volume 18: Winter 2002 (Darla)

Listening to Little Darla Has a Treat For You, Volume 18, the latest in the seasonal compilation series from Darla Records, while driving home from work the other day, snow started to fall during the song "Buck" by the London band Coldharbourstores. The sublime pop song met the serenity and beauty of the snow in a way that's hard to describe--that's when I realized how well this compilation matches its season. The CD continues Darla's habit of finding the prettiest, most interesting pop music in the international indie-label world, while paying special attention to the quiet reflection and gentle pleasures. The cover art shows a girl drawing a city in the air, creating a new city out of the imagination; the CD does something similar by placing comforting pop songs next to other different but equally enjoyable pop songs, building a new city of musical comfort. The compilation, like every Little Darla volume, is a mix of songs off of upcoming releases (on Darla and other labels), songs from current or recent releases, and exclusive tracks. The latter category this time includes great tracks from Alsace Lorraine, Mahogany and Aubrun Lull, and a splendid acoustic number by My Morning Jacket. The current/recent songs include some by Metrovavan, Phiiliip and Holiday Flyer. But this time around most of my favorite tracks are off of upcoming releases. In particular there's a drop-dead gorgeous pop song from Saloon, a London group I wasn't previously familiar with, and two nice atmospheric pieces from upcoming Darla Bliss Out releases--a big-sky, Western-ish instrumental from Japancakes and a dreamy pop song from Aarktica. They make me even more excited than usual about the upcoming months, giving a preview of some albums that I'm sure will win me over.--dave heaton

Low, Christmas (Chair Kicker's Union/Kranky)

There aren't too many bands nowadays that write original Christmas songs, and even less that write them well. But here's 5 new Christmas songs, along with 3 Christmas classics ("Little Drummer Boy," "Silent Night" and the sort-of-a-classic "Blue Christmas"). While it always surprises me which groups choose to record Christmas music, and for some reason when I think "Christmas album" I usually think of some cheesy teen group or an aging (read: washed-up) pop singer before I think of a group like Low, this combination really works. Low's graceful, gorgeous style of slow, quiet pop really fits the serenity and peacefulness that is at the heart of Christmas is really supposed to be about. The original songs here range from encapsulations of the teachings if Jesus ("If You Were Born Today") to songs that deal more with gift-giving and the celebration of the holiday ("Taking Down the Tree," "One Special Gift"). The CD starts with "Just Like Christmas," a song that's more upbeat, more traditionally "pop" than their music generally is. A quick look at the spirit behind Christmas, and how it's more about feeling and intention than things like snow and decorations, the song's really beautiful, as is the whole CD.--dave heaton

Issue 8, January 2002 | next article


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