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12 Music Reviews

Akron/Family, self-titled (Young God Records)

"I have to say something if I wanna sing / but it's not about the words / it's my voice rising..." Thus begins Akron/Family's debut, self-titled album. Yet rather than a group which uses voice solely as an instrument, not to express meaning, Akron/Family come off on most of the album as philosophers, using artful folk music to work through ideas about existence. Of course, that opening salvo could be just such an exercise, as those words draw attention to the words themselves more than they would have otherwise. And identity and being seem like important concerns to Akron/Family, from their song "Suchness" ("I want to see the thing in itself / I don't want to think no more") through to the album-ending pair of "How Do I Know" ("how do I know why I'm alive") and Franny ("please lord give me strength / to be nobody"). In many ways, Akron/Family feels like a completely intellectual foray, but the music itself is often quite visceral, as is Dana Janssen's high-pitched, weary-sounding voice. Their songs echo traditional folk sounds in a way, but they just as often pack a vaguely psychedelic punch, somewhat akin to a less dramatic, more subdued Flaming Lips. Akron/Family's style of music is unique, in its slow, emotionally distanced yet often quite beautiful atmosphere, in the diverse instrumentation the four multi-instrumentalist band members play, and in the way that the songs often seem like they're going one direction but than switch to another. - dave heaton

Built Like Alaska, Autumnland (Future Farmer/Sweat of the Alps)

Autumnland explodes with a Sebadoh-worthy blast of tortured indie guitar, bleeding into the melodic lines and loping drums of the first proper track, "Ran Into a Coroner," seemingly setting the stage for some kind of wailing, emotive vocal feats. Instead, singer/guitarist Neil Jackson's double-tracked pipes slide in like an embarrassed latecomer at a high school play, tentatively weaving melodies through the structure as a stoned knitter would thread yarn through an old boot. The subtle synths, accordions, pianos and AM-radio vocals (plus Jackson's pretty, whispered style) recalls Grandaddy and Earlimart not surprising since Built Like Alaska hails from California's Central Valley, and one half of the label releasing this (Sweat of Alps) is Grandaddy's own imprint. But you'd have to hate either band to pass over something shiny and attractive about this album. Sure, it's melancholy, plodding at times and far from groundbreaking, but songs like "Heavy Foot" and "Wet Hay in a Barn" are dense and moody enough to instantly justify repeat listens. "Controlled Climate" bounces along a drowsy barroom piano path to a satisfyingly falsetto-laced conclusion. "Cause when you're dead, dead / you can't wish for pardon," Jackson intones, the shadow of Elliott Smith hanging heavy over him. Moments like these on Autumnland communicate tremendously specific (albeit hazily-rendered) senses of place that highlight the intelligence and longing behind Jackson's lyrics and roller coaster melodies. Densely layered but agreeably weightless, Built Like Alaska's latest effort should do much to set them apart from their gifted peers. Picture the sun rising over a dying bonfire in a strawberry field, the smell of smoke and beer clinging to your jacket, your mind blurry but awake. Righteous. -- john wenzel

Cheese, Enlarge Your Johnson (Pink Hedgehog)

Why a serious musical effort would be titled Enlarge Your Johnson... I'm not sure. The album, though light and summery, is neither goofy nor overtly sexual. None of the lyrics to the album's twelve songs elucidate or justify the title. It doesn't fit. It seems unconsidered and arbitrary. Maybe it was a running joke between band members who couldn't agree on anything. After a late night brainstorm session that yielded only goofball ideas, they gave up and decided to title their hard work after an annoying piece of spam. Maybe it's not a huge deal, but I think that every aspect of an album should work together as a whole. Or maybe the title is actually hilarious and I just don't get it. After checking out Cheese's website I learned that Enlarge Your Johnson took almost eight years to assemble. After such a long, drawn-out process, where I'm sure they worked and re-worked these well-composed songs, why would you discredit all that time and energy with a lame title? Anyway, the music has a Brian Wilson feeling to it, in the vocals especially. The songs and their structures are not as bizarre as Brian Wilson's compositions, but there is a very similar feel in the catchy layered vocal arrangements and the light summery moods that carry throughout most of the album. The lyrics cannot be compared to anything Beach Boys, they are much more intricate and contemplative, with lines like, "Everything is meaningless, so what we are means everything." At times Cheese pulls away completely from the relaxed summertime vibe, with tracks like "Fallen From the Sun," a six-minute song with wavering vocal delay and tremolo, a raspy guitar solo, and a complex string arrangement. The main rhythm guitar riff is simple, repetitive, and catchy, while the lyrics speak of a fall from grace, of something difficult to explain to anyone that has not experienced the same. The recording itself is very open and airy, and was, as the liner notes say: "Recorded entirely in our sheds and attics." The only complaint I have about the recording is some of the decorative mixing tricks that are applied in places. During the main guitar solo in "Fallen From the Sun," somebody went a little too crazy with the panning. The slick guitar work slides back and forth, from left speaker to right speaker, for the duration of the solo, an effect that does nothing but distract the ears from the interesting guitar work. Unnecessary effects are always a distraction. Everything else, the album as a whole, is thoughtfully composed and good company for a lazy summer day. - brad amorosino

Colonel Rhodes, This Is Public (The Record Machine)

At first glance, the Champaign, Illinois-based band Colonel Rhodes seem like they could be the bar band in Anytown, USA. They play country-flavored rock that rolls along in a typical enough way that it's easy to imagine your boring neighbors dancing along to it when they've had one too many Bud Lights. They seem like a band you've seen before, like one that could be playing down the street from you on any night of the week...except better. A lot better. The difference here is energy and heart, I think. Their 5-song EP This Is Public opens with two songs that have a big racuous sound that'll make you wish they were playing at that bar down the street. These two songs ("Setting Sun" and "Normal Boy") and the leaner, meaner, and even better EP closer "Saint Paul," are power-packed but also loaded with passion. The songs in between strike me as a little duller, but maybe that's just because the other three feel so vital and sincere, charged with universal feelings that anybody could relate to. - dave heaton

Ffa Coffi Pawb, Am Byth (Empyrean Records)

"Singing in Welsh seems like a recipe for immediately alienating your potential audience or even outright commercial suicide," Gruffydd Jones writes in the liner notes to the Ffa Coffi Pawb Am Byth compilation Am Byth, billed as "A Selection of Lost Songs '86-'92." Two of the band's members may have gone on to form Super Furry Animals, and another was in the as-revered-in-some-circles Gorky's Zyngotic Mynci, but it's clear that the members of Ffa Coffi Pawb Am Byth weren't concerned with hitting the big-time when they formed the band. The music is a mix of dirty rock and bright pop, with healthy doses of T. Rex and the Beach Boys. Nothing here is likely to be called brilliant, like the Super Furry Animals often are. This isn't bold or innovative music. It's more like a bunch of rock fans picking up instruments and working out their angst on stage. In that way, though, it's messy, melodic and occasionally a whole lot of fun. - dave heaton

A Gun Called Tension, self-titled (Cold Crush Records)

The day is fast approaching when combining hip-hop with other strains of music will no longer seem like alien activity. Maybe that day's already here - witness the guy who ocassionally beat-boxes and raps on CocoRosie's weird folk songs, or look at A Gun Called Tension. Their self-titled debut album is a collaboration between a rock musician (Dann Galluci, formerly of Murder City Devils) and a hip-hop emcee (Sean Reveron) which includes cameos from a handle of other musicians, mostly rockers. They project the rebellious attitude and aggression that hip-hop and rock share, while pulling together all sorts of musical styles and genres. They dabble with electronic blips and bleeps, while diving into a heady mix of reggae, funk, and trip-hop, all under the dual banner of rock and hip-hop. They've cultivated a big enough sound to include Reveron's rhymes and anguished punk-rock screams; in some of the album's most striking moments both merge perfectly, as on the explosive "Gold Fronts" and "5+1". All the disparate sounds come together smoothly on A Gun Called Tension. At the same time, the duo and its friends thrive on tension. The lyrics are filled with perfect puzzles ("I promise to never again let space and time not be friends") and contradictions ("I run to what I'm running away from"), and a nervous, heated energy runs through every song. - dave heaton

Jet by Day, The Vulture (Future Farmer)

The Vulture begins with two minutes of layered swelling noise that feels like it's going to lead into something dreamy and Pink Floyd-ish. Instead, the intro leads into a slow paced rock song with dark and desperate lyrics. A despondent Deftones feel darkens the mood further, as do the lyrics, which speak of an inevitable and ugly confrontation. The vocals (sounding a lot like Recover) range from a raspy growl to a nicely placed falsetto note in the vocal melody during the chorus, helping to shape a catchy rhythm that carries the song. The whole song is a bit repetitive, and seems as though it is building slowly, foreshadowing climax. Though the climax never comes, this implication makes the song lead smoothly into the next track. Other noteworthy tracks on the record include the lighter, more poppy "O' Salvation" and "Sons of Privilege." "Sons of Privilege" is straightforward and poppy, and is charged by some bubbly and retro sounding synth work. The vocals are super catchy and contain some simple but thoughtful bits of introspection such as, "If I get bored of this, what's taking its place?" The most apparent problem with The Vulture is the guitar sound. The more aggressive tracks are stifled by muffled guitar tones that don't have enough bite to them, the title track especially: an angry song in desperate need of some punch, which starts off with a fiery scream of "GODDAMN!" That kind of assertion cannot be backed by flat sounding guitars. Between the recording and the song writing Jet By Day seems to be best at putting together songs that are less abrasive. But The Vulture has its moments. - brad amorosino

The Oranges Band, Two Thousands (Morphius)

The specter of the '80s haunts what seems like the majority of straight-up rock outfits these days, and the Oranges Band are no exception. The first two tracks on this release (a combination of two early EPs The Five Dollars EP and 900 Miles of Fucking Hell) alternately recall the syncopated beats of the Police and the clipped singing of the Clash ("NextStopExJock") or the throaty, howl-ridden chants of Talking Heads ("All Those Marching Feet"). As with Futureheads, Franz Ferdinand, the Walkmen, Interpol, the Libertines, et. al, the specter is both benevolent and inspiring. And really, since these EPs date from 2000 to 2002, it wouldn't be overly charitable to say the Oranges Band have been mining this vein since before it was hilariously overpopulated. Fortunately, they do it with aplomb. Crisp production, propulsive rhythms and ass-tight songwriting should make this release a favorite with both the garage rockers and the dance-punk crowd. Squirrely, jangly guitars stick out like chicken wire in a woolen cap. Rubbery bass and loping percussion augment the intuitively melodic (but ostensibly off-key) singing. Vaguely Brit-pop, vaguely retro, and really quite good. -- john wenzel

The Rosebuds, Unwind (Merge Records)

The Rosebuds are one of the great 'invisible bands'. By that I mean they're not flashy, they have no attention-grabbing gimmick or story; they're just a great pop-rock band. There's a lot of energy and emotion to their music, and that's as true of their new EP Unwind as it was their debut album Make Out. Like that album, Unwind is a recording that gains strength in repeated listening - the emotions come to the forefront the more you hear the songs. Six songs strong, Unwind includes a few rockers disguised as ballads, songs that seem calm and comforting but are really filled with power and feeling, and a couple straight-out rock songs, like the opener "You Better Get Ready," which has a '60s party vibe to it, and the dynamic closing number, "I'd Feel Better". There's also an eclectic, vacation-day vibe to the EP, courtesy of songs like the sparkling title track, which offers encouragement to relax, unwind, and enjoy life. Appreciating good music is part of the key to enjoying yourself. Unwind's a good place to start. - dave heaton

Slomo Rabbit Kick, Hortatory Examinations (Kittybox Records)

"Man's routine is to work and to dream / pretending that he likes what he does...", Slomo Rabbit Kick guitarist/vocalist Jay Chilcote sings. Based on their 5-song EP Hortatory Examinations, Slomo Rabbit Kick are putting forth another way, an alternative to the workaday world. Theirs is based on turning your guitars up loud and playing catchy pop-rock songs that bounce along with a melodic buzz, while containing lyrics that praise rebellion and independence of thought, decrying conformity, greed, and selfishness. They intwine a general feeling of fun, that rock n' roll freedom thing, with occasionally incisive social commentary (especially on the final two tracks, "This Long Parade" and "Pseudo-Science"), and do a decent, if not always show-stopping, job of it. - dave heaton

Strikes Again!, self-titled (self-released)

Damn, Strikes Again! are an aggressive band. I'm not saying they're the loudest band you'll heard, or the hardest, but they play their rock songs with such drive, such unfettered propulsion, they're likely to plow you over. Or, at least, they're likely to plow over a wimp like me. This NYC band plays music that's melodic and catchy, indeed, but also like a high-speed train powered by the rage of a thousand humans that's been held inside for way too long. They play the basic rock instruments - guitars, bass, drums - so efficiently and tightly, they're going to be compared to a 'well-oiled machine' by somebody. I'll resist, and call them an uncaged beast instead. Lead singer/songwriter John van Atta can scream out his emotions like you wouldn't believe, but it always, without fail, sounds like he has real, sincere emotions that he's letting out at the top of his lungs. Strikes Again!'s publicity write-up refers to "quixotic, evocative lyrics" - I can't comment, as (not counting one impassioned cry against mediocrity, and the album-closing dream of burrowing inside another person's body, which somehow comes off as both romantic and terrifying), I haven't been able to follow the lyrics. I've been too busy getting revved up by their energy and feeling like I've been run over by a Mack truck. It's a great feeling, I tell you. - dave heaton

The Wowz, Long Grain Rights (RIYL Records)

Long Grain Nights, alt-country-folk-whatever-you-want-to-call-it, is wholeheartedly a fun record. The first track starts out with clanking bottles and a burst of hearty laughter over a foot-tapping guitar and banjo tune. The vocalists, accompanied at random by some happy drunks at the bar, sing about recognizing happiness on those rare occasions one comes across it. The lyrics as a whole are composed mostly of interesting narratives that range in mood from emotive to comical. The humorous bits are similar in their silliness to early Bob Dylan or certain Pavement songs. "646" is an exaggerated plea for an elusive girl's phone number. The song most notably features a pathetic interlude where the guy begs, "Baby, please give me your telephone number, because as it is, I'm just sitting at home watching commercials, picking my scalp, drinking Private Stock through a straw, and thinking of you." How sweet. "See You in the Paper," a rockabilly love story, follows a ripening relationship gone sour, ending with the perfectly bitter last words: "I'll see you in the paper...when you're dead." I laughed out loud. Long Grain Rights also has its share of sadder songs, including "Snow Covered Eyes," which features some tasteful guitar work, a wandering distant harmonica and only a tambourine keeping beat: Perfect company for a lonesome trek through the countryside. I can't help but think Mid-western, though the band is from New York City. As far as the recording goes, it is raw and loose, the drums especially, and fits well with the flavor of the music. The album ends with "Sometimes I Feel Life," which is marked by strange slightly off-key vocal harmonies in the chorus that are somehow not distracting but charming. The Wowz pull off something rare with Long Grain Rights: an honest, successful coupling of humor and sentiment. Hats off. - brad amorosino


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