Monday, December 31, 2001

The Shins - Oh, Inverted World (Sub Pop, 2001)

The Shins
Oh, Inverted World

Sub Pop

Rating: 8.5 jewelry network hosts out of 10

The Shins have put out one of the best records I have heard all year.  Most certainly the best pop record to come out in some time.  That might seem like a bold statement, but I am yet to be told otherwise by anyone I’ve played this for since I got it, and I’ve played it for a lot of people.  It sounds like the Beach Boys crossed with the psychedelic pop of the Elephant Six, only better.  OK, maybe not better than the Beach Boys, but you get what I’m saying.  The production value is immaculate – giving it the feel that it might have been recorded 30 or 40 years ago, as opposed to last year.  According to their website, The Shins have been releasing music for a while now – as Somersault, Flake, and Flake Music – but this is the debut for them as The Shins.  These songs yearn for a summer road trip – the oppressive heat, windows down, driving somewhere and maybe nowhere, turning the volume up so you can hear it over the wind that’s making a mess of your hair.  Highlights of the album include "One by One All Day," "Know Your Onion," "Pressed in a Book," and...well, all of them.  My very favorite, though, is "New Slang" – a beautiful, haunting song that gets stuck in your head for days on end.  The only drawback of the album is that it’s not long enough, clocking in at less than 40 minutes. 

South - From Here On In (Mo Wax, 2001)

From Here On In
Mo Wax


Rating: 7 blue bells out of 10
These three gentleman from England known as South have delivered us a beautifully layered album, where electronic beats, noises, and rhythms pair with the traditional instruments of most bands – drums, bass, guitar, vocals.  They got their start tinkering around with remixes and the like, and soon caught the ear of James Lavelle (also known for his work with DJ Shadow in U.N.K.L.E. and as the founder of Mo Wax).  The album is book-ended by a pair of similar songs - "Broken Head I" and "Broken Head III" (with "Broken Head II" lying somewhere in the middle of the album) that sound like a live band interpretation of something DJ Shadow would put together.  At other times the heavy bass lines and overall groovy nature of the tunes reminds me of Doves, another great English band to come out recently.  And there is even a third sound residing here, one of the shoegaze / britpop fashion reminiscent of The Stone Roses, Ride, or some such band like that.  My favorite song from the album "Here On In" probably fits into this third category, and features a duet with a female vocalist by the name of Lily Mahler whom I hope to here more from in the future.  If there is a downside to this album at all, it is the length – at almost 70 minutes long, it’s almost too much to take in at once. 

Jeff Mangum - Live at Jittery Joe’s (Orange Twin, 2001)

Jeff Mangum
Live at Jittery Joe’s
Orange Twin

Rating: 8.5 cappuccinos out of 10

Some of you out there may be familiar with a band known as Neutral Milk Hotel. If not, they are a band known for their eclectic indie-folk songs featuring every sort of instrument possible, and a leader named Jeff Mangum who I consider to be one of the greatest songwriters out there. He possess a voice so emotive (warning: do not assume this is ‘emo music’ from this statement – that couldn’t be any further from the truth; it merely means that he wears his emotions on the outside, and it shows through his voice) that it brings goose bumps to the skin even after you’ve heard the music many times. That said, I will now take a moment and let you immediately run to the record store and purchase their second CD ‘In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’, and their first disc ‘On Avery Island’ ain’t too shabby either(both on Superchunk’s label, Merge Records).

You got them now? Good. After you’ve listened to them a few times, you should then search out this gem. Why is that you ask? Because I’ve always felt that the live album is never the proper introduction to a person’s work, but they are one of the best things ever made when it comes to the people who are already fans. Being as how I am already a huge fan, I can say that this is indeed a great album. This performance is a solo acoustic affair, so all of the quirky bits that you are used to from the album are not there; but this is more than made up by Jeff’s heartfelt voice, bringing them to life in a way that few other can. The show was recorded at a coffeehouse in Athens, Georgia, sometime in 1997 – before ‘In the Aeroplane...’ and after ‘On Avery Island.’ As well as tracks from these two albums, it contains a few unreleased tunes, one of which is a cover of a Phil Spector song ‘I Love How You Love Me’, and a stunningly beautiful version at that.

So for those of you keeping score, here is the final tally: go buy Neutral Milk hotel albums, because they are one of my favorite bands ever and will be yours too. Then buy the live album, and enjoy the different versions of the songs you already know and love, as well as some new songs by Jeff that you go gaga over as well.

Eric Bachmann - Short Careers (Merge, 2001)

Eric Bachmann
Short Careers: Original Score for the Film "Ball of Wax"

7 innings of stretch out of 10

Eric Bachmann
can do no wrong in my book. Small 23, Archers of Loaf, Barry Black, Crooked Fingers...every release by every one of these groups holds a near and dear spot in my record collection. This is Bachmann’s first soundtrack, but he comes off sounding like a seasoned professional. A lot of people seem to know him for his gruff and scraggly Neil Diamond-meets-Bruce Springsteen voice, but the musicianship displayed on this album is phenomenal. It most closely resembles his Barry Black work (a mostly instrumental solo side-project he undertook while still in the Archers, where he played 90% of the instruments), but you can see the influence from all of his other bands creep in from time to time. Odd marching time signatures, strings galore, ambient noises, deft guitar finger picking - this and even more make up this entertaining score. There’s a reason that the Archers of Loaf are considered one of the greatest bands of the nineties, and in my book, probably one of the greatest ever.

Dntel - Life Is Full of Possibilities (Plug Research, 2001)

Life Is Full of Possibilities
Plug Research

8.5 toy ambulances out of 10

. Don’t ask me how to pronounce it, cause I don’t know. I do know that they produce some damn fine music. In actuality it isn’t a they – it’s a he, but he has collaborators. The he in this case is one Jimmy Tamborello, formerly of Strictly Ballroom (an amazing rock band from the mid 90’s that often got lumped in with the emo bands, but were far better than most of them). This is Dntel’s third album, and although I haven’t heard the first two, I think it would be pretty difficult to top this one. The music reminds me of Boards of Canada, u-Ziq, Oval, and some of the others out there that populate the hordes of people trying to program their way to success in the electronica/glitch pop world. Somehow, this album surpasses all of those. Part of it comes from the extra atmospheric feeling that permeates many of these songs – when listened to through headphones the sounds seem to swirl around your head, as opposed to just being sounds coming from the speakers in your ears. The main ingredient to the success of this album comes from it’s immaculate line up of guest vocalists – Chris Gunst (Beachwood Sparks, and former band mate of Tamborello in Strictly Ballroom), Meredith Figurine (of Figurine, another band that Tamborello is in), Mia Doi Todd, Rachel Haden (That Dog), and Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie/All Time Quarterback). My personal favorites are the Mia Doi Todd track "Anywhere Anyone" – a dark and brooding song, at times reminding me of Bjork without actually sounding like her; and "The Dream of Evan and Chan", with Ben Gibbard, which in many ways just sounds like a Death Cab song because of Ben’s easily identifiable voice, but somehow remains it’s own entity because of Tamborello’s stellar programming. If this sort of electronic goodness floats your boat, or if you are already a fan of any of the people collaborating on this disc, you should check this out.

The Birdwatcher - Afternoon Tales the Morning Never Knew (Arena Rock Recording Co, 2001)

The Birdwatcher
Afternoon Tales the Morning Never Knew
Arena Rock Recording Co

5 red bellied woodpeckers out of 10

I struggled with the rating for this album. The thing is, I enjoy it well enough - can’t think of anything bad to say about it. But for some reason, every time I put it on, it just becomes background music for me. I tune it out almost as quickly as I hear it, and not on purpose either - it just doesn’t seem to hold my attention. So I give it a middle of the road rating, because I’m sure plenty of people out there will like it, but I’m sure plenty others will be like me and forget they just heard it, even if they don’t mean to.

The Birdwatcher is the solo project of Windsor for the Derby front man Dan Matz. He also enlisted the help of various other indie luminaries, most notably Jim Kimball of Jesus Lizard and about a million other bands. The cover of this CD has a sticker with a quote from NME that says "emotive & fragile, strangely spooky, slightly unhinged". I’m not sure I’m feeling the unhinged part, but the rest fits pretty well. Lots of rainy-day soundscapes with acoustic guitar and singing layered on top, and the occasional bouts of percussion here and there would be a good general descriptor of sound. Not unlike what you might get if you smooshed Windsor for the Derby and The Blackheart Procession together, and only kept the real mellow bits. The only track to defy this description is ‘The Hush’, which easily is the most rocking song on the album, and probably my favorite to boot.

By no means would I say not to go out and buy this album, just be sure you know what you’re getting into. If you’re looking for something to play in the background while you do homework or trade stocks or have your tea and crumpets, this might be a good choice for you. But if you’re looking for something to keep you awake for a late night driving jaunt, unless you like falling asleep at the wheel, I would try something else.

The Beta Band - Hot Shots II (Astralwerks, 2001)

The Beta Band
Hot Shots II

9 high fidelities out of 10

Oh Scotland, you’ve done it again. From the land of loch ness monsters and haggis, The Beta Band is proving once again that Scotland is the better half of the British Isles when it comes to music. On their second full-length release, they continue down the path set forth in their previous releases of presenting a veritable pastiche of the musical landscape. They combine sounds from all over the spectrum – trip hop, pop, folk, space rock, trance/techno beats and sounds, etc – into a sound that very few bands sound anything like, and very few reviewers can ever actually identify. They jump from genre to genre, but it never sounds forced – rather, more like a good mix tape that a friend might make for you. If I had to compare them to someone, I would say a cross between Pink Floyd and Primal Scream, but I realize even that is a stretch. They combine so many different sounds and textures in to their different songs that almost anyone you ask would probably give you a different comparison. This album is good from beginning to end, but if I had to pick out my favorites then it would be ‘Squares’ and ‘Human Being’. If you are already familiar with their work, then I recommend checking this out, you won’t be disappointed. And if this is all new to you and you are interested, this would be a good starting point to get an idea of what The Beta Band is all about.

Four Tet - Pause (Domino, 2001)

Four Tet

6 top loading VCRs out of 10

Four Tet
is great music to go to sleep to. If that’s taken as an insult, then I apologize, because I mean it as a compliment. What can I say about the music? As cheesy as it sounds, the overwhelming word that comes to my mind is "pretty’"– and yes, I know that makes me sound stupid. Four Tet is made up of one lad, Kieran Hebden, and probably a bunch of computer programs, samplers, and the like. This would most likely be classified as electronic music (or to even sub-categorize for the sake of the kids – IDM – intelligent dance music – but not the crazy kind like Squarepusher or that ilk), but I have a hard time putting it into that group. But if not there where? If you don’t like the current state of things, make a change – so I’m starting a new genre of music, and I’m calling it "Pretty & Mellow Music to Sleep To". Joining Four Tet in this category will be Low, Sam Prekop, a sub selection of Radiohead’s last two albums, Yo La Tengo’s "And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out", various Reggae/Dub heads, and a small selection of some of my favorite movie scores. Not that all of these groups and types sound alike, but to me, they all give off the same vibe – why don’t you relax...lay your head on the soft pillow...

The (International) Noise Conspiracy - New Morning, Changing Weather (Epitaph/Burning Heart, 2001)

The (International) Noise Conspiracy
New Morning, Changing Weather
Epitaph/Burning Heart

7.5 capitalizing socialists out of 10

All of the sudden, it seems like rock and roll music is popular again, and I’m not talking about crap like Lint Biscuit or Puddle of Muddle, or whatever they are called. Lately there seems to be a movement where sounding like you’re making music from the 60’s is the cool thing to do. Bands such as The Strokes and The White Stripes are breaking into the mainstream and catching the ear of the kids out there. It is my contention that one of the bands responsible for this movement is The (International) Noise Conspiracy (TINC). Dennis, the singer for TINC, was once the singer for the legendary band Refused, who were known for always breaking new ground in the stagnant scene of hardcore music. After Refused broke up, he formed this group, creating a new sound, a sound so new that it sounded...old. Not unlike the garage rock of the 60’s and early 70’s popularized by early Rolling Stones, MC5, Iggy and The Stooges, and many others. Continuing down the path set forth by Refused, one of the things that sets TINC apart from the others playing this style of music is the amount of political rhetoric in the lyrics of their songs. As self proclaimed Marxists, many of their songs talk about the evils of capitalism and western society. These are a smart group of kids, and a big part of the reason they are playing their brand of music is to bring their message to the people. But whether you agree with them or not, the music is still damn good.

As for their new album, it picks up where their last one, ‘Survival Sickness,’ left off. In some ways they seem to be taking some small steps from the garage rock feel towards that of a richer, fuller sound, incorporating varied instrumentation and production into this record. Highlights include the songs ‘Capitalism Stole My Virginity’ and ‘Bigger Cages Longer Chains.’ I definitely recommend this album if you dig this type of sound. Even if you’re not into this type of music, go see them live. This isn’t a phrase that I use that often, but their singer is one bad ass dancer. It’s really entertaining to watch him go nuts on the stage. And if you are indeed into their message, they back up what they sing about by having books and materials on hand for sale at their shows to help educate the masses.

Royal City - Alone at the Microphone (Rough Trade, 2001)

Royal City
Alone at the Microphone
Rough Trade


Rating: 6 sweet pastries out of 10 
Royal City gives us a decent alt-country-ish slab of music from this crew of Canadians. I enjoyed, but wasn’t blown away by their previous release "At Rush Hour the Cars", and I feel the same about this album. Both are somewhat forgettable, but when you’re actually listening to them you like it well enough. The new album has a bit more backbone to it from a rock point of view though – where the first was almost marked by it’s lack of music it was so delicate, this release finds the sound much more fleshed out in that ‘this is a band and not just one dude’ kind of way. They often get compared to Neil Young, but maybe that’s just because of the similar nationality – the music sounds quite different to me. I can’t even really think of any specific bands to point to, but more of an overall feeling; a very mellow vibe, making me think of lazy Sunday afternoons looking at the rain through the window, reading a good magazine. Just like the magazine, Royal City might not stay with you too long, but you enjoy it while it lasts.

Lightning Bolt - Ride The Skies (Load, 2001)

Lightning Bolt
Ride The Skies

7 sparks of static electricity out of 10

When you give your band a name like Lightning Bolt, it is your constitutional duty to be a really rocking band. Anything less would be a disgrace to the fine upstanding tradition of naming hard rock bands and/or songs after inclement weather(for example, Hurricane, the AC/DC song Thunderstruck, Metallica’s Ride the Lightning, just to name a few...). These guys do not disappoint. Made up of only 2 guys playing bass and drums, they make enough of a racket for 10. They run a fine line between noise, metal, and math rock, sounding like The Boredoms and early Don Caballero getting into a fist fight. Definitely worth checking out if you like this kind of stuff, but probably not worth checking out if you only listen to slow jams. Hey, to each his own, but I’ll take the rawk.

Liars - They Threw Us in a Trench an Threw a Monument on Top (Gern Blandsten / Mute, 2001)

They Threw Us in a Trench an Threw a Monument on Top
Gern Blandsten / Mute


8 headstones out of 10

Ladies and gentlemen, this is dance-punk. Liars, fronted by lanky Aussie Angus Andrew, have created a dancy-arty-punky mess that’s a real joy to listen to. I never dance, yet I can somehow imagine shaking it
at least a little bit to these guys live. Their sound comes out akin to both early eighties punk geniuses Gang of Four and current indie darlings Les Savy Fav, but, well, dancier. Not dancy in a techno sort of way, but more in the sense where the bass line and drums are the most prominent instruments in the mix, driving the songs and holding them together while everything else goes this way and that way, doing whatever it pleases. When you add all of the constituent parts together it creates one hell of a treat to listen to.

Aereogramme - A Story In White (Matador, 2001)

A Story In White

8 Rob Roys out of 10

Have you ever heard a band so good that it gave you goose bumps? A band so instantly appealing that you tell everyone you know about them, until your friends are fed up with your constant jibber jabber? Friends and neighbors, meet that band: Aereogramme. Sometimes screaming, sometimes singing, sometimes rocking, sometimes orchestral...always amazing. Craig B, formerly of Ganger(another quality group unto itself), formed this band in 1998. After a couple of singles and EPs, this is their first full length.

Since the world likes to place all music in pretty little packages with bows on top, these guys will unjustly be described as ‘another band from Scotland,’ and constant comparisons will be made to other Scottish luminaries such as Mogwai, Belle and Sebastian, Arab Strap, Snow Patrol, and whoever else they want to dream up. While they might be from the same land, they are not defined by it. There are some similarities between Aereogramme and Mogwai, but to say they sound alike would be an unjust oversimplification. The transitions from one style of music to another within the context of individual songs is a big part of the beauty of this album – to go from something in the vein of folk, to a noisy/post rock crescendo, and then to mellow out and bring in an orchestra...well, words cannot do justice to fully describe the scenario. Needless to say, while most bands might have trouble pulling this off, Aereogramme do so, and flawlessly.

If you like Mogwai, Sigur Ros, Godspeed You Black Emperor!, or other like minded bands (but aren’t looking for something that sounds like any of them really), you should run to the record store as fast as your legs will carry you and check this out.

Carissa’s Wierd - You Should Be At Home Here (Brown, 2001)

Carissa’s Wierd
You Should Be At Home Here

7.5 weird spellings out of 10

Two things initially strike me about Carissa's Wierd – hauntingly beautiful music, and an affinity for really long song titles. The music itself is hard to could break down some of it’s constituent parts in the following way – the atmospheric, orchestral feel of Godspeed You Black Emperor! or one of their sister bands, the chilling violin sound reminiscent of Warren Ellis from the Dirty Three, and the male/female vocal dynamic as well as the song pacing of Low. That said, the sound as a whole doesn’t really sound like any of these bands, but would fit nicely in a cd collection of anyone who enjoys these groups. Some of the songs I particularly enjoy on this album are "The Color That Your Eyes Changed with the Color of Your Hair" and 'A Loose Hair Falls Into A Glass of Water Without Ice". See, I told you the song titles were long, and you didn’t want to believe me, did you? Oh yeah, one last thing – the band’s name is intentionally misspelled, so no calls from the grammar police please. Check these guys and gals out if you like a little mellow music to get you through the day.

Mink Lungs - The Better Button (Arena Rock Recording Co, 2001)

Mink Lungs
The Better Button
Arena Rock Recording Co


Rating: 6 ferret briefcases out of 10

Sometimes, the thing that makes a band a good listen ends up being the same thing that brings them down. In the case of Mink Lungs, this would be trying to make a niche for themselves in the world of quirky lo-fi indie pop. For me, the president of this group has always been Guided By Voices, with Neutral Milk Hotel as the vice president and the rest of the Elephant Six roster filling in as the cabinet. And as of right now, Mink Lungs might have a seat in the senate, but it’s going to take a bit more for them to get that big nomination to secretary of the interior.

Mink Lungs hail from current hotspot Brooklyn, NYC, and their debut CD, ‘The Better Button’, certainly has it’s entertaining moments; and to be honest, there are probably more bright spots than dull ones on the album. But the low spots are of the kind that you find yourself reaching for the ‘track skip’ button from time to time. The overall sound of the album is very reminiscent to early GBV, with it’s lo-fi feel and love of pop hooks. It blends this with the zany lyrics and noisy bits that might be at home on a Frank Zappa record (not to say Robert Pollard from GBV doesn’t have some pretty crazy lyrics himself). For me, the best points on the record are when these two worlds meet, and you have a catchy, quirky, noisy mess all rapped up in a short pop song. Unfortunately, the weirdness can sometimes overwhelm all other aspects of the song to the point that it’s all you notice. And while this might be interesting for the first couple of listens, they end up wearing on your patience in the long run. One example might be with the song ‘Watch Yourself’, one of the catchiest numbers on the record, only the track ends with a one or two minute answering machine message about some girl calling to say she ‘just wants to be friends’. I’m not saying there isn’t a point to the madness, only that it wears thin quickly.

To carry this tired joke further, ‘The Better Button’ represents a strong first draft of an amendment from the junior senator out of New York, and could be the beginning of a bright career. Or they could just pull a Ted Kennedy and get shitty drunk all the time and sit around with a bright red glowing face. Either way, it could be entertaining.

Beachwood Sparks - Once We Were Trees (Sub Pop, 2001)

Beachwood Sparks
Once We Were Trees
Sub Pop

9 canyon hippies out of 10

The sophmore album for the LA-based Beachwood Sparks, "Once We Were Trees", follows along the same road as their self titled debut from 2000. That is to say, they continue trying their hand at well crafted songs that blend California pop and the twang from Nashville. The comparisons to older bands is obvious – The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Flying Burrito Brothers, and even the Grateful Dead But rather than just rip off these now classic artists, they have taken that sound they pioneered and brought it into the 21st century. Some might consider them alternative country, and it does feature some of the typical touchstones of that genre, the vocals are much closer to the harmonies of the Beach Boys than to that of a Steve Earle or Jay Farrar.

Some of the songs catch the band in a meandering, jam-friendly mood, whereas other times they are straightforward and tight. The different styles seem to complement rather than subtract from the sound, and the entire package is quite good. Some of my personal favorites include ‘Yer Selfish Ways’, ‘The Good Night Whistle’, and my personal favorite, ‘By Your Side’. It’s interesting to note that ‘By Your Side’ was originally a Sade song, and while I have reservations in naming a cover song as my favorite by any particular band, their version is so fresh and different that it actually took me a couple of listens for it to sink in exactly that I had heard the song before. Either way, it’s damn good, as is the entire album.

IfiHadAHiFi - Ones and Zeroes (No Karma, 2001)

Ones and Zeroes
No Karma

6.5 non-binary numbers out of 10

The first phrase that comes to my mind to describe IfIHadAHiFi is "spazz rock". I’m not sure if that will be taken as an insult, because it’s not meant to be. More than anything, this quartet of mid-westerners reminds me of the early albums of The Dismemberment Plan – the main difference being that where the D-Plan would get a little too funky for my tastes, these guys get a little more punk(in a Devo/Talking Heads kinda way). And that was always my complaint about the early D-Plan stuff – too much white boy funk; of course, they don’t sound like that now, but that has nothing to do with IfiHadAHiFi, so I’ll get back on topic. Basically, take a bunch of samples, keyboards, regular organic instruments, noise and punk, throw it in a blender, and you get this album. It could have been mess, and I’ve heard others try to go this route much less success – but these lads have done good.