Tuesday, December 31, 2002

Seldom - Romance (Casa Productions, 2002)

Casa Productions


Rating: 7 rodeo clowns out of 10
On their second recording (and first full length album) Seldom shows us yet again that they may be the best pop band out of the northwest of the US, even if they can be a bit melancholy.  Some of you out there may be familiar with these young lads as David Bazan’s touring band, also known as Pedro the Lion.  On the surface, their sound is similar to that of more recent Pedro recordings.  But once you’ve heard it a few times, it seems to transcend that sound and transform into something altogether it’s own.  Another obvious choice for influences might be Ben Folds due to the fact that the keyboard is one of the main instruments, but Seldom refrain from the silly lyrics that plague Mr. Folds.  They incorporate all of these influences into their sound, and the mish-mash that comes out is just great pop music - and how can you not like great pop music?

The Notwist - Neon Golden (Domino, 2002)

The Notwist
Neon Golden


Rating: 10 hairy pits out of 10
I know it’s early yet to be making such claims, and I’ll probably change my mind a half dozen times, but this could be the album of the year.  It is most certainly my favorite album to come out so far, and I would be highly surprised if it wasn’t at least in my top five at year’s end.  The Notwist come from Germany, and have been around for a while, having released two or three albums on the Zero Hour label (that has since shut down), and maybe a couple more or so before that.  Early in their career, they started out as a metal/punk/hardcore band of some kind, but as time progressed, so did they.  in the mid-nineties, they added Martin Gretschmann to the band, who is known to some as Console, his electronic-music-noodling alter ego.  With his addition came a new sound, one that relied more on computer-generated sounds that would mesh with the organic sounds they were already producing. 

With Neon Golden, we have their first album of the new millenium, and a sound that fits.  Their sound could be best described as a combination of the following:  beats and noises that would fit in with the IDM set of Autechre and Squarepusher; music that consists of a wide variety of instruments at times, from banjos to strings to acoustic guitar, at times having the feeling of something that might have come from Red House Painters or someone similar; and the vocals, if they remind me of anything, remind me of Trembling Blue Stars or something along those lines.  But The Notwist are most definitely much bigger and better than the sum of their parts, and really don’t sound like anything else; and I would almost bet money that it will only be a matter of time before there are a lot of people who sound like them.  Track highlights include ‘pilot’, ‘this room’, and my favorite ‘one with the freaks’.  I honestly don’t think there is a weak track on the album though.  If you are at all interested in this type of music, hunt yourself out a copy of this album, and you too will be singing it’s praises to anyone who will listen.

Ugly Cassanova - Sharpen Your Teeth (Sub Pop, 2002)

Ugly Cassanova
Sharpen Your Teeth
Sub Pop


Rating: 9 kidnapped blondes out of 10
For those not in the know, Ugly Casanova is the solo/side project of Modest Mouse front man Isaac Brock.  And for those not familiar with Modest Mouse’s body of work, just go buy ‘This Is A Long Drive for Someone with Nothing To Think About,’ and welcome to one of your new favorite bands.  Brock is assisted on this album by members of Califone, Red Red Meat, and Pall Jenkins of Black Heart Procession and Three Mile Pilot (as a side note, Three Mile Pilot are one of the greatest bands you’ve possibly never heard – go buy ‘Another Desert, Another Sea’ and welcome to another of your favorite bands).  The music on ‘Sharpen Your Teeth’ doesn’t stray too far from Brock’s usual output, sounding for the most part like Modest Mouse songs with a dash of alt-country or americana thrown in for good measure.  Current fans of Modest Mouse will not leave disappointed, or at least I wasn’t.  Highlights include ‘Barnacles’, ‘Hotcha Girls’, and ‘Pacifico’, but honestly, I don’t think there’s a bad track on here, and the album holds a great fluidity from one song to the next that makes you want to listen to the release as a whole rather than in piecemeal parts.  Plus, as a bonus, the album art was done by none other than Thomas Campbell, who is known in the skateboarding world as being a terrific photographer and artist to boot.  All in all, a great package.

The Mountain Goats - Tallahassee (4AD, 2002)

The Mountain Goats


Rating: 8 oceanographer kings out of 10

The Mountain Goats
, a.k.a. John Darnielle, has been known over the years  for his ingenious lyrics, heartfelt performances, and the fact that almost everything he has recorded thus far in his career (and there’s been a lot) has been recorded straight to cassette on a run-of-the-mill boombox.  His music consisted of just a man and his guitar, and a lot of tape hiss.  And while the hiss might have been a little distracting, it also seemed to make the music feel that much more personal, like a homemade recording of one of your friends that only you knew about.

This album marks John Darnielle’s first recording for the British super-label 4AD, as well as his first album to be recorded on professional equipment.  What has changed?  Well, there’s no hiss, but I don’t miss it too much.  The music still sounds like The Mountain Goats, but there is some additional instrumentation added to help flesh out the sound - piano, percussion, shakers, etc.  But all of this takes a backseat to what has always been the core of his music - the guitar and voice.

This record is a concept record, about a couple and the deterioration of their relationship and all of the trappings that go along with it as they move across the country.  Well, it’s actually much more complex than that, but that seems to be the gist of it.  And while I may not like it as much as ‘All Hail West Texas’ (his best record in my opinion), it’s still real damn good.  John’s lyrics are some of the most beautiful and complex I have ever heard; they manage to paint a vivid picture, every song like reading a short story by one of your favorite authors.  I’m usually the type of person who doesn’t even pay much attention to lyrics, but these grab you whether you like it or not.  I highly recommend this record if you’ve ever been a fan of singer-songwriter type music...and pick up ‘All Hail West Texas’ while you’re at it too, you won’t be disappointed.

Norfolk & Western - Winter Farewell (FILMguerrero, 2002)

Norfolk & Western
Winter Farewell


Rating: 7.5 fictional western evergreens out of 10
This is certainly one of those records that grows on you, which might be something you can say for much of FILMguerrero’s catalog (see also Buellton, a decent band in their own right).  I had heard a couple of songs by Norfolk & Western (let’s call them N&S for short), and they didn’t have any impact on me - not good, not bad, just there.  So I wasn’t totally excited to listen to their CD, and even the first couple of listens just dwindled there in the background while I tooled around my house, doing whatever it is people do when they tool around their house.  I was mentally preparing to write up a review about it being just ok, good background music and all that sort of drivel you might write when describing something mediocre.  Then, like a punch in the ear, it grabbed me and hasn’t let go since.  I’ve been listening to it multiple times daily - not because I’m doing a review and wanted to be informed, but because I really yearn to hear it.

The main force behind N&S is Adam Selzer, who runs a recording studio in Portland, OR by the name of Tape Foundry where the whole thing was recorded.  He has also assembled a motley group to help him on the recording, and while I don’t want to run down the names of everyone, worth mentioning are Richard Buckner (who’s records are quite good, especially ‘Since’) helps out by singing back up on my favorite song on the album, ‘The Evergreen,’ as well as Rachel Blumberg, who I do not know but has an amazing voice that I will be sure to be on the lookout for in the future.

As for the sound - as with all great albums, every time I listen to the album I hear different things in it.  If I had to give one overall impression and/or comparison, I would say take the sparse, mellow sound of Low, add in some country twang and a little bit of noise that might feel right at home on a Dirty Three album.  I think the Low comparison is particularly fitting, as Adam’s voice sounds very much like Alan Sparhawk’s, and when Rachel is singing as well it really gives off a similar vibe to that of Mimi and Alan from Low.  But what makes this album so great are the little things - the slide guitar and occasional harmonica make you feel as if you’re riding down a lonely highway late at night; the use of the optigon, vibraphone, and various radio samples, while not drawing too much attention to themselves individually, add to the overall pastiche of the work and give it that intangible something that adds just the right texture to the song.

Anyone who considers themselves a fan of this brand of mellow music would be remiss in not checking this release out.  And you can put it on and listen to it while tooling around the house.  Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself sitting down and listening to the music instead of getting the things done that you had planned.

The Beatings - Italiano (Midriff, 2002)

The Beatings

7 baked beans out of 10

The Beatings manage to sound like the past while creating new sounds for the future. This Boston group have been getting comparisons to The Pixies, The Replacements, and most importantly, Husker Du – and justly so. Singer Eldridge Rodriguez sounds a whole hell of a lot like Bob Mould, and at times the music even sounds like an updated version of the Du; other times, you can feel an urgency in the recordings that comes across in the same way that the earlier, punker Replacements did. In addition to Rodriguez, Erin Dalbec adds a female voice to the mix that might make you think she’s the sweetest girl in the world one minute, and that she might kick you in the balls the next. They write very catchy songs, but are rocking at the same time - like the stuff you heard on college radio in the eighties...and hopefully in 2002 as well.

Sweep the Leg Johnny - Going Down Swingin’ (Southern, 2002)

Sweep the Leg Johnny
Going Down Swingin’


Rating: 7 donut holes out of 10
For those keeping count, this is album number four for Sweep the Leg Johnny, each one building on the intensity of the last.  I’m afraid if they keep up this pace they’re either going to spontaneously combust or end up in the loony bin, or both.  If you are unfamiliar with their sound, imagine a combination of Sun Ra and Don Caballero, but doesn’t sound like either of them.  In other words, a little jazzy, a little mathy, a lot rocking, and very good.  Although they continue to mine the same style of music on this album as in their previous releases, it doesn’t make it any less entertaining.  This time around, they’ve added an additional guitarist and vocalist by the name of Mitch Cheney, who was formerly of the terrific San Francisco outfit Rumah Sakit (buy their album too if you like this type of music).   Another item pretty common on any Sweep album is that of having some pretty long songs, and this album is no different.   The first song on this album, "Sometimes My Balls Feel Like Tits," fits that bill, and it may be their best to date.  All in all, not a weak song on the album.  Those out there who are already fans of the band will find it a welcome addition to their collection, and for those who have never heard them, this would be an excellent starting point.

Iron & Wine - The Creek Drank The Cradle (Sub Pop, 2002)

Iron & Wine
The Creek Drank The Cradle
Sub Pop

8.5 big dippers out of 10

Iron & Wine
is the work of one man, Samuel Beam - get to know that name, because if his output continues down the same path as this album, we’ll have the makings of the Nick Drake for this generation. Well, either Beam or Damien Jurado - perhaps we can have some sort of wrestling or boxing match to decide the true bearer of the title. But that is another story altogether, and not really relevant to this review.

Iron & Wine come from Miami, Florida, where Beam is a cinematography teacher at a local college by day, creator of hauntingly beautiful music by night. This album was written, performed, produced, and recorded entirely by Beam in his house. Apparently, there was two albums worth of stuff sent into SubPop, which was then whittled down to this release of 11 tracks. The only instruments used are his voice, guitar, and a little slide and banjo. What’s missing here? No drums. I can’t tell you the last time I listened to a record with no drums on it and actually liked it, much less loved it as I do this one.

Beam’s voice comes across as the Americanized version of Gary Lightbody, known for his work with Snow Patrol and The Reindeer Section. But the music falls much more in line with something done by Lou Barlow, be that Sebadoh or Sentridoh or whatever. And the whole affair lends a nod of the head towards the patron saint of this type of music, Nick Drake, who has influenced a countless number of men to become singer-songwriters, and even a few of them to actually be good at it such as Iron & Wine here.

Hopefully this is just the beginning for Iron & Wine, and many more great things will follow. I personally would like to hear the rest of those songs not released by Sub Pop, because if they are anywhere near as good, they will certainly be worth hearing.

The Boggs - We Are The Boggs We Are (Arena Rock Music Co., 2002)

The Boggs
We Are The Boggs We Are
Arena Rock Recording Co.

6 former Boston Red Sox out of 10

Talk about being fooled. When I saw the cover of this album, I assumed that I would be hearing another Brit-pop band, or an American version of such. Instead, I get...bluegrass? Old-timey music? Roots country? What is this world coming to? Since when do kids like this make music like that?

Turns out The Boggs are a group of lads from Brooklyn who got their start playing on street corners and in subways, and eventually moved their tried and true sound indoors to clubs and recording studios. The entire album is recorded in mono, and it has the warm feel that you get when listening to something along the lines of an Alan Lomax field recording. Some of the songs, such as ‘Whiskey and Rye’ or ‘The Airborne Station’, sound like a non-Irish version of The Pogues, and you can just imagine everyone standing around one microphone in the center of the room when they recorded these tracks. They also tackle Appalacian folk ballads in the form of ‘Beside the Windowsill’, and included a number of nameless instrumentals between some of the regular songs that run the gamut from bluegrass to pre-country cowboy music. The remaining songs, including my favorite on the album ‘Emily, O, Emily’, have that sound you get with old 45s, where it sounds like the performer is at one end of the hall and the mic is set up on the other end. It initially occurred to me that if those classic artists from many years ago could re-record their music today without all the static and hissing and noise in a modern studio, they wouldn’t hesitate - so why purposely recreate a sound that was accidental and unwanted in the first place? But it is exactly these things that lend those classic recordings some of their charm, at least to me.

On the one hand, there’s nothing really original about The Boggs. For the most part, they are just recycling the sounds from the first part of the previous century for a new generation of listeners. But on the other hand, maybe this is just what many of us need. There is so much music out there today, and most of it is the same old shit, nothing really all that new or groundbreaking. The Boggs are no different, they’re just reaching back quite a bit farther for their influences, and in doing that, bringing something pretty new to a lot of people that might not otherwise be aware of this type of music.

I was torn as to what rating to give this album - like I said, nothing really new here, mostly rehashed sounds. That usually doesn’t bode well for getting a high review. But the bottom line is - I enjoy this album. And that is really what is most important, right? Hopefully The Boggs will continue making this kind of music, but perhaps with time they will develop their own stamp to put on the music and not have to lean so heavily from their influences.

Amalgamated Sons of Rest - Amalgamated Sons of Rest (Galaxia, 2002)

Amalgamated Sons of Rest
Amalgamated Sons of Rest

6 scraggly beards out of 10

I like Will Oldham – but with pretty much anything he puts out, you know what you’re getting into. This time around he’s part of an indie super group called Amalgamated Sons of Rest, a trio which also features Jason Molina (Songs:Ohia) and Alasdair Roberts (Appendix Out). This is a decent one-off EP, and while each member contributes two songs each, the overall feeling that emanates from this is pure Will Oldham. Sure, the other two guys work generally doesn’t steer too far from his work anyways, so it’s not like there’s a lot of competition here to sound all that different. Certainly worth looking into if you’re already a fan of any of the featured artists, as it’s a fine listen that will only add to their already well stocked stable.

Giddy Motors - Make It Pop? (FatCat, 2002)

Giddy Motors
Make It Pop?

7.5 headless horsebirds out of 10

Dammit, I’ve been waiting for a new band to come along whose influences are firmly entrenched in the early and mid-nineties. Enough of this electro-clash and 80’s revival bullshit, and more rock! Giddy Motors, a threesome from London, have listened to some Jesus Lizard, they’ve listened to the collective works of Steve Albini (Big Black/Shellac), they’ve listened to some Tar, and just like the rest of the bands mentioned, they’ve definitely listened to some Black Sabbath. From all of this hodge-podge comes something new and exciting instead of regurgitation. Sometimes they come at you with straight-forward rock numbers, and other times will have them infusing Minutemen-style funk or the occasional onslaught of horns into their music. If you’re looking for some quality rock music and not just the next flavor of the month, Giddy Motors may just be the band for you. Highly recommended.

Sunday’s Best - The Californian (Polyvinyl, 2002)

Sunday’s Best
The Californian


Rating: 7 Kevin Costners out of 10
Be it their affiliation with Polyvinyl Records or most of the bands that they play shows with, but Sunday’s Best seem to always unfairly get lumped in the "emo" category when what they really are is just good melodic pop music. Reminding me of later-era Knapsack, The Jealous Sound (Blair from Knapsack’s new band, which features the bassist of Sunday’s Best as well), and The Weakerthans, Sunday’s Best bring a beautiful blend of California sunshine pop with a slightly downer outlook. Singer Ed Reyes has a very unassuming and warm voice, and it doesn’t take many listens for the choruses to get stuck in your head. This album would be equally good as a companion on a summer road trip, or a nice selection to listen to in your headphones as you trudge to work or school on an overcast day. A great sophomore effort, and if they continue in this fashion they could be bound for great things.

Clinic - Walking with Thee (Domino, 2002)

Walking with Thee

7.5 third world patients out of 10

Liverpool’s Clinic have returned with a follow up to their well received and critically praised debut album ‘Internal Wrangler’. This release mostly continues down the same path as that album, not straying too far from their odd mixture of garage, early eighties post punk similar to Gang of Four, and lots of organ. The whole affair has a slightly darker feel to it though; where their first album seemed to envision a light at the end of the tunnel, ‘Walking with Thee’ makes you think that maybe they did a 180 in the tunnel and started heading back towards the dark end. A lot of the time, they come across as a punk version of Stereolab; other times, they could be a really odd out-take from one of those Nuggets box sets. Given all of their influences, they come across as one of the more original groups to surface during the last few years. It still amazes me that they have the amount of widespread acceptance that they do, given the off-kilter brand of music they play. Probably doesn’t hurt to have the backing of Radiohead, who picked them to open on one of their tours.

Crooked Fingers - Reservoir Songs EP (Merge, 2002)

Crooked Fingers
Reservoir Songs EP

7.5 above ground pools out of 10

I’ve always been indecisive about cover songs. Be it in recorded output or a live setting, it can either come across as a brilliant addition to the main songwriter’s stable of tunes, or as a cop out, hoping to achieve listeners by suckering them in with an already familiar sound. I believe the deciding factor between these two scenarios is what the new performer does with these classic songs, whether or not he can breathe new life into the classic composition. This EP, Reservoir Songs, is made up of five cover songs, and no originals. For those keeping score, this is the first time Crooked Fingers has even done one cover song, much less an entire EP of them. The songs cover a wide spectrum, from Neil Diamond to Kris Kristofferson to Bruce Springsteen. These are interesting choices, considering how much Eric Bachman’s voice sounds like these performers. He breathes new life with his unique finger picking style of playing his guitar, and the addition of banjos, slide guitar, and cellos at various times during the performances. The real jewels in this release, and textbook examples of what’s good about cover songs, are in the versions of Prince’s ‘When U Were Mine’ and Queen/David Bowie’s ‘Under Pressure.’ Hearing the Crooked Finger’s style translated onto these classics is like hearing them for the first time. If only all cover songs could be as brilliant as this album.

The Planet The / Point Line Plane - Split EP (Mountastic, 2002)

 (Cannot find a pic of the album cover, so you get a kitten.)

The Planet The / Point Line Plane
Split EP


Rating: 7.5 pilates bunglers out of 10
The Planet The and Point Line Plane are two great and relatively new bands out of Portland who fuse a million styles of music together into a beautiful, noisy mess.  The Planet The seem to come across as two different bands within the span of their four songs on this short player - the first half reminds me a lot of Devo or the Ex-Models, sort of new wave and art-damaged sounding stuff.  Then the second half of their songs come across as being somewhat influenced by krautrock, heavy on the keyboards and vocal effects.  Point Line Plane are a little more straight forward, combining the musical elements of bands such as Trans Am or Man...or Astroman?, and adding onto that vocals that would be at home on some hardcore records.  No guitar in this band, just keyboards and drums, but they manage to make it rock out more than most bands with multiple guitarists.  This record is cheap, short, and infectious, making you want to play it over and over.  And don’t forget to check either of them out live if they come to your town, they both put on a damn fine show.

Charlene - Charlene (Shark Attack! Music, 2002)

Shark Attack! Music

6.5 heads of feathered hair out of 10

come from Boston. When I think of Boston, I think of two of my all-time favorite bands - The Pixies and Dinosaur Jr. Charlene sounds nothing like either of these bands. The easiest way to describe them would be shoegaze, but to me they sound more like a mellow pop band with tendencies towards feedback and long instrumental parts in their songs. Their more upbeat tracks come off sounding somewhat like Jesus and Mary Chain, the mellow ones like Spiritualized, and something about the overall tempo, sound, and structure of a lot of their stuff makes me think of Starflyer 59. Then again, I just really like thinking about Starflyer 59, so maybe that’s just me. There is nothing new or groundbreaking coming from these guys, but they still make enjoyable music that sounds like something you’ve listened to numerous times the first time you hear it.

Ben Kweller - Sha Sha (ATO, 2002)

Ben Kweller
Sha Sha

7 wool hats out of 10

From what I’ve been reading, big things were once expected from this 20-year old kid called Ben Kweller. Once upon a blue moon, some four years ago when he was but a mere 16, Ben fronted a band called Radish that was hailed as the next coming of Silverchair (yes, that Australian grunge band that wasn’t very good). For some reason, things didn’t work out, grunge ceased to be a popular form of music and was replace by rap-metal on the airwaves, and everything changed for little Ben. Well, the proverbial phoenix has risen from the ashes, and this times he brings tidings of pop music instead of grunge. He wears his influences on his sleeves. Shades of the Beatles, Weezer, Ben Folds, and others shine through in his music. That is to say, it may not be the most original music put out, but it’s damn enjoyable. These are well-crafted pop songs that will have you singing along to them in no time. Particular highlights include ‘walk on me’ and ‘wasted & ready’, but there isn’t really a bad song in the bunch. This is good pop music for good times, and if Ben keeps this up, big things will probably be expected of him again in the future.

Buck - Rock Dream (Startracks, 2002)

Rock Dream

Rating: 6.5 rutting deer out of 10

It’s not all Hives-style garage rock coming out of Sweden – just look at the Startracks and Kasual Records roster if you don’t believe me. This EP is the newest outing from my favorite of the bunch, Buck. Their previous record ‘Hello Holland’ sounded like a band who had spent a whole lot of time listening to the Archers of Loaf, and trying to replicate the sounds that they heard. This new EP, while still holding some of those elements, sees Buck maturing and developing their own sound, a hybrid of their older Archers-type songs mixed with the keyboard-and-atmospherics heavy Appleseed Cast (whose new record ‘Two Conversations’ is also really amazing). If this EP is an indication of what their next full length will sound like, then look out – there might just be a new, fresh face representing the sounds of Sweden.

Broken Social Scene - You Forgot It in People (Arts & Crafts, 2002)

Broken Social Scene
You Forgot It in People
Arts & Crafts

7.5 misplaced folks out of 10

Broken Social scene
is yet another band and release to receive loads of critical praise and a wave of hype so big that it could capsize an aircraft carrier. Only this time, the critics and taste makers got it right: these guys are the real deal. This open collective of musicians out of Toronto, Canada - led by Brendan Canning and Kevin Drew - have assembled an album that manages to sound familiar and new all at the same time. They combine straightforward-thinking indie pop like The Sea and Cake and Dinosaur Jr, and throw in everything but the kitchen sink: horns, vocal effects, and layers upon layers of distortion and noise and electronic beats topped off by organic beats, and that still doesn’t quite cover it. I heard so many friends raving about this that I did something I never do – I bought it cold, without ever having heard a single song off of it. And you know what? It was one of the best decisions I’ve made in a long, long time. This will no doubt make the top 10 lists of numerous critics and ‘in the know’ magazines, but let it be said that it will be right up there on the lists of regular joes like myself as well.

Hot Hot Heat - Make Up the Breakdown (Sub Pop, 2002)

Hot Hot Heat
Make Up the Breakdown
Sub Pop


Rating: 5.5 maple beavers out of 10

If I had written this review when I intended to, it would have probably gotten a higher rating from me. At first listen, I thought "Make Up the Breakdown" was great. A few more listens in, a couple of songs started bothering me. As of now, about half of the album could be tossed and we’d end up with a pretty damn good EP.

From what I understand, Hot Hot Heat come from some remote part of British Columbia, which means they overcame two obstacles that overwhelm many out there - first, they managed to escape the confines of isolated small town living, which has a way of stifling creativity in favor of fitting in with everyone else; and second, they’re Canadian. Enough said about that one.

Many of their songs come off sounding like more organic versions of Faint songs with a little pop-punk bounce infused into it. It’s not so much that they sound like the Faint per se, but more like they might be carrying the burden of similar influences, only Hot Hot Heat also listened to a bunch of Green Day or something along those lines. One of their assets (or detractions, depending on how you look at it) is that within the given framework, they manage to change their sound from song to song - Dismemberment Plan on "This Town", the aforementioned Faint on "No, Not Now" and "Talk To Me, Dance With Me", any of a million ska bands on "Get In Or Get Out" and even Dexy’s Midnight Runners of all people on "Aveda". Another gripe could be leveled at the production - it seems a little too heavy handed for a band of this nature - possibly part of the problem with some of the songs irritating me is that they sound too slick.

To the benefit of the band, I’ve heard nothing but positive things about their live show - apparently there is much dancing and thrashing around, and the crowd really gets into it. And it could possibly be that I might enjoy all of their songs in a live setting. But as for my home listening needs, I think it’s time to fire up the CD burner and create myself an EP.

Camera Obscura - Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi (Merge, 2002)

Camera Obscura
Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi

8 DaVinci inventions out of 10

After the success of the first proper US release by Camera Obscura, “Underachievers Please Try Harder”, Merge Records decided to re-release the first album here in the states; and thankfully so, as this release was otherwise somewhat tough to come by. The comparisons to Belle & Sebastian come hard and fast when reading about this band, and it’s not without reason – they’re from the same town, Stuart Murdoch produced some of the tracks on this album, and he even played guitar on one of the songs – and most importantly, they sound a whole damn lot alike. Somehow it never comes across as a rip-off though, and more as an “influenced by”. And to be quite honest, lately I’ve preferred Camera Obscura to their mentors anyway. Fans of wistful twee-pop are in for a real treat if they didn’t hear this album the first time around…highly recommended.

Devendra Banhart - Oh Me Oh My... (Young God, 2002)

Devendra Banhart
Oh Me Oh My...
Young God

5 hairy bastards out of 10

I’ve been simmering on this review for some time, trying to wrap my head around what it is exactly
I want to say about Devendra Banhart, and his new album, ‘Oh Me Oh My...’. This much I know - it’s
one of the most original things I’ve heard in a long time. I don’t know if it’s just that I’m not listening to the right stuff, but I can’t think of anyone who really sounds like this guy. I can hear hints of Jeff Buckley in there, as well as few others here and there, but for the most part this sounds like nothing else I have ever heard. You know the only thing that comes to mind when I hear this record - Edward Gorey. One of my favorite illustrators/artists ever, whose work excites me and creeps me out at the same time. On top of that, I could really see Banhart’s work as the musical accompaniment to a viewing of Gorey’s cartoons - I think the two would go fine together.

Part of me wants to give this a higher rating, and still another part wants a lower one. On the one hand, I can appreciate the talent and originality that’s gone into this release. I would not be surprised in the least if 20 years from now he’s one of those guys that all of the up and comers name drop as one of their main influences. On the other hand, I would say that more often than not I don’t really want to listen to this record. There are certainly a number of songs that I like, but there are plenty that I usually end up skipping also. Part of me wants to admit that I’m just not intelligent enough to "get" this music, but I also think that it’s just the sort of music that may not be for everyone, but those that do like it will find it to be some of the best music they’ve heard in quite some time.

Hudson Bell - Captain of the Old Girls (Upperworks, 2002)

Hudson Bell
Captain of the Old Girls


Rating: 6.5 liberty bells out of 10

Hudson Bell falls into the singer-songwriter category, but is not defined by it. To generalize, he is a combination of folky country, pop, and indie rock. His voice and sound are very reminiscent of Jay Farrar (of Son Volt and Uncle Tupelo fame), but less twangy and a bit more upbeat. The lyrics are not too terribly different from the typical singer-songwriter fare - tales of lover’s past, present, and future, or stories like someone might tell over a campfire on a warm and humid summer night. Not a bad song in the lot, but particular favorites of mine include the rocking "Halcyon Days", the mellow and feedback-laden "Expatriate", and "Vials in the Stump", which is somewhat reminiscent of Isaac Brock when he is in his Ugly Cassanova mode.

Sean Na Na - My Majesty (Frenchkiss, 2002)

Sean Na Na
My Majesty


Rating: 6.5 saxophone solos out of 10 

Sean Na Na aka Sean Tillman (formerly of the short lived but somewhat popular Calvin Krime) has traded in his acoustic guitar for an electric one, hired on some lads to fill in on drums, bass, and keyboards, and made himself a pop record.  Every review I’ve seen of this so far has compared it to Cheap Trick, and I don’t think that’s far off, perhaps Cheap Trick with a hint of Beach boys, but still retaining the same witty lyrics that you’ve come to expect from Mr. Tillman.  As someone who has been a fan of this guy for a while, I was pleasantly surprised with the new and improved "rocking" version of the band, even though I really love all of the old acoustic stuff.  Definitely worth checking out for anyone who likes good pop music.  The only negative thing I can say about the album are the photographs of horses on the front and the back of the case, but that’s just because I really don’t like horses.  Other than that, a fine effort.

Jason Loewenstein - At Sixes and Sevens (Sub Pop, 2002)

Jason Loewenstein
At Sixes and Sevens
Sub Pop

5.5 cupcake parties out of 10

Jason Loewenstein
, a.k
.a. "That other dude from Sebadoh", has recorded his first solo album. He had previously released some singles and compilation tracks under the name Sparkalepsy, but this is first go around under his own moniker. And when I say recorded, I don’t just mean he got a bunch of guys to help him out with some songs he had written; no, he played every instrument, sang the songs, produced, engineered, and even did the cover art for the album. So when he decides he’s doing a solo album, he ain’t fucking around. And while this particular tactic is admirable and I can appreciate the talent it takes, it also gives the album a real feeling of sameness, where many of the songs sound similar to each other, the tone and mood of the album never really changes, and the whole thing comes off as very homogenized. Then again, that could have been what he was going for, and it could be what you like. For me, I like it fine in short bursts, but taking on the entire album at once may be a bit much to handle.

The music is essentially what you would expect to hear - it sounds like Sebadoh. In particular, the more rocking Sebadoh bits that Loewenstein had a large hand in crafting. One thing that it is missing is that traditional lo-fi feel that made that music feel so warm and comfy, like hanging out with a good friend. Because of this clean sound, some of the tracks come off sounding like some weird hybrid of the Foo Fighters and the Sebadoh of old. After hearing this record and Lou Barlow’s solo stuff, it’s pretty obvious who was bringing what to the table when it came to writing Sebadoh songs.

It’s hard not to compare this to Sebadoh when listening to it. And while it’s not nearly as good as what I always felt was their hey-day (Bubble & Scrape, Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock, III, and Bakesale), it sounds a lot better than the last couple of albums they put out before they went on hiatus or broke up or whatever state it is that they’re in; and if you’re really hankering for a Sebadoh fix, this may just be the next best thing, and a fairly enjoyable one at that.

Spoon - Kill The Moonlight (Merge, 2002)

Kill The Moonlight


Rating: 8 fake tits out of 10
The great thing about some bands and musicians is how they never seem to allow their sound  to remain in one place for too long.  A number of bands do this, and Spoon is one of them.  Just when you think you have their sound pigeonholed, they change directions and follow along a different path.  When they broke through many years ago with "Telephono," they received a lot of grief and praise (depending on your source) for seemingly ripping off the sound of The Pixies.  The buzz generated from that album led them to getting signed to a major label and releasing "A Series of Sneaks," which built on The Pixies influence and incorporated it with the post punk sounds of the early eighties represented by the likes of Gang of Four and Wire.  This brilliant and under-bought album got them dropped from the major label.  A few years pass, and Spoon ends up on Merge, where they release "Girls Can Tell" in 2001.  Not only was the lyrical content more personal and caustic, documenting their dealings in the industry and life in general, but their sound had been injected with a healthy dose of pop sensibility.  It was hailed by critics as their best work yet.

Their new album, "Kill the Moonlight," is no different.  It too has broken off on a different path.  It still retains Spoon’s unique blend of off kilter pop and post-punk, but the music has a very hollow, stripped down quality to it.  Not that it’s bad, as I find it very enjoyable, just different.  It feels as if entire parts of the instrumentation are missing, and many times the songs are only driven by Britt Daniel’s voice and a single instrument.  Often times that instrument is an organ, a keyboard, or a bit of piano - which has been used in previous Spoon songs, but stands out much more dramatically in the new tracks.  One of my favorite songs on the album "Stay Don’t Go" actually uses a human beatbox as the rhythm section.  Certainly a great album by my estimation, but if you’re looking for a sequel to "Girls can Tell" then this ain’t it.  But who says it needs to be?

The Epoxies - The Epoxies (Dirtnap, 2002)

The Epoxies
The Epoxies

6.5 shades of eyeliner out of 10

“New Wave” bands have been popping up all over the musical landscape over the last couple of years to go along with the ironic 80’s fashion and predisposition to cocaine that all of the hipster kids are into right now. Sadly, most of these bands suck - except the Epoxies. Their keyboard laden, female fronted punk attack manages to sound both familiar and fresh at the same time. more than anything, these are just some damn catchy songs, and no manner of gimmicks can either make up for or cover up that fact; after only a couple of listens, you’ll most likely be singing along. This album is short, sweet, and to the point – short bursts of quirky songs that never get a chance to become redundant. Also, word on the street is that they put on a damn good live show – I know I’ll be there next time they come to town.

Thursday, January 31, 2002

Gary Wilson - You Think You Really Know Me (Motel, 2002 - Reissue)

Gary Wilson
You Think You Really Know Me

2002 (Reissue) / 1977 (Original)
Rating: 7 inches taller out of 10
Gary Wilson is probably the weirdest and most influential person to come out of the seventies that you’ve never heard of.  This album, recorded in his parent’s basement and originally self-released by Gary in 1977, was probably the first new-wave album before such a genre even existed.  From what I’ve read, it is considered by some to be an inadvertent catalyst in the formation of K and Sub Pop records, as well as a major influence on Beck and other performers both past and present.  Gary Wilson’s sound was so ahead of the time that it is nearly impossible to describe it in the typical ‘sounds like such and such’ without using bands that have come after him.  Imagine a combination of cheesy synths, odd sound effects and samples, strange vocals singing even stranger lyrics, all done in a low-fi fashion that would make Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices proud.  Some of the song titles include ‘6.4 = Make Out,’ ‘Groovy Girls Make Love at the Beach,’ and ‘Chromium Bitch,’ which gives you a glimpse into the warped mind at work here.  This was the only album Wilson released, and has been one of those legendary finds among collectors over the years.  Now with this reissue, even regular folks can see what all of the hubbub about the guy is about.  Make sure to grab a copy before it goes out of print again.

Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch, 2002)

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot


Rating: 9 bags of weed out of 10

There’s not a lot to be said about this Wilco release that hasn’t already been said before, but I just wanted to throw my hat in the ring in favor of how amazing this album is.  Much of the story of this record is all of the obstacles leading up to it’s release.  The gist of it is that the people at Reprise, which is owned by AOL-Time Warner, thought the album was so awful that they refused to release it, gave it back to the band for next to nothing, and dropped them from the label entirely.  The band then released the album on their website so that the fans could hear it, and then went on tour.  During this time, they shop the album out to different labels, and about a year later, the rights to release the album were picked up by Nonesuch.  Which, incidentally, is also owned by AOL-Time Warner; thus they paid for the album twice because the crackpots there running things don’t know what’s going on.  So what’s the moral of the story?  AOL-Time Warner are idiots?  Well, everyone already knew that.  It’s just nice to have some proof.

 But all of this is neither here nor there when it comes down to the music – and the music is a country-tinged pop masterpiece.  Notably, it was produced by Jim O’Rourke, who is well known for his experimental nature through his various solo albums as well as his work in Gastr del Sol.  His handiwork is all over the album – little bleeps and bloops here, some knob-twiddling and static there, done so in a way as to accentuate and not detract from the songs themselves.  And the songs are beautiful, moving, genius, masterpieces...take your pick, any of these modifiers will do.  For those of you familiar with the sound of Wilco, the songs will sound familiar, but the sound will envelop you from all sides.  Their experimental side has been likened to the more recent Radiohead works, while remaining genuinely Wilco at heart.  But like I said, you need not listen to me – the general consensus across the boards seem to agree, and I think you would be missing out if you let this one slip by without picking it up.