Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Mono - One Step More and You Die (Arena Rock Recording Co, 2003)

One Step More and You Die
Arena Rock Recording Co


Rating: 9 plural deaths out of 10

I have a new religion, and it is Mono.  After witnessing a recent live performance by them, probably the best show I’ve seen all year (and I see a ton of shows), I immediately rushed to their merch table and bought this amazing release.  This foursome from Japan may speak very limited English, but they fluently speak the international language of kicking ass.  I’ve heard a lot of people say that Mono "out-Mogwai Mogwai!", which I think means Mono is stepping in to bring those loud parts back that Mogwai were once known for.  The great thing is that they manage the best of both worlds, loud rocking and beautiful, orchestrated parts both having airtime on this release, not to mention the My Bloody Valentine-type of swirly guitars that permeate throughout the entire record.  Live they’re a must see – drop any and all other plans you might have and run, don’t walk to the venue and prepare to have your eardrums damaged; and while the record will never be able to fully recreate that effect, it does a damn good job of getting as close as you can in the studio environment.

The Modern Lovers - The Modern Lovers (Remastered, with Bonus Tracks) (Castle, 2003)

The Modern Lovers
The Modern Lovers (Remastered, with Bonus Tracks)


Rating: 10 straight planes out of 10
Plain and simple, this first record by The Modern Lovers is one of those greatest rock albums of all time.  This re-release has been remastered and plied with many bonus tracks, but the results are the same no matter which release you hear first – this was one of the most important pre-punk release to come out in the early 1970s, and it sounds just as good today as it did the day it came out.  Along with the New York Dolls, The Stooges and MC5, The Modern Lovers represent one of the most important bands to create the environment in which punk would later develop.  Sounding uncannily like The Velvet Underground with a little extra attitude, The Modern Lover’s first release (which in actuality was a compilation of demos recorded by John Cale in 1973) never saw the light of day until 1976.  By the time it came out they were known as Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, and then it was just Jonathan Richman.  Members of this band went on to have influential roles in other great acts such as The Talking Heads, The Cars, and Television, all groups that should be equally revered throughout the music world.  Words can’t do justice to just how great and influential this record is, just go buy it and listen for yourself – I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

Shipping News - Three-Four (Quarterstick, 2003)

Shipping News


Rating: 7 unsavory relationships out of 10

There are two things that kept this Shipping News album from getting a super high score from me - the fact that most of the material had been previously released in a series of three EPs over the last year, and because it is a collection of songs from other releases, it sounds a little disjointed and not really a complete package, even if the individual parts are fantastic.

I’m glad they released this album though, collecting the three EPs together and adding some extra tracks.  Those three EPs were a hand crafted limited edition (1000 each, I believe), and are currently now out of print.  If you do happen to find one or more of them new or used, it might cost you a decent chunk of change.  So the boys in Shipping News did their fans a favor by releasing this compilation - some of us ain’t got that kind of money to be throwing around.

For those not in the know, Shipping News is comprised of three members - Jeff Mueller, Kyle Crabtree, and Jason Noble - luminaries in the indie rock underground, and known for their work in such bands as June of 44, Rodan, Rachels, and more.  The sound of Shipping News doesn’t stray too far from their resume, but if it ain’t broke, why fix it?  Since this is one of my favorite bands, I say you should go out and buy all of their albums.  But if you’re broke like me and looking for a place to start, this wouldn’t be a bad place for it.

Spokane - Measurement (Jagjaguwar, 2003)



Rating: 6 giant hounds out of 10
This is what my friend Greg would all "sleepy time" music. Spokane make Low look like an upbeat group. This is the fourth release from this mellow lot, and the group has now grown into a three piece with the addition of bassist Robert Donne (known from Labradford and Breadwinner). Since I haven’t heard their previous albums, it’s hard to say how this has changed from those other discs, but from what I’ve read they seem to be pretty much staying the course. Alternating male and female vocals are the name of the game, combined with extremely atmospheric music along the lines of less frantic Dirty 3, the aforementioned Low, and maybe even a little newer Mogwai thrown in for good measure. Although I don’t think I would want to attend their show without a cot to lie down on, the album is a nice listen and worth checking out.

Frankie Sparo - Welcome Crummy Mystics (Constellation, 2003)

Frankie Sparo
Welcome Crummy Mystics


Rating: 6.5 lead weights out of 10
I have to admit, I wasn’t terribly excited when I got this CD to review. I had heard the previous full length "My Red Scare" by Frankie Sparo and it hadn’t done much for me at all. I don’t know if Frankie is now writing songs that are more along my lines of enjoyment, or if my tastes have changed, but either way I enjoyed this record much more.

Frankie is from Montreal, so I guess that makes him French-Canadian (insert jokes here). The foundation most of his songs are built on are simple singer/songwriter fare – but it’s the flourishes he adds to it that makes it unique. Shades of Tom Waits in his voice (only nowhere near as gruff as Waits) with highlights reminiscent of a lounge singer; the music is somewhat similar to what you expect out of Constellation, walking a fine line between the mellower moments of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, The Dirty Three, and Barry Black (solo project of Archers of Loaf/Crooked Fingers front man Eric Bachmann).

Some of the songs just sit there as background music, some perk your ear from time to time, but one is really terrific. It’s called "Akzidenz Grotesk," and it’s Frankie’s closest foray toward a more classic "pop" song. The rest of his tracks are enjoyable enough in a meandering sort of way, but this one really seems like it’s going somewhere. Actually, it did go somewhere, straight into my brain to get stuck for days on end. 

Mystery Girls - Circles in the Sand 7" (In The Red, 2003)

Mystery Girls
Circles in the Sand 7"
In The Red


Rating: 5.5 glasses of Chablis out of 10
Oh boy, I can’t stand the excitement, it’s more garage rock. Nothing special here, decent enough rock tunes that are an obvious throwback to that now popular era of music. I will certainly give the Mystery Girls credit, for their age they certainly show promise (I understand that everyone in the band either just graduated high school or are still in it). By the time they hit drinking age, they might just kick everyone in the nuts with some kick ass rock and roll tunes.

The Unicorns - Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? (Alien8, 2003)

The Unicorns
Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone?


Rating: 7 bloody knives out of 10

Playing the brand of quirky pop music that the Unicorns play can be tricky business – one small misstep and you go from playing inventive, original pop compositions to trite and silly pap.  Luckily, this Canadian crew manages to keep it on the straight and narrow by being extremely odd and catchy.  They even have a theme song for chrissakes – “I Was Born (a Unicorn)”.  They manage to encompass a number of different styles throughout their album, but no matter how many keyboards and tin whistles and skronky bits they pile on top, there are always great pop songs lying underneath.  If that Elephant 6 crew were still around, the Unicorns would fit right in – fans of Neutral Milk Hotel and Of Montreal would be remiss in not checking this band out.

Seekonk - For Barbara Lee (Kimchee, 2003)

For Barbara Lee


Rating: 6 tweety birds out of 10
Seems like my review box has been overflowing with these similar types of mellow groups. Fact is, they’ve all been pretty good for the most part, and Seekonk is no exception. With this crew we find a wide array of instruments (horns and xylophones and even an amplified birdcage for chrissakes!), but never used in an overbearing way – very much a ‘less is more’ philosophy at work here. Alternating male and female vocals, both quite breathy in nature, which sometimes harmonize together in a fashion not that dissimilar to Ida. With only 8 songs and well over 40 minutes of music, you know you’re in store for some long songs, and that might be my only complaint here – that ‘less is more’ aesthetic that they apply to their music might also be suited for some of their songs, as they can from time to time go on a bit too long. Other than that, not a bad album as Kimchee Records continues to put out quality music with each passing release.

The Murder City Devils - R.I.P. (Sub Pop, 2003)

The Murder City Devils
Sub Pop


Rating: 5.5 midnight gang riots out of 10
The Murder City Devils have always been one of those ‘their first record was the best one’ types of bands for me, and this new record isn’t doing anything to change my mind either. In fact, it’s not even a new album per se, but rather a live recording of their final performance before the decided to call it quits. There is a new song or two on here, but it is mostly made up of tracks from their previous releases. There are even a fair number of songs from their self-titled first release on the Die Young Stay Pretty label, but they just don’t pack the punch that they do when you hear them in their original incarnation. Somewhere along the line the band changed their sound from what they represented on their first release, from the fiery Stooges-influenced punk to a sound that I might best describe as ‘organ-heavy goth punk’ (although putting emphasis on it being organ heavy and goth might be a little redundant). Their ‘new’ sound is still ok and listenable, but not nearly as appealing to me as that first release. As far as live albums go, you can’t argue with the sound quality on this one; erstwhile Northwest producer Phil Ek manned the boards when laying this to tape, and he keeps things clean and crisp as you might expect. I can’t imagine this record is going to win over any new fans for this now-defunct band, but it won’t chase away any either; but for the folks that were already on board with The Murder City Devil’s sound, this will probably fit just fine into your collection.

Mull Historical Society - Us (XL, 2003)

Mull Historical Society


Rating: 7 supermarket asylums out of 10

A beautiful pop record is a truly wonderful thing. The sophomore release by the one man band Mull Historical Society (Colin MacIntyre) is exactly that, taking the rich and textured sounds that he displayed in his debut ‘Loss’ and fine tuning them into a record that’s even better. Imagine the morose pop songs that come from living in an isolated area like you might hear from Grandaddy, mixed with some of the unique British-isms similar to Badly Drawn Boy and you might have a starting point as to the sound of Mull Historical Society, only it doesn’t really sound like either of those comparisons all that much. There is also a certain nostalgic feel to his music, reminding me of some of my favorite bands from the 70’s like Electric Light Orchestra and Supertramp (two fantastic bands that everyone should go back and listen to again, and you can often find their records at thrift stores for cheap; check out ELO’s greatest hits record and Supertramp’s ‘Breakfast in America’ if you’re so inclined). If you’re ever looking to put some beautiful pop music in you life, look no further than this record.

Bad Brains - Banned in DC: Bad Brains' Greatest Riffs (Caroline, 2003)

Bad Brains
Banned in DC: Bad Brains' Greatest Riffs

7 natty dreads out of 10

A decent anthology of the career of Bad Brains, ‘Banned in DC’ manages to fit songs from their entire career (mostly amazing, but some less than stellar tracks near the end coming from their later releases) into one easy package for us consumers. One listen to this album, particularly the first few songs, should firmly set in your mind why Bad Brains are considered one of the greatest bands of the last 25 years. Their blend of reggae and hardcore was truly unique, instantly catchy, and terribly addictive. There are not only some unreleased tracks on this, but it marks the first time that some of this material has ever been put on CD. If they had only included ‘Don’t Blow Bubbles’, the song Ryan Fabry skates to in the first Plan B video, I could have proclaimed this to be nearly perfect. But as it is, having all of these songs in one place and with this quality of sound is easily worth the price of purchase.

No Doctors - Hunting Season (Cock of the Rock, 2003)

No Doctors
Hunting Season
Cock of the Rock


Rating: 5.5 orange vests out of 10
This No Doctors record is one big noisy mess, which can be great or awful depending on your state of mind when you listen to it. It’s certainly not going to do when you’re craving some Dusty Springfield, but it could stand in place of The Stooges if you seek something to work out some anger management issues. I can’t say that it stands out that much from a lot of the other noisy art-rock that’s being made these days, but it ain’t bad. Their website has some MP3s to check out, so why not go there and see for yourself?

Cass McCombs - A (Monitor, 2003)

Cass McCombs

7 alphabetaerobics out of 10

Well, color me stupid. When I got this Cass McCombs CD in the mail to review I was certain that it was a female. Whenever I hear the name Cass, I guess I always think of Mama Cass, or that lady that used to cut my hair growing up. Imagine my surprise when I press play only to hear a man’s voice come out of the speakers; and a really nice voice at that. There’s a quality to his voice that I can’t quite describe, but I really like it. He reminds me of a less dramatic Rufus Wainright, but I have this unsinkable feeling that he really reminds me a lot of someone else, I just can’t place it right now and it’s driving me crazy.

If you had told me that Cass McCombs is some long lost sixties troubadour, I would probably believe it. This record sounds like a relic from the same era as The Kinks or The Zombies or The Small Faces; and more importantly, it doesn’t sound contrived in coming across this way. I’ve heard a lot of stuff the last few years that is trying to sound like it was recorded ages ago, and it ends up sounding like the aural equivalent to fake wood paneling – it might look the part if you get it in the right light, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out it’s fake. If I had to compare the sound to anything contemporary, the best I could muster is a local San Francisco band called The Papercuts (who everyone should check out if they get a chance, they’re great) or possibly Kingsbury Manx; and although he doesn’t really sound like them, fans of The Shins would probably really like this record.

The Thermals - More Parts Per Million (Sub Pop, 2003)

The Thermals
More Parts Per Million
Sub Pop

Rating: 7.5 evidence tamperers out of 10
It would be real easy to lump the Thermals in with all the other flavor-of-the-month bands whose names begin with ‘The’.  Before I had even heard them I had already made assumptions about their sound based on their name and CD cover.  I’m glad I listened to it anyways, because it’s damn good.  It has elements that would make it fit in well with all of the other ‘The’ bands - lo-fi production and sound, punk sensibilities, relatively simple power chord structured songs, etc.  But what sets these guys apart from the rest are the songs - so very catchy; and the singer - who does the best Robert Pollard impersonation I’ve heard in some time.  These guys combine a little punk, a little jangle pop, and a whole ton of Guided By Voices into this album(minus the obtuse lyrics that Mr. Pollard usually comes up with, those may never be matched or topped).  At such a young age, The Thermals seemed to have already grasped the concept of what makes a good pop song - short, sweet, to the point.  Thirteen songs clocking in at under 30 minutes, every minute packed full of goodness, not a down moment the whole time. 

The Robot Ate Me - They Ate Themselves (Swim Slowly / Standard Recording, 2003)

The Robot Ate Me
They Ate Themselves
Swim Slowly / Standard Recording


Rating: 8.5 chalky sugar bones out of 10 
It is releases like this one that really makes me glad that I get to write reviews. I get a fair amount of material I already know and like, but there’s something imminently more exciting when you get a release by a band you’ve never heard of and it actually turns out to be pretty good. Or in the case of The Robot Ate Me (TRAM), it turns out to not just be good but amazing.

TRAT are a group of youngsters from San Diego that play some delightfully beautiful music. Try to imagine the amazing Microphones album "The Glow pt. 2" as run through a Wayne Coyne/Flaming Lips filter, with occasional tinges that will have you thinking of Neutral Milk Hotel and Of Montreal. These four lads play a wide assortment of instruments in their songs – horns, moog, violin, power tools, accordion, toy instruments, along with the normal drums/bass/guitar/keys/vocals; but instead of falling into the trap that so many young bands fall into of trying to jam everything in there at once, they practice restraint, possibly realizing why a saying like "less is more" is so popular. Some songs can be both upbeat and depressing at the same time; other tracks are almost ambient in nature, but you never forget that they are there.

For a debut album, this release is nearly perfect. Most veteran bands can’t even come close to this kind of originality and inventiveness, so it’s especially impressive that it came out of a bunch of Southern Californians in their early twenties. There’s no doubt the talent is here – it’s just a matter of whether or not people actually get a chance to hear it.

Nicolai Dunger - Tranquil Isolation (Overcoat Recordings, 2003)

Nicolai Dunger
Tranquil Isolation
Overcoat Recordings

7 Swedish winters out of 10

The press release for Nicolai Dunger states that "in his early twenties he made the choice between a future as a soccer pro or as a full time musician". Not that this has anything to do with his music or even serves as a witty beginning to the review, I just thought it might be an interesting tidbit of information the reader might like to know. I guess this Swedish folkie picked a good a time as any to try and break into the musical market – given the current "return to rock" and immense popularity of a number of Swedish bands, everything’s coming up roses in the great northern part of Europe. But this ain't garage rock - Dunger’s musical inspiration comes not from the Detroit scene but rather somewhere a bit south of there – Kentucky and the folk music of the Appalachian Mountains to be exact.

Somewhere along the line Dunger made friends with Will Oldham and his posse, and when it came time to record this album he took up residence with this gang of ne’er-do-wells, who occasionally help him out in the production. And the album sounds like it too – it creaks and moans in that timeless fashion like you might expect to hear under one of Oldham’s million monikers (Palace, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, etc). What sets Dunger apart from this crowd is his voice – lots of comparisons to Van Morrison abound when you read reviews, and rightly so; but if you’re looking for something more contemporary to compare him to, he sounds a whole hell of a lot like a less theatrical Rufus Wainright.

This album might be a little long winded in places, but it’s still a good listen. Anyone yearning for that feel of listening to someone who sounds like they’re just sitting on their porch playing to the crickets would do themselves justice to pick this up. And I can’t think of a better way to listen to it – put it on the stereo, aim those speakers out the window, grab a cold beverage, and go relax on the porch and watch the sun set. This is the music for those times.

Various Artists - Blue (Dreams by Degrees, 2003)

Various Artists
Dreams by Degrees


Rating: 6.5 lit cigarettes out of 10
Compilations, by definition, are very fleeting things (at least they always have been to me).  The chances of me listening to one more than a couple of times in a row are slim, and it almost always has to do with the amount of stuff on the disc that you *don’t” like, not the stuff you do.  I could probably count on one hand the number of compilations that I’ve listened to a bunch of times on one hand.

Dreams by Degrees is this very small label out of San Francisco run by a few folks, most notably Jefre Cantu-Ledesma of Tarentel fame, and they’ve recently taken on the task of putting out these themed mixes.  It’s obvious right from the start that they take it very seriously, from the sequencing to the packaging and everything else involved.  It’s one of the main things that sets this apart from the rest of the unwashed masses.  Another positive aspect is the use of, for lack of a better word, soundscapes as performed by Colophon as buffers between many of the songs.  It almost works as a palate cleanser, not unlike when that fancy restaurant your parents dragged you to served you sorbet and you were just stoked to get something you recognized.

But this is all moot if the music on the compilation sucks.  I can say with great conviction that I like more of this music than I don’t like.  It’s nearly worth owning just to have the Vetiver and Film School songs alone, and Lazarus and the Stratford 4 also contribute excellent tracks.  There are a couple I had a tendency to skip after the first few listens, but that’s to be expected as far as I’m concerned.  With the effort and quality of this mix, I’ll certainly be curious to see what comes about on their next go around.

The Twilight Singers - Play Blackberry Belle (One Little Indian, 2003)

The Twilight Singers
Play Blackberry Belle
One Little Indian


Rating: 8 biased devils out of 10

There is a reason this made so many top 10 lists at the end of 2003 – it is one of the best things I have heard in quite some time.  For those unfamiliar, The Twilight Singers is the new project of former Afghan Whig’s singer Greg Dulli, founded after the demise of his former band.  Their first release “Twilight as Played By the Twilight Singers” was a hit-and-miss affair, with some truly great songs and a few maudlin ones.  But Dulli seems to have found his second wind, as “Play Blackberry Belle” is not only great but on par with some of his best work with the Whigs.  This album features a smorgasbord of guest musicians, from Mark Lanegan (of the Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age) to Appolonia (remember an album called Purple Rain?  Prince?  She had some connections with all of that).  The final track of the album, “Number Nine”, is one of the most spine-tingling songs I’ve heard in ages and features the low grumble of Lanegan in duet with Dulli’s soulful sound.  Greg Dulli continues to craft his own niche in the rock world, adhering to no particular style of music and dominating them all as far as I’m concerned.

Lyrics Born - Later That Day (Quannum Projects, 2003)

Lyrics Born
Later That Day…
Quannum Projects

Rating: 7 Mission burritos out of 10

You may not think you know Lyrics Born, but you most likely do. As one of the founding members of Quannum (the collective most famous for producing DJ Shadow and Blackalicious), the artist formerly known as Asia Born has been in and around Bay Area-hip hop for a decade if not longer. As one half of Latyrx (part of the Solesides Collective) and numerous guest spots, his raspy, nearly dancehall-like cadence is easy to identify. “Later That Day…” is his first proper solo release, and it is about as un-hip hop as you can get without being in another genre altogether. There is a lot of R&B/soul influence throughout the record and a number of the tracks sound more like the man is dictating his personal diary on tape rather than actually rapping on a song, but these facts all add to what ends up being a very enjoyable record. Instead of making the same ol’ rap record everyone else makes, Lyrics Born changes things up just enough to make the record sound different, but without detracting from the overall quality of the release by making it “too” different and distracting. A crowd of friends and fellow Solesides Collective cohorts show up for guest spots – Gift of Gab, Cut Chemist, Joyo Velarde, and Lateef the Truth Speaker – all further adding flavor to an already good album. This release is a no-brainer if you’re already a fan of the Quannum camp, and certainly worth a look to anyone who is a fan off non-mainstream hip hop.

Low Rollers / The Diskords - Split 7" (Jonny Cat, 2003 )

Low Rollers / The Diskords
Split 7"
Jonny Cat

5.5 acne breakouts out of 10

Ye gods, from the looks of the liner notes on this four song split, these kids are barely out of junior high. Pretty impressive when you judge it based on that fact, but not terribly impressive otherwise. The Diskords are slightly stronger here, most notably for their cover of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues”. Low Rollers tackle a cover of their own, Elvis’s “Trouble”. Both bands also contribute an original to the mess as well. This is low budget, simple fuzzy-guitar garage rawk like high school kids were playing all across the land in the sixties. Now it almost seems like a novelty for kids this age not to be playing some sort of rap-rock hybrid, so kudos to them for escaping that stupidity at least. At the going rate I’m sure we’ll here something great out of these kids in no time, maybe by the time they hit puberty or get old enough to drive.

U.S. Christmas - Prayer Meeting (No Mass, 2003)

U.S. Christmas
Prayer Meeting
No Mass


Rating: 7 gorgeous cheekbones out of 10
This U.S. Christmas record either beautifully symphonic or a fucking mess...I’m going with both, and I think that’s what makes it a particularly interesting listen. Some folks might consider this ‘stoner rock’, although I’m not sure what that means exactly. If you’re thinking along the lines of Sleep, Caustic Resin, High on other words, bands who really like Black Sabbath and the wrath that has been brought to this land since their inception, then you’re on the right track. U.S. Christmas sound like this, sure; but something about them is a bit off, probably due to the fact that they were born, raised, and exist in a tiny town in the mountains of North Carolina. It’s this extra bit that makes them interesting and not repetitive.

Guided By Voices - Human Amusements at Hourly Rates: The Best of Guided By Voices (Matador, 2003)

Guided By Voices
Human Amusements at Hourly Rates: The Best of Guided By Voices

8 minimum wage workers out of 10

This is a fantastic release not just for newcomers but even long time fans of Guided by Voices. This spans the entire GBV catalog and was compiled and sequenced by the man himself, Robert Pollard. For those not in the know, he is one of the most prolific songwriters of the last 15 years, and I’ve heard he’s written at least 5000 songs at this point in his career. Or as he said in an interview I once read, paraphrased – “I can write 5 songs while just sitting on the toilet and three of them will be good." Anyone who has never heard this great band would do themselves a favor of just buying this release – it hits on nearly all of their highlights (although you could never fit ALL of their best songs on just one disc). And most likely, after hearing this album you’ll want to go out and get the rest of their albums anyways ( I highly suggest "Bee Thousand" and "Alien Lanes", and if you can find them the "Fast Japanese Spin Cycle" and "Sunfish Holy Breakfast" EPs).

Grover - Tiny Blue Sparks (Bearos, 2003)

Tiny Blue Sparks

6 four lokos out of 10

This sounds like two of my favorite wrestlers, Senor Shoegaze and Mr. Postrock, clashing in the ring for the title of "Head Musical Influence" over the Midlands, UK band Grover. This group has been around in one form or another for around ten years, and they currently feature the former bassist of Godflesh, Steve Hough. Fans of Mogwai and Billy Mahonie will probably like this release, and possibly even some folks crossing over from the shoegazer side of things might find something worth listening to. I quite enjoy this record more and more each time I listen to it, and hopefully you’ll feel the same way.

A Grape Dope - Missing Dragons (Galaxia, 2003)

A Grape Dope
Missing Dragons

6.5 liters of grape drank out of 10

John Herndon sure does keep himself a busy man. Between working with Tortoise, Isotope 217, The Eternals, and producing and performing on studio albums for many other bands and performers, he finds time to record his own solo music under the guise A Grape Dope. Although similar in sound to his other work with Isotope and Tortoise, AGD is much more electronic and eclectic in nature, and instead of focusing on his talent of machine-like drumming skills it instead investigates a more avant-garde side of percussion. In addition, the album includes some guest vocalist turns from Dose One, Kathryn Frazier and Sally Timms, as well as an unnamed source (possible John himself?) on my favorite track of the album ‘I’ll Spread It’ – a song that sounds part Post-Tortoise and part vocoder-era Peter Frampton; a mix I’m wishing more people investigated after hearing this particular song. Fans of Herndon’s other output will not be disappointed, and those of you who fancy yourselves more fans of Dntel/Boards of Canada electronica stuff should do yourselves a favor and check it out as well.

Jet Black Crayon - Experiments in the Space Metal Time Signature (Galaxia, 2003)

Jet Black Crayon
Experiments in the Space Metal Time Signature

6 broken skateboards out of 10

Tommy Guerrero keeps himself a busy man – besides being one of the most influential skateboarders ever, he manages to also help run a skateboard company and perform in numerous musical outfits as well. Jet Black Crayon is a jazz/funk/noise outfit that mostly plays improv-type of stuff with a heavy leaning towards the atmospherics, or as it’s referred to in the sleeve of the disc, “drunken meandering”. A nice mellow listen, this isn’t going to change the world but I like it; what’s more, I think the fact that it’s short and to the point really helps it out – I’m not sure if my attention could be held for a full length.

Grandaddy - Sumday (V2, 2003)


9 Stocktonians out of 10

This is my album of the summer, and possibly even the year. In this triumphant return from their amazing second full length "The Sophtware Slump", we find Grandaddy in fine form – picking up right where they left off sound-wise but a little more cheerful and optimistic this go around. They’re still pretty concerned and obsessed with the impending encroachment of machinery and automation and all that jazz, only they’ve now either resided themselves to their fate or see a silver lining to the dark clouds. Not much has changed with their sound (I still say they’re the Electric Light Orchestra for the 21st century, and if you think that’s an insult you clearly need to go back and listen to more ELO, Jeff Lynne was a genius), but why mess with it if it ain’t broken? Once these beautifully harmonious and catchy tunes enter your ear canals there will be no turning back – like a virus, you’ll be infected with the need to listen to the album over and over and over. That's how viruses work right? You listen to them obsessively?

Bottom of the Hudson - The Omaha Record (Absolutely Kosher, 2003)

Bottom of the Hudson
The Omaha Record
Absolutely Kosher

Rating: 6 downed US Air planes out of 10

What an interesting little genre-hopping album this is by Bottom of the Hudson. Sometimes Notwist-style electro-pop, sometimes Pavement-ish indie riff rock, occasional Guided by Voices sounding jangly pop, so on and so on. Even though it’s all one band, it plays more like a mix a friend might make for you. There’s bound to be something on here for everyone, and if you’re lucky like me you’ll like almost all of it. There’s even a funny answering machine message at the end with some white trash-type fella telling them to stop playing ‘that damn reggae music’. Quite a likable record.

The Glass - Concorde (Makeshift Music, 2003)

The Glass
Makeshift Music

7 volunteers out of 10

Holy crapturd, I love it when a band seemingly appears from out of nowhere and blows my ass out of the water with their beautiful songs! Well, count Tennessee’s The Glass as one of the few who have done that. They play what I like to call “cosmic country” – a stupid name, sure, but meant to indicate those who play that odd mix of spacey, psychedelic sounds with traditional slide guitar and country-style vocals. Other than The Glass, groups who fall under this moniker are Canyon, Holopaw, My Morning Jacket, and even some of Jay Farrar’s more recent output. I can’t recommend this release any more highly.

The Capitol Years - Jewelry Store (Feel, 2003)

The Capitol Years
Jewelry Store

7.5 armed robberies out of 10

I read all the praise and press for the first release by The Capitol Years, "Meet Yr Acres". Lots of people loved it, but it just never caught for me. A little too meandering, not enough direction, perhaps? I dunno. Not that it was awful or anything, So when I got this to review, I was expecting more of the same. The bright side was that it’s only an EP, so at least listening to it a few times won’t take that long, right? Fortunately, this album is pretty good...real good even. Chock full of catchy hooks, fuzzy guitars, upbeat rhythms - this is the type of music I think of when I think of what rock-n-roll should sound like. Now, after listening to it a few times, I’m bummed it’s an EP - at just under 20 minutes, it definitely leaves me wanting more.

The big change for the band seemed to come when it was transformed from "one man recording songs on a four-track in his bedroom" to "full on rock band with bassists and drummers and the such". This was just what this band needed - they already had the songs, and now they have the performers to flesh out the sound. All six songs pack a wallop from start to finish, almost leaving you gasping for air by the time the disc stops playing.

I’m not sure if it’s because both bands are from Philadelphia or just a coincidence, but this album reminds me a whole hell of a lot of The Lilys, only with a little more fuzz thrown in for good measure. Comparisons can also be drawn to other power-pop outfits such as Sloan or Superdrag, and if you read any other reviews you'll probably hear references to The Strokes. All of these are fair comparisons.

Isobel Campbell - Amorino (Instinct, 2003)

Isobel Campbell

6.5 camels out of 10

So, I knew going in that this was the solo record of Isobel Campbell, known mostly for her work with Belle & Sebastian. As a B&S fan, I was already going into this with certain expectations, which is never a good idea, but definitely understandable. Upon my first couple of listens, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing – along with a few tracks that sounded as I expected (pretty similar to the songs Isobel sung for B&S), there were elements of brazilian pop, Dixieland jazz (?!?), and Burt Bacharach-style 60’s pop tunes with horns and strings. Honestly, it was so different that I didn’t even listen to it again for quite a while. But then when I came back to it, it sounded great to me – an inventive breath of fresh air, an artist willing to take chances in their music. Seriously, how many indie-pop artists could pull off a Dixieland song?

Clorox Girls - Baby 7" (Jonny Cat, 2003)

Clorox Girls
Baby 7"
Jonny Cat

6 cat litter pans out of 10

No, they’re not all girls. Or clorox. The Clorox Girls play a brand of punk that falls somewhere along the spectrum between street/gutter/party punk and something you might have heard come out on KRS or K back in the late eighties or early nineties. Nothing amazing, but catchy enough to keep your attention for the short length of this record. The lyrics are also pretty typical, someone does drugs, party party party, and one political song called ‘Getaway’ about leaving the US because it’s so fucked up right now. The record makes me think they are probably a decent live act to check out.

BMX Bandits - On the Radio (Phantom Import, 2003)

BMX Bandits
On the Radio
Phantom Import

4 Nicole Kidman bicycle films out of 10

BMX Bandits
have helped launch the careers of numerous bands (Soup Dragons, Eugenius, and one of my all time favorite bands, Teenage Fanclub), without being able to get to far out of the starting blocks themselves. They do have a fairly large cult following though, and I can only imagine that this release of live tracks recorded with the BBC between the years of 1986 and 1996 will be a welcome joy to their ears. Personally, I’ve never been a very big fan of the band, and this record didn’t do anything to change my mind. If you like quirky power pop, you’ve got it right here by the tons. The release also includes a couple of live tracks by the Pearlfishers with BMX main man Duglas T. Stewart appearing as a special guest, thus earning these songs a spot on this compilation.

Belle & Sebastian - Dear Catastrophe Waitress (Rough Trade, 2003)

Belle & Sebastian
Dear Catastrophe Waitress
Rough Trade

7 slutty secretaries out of 10

Since this is the first album for Belle & Sebastian on a label other than Matador and without mainstay member Isobel Campbell (who has released her own solo CD which is quite good), the expectations and anticipations were varied as to what the outcome of this new record might be. And I was relieved to discover - it’s great. Some fans may be disappointed with the new direction of some of the songs (lots of horns! Upbeat songs! ELO influence! Trevor Horn production!), but I feel there’s not only enough of the classic B&S flavor for us old timers, but I actually like the new material as well. There are a number of quality tracks – ‘Wrapped Up In Books”, “Step into My Office, Baby”, “Dear Catastrophe Waitress”, and most importantly “I’m a Cuckoo”, which is probably my favorite song by them since their early days. Although not their best record (if you’re new to the group go pick up “Tigermilk” or “If You’re Feeling Sinister”, two of the greatest pop releases of the last 10 years), it certainly stands up to most of their other releases and is obviously better than that “storytelling” fiasco.

The Bellakun - …Cantar Para Espantar la Soledad (Has Anyone Ever Told You?, 2003)

The Bellakun
…Cantar Para Espantar la Soledad
Has Anyone Ever Told You?

6.5 Soledad O'Briens out of 10

The Bellakun is some decently interesting bi-lingual indie rock out of Texas. The title translates to “sing to scare away the loneliness”, or at least that’s what the cheat sheet sent by the label tells me. They describe themselves as being “…sprinkled with Tristeza and Three Mile Pilot”, which is a more than reasonable assessment, but I’d additionally throw in a little Built to Spill influence as well to round things out. It’s nothing that blows the doors off the place, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Ashley Park - The Secretariat Motor Hotel (Happy Happy Birthday To Me, 2003)

Ashley Park
The Secretariat Motor Hotel
Happy Happy Birthday To Me

6.5 elderly pensioners paying by the week out of 10

Who would have ever thought a band this twangy would have ever been on Kindercore? Not that this came out on Kindercore, I just felt that fact merited being pointed out. Much like fellow countrymen The Band, this trio known as Ashley Park has crafted a truly terrific slice of Americana music. They will make most anyone think of Beachwood Sparks instantly, but this album could prove to be the one that brings them out from under that shadow. Besides, even though both bands have probably listened to The Byrd’s ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ a few too many times, this record sounds like a band who has moved past that and into a territory all their own. It should also be noted that while this record is a concept album of sorts (all of the songs are based on the fictional stories of the fictional residents that reside at the fictional Secretariat Motor Hotel), but you wouldn’t really be able to tell that unless you’re really paying attention. And I rarely pay attention to such things. Easily one of the best records I’ve heard all year in the ‘alt-country’ department, and a welcome addition to my music collection. I expect to be singing along to this for some time to come.

Fruit Bats - Mouthfuls (Sub Pop, 2003)

Fruit Bats
Sub Pop

7.5 blind fliers out of 10

I’ve really been enjoying the softer, gentler side of Sub Pop lately. After a tumultuous childhood filled with some of the best and (occasionally) worst rock music of the nineties, they seemed to have settled down and started focusing on mellower pop and folk inspired music – the type of tunes that my laid-back ass has really been enjoying lately, but not so good for those out there eagerly anticipating that new Tad record to drop (note: I have no idea if there is or is not actually a Tad record coming out – this was just my bad attempt at a joke).

The Shins, Iron & Wine, Trembling Blue Stars, Holopaw, Ugly Cassanova, Pernice Brothers, etc – The Fruit Bats fit right into this stable of artists, and I have thoroughly enjoyed all of these records. While not sounding exactly like any of these bands, Fruit Bats do share a similar sound – a Kinks/Beach Boys pop influence like The Shins or the Pernice Brothers, a more mellow, folky pop approach like The Trembling Blue Stars, and a slight tinge of the spooky alt-country stylings that flavor Iron & Wine, Holopaw, and Ugly Cassanova. What was once the work of only one "bat" by the name of Eric Johnson (a different Eric from the one who played guitar for the Archers of Loaf and t
he one that plays that wankery new age guitar rock), the group now consists of an additional member Gillian Lisee. Gillian fills in on additional vocals, keyboards, and probably whatever else needs to be done.

This is a fine record that I enjoy more with each passing listen – and if the company it keeps is any indication, this won’t be one of those "listen to it a hundred times in two weeks and then forget about it" type of bands, but more like one of those "Jesus Christ it’s been nearly two years you’d think I’d be sick of this by now but I’m not" types.

Surrounded - Safety in Numbers (Deep Elm, 2003)

Safety in Numbers
Deep Elm


Rating: 8.5 baby dragons out of 10

I was not expecting anything like this Surrounded album to ever come out on Deep Elm – lush, mellow pop music with terrific production and an extremely interesting sound. And while I’m congratulating Deep Elm on a fine release, let’s also take note that this is yet another amazing Swedish band to hit these shores - they churn out talented musicians quicker than Ikea can produce crappy furniture. This time around, instead of producing the next great garage rock or death metal band, we have a collection of folks who look to Sparklehorse for inspiration (and the world could stand for more people to do this as far as I’m concerned). There are hints of indie-ambient noise ala The Appleseed Cast’s “Low Level Owl” discs as well (another great pair of records worth checking out if you haven’t). This is a damn fine debut album, and at the current rate the Swedes are going to take over the American music scene before we know it. Deep Elm proves yet again that you can’t judge a labels current output by their previous endeavors.

Greg Ashley - Medicine Fuck Dream (Birdman, 2003)

Greg Ashley
Medicine Fuck Dream

5.5 peyote flashbacks out of 10

Not unlike Lone Pigeon and other contemporaries, this record is Greg Ashley’s way of telling the world that he really, really likes Syd Barrett. According to the website this is “a collection of 10 songs pretty much about 10 girls”, and I’d have to say that seems about right from what I’m hearing. Not a terrible record by any means, but it does tend to drift into the background from time to time. The combination of “Deep Deep Down” and “Lost Highway” probably account for the best part of the CD, the latter sounding like a long lost cowboy song gone psychedelic. Certainly worth checking out if you’re already a fan of such music, but don’t come hunting me down it doesn’t hold your ear.

Cursive - The Ugly Organ (Saddle Creek, 2003)

The Ugly Organ
Saddle Creek

7 handwriting samples out of 10

I didn’t think it was possible for Cursive to adequately follow up the genius that was their last full length "Domestica". But "The Ugly Organ", while not better than it’s predecessor, is damn close to being as good as it. Like the previous record, this too is a concept album - instead of exploring the trials and tribulations of a failed marriage, it follows our protagonist down the trail a little farther and watches him struggle through life a single man again. I’m usually the sort who pays more attention to the music than the lyrics of a song, but I’ll be damned if the words presented here don’t prick up my ears and make me listen a little more closely. It should also be noted that since the last album, Cursive has added a cellist to the mix which gives many of the songs a unique twist from what you might have previously expected from the band, at times almost sounding like someone infused the group with a little Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Well worth a listen.

Holopaw - Holopaw (Sub Pop, 2003)

Sub Pop

7.5 panhandle panhandlers out of 10

Next time you see him, thank Isaac Brock. Thank him for introducing the folks at Subpop to Holopaw, a great new addition to my music collection and hopefully yours. Brock (of Modest Mouse fame) had the singer of Holopaw, John Orth, help him on his side project Ugly Casanova. Orth’s vocal additions on that album are one of it’s brightest spots, so I was highly anticipating the release of the Holopaw album - I was not disappointed with the outcome. Not that the band is second rate, but Orth’s voice is so mesmerizing that it’s easy to forget there is any music playing along with it at all. Something about it’s quality reminds me of long drives late at night through the country, very haunting and morose, with a tinge of warble in that country sort of way. The music fits these moods as well, reminding me of Lambchop, Palace, and the Radar Brothers, among others. Give this album a listen, through headphones if you have them, and discover one of your new favorite bands.

El Guapo - Fake French (Dischord, 2003)

El Guapo
Fake French

6.5 Parisian poops out of 10

I love bands that can pull of being really weird, strange music and still retain some catchy pop sensibilities to hook you into the music. For me, that’s exactly the sort of music El Guapo produces. On their newest record they continue in their "art rock" leanings but with a more song-like approach. This probably upset some of the purists, but it still makes for a solid listen. Try to imagine Clinic, Le Tigre, The Fall, and some electro-type beats all thrown in a blender and spit out in a very haphazard fashion. Add into that mix the vocal interplay of the two singers and sometimes spooky carnival-like atmosphere of their album and you’ve got yourself a winner.

The Tyde - Twice (Rough Trade, 2003)

The Tyde
Rough Trade


Rating: 6.5 regular implosions out of 10

Featuring members of The Beachwood Sparks and Velvet Crush, The Tyde are a jangly-pop group with strong leanings towards 70’s lite rock and lite country. In fact, the comparisons to Beachwood Sparks are obvious, but The Tyde is a bit more upbeat and a lot less twangy. The slide guitar is there, but in a much smaller amount; and instead of sounding like they’ve listened to too much Flying Burrito Brothers and The Byrds, this lot lean more towards a Cali-fied version of the Velvet Underground. This is a good pop record, but nothing ground breaking; I’m enjoying it right now, but it doesn’t feel like it will have a terribly long shelf life to me, but I guess only time will tell for that. Worth a listen if you happen upon it, but nothing I would go out of my way for.

The Rum Diary - Poisons That Save Lives (Substandard, 2003)

The Rum Diary
Poisons That Save Lives


Rating: 7 drunk Johnny Depps out of 10 
The Rum Diary are a peculiar type of bird – although located so close to the Bay Area of California, they keep themselves pretty entrenched in the small town life that they know and love instead of escaping to the big city like most folks seem to do. More than likely, it’s this exact type of thinking that probably keeps their music so fresh and inspiring.  What they sound like to me is a heady brew of Three Mile Pilot rock; smart, atmospheric emo of The Appleseed Cast; and the mellow math-rockiness of Dianogah – three great bands, and as far as I’m concerned, if you’re drawing comparisons to them then you’re on the right track. An engaging live act as well, The Rum Diary includes what is probably way more instruments than their tour van is happy toting around and no how to utilize them into their engaging sound. This one is definitely a keeper.

Point Line Plane - Point Line Plane (Xeroid / Sincere Brutality, 2003)

Point Line Plane
Point Line Plane
Xeroid / Sincere Brutality


Rating: 7 bat graveyards out of 10

I think if you were to look up the term “spazz rock” in the dictionary there’s a good chance that you’ll see a photo of Point Line Plane in there. This duo is nothing but drums and keyboards, but it seems to take up an enormous amount of sonic space anyways. If you can imagine mixing hardcore, gothic carnival music, lots of keyboards, screaming, and a whole lot of freaking out, you’re still not quite to what these guys sound like but you’re getting close. I know that sounds like a real mess, but I find this record to be extremely enjoyable to listen to…somehow all of that mayhem combines into something very interesting. Oh yeah, it should also be noted that they are damn near an unstoppable force live.

Two Guys - Recorded (Absolutely Kosher, 2003)

Two Guys
Absolutely Kosher


Rating: 6.5 rocky relationships out of 10
Even though Rob Crow isn’t in this band, somehow listening to Two Guys makes me think of him. Maybe it’s because the gents who make up the band, Cameron and Ryan Jones, have played in some of his hundreds of bands over the years. And whether it’s a matter of these dudes influencing Crow, or vice versa, there are definitely plenty of similarities to the sound. Two Guy’s are most reminiscent of Heavy Vegetable and Thingy (which Cameron played in), performing pop songs run through the angular, off-kilter rhythms like you might find in math-rock bands like Don Caballero or Dilute. Like most of Absolutely Kosher’s releases, this record is a great listen, and fans of Thingy or Heavy Vegetable won’t be disappointed.

Crooked Fingers - Red Devil Dawn (Merge, 2003)

Crooked Fingers
Red Devil Dawn

7 sailors take warning out of 10

Let me state for the record so you might get a feel for my take on the different records by Crooked Fingers: the first self-titled release would get a 10 out of 10; the sophomore effort, "Bring on the Snakes", an 8 out of 10; and the EP of covers, "Reservoir Songs", also an 8 out of 10. So when I give this record a 7 out of 10, it's really based on other Crooked Finger's albums, not music as a whole.

Most of this record sounds much more upbeat than previous efforts, due not only to an increased tempo but the addition of horns on a handful of songs that really challenge what you might think the stereotypical Crooked Finger’s song should sound like; particularly the seventh song, ‘Sweet Marie’, which almost sounds like Blondie’s ‘The Tide is High’. There are still the occasional sad ballads, but they don’t rule the album like in previous releases. Not that I dislike the slow songs, rather the opposite - but it is nice to hear the status quo of a Crooked Finger’s release mucked about with some.

If you already know and love the Crooked Fingers sound, you won’t be disappointed here; and if you’re looking for somewhere to start listening, this release will work for that as well. As long as Eric keeps putting out music of this caliber, I’ll keep listening and giving it good reviews. This will certainly be one of my favorite records of the year.

(By the way, for those interested, the song 'Red Devil Dawn' is not actually on this album, but it is on the Merge compilation 'Survive and Advance Vol. 2'. If such things matter to you.)

Summer at Shatter Creek - Summer at Shatter Creek (Absolutely Kosher, 2003)

Summer at Shatter Creek
Summer at Shatter Creek
Absolutely Kosher

Rating: 7.5 paper mags out of 10

The curiously named Summer at Shatter Creek is the work of one man, a Mr. Craig Gurwich, and what a man he is. I think we’ve all heard albums by "one man bands" that might be enjoyable, but sound exactly like you might expect when only one person is playing all of the music – very one dimensional, single personality-type stuff. Somehow Mr. Gurwich manages to transcend this phenomena, creating a very three dimensional sounding album that is just oozing electronics, but still sounds quite organic. There are lots of warm, classic sounding organs and keyboards along with the prerequisite drums, guitars, and whatnot. But the real story here is the man’s voice – and my god, what a voice it is. He possesses possibly my favorite falsetto since Jeff Lynne of ELO, and that’s not something to be taken lightly. I’ve heard and read people mentioning it in the same breath with words like "heavenly" and "angelic", and I’d be remiss to put up any sort of argument over the pairing. 

The Postal Service - Give Up (Sub Pop, 2003)

The Postal Service
Give Up
Sub Pop


Rating: 7.5 prison sleepers out of 10

Most of the time, super groups don’t work (remember Contraband?) - Postal Service is the odd exception, and it works quite well.  Primarily made up of Jimmy Tamborello (Strictly Ballroom, Dntel, sometimes helps out with Beachwood Sparks) and Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie, All-Time Quarterback), The Postal Service got their name from the way the band assembled their songs, by sending bits and pieces to each other through the mail and having the other add their part to the music.  Back and forth it went, until a song popped out (or possibly they couldn’t afford any more stamps, whichever came first, but this second part is just a guess).  These boys also got a little help in the additional vocals department from Jenny Lewis (Rilo Kiley) and Jen Wood, to help sweeten out the sound.  Like I said, the result is magnificent, a beautiful mesh of electronic beats and bumps, synthesized bits that sound like they were taken from the original Nintendo, and an occasional flash of organic instruments such as the guitar all add up to the first really great indie-pop masterpiece of the year, and it’s certain to make it onto my year-end best of list.

Lilys - Precollection (Manifesto, 2003)


6 black-eyed susans out of 10

are the chameleons of the indie rock scene – they change their sound on a dime depending on the whims of their erstwhile leader, Kurt Heasley. They pretty much always sound like a combination of the Kinks, My Bloody Valentine, Velvet Underground, and Faces...with emphasis being placed in different directions everytime. This go around features a heavy tilt towards VU, which isn’t really that far of a stretch since Kurt’s voice sounds a bit like old Lou Reed anyways.

Personally speaking, it’s not my favorite of their output. For my money, it doesn’t get any better than "The 3 Way", their best attempt at re-creating the Kinks style and sound in a modern setting. I’m also pretty partial to their half of the split they did with Aspera Ad Astra, which might be their best shoegaze showing. That said, this is still a good record; lots of quality tracks, such as "Squares" and "Will My Lord Be Gardening". For those already familiar with the Lilys, this probably won’t be your favorite record of theirs, but it’s not a bad listen – and only time will tell how it holds up. For those unfamiliar, if you pick an album and you’re not that crazy about it, just try another – no two sound the same anyways.

Audio Out Send - Or Does It Explode? (Flashcard Project, 2003)

Audio Out Send
Or Does It Explode?
Flashcard Project

7 Oakland taco trucks out of 10

We have a new contender vying for best Bay Area pop record of the year with Rogue Wave – it’s Audio Out Send! With their first full length release, AOS have instantly put their name on the map of good local pop music, and stand as further proof that the number of good bands coming out of the Bay and beyond is just as good as anywhere else in the US.

AOS has more in common with Rogue Wave than both being great bands – they share similar propensity towards writing unclassifiable pop songs. So many bands out there instantly strike you as sounding like something else, whereas both of these bands produce a timeless brand of pop that is neither a rehash of past sounds nor following the gimmick of the day. In addition, AOS remind me a little bit of the Flaming Lips in the way their songs are arranged, and also contain elements of electronica along the lines of Boards of Canada or another similar, mellow electronic group. (Aside – it has been pointed out to me that everyone gets compared to The Flaming Lips these days, and it does seem to be true. But I stand by my assertion that there is a similarity here, especially with The Flaming Lips most recent album ‘Yoshimi’. I guess you’ll just have to listen to the record to know if I’m full of shit or not.)