Saturday, December 31, 2005

Momus - Otto Spooky (Analog, 2005)

Otto Spooky


Rating: 6 Neidermeyer horses out of 10
Quite honestly, I don’t even know how to go about reviewing this new record by Momus or any of his stuff for that matter. His ability to genre-jump between electronica, twee pop, world music, delicate singer/songwriter fare, et al – and to do it well – makes him categorically tough to pigeon-hole. I’m not the biggest fan, but I can certainly appreciate talent when I hear it; and while I won’t be putting this record on all the time to listen to it, I can certainly understand why someone would. I know I should probably put some “RIYL” bands here, but where do you start when one song sounds like Trembling Blue Stars, the next sounds like Cornelius, so on and etcetera, but rarely do two songs sound the same? Originality makes for a heck of a listening party, but it really makes things hard on crappy writers like myself.

Silver Jews - Tanglewood Numbers (Drag City, 2005)

Silver Jews
Tanglewood Numbers
Drag City


Rating: 7.5 laundry barbeque out of 10
As someone who’s been a huge fan of the Silver Jews since the days when most folks just considered it a “Pavement side project”, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around their newest release “Tanglewood Numbers.”  It’s been four years or so since the Silver Jews last put out an album, and since then David Berman has struggled with any number of vices and nearly managed to kill himself.  This fact alone is a big part of what makes this album especially surprising…it could probably be described as “upbeat.”  Maybe Berman excised his demons and we're left with a shinier, happier Silver Jews?  I dunno about that, but every time I even think about the new track “Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed” it makes me smile.  In a lot of ways, the Jews are still mining a Lambchop-ish Americana sound that they’ve gone to since the beginning, but there are a few songs on this record that might almost qualify as “rock” songs.  The lyrics are still amongst the best in the business…Berman is amongst the best in the business at creating witty, literate songs, but this batch is definitely a little askew of the norm.  all in all, it’s a great album for everyone - a new twist for us long-time fans and a great place to start for any newcomers.

Southeast Engine Coming to Terms with Gravity (Misra, 2005)

Southeast Engine
Coming to Terms with Gravity


Rating: 6.5 made choices out of 10 
There’s a hint of twang to this Ohio pop band known as SoutheastEngine, and I like it. My first reaction was the same as seemingly most everyone else – a little reminiscent of Wilco, in their blending of Americana roots-rock and pop…especially the Wilco from the "Being There" and "Summerteeth" years. Wilco is one of my very favorite bands, and I don’t mean to insinuate that Southeast Engine are even in their category really, but this is a very good start by these Mid-westerners. You could also probably drag some of the more recent material by the Drive-By Truckers into the comparison, especially on the mellower numbers. The bottom line is this is just some straight-forward rock music for regular folk – no pretensions, just good songs.

A Northern Chorus - Bitter Hands Resign (Sonic Unyon, 2005)

A Northern Chorus
Bitter Hands Resign
Sonic Unyon


Rating: 6 decrepit clock towers out of 10

I’m not sure what genre to exactly lump this band A Northern Chorus with - at moments they have a GY!BE or Mogwai vibe, but then when the vocals kick in it could be Radiohead circa their first two albums. Regardless of where you stick them in your collection, it ain’t a bad listen…it may not be timeless or have you clamoring to listen to it over and over, but when it’s on it’s enjoyable enough.

The Mountain Goats - The Sunset Tree (4AD, 2005)

The Mountain Goats
The Sunset Tree


Rating: 7.5 broom teeth out of 10

Having been a Mountain Goats fan for some time, and having met some of his tightly-wound fans first hand, I could just about hear the collective gasp when John Darnielle released his previous disc - his first for 4AD and his first to have used any semblance of production at all. Gone was the tape hiss the typical obsessive-compulsive fan loved, and we entered into a new world of Goats, one making shiny music with extra members not named John Darnielle. As for myself, I loved the transformation, and was pleased to hear his witty lyrics in such a crisp fashion; but no doubt some fans were lost, as is always the case when a band makes a major transformation.

“The Sunset Tree” is his second album for 4AD, and not only is it a lot like it’s predecessor – fairly clean production, additional instrumentation outside of just Darnielle’s acoustic guitar…but it is also possibly one of the best albums he’s ever recorded.  “Dance Music” was an instant favorite the second I heard it, and will be considered one of his best tracks when Rhino releases his “Greatest Hits” album whenever that comes out (Rhino does a greatest hits record for everyone, right?). This album may well be listed on a lot of top 10 lists at the end of the year, mine included, and it will be muchly deserved.

Roger Nichols & the Small Circle of Friends - Roger Nichols & the Small Circle of Friends (Rev-ola, 2005 - Reissue)

Roger Nichols & the Small Circle of Friends
Roger Nichols & the Small Circle of Friends
2005 (Reissue) / 1968 (Original)

Rating: 7.5 coconut queens out of 10

A classic album reissued by the UK reissue kings, Rev-ola, this is California pop at it’s finest. Roger Nichols is probably best known as a songwriter, having penned numerous hits for the Carpenters and a few other performers…but he also performed songs as well. Originally released in 1968, this record teams up Nichols with fellow songwriter Tony Asher (who worked with Brian Wilson on the legendary Pet Sounds, this album coming just after that one), and it’s just as good as you might expect given the pedigree of those involved. Nichols had Murray and Melinda MacLeod help him in performing these melodies, and the ensuing result is some of the best harmonious sunshine pop/easy listening I’ve heard in a quite some time. Van Dyke Parks and Randy Newman also had a hand in this album, as if you need more pop legends mixed into this bag. A lost gem, sure, but highly worth checking out.

Heikki - 2 (Magic Marker, 2005)

Magic Marker

Rating: 5.5 concrete bears out of 10

This Swedish duo, Heikki, features Maria Eriksson from Thee Concretes and Jari Haapalainen from The Bear Quartet, and they play upbeat jangly-pop and indie-folk the sorts of which will probably be a hit with the kids. As for me personally, I dunno…something is missing. The first track is pretty great but I quickly lose interest thereafter for some reason. The upbeat numbers are certainly the more engaging ones as far as I can tell; I think it is particularly the folky numbers that have my mind wandering. That said, the more I listened to it the better it sounded, so maybe it’s just one of those records that take a while to come around. Fans of Viva Voce, The Fruitbats, and probably even Erikkson’s other band The Concretes would probably enjoy this the most.

Thee Missouri - In VoodooRama (Blue Disguise, 2005)

Thee Missouri
In VoodooRama
Blue Disguise


Rating: 6.5 little turds out of 10
Thee Missouri is a German band, but don't hold that against them – Kraftwerk was German too and you know you love them.  You can't hate everything that comes from a country just because they produced The Scorpions.

They used to just be called Missouri, and were very morose and gothic how a crumbling old cathedral would sound, you know, if crumbling old cathedrals wrote and performed songs. But then they added a “Thee” to their name - for reasons I'm unclear of, and a friend of mine actually knows them his only explanation was “who knows why Germans do what they do.”  They also added some electronic elements and a thick dollop of sultry that sounds straight from the later Afghan Whigs output. Things aren't quite as depressing in this new world they have created; it has that feel of an old pulp detective novel, you’ve got one eye peeking over your shoulder, on the lookout for trouble. I’m not sure any of that makes a lick of sense, but this record is great, especially the epic final song “Lord, I’m Ready”.

Teenage Fanclub - Man-Made (Merge, 2005)

Teenage Fanclub


Rating: 7.5 bachelor parties out of 10
It seems like just yesterday I was obsessing over the Teenage Fanclub albums “A Catholic Education” and “Bandwagonesque” and enamored over the new fuzzed-out Big Star-like sounds of this Scottish group.  Fast forward 15 years, and now they’ve become the old guard of high-quality pop music.  Somewhere along the line (specifically, their album “Songs from Northern Britain”), they infused that Badfinger/Big Star influence with a healthy chunk of Byrds-style jangle and harmonies and have been traveling down that road ever since.  Man-Made is their first new record in three years, and probably the best thing they’ve put out since the mid-to-late nineties.  The three-headed song writing attack of Norman Blake, Gerard Love and Raymond McGinley has produced a number of instant Fanclub classics on this release, such as “Time Stops”, “Fallen Leaves” and “Born Under a Bad Sign”.  Saccharine, beautifully harmonized melodies backed by some of the cleanest pop you’ve ever heard…if this sounds good to you you’ll be hard pressed to find anything as good as Teenage Fanclub.

The Robot Ate Me - On Vacation (5 Rue Christine, 2005)

The Robot Ate Me
On Vacation
5 Rue Christine


Rating: 7.5 rice crispy treats out of 10
Let me get this off of my chest to start – while thematically I can understand the desire for The Robot Ate Me to put this on two discs, it still drives me batty that the whole album is barely 40 minutes long but it is on 2 CDs…it’s like a double EP album or something, completely retarded.  That said - the music is actually pretty damn fantastic. I have been a fan of The Robot Ate Me for since I heard the first record “They Ate Themselves”, and as great as that debut was it pales in comparison to this record. The kitchen sink instrumentation will get this band compared to any number of Elephant 6 groups, the melancholy and despair will make you think of Grandaddy, and the overall sound probably fits best with the Microphones, but it doesn’t really sound like any of those bands mentioned. The first disc is the quirky kid brother, full of references to genocide and Hitler and god knows what else…the whole thing sounds as if the singer of The Robot Ate Me were being backed by an Optigon (which may be the case as he lives in the same town, San Diego, where Optigonally Yours is from). The second disc is a much more heartbreaking and personal outing, with less screwball instrumentation and more heart-on-sleeves musicianship (minus the obvious “emo”ness that sort of description draws up). I highly recommend this record, one of the best things I’ve heard all year.

Bearsuit - Cat Spectacular! (Fortuna Pop, 2005)

Cat Spectacular!
Fortuna Pop

6.5 furry outfits out of 10

Bearsuit are an upbeat-twee-pop group that instantly sounds British – I was drawn in from the get-go. They sound a lot like the Milky Wimpshake school of pop music, mixed with the frantic energy of something along the lines of Bis. Incredibly catchy, all this really needs is to be heard by the right folks and there’s no telling how big Bearsuit could get. There is nearly an albums worth of downloads on their website, so check it out. And speaking of bearsuits, everyone should see “Project Grizzly” – it has nothing to do with this band but it’s super funny. Just sayin’, that’s all.

Dead Meadow - Feathers (Matador, 2005)

Dead Meadow

7 down pillows out of 10

On their second release for Matador (and fifth overall I believe), Washington DC’s Dead Meadow have yet again provided my ears with the glory of the riff-rock. On their previous record they took blended a lot of Black Sabbath and a little Pink Floyd to produce one of the better rock albums of the last few years. This go around, they flipped the equation, turning up the Pink Floyd and turning down the Black Sabbath in an effort to create the most perfect pot-smoking album ever and my favorite release of theirs so far (bear in mind, I’m also a bigger Floyd fan than Sabbath, but both are obviously awesome). This is a fantastic album that should not only appeal to their long-time fan base, but may even bring new folks into the fold. I could even see the jam-rock hippies getting into this, although it may be too slow and heavy to achieve that true “whirling dervish” spinning thing they do.

Darediablo - Twenty Paces (Southern, 2005)

Twenty Paces

5.5 foolhardy devils out of 10

What happened to Darediablo…where is the edge? Not that this is a bad record at all, I enjoyed most of it, but the metal-oriented rock that they showed in their earlier releases has been contorted into something much more prog-rock-like. They cranked their signature organ sound way up on this one, and the results sound like a long-haired kid born of Uriah Heap and Procol Harum and a big brother named Rush. If you’re already a fan, approach with caution – maybe it’s just me but the difference in sound is quite surprising. As for anyone else, if you seek instrumental prog-rock that is light on the wankery and heavy on the keys, you’ve come to the right place.

Jennifer Gentle - Valende (Sub Pop, 2005)

Jennifer Gentle
Sub Pop

6.5 Italian ices out of 10

The Italian duo
Jennifer Gentle not only decided to name their band after a Syd Barrett song, but figured they might as well go ahead and sound quite a bit like him as well. And if you’re going for comparisons, might as well throw in some 13th Floor Elevators, Skip Spence and maybe even a touch of Elf Power/Elephant 6 influence. The record has that great quality that seems hard to find these days, where it is weird and screwy but still retains a certain level of pop sensibility…too many bands and performers can’t seem to find this balance and go too overboard on the weird or make the music too safe and tepid. Their third release and first for Sub Pop, this is a pretty damn good record that just gets stronger with age like old gym socks. Except they don’t make me vomit like the thought of old gym socks do, they make me get happy. And if you are one of those fetishists who get happy from vomiting or old gym socks or any combination thereof, I don’t wanna hear about it, you weirdo.

Brakes - Give Blood (Rough Trade, 2005)

Give Blood
Rough Trade

8 pints of O negative out of 10

Brakes are a British rock superstar group of sorts - one of the British Sea Power dudes (Eamon Hamilton), a couple of Electric Soft Parade cats (Tom and Alex White), and one of the guys from Tenderfoot (Marc Beatty). And to be totally honest, this group might be better than all of the parent acts. Because of Eamon’s vocals, some British Sea Power comparisons are inevitable since he sings occasionally on their album. But even more noteworthy is how much he sounds like Black Francis (Frank Black) of the Pixies, a fine thing to sound like indeed. There some Clinic-like keyboard tracks here, a few twangy low-key tracks there, and even a Jesus and Mary Chain cover to round things out…all in all, a fantastic debut by a side band that’s as good as most main bands.

Comet Gain - City Fallen Leaves (Kill Rock Stars, 2005)

Comet Gain
City Fallen Leaves
Kill Rock Stars

Rating: 6.5 Hale Bopps out of 10

Comet Gain…honestly, I thought this band was long gone but then I go and get a promo for their new album “City Fallen Leaves”, which proves once again that my brain isn’t always functioning at the highest level. The have been around a really long time though, as far as the music industry goes - formed in the UK during the early nineties, they made their biggest impact when the “riot grrl“ scene was big even if they didn‘t exactly fit in.

I’ve been known to throw on their classic release “Sneaky” on occasion, but I obviously haven’t followed them much since then given the above surprise upon receiving this release. What was probably more surprising, is that the band sounds just as vital and fresh as they always have, as if this album came out of a time capsule buried 10 years ago. It still sounds very Comet Gain; if you’re unfamiliar with the band, try to imagine a hybrid of Television Personalities and The Fall, with vocals that might remind you of Joe Strummer. You can listen to “Sneaky” or the new one “City Fallen Leaves” or probably one of the other albums…either way, you’re getting quality music.

Keith Colley - Bird Doggin’ (Rev-Ola, 2005)

Keith Colley
Bird Doggin’

6.5 labrador retrievers out of 10

Keith Colley
was one of those guys who managed to run with the big dogs without ever actually being known himself. The scene was LA in the early sixties, where there were apparently tons of songwriters trying to make a dent in the market, which Colley managed to do. This disc is the “publishing demos cut”, which I take to mean it’s a disc of songs sent out to various producers to showcase his songwriting abilty for use with their acts. But the thing is, his works is just as strong as most anyone who might have actually gone on and recorded one of his songs. A number of big-time folks play on this disc – Glen Campbell, Seals & Crofts, Jerry Fuller, and more. This is by no means the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard, but if you’re into that early 60’s crooner style you could do lot worse.

Iron & Wine - Woman King (Sub Pop, 2005)

Iron & Wine
Woman King
Sub Pop

7 man queens out of 10

More hushed folksy music from the new Cat Stevens
of our generation, Iron & Wine. If you are at all familiar with his recordings, especially his last full-length “Our Endless Numbered Days”, then you have a good idea as to what this sounds like. Although not physically a continuation of those recording sessions, they certainly are in spirit, utilizing much of the same staff (specifically, Sam’s sister Sarah returns for her beautiful backing vocal duties). If you like those recordings them you will not be disappointed here, or at least I wasn’t.

The Girls - The Girls (Dirtnap, 2005)

The Girls
The Girls

7 sketchy transvestites out of 10

Anyone who hasn’t been paying attention yet, needs to do so quick –Dirtnap Records out of the Pacific Northwest has stealthily moved in and become one of the best labels in the US. The Exploding Hearts (RIP), The Briefs, The Spits, The Epoxies, The Popular Shapes, The Minds and many other “The” bands all call this label home, and are fuckin’ great as well. Now you can add to that list The Girls, out of Seattle, a quintet of pop music-making young lads hiding out on a punk enclave. Although they undoubtedly belong to the punk scene, they owe the most benefit of their sound to The Cars – catchy, simple hooks; tons of synths; and Ric Okasek (OK, there’s no Ric Okasek, I lied about that). Additional influence is paid to the New York Dolls and Richard Hell & the Voidoids. And as rad as their record music is, word on the street is that their live show gets much, much crazier, drawing comparisons to the Stooges, with all band members in make-up and crazy outfits (I heard leopard-print thongs and fishnet stockings – unsure if this is the uniform de facto or just what they were wearing that night).

Thee Heavenly Music Association - Shaping the Invisible (Rehash, 2005)

Thee Heavenly Music Association
Shaping the Invisible

5 jesus tunes out of 10

Given that it only seems old folks like me listen to it anymore, and the kids barely even know such a genre exists, I’m continually surprised at the number of “shoegaze” bands that pop up in every batch of reviews I do. I’ve heard bad, I’ve heard good, and then there’s plenty in-between, which is where I would place Thee Heavenly Music Association. It’s obvious they have digested a lot of My Bloody Valentine and The Jesus and Mary Chain, while taking pacing and vocal cues from Mazzy Star. There are a couple of particularly interesting tracks here – “Angelic Disorder” standing out the most, and a cover of the Kate Bush song “Running Up That Hill”, but as a whole it’s nothing worth getting your panties in a twist over.

Half-Handed Cloud - Thy Is a Word & Feet Need Lamps (Asthmatic Kitty, 2005)

Half-Handed Cloud
Thy Is a Word & Feet Need Lamps
Asthmatic Kitty

7 sudden thunderstorms out of 10

Half-Handed Cloud
aka John Ringhofer is a weird dude in the best possible way, and slowly crowning himself the crown prince of short, quirky pop songs (we all know Robert Pollard is the king and no one is even close to challenging that position). This album is like the holy grail of nutty non-bothersome-to-secular-folk jesus rock. Ringhofer plays a thousand different instruments, and in being part of Sufjan Stevens band, he manages to get Stevens to return the favor so he plays on this album and contributes plenty to it's weirdness. The record was mixed by label mate Daniel Smith aka Danielson, completing the triumvirate of tolerable christian popsters, and it would all creep me the hell out if they weren’t all such damn great musicians and songwriters. I don’t even know how to describe the music – think of the quirkiest pop songs you’ve ever heard, add a half dozen kid’s toy instruments on top of it, make the lyrics about the old testament, and you’re kinda close. I like it a lot, but it may not be for everyone.

Clorox Girls - Clorox Girls (Smartguy, 2005)

Clorox Girls
Clorox Girls

7 detergent boys out of 10

I still find it incredibly interesting that bands composed of nothing more than kids would end up playing punk rock in pretty much exactly the same way as their predecessors did almost 30 years ago. But regardless of their age, The Clorox Girls know how to write some damn catchy songs. If you love the catchy, poppy punk in a vein similar to the Buzzcocks or the Ramones or the Urinals, then you should definitely pick this up. Their live show is a raucous mess and not to be missed as well – brash, snotty, and the band will most likely end up in a damaged heap by the end. And for the record, no one in the group is a girl, in case you were wondering.

Josh Rouse - Nashville (Rykodisc, 2005)

Josh Rouse


Rating: 7 loaves of bread out of 10
Josh Rouse is soft rock for the current generation, chamber pop at its finest.  Does it make me old that I really like this?  Gah, who cares, good music is good music.  It probably won’t be donning anyone’s skate parts anytime soon, put it’s a great disc to throw on at the end of a long day to unwind to.  Josh Rouse has always been a fantastic songwriter, and it seems that with each release these talents are magnified more and more.  I would be hard pressed to compare this to anyone in particular, as it sounds like no one and everyone at the same time; you could boil the songs down into particulars – this track sounds like Bread, this one The Smiths, there’s a bit of Lambchop on this song…but the overall picture is that of a confident songcrafter forging his own way.  More than anything this album is a grower, it seeps into your brain slowly and then a few weeks later you find yourself listening to it all the time…that’s my favorite kind of album.

Audible - Sky Signal (Polyvinyl, 2005)

Sky Signal

5.5 vinyl polygons out of 10

This is a very pleasant album…not amazing, but catchy and warm and friendly in a way that makes you feel as if you’ve already heard it your first time listening. Audible was founded by a couple of dudes from that band Matt Pond PA (Jim Kehoe and Mike Kennedy), and they are a five-piece outfit with that typical Polyvinyl/"we used to be emo but now write pop songs" There is a little bit of their sound that is akin to the Shins or New Pornographers or name your own popular indie-pop band. No doubt with the right push they could conquer big mountains, but only time will tell if that will happen. I’m rooting for them. It probably won't happen.

The Rosebuds - Birds Make Good Neighbors (Merge, 2005)

The Rosebuds
Birds Make Good Neighbors


Rating: 9 fat cardinals out of 10
The triangle of North Carolina has a long history of producing quality pop music, from The dBs to Dillon Fence to Superchunk and now The Rosebuds are putting the topic to task.  This Raleigh-based husband and wife duo (with a little help from their friends) craft a brand of pop music that sounds like a throwback to the era of the Smiths, XTC and the like.  "Bird Make Good Neighbors" is their sophmore release, but you wouldn't know that from just listening to the music - it is poignant and polished and mature in a way most bands and musicians aim for their entire careers.  Some of the bombast from their first release may be gone but it has been replaced with a far better craft; Ivan's Morrissey-like vocals are as spot on as ever, and Kelly even steps to the microphone to lend a hand on one of the best tracks of the album "Leaves Do Fall" - a classic duet in the mold of any one of those Kris Kristofferson-and-(insert any one of the multiple female leads here) outings from the 70's.  This album may fly under a lot of the tastemakers' radar, but that doesn't keep it from being one of the best albums of the year.

Crooked Fingers - Dignity and Shame (Merge, 2005)

Crooked Fingers
Dignity and Shame

8 broken knuckles out of 10

I may not be the most unbiased person to review this CD, seeing as how the Archers of Loaf are my favorite band ever…ever! I get ecstatic every time I get a chance to see Eric Bachman play, and luckily that is fairly often since he tours quite a bit. Given that, it’s no wonder that I loved this newest output by his band Crooked Fingers, “Dignity and Shame”. If I were to put it in context with the other Crooked Fingers releases: this is just as good as “Bring on the Snakes”, Better than “Red Devil Dawn”, but not quite as good as their first self-titled album. That is to say, in the pantheon of Crooked Fingers releases, it’s damn good and measures up with the best, although it doesn’t quite surpass the high bar the first album set.

Like all previous efforts, the first and most important thing you get from the record is that Bachman’s terrific, deep voice and fabulous songwriting skills just seem to get better with age. Like the last album, this one finds the band foraying into different, unfamiliar territory - most notably, they are experimenting with mariachi. Bachman’s finger-picking guitar style is already of that nature, horns pepper a few songs, and the imagery of the CD sleeve features red faced matador glaring back at you. Another nice change is the addition of female vocals by an Australian lass named Lara Meyerattken, adding a nice extra dimension to the otherwise manly proceedings.

Askelton - Happy Album (Goodnight, 2005)


5 fluffy pillows out of 10

Sometimes you hear a record, and it’s a perfectly good record, but you just can’t get excited about it? That’s how I’m feeling about this Askelton release. It’s decent listening, a pop record but not one with a lot of overt hooks. The songwriting seems fairly strong and varied – no "sameness" like plagues so many artists. And they often employ a “kitchen sink” method of instrumentation, making the songs a listenable clusterfuck, to quote most prominent scientists. But nothing here moves me, grabs me, sinks into my head, punches me in the face. I can’t really recommend or dis this album, but that’s the nice thing about this computer age – cause if you make your way to their website, you can sample it for yourself and make up your own mind.

Destroyer - Notorious Lightning and Other Works (Merge, 2005)

Notorious Lightning and Other Works

9 sketchy storms out of 10

Although this album is titled as a Destroyer release, in reality this album is Dan Bejar (aka Destroyer) with the group Frog Eyes playing the role of backing band. The product of this indie rock marriage might possibly be much better than either of the original bands involved. Well, definitely better than Frog Eyes, and on par with some of Destroyer's best work. I've never been a huge Frog Eyes fan, but their work here with Bejar makes me want to revisit their catalog and give them a second chance. I've nearly burned a hole in my copy of Detroyer's “Streethawk: A Seduction”, but this release ranks as a close second on my list of all-time best Destroyer albums.

All six of these tracks were previously available on his previous album “Your Blues”, but in a much different form - completely recorded by Bejar, nearly all of the instrumentation done via keyboards and synths, mostly delicate bedroom glam-pop. But here, starting with the opening track “Notorious Lightning” is an organic, sprawling, beautiful mess - still containing the hooks and basic structure of the original, but so much more. The full, live band sound really fleshes out Bejar’s songs much better than the original synth instrumentation. This record is easily an early contender for one of the best records of the year, and it just gets better every time I listen to it.

Acid House Kings - Sing Along With The Acid House Kings (Labrador, 2005)

Acid House Kings
Sing Along With The Acid House Kings

7.5 ikeas out of 10

You ever have those bands you always mean to check out, but never get around to it? For me, that was the Acid House Kings...up until this album obviously, and boy was I a goon for waiting so long. Part of the apprehension was due to the name - “acid house” is synonymous to the rave culture in my mind, something I tend to avoid. And like it or not, the name is the first traffic light you come to, your first stop or go signal.

Anyways, this is what twee-pop is all about - it's like classic Belle & Sebastian mixed with some of the Cardigans early work and a lot of nods to Burt Bacharach. “Do What You Wanna Do” and “This Heart Is Stone” were instant favorites, so catchy and saccharine-sweet that you instantly know you’re going to wear this CD into the ground. The “getting busted singing along in your car” factor is extremely high on this release.

As a bonus, you not only get this fine CD of music, but the Acid House Kings includes a DVD for karaoke: all of the tracks from the album as instrumentals with the words on the bottom of the screen, and visuals of the band doing miscellaneous mundane activities. A brilliant gimmick and neat bonus to accompany a really fantastic set of pop songs.

Built Like Alaska - Autumnland (Future Farmer / Sweat of the Alps, 2005)

Built Like Alaska
Future Farmer / Sweat of the Alps

Rating: 8 Central Valley viaducts out of 10

When seeing Built Like Alaska live recently - and if you ever get the chance, I highly recommend it, as they are fantastic - my friend noted they sound like "Grandaddy’s little brother combined with Built to Spill.” And it was kinda hard to disagree: Neil Jackson’s vocals are very Doug Martsch-like at times, and the Central Valley/Grandaddy connection makes even more sense when you realize the drummers of both bands are actually brothers. But there is one other dynamic which isn’t as obvious in the live setting, but comes through perfectly when listening to any of their recordings, and that is a strong resemblance to Sparklehorse. And know this - I consider Sparklehorse, Built to Spill, and Grandaddy to all be very high on my “favorite bands” list, so these comparisons amount to high praise from me. Any and all of their material out for sale is exceptional, so just go buy it all.

Konono No.1 - Congotronics (Crammed Discs, 2005)

Konono No.1
Crammed Discs


8 electrified thumbs out of 10

Now I’m not a person who usually promotes or even listens to “world” music, but this is a disc that must be heard. Hailing from Kinshasa, the capital of The Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly known as Zaire), Konono No.1 has been in existence for more than 25 years. They play a mutated form of the traditional “Bazombo trance music”, which reflects the changes of the people that they are a part of. After leaving the countryside and moving to the city, they wanted to hold on to their traditional music but had to adapt it to fit their urban environment. They began fashioning speakers, microphones and amplifiers from junk found on the street, and in the typical “when there’s a will there’s a way”, they ended up with these Frankenstein instruments that were able to produce truly remarkable sounds.

The key instrument to the sound of Konono No.1 is the likembe – which is very similar to a thumb piano like you might have played in music class as a kid. They play 3 different versions, giving off treble, middle and bass tones, and accompany them with lots of percussion, multiple vocalists, and dancers when performing live. It’s a pretty mesmerizing sound, and not like anything you would expect to come out of Africa representing tribal sounds…if you like Tortoise-style post-rock and that school of music then this is a must-get. This seems to be their first studio recording outside of a live disc released a few years back; but even as a studio recording, it sounds very much as if you were seeing them perform live. I can’t recommend this CD enough.

Lamps - Lamps (In The Red, 2005)

In The Red

5 halogen bulbs out of 10

My first thought is that this is not your typical release for In the Red – something about the “power trio” Lamps is much,
much too dirty and seedy to fit in with the typical garage rock fare that this label provides. I can’t say that they are anything great, but certainly get bonus points for making me feel like I need to bath after listening to their album. I would imagine this would go over well with the folks who follow No Doctors and The Coachwhips and all that.

Damien Jurado - On My Way to Absence (Secretly Canadian, 2005)

Damien Jurado
On My Way to Absence
Secretly Canadian

Rating: 6.5 missing persons out of 10

I’m assuming that since this is the sixth proper album (plus numerous EPs and whatnot) from
Damien Jurado, you’re already familiar with his music and have probably already made up your mind as to whether you like the guy or not. Me, I’m a pretty big fan, never miss a chance to see that gentle giant play a live show if I can help it, and love pretty much every album he’s put out. This is no exception; and while not the strongest material he’s released, it still stands up as a fine record. In some ways it resembles the “rock” album he did a couple of years back called “I Break Chairs” with the band Gathered in Song, but there are also a few acoustic dirges scattered in there (these always end up being my favorites of his catalog). In typical Jurado fashion, there’s a duet with Rosie Thomas, but there are also a couple of tracks where Eric Bachman of Crooked Fingers/Archers of Loaf lends a helping hand and random other indie-music glitterati. I would certainly recommend this to fans and most other folks wouldn’t be disappointed either…but if you’re looking for a good starting point on this fine singer-songwriter check out “Rehearsals for Departure”, one of my favorite records of all time. Still, even a “B” album by Jurado is better than pretty much everyone else’s “A” game.

M83 - Before the Dawn Heals Us (Mute, 2005)

Before the Dawn Heals Us



10 paella filled crepes out of 10

(Note: I'm leaving the below review completely intact as it's the most wrong I've ever been in reviewing a record. This album is one of my favorites of the last 20 years, as the rating above suggests. Sometimes, you're just wrong.)

It’s been two albums now and I still don’t know what to think of M83. It’s one of things where it has to catch your ear just right…sometimes it sounds awesome, other times, overwrought and cheesy. But this pretty well sums up my feelings on synth-rock as a whole. I’m at a loss as to how to describe what they sound like; I try to imagine it as rock music that Boards of Canada or Matmos or Air would make. Maybe it’s the cover photo, but something about this very much feels like it would be the soundtrack to a Michael Mann film. Certainly, if you liked the last record I don’t see anything here that should turn you off this go-around. Maybe by the time the next record comes out I’ll be able to figure out if I actually like this or not, but right now I’m just confused.

The Mirrors - A Green Dream (Birdman, 2005)

The Mirrors
A Green Dream

Rating: 6.5 violent women out of 10

Birdman seems to think pretty highly of Greg Ashley, as they are dead set on releasing everything the guy has a hand in. Apparently The Mirrors are his band from his younger days, but you can easily see how the music on this disc has melded into what we know now as Gris Gris as well as his solo work. Certainly, fans of his other work should check this out; additionally anyone who goes in for bands getting the trendy comparisons of Syd Barrett/13th Floor Elevators/Skip Spence/et al may well be pleased with what they find here.

Minus Story - Heaven and Hell (Jagjaguwar, 2005)

Minus Story
Heaven and Hell

7 tiny vaginas out of 10

Let me say this first and foremost – Minus Story performs a cover of The Misfits “Hybrid Moments” on this disc, one of my favorite songs of all time, and the cover is pretty great, and therefore this EP gets a big thumbs up from me. The rest of the material is good too, a jangly mellow pop mess with lots of different instrumentation and whiny-yet-not-irritating vocals. I know the Elephant 6/”listened to a lot of Beach Boys” comparisons are a dime a dozen, but I don’t really know what else to say about it, as it certainly fits. Jagjaguwar keeps bringing the hits lately; this is just more of it.

The Time Flys - Fly (Birdman, 2005)

The Time Flys


Rating: 7 Howard Johnsons out of 10
The Time Flys remind me a lot of the bands that populated one of the “lost eras” of rock music – the mid 70s, a time when straight-forward guitar-heavy music with no frills was controlling the eight-track players in everyone’s Pinto and Nova.  And it should be noted that by “lost” I mean in terms of visibility to the general public - when your average joe thinks back on the 1970s, this type of music is not generally what pops in the mind right off…hippy rock had ruled for years and was just wrapping up and the world hadn’t turned into disco vs. punk just yet. These “proto-punk” bands – New York Dolls, The Dictators, Rocket from the Tombs, Richard Hell – they set the stage for what would become punk music, and obviously played a large role in forming the sound of The Time Flys. These songs are too catchy for punk and too punk for power-pop, and the whole thing intentionally sounds like it was recorded in a deep dirt hole in someone’s basement, with the mic placed in the attic. In other words, it’s pretty friggin’ good. With song titles like “Smokin’ Dope”, “Jailbait”, and “In My Skool”, I don’t think any detailed analysis of the lyrics are necessary. Also included is a cover of the Ly-Dells “Teenage Years”, a brief doo-wop respite in a sea of jittery rock, and a damn fine cover at that.  This is very much what the essence of rock-n-roll is all about.

Low - The Great Destroyer (Sub Pop, 2005)

The Great Destroyer
Sub Pop

7 homemade bar stools out of 10

There has been a lot of talk about this Low record – that it is different, maybe poppier – and this is mostly true, but don’t automatically take that to be a bad thing; it still sounds like a Low album, but maybe a little “shinier” than before. With Dave Fridmann of Mercury Rev manning the decks and even contributing to the record, it certainly seems that the production has jumped up a notch - overall the album seems much denser and crisper than previous Low releases. There are a lot of catchy songs on this CD: new tracks “California” and “Step” were instantly all-time favorites of the band’s catalog. And while nothing on here resembles a pop song as it’s classically understood, compared to the band’s historical albums it would certainly register as a more “upbeat” record, at least as far as tempo is concerned (the lyrics aren’t going to talk you down off that ledge if you are intent on jumping). I would be surprised if any diehard Low fans are turned off by this, because it is truly a great release, and as a whole not that terribly different than one might expect going in after reading the reviews. It may even win over some new fans, possibly even some who had already made up their mind about this band.

B.C. Camplight - Hide, Run Away (One Little Indian, 2005)

B.C. Camplight
Hide, Run Away
One Little Indian

6.5 gas lanterns out of 10

B.C. Camplight is what modern day soft rock should sound like…a little bit acoustic pop, a little soul, and all kids of mellow. Although they don’t particularly sound alike, I think of Josh Rouse’s most recent album when I listen to this, and I love that album. Both artists have an obvious love for 70’s AM rock, but where Rouse often veers into more Americana territory, B.C. goes a different direction towards twee/pop-type hooks. This is a very enjoyable record from the first listen.

Tiger Bear Wolf Tiger Bear Wolf (Hello Sir, 2005)

Tiger Bear Wolf
Tiger Bear Wolf
Hello Sir


Rating: 7 confuse-a-trons out of 10

Mother of god, where did these guys come from?  Well, the answer is North Carolina, but I'm just surprised a band could sound this together and tight and brilliant on their very first album.  It's a brilliant debut - imagine the Hot Snakes with just a pinch of Jesus Lizard, all put together by a group that obviously loves dirty seventies southern rock as well. How come everything can’t sound this good?  I guess if it did, then the good stuff wouldn't stand out anymore.

Cadiz - Breakers (Swann House, 2005)

Swann House

6 Spanish towns out of 10

Cadiz is the work of one man, Robert C. Lee, writing some pretty, country-tinged rock songs with a little help from his friends (Anders Parker of Varnaline and Joe McGinty who has played with Ryan Adams, just to name a couple). Nothing about this is particularly amazing, but it's a nice listen, making me feel like sitting on my porch, drinking a tasty beverage, cat in my lap and dog at my feet (trying to get at the cat), and a cool breeze blowing in the wind. One particularly good song is “Girl at the Zoo”, which sounds like it could have been taken right off of a Sparklehorse album. As a side note, I really like the packaging on this disc – great design, use of colors, all that jazz.

Howard Hello - Howard Hello EP (Temporary Residence, 2005)

Howard Hello
Howard Hello EP
Temporary Residence

7 gary goodbyes out of 10

Kenseth Thibideau must be a full-time musician – as a member of Thingy, Tarentel and Rumah Sakit, he found the time to start yet another band with Marty Anderson of Dilute and Okay under the moniker Howard Hello. While both of these guys’ past forays have been fairly “math-rock” oriented, they opted for a different approach with this output – think of the mellower side of M83 with both male and (guest?) female vocals and plenty of atmospheric moments. This whole EP is a very laid-back affair, perfect for an afternoon sitting on your porch reading the paper or as a come down after a heavy skate. Especially impressive is the opening track “More of the Same” - If this song is considered “the same”, I certainly want more of it.

Electric Frankenstein - Burn Bright, Burn Fast (TKO, 2005)

Electric Frankenstein
Burn Bright, Burn Fast

6 motivated werewolves out of 10

It seems like Electric Frankenstein has been around forever, and I guess 13 years is “forever” in the music business. Their brand of heavy bar-rock with just a tinge of punk hasn’t changed too terribly much over the years, so if you dig them then you know every album is going to be worth a listen, and that is indeed the case here. It’s not going to set the world on fire, but “Burn Bright, Burn Fast” is full of catchy heavy songs that instantly make me wish I was on a road trip with the windows down and the music blaring. As a bonus, the album includes three covers at the end - the best and most notable being their version of The Car’s “Candy-O”.

The Stairs - On Sleep Lab (Access to Vision, 2005)

The Stairs
On Sleep Lab
Access to Vision


Rating: 6 terrified toddlers out of 10
While not particularly amazing or anything, this new album by The Stairs is a well crafted chunk of catchy pop songs that should be heard by many more people than will actually happen. From Boston, these lads have a love for the lo-fi (whether that is purposefully or out of necessity), and it suits them; think of a more saccharine, jangly Guided by Voices without the fake British accent. Or maybe they sound like a less-whimsical Of Montreal? Either way, they have an ear for hooks and there are plenty on this record. My biggest complaint – this album is too long and could stand to be edited down a bit, but then again I’ve always been a “less is more” type.

Oranger - New Comes and Goes (Eenie Meenie, 2005)

New Comes and Goes
Eenie Meenie


Rating: 8 flying gardens out of 10
Since I live in San Francisco and Oranger are a local group, I’ve heard and seen this band multiple times over the years…they would often be featured as openers for bands I wanted to see, or they would have a track on a mix-tape from a friend, etc.  Honestly though, I’ve never found them to be particularly exciting.  So I was a little apprehensive when I got this new release “New Comes and Goes” - most likely I put on my best sarcastic voice and exclaimed “oh boy, another overrated pop band” or something along those lines.  But here’s the catch - this new album straight-up rules; from start to finish it is a power pop onslaught that never lets up, and there’s not a weak track in sight. They’ve received Cheap Trick comparisons since their inception, but this album is the first that really made me feel they had the hooks to hang in that neighborhood.  Featuring some new members (currently or once of bands such as Overwhelming Colorfast, the Posies and the Mother Hips), the fresh blood has obviously rejuvenated the group for the better of, well if not all mankind, at least for the better of me.  To use a twist on a cliché phrase, it looks like you can teach an old dog new tricks…really catchy, rockin’ tricks.

Eternity’s Children - From Us Unto You: Original Singles Collection (Rev-Ola, 2005)

Eternity’s Children
From Us Unto You: Original Singles Collection

7 Mississippi mudslides out of 10

Rev-Ola is back again with more reissue goodness – this time it is the soothing sounds of Eternity’s Children. Like me, you’ve probably never even heard of these cats, but there is a good chance you have heard of Curt Boettcher and Keith Olsen, two of the pioneers behind much of the good psychedelic soft rock that was being made in the mid-to-late 60s; they were also responsible for this group, and were in fact their first production if I am to believe what the press sheet tells me. The Children themselves came from Mississippi, were once called the Phantoms, and played with the likes of Charlie Rich as his backing band from time to time. They added folk singer Linda Lawley and changed their name, got signed to A&M, but never quite made it on the charts in any significant way. Which is a shame, because this is some pretty good boogie/psych soft rock…lots of vocal harmonies, a touch of twang, and would sound right at home on a tour with Strawberry Alarm Clock (which actually happened in 1967). There’s also a few tracks that make me think of some of Kenny Rogers output at times, but that is probably just me. Is this a lost classic? Probably not, but it is a good listen especially for folks who enjoy the late 60’s sunshine pop music.

Moon - Flight Logs (Zone 8, 2005)

Flight Logs
Zone 8


Rating: 7 featherweights out of 10

This West Virginia band with the original name of Moon really likes Big Star, and that is a-ok with me, cause the end result is a nice batch of pop songs. There are a number of Cheap Trick and Teenage Fanclub-specific moments as well, but those bands owe so much to Big Star that mentioning them might be redundant. This band has been slowly toiling in their small scene for 15 years, living life and honing their sound down to a very respectable finish. Anyone who likes solid pop songs should do themselves a service and hunt this one down.

Spoon - Gimme Fiction (Merge, 2005)

Gimme Fiction


Rating: 8 ice cube trays out of 10
Although the music on this album makes sense if you’ve followed Spoon all along, the transformation of this band over the years is quite drastic when comparing their first output to the more recent.  It’s been a gradual change and not one that I find particularly upsetting, but over the years they have slowly morphed from the electrified-acoustic guitar sounds that was their early calling card into a dancebeat-laced indie-funk band with very minimal guitar work. Any band that fit this description on paper probably wouldn’t even warrant a listen in my household, but Spoon is so consistently great they are always given a chance.  And despite my general protestations and large dislike for anything that might be remotely described as “indie funk”, I’m actually really digging this new album and their new sound. I’m sure some fans will be disgruntled as usual, but tough titties.  So put on your dancing shoes, put it on the album's best track “I Turn My Camera On”, and get down with your bad self.

The Sames - You Are The Sames (Pox World Empire, 2005)

The Sames
You Are The Sames
Pox World Empire


Rating: 7 bull balls out of 10 
While not sounding particularly like Superchunk, Durham, NC-based group TheSames still remind me quite a bit of them, especially the poppier side of Superchunk that has come to exist over their last few albums. There’s also a bit of Brit-pop/jangle-pop ala The dBs in their mix, and these two comparisons combined should lead you to believe there are more than enough catchy hooks for any one album to have on “You Are The Sames”. The eighth track “Downtown” is particularly stellar, and will no doubt make it on to numerous mixes I make over the next few months.

Hillstomp - The Woman That Ended the World (Fuzzmonster, 2005)

The Woman That Ended the World

6 doc marten boots out of 10

I had to look at the back of this CD while I was listening to it to make sure it wasn’t released on Fat Possum, cause it definitely would fit in well with that roster of bands. Hillstomp is your typical two-piece blues/rock outfit; it has all the hallmarks you expect from this sort of music – dirty production, vocals that sound like they were recorded in the bottom of a well, no bass, etc. nothing here blew me out of the water, but it’s a good release and these guys are obviously talented at their chosen craft. They also know and pay homage to their influences by containing covers of Mississippi Fred McDowell and Muddy Waters on the album. Fans of this sort of racket will probably get along quite nicely with this release, and even casual observers such as myself can enjoy it as well.