Sunday, December 31, 2006

Mogwai - Mr. Beast (Matador, 2006)

Mr. Beast


Rating: 7 acid folk horses out of 10
Being a Mogwai fanatic, I’m not afraid to admit I’ve trolled for information about the band on message boards and music sites - hey, it helps pass the work day better than actually working.  And in doing this I came across a few statements by different individuals that this album, “Mr. Beast”, was going to be the best “art-rock” record to come out since My Bloody Valentine’s “Loveless”.  That’s bold talk, and talk that’s not easily backed up, given the reputation of “Loveless” and Mogwai’s recent output - not bad by any means, I’ve quite enjoyed it; but lacking that punch, that edge that made their early work so fantastic.

But is the statement true?  I dunno, I’m not even sure how to quantify something like that.  “Loveless” is a fantastic album, but musically and stylistically it’s nothing like “Mr. Beast”.  This record finds the band returning to their roots - dropping the vocals (for the most part) and cranking up the volume on their guitars.  They’ve returned with the bombast that made them so special, the sound that has been missing from their records since “Come On Die Young” (but still present in their live shows, thankfully, even when performing their material from their more recent albums).  I was absolutely hooked from the first listen, where the band reclaims the piano as a rock instrument and not just the tool of the devil known as yuppie music.  I have no doubt this will be one of the best record to come out all year and will stand as one of the high points in the career of a band that’s done many great things.

Silversun Pickups - Carnavas (Dangerbird, 2006)

Silversun Pickups


Rating: 7 human meatballs out of 10

I randomly purchased the EP “Pikul” that the L.A.-based quartet Silversun Pickups issued last year and was instantly drawn in – any band with swirling guitars like that will always catch my ear.  The vocals really stood out as well; I might not have been able to identify the sex of the person singing, but it lent itself perfectly to the driving music of this band.  I was hooked.

Fast-forward one year, and the band finally releases their full-length record.  It does not disappoint.  More of that same sound as before, only somehow bigger in scope (and certainly in amount of material – the record is nearly an hour long).  Everywhere I read I see the comparisons to My Bloody Valentine and Smashing Pumpkins – know that Silversun Pickups sound absolutely nothing like either of these bands, but I can see where the comparisons come from.  I’m pretty sure the tone and thickness of the guitars would be Kevin Shields approved, and there is something about the pace of the songs and the way the drums drive everything that would make Billy Corgan proud. 

My only gripe – at times it can feel a touch over-produced.  This bothered me at first but after a couple of listens I sorta accepted it as part of the sound of the band and moved on.  It does seem as if the guitars could benefit from a little more crunch and/or edge to them in the mix, but that is a very minor squabble.  All told, this is definitely a really good record, and recommended.

My Morning Jacket - Okonokos (ATO, 2006)

My Morning Jacket


Rating: 7.5 suburban hippies out of 10

The live album was a staple of the seventies – “At Buddokan” made Cheap Trick a household name in the U.S.; Peter Frampton produced many classic rock radio staples from his “Frampton Comes Alive” double LP; and Kiss went from being just popular to super-duper-mega-superstars after the release of their “Alive” album.  But it’s been a long time since live albums really mattered – more often than not, they are just attempts by labels to make some easy money off of fans eager to hear some new material by their favorite artists.  Only three records come to mind that have come out over the last few years that have been worth a damn – Built to Spill’s “Live”, Wilco’s “Kicking Television”, and DJ Shadow’s “Live! In Tune and on Time”.

Now My Morning Jacket have a fourth entry to add to that short list in the form of this double-disc of live awesomeness called “Okonokos”.  Having seen this band perform live a number of times and telling everyone who will listen they MUST go see this band, I now have a document to point towards that is a pretty damn accurate representation of all of the great times I’ve had at their concerts.  The only thing missing from the home experience is the sight of Jim James and the rest of the group thrashing around on stage with their hair in their face.  The songs on this release run the gamut of their output, but falls a little heavier towards the more recent songs as is usually the case with any band’s live album.  The sound here is perfect, almost too good really – I don’t think it’s a stretch to say this live album actually sounds better than the live show itself, it’s mixed so well.  For any fan of the band, this is a must have; and for those new to the game, consider this a primer, a greatest hits to get you started.

(2011 addendum: this was the last listenable record they made...the drop off after this was precipitous, and really makes me sad...)

Antiseen / Electric Frankenstein - Split 7" (TKO, 2006)

Antiseen / Electric Frankenstein
Split 7"

6.5 beer cans crushed on your head out of 10

By now you should probably know what you are getting with Antiseen – they’ve been producing their southern rock version of an even-more-pissed-off Motorhead for as long as I can remember, and this track is no different, but it’s a pretty damn good track. The flip side has Electric Frankenstein doing their 70’s hard rock thing and doing it well. Both tracks are catchy and entertaining, and if that isn’t enough to convince you the vinyl on this release is this great marbled white and green that would be worth owning even if the music sucked.

The Thermals - The Body, The Blood, The Machine (Sub Pop, 2006)

The Thermals
The Body, The Blood, The Machine
Sub Pop


Rating: 7 empty hands out of 10

On their third record, the Portland-based punk rockers The Thermals decided to slow down the music, clean up the fuzz, and increase the politics.  Normally, this combination of changes would be enough turn me off of a band, but here…it works, and works extremely well.  Where their previous two efforts were a full-tempo onslaught from beginning to end, on “The Body…” the pace varies wildly from one track to the next, and many of the songs are more pop than punk.  It’s somewhat reminiscent to the transformation that happened to Bad Religion when they released “Generator”, only the Thermals appear to be heading in a much better direction as opposed to the sucking that Bad Religion decided to try on.  Some folks may find Hutch Harris’ nasally vocals grating, but to me it just sounds like what you would get if John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats decided to form a punk band (an idea I could really get behind).  It’s also worth noting that this band puts on a blistering, terrific live show that is not to be missed.

Eric Bachmann - To The Races (Saddle Creek, 2006)

Eric Bachmann
To The Races
Saddle Creek

8 thoroughbred fillies out of 10

This is an album of changes…an album where Eric Bachmann dropped the Crooked Fingers band name and elected to record under his own moniker. Actually, he has actually done this one other time, recording the film score for “Ball of Wax” - but that material was much closer to his mid-90s side project Barry Black than what he has been putting out as Crooked Fingers over the last few years. It was also a change in record labels, moving his outfit from Merge Records over to the “Connor Oberst & family” stable of Saddle Creek. But musically…the changes are minimal at best. This album is a little sparser than the last few – many of the tracks here are just the man himself strumming and singing, and then occasionally a cello or violin or some backing female vocals will get inserted into the tracks. And these changes are perfectly fine with me – the major selling points of anything Bachmann is involved with is his strong songwriting and his Neil Diamond-like vocals – everything else is just a bonus. The songs contained in “To the Races” are as strong as anything he has put out to date: “Carrboro Woman” and “So Long Savannah” will be instant favorites to most anyone who gives this a listen. If I had to lodge a complaint at all, it would be that the album is just too damn short - at around 35 minutes long, it feels like it is over before it really gets going. Still, any fan of Bachmann’s output these last few years under the name Crooked Fingers would be a fool not to rush out and get this album, a high contender for one of my favorites of the year

Brakes - The Beatific Visions (Rough Trade, 2006)

The Beatific Visions
Rough Trade

9 turned rotors out of 10

I thought the second record was supposed to be a sophomore slump, but the British group Brakes (or BrakesBrakesBrakes as they are also known) managed to not only better their first outing but to make their otherwise great debut almost look like crap by comparison. The band decided to jaunt over here to the States and record the album in Nashville, and it shines through in their newly recorded material. Sure, there are still a few tracks that hark back to the manic energy of their debut - “Margarita”, “Spring Chicken”, and “Porcupine or Pineapple” all sound like Pixies outtakes, much like most of their debut release “Give Blood”. But the real draw here is their newfound poppy hooks and hints of twang, a style I wouldn’t have expected to work in theory with this band but it turns out even better than your wildest imagination – imagine that aforementioned Pixies influence paired with Nada Surf pop sensibilities and a little pedal steel and ragtime piano for flavor and you’re at least getting the general idea. “Mobile Communication” and album closer “No Return” are highlights, while the title track “Beatific Vision” is easily one of my favorite songs of the entire year. This record has been out a while in the UK, but is just now making it to US shores and we’re all better off for it.

Irving - Death in the Garden, Blood on the Flowers (Eenie Meenie, 2006)

Death in the Garden, Blood on the Flowers
Eenie Meenie

6 polka dot bikinis out of 10

Be it music blogs, local weeklies, or whatever, perhaps it’s just me but it seems like this LA-via-SF band of merry popsters known as Irving has been touted as the “Next Big Thing” for some time now. It’s not surprising really – they are deft songwriters, competent musicians, and most importantly in this day and age, they are a handsome lot of lads. Yet despite this, they still languish in the underground to the befuddlement of many, including myself. Now I’m no super fan of the band, but I like them well enough that it wouldn’t hurt my feelings to hear them getting played on the radio more than most of the dreck that gets airtime nowdays.

Sadly, this isn’t their strongest outing – both their previously released “I Hope You’re Feeling Better Now” EP from 2003 and the 2002 full-length “Good Morning Beautiful” were catchier, more engaging outings. But that’s not to say this one is bad –mostly, it finds the group in a seemingly more subdued & pensive state. It has its bubblegum Beulah-like moments and sneers like the Dandy Warhols on occasion, but it is the laid back pop that defines the album, a sound I can’t pin to any one group but is very reminiscent of the non-ironic 80’s pop that most of us grew up on. Despite not being their best record it’s still an album worthy of checking out if you are at all a fan of quality pop music.

Swan Lake - Beast Moans (Jagjaguwar, 2006)

Swan Lake
Beast Moans


Rating:  7 herb gardens out of 10

So it has become blatantly obvious that Dan Bejar is the King Midas of the rock scene – everything he touches turns to gold.  His signature project Destroyer consistently makes amazing albums; he also plays a strong role in the New Pornographers – a “super group” of Canadian rock stars that have set the independent charts on fire over the last few years.  And as if that weren’t enough, now Bejar has given us a second entirely different “super group” of Canadian rockers called Swan Lake.  The trio features him collaborating with Spencer Krug of Wolf Parade and Casey Mercer of Frog Eyes…and it sounds exactly like you would expect with those three mad geniuses working together.  “Beast Moans” is like an organized mess, a schizophrenic tour through the minds of three fantastic songwriters who somehow pack nearly every song with all of the essential elements that makes Destroyer, Wolf Parade and Frog Eyes so great… Bowie-esque baroque pop meets psychedelic experimentation meets…I dunno how to even quantify it all.  It’s just damn good, and further proof that there is something in the water in Canada for all of these great bands to just keep reproducing like rabbits.

Blag'ard - Blank Faced Clocks (Pig Zen's Pace, 2006)

Blank Faced Clocks EP
Pig Zen's Pace

7 pickled pigs feet out of 10

Once upon a time, when the internet was but a wee thing, there was an amazing band out of Chapel Hill known as Capsize 7. They played a slightly punker version of the typical Chapel Hill indie rock sound, and were one of my very favorite bands during my college years. The reason I bring Capsize 7 up (besides the fact that they never got their due and everyone should hunt out their records) is that their awesome front man, Joe Taylor, has a new two-piece out on the market by the name of Blag'ard.

The first thing that stands out to you when you hear this duo are the vocals - Joe's voice lands somewhere between Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols (but less pissy) and Brian Molko of Placebo (but less eyeliner-y). It carries not only a very distincive sound but delivery as well - when I hear these Blag'ard songs it's tough not to compare them to Capsize 7...I suppose folks who didn't memorize their output may find this to be less of a hindrance when hearing Blag'ard.

Nonetheless, Joe and Drummer Adam Brinson produce some quality angular indie rock here...I've been finding it tough to come up with many comparisons outside of Joe's original band, but I do hear hints of The Fall in there, and a whole lot of that classic Chapel Hill sound.

DJ Shadow - The Outsider (Island, 2006)

DJ Shadow
The Outsider

6.5 wandering nomads out of 10

I’m sure there are many of you out there who eagerly anticipate every nugget of goodness that Josh Davis aka DJ Shadow puts forth to the world. God knows that describes me – I’ve spent more time and money than I care to admit trying to track down all of his albums, singles, limited edition bootlegs, recorded DJ sets, you name it. I’m known in my circle of friends for having serious attention deficit disorder when it comes to music, so the fact that I’ve felt strongly for Shadow for 10+ years says a lot in my book. Obviously, with such lofty praise comes high expectations, and no mortal man can fulfill these desires day in and day out. In other words, to get to the root of the issue, the new Shadow album is disappointing. And yet at the same time, it’s a pretty good record too.

First and foremost, this is not your typical Shadow collage of dark, obscure samples laced together flawlessly…this album feels more like a hip-hop mix tape. There are a few rock-oriented numbers and a couple of almost-typical Shadow tracks, but the overall feel is that of a current Bay Area mix tape; in other words, Shadow has done gone “hyphy”. I personally like pretty much everything on this album, but at no point do you really feel like you are listening to another DJ Shadow masterpiece, but rather the local college radio station. There is no flow between songs at all, which is probably the worst part of it – even this smorgasbord of tracks would be better suited to a different placement of song locations.

But on to the songs themselves – Shadow has assembled a fantastic cast of musicians to help him out on this album. The three best tracks in my opinion are assisted by David Banner on “Seein’ Thangs”, a tag-team of Q-Tip and long-time Shadow cohort Lateef on “Enuff”, and Phonte Coleman of Little Brother on “Backstage Girl”. The hyphy gets brung by Bay Area locals Turf Talk, The Federation, Keak da Sneak, and the legendary E-40. Add in the guitarist dudes from Kasabian, a couple of tracks with vocals by Chris James of Stateless, and a few other odds-n-ends and that is the record.

Make no mistake, there's going to be a lot of backlash over this release from long-time fans. Some will like it, others won’t, and I’m guessing all of them will be a little bummed (like me) that the album isn’t what they expected. All told, I still expect to listen ot this a lot, as the music is good – but when I’m really itching to hear some DJ Shadow, I doubt this release will ever be the first to pop into my mind.

DJ Shadow - Funky Skunk (Public Works, 2006)

DJ Shadow
Funky Skunk
Public Works


Rating: 7.5 malodorous rodents out of 10

In between his “official” studio releases, DJ Shadow often puts out limited-edition mixes to help quench the thirst of us rabid fans. This material differs from his more original compositions and rely much more heavily on their source material, but still maintain that unique quality that tells even the most casual fan that Shadow has had his hand in it’s creation. At their basest form they are glorified mix tapes, but his ability to mesh disparate sounds together into a cohesive and highly listenable package is second to none as far as I’m concerned.

If you’ve followed along with his releases at all, you know how great the “Brainfreeze”, “Product Placement” and “Diminishing Returns” discs are; but this most recent album, “Funky Skunk”, may be the best of all. Limited to 450 copies and produced in conjunction with Shepard Fairey and Obey, this disc mostly focuses on hip-hop. Both old and new are well represented - you’ll hear Three Six Mafia, Too $hort, Birdman, David Banner, and god knows what else, all mixed in amongst snippets of obscure funk, psych rock, booty bass…shit, he even uses part of a Terry Gross interview from NPR. In a word, it’s brilliant. It may not be the easiest album to come across, but spending a little extra time searching it out will prove well worth your time.

The Bellakun - Bendicion Maldita (Has Anyone Ever Told You?, 2006)

The Bellakun
Bendicion Maldita
Has Anyone Ever Told You?

7 things people have told me out of 10

In my estimation, The Bellakun are the closest we’re ever going to get as second coming of Three Mile Pilot. They’re not as awesome as the Pilot, mind you, but rock a very similar style and sound and between this album and the EP that preceeded it, seem well on their way to being a must-hear group. I suppose you could also compare their sound to Pinback and Black Heart Procession, but since all of those bands are intertwined in the shared-members sphere, it would be redundant. The Bellakun is made up of a quartet of Latino dudes from Texas; it is rare and somewhat surprising that a band this talented and easy on the ears is flying so far below the radar, but hopefully that will change for them soon. Definitely recommended.

The Cuts - From Here on Out (Birdman, 2006)

The Cuts
From Here on Out

7 band-aids out of 10

I’ve had my issues with The Cuts in the past, but there is no doubting that this band knows how to write a catchy song. This album is a big step up from their previous work in my book – uninspired rehash rock has been replaced with an ability to faithfully recreate everything that made the rock of the 1970’s so great. There are proto-punk songs that will remind you of the Stooges, pop songs that will make Cheap Trick or Big Star come to mind, glam songs that would be at home on a Slade album, and even some piano rock that sounds like it was taken from the Mott & the Hoople back catalog. Seriously, every song is ear catching and very well put together. I’ve long held that the side projects that these guys dabble in (especially the Time Flys) are better than the Cuts, but this album is making me rethink that position.

I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness - Fear Is On Our Side (Secretly Canadian, 2006)

I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness
Fear Is On Our Side
Secretly Canadian

6.5 ch-ch-ch-ch-changes out of 10

Many of you may have heard of I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness and laughed at their name – I too found it quite humorous the first few times I saw or heard it mentioned (although not as humorous as the band name “I Hate You When You’re Pregnant” that I saw listed playing a local club not too long ago). With a name like that, I don’t think you would be wrong-minded to expect the group to be some sort of novelty rock act; but it turns out they are damn good, entertaining indie rock group with a penchant for keyboards. Yes, it’s true that these Texas lads do have a bit of the 80’s synth-rock rehash in them, but this is one of the few groups I can stomach that from – they make it sound like it’s the real deal, that if you played this band on 120 minutes back in the day they would have fit in nicely with the Cure, Siouxie and the Banshees, the Church, etc. the only thing standing between this group and stardom is luck – they have the look and the sounds to go over big, but like all talented acts it takes getting the right people to hear them.

Akron/Family - Meek Warrior (Young God, 2006)

Meek Warrior
Young God

7.5 crab nebulae out of 10

I’ve never been a big fan of the term “freak folk” to describe what the kids are doing these days with some acoustic guitars, a delay pedal and repetitive layering of vocals. But the nice thing about any genre name is that despite how silly it might be, it gives you an easy way to refer to a specific style and most folks know where you are coming from. I mention this because Akron/Family often gets grouped with those freak-folk bands, which is a perfectly fitting descriptor of this New York City-based quartet some of the time. Then there is that other part of their music, which couldn’t be any more all-over-the-map if you had a globe and a handful of darts. Sunny pop, krautrock, noise…you name it, they find a way to work some element of that sound into their recordings.

This album, "Meek Warrior", finds them following along that same path, this time with extra help from some members of Do Make Say Think and Broken Social Scene. The Young God website makes it sound as if this is a hold-over until the band records another album - a collection of random tracks individual band members had been working on, fleshing out and then recording with the full band later. Mostsongs lean towards the more folky side of the band, all fine and good and no complaints from this listener; but they still manage to work in a few mindfucks, most importantly the opening track “Blessing Force”, an epic 9+ minute rocker that goes from Oneida-style repetitive rockin’ to more straight-forward folk to some weird variation on blues-rock and finally dissolves into noise and chaos to end it all. It is this song that best represents the many sides of this talented band, with their ability to swarm all over the map musically and still somehow tie all of that together in a listenable fashion.

Robert Pollard - From a Compound Eye (Merge, 2006)

Robert Pollard
From a Compound Eye


Rating: 7 mustard camels out of 10

Robert Pollard releasing a solo record isn’t generally that big of a deal - the man seems to be responsible in one way or another for about 30 records a year…even a diehard fan like myself can’t keep up.  But this is his first solo outing since officially disbanding Guided by Voices, so everyone is paying more attention and there is probably a bit more pressure to deliver.  Luckily for all of us, “From a Compound Eye” delivers like a classic GBV album - specifically, it reminds me a lot of a combination of “Vampire on Titus” and some of Pollard’s cleaner pop sensibilities that have developed during the band‘s last few releases.  The British Invasion-style hooks are all still there, as catchy as almost anything he has written - outside of the two albums of pure perfection, “alien Lanes” and “Bee Thousand” of course - those will never be topped.  Long-time fans will certainly be overjoyed with this record, and even those fans who only buy the occasional album by anything Pollard-related should make the effort to check this one out.

The M’s - Future Women (Polyvinyl, 2006)

The M’s
Future Women


Rating: 7 women on trucker speed out of 10
These Chicago kids called The M's have most definitely avoided the sophomore jinx that plagues so many bands, producing a follow-up to their self-titled debut that outperforms it in every way.  They will undoubtedly receive comparisons to the Shins or maybe even the Lilys, as all of these groups seem to be hugely inspired by one of the 1960s biggest acts – The Kinks.  Nothing wrong with that – The Kinks are a legendary band for a reason, and no one here is ripping them off, even though the influence is obvious.  The M’s are also not a bunch of cats who are stuck in the past – they do a mighty fine job of taking that classic sound and writing catchy, modern songs; and if the world made any sense, these songs would be blaring from radio stations across the country.  Unfortunately for them, they don’t have the million-dollar major label push that it requires to get on the FM dial, but I digress.  If you like high-quality pop music, these guys are definitely worth a listen.

Casiotone for the Painfully Alone - Etiquette (Tomlab, 2006)

Casiotone for the Painfully Alone

6.5 alligator tea parties out of 10

It might have taken Owen Ashworth aka Casiotone for the Painfully Alone four records to get himself away from the four-track and into the studio, but you can’t hurry genius. No doubt some of his more purist fans will be disappointed to find guest vocalists and fleshed out instrumentation littered throughout this release, but it's their loss. In my view it’s for the better – not that I didn’t enjoy Owen’s earlier output, but there is a lot more to grab onto here, and his music doesn’t feel as brittle and thin as it did in the past. You’re still going to get the melancholy instrumentation and sad lyrics you’re used to, only this time it’s wrapped in a prettier package, so to speak.

Arab Strap - The Last Romance (Transdreamer, 2006)

Arab Strap
The Last Romance

7 broken pint glasses out of 10

On their sixth full-length album, it actually sounds like the depressed lads in Arab Strap have turned a corner and become…happier? At least that was my initial impression, until you listen a little more closely and realize that their lyrics are just as morbid and downtrodden as ever – “sometimes there’s nothing sexier than knowing that you’re doomed” is just a random sample line from one of their songs, and that’s actually rather tame for their gloomy output. What has happened, though, is that Aidan Moffat and company have become more upbeat in as far as the tempo of their songs - which to a fool like me equals “happier” since I rarely pay attention to lyrics. But Arab Strap are the rare exception – Moffat is so damn good at telling stories with his songs it’s hard to resist, often feeling as if you are eavesdropping on that crusty old drunk at the local bar as he regales the bartender with his tales of woe. Their uniquely Scottish take on life and music sounds like what you might get if you locked Nick Cave and the Black Heart Procession in a dank Glasgow pub for a few weeks, only on this go around someone must have slipped some uppers into their pints because I never would have thought this band would produce and album this up-tempo and full of hooks. Is it the best album they have released? It’s still too soon to tell for me, but it’s a damn good album at least on par with their finest work.

The Appleseed Cast - Peregrine (Militia Muzik, 2006)

The Appleseed Cast
Militia Muzik

7 falcons out of 10

I’ve not been sure what to classify the Appleseed Cast as for a while now…they might have started out rooted in the Lawrence, KS emo scene from the mid-90s that was huge, but after their first couple of records they diverged so far from that path that to consider them emo now would just be silly. The review of this album on Allmusic somewhat jokingly makes reference to “Midwest post-rock”, but honestly this is as good a descriptor of their sound as about anything else, if you’re really itching to put a label on things. If you were to try and combine elements from Tristeza, The Cure, Mogwai, the Notwist…maybe even a little Sigur Ros when they are at their rockingest, you’d have the general idea of where these guys are coming from, even if they don’t really sound like any of those bands per se.

On first listen, and maybe even the second and third listens, my reaction was “good, enjoyable record that sounds like their last record ‘Two Conversations’”... but as I dug deeper I got a feeling that things had been switched up in very subtle ways, ways that seep into your brain after you’ve digested the album a few times. Most notable of these changes is the drumming; not only is there a new drummer with a decidedly different style (think Doug Scharin from June of 44, if that means anything to you), but the organic drums are paired up with or played off of lots of electronic beats so it gives a wholly new texture to these otherwise atmospheric, noisy pop songs. There’s even some slide guitar on one of the songs for chrissakes, and somehow it works. Bottom line, this is a very good record, and a continued step in the right direction for a vastly underappreciated band.

The Exploding Hearts - Shattered (Dirtnap, 2006)

The Exploding Hearts


9 sleeping aides & razor blades out of 10

It feels like I’ve been waiting on this compilation for a long time; ever since that fateful night that took the lives of three of four members of The Exploding Hearts, I knew it was inevitable that Dirtnap or someone would release a compilation of unreleased songs, singles, b-sides and outtakes so that us fans would have at least a little more of the Heart’s glammy pop to hang our hats on. Anyone who at this point hasn’t listened to and memorized the band’s only release, “Guitar Romantic”, should drop this magazine and instantly run to their nearest record store and purchase it (or maybe it’s even on iTunes for you internet nerds). That album wasn’t just the best record of 2003, it will probably go down as one of the top 5 records of the decade. As you can tell, my feelings run high with this band so this odds-n-sods release is the only real chance for fans to get a “new” Exploding Hearts album (even if you do already know most of the songs in one form or another). How tragedy befalls a band of this talent and yet Nickelback still walk the earth I’ll never understand, but any fan of catchy pop songs with a late 70’s punk vibe could do no better than the Exploding Hearts.

Ex-Boyfriends - Dear John (Absolutely Kosher, 2006)

Dear John
Absolutely Kosher

6.5 gay pickles out of 10

Different people think of different types of music when they hear the term “pop punk”. For some it means radio-friendly pap like Green Day or Blink 182; but for me, I think of Superchunk and Jawbreaker and San Francisco’s newest entry to this field, the Ex-Boyfriends. And while the Ex-BFs don’t really sound like those bands whom they share a descriptor with, they certainly seem to be coming from the same origins. To be sure, this SF trio floats more to the pop side of the spectrum, dashing their music liberally with plenty of “oohs” and “ahs” and that manner of business, but the pace of their songs, brevity of their tracks, and occasional crunch to their tone keeps them from being a pop band exclusively. Singer Colin Daly’s vocals may take some folks a listen or two to adjust to, as he sounds quite a bit like Robert Smith if he weren’t busy making maudlin synth-pop and instead took some trucker speed before performing.

(The Sounds of) Kaleidoscope - From Where You Were to How You Got There (Hackshop, 2006)

(The Sounds of) Kaleidoscope
From Where You Were to How You Got There


Rating: 7 quick toes out of 10
This Washington DC band,
(The Sounds of) Kaleidoscope, released an EP called “Can and Do What They Will” a couple of years back that I accidentally stumbled upon and it blew me out of the water.  I was obviously excited when I found out they had a new full-length out, which by the application of simple mathematical principles I was able to deduce that this release should be twice as awesome as the EP.  The group continues down the same path they had started with their earlier releases, channeling their mod pop/shoegaze rock hybrid that is equal parts Kinks and Spacemen 3, depending on how you bend your ear when listening.  Both “Oh My Mind” and “New Language” were instant favorites after only one listen, sure to be pushed on my friends until they finally catch wind and realize what a great band they are missing out on. Without hesitation I can say this is one of the best records I’ve listened to all year, and this lovely collection of tracks will most certainly be in the running when it comes to year-end best-of lists.

Sonic Youth - Rather Ripped (Geffen, 2006)

Sonic Youth
Rather Ripped


Rating: 7.5 fantasy wieners out of 10
It seems insane that Sonic Youth has been around for 25 years…that a band of this quality has existed almost as long as I have.  And while their output may not be as fantastic as the “Sister”/“Daydream Nation” era, even their worst albums are far better than most bands can manage. 

“Rather Ripped” comes in as their fifteenth album, not including countless EPs and live albums and all that.  More importantly, it is probably their strongest work since 1995’s “Washing Machine”.  Their last few records have been very good - but at the same time, a little formulaic in a very Sonic Youth sorta way.  And while this one isn't much different it does set itself apart by being one of their catchiest compositions in years – the second track “Incinerate” will instantly get stuck in your head, and is one of the favorite songs they’ve ever written.  This record does seem to be a little more Kim Gordon-heavy than usual, and I know there are folks out there who hate when she consider yourself warned. 

If you’re a long-time fan like myself then picking this one up is a no-brainer; however, if you’ve written the band off in the past you should do yourself a favor and at least give it a spin or two, you may find yourself surprised at how much this group of geezers is still capable of accomplishing.

They Shoot Horses Don’t They - Boo Hoo Hoo Boo (Kill Rock Stars, 2006)

They Shoot Horses Don’t They
Boo Hoo Hoo Boo
Kill Rock Stars


Rating: 6 mental notes out of 10
I don’t know whether to admire the balls it takes to name a band after a Jane Fonda movie, much less this Jane Fonda movie (were “Barbarella” and “On Golden Pond” taken?), or just remain bewildered as to what combination of hallucinogens it took to decide it was a good idea.  It’s all secondary to the fact that this junk rock band makes some damn interesting music.  This large group of kids from Vancouver is a modified take on the sound that is sweeping Canada (and by proxy the U.S.) – namely, melodic noise rock.  In this case, if you were to combine Wolf Parade, a family of circus gypsies, and some cheap liquor it would probably come out a lot like They Shoot Horses Don’t They?.  Admittedly, you gotta be in the right mood for music like this – if you are feeling fragile at all the bleating horns and constant clank clank clank of the random percussion could probably send you to a nervous home…but when the mood strikes you for creating a raucous carnival atmosphere from your boom box there is nothing better.

Jeremy Enigk - World Waits (Reincarnate, 2006)

Jeremy Enigk
World Waits

7 frog queens out of 10

It’s been ten years since Jeremy Enigk split off from Sunny Day Real Estate, found jesus, and released the absolutely brilliant orchestral pop album “Return of the Frog Queen”. A lot has changed around the world in those ten years, so while I might have been hoping that Enigk’s sophomore solo effort “World Waits” would be a “Frog Queen" sequel, it’s not really reasonable to expect that to actually happen. Instead, we got an album that is more electrified, less orchestral, and…dare I say it – possibly befitting of an “adult contemporary” label. The one thing that entered my head upon first listen and never let up was the mid-80s work of Peter Gabriel, particularly his immensely popular album “So”. It doesn’t sound dated like that release, and there is nothing quite as silly as “Sledgehammer” on “World Waits”, but other than Enigk’s recognizable voice many of these tracks would easily be passed off as fare for one of those crappy lite-rock stations. With all that said – I quite like this record. I know, it doesn’t add up, and maybe it’s a sign of me turning into my parents, but outside of some overly serious lyrics here and there, this is a really beautiful album, with more than enough going on to tide over pop fans and Sunny Day fans alike.

The Pipettes - We Are The Pipettes (Memphis Industries, 2006)

The Pipettes
We Are The Pipettes
Memphis Industries


Rating: 6.5 dirty shapes out of 10

Is this Pipettes album the start of a new trend of 60’s girl group-inspired music or a one-off novelty rock album that will be forgotten in six months?  After listening to the debut album of this set of English popsters I’m still not sure of the answer, but I do know it sounds mighty good to me right now.  This fact is probably helped along by how much I’ve been enjoying the Rhino Records box set “One Kiss Can Lead To Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost & Found”, so this release caught me at just the right time.  You’ve got a cute trio of ladies in matching vintage outfits, singing and dancing in unison to songs with titles such as “Your Kisses Are Wasted On Me” and “It Hurts To See You Dance So Well” – what’s not to love? Any fan of cute pop songs would do well to at least give this a chance.  And buy that Rhino box set while you are at it if you want a dose of the real deal – a touch pricy, but worth every cent.