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Sheryl's Magnetic Aura, Stephen Malkmus, Echoboy, Sam Densmore's Silverhawk, Bad Astronaut, satanstompingcaterpillars, Dear Nora, Wir, Liam Singer and the Fantastic Space Crystal, Today, The Firebird Band, Burn Guitars, American Holidays, Sound Transmission, Peaches, Fire in the Radio, Forever Goldrush, Chestnut Station, Gone Again, Matt Turner, Stolie, The Renovators, Diane Lum, Julio Cuomo and the Word on the Street

Sheryl's Magnetic Aura / Like You Mean It +3 / Loose Change (7")

Sample 30 seconds of "Like You Mean It"
Okay, mid-sized indie label people, I know you're reading this. Listen closely, because I'm only going to say this once. One of you should grab Sheryl's Magnetic Aura ASAP and spend some money on a halfway decent studio and a good producer. You'll thank me. This is no slight to the band's own Loose Change label, but on the strength of some of the stuff here, Sheryl's deserves access to resources beyond their means. "Like You Mean It", the title track, is a three-way collision of math rock, orch-pop and...well, let's just say "current pop-punk trends". From its mannered instrumental beginning to its rousingly messy conclusion, "Like You Mean It" juxtaposes styles in a surprisingly unique fashion, mixing loud/soft/loud vocals and crashing guitars with soulful clarinet, piano and oddly-timed guitar sequences. B-Side track "That Boy is Somebody Now" refines what I'll call the orch-emo approach to more consistent, if marginally less striking effect. The other two tracks go for more of an eccentric pop feel (think Marshmallow Coast); their impact isn't as strong, but they could still go somewhere. Already an unexpected delight, SMA have it in them to be indie rock terms, at least. -- gz

Stephen Malkmus / Discretion Grove b/w Sin Taxi / Matador (7")

Sample 30 seconds of "Sin Taxi"
In one of his final shows with Pavement guitarist/vocalist Stephen Malkmus produced a pair of handcuffs, telling the audience "These symbolize what it's like being in a band." Given the statement, it seemed fair to assume that the first single to bear his name alone would differ significantly from his former group's trademark sound. Then again, it's never wise to assume. A-side "Discretion Grove" is best described as "Pavement-like," even as it strips "Shady Lane" to three precious chords, while "Sin Taxi," the comparatively adventurous B-side, benefits from the use of woodwinds and surprising instrumental nods to The Electric Prunes and "Sympathy for the Devil." Fans will have to wait until his solo LP is released on February 13th to determine whether further surprises are in store. -- af

Echoboy / Volume 2 / Mute (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Telstar Recovery"
Did you know that there were over 400 acid "freakouts" at the original Woodstock? Had Richard Warren, aka Echoboy, been there, that number would likely have skyrocketed into the hundreds of thousands. Given one whiff of his twisted brand of punk-meets-Neu! dancefloor polemics, the beaded throng would definitely have been seeing winged serpents and purple grizzly bears. Volume 2 finds Warren in a more volatile mood. Whereas his debut album (Volume 1 -- this is not a guy who's going to win awards for original album titles) drenched the listener in wave after wave of mellow keyboard drone, Volume 2 seeks to knock you clear off your seat with howling blasts of industrial noise ("Telstar Recovery") and jackhammer beats ("Siobhan"). It's not until the end of the album that Warren slows the pace and gets back to his old mischief. "Sudwestfunk No. 5" offers a hearty chunk of slow-motion Kraut funk, and "Circulationís" trickling beats and sullen vocals come close to being a ballad. Fans of Warren's earlier work needn't worry; the Echoboy you know and love is still alive and kicking, albeit a bit harder this time around. Volume 2 does nothing if not prove that Warren is still at the top of his game, and staying miles and miles ahead of the competition. -- jj

Sam Densmore's Silverhawk / Flowers in June EP / Pop Sweatshop (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Flowers in June"
Throughout Flowers in June I couldn't help thinking of early REM. All four tracks have elements that recall the kind of dynamic pop-rock that made Mr. Stipe and Co. famous in the late '80s. "Flowers in June" is an infectious tune with a big, power-pop sound and joyful vocals. "Summer Came" is a bit mellower, but equally friendly. It has a more sparse instrumentation and quirky lyrics like, "Summer came and I lost my brains again." "Break your Crown" is a sort of sly number with a tight, rhythmic bassline and mildly aggressive lyrics. The finale, "Obsessive", is like the opener, with a big sound and catchy little melodic hooks. It's not a bad song, but, like the rest of the EP, it comes up short of brilliance. In general, Flowers in June is pleasant enough but lacks sufficient sparkle and wit to make it great. -- nw

Bad Astronaut / Acrophobe / Honest Don's (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Only Good For A..."
Regardless of what band he's in, when singer Joey Cape gets behind the mic, it's going to remind you of Lagwagon. Not that this is an unjust thing. Cape's latest offshoot, Bad Astronaut, does its fair share of ass kicking, space style, with thudding bass lines and good ol' fashioned mixed tempo changes that maintain a familiar pop-punk sound, yet add another facet that's decidedly un-Lagwagon. While Cape's sugary melodies still steer your ears through uncharted territory, the other two thirds of this punk rock ship take a decidedly more relaxed approach, running the gamut from distorted riffs to quavering keyboards. Sometimes punk, sometimes just good ol' songwriting that's not afraid to settle down, Bad Astronaut's music does a great job of enticing the punk rock fan out of you and dousing him/her with unexpected scraps of introspection. Whether you're a diehard or just looking for some quality punk tuneage, Bad Astronaut will ship it to you, warp-speed, full throttle ahead, with solid thumbs up from NASA and your own personal mission control. -- am

satanstompingcaterpillars / Flower Slides / Fuckeroo (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Aphid"
It can't be easy being a band in Western Pennsylvania. I mean, Pittsburgh's a real city and all, but it's not exactly known for having a thriving music scene. And other than Pittsburgh, well I guess there are a few college towns here and there, and there's always Hershey Park, but it doesn't seem like there's a whole lot of opportunity for weirdo bands out yonder. That's why it doesn't surprise me that Flower Slides is full of very personal, modest and idiosyncratic music -- the kind of thing that someone who spends a lot of time alone in the basement of their parents' house might make. This is proudly 4-track music, and it sounds like it: a bit muddy, heavily overdubbed, tweakily mixed. The songs are pretty mellow and a bit trippy, with some really nice not-quite-right drum machine rhythms and odd synth lines that never go quite where you're expecting them to. There's a good bit of guitar-based music here too, but I find it a little too noodly; I definitely like the electronic tracks more. While the 4-track aesthetic works well for a lot of these songs, this seems to me to be the type of band that could really stretch out and do some innovative things, given the right resources. I hope they get the chance to prove me right! -- ib

Dear Nora / We'll Have a Time / Magic Marker (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Since You Went Away"
Dear Nora is two girls and a guy, probably college-aged or thereabouts. They play jangly guitar pop -- a mixture of bashful rock tunes and slow, introspective numbers, all with (I assume) vocals from the girl guitarist and harmonies from the girl drummer. In short, they're the sort of band I hear all the time. But I'm going to recommend them over most of those other bands, for one very simple reason: these ladies know how to do their vocals. Far too many twee pop bands these days seem to think that it's somehow cute or clever when their girl vocalist can't really sing, and then acts like it's her god-given right to be as off-key as she wants to be. On very rare occasions -- like maybe one in every fifty records -- it is cute. The other forty-nine times, it curdles the blood. Katy Davidson and Marianna Ritchey do well here because they know their limitations and don't try to sing stuff they can't handle, sticking to simple, often moody vocals and sugary harmonies. As a result, I'm able to enjoy their songs rather than cringe every few seconds. I won't pretend that the band's sound is overwhelmingly original, but I'd rather hear Dear Nora than the majority of their peers. -- gz

Various Artists / Wir / Ladomat 2000(2xCD)

Sample 30 seconds of "It's Not Over"
Wir (ie., German "we"), as in "Wir haben hier eine andern gutes Deutsch elektronische Musik CD", is a compilation of German artists. The booklet art shows an embracing couple and is subtitled "Love Will Tear Us Apart" -- but I don't see why, as no one covers the Joy Division single, and none of these songs dwell on love-related melancholia. The Germanic vocals found on some of the tracks are generally more charming than confusing (they're not too thick), as with Subtle Tease's "Decoration Self Righteous". Most of the songs here have been culled from the artists' full-length releases, but most of these artists aren't distributed too vigorously in the US. If you wanted a general overview of the state of house/disco/electronica in Germany today, this disc would be a good place to start. You actually can dance to most of the songs, although a few of them are too ambient to move to, and the there are a few that'd I'd skip ("from disco: to: disco" comes to mind). However, there are more than enough unskippable tracks to make this two-disc set worthwhile. -- js

Liam Singer and the Fantastic Space Crystal / The Obedient Ions of Summer / Self-released (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "My Eulogy as Delivered by the Room that I Died In"
If you combine the music from the video game The Legend of Zelda with some trippy lyrics sung mostly in a monotone, you get The Obedient Ions of Summer. It's all vaguely interesting but lacks any real punch. Recorded on a four-track, this is the soundtrack for someone spends entirely too much of their time in his bedroom. Featuring self-indulgently long song titles such as "The Thoughts of a Man Who Lies Unconscious on the Beach", this collection offers insight into the mind of someone who is probably quite pleasant but relishes being obscure. To his credit, the tracks are all short and end before they wear out their welcome. However, when the best I can say is that the songs are obscure and short, this certainly leaves plenty of room for improvement. In the future, Singer should turn the power of his mind towards connecting with listeners rather than confounding them. -- rd

Today / Today / Abstract Hits (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Lazy"
Here is a four-pack of simple, meandering pop that isn't trying to change the world. No deep rooted messages, just playful and somewhat sloppy songs like "Lazy" and "Robots." The vocals of Mille Benson show plenty of promise, but this is really a hollow recording with many holes to fill. -- im

The Firebird Band / The Setting Sun and Its Satellites / Cargo (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Kiss Yourself"
Everywhere I go, people are talking Hey Mercedes this and Hey Mercedes that, but nobody seems to be talking about The Firebird Band. For the life of me I canít figure out why, because in a Groups Featuring Former Members of Braid battle-of-the-bands, TFB would kick HMís ass all over the place. As you may already know, The Firebird Band is led by former Braid guitarist/singer Chris Broach -- the guy whoís not in Hey Mercedes. The Setting Sun and Its Satellites finds Broach discarding the trademark elements of his old band in favor of a moodier, electronically grounded and altogether more subdued approach. Rather than beat the listener over the head with angular rhythms and fuzzed-out guitars, songs like "City" and "Beautiful" employ subtle, dissonance-induced atmospherics and sparse guitar work to emphasize their points. Alternately, "Kiss Yourself" sounds surprisingly like More Songs About Buildings and Food-era Talking Heads with its jangly-yet-jagged guitars and absurd vocal histrionics. Broach has gone quite a long way in distancing himself from the scene that he and his bandmates brought to prominence all those years ago, and though it might not quite be the album you were expecting, it will almost certainly turn out to be the surprise that you were not. -- jj

Burn Guitars / Demo / Burn Guitars (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Old Ways New"
Three basses and one drummer make up this New York City outfit. The idea is intriguing and makes me recall Austin's underground noise mongers, Terror at 10,000 Feet, who sported the same lineup. Burn Guitars has all the positives of being an anti-guitar band: plenty of thudding low end, an apparent lack of squeaky guitar solos and a mission that has every intention of decimating every woofer in the immediate vicinity. Crossing Monster Magnet vocals and Motorhead attitude, this quartet comes off sounding like a metal band without guitars or crunching riffs. My beef is that there isn't enough complexity with the bass lines, as it sounds like each instrument is generally playing the same notes through most of the tunes. With some rhythmic deviation, tonal differentiation and a willingness to avoid rock 'n' roll song structure climaxes, Burn Guitars will certainly be a force that leaves its indelible stamp upon your memory. -- am

American Holidays / Sunday Drives / Devil in the Woods (7")

Sample 30 seconds of "Sunday Drives"
Some extremely promising stuff from a Modesto, CA four-piece. Handily avoiding the tiresome whininess that's so trendy these days, American Holidays seem to specialize in very deliberate, determined power-pop melodies combined with level, almost stoic vocals reminiscent of latter-day new wave. They're not afraid of minor-key melodies, either. While "Right Through the Sky" might prove a little downbeat for some, "Lightning Souls/Here For Good" revels in the sort of unexpected chord progressions and smeared tonal shifts that Radiohead brought to the musical palette-at-large. However, though I've invoked Yorke & Co., rest assured that American Holidays aren't a batch of clones; their sound is comfortably their own. For a band that's less than a year old, that's good progress indeed. -- gz

Sound Transmission / First Construction / Vain/Glorious (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "April Sky"
So I got all excited when I first spied this CD. It has really cool old school educational electronics diagrams all over it, the name of the band implies some sort of weirdo experimental sound collective and the disc's title evokes subversive early 20th century art movements. On listening to the disc, my excitement soon turned to not-so-excitement, as I realized that despite a nicely-put-together sound collage on the first track, this is basically a 1990s guitar pop album. There's nothing wrong with pleasant guitar pop, but it's a lot harder for me to get excited about than weirdo sound experiments. Heavy Nick Cave influences are all over these songs, particularly in the vocals. The guitars are mostly jangly and mellow, the beats mid-tempo rock. A few of the songs, like "April Sky" and "Permanent Actions", are pretty good, but an earnest cover of Rush's "The Sphere: A Kind of Dream" and some pretty iffy playing in general kind of takes the shine off of the whole affair. -- ib

Peaches / Teaches of Peaches / Kitty-Yo (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Lovertits"
Think of a Digital Hardcore outfit like Lolita Storm, throw in hip hop sensibilities and a Roland MC505 and you'll be approaching Peaches sound. To finish things off, though, crank the raunch-o-meter up to eleven! The songs on Teaches of Peaches are objectionable on just about every level, and that seems to be the goal. I find the blatant, ultra-low-brow sexuality that saturates this disc to be an incredible turn-off. The album's theme is absolutely fixed on a concept that is best described by the title of the first track, "Fuck the Pain Away." This isn't making love or even sex, it's just copulation as a means to pass the time. Go here if you must, but don't expect enlightenment! The only song I could bear to listen to a second time was "Lovertits." It's a groovy little number; too bad it wallows in such filth. -- nw

Fire in the Radio / Red Static Action / Wednesday (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "A Separate Piece"
Great guitars, good melodies and often substandard vocals make Fire in the Radio the perfect band for small clubs whose acoustics are so bad the singer goes unheard. Sadly, the sound on Red Static Action is pretty good, which ultimately showcases the band's fatal weakness every time their singer goes after the emotional knockout (as in the otherwise enjoyable "Tryst Affair" and "Separate Piece"). There are three exceptions, though, all of which are more traditional rockers -- "Probably German", "The Bean and the Cod" and "Talk for the Tired". They succeed because the singer and band sound relaxed, natural and in line for their fourth or fifth drink. Fire in the Radio seem better, then, when their songs swagger, and not burn on melodrama and Eastern teen angst. It's too bad their lives appear to have given these Pennsylvanians a heaping of the latter and not nearly enough confidence to act like they own the joint. Once they fully capture that attitude, prepare to be blown away. -- td

Forever Goldrush / Halo in My Backpack / Cargo/Headhunter (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "In the Graveyard"
Close your eyes and you'll be convinced you're listening to a revitalized Bob Seger with Silver Bullet band in tow. Before a mass of Chevrolets cause a metaphorical pile-up in your mind, think about the pre-commercial Seger -- the one who had grit, guts and a greasy Southern Rock wallop. Sacramento's Forever Goldrush sounds like Seger would if he'd never aged a bit and hadn't sold his identity to a car commercial. With a penchant for sober, soul searching lyrics and a gut-wrenching backdrop of guitar powered rock, Halo in My Backpack is an awesome display of hard-liquor swiggin' swagger, a crossover between your fondest classic rock memories and today's grieving alt-country magnetism. It'll knock you across the pool table, leaving you with a raw black eye and one hell of a good memory. There's still good country rock in them thar hills; you've just gotta pan the right stream. Look closely and sure enough, you'll find the musical treasure of Forever Goldrush stuck in between the dirt, grime and rocks. -- am

Chestnut Station / In Your Living Room / Chestnut Station (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Sitting on My Sofa"
Chestnut Station, like anticomic/labelmate Neil Hamburger, is another Drag City act that can't be taken entirely at face value. Though not as flat-out ersatz as Hamburger, the Station sit uneasily between pastiche and über-stereotype. A heartfelt salute to the road-honed, tighter-than-hell tavern acts of the seventies, Chestnut Station's lineup includes a bunch of Reasonably Big Names in Chicago indie rock, and the band is fronted by Rian Murphy, currently best known for his work with Palace's Will Oldham. Here, Murphy's in full-on showman mode, backed by guitars, horns and organ. Belting out a mixture of fairly obscure covers and suitably R&B-flavored originals, he swaggers through two sets, talking to the audience and working his mojo. In Your Living Room was recorded live at Chicago's Hideout, a venue as close to an actual living room (probably belonging to someone's grandparents) as you're liable to get. For all that effort, though, the disc takes a while to get going, only truly igniting towards the end of the second "set"/album side. The band is tighter than hell, but Murphy lacks the right sort of vocal charisma to really knock these songs out of the park. He sings his heart out, and it shows -- particularly on the superb "What Do You Want the Girl to Do?" -- but in the end, what should be a Friday night type performance comes off like a Tuesday night gig. -- gz

Gone Again / Legion/Bleed / Spicy Noodle (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Legion"
This two-track single shows the curiously crossed influences that were bound to happen when pop-country settled in next to alt-rock on the radio dial. The instrumental portions of these two tracks are competent modern rock, with moody guitar lines and mid-tempo drumming. What really sets the songs apart, however, are the vocals of Victoria Kearns. Her voice has a certain country sweetness and swells powerfully from the chest. The country influences are most clear during the chorus to "Legion", during which the harmonies sound as if they could easily have been taken from the latest Trisha Yearwood record. While I applaud the group's attempt to take an unusual approach, the songs themselves feel a bit too perfect for my tastes. This radio-friendly veneer loses the country-style grittiness I love, and in the end makes these two tracks less than satisfying. -- rd

Matt Turner / The Mouse That Roared / Meniscus (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Improv 1"
More live improvised music from Meniscus, this time with Matt Turner playing solo cello at the New Directions Cello Festival in 1997. There are seven tracks here, ranging from four to eight minutes long. They're all pretty tuneful, and Turner is clearly more interested in playing flowing melodies and catchy riffs than he is in making weird noises with his axe. While I occasionally find myself wanting some more timbral variety in his playing, Turner's relatively straight-ahead manner is a lot of fun to listen to, and the undeniable energy in these improvisations will make them attractive to a much wider audience than the more extended, technique-oriented music on some of the other Meniscus discs I've listened to. Give this one to a budding young cellist and show her that there's more to life than the Bach cello suites. -- ib

Stolie / Self-Titled / Screaming Galaxy (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Inside the Guitar"
It's too bad that Vance Gilbert and Ani DiFranco have been so successful, because their melodic style -- fueled as much by personality as musical talent -- is hard to successfully replicate. Stolie is one of many female singer-songwriters now trying to be DiFranco Redux. She will often blend folk with funky guitar, and is, to put it kindly, merely better than most artists who choose this routine "death sentence". None of her handful of Ani-like throwaways is particularly successful; "Super Highway" is even painful (until the chorus, where Stolie's great vocal abilities almost rescue it). "Inside the Guitar" is Stolie's best attempt at this funk-folk fusion, and is surprisingly catchy despite its melodic awkwardness. Her simpler, more traditional numbers work better. "Mama" is nice and lyrically strong ("I think he's playing games with me/And I hope to God they're not intentional"), while "Maybe I Might" is pretty in a girl-group kind of way. "Table" is a very affecting piano ballad, worthy for inclusion on any Tori Amos album, and the rough, live version of "Picasso" shows the young folk singer humorously working her way through a brand new song. Her likeable personality really comes to the fore on this track. I don't think Stolie is a must-hear yet, but it bodes very well for a young artist when the bad cuts are ambitious misfires. Give Stolie your full attention the next time she opens for a Dar Williams or Lucy Kaplansky, and don't be surprised if she has you screaming for an encore. -- td

The Renovators / Merry Christmas! {Love} The Renovators / Self-Released (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "It Must Be Christmas"
Merry Christmas, everyone, especially if you are related to, friends with, or in support of The Renovators. That's who this collection of Christmas tunes is "for." It appears that this CD-R was the Christmas gift of choice from The Renovators, and, well, it's better than getting a lump of coal. Seven of the eleven songs herein have "Christmas" in the title, and there's a sameness to the tunes as well. Santa would be happy to listen to these songs at his local dive bar, if he was very drunk and in a very good mood, though "Christmas Message" -- a seemingly endless collection of answering machine messages -- might just be the kicker that makes him cancel his Christmas Eve activities. If you're not related to The Renovators, you're not going to appreciate these songs; they're simply not particularly good or memorable. With Valentine's Day around the corner, not to mention Easter, I'd suggest that associates of The Renovators watch their mailboxes for such slices of Heaven as "Valentine's Day is Here," and "Rockin' Cool Easter Party." Or perhaps the band could just send a card next time. -- tnd

Diane Lum / Beautiful Hate / Riot Music (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Superficial"
Beautiful Hate is not as bad as its cover art would suggest. Diane Lum is a singer/songwriter from Calgary, Alberta who began her career as the frontwoman of Canadian rockers Six Digit Fix. After the demise of that group, Lum set out on her own...which brings us to Beautiful Hate. Though Lum tries valiantly to combine elements of rock, pop and electronic music, the results are mixed at best. "Supermanís Dead" utilizes a static riff and minimal percussion, and takes a lyrical dig at fellow Canadians Our Lady Peace, but still manages to go nowhere. Elsewhere, the ska undertones of "Old Man Gene" make the song all but unbearable, while the lyrically trite "If I Had a Gun" has rock clichť written all over it. It's not all bad, though; Lum manages to put together a few nice tunes, the layered guitars of ballad "Superficial" being the best of the lot. A decent first effort, Beautiful Hate hints at a well of promise bubbling beneath its surface, but it's going to take some digging to find it. -- jj

Julio Cuomo and the Word on the Street / Fixing A Flat Tire / Rosemark (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Shame is Dead"
A strange, almost Sesame Street-inspired name is but one of this group's surprising charms. Their songs have a nice shambling quality, somewhat akin to slow Mekons or Pastels, and the singing is amateur in a nice, awkward, Jonathan Richman way. Done in twenty takes? Possibly, but each track seems to have been recorded immediately after they wrote it down. Lyrically, it's fair to say the band spends too many words giving tired lessons on human nature ("Lying to God/Asking Him to get us through this one last time/Promising to change right after the crime") and morality, especially if their intended audience is not ninth graders at Bible camp. Their music is spirited and fun, though, with the band's natural sound quite pleasing to ears like mine, and songs like "I Want a New Friend" more than strong enough to overcome overlong tracks (like "The Judge") that go nowhere far too slowly. Overall, Fixing a Flat Tire is spotty and flawed, with some melodic lapses, but the heart at its core makes the album very enjoyable. Likewise, the instrumental "I Don't Have the Words" is tough, rigorous and jerky enough to support the argument that it takes a lot of hard work and true talent to achieve the band's laidback, carefree, seemingly off-the-cuff sound. -- td

gz - george zahora | nw - noah wane | am - andrew magilow | ib - irving bellemead | jj - jason jackowiak
td - theodore defosse | rd - ron davies | js - jenn sikes | rg - rodney gibbs | tnd - tim digravina | im - iain macleod | af - august forte

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