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Shipping News, The Showgoats, Other People's Children, Mark700, The Real Tuesday Weld, Eyes of Pandora, Heavy Duty Felt, Airto Moreira, The Ocean Blue, David Neil Cline, Mark Kozelek, Miss Fortune, Apoptygma Berzerk, Shoes and Rider, The Amos House Collection Vol. I, 16 Horsepower, Garfields Birthday, We Are Vikings, Dear Nora, Grupo Exploracion, Rachael Sage, Joe Matzzie Beyond Belief

Shipping News / Very Soon, and in Pleasant Company / Quarterstick (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Nine Bodies, Nine States"
I donít know about you, but to me, all June of 44 side projects have begun to sound a lot alike. Between Jeff Muellerís solo work, Everlasting the Way and Shipping News, I can no longer tell whether Iím listening to a side gig or June of 44 proper. As my previous statements suggest, Very Soon, and in Pleasant Company comes quite close to the aforementioned groupís rather familiar brand of post-rock. While it's undeniably lovely, the album seems to revel in its familiarity. The songs here are not unlike that old pair of shoes you love to wear -- broken in, slightly scuffed and ever so comfortable. Muellerís voice still evokes a strange sense of longing and trepidation as the quietly lulling nature of the music soothes those frazzled nerves. An expanded instrumental arsenal, including samples, Hammond organ, viola and vibes, is now being employed to help flesh out the groupís sound, and listening to songs like "Nine Bodies, Nine States" and "The March Song" makes abundantly clear that the expanded orchestra is working marvelously. While not the masterpiece that fans and critics might have expected, Very Soon, and in Pleasant Company delivers a performance that, while at times derivative, is nonetheless stunning. -- jj

The Showgoats / Catfish Saturday / The Showgoats (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Cowboy Song"
I was just starting to think that college rock was dead. You know, the "original" type of college rock that you heard in the early '80s. The kind that had jangly guitars, wholesome vocals and an unpretentious sound that was dedicated to its roots, not to some slim hope of being snatched up by a major label ultimately bent on musical destruction and a quick buck. And just as I was about deliver the final blow and pull out the college rock shroud, The Showgoats appeared, appealing to my fondness for guitar-note-driven melodies and strong showmanship. This North Carolinian band lets loose an updated version of countrified folk rock that's full of strong songwriting and casts a spell of placid relaxation upon you. Vocalist Mark Degnen occasionally drawls his way into early Michael Stipe turf, but overall The Showgoats remind me of another Athens institution, Pylon as they commandeer their way through several striking tracks. It sounds as if the bell hasn't tolled for college rock just yet. -- am

Other People's Children / Happy Friend in Frosted City / Best Kept Secret (CASS)

Sample 30 seconds of "Suicide Common"
Remember that Ultra Vivid Scene cassette you had in college? The one with the cool toothbrush on the cover? Well, I stole it from you and it's been sitting in a cardboard box in the back room in my mom's house for like ten years. Anyway, Other People's Children doesn't really sound much like Ultra Vivid Scene, but that's what I immediately thought of when I started listening to Happy Friend in Frosted City. The cassette cover is a nice black and white thing with some circles and drowning babies on it. The music is pleasantly weird, not particularly beat-oriented, 1980s-tinged electronica with good-naturedly gloomy boy vocals. It's dark and hypnotic, but still somehow poppy. Must be the drum machines. Happy Friend... isn't going to boot My Favorite from the top of my goofy 1980s electronica bands list, but it will certainly be on there somewhere. -- ib

Mark700 / CatchyMonkey b/w Summer / Fortuna POP! (7")

Sample 30 seconds of "Catchymonkey"
I hate it when a record's packaging leaves me uncertain of a song title. It happens more often than you'd think. It's almost as annoying as labels who put out goofy, experimental-noise-based 7" singles and then leave it up to us to decide if their record is a 33.3 or 45 RPM spinner. In the case of this Mark700 single, the lead track is probably called "CatchyMonkey", but it's invariably written as 'Ca(line break)-tchyMonkey'. I mean, honestly, what the hell? Still, the important thing is that "CatchyMonkey"/'Ca(line break)-tchyMonkey' does a fine job of revisiting fifteen years of Britpop history, dishing up an Oasis/James/House of Love-styled melody and plenty of squelchy effects pedal goodness. The slower B-side, "Summer", is less ambiguously yclept, but the squelchy pedal effects are taken a little too far; I can't help but wonder if the song wouldn't sound a lot better with unprocessed guitars. Luckily, the saxophone that comes in near the song's end offsets the squelch nicely. You get all that, and mega-thick vinyl to boot. -- gz

The Real Tuesday Weld / L'amour Et la Morte / Kindercore (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Epitaph for a Dead Uncle"
Dobie Gillis might never have been able to win over Tuesday Weld, but the Real Tuesday Weld has no problem opening my heart and slipping in songs like their elegant, Parisian title track. The band's five song EP, L'Amour Et La Morte, is a wonderful synthesis of the Magnetic Fields and the El Records sound. Of the tracks not included on their forthcoming full-length, "The Days of Me and You" is sip-your-drink spoken-word, and "Epitaph for a Dead Uncle George" is a rather jaunty tribute with very touching lyrics ("It was lovely to meet you, oh George") and marvelous guitar. "The Real Tuesday Weld (Weld Mix)" is a more soulful and throaty "West End Girls", and might be more enjoyable if you want those differences, while "Blues for Barbara Hepworth" is short, pretty and immensely affecting, with the piano able to convey the same emotions as Stephen Coates' softly spoken lyrics. If I had to choose between a work by Stephen, or by Stephin, I'd still choose the work of Mr. Merritt, but it'd be close. The Real Tuesday Weld have a strong realization of their weaknesses (a limited voice), yet never really make you think about it. Their desire is to create pretty, emotional music you can eat up during your life's most glamourous moments, and they have succeeded grandly. L'amour Et la Morte assembles melancholy on platters too gorgeous not to accept, happily, again and again. -- td

Eyes of Pandora / S/T / Self-Released (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Welcome"
Eyes of Pandora isn't bad, really, and neither is the band. They're like cheap-grade U2 or 10K Maniacs. The members of U2 and 10K are better educated, are better musicians, and probably better informed about the world's major crises. However, since social-conscience anthem rock is the model that Eyes of Pandora have chosen to follow (and hey, both those bands made wads of dough; they're not bad models to follow), they don't do badly. The lead singer, Susan Tojo, has a pleasantly melodic soprano, and she sounds fairly passionate and wounded when she ought. The guitarist, Robert Gueits, is masterful in his axe-wielding, most notably in "1969" and the country stylings of "Factory City". My internal schoolmarm is annoyed by the band's inability to spell ("obsurd" and "solice" show up in the lyrics sheet), but then I have never counted that as a cardinal sin when I'm standing in a bar listening to a band while drinking a beer. These guys don't have much of a sense of humour (see "Welcome" and "Hard Hand of War"), and I find it hard to believe they're so moved by the events of "1969" (hell, that was before I was born), but whatever. Grab it used or marked down; at that price, you'll enjoy this disc all the more. -- js

Heavy Duty Felt / Songs for the Week / Kitchen Sink (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Sleight of Hand"
Songs for the Week offers some interesting moments. There are times when I quite like the gently understated pop that Heavy Duty Felt perpetrates, but there are other times when I feel as if something's askew. The first tune, "Different Again", is great -- a bit country and a bit folk, with a poignant violin backing hushed boy/girl vocals. It reminds me of Ida. It's also too short. The next track, "Sleight of Hand", starts right out with a fat tenor sax riff and backing Wurlitzer organ, but this tune reminds me too much of Bruce Springsteen (whom I've never fully bought into) to enjoy. "Trace on Me" suffers from a similar problem; the Stax-like sax stuff just doesn't seem to fit in. There are other songs that are as satisfying as the opener (e.g., "Really, Really Do" and "Oh No"), but in general I find Songs for the Week to be a mixed bag. -- nw

Airto Moreira / Homeless / Melt 2000 (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Vira Poeira"
Fresh off an eight-year hiatus, Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira presents a gumbo of drum-based tunes. Implementing a catalogue of odd and beautiful instruments, Moreira teams with his daughter to craft what certainly may be the granddaddy of all Deadhead jams. Each cut aims to get your ass shaking with its mix of drums, vocals and (literally) bells and whistles. A perfect fit for your next patchouli-scented excursion, Moreira's tunes please but they don't particularly excite. It's good fodder for smoking out or vegan dinner party backdrops...just not the best stuff for stirring the soul. -- rg

The Ocean Blue / Denmark EP / March (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Denmark"
Give March Records credit for going after The Ocean Blue after they'd been chewed up and spit out by the major labels. The band's prior success, unacceptable to a major label, could easily be monolithic by indie standards. Here, their lush, jangly pop sound is as simple and accessible as ever. "Denmark", from the quartet's soon-to-be-re-released Davy Jones' Locker, has a slightly mechanical beat and subtle reverse-gate effects that give it a very modern feel, but count on fans of that intangible "eighties sound" to flip for it. Of the other three tunes here, the soaring choruses of "Sweetheart, You're Surrounded" should make the biggest impact on people who grew up on The Smiths, The Woodentops, James et al. The obstacle between The Ocean Blue and mainstream success, at least in my opinion, has always been the imbalance between the catchiness of their tunes and the marketing muscle behind them...and ironically, the band just isn't bland enough to succeed on Triple-A radio. In indie rock circles, they may finally find the rabid fans they deserve. -- gz

David Neil Cline / A Fit of Rage -- Remixed Plus Two / Gazochthagen (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Enforcer"
With howling falsettos and ragged riffs, A Fit of Rage is a time warp back to the world of '80s metal. Cline's guitar sounds like David Chastain's, while his vocals are somewhere in between Fates Warning and Nasty Savage. And while it's all just a bit amusing listening to these generally dated tracks, you should bear in mind that they were originally recorded during the metal heyday of 1987. That's right, they're not some sort of post-metal clone, but the genuine article. "The Metal Rules" purports metal irony to the tune of pinch harmonics and muted chords, while "Enforcer" has a more brooding, ballad-like approach that'll remind you of the mall, torn jeans and hanging out at the arcade. Remember way back when? Here's another dose of what happened to new wave after it bit the dust. -- am

Mark Kozelek / Whatís Next to the Moon / Badman Recording Co. (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "If You Want Blood"
Certain things in life, no matter how hard they may try, just aren't romantic. AC/DC is most certainly one of those things. Nobody, and I mean nobody, wants to hear someone screaming about "Hellís Bells" while enjoying a candlelight dinner with his/her significant other...unless that someone happens to be Mark Kozelek. The erstwhile leader of the Red House Painters has an uncanny knack for turning obnoxious and loud into tender and sweet. Whatís Next to the Moon is an album comprised entirely of AC/DC covers, though to listen to it you'd think that these lovely ditties came directly from Kozelek's own pen. The songs have been stripped of every element that would ever associate them with the well-known group; gone are the screaming vocal histrionics, absurd schoolboy uniforms and noodly guitar solos that characterize AC/DC's work. What's left? Ten stirring musical portraits propelled by sparse acoustic guitar and Kozelekís heart-wrenching vocals. Iím certain that songs like "If You Want Blood" and "Bad Boy Boogie" have never sounded this sincere, this full of emotion or this gorgeous. You can almost see Kozelek sitting there plucking out "Riff Raff" in a room full of candles, or re-arranging "Walk All Over You" while sipping Earl Grey on his front porch. So really, Whatís Next to the Moon is Kozelek achieving the impossible; he has actually managed to make AC/DC sound romantic. -- jj

Miss Fortune / S/T / What Kinda (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Smokestack"
As the first release from What Kinda Records, Miss Fortune shares many of the same qualities as their New England neighbors, Tugboat Annie. The self-titled debut is driven by radio-friendly melodies, above-average singing and crunching guitars that give at least two tracks, "If You Died" and "Before I Go", undeniable musical power. Think of a guitar-heavy take on Marshall Crenshaw's "Whenever You're On My Mind". By combining their genuine pop gifts with relatable lyrics, Miss Fortune would be off to a winning start, so it's a shame their lyrics rang false to me. For example, the demands behind their detection of true love ("I'll know it's true when she says, 'I would miss you if you died'") seem way too scanty. (Either that or I've given Andy Kaufman the wrong impression.) Also, Miss Fortune doles out awkward couplets ("She said she hands out flyers/In pride of her sexuality") far too frequently. It's as if they think their pleasant but all-too-familiar alterna-pop sound could singlehandedly sustain interest. In the world of radio, who knows, but the songwriting will have to improve significantly before comparisons to Marshall Crenshaw are kind not only to them, but to Crenshaw himself. -- td

Apoptygma Berzerk / Kathy's Song EP / Metropolis (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Kathy's Song (Single Mix)"
There's a lovely Commodore 64 on the cover of this EP, complete with a tape drive. That should tip you off that there's some old-school action going down here. "Kathy's Song (Come Lie Next to Me)", in its original form, is a plinky-twanky little new wave keyboard love song that'll give Giorgio Moroder a warm glow of satifaction when he hears it. It's been remixed by several big name producers, all of whom have given it some contemporary dancefloor balls while retaining its basic retrotechnodisco spirit. The results are damn near irresistable -- picture lots of bright white lights, throbbing beats, clanging crystal-clear bells and a pervasive feeling of bliss. There's a bit of cyberpunk silliness (modem dialups, a disembodied voice saying "Connected to neural net.", etc.) going on, but it's easily excused. The disc ends with a lovely, crispy little "C-64 Version", though frankly this crunchy rendition still sounds better than any computer I used in the eighties. "Kathy's Song" is gorgeous stuff -- the sort of song that inspires frantic record shopping the morning after you hear it in a club. -- gz

Shoes and Rider / S/T / Dutch Courage (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Reflecting Pool"
Shoes and Rider's music is more than just soft and cuddly. With this eponymous CD, Shoes and Rider offer half an hour of music that is sweet and tender, but still has an edge, an immediacy that reminds me of groups like Class. The band's key selling point is the emotive, full-bodied cello tone offered by Faith Chiang. The farfisa, moogs, guitars, basses and drums are certainly tasty enough, but don't do much in the originality department. Shy of Rasputina (who go, perhaps, a bit far!) I'm hard-pressed to name many pop groups out there with cellos in their regular line-up. I like all of the songs here, but the opener, "Reflecting Pools", is the nicest. Its hypnotic introduction gradually evolves into a moody, reverb-drenched musing that's thick with atmosphere. It's a nice introduction to the thoughtful, touching music that follows. -- nw

Various Artists / The Amos House Collection Vol. 1 / Wishing Tree (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of The Aluminum Group's "Love To Know"
This benefit album is intended to help the Amos House, a Rhode Island organization which helps less-fortunate families. Beyond the warm and fuzzies, this disc treats its listeners to thirteen soothing tracks. Some artists, such as Death Cab for Cutie, who turn in the Tiny Telephone version of "Lowell, Ma.", I was already familiar with. What really made this disc pleasing, however, were the bands I knew less about. "Staying Out in Front" by Idaho combines a cooing vocal and a great drum sound to create a subdued funkiness. The Aluminum Group's "Love To Know" features a fantastic vocal melody that drips with country confection. Unlike many compilations, this disc retains cohesiveness through the gentle approach of the various bands. This helps, because even if you have to maintain your gruff, don't-care-about-nobody exterior, you can always justify this purchase by the quality of the music it contains. -- rd

16 Horsepower / Secret South / Razor & Tie (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Wayfaring Stranger"
Moby's "Natural Blues" awed me: I never thought someone could take one of those scratchy Library of Congress Folklife recordings and make it into anything remotely commercial or even listenable. If such wayward thoughts crossed your brain when hearing that track, Secret South will likely leave you breathless with admiration, even if you don't like the emotions it evokes. The sounds that pour forth from the teamwork of David Eugene Edwards, Jean-Yves Tola and co. echo another time so completely, much like "Natural Blues", that at times (particularly on their cover of the traditional "Wayfaring Stranger") you might think these sounds were recovered, rather than newly created. The instruments used are more antique: hurdy-gurdy, accordion and banjo combine with the everyday piano, guitar and stand-up bass. "Wayfaring Stranger" and "Poormouth" will haunt you in your dreams with their sounds of death, loneliness and high desert. "Silversaddle", full of the echoes of violin and piano, is just mournful as a churchyard. Someone once referred to 16 Horsepower's sound as "Appalachian goth" -- and that sums up their oeuvre, and Secret South, as neatly as any thesaurus could ever do. -- js

Garfields Birthday / Words and Pictures / Best Kept Secret (CASS)

Sample 30 seconds of "Words and Pictures"
I really want to like this cassette, mostly because Best Kept Secret is a lo-fi cassette-only label based in Italy, and I mean, come on, how cool is that? Unfortunately, every time I decide to give Garfields Birthday another listen I end up zoning out after about the first 30 seconds. I'm not sure if that's a function of my currently magnificent sleep deficit, or whether it's because the distinctly AM radio sound of these songs causes my ears to mistake them for pleasant but unremarkable driving music. Garfields Birthday has a definite knack for song titles, with the likes of "You and Your Poetry", "We Know Your Name", "If You Think I'm Dancing" and "Last Night I Slept with Your Mother" piquing my interest. But despite some nice 1950s-flavored fuzzy guitar pop (a la Fountains of Wayne) and some clever writing, the songs on this tape just can't seem to complete the perilous journey from my ears to my brain. -- ib

We Are Vikings / S/T / Sauce Records (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Verona"
Michael Scutari and Edward Donohue of We Are Vikings are a talented duo. Their self-titled full-length compares favorably to Big Star on a good day. It's simply quite accomplished jangle pop, sounding like a more accessible Guided By Voices without the phony British accents. For a lo-fi release, these thirteen songs will tickle your ears in a grand way. Most bare-bones, hiss-laden recordings inspire constant wishes that the songs had been recorded more cleanly. That's not the case here, as the songs are quite strong, and the lo-fi recording methods make them sound like lost classics. The only problem is that some songs, such as "Dave Heller's Epiphany", are a bit too close to hard rock. Maybe they're going for a Pink Floyd sound on those tracks, but Pink Floyd were studio whizzes, which made their "artsy" moments more digestible. The more pop-oriented songs, such as "Verona" and "1969", are gems. Scutari is a talented songwriter, and with any luck he will be able to hone his recording craft with better production in the future. Some major label or big indie needs to give these guys a boatload of money and studio time, so they can surprise a larger audience. -- tnd

Dear Nora / Make You Smile +3 / Magic Marker (7")

Sample 30 seconds of "Make You Smile"
This is an earlier effort from Dear Nora, the Portland-based trio whose debut CD we reviewed last week. The four songs here serve to reinforce the band's promise: while their jangly-indie-pop-with-girl-vocals sound isn't ground-breaking, they seem to have a tighter-than-average handle on quality. Frontgal Katy Davidson doesn't seem to go for cutesy off-key vocals or sassiness or poorly-tuned guitars, and because she takes her music seriously, it's a lot easier for listeners to do the same. The guitar work is a bit more tentative here than on We'll Have a Time, and the recordings seem a bit more primitive, but once again Dear Nora comes through with Pop Done Right. -- gz

Grupo Exploracion / Drum Jam / Bembe (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Rumba Columbia"
While I'm not exactly sure what the name Grupo Exploracion and a naked person's ass on the front cover of the CD have to do with each other (nor do I really want to explore that topic any further), this quintet delivers round after round of percussion-intensive beats, as you'd expect from the album title. Combining traditional African beats with widespread Cuban influences, Grupo Exploracion is every percussion player's recorded fantasy. With everything from congas, guaguas, timbales and even an occasional bird whistle, the exceedingly complex percussive rhythms that are displayed here showcase some extraordinary talent, rewarding your ears with an interesting mix of swaying beats. The challenging time tricks and syncopated beats prove this to be a heady listen that explores traditional and contemporary rhythms, producing sixteen enjoyable tracks of deliciously dense drumming. -- am

Rachael Sage / Painting of a Painting / MPress (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Seraphim Smile"
Rachael Sage is a self-starting singer/songwriter in the tradition of Ani DiFranco. Her music is spirited and deeply personal -- "Lilith fare" of the first degree. "Seraphim Smiling", for example, is an intimate portrait of a young woman waiting to be discovered (by the public? by her lover?) that is precisely ambiguous enough to be artsy. Besides writing and singing her music, Ms. Sage also plays a mean piano. Her chops remind me of Tori Amos. She's a bit new age-y at times, favoring flashy arpeggios and melodic flourishes. Subtle ethnic influences are evident in tracks like "Among All of God's Creatures", which sports Eastern melodic string falls that would make Yanni proud. It is clear that Rachael Sage has talent to burn. Her music is thoughtful and polished, and if the success of her mentor Ani DiFranco is any indication, there's an audience out there waiting to eat this stuff up! -- nw

Joe Matzzie Beyond Belief / It's All True / U.S. (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "When I Call Your Name"
This album has all the components necessary to make it interesting, but unfortunately a muddled mix leeches much of the color out of the music. By incorporating horns into a standard pop songwriter framework, the band lays claim to an unusual take on the typical song. This is especially clear on the dirty waltz "When I Call Your Name", where the horns add extra bump to the grind. Unfortunately, the bass and drums are buried far too deep in the mix, which reduces the appealing thrust of the more upbeat tunes and gives the album a monotonous feel. With more variation in volume, Joe Matzzie and crew could really shine, but this particular recording is too flat to really make an impact. -- rd

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

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