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Simpatico, Brassy, We Talked About Murder, Car 44, The Cinematic Orchestra, Decoded Feedback, Rainer Maria, The Vandals, Bergers With Mayo, Crimson Voodoo, The Red Krayola, Mesh, Reproductions: Songs of the Human League, Kind of Like Spitting/Jeff London, The Places, The Alice Project, Nima Majd, Project K, Spiv, Michael Zerang & Raymond Strid

Simpatico / Of Goodbye Kisses / Best Kept Secret (CASS)

Sample 30 seconds of "Remote Promise"
Sounding like a lo-fi Morrissey backed by Eleventh Dream Day, with the low budget addition of a heavily effected drum machine, Simpatico is the work of Australian solo artist Jason Sweeney. Balancing a noisy underbelly of quavering guitars with dreamy and depressive vocals, Sweeney stays consistent to his sound throughout the cassette, letting spacey sounds mingle with shy and self-servicing faux-Britpop frailty. Simpatico revels in the fact that its focused idealism is not necessarily a performance for others, but a performance by one man who's more intent on transcribing his thoughts to tape than fretting over how they will be received. Sweeney may be a bit heady, but his sweet sounds strike a chord of familiarity that fans of depressive pop can thoroughly enjoy. -- am

Brassy / Got it Made / Beggars Banquet (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Play Some D"
As the soundtrack to some sort of teenage rebellion, Got it Made's hip-hop punk rock blend works well. Specifically, if you're a seventeen year-old girl and you've appropriated mom and dad's credit card for a binge at Bebe, you'll want to keep this disc close at hand -- especially for the montage sequence in which you step out of the dressing room in a succession of outrageous outfits (and lo and behold, "Play Some D" can be heard in the cheerleader bank heist satire Sugar and Spice -- not in a shopping montage context, but close enough). For the rest of you, Muffin Spencer (yes, JSBX-Jon's sister) and co. will probably come across as a nice bit of contemporary rabble-rousing. They use Muffin's proto-hip-hop vocal stylings, samples, breakbeats, fuzzy guitars, big chewy keyboard riffs and DJ skillz to create a series of entertainingly boisterous anthems for middle-class white kids. It's safe and silly and pretty predictable (formula: Muffin repeats lyrical catch phrase three times, then delivers a punchline; repeat 'til album is over) but, like most junk food, what it lacks in substance it makes up for in simple pleasure. Bouncy energy and post-grrl bravado can only go so far, and Got it Made ultimately comes across as a pretty one-dimensional outing, but who looks for depth on this sort of record? It's just harmless fun. -- gz

We Talked About Murder / Self-Titled / Has Anyone Ever Told You (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Victimology"
We Talked About Murder really rocks down and dirty; they remind me fondly of the many pinched toes I've endured dancing at too-crowded clubs downtown. It's that sort of "busy club floor" music -- if you stand still (assuming you're not home alone) you will eventually find yourself trod upon. The band's debt to Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth is thoroughly evident, and on occasion -- particularly "Learn" -- they evoke Dinosaur Jr. too. Matt Buie's crisp drums and the hard-rocking guitar licks of Gonzalez and Boyd reverberate 'til you feel it in your hair, and the understated vocals serve as the perfect counterpoint to the fuzzier bass lines. The trend for the late '90s and early oughts seems to be softer, more melodic sounds, and the grittier stuff that these guys deliver makes you feel clean all over -- in a sweaty sort of way. I can't wait for them to make more. -- js

Car 44 / Platinum Holes / Thirsty Ear (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Baby It's Me"
From the first run through of "Baby It's Me," there's no doubting the potential power pop and prototypical modern rock that will follow. John Conkle is the guitarist pulling the strings, Dahna Rowe is busy lending her voice, and Rob D holds up the bottom end. This is an extremely clear-sounding venture produced by former Rollins Band guitarist Chris Hackett. While not completely void of cliche, you might find this a fitting requiem for the "Rock Star". -- im

The Cinematic Orchestra / Remixes 98-2000 / Ninja Tune (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of The Cinematic Orchestraís "Channel One Suite (Tom Tyler remix)"
Much as its name suggests, The Cinematic Orchestraís particular brand of post-modern composition could easily back any frantic car chase, teary-eyed reunion or drug deal gone bad that youíd care to mention. Their debut album, Motion, not only garnered the group loads of press, both here and abroad, but also saw dozens of artists queuing up to request their skills in the remix department. And as the name implies, Remixes 98-2000 is a collection of the Orchestraís rather cinematic re-workings of output from artists like DJ Krust and Piero Umiliani. Their dense overhaul of Kenji Enoís "The Fear Theme" sounds like a trip through a tropical rainforest on acid, while their version of Umilianiís "Panoramica" emits a quasi-classical vibe that wouldn't have been out of place in an eighteenth century Turkish bath house. And in the spirit of fairness, the Cinematic Orchestra themselves are given the musical once-over by Tom Tyler. Tylerís re-working of "Channel One Suite" strips the track of its usual silver screen sheen, then marries a slinky Afro-Cuban beat with fat horn stabs and skittering breaks to create a sound akin to that of Miles Davisí Tribute to Jack Johnson. Looking for an album chock full of velvet-drenched majesty? This is it. -- jj

Decoded Feedback / Mechanical Horizon / Metropolis (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Reflect In Silence"
The heavy thump of the bass, tickling electronic pads, shimmering strings and deep, echoing vocals of this duo is enough to send any darkwave dance floor into ecstatic overdrive. Sure, Front 242 did the same thing a decade ago, but the sensations the music evokes are as powerful as ever. While the lyrics are fairly standard ("Coldness, deception / The anger / How does it feel to be left in the dark"), the album contains enough punch to keep the focus on the driving beats. Including both a video for "Relic" and a cover of Fields of the Nephilim's "The Sequel", this album is highly entertaining, if not exactly indispensable. -- rd

Rainer Maria / A Better Version of Me / Polyvinyl (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Artificial Light"
My initial reaction to A Better Version to Me is that it's nowhere near as bad as a number of often-credible sources had led me to believe it would be. If the whole record could be as good as the first ten seconds of "Artificial Light", it would be great. But it isn't. Not at all. Every time I find myself about to like one of these songs, some seemingly random element drags it down. Often it's the vocals; Caithlin's at her best and most in-tune on mellower songs, but all those frenzied "emo moments" pull her gratingly off course (see "Ceremony"). Kyle's vocal contributions, meanwhile, sound like he recorded them while running away from a bear. At other times, lyrical phrases repeat more than is strictly prudent; while repetition can be the key to a catchy song, it just doesn't happen here. There are a lot of decent three minute songs on this disc that have, unfortunately, been padded beyond the five-minute mark. I gather that A Better Version of Me was tweaked, revised and tinkered with at great length during the band's marathon studio session. Something deep within the music seems to have died during that process. Perhaps they shouldn't have looked so hard for a better version of themselves. -- gz

The Vandals / Oi! to the World / Kung Fu (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "A Gun For Christmas"
Obviously, Splendid's editor is out to get me. Who else would send a punk rock CD full of Christmas tunes to a Jew in January? I'm no dummy. Anyone who knows anything about punk has been subjected to the snottiness of California's Vandals sometime in his or her life. Originally released in 1996, Oi! to the World blazes through a variety of genres ranging from classic, high-speed sing-along-styled punk to tongue-in-cheek Christmas carols that showcase the band's clever lyrics and unconventional musicianship. Brash screaming cozies up to quixotic crooning, ultimately ending up on a punk crashcourse that won't make you think that Jesus is the reason for the season. Good for some hearty laughs, this probably isn't the album to play while everyone prances around the tree, but after hearing "Christmas Time for My Penis" you probably already figured that one out yourself. Hold on to this one for many Decembers to come. -- am

Bergers with Mayo / Live at Pete's 12/7/91 / Berger Platters/Hemberger (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Fire"
If your idea of a good time is listening to covers of songs by Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Steve Ray Vaughn and their ilk, this might be the CD for you. Bergers with Mayo, AKA The Renovators, delve into these ten songs with accomplished playing and a cool swagger. As I'm not a fan of Clapton, Hendrix and the rest, I'd say the band does a decent job adapting the songs to a more free-form vibe. It's good background music for a club where "older" folks hang out. No song really stands out as better than the rest, but each song gets a dedicated "go" by the Bergers/Renovators guys. If you're a fan of any of the bands covered, you have my sympathies... but if you're looking for low-key covers that actually sound somewhat cool, you could do worse than Bergers with Mayo. -- tnd

Crimson Voodoo / Secrets / Lucky Records (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "The Chainsaw"
You can't judge a book by its cover, but you can derive pretension from a band's name. Take northern New Jersey natives Crimson Voodoo for example -- they're set of brothers whose album begins with the epic and emotional "The Chainsaw" and quickly degrades into such condensed tracks as "Angel of the Raven". This new age heavy metal, disguised as some sort of sonic alternative, leaves the listener wishing for a way out. The only real mystery with this album is whose parents' house was the setting for "Passion in the Mansion" and "Prisoner in the Haunted Hallway". -- im

The Red Krayola / Blues, Hollers and Hellos / Drag City (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "6-5-3 Blues"
The rather eccentric and outrageous Mayo Thompson is apparently still in charge of the revolving musical circus known as The Red Krayola, though nobody knows for sure. At any given time the group might feature performances/production by modern day maestros like Jim OíRourke, David Grubbs or John McEntire, as well as a varitable army of other musicians. Then again, it might not. Some 30 years after its inception, The Red Krayola is still plugging along, making music thatís as out of place -- not to mention out of touch -- today as it was all those years ago. Blues, Hollers and Hellos is the latest entry in the Red Krayola catalog, and it offers very little by way of insight into the oddball pseudo-orchestral musings of this art-damaged commune. It amounts to an EP that dribbles from your speakers like strained peas from the mouth of a three month old child. The albumís lack of any coherent musical theme, its mumbled lyrics, missing liner notes and rather inept playing will leave the listener puzzled from the word go. "Container of Drudgery (Never Had a Name)" lives up to its name (or lack thereof) by wandering aimlessly for the better part of 15 minutes before ending rather abruptly and unceremoniously. The album's other five tracks do nothing to distinguish themselves. In the end Blues, Hollers and Hellos winds up being more than a little disappointing. -- jj

Mesh / The Point at Which it Falls Apart / Metropolis (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Not Prepared"
Fifteen years ago, Depeche Mode created a style of downcast electronic pop that fed a generation of intelligent, melancholy youths. That band's influence on Mesh is obvious in the twelve catchy minor-key dance tracks on this trio's second full-length. Breathy vocals ache with longing as strings sigh and a kick drum pounds home the message. While tracks like "People Like Me With This Gun" are somewhat noisier than the Mode, the band is at its best when it focuses on writing affecting pop. This focus on hook over harshness makes "I Fall Over" and "Not Prepared" both instantly appealing and most likely to linger in your memory. -- rd

Various Artists / Reproductions: Songs of the Human League / March (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of The Aluminum Group's "Love Action"
Did Phil Oakey provide the soundtrack to the best years of your life? If you came of age in the eighties, you probably have at least five or six Human League songs locked in your subconscious. So, apparently, do the bands featured here. More than just an excuse to get as many Stephin Merritt projects as possible onto a single disc, Reproductions permits indie-pop's feyest and finest to show their fun sides. The performances are mixed: Barcelona's "Mirror Man" is almost too faithful, while Baxendale's "Keep Feeling (Fascination)" is a bit weak at the beginning, but builds to a nice mix of re-creation and creative reinterpretation. Lali Puna's spin on the immortally cheesy "Together in Electric Dreams" is a tasteful bit of understated ambience, but I can't help feeling they've missed a great opportunity to camp it up. Some of the less predictable participants prove the most enjoyable: Optiganally Yours dishes up a noisy, lively take on the lesser-known "Empire State Human", and Clicks (Dave Trumfio, Sally Timms and Eric Hanna) delivers a punched-up (if slightly too straightforward) "Seconds". Stephin Merritt, in Future Bible Heroes and 6ths guises, delivers precisely the sort of quirky preciousness one expects from him, and his team-up with Lloyd Cole on the album-closing "Human" makes me wish the two would collaborate further. The verdict? Light. Fluffy. Fun. A bit uneven. But ultimately more worthwhile than you'd expect. And there's no better antidote to an overdose of humorless DC punk. -- gz

Kind of Like Spitting/Jeff London / Home: The Post Parlo Records Split Series, Volume 1 / Post-Parlo (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of Jeff London's "Out of Reach"
It costs seventy dollars to subscribe to the entire Post Parlo Records Split Series, or seven dollars per volume, and Volume 1 implies it'll be a steal no matter what you decide. Here is a beautifully packaged, phenomenally played four-track split from Kind of Like Spitting and Jeff London, each turning in two songs. For me, the surprise comes less from Ben Barnett's work -- classic KOLS angst with always improving guitar work -- than from the way Jeff London's songs share kindred spirit with them. I have heard Jeff before on some of Hush's must-have comps, where he showed himself to be an extraordinary instrumentalist and a gifted melody maker. The powerful emotional thrust in his songs is new to me, though, reinforcing the remarkable influence Oregon's great artists seem to have upon one another. Three of these songs were recorded by the criminally unknown Chad Crouch at his HUSH studio, with the oddball tune tracked at the home of Post-Parlo owner Ben Dickey. Both Crouch and Dickey (Heh heh. Heh heh. - Ed.) prove to have a true understanding of the way these singer's songs should sound: raw, fragile, urgent, pained and almost comforting in their honesty. Needless to say, this split is strongly recommended. I'd be very surprised if this split EP doesn't get a few music fans hooked on KOLS and London, and I expect similar results from future volumes in the series. -- td

The Places / The Autopilot Knows You Best / Absolutely Kosher (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Lazy Days & Castaways"
Have you ever tasted a Chad and Jeremy sandwich? Well, The Autopilot Knows You Best begins and ends with a sample of "A Summer Song" and acts as a futuristic interpolation of relations, revelations and reoccurring reverberations, interlaced with amusing vocal snippets. A soft, more ripe sounding Cranberries comes to mind, but the way things build up, with the right mix of viola, tambourine and guitar for lush atmospherics make me think The Cowboy Junkies with a more indie backbone. The overall sound is delicate, thanks to Amy Annelle's dreamlike vocal delivery on all eleven midtempo treats. "Lazy Days & Castaways" is worthy of a single, and "Ode to the Exhausted" could have Lynchian undertones if the setting was right. You and your headphones could end up falling in love with The Autopilot Knows You Best if you aren't currently involved with another artist. Pop The Places in your pile. -- im

The Alice Project / Traveling With Lady Berlin / Clown Milk (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "8-10 Parliament Street"
Provocative may be the best adjective to describe this four piece from Princeton, NJ. The Alice Project's music should split the music world's interest right down the middle. One half will cling excitedly to namesake Alice Leon's Sheryl-Crowe-meets-Carnie-Wilson voice; it's peculiar enough to be noticed as Leon belts out rousing lyrics. The band takes turns lavishing peaceful acoustic-styled musings and occasional guitar solo outbursts on your ears. If that doesn't sound particularly entertaining, you're probably part of the other half, who'll grumblingly wonder when the mega-produced singer-songwriter schtick, with delicate guitars and a rock-jam backdrop, will get pinched into oblivion. They're not for everyone, but at least Alice and Co. will needle you into establishing a crystal-clear opinion about them after a quick listen. -- am

Nima Majd / For My Kindred Avalanche / Lithium (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Amarynth"
For My Kindred Avalanche shows Nima Majd's love for Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake and Cat Power, as well as his knowledge of his roots -- the music of his native Iran. It'd be hard for me to say much about Majd's power with the sitar, although the music's certainly gorgeous in a sleepy mode. His Western-influenced electric/acoustic folk music is slow, with a musical sort of humour that reflects Majd's favourite influences: Blonde Redhead, Gomez and Fun Lovin' Criminals. At times he pulls in electronic influences as well, including sampled voice loops, bits of commercials and street sounds. Peaceful, lo-fi moodiness abounds in this jam of sources -- it's the aural equivalent of a gorgeous, intricate mosaic. Although Majd's a Washingtonian now, his biggest fans seem to be in France, so flaunt your cosmopolitan flair and pick up this disc before your neighbours do. -- js

Project K / Testing Underway / Bong Load (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Just One Kiss"
Imagine the band Versus going through the motions. Imagine that their harmonies aren't as good as they used to be. Imagine that they're trying very hard to be aggressive, while still maintaining their pop leanings (well, I guess that's already the case with Versus). Anyway, Project K, one would think, is trying to be Versus. But the songs are not as good as Versus' songs, and the vocals don't play off each other all that well. The band does just about everything right in putting their songs together, but they have nothing new or outstanding to offer beyond the kind of din that becomes mighty tiresome after a couple of songs. "Lullaby" throws a curveball, sounding a bit like a Mary Timony song, but why bother? It's probably the best song here, but it's been done before, and better. In the crowded world of power-pop, you simply must have amazing hooks and you've got to master harmonies. Maybe next time around Project K will lose the blueprints on the way to the studio and create their own sound instead. -- tnd

Spiv / Everybody's A Rock Star Tonight EP / Pop Sweatshop (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Everybody's a Rock Star Tonight"
Much is made of the Posies' Ken Stringfellow's presence behind the production desk, but the real star here is the title track. "Everybody's a Rock Star Tonight" is a flat-out yummy power-pop tune that'll have you mimicking vocalist Chris Barber's falsetto after a single spin. You might even get into the song's lyrical conceit, which addresses the whole "everyone has a band these days" phenomenon, invoking MP3s and, of course, the old Fifteen Minutes of Fame concept. The rest of the EP isn't quite as strong. "Beatley", a mid-tempo rock ballad, never catches fire. "Seedy Release" mixes punning XTC idiosyncracy with Fab Four harmonies, surprising with a big finish. And then there's "VIPs of the Street", an acronym and abbreviation-laden rap-speak piece that sounds like a collaboration between Consolidated and Steely Dan, but with weaker rhymes. Suffice it to say that "VIPs of the Street" didn't do it for me. Fortunately, I enjoyed the title track enough to forgive just about anything. -- gz

Michael Zerang & Raymond Strid / Scratch Match / Penumbra (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Scratch Match"
As a friendly warning, I will point out that this is not wrestling music. Even though it contains the work of two percussion perfectionists, it is completely void of beat and tempo. That might come as a bit of a suprise to beat collectors, who would have a hard time constructing a break from this experimental mayhem. It is, however, amazingly quiet and unobtrusive, with the exception of the title track. These seven duets were captured in Stockholm, Sweden and are audible examples of conflict that will challenge your perceptions of music and sound. Michael Zerang (Broken Wire) occupies the left channel while Raymond Strid (Gush) goes to town on the right. Or, for a completely different interpretation of Scratch Match, you might consider rewiring your speakers. -- im

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

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