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Bulbul, Puerto Muerto, The Strokes, Paul Steven Ray, Structure Factor 8, Bablicon, Count M'Butu Orchestra, Monster Movie, Membranaphonics, Khan, Jamie Solow, Nataraj XT, Betty Already, Crushstory, Weezer, Superglider Sampler, Adam West, Common Heroes, Mezzanine~C14, Random Access Music Machine - U.S. Pop Life Vol. 7: Experimental, Spacious International, The Autumns, Symphony for Heartbreak - U.S. Pop Life Vol. 9: Seattle-Portland, No Motiv, Sunday Flood, Portastatic, Mars Parker and the Hi-Fi Circus Act, Ruby, Echo Orbiter, The String and Return

Bulbul / Self-Titled / Trost (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Friend Frenzied Parallala"
This is a weird mix of post-grunge/cut 'n paste/noise improv/rock 'n roll from Austrian guitarist Manfred Engelmayr. It makes absolutely no sense at all! An early 1990s serious-boy-in-flannel track is followed by a quirky new wave spazz out, and a glitchy electronic thing with a silly Monty Python chorus and bad drum machine comes right before a sparse, Pixies-flavored quiet/loud number. The rockier stuff is pretty bad; the weirdo stuff is pretty good. The titles are great: "Meek Bomb Rattle Droplet", "I Can Dance Like Dschingis Khan", "It's Not You and It's Not Your Bike". If Bulbul were to drop the boy rock and focus on their weirder impulses, I think that they could make a pretty great CD. This one isn't quite there yet. -- ib

Puerto Muerto / Your Bloated Corpse Has Washed Ashore / Action Driver (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Silver Shoes"
Tim Kelly and Christa Meyer are the married duo behind this frequently wonderful act, whose 19 songs show them to be raggedy Mekons obsessed with show tunes, shanties and AMC movies. All the songs, as the title might suggest, have dark undertones, but there are many moments where Puerto Muerto simply sound enamored with the German cabaret. "Orphans of Stockton" and "Das Vidania" are beautiful ("They talked about croquet and the boys from war") and very cinematic (boys talking "with their feet in time"), while tracks like "San Pedro" climax to tango lust and hoofing screams. Aside from the duets, the songs work best with Christa on vocals, as her vocal gifts capture a larger portion of each song's potential emotional content. Still, no matter how much they bring to their great material, nothing suggests that Ute Lemper could not cover them and make an even greater dance of doom, bloated with the sweetness of profundities. -- td

The Strokes / The Modern Age EP / Beggars Banquet/XL (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "The Modern Age"
Did you catch The Strokes in any of their high-profile opening slots earlier this year? I saw them with Guided By Voices and was duly impressed; they're a robust rock band, punk more in execution and in sheer style than in sound. Vocalist Julian Casablancas bucks current trends by singing -- crooning, even -- rather than shouting and screaming, which works well with the classic-pop-flourish-laden music. I think this is the same EP the band was selling while on tour, and Beggars Banquet doesn't seem to have remastered it. Perhaps they should have, as the sound is a little odd; Casablancas' vocals seem overmodulated, as if they're hitting a very low ceiling. It's hard to tell if this is a deliberate (albeit ill-considered) effect or the by-product of a no-frills recording process, but it detracts from the overall listening experience. Fortunately, the three songs here are among the catchiest tunes in the band's arsenal, and recording quality aside, they're more than sufficient to interest me in The Strokes' (presumably) forthcoming full-length. -- gz

Paul Steven Ray / Psyche Lounges / OVRG (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Biology Lounge"
Like a storm over the ocean, the experimental jazz of Paul Steven Ray combines waves of ambient white noise with rumbles of thundering bass and drums and the crackling lighting of guitar. Ray's distinctive piccolo bass guitar joins bass, percussion, violin and what sounds like a fully-loaded rack of effects pedals to create the kind of art-jazz which, as the years pass, becomes as firmly entrenched as the more traditional forms it once moved to supplant. For two decades, Ray has been prowling the downtown hipster corridors of New York, playing with a wide range of influential groups and side men. Unfortunately, little distinguishes Psyche Lounges from dozens of other fractured, post-Sonic Youth tone poems; most tracks go on far too long, leaving the listener behind. Electric guitar and drums take off on a moderately interesting excursion into the ether on the third track, "Lounge #4" (five of these tracks are numbered "Lounges", while two are titled), but it's hard to shake the feeling that it's all only so much noodling. Swinging between quiet moodiness and the stomping volume of a garage band, Psyche Lounges might have something for everyone, but a more apt description might be "too much for anyone". -- rt

Structure Factor 8 / We Beat Penicilin / Ionik (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Samuel the Translator"
Drawing heavily upon his hard to pinpoint, esoteric pop influences, Michael Winters, the brain behind The 8, dishes up another round of infectious melodies, bustling with his slightly irritating, somewhat whiny and always effected vocals. Winters does a good job keeping your mental faculties on their toes, as obviously, there's some sort of tumor growing up in his cranial space, causing him to spazz out with subconscious ramblings and catchy hooks that border on pop genius. As whacked-out titles and uncanny lyrics rumble across your brain, Winters magically transforms the mutterings of a presumed madman into deeply satisfying pop gems. Hey, If you can make a tune called "Samuel the Translator" rock out -- and boy does it -- you've just gotta be doing something right! -- am

Bablicon / A Flat Inside a Fog, The Cat Was a Dog / Misra (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Mary"
I guess it's no longer cool to rock. Just ask Bablicon. These days, Jeremy Barnes & Co. think it's hip to play music that owes more to Charlie Parker than it does to The Clash. A Flat Inside a Fog, The Cat Was a Dog is this experimental trioís third album, and let me tell you, it wants nothing at all to do with a power chord. Sounding something like Stan Getz on a week-long coke binge with Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) and Liberace, A Flat... is nothing if not a total mindfuck of a record -- not to mention a veritable museum of Things That Make Noise. Melodica, fuzz organ, clarinet, oisac keyboards, tape loops, painful vocals and various other brass, woodwind and stringed instruments all make their presence known over the course of the albumís sixteen tracks, creating an eclectic if uneven sound. "Saumur / Paris / Teatowels" is the closest Bablicon have come to capturing the sound of Barnesí former group, Neutral Milk Hotel, while at the other end of the spectrum, "Travelling" is so tedious that youíll be thanking your lucky stars when (after nearly 8 minutes) it finally ends. Despite its toned-down and at times monotonous sound, A Flat is a Fog, The Cat is a Dog is an enjoyable, if ultimately unnecessary, addition to your record collection. -- jj

Count M'Butu Orchestra / See the Sun / Terminus (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Algo Se Quema"
Wow, I really dig this stuff! Percussionist Count M'Butu has played with a veritable litany of performers over his life -- everyone from The Allman Brothers to Phish to Chief James Billie to Parliament Funkadelic. He's an accomplished musician, as See the Sun clearly demonstrates. It's full of tight, sophisticated Latin Jazz that benefits greatly from the Count's African music roots. Argentinean vocalist Graciela Lopez adds much to the equation as well; her seductive, Spanish crooning is a key element in the album's success. Generally speaking, the vocal strength on display here is impressive. At times I think I'm hearing a modernized Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, so much am I impressed by the vocals on what isn't technically a vocal jazz album. "Algo Se Quema" is precisely what I mean: it's sultry, it's hot, it's sexy -- and the rich, hip vocals do nothing but underscore this attitude. My one complaint about See the Sun is its less-than-optimally-attractive packaging, but this just supports Irving's theory that the quality of the music on a disc is inversely related to the attractiveness of its packaging. -- nw

Monster Movie / Self-Titled / Clairecords (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Every Time I Wonder"
I was pretty excited when this CD arrived. Since Christian Savill's departure from Slowdive in '95, I've wondered what became of him (he and bassist Nick Chaplin left for points previously unknown, while the remaining members formed Mojave 3). Now teamed with Sean Hewson, Savill is again creating some really great music. It's not Slowdive all over again, but it does have a bit of the same shoegazer feel to it, though this time around there's more guitar pop and less ambience. Highlights are the layered "Rovaniemi", with lots of fuzz and feedback, and "Crash Landing", which toward its end includes a sound effect that sounds just like the noise the Bionic Woman made when she jumped off a six storey building. The only disappointment, really, is that this is only a five song EP. Bring on the full-length album! -- al

Various Artists / Membranaphonics / Monitor (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of Kyle Crabtree's "To Drown is to Live"
The ten tracks on this compilation are intended to highlight the drummer's role in music-making, and it does well with this ambitious goal. True, stray guitar and vocal lines wander around, but the beat always comes to the forefront. Kyle Crabtree's "To Drown is to Live" is an especially impressive example; marrying gentle guitar arpeggios to a martial rhythm, the rolling drums have the same trance-like feel that Martin Atkins turned into a career. Other tracks tip the hat to trash can percussion, simple goth patterns and some truly far out moments which completely eliminate rhythm. Together, they make an entertaining collection for people interested in what drummers can do when left to their own devices. -- rd

Khan / No Comprendo / Matador (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Say Goodbye"
Can Oral, aka Khan, the Turkish, multi-named and sometimes-talented, always busy producer/Coyote figure, is back with an album of sleazy conceptual collaborations. Unfortunately, the man who, in a stroke of genius, promoted his last album sporting nothing but his underwear and a martini glass, and started a gay sex line, "1-900-GET-KHAN", to tie in with the album's title, has failed to top himself. No Comprendo's basic premise is this: Kahn specifically produces an electronic music track for a particular vocalist, then lets the featured performer have full creative control of their vocal tracks. Maybe Khan should have given the vocalists something more interesting to work with, instead of creating tracks so stereotypical to each singerís style. As a result of this misstep, the album is stylistically disjointed. Kid Congo Powers, Lenni Schipp, Jon Spencer and Andre Williams all give mediocre performances over dull tracks, while Diamanda Galasís "Amen" is horrible to the point of being stupid. The only two winners are the mysterious Julee Cruise of Twin Peaks fame, and former Atari Teenage Rioter Hanin Elias, who adds her truly sexy hardcore styling to "The Bee". Iím not against the sleaze, sex, feces and cannibalism going on on No Comprendo -- just the bad music. Sorry, Matador. Sorry, Khan. Sorry, listener. -- ea

Jamie Solow / Riddles / Angelears Music (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Passionflower"
Solow's childlike, wispy alto sounds like Carly Simon trying to hit a high note beyond her register. If you remember the moment in "That's The Way I Heard It Should Be" when Simon sings "He wants to marry me", you'll have heard, mentally, what Jamie Solow sounds like. Solow recaptures a period -- namely the early '70s -- in which folky female singer/songwriters melded traditional folk tunes or themes with their very modern (and at the time inflammatory) personal and political concerns. Riddles is far less political, perhaps because women of the '00s feel that feminism is largely a dead issue; relationships and natural objects (flowers, boulders, ferns, ocean waves and so on) are the main concern of Solow's lyrics. Even if you abhor the period of musical history that Solow explores and enlarges upon, you've got great reason to admire the artistry of her voice. She also pulls in some solid instrumental performers: Patty Weiss (who played the violin and composed the music for The Truth About Cats and Dogs) and Kenny Kotwitz on accordion. Accordion generally reminds me of Blob's Park and oom-pah-pah bands, but Kotwitz blows past all that, sounding more like updated "Ma Vie En Rose" accompaniment -- the best compliment I can think of for accordion music. Perfect for dinner parties or those Harvey's Bristol Creme-type romantic moments, Solow's Riddles are a great puzzle for you to solve at home. -- js

Nataraj XT / Tandava / NuTone (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Jan Poori"
Let's not mince words: the whole "mixing world music sounds with techno beats" concept has been pretty well played-out, at least as far as the most obviously techno-friendly musical styles are concerned. Nataraj XJ's approach -- fusing Indian ragas with pulsating electronic rhythms -- is hardly unexplored territory. The music is competently produced, sitar and sarod and other instruments lovingly meshed with the beats, but it brings nothing new to the party. In the end, it's the electronic elements that disappoint; despite some promising beginnings ("Kirwan" starts particularly well), each track eventually settles into a highly linear 4/4 groove in the 120-140 BPM range. With such minimal variation, Tandava all too easily blurs into a single sixty-one minute track -- and a none-too-memorable track, at that. -- gz

Betty Already / Amerimaniacs / Fly Lyla (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Fire Drill"
This band is ridiculous, with a naked pig as their cover art and a bassist named Icky Boom. But I mean that in the best possible way. They share camp factor with the B-52s, although they donít really sound like them. They have moments where they sound like X with a sense of humor. The songs themselves are energetic, with fast tempos -ó a good amount of rock, but not really rockiní per se. The vocals on "Fire Drill", the album's third song, sound startlingly like The Truth from Causey Way. It may just be Kittyís sultry, deep vocals, but for a second there I had to stop and check the disk. -- az

Crushstory / A + Electric / Pop Kid (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "...New Rock"
On this debut full-length, Crushstory fuse awkward, Robyn Hitchcock-inspired antics with the nasal-yet-forceful vocal stylings of a pre-1990 Elvis Costello, producing an urgent and compelling album of pop. The disc works best on songs like "White" or "...New Rock", in which the group disregards the posturings of a contemporary rock band and worries about developing pure-pop songs. These two songs are truly spectacular efforts, and would stand tall against the best the new Weezer album has to offer, but the rest of the album makes a half-hearted attempt to recapture their charm. We can infer a few things from this: A) the band obviously has it in them to construct a lasting tune, and B) this is their first release, and debut albums traditionally suffer from a lack of maturity. For those who aren't big on logical deductions, A + B allows us to deduce C: namely that, with a little more experience and ingenuity, Crushstory could become an underground pop mainstay. -- td

Weezer / Weezer (green album) / DGC (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Simple Pages"
After five years away from the game, Rivers, Brian, Pat and Mikey return to the sidelines with Weezer (and no, you're not mistaken, this is indeed the groupís second self-titled effort). Produced by king-of-slick Rik Ocasek, the groupís first outing in half a decade finds them mining rather familiar musical territory. Eschewing the darker leaning of 1996ís Pinkerton, the band has crafted a sound more akin to their eponymous 1994 debut. "Donít Let Go" kicks things off in fine fashion as big, fuzzy riffs and gobs of melody pour from every conceivable nook and cranny. "Photograph" is a hit single waiting to happen, offering roughed up surf guitar, hand claps and Rivers Cuomoís familiarly demure delivery. The boys slow things down a bit with the dreamy "Island in the Sun", then kick back into overdrive with the crunchy, harmony-laden ode to lost innocence, "Crab". They pull out their rock pants and cap-sleeved tees for "Smile" and "Simple Pages", while (ironically tinged) lighters will certainly be aloft for their closing paean to love, "O Girlfriend". It's blink-and-youíll-miss-it running time and rather hefty price tag are the albumís only real drawbacks, proving that even after five years away, these kids can still write tunes that get stuck in your head for days. -- jj

Various Artists / Superglider Sampler / Superglider (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of Betika's "The Bierdigan"
Superglider is a UK-based independent record label specializing in a DIY, organic, ambient-pop sound. Their sampler introduces us to six relatively unknown but highly promising acts. Factotum's "Progress" rolls in slowly with swirling clouds of backwards guitars and warm keyboards, reminding me of Tortoise at their most elusive. Betika, described as "classically trained musicians trying to unlearn everything they know", give us the most interesting tune here -- "The Bierdigan" is a strangely appealing pop song with tight, melodic guitars, old-school drum machine and a robust female vocalist singing about Freud and impregnating someone. Two similar performers, Seamonster and Tex La Homa, bring us ultra-mellow folk songs over sedated drum machine rhythms, with similarly hazy results. The remaining tracks, by Line and Robot Dog, cover more traditional drum 'n' bass territory, propelled by violent soundscapes. Superglider is off to a fine start at creating a unique niche, and I'm post-rooting for them. -- ea

Adam West / Piece of Ass b/w Iron Chain / With an X (7")

Sample 30 seconds of "Iron Chain"
Like '60s garage punk greased up with classic offerings from the MC5 and early AC/DC, Adam West guns through two brawny and well produced scorchers on this sexually charged single. "Piece of Ass" struts coyly, like a liquored up wastoid, ready to lay into someone with a good smack in the face. The flipside, "Iron Chain", sets forth on a crushing mission of merciless guitar riffs and gung-ho drumming, as Jake Starr's throaty vocals show a side of smug, lean 'n' mean resolve. Both of these tunes are classic rockers, pumping barely controlled overdriven mayhem into your veins as their true rock 'n' roll recklessness boils your blood. Catch your breath while you can; this slab of vinyl gets better and better as the volume on your stereo goes higher and higher. -- am

Common Heroes / The Robin Sings / Self-released (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Vacancy"
The Robin Sings arrived in a marbled folder, and the letter inside said: "Greetings from NW alt-rock band Common Heroes!" So I was prepared for the worst. I was wrong. This is a terrific CD! Sure, it's pretty straight-ahead, Radiohead-meets-Queen modern rock, but it sounds great and the songs are melodic, well orchestrated and super catchy. Not only that, but the singer has a really wonderful, clear, sincere voice, and the lyrics are for the most part clever and honest. If all rock bands were this good, I wouldn't be so grumpy on CD review day! I hope these guys take off. -- ib

Mezzanine~C14 / Self-Titled / Break Even (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Tact"
Long Island by-way-of Chattanooga band Mezzanine~C14 (no, the name isn't explained) don't exactly reinvent metal on their debut album, but they do provide a short, sharp burst of loud instruments, hollered vocals and unfocused aggression that should boil the blood of heshers everywhere. Tempos vary (slightly), lyrics are unintelligible (mostly) and song titles like "Epidemic Lately" and "Murder M.F." give little away as the trio of Chris Lanza, Jason Spears, and Will Walker surfs through a half-pipe of heavy grooves. Shards of melody occasionally break the surface of the band's flood, often carried by the bassline. Mezzanine~C14 don't offer much innovation, but this well-constructed album might just have you pulling out your old Sabbath tee in tribute. -- rt

Various Artists / Random Access Music Machine - U.S. Pop Life Vol. 7: Experimental / Contact (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of the Starlight Mints' "Submarine #3"
All of Contact's U.S. Pop Life compilations do a good job at presenting an outsider's view of the Stateside pop scene. While Volume 7's "Experimental" aegis seems a little gratuitous -- are The Faint, National Skyline or Kilowatthours really experimenting with anything? -- it makes for an intriguing, if wildly uneven, mixture of sounds and styles. That's not a bad thing; a good compilation, particularly one that purports to be "experimental", should offer a few jarring transitions and peculiar sonic juxtapositions to keep you on your toes. From the dizzy psychedelic squelches of the Swirlies and the abrasive, percussive urgency of the Flakes to the vaudeville peculiarity of Snooze and the Colossal Yes and the frying-pan-in-the-face brutality of Arab on Radar, there's not much here that'll give you reason to doze off. With any luck, the music will distract you from the fact that while there are sixteen artists on Vol. 7, the disc has only thirteen tracks (all the songs are present, but in a few cases two songs have merged into a single track). Take a close look at the informative, error-explaining card inside the shrinkwrap before you start matching band names to songs. Once you've figured out, you can begin enjoying pop jems-- gz

Spacious International / Self-Titled / Screw Music Forever (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Sense of Wealth and Being"
This Tampa, Florida quintet seems to define themselves by their use of cheap keyboards, which is a shame because they're a lot more than a gimmick. Sure, their synthesizers sound like the cheap gear you buy as a teenager because it's what you can afford, but as my music shop dealer always said, "It's not the number of keys on the board, it's how you use Ďem." And this band knows how to use them. Their melodies are simple and catchy, with the instrumentation providing solid-yet-unobtrusive support. This makes for lightweight but non-fluffy pop music that draws in jazzy soloing on tracks like "Sense of Wealth and Being". This is a fine disc, far exceeding the expectations created by the band's self-deprecating humor. -- rd

The Autumns / Covers / Absalom Recordings (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Time of No Reply"
This volume of Absalom Recordsí 3" subscription series finds The Autumns pitting their musical wits against songs originally penned by The Smiths, Nick Drake, Lift to Experience and David Lynch. They strip Lift to Experience's "Wish the World Behind" down to its basest elements and draw out every last glimmer of hope before gently putting the song to rest. Their sprucing up of Nick Drakeís "Time of No Reply" doesnít improve on the original, instead taking it into the outer reaches of space via loads of FX pedals and astral percussion. However, their version of The Smithsí "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want" leaves something to be desired -- mainly a tune and some backbone. Bad Morrissey impressions aside, this Covers EP is a nice introduction to a young band with some real potential. -- jj

Various Artists / Symphony for Heartbreak - U.S. Pop Life Vol. 9: Seattle-Portland / Contact (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of The Swords Project's "The New Assassin"
This motley assembly of bands from the Pacific Northwest, including familiar icons like 764-HERO, Red Stars Theory and Norfolk and Western, aims at unearthing tomorrow's "contemporary pop music." Since the majority of these tunes aren't your typical verse-chorus-verse pop numbers, it takes a bit more aural interaction to discover each artist's marked musical niche. The Swords Project's magnificent guitar epic has a beautiful, full-bodied aura that unexpectedly manipulates would-be math rock into the pop spectrum. Similarly, Grandrapids' "Song 10" pollinates overdriven guitar lines with accessible melodies, producing a hybrid pop product that melds noise and catchy melodies together. Besides the irritating mastering error that combines multiple artists onto one track, forcing you to fast forward into the track to hear your favorites, Symphony... successfully pinpoints a number of known and aspiring Northwest bands, documenting their unique musical perspectives on aluminum. -- am

No Motiv / Diagram for Healing / Vagrant (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Going Numb"
More emo. I like emo, in case you didnít know, but even I get tired of hearing it -- especially as all emo bands have the overwhelming tendency to sound alike. No Motiv are more pop-punk than your average emo band, and lead vocalist Jeremy actually sings most of the time as opposed to screaming, which is a pleasant surprise. The kidsíll probably love this album...and who could blame them? Diagram for Healing is completely accessible, catchy, energetic, at moments tender without being wussy. Songs like "Broken and Burned" and "Going Numb" perfectly express the 16-19 year old suburban angst of No Motivís mostly male fans. But to my jaded ears, it just sounds like another emo-pop record. -- az

Sunday Flood / Advisory / Sun Sea Sky (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Why is Green Grass Like the Mob?"
It's hard to believe Sunday Flood have been around since 1995. Advisory is the full length release from this vaguely religious band with a vaguely religious name; the last word on their album, which appears where bonus tracks normally hide, is the explicitly unholy word "Fuck". That seems to be the "bonus" that Sunday Flood provides to its listeners; the songs on Advisory show the group, even after five years, to be maniacally uncertain, as willing to die for a melody as to kill those which approach. When they sing the quiet, aptly named "Hush Falls", one senses they're anxious to rock -- and when they do rock, on tracks like "Hymnal" and "The Vessel", the songs sound as if they could easily be turned into ballads. Advisory is a very hard record to sum up, as the songs -- even after being recorded -- feel like unfinished thoughts. The ideas are by no means bad, but there are too many loose ends. Rather than thirteen distinct songs, we get thirteen slightly melodic "tributaries" that aren't sure which river they want themselves, or their audience, to cross. Listening to Advisory, I felt like Adam must have felt when an angel appeared and said "Mary will have a baby." Thank you very much, Angel, but do you mean Eve? And the angel said "Fuck". -- td

Portastatic / Looking for Leonard / Merge (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Sweethearts of the World"
When you stop and think about it, Mac McCaughan has achieved just about everything there is to achieve in the world of music. As the leader of indieicons Superchunk, he virtually redefined punk rock. As half-owner of the esteemed Merge Records, heís released a slew of classic albums by a diverse roster of artists, and his collaborations with the likes of Robert Pollard, Ken Vandermark and Jim OíRourke have also yielded some rather impressive results. His rather well-known and universally adored side project, Portastatic, is also nothing to sniff at. You can now add film composer to that long list of accolades. Looking for Leonard is McCaughanís first stab at film scoring (for Matt Bissonetteís independent film of the same name), though after hearing its sumptuous results, you might be led to believe that this is just another day at the office for old Mac. Bereft of the manic energy that has come to characterize both his and his bandsí work, Looking for Leonard finds McCaughan in a relatively contemplative and somber mood that can only partially be attributed to the film. Lushly minimalist orchestrations propel "Stealing Romance" and "Sweethearts of the World", while "Joís Plan" emits an air of muted discomfort. Other standouts include the moody (and aptly titled) "Funeral Music" and the Badalamenti-inspired dramatic swells of "Only Good People Wonder if They are Bad". While it might not be the Portastatic (or Mac) that youíve become accustomed to, Looking for Leonard shows that even after all these years, McCaughan still has a few good tricks left up his sleeve. -- jj

Mars Parker and the Hi-Fi Circus Act / Demo / Self-Released (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Tricycle"
On this white-sleeved calling card -- ostensibly a foretaste of a disc called Music to Leave Your Boyfriend By -- Parker and Co. flit, butterfly-like, between styles. Lounge-inflected pop of the rougher, funkier Love Jones variety rubs elbows with squalling indie rock flare-ups and radio-friendly college rock. "High" probably does the best job of proving that the band can deliver the sort of musical goods that people want to hear these days (mannered, feedback-soaked instrumental riffing), while "Tricycle" offers a promisingly catchy burst of fast-paced, twisty-turny power pop. However, much of the disc's impact is lost to ridiculously low recording levels; listening on my computer, I had to crank the volume way up to hear anything at all...and the sudden, deafening intrusion of a "you have new e-mail" alert nearly caused me to wet myself. C'mon, Mars -- pump up the volume! (Okay, I'm going to hell for that.) -- gz

Ruby / Short-Staffed At The Gene Pool / Thirsty Ear (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Lilypad"
Ruby, aka Lesley Rankine of Silverfish fame, has always intrigued me. She reminds me of a mixture of Bjork, Deee-Lite's Lady Miss Kier and the character Parker Posey played in Party Girl. I think the things that tie them all together are their eccentricities and their general unpredictability. Ruby hasn't done a thing to let me down on Short-Staffed...; in fact, I think I'm even more drawn this record than 1995's Salt Peter. She drifts effortlessly from songs that induce a state of gloomy melancholy to tunes that make you want to bust a move. What's not to like? My favorite tracks here are "Beefheart", "Lamplight" and "Waterside", but the rest are far from disappointing...unless you don't enjoy a good groove. -- al

Echo Orbiter / Laughing All the While / Looking Glass Workshop (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Melody to Accompany a Stroll Through a Park"
Take a bit of The Beach Boys and a splash of sunshine, add some punkish attitude, stir in some of the erudite pop sensibility of The Lilys and you've got Echo Orbiter. This record is the follow-up to 1999's A Moment in Life That's Right, and it shows a group of musicians still intent on creating fun, spontaneous, slightly eccentric pop music. Somewhat in the tradition of bands like Of Montreal, Laughing All the While is a loosely-themed album that hints at insanity as well as child-like playfulness. It's pleasant enough to listen to, but too large a dose becomes tiresome. "Melody to Accompany a Stroll Through a Park" exemplifies the light, sunny fare that can be found throughout the disc; featuring banjos, guitars, happy chimes, a piano and "la-la-la" harmonies, it's jaunty and happy -- even manic. Is Echo Orbiter a bunch of lighthearted kids, or are they just crazy? You be the judge. -- nw

The String and Return / Invisible City / Sun Sea Sky (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Flyweight"
Utilizing three guitars, occasional keys, bass guitar, drums, cymbals and one or two voices (depending on the tune), Invisible City is a mathy, Slint-inclined, full-force dream-pop album. You might think of The String and Return as a Red Stars Theory without the emo breakdowns; gaudy June of '44 guitar lines also persist throughout. Actually, the album sounds more like Codeine than Slint. It's pretty low key, avoiding the over-the-top eccentricities for which Slint was known. Perhaps the only noticeable divergence from the established formula is the series of overtly complicated arpeggios on the opening track, "Flyweight". Overall, Invisible City is a competent but unremarkable post-rock-style album. -- jw

gz - george zahora | nw - noah wane | am - andrew magilow | ib - irving bellemead | jj - jason jackowiak | td - theodore defosse | rd - ron davies
js - jenn sikes | rt - ryan tranquilla | al - amy leach | jw - john wolfe | az - alex zorn | ea - ed anderson

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