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our weekly collection of shorter reviews

R. B. Morris, Johnny Dowd, Buzzcocks, John Stuart Mill
Minster Hill, Roxanne Turcotte, Mastercaster, John Galt
Aloha, ivet, Harvie Swartz and Eye Contact, Frank Cotolo
Weed, Inc., Margaret Lancaster, Bobby Conn, Snow Patrol
Bablicon, Jeff Aug

R.B. Morris / Zeke and the Wheel / Koch (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Long Arm of the Law"
R.B. Morris has done a lot of traveling, but it's his Knoxville roots that seem to hold everything together on Zeke and the Wheel, an impressive collection of tunes ranging from Tom Petty-ish rockers ("You My Love") to gentle country-folk songs ("Maybe the Soul) to rockabilly hoedowns ("Long Arm of the Law"). The sound and production on this CD are gorgeous; Morris' voice is strong and the players are tight, and they move easily between quiet folk songs and raucous blues stomps, always managing to keep a hint of Morris's honky-tonk heritage in the mix. And while Morris doesn't seem to have the quirkiness factor that marks some of his singer-songwriter colleagues (think Susanne Vega, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan), his lyrics are interesting and his songs are lovely. -- ib

Johnny Dowd / Pictures from Life's Other Side / Koch (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "No Women's Flesh But Hers"
Some albums are good for listening to after you've been on a drinking binge. Pictures from Life's Other Side is good for listening to when you don't actually have time for the drinking binge but want to feel like you did. A skewed mixture of American gothic-style love, murder and mayhem, these tunes from NY furniture mover Dowd are what you'd expect to hear if Johnny Cash survived a massive head injury and went to work writing soundtrack material for David Lynch's sequel to Blue Velvet. Co-vocalist Kim Sherwood-Caso adds just the right note of trailer-bred feminine purity to the mix. Lots of bands spend ages trying to be this energetically peculiar and fail miserably by trying too hard, but Dowd is the real deal -- crazed, creepy and unabashedly brilliant. If you allow the word "country" to drive you away from this disc, you're an idiot (and you're missing one of the coolest albums of 1999). Play loud; scare the neighbors. -- gz

Buzzcocks / Modern / Go-kart (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Choices"
Once seminal Brit-punks, the Buzzcocks are ancient in punk terms. They've been making records together for over 20 years. Perhaps this is why Modern comes across as punk music that's been delicately aged in a cellar to bring out its subtle flavors! It strives to maintain the youthful energy of punk while at the same time introducing mature sophistication. Unfortunately, the band's efforts are ultimately doomed! While the tunes are catchy and the lyrics clever in true Buzzcock fashion, I'm haunted by the feeling that the entire album is just too slow and reserved. I always give bands points for stretching beyond what's comfortable and such is the case here, but despite a couple of interesting tracks (including "Choices"), this experiment is ultimately a failure. -- nw

John Stuart Mill / Forget Everything / SeeThru Broadcasting (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "A Checkmark"
There is a toe-tapping infectiousness to "A Checkmark"; it's a compact guitar number that will make college radio programmers take notice. Too often, many tracks have the characteristics of a personality disorder -- they move in too many directions during their three minute duration, leaving the listener in constant aural transition. Maybe that's the point of Forget Everything: forget everything about the standard construction of radio-friendly pop and try Mill's stripped down and reconstituted indie rock collages. -- dd

Minster Hill / Minster Hill / Somewhere But Hear (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "I've Been in a World"
These unknowns combine the quirkiness of They Might be Giants with the moodiness of XTC and some strong pop similarities to The Kinks. With vocals and guitars peeking over the mix, there's enough musical variety on this 60's-tainted CD to attract shoegazers and pop afficionados alike. Consistently solid, Minster Hill continues the never-ending recreation of tunes that make your heart swoon and your feet tap, while the band smartly keeps the sounds varied as they serve up this delicious musical treat. -- am

Roxanne Turcotte / Amore! / empreintes DIGITALes (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Olé-Lé-Léo"
Turcotte spins an impressionistic love story with voices, sound effects, samples and rhythms, based upon Roland Barthes' book A Lover's Discourse. Newcomers to electroacoustic music may find Amore particularly appealing; it uses many identifiable, untreated "real world" sounds and employs a more structured, linear narrative than other empreintes DIGITALes releases, grounding even its most experimental moments in comforting familiarity. It's still a lot of fun -- especially the conversational "T'es le fun telephone." -- gz

Mastercaster / The Golden Age of Trade / Arboretum (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Raunch in Texas"
If Mastercaster truly represents the state of Philadelphia's rock and roll as they claim in their bio, it's no wonder that Philly is known for its soul and jazz. On these muffled rock songs, raunchy guitars and pounding drums battle each other for the right to drown out the singer's droning voice. Song titles like "Raunch in Texas" and "Pistol Lapsteel Overdrive" give a good sense as to what Mastercaster sounds like. Originally from New Jersey and having played shows in New Brunswick, it's perhaps no wonder that Mastercaster sounds like the same college rock we've heard so many times before. -- ha-n

John Galt / John Galt EP / Fifth Market (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Wudelco"
What do you get when you combine two guys, an hour's worth of lessons and a studio? The John Galt EP, that's what. Sonically, this record resembles a 15 year-old garage band put into a blender and whipped on puree for 45 seconds, resulting in five songs played at breakneck pace, replete with screaming vocals, frantic rhythms and garbled guitars. Few of these songs even reach the two-minute mark. Think of them as an American version of Guitar Wolf, but not quite-as-loud and familiar with a few more chords. I challenge anyone to go five rounds with the John Galt EP, and see which of you is left standing. -- jj

Aloha / The Great Communicators, the Interpreters, the Nonbelievers / Polyvinyl (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "The Sound Between"
It took slightly under twenty minutes for Aloha to reach the top of my "Bands I'd Like to See Live" list -- in other words, roughly the time it took me to listen to this five-song EP. Aloha enliven the increasingly "traditional" post-rock amble with a vibraphone as lead instrument -- a potentially gimmicky move that succeeds here because it's done with complete conviction rather than "look how indie we are" flamboyance. Add an intricately meshed foundation of guitar and bass, an assertive synthesizer and a clattering, vigorous percussion track, and you'll have a recipe for fascinating listening. The crystal clear vibraphone tones create a persistent dream-like state, leaking their aura of unreality over the rest of your worldspace. Unnervingly exciting stuff. -- gz

ivet / sickhouse / Primitive Records (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "alligator"
Remember "Lightening Crashes" by Live? ivet's new CD, Sickhouse, feels very similar in its own dark, loud, metalic way. It's got "intense" written all over it -- lots of crunchy guitar playing, raging drums, screamed vocals, etc. Ivet tones things down once in awhile, like on the almost-funky "alligator", which comes mightily close to being a pop song, but in general the tunes are full of raging testosterone demons, and even the songs that start off mellow end up with a bang. All of this intensity is fine, but intensity for its own sake doesn't stay interesting for very long, and although I tried, I couldn't find much else on this CD to grab onto. -- ib

Harvie Swartz and Eye Contact / Havana Mañana / Bembé (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Cubalypso"
Harvie Swartz calls his music jazz-Latin. A renowned jazz bassist, Mr. Swartz has immersed himself in Cuban music culture and blended its hot salsa with the cool, polished contemporary jazz sound. What sets his music apart from so-called "Latin jazz" is the details. Swartz claims to have mastered the subtle rhythmic nuances of Cuban music in a way that previous jazzers have failed to do...and as far as I can hear, he's right! I'm particularly struck by the unique sound that Swartz has created by blending these two disparate influences. Purists of either the Cuban school or contemporary jazz school will be disappointed with Havana Mañana, but anyone interested in new, hybrid music should give it a listen. -- nw

Frank Cotolo / Seven Squared / Frank Cotolo (Cassette)

Sample 30 seconds of "Too Much Amphibians"
Here's a difficult release to decipher. It seems Frank Cotolo has assembled a large cast of family and friends and created a tape of varying styles. With a general Beatlesque feel, tunes range from annoyingly repetitive to enigmatically entertaining. A young Jack Cotolo rattles out some unexpected experimental verbiage on "Too Much Amphibians," guaranteed to smack a grin across your face. The wide variety of styles represented here becomes a bit of a nemesis as well, as you're never quite sure what’s on deck. -- am

Weed, Inc. / Trampled, Beaten and Obeyed / (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Queen Bee"
Playing straight-ahead rock and roll, Weed, Inc. successfully fall into the Dave Matthews/Shawn Mullins category of alternative boy pop rock. Despite their horrible name, this three piece from New Hampshire seem poised to fall into the commercial radio kingdom. Their single, "Queen Bee," is catchy as all hell, with a guitar-plucked intro that's super sweet. Lead vocals are backed with a "Work! Work! Working on the Queen Bee!" chorus that's very formulaic -- but it still works. Trampled, Beaten and Obeyed was published by RockMePopMe Music and it's completely fitting for this trio. Watch out for them. -- ha-n

Margaret Lancaster / Future Flute / Sound's Bounty (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Once-A-Thon"
Flutist Margaret Lancaster's facile technique, fiery chops and ardent musicianship have won her a reputation as the "go-to girl" for contemporary flute music. Her mastery of the instrument is indeed impressive, as anyone who has heard her play can attest. Future Flute is made up exclusively of works for flute and electronics (either tape of MIDI). Featured composers include Paul Herman Reller, David W. Rogers, Robert C. Constable Jr. and Eric Lyon. The highlight of the CD is Constable's "Once-A-Thon" (1998). It's so impressive, in fact, that two of the other composers (Rogers and Lyon) composed sequels to it. It is a complex oeuvre of kitschy samples, rapid melodic passages and thick "overblown" flute tones. In summary all I can say is, "more of Margaret Lancaster please!" -- nw

Bobby Conn / Llovessonngs / Thrill Jockey (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Without You"
Listening to Llovessonngs is at once a confusing and a rewarding experience. With this 4-song EP, Chicago's favorite musical schizoid again astonishes us with his brand of heartfelt whimsicality. There's no sappy sentimentality to be found on this album -- just perfect oddball-pop spruced up with orchestral flourishes and Conn's dynamic vocal stylings. Opener "Free Love" swings and sways, with fat trumpet stabs and sumptuous strings adding to the song's already majestic feel. On his cover of Badfinger's "Without You," layers of harmony vocal and toy piano slip in and out, adding a woozy, ghostly feeling to the lovers' lament. With Llovessonngs, Conn makes falling in love seem like a good idea, which in this age of angst-ridden sentimentality is quite the breath of fresh air. -- jj

Snow Patrol / Music for Polar Bears / Never/Jeepster (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Starfighter Pilot"
Wow. I think I've written this review several times before. Snow Patrol are UK press darlings. Released in the US twelve-odd months ex post facto, Songs for Polar Bears comes stuffed with five tasty bonus tracks to bait frustrated import buyers. There's a cred-fluffing appearance by Belle and Sebastian's Isobel Campbell, too. It's actually quite a good album, if you like American-style guitar rock filtered through au courant UK trendiness, and the song titles are very clever (though "One Hundred Things You Should Have Done In Bed" disappoints by virtue of not actually being a list). If "Starfighter Pilot" can get attention at radio, things could really happen for Snow patrol. Otherwise, I don't see Songs for Polar Bears being remembered as a classic ten, five, or even two years hence. It's good for playing loud in the here and now, though. -- gz

Bablicon / In a Different City / Misra (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "At the Birthday Party"
Bablicon is yet another branch of the ever-growing Elephant 6 tree. The group is led by Neutral Milk Hotel drummer/organist Jeremy Barnes, and boasts two other anonymous members who may or may not be fellow E6 bretheren. Nevertheless, In a Different City is a wonderfully deranged slab of free flowing carnival-space jazz. Sporadic vocals, samples and marching bands? waft in and out of the mix, creating a scattershot feel that somehow works like a charm. Barnes' playing at times resembles the work of legendary jazz drummer Buddy Rich in its rhythmic swagger and power. With In a Different City the mysterious force known as Bablicon has created and album that will have you scratching your head in wonder and reaching for the repeat button at the same time. -- jj

Jeff Aug / Rocket / Corrosive Media (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Rocket (Gringo Groove Rocket Remake)"
Jeff Aug's "Rocket" is surgically remixed and reprogrammed three times on this mini-EP. Aug, known for his expansive guitar technique, lets the knob-turners do their own musical deconstruction, producing a series of mesmerizing, ambient and quick-beat dance numbers that are all curiously tied together under a solitary moniker. Has Aug lost his mind, or smartly done what more guitar players ought to do and let outside forces manipulate the recorded electric guitar into a futuristic melding of genres? -- am

gz - george zahora | nw - noah wane | am - andrew magilow | ib - irving bellemead
jj - jason jackowiak | ha-n - heidi anne-noel | dd - deirdre devers

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