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OUR WEEKLY COLLECTION OF SHORTER REVIEWS
Happy Pills, New Order, Automatic Head Detonator, Smoke: New Sounds From Scotland, The Blood Group, Spider Monkey vs. Slow Loris, De Facto, Blue Diamond Phillips presents Vol. 1: This Is My Life..., X-It, Fly From August, Sophia Ramos Dupre, The Apples in Stereo, Danny Barnes and Thee Old Codgers, Reubens Accomplice, Aledo, Robert Pollard and his Soft Rock Renegades, Three 4 Tens, Robot Dog, Johnny Bronco, Ilya, Kevin Brennan, Minmae feat. Onq, Unstable Ensemble, Quasi, Greg Weeks, Tim Reed, The Starting Line, Mark Fox, Fernando, Dos Coyotes, Inside Five Minutes, A Girl Called Eddy, Twenty Seven, Modular Systems


Happy Pills / Smile / Tamizdat (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Searching For Belgian Waffles"
I find it inexcusably obnoxious that someone would "enhance" a CD so that when you pop it into your computer’s CD player a Flash animation usurps your system resources and supplants whatever it was that you were working on (That makes two of us. Are you listening, labels? Yes, Sub Pop, we're talking to you too. -- Ed.). That aside, Happy Pills is a Polish pop powerhouse (that's something you don't say everyday!). The band is fronted by a very sweet female vocalist who sings happily about Belgian waffles. There is a subtle, psychotic good mood quality to Smile, with its bright guitar strums and the singer's unflappable cheeriness. "Sonic Death Monkey" is a funny instrumental that doesn’t seem to be about monkeys at all. Smile is light and sweet like cafe con leche, innocent like kites and sunflowers, and catchy enough for even the pickiest pop fan. -- az


New Order / Get Ready / Reprise (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Rock the Shack"
New Order have always been a "singles" band. And let's be frank here: "Bizarre Love Triangle" was their last truly "essential" single, and it came out fifteen years ago. While post-Brotherhood albums like Technique were enjoyable, they didn't really add anything new to the enduring New Order canon; they'd blown the lion's share of their creative wad by 1986. That said, from a new band, Get Ready would seem like an accomplished if uneven effort. "Crystal", the album's first single, is a little bland, as are the songs that follow it; while the essential New Order cues -- particularly Peter Hook's trademark bass technique -- are present, these good-natured songs seem watered-down compared to classic New Order. Fortunately, there are far better things to come: "Primitive Notion" kicks off a five-track streak of marvelously tuneful material, crackling with energy and hooks (which are, if you'll forgive the pun, mostly Hook's). Particularly notable is "Rock the Shack" -- yes, it's a terrible title, but it makes an almost infuriatingly catchy chorus. If only the album-closing ballad, "Run Wild", didn't squander all that built-up energy... Still, if you're a thirty-something New Order fan, you'll be pleased to learn that when, in a momentary burst of nostalgia, you pop Get Ready into the minivan stereo and turn it up as loud as it'll go (not very), little (fill in trendy boy's name) and (fill in trendy girl's name) probably won't complain about the "old people music". And neither will you. -- gz


Automatic Head Detonator / Buffalo EP / Lo-Fi (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Buffalo"
While the fact that Automatic Head Detonator are backed by the first label to actually trademark the coveted "Lo-Fi Records" tag should warrant immediate attention, the casual reader's interest shouldn't stop there; rather, this Los Angeles based trio's joyous hooks are sure to sate any listener's quest for quirky electronic fuzz-rock. The band is at their best on songs like "Buffalo", where the melding of down-tuned guitar rock with intermittent electronic warblings and the throaty vocals of lead singer Zeke Wray creates an eccentric melody that's as enchanting as it is bizarre. While later songs take a notable dive -- relying more on disjointed electronics and sampled vocals to make their point -- Buffalo shows enough promise to leave you wondering just what will happen when Automatic Head Detonator learn to dump the songs without workable melodies and focus on their ability to construct inventive guitar hooks and irregular vocals. -- jw


Various Artists / Smoke: New Sounds from Scotland / Hat & Cigar (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of Late Night Foreign Radio's "Screensaver"
A friend of mine once described the Scots as "a dour lot", earning him laughs and a smack from his Scottish wife. However, if this collection is a good representation, he wasn't far off the mark. Many of these tracks are relatively slow, minor key affairs. Sometimes, as on Late Night Foreign Radio's "Screensaver" the tone is clearly dark. Elsewhere, as with the instrumental "Element 115" by Ives, the result isn't dark so much as very reserved. True, exceptions like the jumping rock of Nibushi Shang Hong's "Song in 3 Parts" can be found, but even so, the results aren't exactly sunny and cheerful. However, while the bands on Smoke sound a little downcast, there is no denying their effectiveness and artistry. Thus, while many pop-accustomed ears may indeed find these Scots a dour bunch, others will find them quite pleasant. -- rd


The Blood Group / Everything Forgotten Gathers At The Ceiling / Le Grand Magistery (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Odin"
I hate to be one of those people who recommends an entire record label, but there's something truly admirable about Le Grand Magistery. Any label that features Momus as their biggest draw is clearly not in it for the money. So I approached Everything Gathers At The Ceiling with a generally positive outlook, and surprise, it's great. The Blood Group has allotted themselves only twenty-one minutes and change to make you love them, and dammit if they don't pull it off. By their own account, they are perfectionists, and that is precisely the attitude required for the sort of music they play. The instrumentation is subtle and quiet, but elegantly recorded, revealing its complexity upon multiple listenings. Jennifer B, the singer, has a thin but pretty voice; think of the female friend of yours who is the best singer and you'll be in the ball park. The sounds vary, dominated by vibes, keyboards and quietly strummed guitar flowing over carefully-programmed drum tracks. The album's overall effect is a sort of honest and unsentimental sexiness. Cramming eight tracks into such a short disc means there are sure to be some short sound experiments included, and I certainly prefer the Blood Group's "Capsule Capsule" and "The Antivert" to similar tracks on the last two Radiohead albums. The clincher here is the first track, "Odin", a slinky homage to "Blue Moon" (according to the band); it alone should make you think of Everything Forgotten as money well-spent. -- bm


Spider Monkey vs. Slow Loris / It Returned From Outer Space Buzzing at the Beat Frequency of the Modern World / Ionik (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "We Have Got the Maxim Gun, and They Have Not"
It Returned From Outer Space Buzzing at the Beat Frequency of the Modern World is a clue for the listener on the CD's content: self-indulgent. The album is an exercise in curious research overlaid with some fun burbles. In "We Have Got the Maxim Gun, and They Have Not", Spider Monkey takes a BBC newsreel of a Churchill D-Day speech, overlays it with a quick arpeggio, follows with a simple five-note melody, and loops the whole thing so it plays over and over. At the very end of the song, the synth fades out and you can hear Churchill talking about the landing of U-boats on the dunes. How many people would know how to find such material? How many people in younger generations are affected by Churchill? Probably few; Spider shows he's pretty clever with his offerings. Ultimately, however, all the album has to offer is fragments of French movies, newsreels and radio speeches, mixed with synth, synth-organ and/or guitar -- and not many different chords, either. No real melodies are played. In the end, it's all rather boring. It's sadly ironic -- in the end, the Slow Loris wins this race. -- js


De Facto / Megaton Shotblast / GSL (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Coaxial"
Who would have thought that Omar Rodriguez and Cedric Bixler, guitarist and lead singer of hardcore crossover heroes At The Drive-In, would be so adept at making music that doesn’t make you want to careen recklessly across the room in a furious, adrenaline-fueled fit? Not me, that’s for sure. Actually, if Megaton Shotblast provokes any sort of response at all, it'll more than likely cause folks to close the shades, slap on the headphones and dig into that "secret" drawer for a lighter and a big ol' spliff of the green stuff. In truth, there's almost nothing that would lead you to identify this as an ATDI side-project. Bixler’s manic-yet-brassy tenor and Rodriguez’s furious six-string assaults are gone, replaced by a steamy jungle brew of whizzing sci-fi keyboards, hazy Afro-Cuban rhythms and thundering bass hits. There’s simply no denying the overt Lee "Scratch" Perry-isms of the diabolical "Coaxial", or the King Tubby-like strut of "Descarga De Facto", though those are just a few of the influences that rise to the album's surface. The bombastic "Mitchel Edward Klik Enters a Dreamlike State and its Fucking Scandalous" sounds as if it came straight from the mixing desk of Adrian Sherwood, while the sidewinder-like swagger and playful brass of "Rodche Defects" suggests a kinder, gentler Black Uhuru. After you've sifted through all this information, the real question left to be answered is...are you ready for a Megaton Shotblast? -- jj


Various Artists / Blue Diamond Phillips presents Vol. 1: This My Life... / MOC (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Warez My Drumsticks"
Move over Matador; now there's something meatier. MOC Records unveils its current roster in this cheekily-titled sampler, which showcases twenty artists ranging from keyboard-core and power pop to soulful rap and lo-fi rock. MOC may be familiar to those of you who like Graham Smith, the man behind Kleenex Girl Wonder. Here, the illustrious song-Smith actually faces very stiff competition from his label-mates. Among the high points are Tokyo-based Astro B's Whale-esque, eardrum-damaging "Rock Therapy", and M.O.T.O 's "Dance, Dance, Dance, Dance, Dance, To the Radio," is one of the best Jonathan Richman inspired songs I've heard in a long time. And that's just the tip of the iceberg; almost all of the pop-indie acts here will make you shake your head and tap your feet -- everything, in other words, that good rock and roll should do. -- da


X-It / Tony's Angels / Self-Released (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Everywhere"
If you have a good set of headphones, be careful of "Everywhere"; the guitars kick in so hard that my eardrums, once knocked out, were reluctant to return to my ears. Fortunately, X-It's strong vocals, intricate guitar work, abundance of hooks and broad variety of material ensured their return. The group's debut is a smattering of hard rock, rap metal ("Everywhere"), roots rock and jazzy, Ani DiFranco-like ballads ("Unfocused"), in which the music is always played skillfully enough to hide lyrical slips ("Why can't I leave all the pain? How can I hide from the rain?"). Still, the more familiar you get with the songs and their strong bridges, the more the lyrics come to the fore -- and they simply don't inject any personality whatsoever. If the band had chosen to sing about oysters, fine soup, or exit signs, there'd be a reason to choose them over, say, Pearl Jam (who aren't much better musically, but are -- even at this date -- more interesting). While few bands have anything new to say about love or relationships, most don't make it as obvious as X-It that their lyrics follow the melodies, hook by hook, without ever revealing a genuine emotion. -- td


Fly From August / The Distance Light Travels / Autopilot (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Deeper"
Fly From August play a brand of spaced-out rock-funk fusion that varies heavily in quality. The Distance Light Travels contains moments of melodic clarity, in which crafty guitars quickly pick away, violins swoon and the vocals float sweetly above the rolling astral haze. But at other times, as in the unbearable "Andromeda", the band tries their hand at a Jamiroquai-meets-Cake-meets-early-Chili-Peppers fusion, with predictably nauseating results. They lose their focus; guitars are wanking, basses are popping and singers are barking facts about the galaxy. It’s obvious that this is a young band, full of many sometimes conflicting ideas. I hope in the future they can refine their style and make their sound a little more organic. Many of their ideas are alright; they just have to weed out the ones that aren’t. -- ea


Sophia Ramos Dupre / Self-Titled / Self Released (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Esperanza"
While lots of other folks seem to think Dupre is the new Janis Joplin, I'd say she's more of a latina Lenny Kravitz, given her sexed up style, attraction to semi-metal riffing guitars, smooth lover self confidence and ability to wear pleather pants without looking like a dolt. This four song EP finds her in fine rock and roll form, and although the music is a bit too classic rocky for my taste, there's no denying the size, strength and versatility of Dupre's voice -- or her ability to crank up the emotional volume at just the right moment. "Esperanza" is the best (and least classic rock-influenced) track on the disc; it has a Living Colour guitar riff, a reasonably funky rhythm section and super energetic double-tracked vocals. "What I Do Know" is another nice one; it's much mellower, in the verses anyway, and it gives Dupre a chance to show off a pleasantly aching, scratchy side to her voice. This sort of, um, balls to the wall rock and roll feels kind of dated to me, but what the hell; if you're going to sing rock and roll, you might as well sing it right. -- ib


The Apples in Stereo / Let's Go! EP / spinART (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Heroes & Villains"
Many people seem to have fantasies about starring in a cartoon, but The Apples in Stereo have had their wish granted via the video for "Signal in the Sky", written for the Cartoon Network's Powerpuff Girls program. While cloying in places, this occasionally appealing EP showcases "Signal", along with a new song (the loping "If You Want to Wear a Hat"), a demo version of a track from last year, "Stream Running Over", and a storming live run through the Beach Boys' "Heroes & Villains". Both an homage and a challenge, "Heroes" pays tribute to the genius of Brian Wilson while placing his perfect pop within an album of equally ambitious -- if perhaps not quite as angelic -- songs. Apples frontman Robert Schneider (now collaborating with another proponent of the classic pop sound of the '60s, XTC's Andy Partridge) knows his own way around a memorable melody. "Heroes & Villains" is the only highlight, and it alone makes this a worthy if inessential release. -- rt


Danny Barnes and Thee Old Codgers / Things I Done Wrong / Terminus (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Devil On The Mountain"
Bluegrass has pretty much avoided experimentation, and has remained a mystery to most of us city-folk. It's an acquired taste that you can only understand by smelling the mostly-cardboard casing of Things I Done Wrong. Danny Barnes dives into the genre with as much energy as anyone else of the breed; his front-porch, let's-sit-back-and-say-"aww gee" banjo playing is nicely coupled with Jon Parry's fiddlin' violin and Keith Lowe's background bass playing. While your average city boy would obviously rather leave this bluegrass mystery alone, we at Splendid happily (and often bravely -- Ed.) listen to anything that comes our way. I was rather impressed by Barnes' quirky, off-the-beaten-path lyrics. On songs like "Funtime", he pulls clever line after clever line out of his seemingly bottomless lyrical pockets, making for some rather impressive songs. And even the punkiest of punks is bound to feel energized (even if he/she won't admit it) by the fast-paced instrumental, "Devil on the Mountain". Like all of us, Barnes definitely has his pain, but songs like "Everything Fades" and "All Alone For Christmas" avoid too much self-indulgence; if you listen close enough, you may even laugh. -- jk


Reubens Accomplice / I Blame the Scenery / Better Looking (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Looking Forward"
As several Splendid writers will attest, I'm something of an apostrophe Nazi; that is to say, I expect writers who've made it past fourth grade to understand possessive and plural forms, know the difference between "its" and "it's", and generally do their best not to contribute to the destruction of the English language. Therefore, when I come across an obviously apostrophe-challenged band like Reubens Accomplice, I'm incensed...but I do my best to be nice. I'll usually wrack my brain for some context in which the band's name (or, as Reubens Accomplice and a few of our unedited writers might say, "the bands name") is correct as they've spelled it. For instance, if Pee Wee Herman actor Paul Reubens robbed a bank, the guy who helped him could be described, in a purely adjectival sense, as "Reubens accomplice John Smith"...though that's stretching it. Anyway, the band are clearly better at music than English. While I Blame the Scenery might initially seem like Yet Another Emo Record, there's actually a lot more happening here. The band goes relatively light on the ol' angst, and frequently favors actual singing -- and even vocal harmonies -- over tuneless screaming. You'll hear a little sixties pop, a little country rock and some Replacements-type energy in these fourteen tunes. There are even a few post-rock friendly experiments (see "Borders"), though the band never slips into Wanky Free-Jazz Hell. In other words, I Blame the Scenery is the sort of pleasant surprise that almost makes me willing to forget the band's apostrophe problem. But they should still be ashamed of themselves. -- gz


Aledo / Blue Digit / Self-Released (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Hole In The Ground"
For the most part, Blue Digit is unremarkable. In fact, some songs, most notably "In Here" and "When My Left Eye Jumps," are somewhat painful to listen to. Aledo, known to his friends and neighbors as Steve Rader, describes his music as "alternative/neo-blues". Such a description is apt: Rader mixes simple bluesy riffs with a reedy voice straight out of Seattle circa 1992. Unfortunately, his voice is far too soft, and fails to match the passion that most of this music calls for. "Eating 1994", however, is encouragingly excellent; with its droning guitars and fuzzy vocals, it sounds like a lost song from Amnesiac, building from a strange vocal sample into an intense, paranoid wall of noise. It may be an anomaly, but it nearly redeems the entire album. -- mp


Robert Pollard and his Soft Rock Renegades / Choreographed Man of War / Fading Captain Series (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Kickboxer Lightning"
Why does Robert Pollard have to be such a productive son-of-a-bitch? I’d be a millionaire if it wasn’t for him. I’d have it all -- cars, boats, houses in the Hamptons...but instead, I have several large stacks of Pollard-related singles, EPs, albums, 7"s and compilations. And I’m fine with that. Really. Mock bitterness aside, Pollard’s seven-millionth solo release introduces us to Bob’s latest backing unit, the Soft Rock Renegades (aka Greg Demos and Jim MacPherson) who are assisted from time to time by the noble Jim Pollard and current GBV axe (and liquor) handler Nate Farley. True to form, Choreographed... is filled with melodies and nonsensical phrases that will stick in your brain and stay there for weeks on end. "Kickboxer Lightning" and "Edison’s Memos" are two of the strongest songs Pollard has written in the past few years -- sticky sweet choruses augmented with blazing riffs courtesy of former GBV bassist Demos. New live favorites (and album bookends) "I Drove a Tank" and "Instrument Beetle" aren’t exactly slouches, either -- their punchy rhythms and gooey hooks plainly illustrate why they have become staples of the GBV live experience. Like everything else Pollard has ever touched, Choreographed Man of War deserves your respect, attention, and most importantly, your hard-earned money. I guess that new car is just going to have to wait until next year. -- jj


Three 4 Tens / Change Is On Its Way / File 13 (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "j.b.n"
Part of the critic's job is to ignore facts that might prejudice him against a band and focus on the music. Sometimes, this detachment is sorely tested; for instance, Jon Kois, Three 4 Tens' drummer, is twice quoted in the band's press material slagging Ringo Starr. This from a band obsessed with early Pink Floyd (did Nick Mason ever play a memorable drum line?). I did, however, rise above the urge to barbecue this album while listening to "Tomorrow Never Knows", and gave it a spin. To my chagrin, it's actually pretty good. The band is serious about late '60s/early '70s rock and roll, combining a garage-band sound with the sitars and other instruments that defined the period. Of course, the band suffers from the obvious disadvantage of such an approach; there's nothing here you haven't heard a million times before. The rocking numbers feature strong, dirty guitar lines, with the occasional psychedelic flourish thrown in, making them perfect summer music. The ballads are somewhat less effective; they sound like the band was writing slower tunes in an attempt to make girls show up at their shows. Ah, well... These guys are all in their early twenties. If Change Is On Its Way is any indication, Three 4 Tens should age well. -- bm


Robot Dog / Self-Titled / Superglider (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Low res"
Often described as post-something/something else, Robot Dog's style combines fast, groovy dance beats with electronic ambience. The result creates a contrast; the beat moves quickly, but the electronic music is slow, creating the aural equivalent of the "psychological" camera shot that seems to be both zooming in and zooming out at the same time (This would be the "Spielberg Shot", I believe -- Ed.). This contrast is most evident on the first two songs, which utilize faster beats. When you hear only the beats, you're living the night life, going to bars and clubs, being at the scene to be seen, taking amphetamines twenty-four hours a day. But if you concentrate on the synthesizer ambience, everything becomes slower and darker. The third of these four songs, "Wintersea", offers a nice break from the formula; it lacks a structured beat, and proves that Robot Dog can also do traditional ambient music. The final track combines all of the elements used in the other three songs, and its slower beat melts comfortably into the electronic textures. Of all the tracks, this one is the most natural and enjoyable, avoiding the jarring effects of the early tracks' more extreme combinations. -- jk


Johnny Bronco / Blind Ambition / MP3 (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Blind Ambition"
The title track combines the vocal force of Slade with the charging guitars of Elastica's "Stutter", and is good enough to warrant the hype MTV, Kiss, and a variety of other celebrities have given Johnny Bronco and his band. It's strong, accessible rock, recorded by the group in an atypical, straightforward manner, and serves as a great way to introduce lead singer Bronco's voice to the world. "The Skies are Blue", the group's ambitious attempt at elaborate, over-the-top rock opera, is another unqualified success, and it sounds great, too -- a first for any MP3.COM CD that I've heard. The keyboards, intrusive on later tracks, help to ease the listener into the group's unique spin on The Beatles' Abbey Road suite and The Who's ode to deaf, dumb and blind folk ("Can you hear the wind on the waves? Can you touch the wind on the waves? Can you feel the wind on the waves?"). It's particularly easy to get carried away by Bronco's vocals, a formidable strength that also propels "The Water" toward must-hear status. An extremely catchy acoustic power ballad, "The Water" benefits from tasteful instrumentation and a surprising absence of clichés. Blind Ambition cannot sustain the level of its best songs, but that's typical of most CDs. Here, the weaker songs fail because of the band's understandable aspirations for the big-time, made vivid through an obsession with studio trickery that makes them sound like every other rock band on the radio. As "The Skies Are Blue" makes clear, Johnny Bronco are much better than that. -- td


Ilya / Self-Titled / Self-released (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Blatchford"
Question: What's more frustrating than a plain promo CD with no press material whatsoever? Answer: A plain promo CD with no press material whatsoever, with a link to a website that doesn't work! Even more frustrating is the second scenario listed above involving a band that you actually want to find out more about! This is the case with this (debut? Who knows?) four-song EP. Comprised of at least two members (deduced only because there are both male and female vocals on the disc), Ilya make very appealing, sexy, piano-led downbeat music which could be compared to a less beat-driven, less claustrophobic Massive Attack. The only complaint I have about this disc is that when the band relies on programmed beats instead of the talents of their live drummer -- which, to be fair, isn't that often -- the results sound like rote, boring trip-hop. However, I imagine that with a bit more fine-tuning, Ilya will be capable of producing quite a fine full-length. Hopefully, when they do, they'll send us a press kit along with it so we can find out who the hell these people are! -- j-s


Kevin Brennan / Revival Tent / f. boo (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Pirate, Har!"
"Don’t Yank my chain baby. Just Jiggle," begins this painful album. Revival Tent covers lots of different quirky styles; compare, for example, the pseudo-deep spoken word spiritual "Rebirth of the Unknown (God is Good)" to the They Might Be Giants-y "When I go Crazy", with its not-so-clever lyrics about Cannonball Adderly ("Now he’s shitting trumpet seeds on the ground..."). Amazingly, Revival Tent somehow manages to keep getting worse; "Pirate, Har!" is a would-be musical theater atrocity that relies on worn-out clichés and bad pirate voices. When not breaking new ground in the realm of all things embarrassingly bad, Revival Tent is a breathtakingly silly and pointless retread of all the worst funk-blues-jazz-pop you’ve never wanted to hear. The production is stiff and over-polished, yet always seems rather distant -- which is all right I guess, because I want to as far away from this freak show as possible. -- ea


Minmae feat. Onq / Bound to the Whips of the Aeronautical Fatwa EP / Dhyana (7")

Sample 30 seconds of "Sportlike"
It's a transcontinental noise showdown: German label Dhyana teams Portland, OR experimentalist Minmae (aka Sean Brooks) with Italian oddball Onq. Weirdness ensues. This ten-track EP -- well, that's what the sleeve says, anyway -- is a mind-twisting mixture of echo-laden lo-fi pop, oblique, effects-pedal-friendly soundscapes and flat-out noise. The overall impression is of a mildly eccentric and/or trippy record (perhaps something by Neutral Milk Hotel) as heard by a listener who is (a) several feet under water, (b) taking codeine and (c) has taken a little too much of it. Given Minmae's previously demonstrated abilities, it's hard not to feel slightly cheated; with the exception of its noisiest moments, the EP seems too unfocused and exploratory for its own good. On the other hand, a little Minmae goes a long way, and this modest dosage will help many listeners to build up the tolerance required to enjoy Brooks' more demanding works. -- gz


Unstable Ensemble / 17 Ways / Family Vineyard (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Hissyfit"
There’s flute on this? Perhaps there is, at the root of what sounds to me to be a sonic jumble, a method, a meaning, a statement being made about sound and rhythm. Unfortunately, I have neither the capacity nor the patience to discern its hidden truths. Unstable Ensemble, in true avant-jazz style, tips traditional conceptions of "music" on their ear. What melody there is is fleeting; what rhythm there is goes well beyond, well, what anyone could possibly call rhythmic. "Hissyfit" and "Take It Like A Champ", respectively the fifth and sixth of the Ensemble’s 17 Ways, are the most accessible songs on the album. The strings and classical overtones have a grounding effect. But, alas, the other 15 Ways left me scratching my head. -- az


Quasi / Early Recordings / Touch & Go (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Monkey, Mirror"
As you might expect, these Early Recordings from the mighty Quasi exist as a very rough outline of the sophisticated gloom-ridden pop that would eventually curry them favor with fans and critics alike. Recorded between 1993 and 1994 (and therefore pre-dating Weiss’ work with Sleater-Kinney), these nineteen songs provide the listener with snapshots of a band in flux, exploring all aspects of recording and playing music in an attempt to find their niche. Back then, Sam Coomes’ effects-laden Roxichord keyboard had not yet emerged as Quasi’s weapon of choice, as the dirge-like "Monkey, Mirror" and strafing "Hul Neng" so clearly illustrate. While it lacks their now trademark keyboard-soaked delivery (though "Mammon" comes awfully close), Early Recordings is crammed full of songs that fuse bleak lyrical content with tunes so deceptively simple that Will Oldham is still kicking himself for not having written them. Grunge was king back in the early nineties, and from the sound of "Rumpy" and "Pay Me Now, or Pay Me Later", the band had a few Mudhoney and Tad records floating around the apartment. While it might not be the best piece to start your Quasi collection, Early Recordings is a distortion-filled look back at one of the crown jewels in indie rock’s slightly tarnished crown. -- jj


Greg Weeks / Awake Like Sleep / Ba Da Bing! (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "These Days"
Greg Weeks gives me the creeps. Maybe it's the disturbing cover that graces Awake Like Sleep (a fold-out triptych depicting a confused-looking Weeks sitting in the snow with a bloody knife, ten paces away from another Greg Weeks who is prone, bloodied, and presumably dead), or maybe it's the music contained within. Regardless, this is some freaky stuff! Weeks drenches practically every song on Awake Like Sleep with quantities of mellotron that may prove hazardous, or even lethal, to the average listener. On top of these layers of queasy analog synth, Weeks sets down fragile, mournful vocals, which are quite reminiscent of Elliott Smith. The songs are uniformly slow and dirge-like, with very little in the way of percussion or any other sonic embellishment to add interest. Awake Like Sleep, as the title implies, creates a dreamlike state of mind for the listener. However, this is not a good dream -- it's more like one of those nonsensical, unsettling dreams that you have after you've ingested too many illicit substances. While Weeks must be commended for the skill with which he evokes this state of mind, I prefer to leave this sort of disorientation to the morning after, lying in bed, scratching my head and wondering if that really was a dream... -- j-s


Tim Reed / All Quiet / Self Released (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Afternoon"
You didn't know that Denton, Texas has a thriving music scene, did you? Well it does, and it's a surprisingly diverse one. Tim Reed comes from the "Classical/New Age" side of the fence, and if that description gives you the heebies you need read no further, as this disc is about as pure a specimen of the genre as you'll ever have the pleasure/misfortune to encounter. First, the titles: "All Quiet: Afternoon; Evening; Night" "Childhood: First Steps; Lullaby; Remembering" "Nature: Ocean; Spring; Sunset". See? Next, the music...well, I have to admit that the music is well recorded and well played. This isn't cheeseball MIDI-synth New Age; it's the real thing, with piano, synths, winds, strings, guitar and percussion. I can't say I really enjoy the music, as it's exactly the kind of thing I try really hard to ignore when I'm on hold with my banker. But it is pleasant, gentle and pretty, and as I'm guessing that's pretty much Reed's goal, you could say that this is a very successful, if rather bland, CD. -- ib


The Starting Line / With Hopes of Starting Over / Drive Thru (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now"
Much in the same way that coffee shop employees ask you whether you'd like them to leave room in your cup for cream, and McDonalds employees ask whether you want fries with your meal, With Hopes of Starting Over made me ask myself how cute I want my emo. Like the aforementioned food service questions, it really is a matter of personal taste. Nearly all of The Starting Line's songs focus on relationships gone emo, complete with typical spurts of punky guitars, and singer Ken Vasoli adds that cutesy pop feel that makes your face turn red. For some people, this sort of blatant emo-ness is desirable, but that group is getting smaller every day. That said, With Hopes... doesn't have much that's exceptional other than its last track, which is a cover of Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now". The very idea of this song appearing on a punk rock record suggests that these kids are trying too hard for hip irony -- but at the same time, they're able to add a measure of sincerity and desperate emotion to one of the eighties' most insincere radio hits. -- jk


Mark Fox / On the Path / Kingfisher (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Libera Me"
On the Path, a Christian religious album (more specifically, a Catholic religious album), is not meant to proselytize: it's designed to be spiritually uplifting. Whether Fox, an accomplished baritone, achieves those goals or not is up to the listener. When Fox sings "Libera Me" in old-school Latin, I am immediately reminded of a friend who hated it when I sang "Agnus Dei" in the house; I doubt that person would find God in Fox's songs, and if you're as anti-traditional as he was, you won't, either. Fox does offer some non-high-church songs, such as "Jeya Jeya Devi Mata" and the hoary "Amazing Grace" -- which, incidentally, is the one song on which he falters; like "The Star-Spangled Banner", it's written in a difficult key, and tempts performers to attempt personal interpretations that sound crummy. His German songs are sung in clear, unaccented and well-enunciated German, and the CD booklet offers translations if you're interested. If not, you may choose to be carried away by the spiritual sound, which is as deep as a well, and ready and waiting for the soul to drink deep. -- js


Fernando / Dreams of the Sun and Sky / Domingo (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Blue Room"
To imagine Fernando's sound, think of Everclear's Art Alexakis. Fernando has an eerily similar voice, and both singers hail from Portland. Now, take away the angst-ridden lyrics, the grungy guitars and the songs that all sound the same, and in their place try to imagine quieter (and, truth be told, somewhat less interesting) music, and a much greater stylistic diversity. "Climb" sounds like a lost Jeff Buckley track, while "Only One For Me" is a ballad perfectly suited to a smoke-filled jazz club. The only real misstep is "White Light", an ill-fated cross between '80s rock and new country. Even this, however, isn't as bad as the description suggests -- a testament to Fernando's talents as a songwriter and producer. In the end, however, the album lacks the meaty musical bait required to hook and hold listeners; Fernando's Sun and Sky leave nothing in the air. -- mp


Dos Coyotes / Mexican Surf Music / Zia (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Senorita"
Dos Coyotes initially seems to be standard country and western fare, with a slide-guitar player and songs about heading to Mexico taking a pivotal position in the album's overall structure. But if you listen closely to these undeniably country forms, you'll detect a distinct tinge of classic rock. Songs like "Tejano Cowboy", with its tire-squeal samples, and "Senorita", with its rapid, upbeat guitar melody, suggest an odd Garth Brooks/Bob Seger transmutation. While the lush southern harmonizing of vocalists Gene Smeed and Mark Tait helps to keep the disc interesting, perhaps the most notable thing about Mexican Surf Music is the fact it contains a dance remix. Who says Jethro don't swing? -- jw


Inside Five Minutes / Stately Chaos Home / Makoto (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Olympians"
On their blistering debut, this Detroit-based quintet harnesses the super-charged sound of their home town, circa 1969. You won’t find any high-end studio trickery on Stately Chaos Home. Instead, you’ll be treated to some good old fashioned no frills rock ‘n roll, played exactly as it was always intended: hard, loud and fast. Inside Five Minutes channel the spirit of the legendary MC5 on the scorching "Divination", then get all Blue Oyster Cult on your sweaty ass with the acoustic guitar-driven tirade "Send the Beggar". Throughout the album, lead singer Aron Lozo exudes a visceral, Iggy-like quality that transforms songs like "Ten Cigarettes" and "Raven’s Flight" into arena-sized blasts of fire-breathing rock ‘n roll. What the band lacks in originality, they more than make up for with manic energy and plenty of volume. If you like your clubs dingy, your beer watered-down and your riffs big and bold, Stately Chaos Home is the record you’ve been waiting for...ever since you snagged your original copy of Raw Power. -- jj


A Girl Called Eddy / Tears All Over Town / Le Grand Magistery (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of "Soundtrack Of Your Life"
I'm sick of having my heart strings pulled by female, tough/emotional, "I am woman hear me weep"-type singer-songwriters, whether it's Joni Mitchell or Tori Amos. That said, A Girl Called Eddy really impressed me, which is particularly surprising given my aforementioned pessimism. Her music melts easily in and out of satisfying choruses, meandering darkly a la Robert Wyatt. While the lyrics are definitely sung modestly, they remind me of the lost loves that Leonard Cohen sings about; in fact, if you layered Leonard's vocals over Eddy's, Tears All Over Town would be a solid Cohen album. Its poppiest moment comes in "Soundtrack Of Your Life", which even features a background "bop bop bop bop ba ba". But for the most part, the music remains understated, modestly emotional and flat-out pleasant. -- jk


Twenty Seven / Wash Away the Devil's Play b/w Angels' Share / Kimchee (7")

Sample 30 seconds of "Angels' Share"
It's been a long time since we received a picture disc, and this one's a doozy, covered in vintage family pictures. It's certainly nice-looking. As for the music...you get two tracks of minimalist quietcore that should appeal to Ida fans, or at least people who enjoy the solo work of Ida's Karla Schickele. "Wash Away the Devil's Play", nominally the A-side, is sweet and threadbare, focusing on the talents of vocalist Maria Christopher. B-side "Angels' Share" is more orchestrated and a little livelier, and serves to showcase the restraint of bandmate Ayal Naor, who is better known for producing far heavier fare. And are these two songs worth your US$5.00? Yes, though you'll get best results by playing them on Sunday mornings or during bouts of insomnia. While they're not dull per se, these songs certainly aren't a call to action either. -- gz


Various Artists / Modular Systems / ESL Music (CD)

Sample 30 seconds of Blue Stars' "Your Girl"
Even after two consistently enjoyable, if occasionally bland, full lengths -- plus last year's excellent DJ Kicks mix CD -- the Thievery Corporation have barely paused to enjoy their success. The focus now, though, is on the duo's Eighteenth Street Lounge label and this compilation of some of the newer stars in their stable. Two tracks each from Nicola Conte, Blue Stars, Desmond Williams and the Corps themselves join three from Thunderball and one each by Ursula 1000 and Farid. That most of them sound suspiciously close to Thievery Corporation's own suave glide of bossa nova, dub, lounge, breakbeats and smooth jazz doesn't make this disc any less enjoyable, but it doesn't necessarily make you want to run right out and buy the various artists' individual albums, either. Highlights include the koan-like "Your Girl" by Blue States, which repeats the lyric "If you want me for your girl, all you have to do is see/That you're not the boy for me", and Thunderball's comparatively upbeat "Pop the Trunk". Stick to the sampler: you'll still have swing to spare at your next cocktail party. -- rt



gz - george zahora | 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
jk - josh kazman | mp - matthew pollesel | bm - brett mccallon | da - daniel arizona | j-s - jeremy schneyer

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