Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Review: Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles - Diamonds in the Dark

Label: Sugar Hill Records

Released: June 12, 2007

Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles do more than just channel the past. True, Diamonds in the Dark is partially images of days gone by, but the package is fresh. Touching on every raw influence of rock music, the end result is an album that is both clean and warm, touching the old, but very much new.

The album centers on Sarah Borges voice which is rich and warm. She can use it across the genres the album touches and her passion is just as clear when she's subtle as when she's brash. She has similar qualities to Natalie Merchant, but Borges' individuality is so strong that the comparison only becomes vividly clear once (on "Modern Trick"). The band is more than just a backup for Borges' voice. The rhythms can be driving or sublime or anything in between, setting the tone as it changes along the way. The pedal steel plays an integral role throughout, sharing a lot of the understated movement of the vocals and bringing out a lot of the songs' color.

Diamonds in the Dark clearly digs deep into the core of rock n roll, coming up with rockabilly, blues, soul, bubblegum, country and punk. "The Day We Met" has the punk-edged rockabilly perfected by X (even more than the album's actual cover of X's "Come Back to Me"). Punk energy is even more prevalent on the garagey "Diablito" and "Stop and Think It Over" applies that same punk rock edge to 60s pop. Borges pulls off "False Eyelashes" with all the confidence of Dolly Parton's original and her own restless energy. The pedal steel is just superb on this as well as "Modern Trick." Even the comparatively average country ballads "Around 9" and "Belle of the Bar" could stand on their own. The album finishes up with another cover, this time Tom Waits' "Blind Love," whose sparse echoey slide and rimshots provide the perfect atmosphere for Borges range and control without constraining her.

Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles have produced an album that burns slow and warm with their passion and love, not for the music of the past, but for the roots of the present. There's a difference between those two, because one is just a revival, but Sarah Borges and company show us that even the roots are still alive and growing today.

Rating: 9/10

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Monday, July 30, 2007

Review: Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right B A Start - Worst Band Name Ever

Label: self-released

Released: June 2007

They certainly got the title right. Pop culture Nintendo reference aside, the name is just awful. But the music is another story and that's how they get away with it. Building on their layered indie rock past, Up Up Down Down (I'm skipping the rest for the sake of brevity) take significant strides forward with their latest release, Worst Band Name Ever.

Several free internet-only EPs offered up by the band over the last several years are as solid as they are ordinary. There's nothing wrong per se, just nothing that stretches beyond the confines of the genre. That can't be said about Worst Band Name Ever though. The songwriting strives for Death Cab for Cutie and while it fails to reach that level (like everyone else who tries to match Ben Gibbard), it does reach a much higher bar than most of Up Up Down Down's peers. Best of all though, Up Up Down Down is much more than just a poor man's Death Cab. They mix up the rhythms with some odd time signatures and a general sense of being slightly, though certainly not entirely, off-balance. It feels like a lonely music geek in physics class (and understanding it).

Much of the album alternates between soft and loud, but the music is so carefully understated that even the loudest parts seem like a wall of quiet. Up Up Down Down are so laid-back in their craft that the songs are memorable without any distinct hooks. Rather than rely on a simple phrase that sticks, the band weaves a web of layered sound between the soft, sweet and vaguely sad and the nervous, edgy and clearly unsettled.

There is no question whose records have spent a lot of time on Up Up Down Down's turntable, but unlike so many others, while they wear that influence on their sleeve, they don't just spit the same thing back out. Their road, while parallel to Death Cab's, is still very much their own.

Rating: 7/10

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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Review: Spider Rockets - Ever After

Label: Screaming Ferret Wreckords

Released: July 17, 2007

The opening track of Spider Rockets' Ever After kicks right in with that churning metalcore sound that is a dime a dozen these days. It doesn't raise any hopes for the album even if the song itself is listenable enough. Don't stop listening there though unless metal or hardcore just isn't your thing, because it does get a little better.

As it turns out, the album's best offerings are its simplest ones. The hardcore leaning "Simple" and the more straightforward metal of "Hate" both stay fairly basic and capitalize on the band's biggest strength, Helena Cos' perfectly imperfect vocals. Her voice isn't crisp and clean, but it's raw, pleading passion is always a step above the less vivid music that backs it up.

When Spider Rockets get away from this simplicity in either songwriting or production, they go from being a little above average to a little below. The dull and over-processed "Facing Fear" relies more on effects than it does on songwriting. The pace changes in "Names" are clumsy and should have been worked out better before recording. The cover of "Helter Skelter" is the album's big disaster. Their attempt to use vocal harmonies for tension falls flat on its face and their seeming indecision as to whether they wanted to mix it up or play it straight robs the song of it's punch. Throughout the album their are some hints that they're fond of Prong's Tommy Victor, but they don't have the chops to pull it off and knowing their limitations would turn into a strength for them, because the album's basic energy is good.

They do stretch themselves a few times and pull it off though. The vocals in "What I Want" alters the cadence of the album for a nice change-up. The closer, "Whispers," gets a little off-track, but they nail enough of what they try to make it an interesting end, leaving some curiosity for the next album.

Spider Rockets have been around awhile, so they should have a better sense of themselves than they do on Ever After. However, they have some definite points that that keep their footing on solid ground and the final track leaves a lot of hope out there for the future.

Rating: 5/10

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Saturday, July 28, 2007

Peter Katz spreads “Forgiveness”

I thought this was an interesting story. Singer/songwriter Peter Katz (You don't know him? Well, neither did I, but he seems to have minor following in Canada) recently wrote a song about breaking the chain of hatred that seems to be entrenched in our society these days. Like so many songwriters, he saw something in the world that made him want to write a song. In this case, it was the father of Al-Zarcawi decapitation victim Nicholas Berg forgiving the man who killed his son rather than hating him. It's a powerful story. Forgiveness always is. While the song pales in comparison to the reality, it's still a fine folk song with Katz's voice being the perfect mix of hope and sadness. Best of all, it's a song with a serious message that isn't heavy-handed. It's a gentle song in a world that needs gentleness. Rather than wait for an album, Katz decided the message was more important and posted the song on his Myspace page for download. I hope he's preaching to more than just the choir.


Review: Gypsy Pistoleros - Wild, Beautiful, Damned

Label: Evil Boy Records

Released: June 4, 2007

I can't say I'm a huge fan of glam after 1985 or so. I certainly like T. Rex and Sweet and Bowie. I like the New York Dolls and early Alice Cooper. I even like a fair amount of the glam revialists of the early 80s, but by the mid 80s, the revival seemed to have lost sight of its roots. It became stale and formulaic and all but a few of those bands seemed to be going through the motions at very best. That makes me wonder why anyone would want to resuscitate the genre at this point. It's over, it's spent, leave it alone. Then along comes the Gypsy Pistoleros to show me exactly why.

The Pistoleros claim to be "flamenco rock." It's a claim that leaves one asking, "What? How can that be?" It could be great and it could be a disaster. Wild, Beautiful, Damned shows the flamenco part of that claim to be a bit of a stretch, but the result is far closer to greatness than disaster. There is a very slight bit of Spanish flavor to their music, perhaps attributable to singer Lee Pistolero's days living in Spain, but the principle ingredient is the loose, dirty swagger of glam in its glory days (yeah, the 70s, not the 80s). The Pistoleros manage to do everything right and still make it feel wrong in the way that good rock n roll always should.

They've been touring with the likes of Adler's Appetite (least important GnR alumni Steven Adler's joke of a band) and piecemeal 80s metal acts like Bang Tango, Faster Pussycat, Bulletboys and LA Guns that should be ashamed of their whoring selves. They even opened the inexplicably successful Rocklahoma nostalgia fest. But it's the new kid on the glam block that really carries the mantle of the music that was established back in the 70s. If glam is in fact alive, it is not because of half-baked reunions and bands trying to relive their ill-gotten glory, it's because the Gypsy Pistoleros can channel the Dolls and T Rex into something new, fresh and a little bit dirty.

Rating: 8/10

Thanks to Bring Back Glam for pointing the Pistoleros out in the first place.

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Review: Ox - American Lo Fi

Label: Weewerk

Released: October 17, 2006

You know it's a fine album when a band pulls off a cover of a song like "Surrender" and it's not even the album's best track. Ox offers up this indie alt-country should-be classic that weaves its way from rock to country and back with a few detours along the way, all held together with low-key ambling rhythms and subtle ambience.

Most of American Lo Fi doesn't stray too far from center, making it a perfect fit for the rural emo of roots-influenced indie rock, but there are a few tracks that help it beat its peers by at least a nose. They turn their cover of Cheap Trick's classic entirely into their own rural take on the suburban theme without losing its essence, but that's not even the best it has to offer. With its old-time folk style, "1913" is as genuine as it would have been had it been written by a copper miner himself. "Marta's Song," with it's peculiar female lead vocal and vaudeville appeal turns oddly both dark and hopeful as a haunting rendition of "Merry Xmas (War is Over)" drops in as a background vocal. "Awkward Beauty" is a self-fulfilling prophesy for the album's closer, a vibrato-soaked, quirky bit of blues. The album's real gem though is "Sugar Cane." It's here that the albums hooks meet its soul in scratchy, beautiful and sublime vocal harmonies.

American Lo Fi is equal parts Neil Young, Gram Parsons and Death Cab for Cutie all adding up an album that's slightly better than its peers, in a genre where those peers set a pretty high standard. That standard isn't reached by any kind of superficial perfection, but by the very heart of the music itself and American Lo Fi has that heart cut deep into its grooves.

Rating: 7/10

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Review: John P. Strohm/Dylan in the Movies - So Long City Skies

Label: American Laundromat Records

Released: July 23, 2007

One of American Laundromat's latest split 7 inches, So Long City Skies finds unjustly lesser-known alt rocker John P. Strohm (formerly of the equally unjustly lesser-known Blake Babies) channeling the Jayhawks. "The Long So Long" is a mild countrified indie rock song that's so subtle you might not catch it on the first listen, but its sublime soul picks away and works its way in with sparse perfection and sweet harmonies.

The flipside, "City Skies" is well-crafted emo/indie pop from Boston's Dylan in the Movies. It's a decent match for Strohm's contribution, but lacks the balance between clean and raw of the first side, erring on the side of being just a bit too nice and neat. Certainly for the right mood (maybe late at night and alone, but not lonely?), it's a nice fit, but it doesn't have the subtlety of "The Long So Long" which finds its way into life in general.

While this record won't have as much in store outside of its target audience, it does hold a good bit of appeal for lovers of both alt country and low-key indie pop. Vinyl lovers can pick up one of 500 hand-numbered copies. The less fortunate can still get it on iTunes.

Rating: 7/10

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Review: Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound - Ekranoplan

Label: Tee Pee Records

Released: March 20, 2007

I don’t take drugs and because of that, I believe I am much more discerning about my psychedelic music. It isn’t an accompaniment to my trip, it is my trip. From the space rock explosion that opens Ekranoplan, across its mind-altering landscapes and through its soul-inflected finale, this is a tour de force of trippiness. Assemble Head is heavy when they need to be, yet delicate at all the right moments, choreographing 38 minutes of another world altogether.

They jump right into the trip with the overdriven power chords and echoey vocals. Cooking it up with spacey organ and electronics, it puts the mind in the perfect state, teetering between totally mellow and completely freaked out. Over the course of the trip, heavy space rock is mixed with surf, blues, soul, jazz and classical. The result is an album that alternates between blunt heaviness and delicate touches. Sometimes it pushes, sometimes it carries, but constantly it moves. Driven by the psychedlic power of guitar and organ, baked vocals and a rhythm section that controls the ride, Ekranoplan is more of an experience than simply an album. With this one, there's no need for any drugs but the music. If you need anything else, you’re not listening. It takes us down the mind-bending road from which the greatness of Dark Side of the Moon detoured us, but that still begs to be traveled.

Rating: 8/10

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Review: Bedouin Soundclash - Street Gospels

Label: Side One Dummy

Release Date: August 21, 2007

Punk and reggae have a long history together. The commonality of what was the people's music in their respective cultures was evident almost from the very birth of punk and that shared vision has been explored right up through today. Certainly some have used both genres for ill, but every time I suspect that the tie between the two is no longer genuine, a band comes along to reassure me that it's still very much alive. Right now, that band is Bedouin Soundclash. Their brand of reggae and dub boils with a punk undercurrent, but also recognizes that pop and soul are vital ingredients that are so often absent from the genre.

Reggae is the primary ingredient, but by no means the only one. With punk running generally under the covers and surfacing occasionally on tracks like "Walls Fall Down" and even more so "Gunships," soul is more overt. Soulful vocals, especially in the harmonies, roots each song without exception in something genuine, so much so that the album doesn't miss a beat on the a capella "Hush." In fact, the song is essential to the album’s flow. The opening track, "Until We Burn in the Sun," does more than dabble in dance with its reggae-tinged Madchester sound. It's an exciting start before the album settles into a solid reggae groove. Street Gospels strays into dub occasionally, most notably on "Jealousy and the Get Free" and "Midnight Rockers." The album overflows with great pop hooks and picking singles would not be an enviable task. With all of its elements, the album doesn't meander though. It's course is steady even as the sound varies and that might be its best case for greatness.

Sharp guitar work from Jay Malinowski accents the album’s undeniable rhythms. Eon Sinclair's fluid bass lines intermingle with the crisp drumming and djembe accents of Pat Pengelly and Brett Dunlop, creating reggae's warm rhythmic duality. While Bedouin Soundclash worked with some high profile musicians on the album (Money Mark who regularly works with the Beastie Boys, Wade MacNeil of Alexisonfire and Vernon Buckley of reggae pioneers the Maytones), bringing back Bad Brains bassist Darryl Jenifer, a clear expert on the fusion of punk and reggae, to produce Street Gospels proved to be their wisest choice. He outdid his work on Sounding a Mosaic, capturing the band’s clear growth and getting a cleaner sound without sacrificing the music's energy.

There is no doubt that it is appropriate that "clash" appears in their name, because the Clash are Bedouin Soundclash's biggest influence. There aren't many better bands to look to for inspiration, but what's best about Bedouin Soundclash is that they don't dip into the common Clash pool. Instead they look to the grossly underrated Sandinista-era, picking up the Clash's ability to fuse not only punk and reggae, but also bring in elements of dance, soul and amazing pop hooks. The result isn't some of the best reggae outside of Jamaica, but some of the best reggae period. Bedouin Soundclash is not the average local college reggae act that goes through the motions for drunk kids in bars. They are a genuine reggae band just as if they came from Kingston, Jamaica, not Kingston, Ontario.

Rating: 9/10

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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Review: The Sammus Theory - See (It) Through

Label: OCI Records

Released: May 1, 2007

Sometimes, it's good to hear a really tight band, but not always. The Sammus Theory is certainly a tight band, they even play with passion, but they fail to excite. That's not to say that See (It) Through is without promise though. The Phoenix-based band's previous effort, Man Without Eyes, was primarily a solo effort from frontman Sam Hughes who wrote and played everything but drums. Less than two years later, they have become more of a group with all members playing and contributing. While Hughes suggested to the Idaho Falls Post Register (a city where the Sammus Theory seems to have quite a local following) that the writing process was inspired by the Beatles, it's pretty clear that this is a gross overstatement. The Beatles created the future, but the Sammus Theory rehashes the past. Their alt-metal sound peaked several years ago and has been done a thousand times, sometimes better and sometimes worse. They list Tool as an influence and that is clearly their direction, but unfortunately, their voice is also Tool's rather than their own.

Considering that the Sammus Theory has taken this new direction of joint creativity within the last year or so, they work remarkably well together. Playing in a tired genre doesn't help them though, but the very fact that they are still listenable when so many alt metal bands simply aren't is a tribute to their potential. Hopefully, their new collaborative approach will help them grow in originality that will put their considerable abilities to better use the next time around.

Rating: 5/10

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Saturday, July 21, 2007

Review: The Residudes - Welcome to the Suck

Label: Locomotive Records

Released: July 17, 2007

For a genre that has produced some of rock's most creative movements, punk has also produced more than its fair share of covers. From cover albums to cover bands, it seems that every time I turn around, there's another punk cover out there. While some of these have been very clever, most of them have relied solely on speed and power chords and that got old awfully fast.

The Residudes' Welcome to the Suck is a whole album of punk rock-ified covers that pretends that we haven't had enough yet. True, they do nail several of them. Their version of the Kinks' "Coming Dancing" makes me think of slam dancing, not the dance halls of post-WW II England. The irony of playing John Denver's "Country Roads" at a breakneck pace isn't lost, because they somehow still capture some small part of the original. Their "Oi! Oi! Oi!" chant in the "Cheers" theme makes me wonder why it wasn't in the original. Sadly, these tracks run back to back, so the best the album has to offer comes in one burst.

Unfortunately, for every one they hit, they have another one that misses. Simon & Garfunkel's "The Boxer" loses all it's form and would be almost unrecognizable without the lyrics. "Mothers Little Helper" ends up being a jumbled mess in their attempt to stir it up. If you ever wondered why anyone would bother covering Tommy Tutone, the Residudes cover of "867-5309 Jenny" won't answer that question. Perhaps worse still is their cover of the classic ode to drinking, "Alcohol," which sounds like a Gang Green tribute band.

Most of the album though is made up of renditions that fall somewhere in the middle. In the right mood, they might be fun, but none are essential. Perhaps if you just can't enough of Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, Welcome to the Suck has a lot to offer, but personally I can't imagine being in that position. Most of the covers are competent and taken piecemeal they will provide some entertainment value, but as a whole, it's a tedious listen.

Rating: 4/10

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Review: Picastro - Whore Luck

Label: Polyvinyl Records

Released: September 11, 2007

Some albums are great, because you always want to listen to them and others are great, because sometimes you want to listen to nothing else. Picastro's third album, Whore Luck, is the latter. It's a questionable state of mind that would want a steady diet of this album, yet there are likely times for everyone when it's perfect.

The Toronto-based band combines elements of classical, folk and rock into a unique mix of low-key songs for those less than excitable moments. Straying away from typical rock instrumentation, Picastro employs cello and violin in addition to guitar, piano and drums to provide their odd comfort to the melancholy. Though frequently compared to Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the connection is little more than tenuous, based only on both band's low-key rock that dabbles heavily in avant-garde classical. Okay, that's a little more than tenuous, but the comparison should not be overstated. The mood for Godspeed is not the mood for Picastro. Whore Luck is more personal, emotional and accessible than anything Godspeed has offered and that difference is significant. Picastro's sound is so uniquely theirs, that they pull off covers of both Roky Erickson and the Fall seamlessly, almost as if they weren't covers at all. Attempts at comparisons will always fail, because there really is no good fit. While this may not make them a hit, they have the potential to appeal to anyone willing to either take the time to pay close attention or abandon themselves to Picastro's sad beauty.

Liz Hysen's vocals are subdued and range from shaky and nervous to haunting. Her thin voice doesn't exhibit a lot of range, but proves to be deceptively dynamic as the cornerstone of the music. The strings provide the drone that drives the songs (to the extent that they are driven) often at several layers, with articulate, but understated percussion acting more as off-kilter accents. The piano is a vehicle of dissonance rather than harmony and guitars add both reassuring jangle and grating noise. Each part on its own would fall, which is likely the source of the music's madness, while together they buttress each other, which is in turn the source of its comfort. The album's controlled noise is the soundtrack to being centered in a wobbly world.

Don't expect this album to be in constant rotation. It doesn't work that way. But when you need it, when you're sad or lonely or out of sorts or even just generally melancholy, there will be few albums better than Whore Luck. It won't pick you up out of your funk, but it will sit with you like a good friend who knows when things need to run their course.

Rating: 7/10

Note: Check out Whole Lotta Album Covers to see my review of the album cover.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

More cool vinyl...

Here's another piece of cool vinyl from my collection. This one is from Montreal punk rockers, Fifth Hour Hero.

It's hard to tell in the first picture, but you can see that it's clear with bits of color when I hold it in the sun.

The record was released by No Idea Records who always puts their best foot forward with the colored vinyl and completely outdid themselves here.


Monday, July 16, 2007

Review: Tia Carrera - The November Session

Label: Australian Cattle God

Released: September 6, 2005

First and foremost, Tia Carrera is a stoner rock band. This is not the long-dreaded release of Sweet covers by the largely forgotten Wayne's World star. It's a bad name, but that's where the bad stops.

The stoner rock field has gotten fairly crowded over the last ten years and it gets harder and harder for these channelers of Black Sabbath to stand out. I mean, how many different ways can you just be heavy? Not too many and most of those avenues have now been well-traveled. But Tia Carrera has found a new path. They play in the major leagues of loud, yet unlike that of so many of their peers, their music often caresses rather than bludgeons.

Tia Carrera raise the stakes immediately with the brief opening track, "Telepathic Confirmation," channeling the unrestrained feedback-heavy mania of Hendrix. They immediately go all in with "Scenic Oversight." Its textured heaviness of loose but deliberate rhythms and countering bass lines plays host to beautiful delicate leads. At five and a half minutes, it acts almost as an overture for the album, setting the lay of the musical landscape that the band describes in detail over the final three (considerably longer) tracks.

"As She Sleeps" is a psychedelic roller coaster that runs from low-key sludge to unrestrained frenzy and back again with several stops for sensory overload along the way. It finally winds down into what seems like studio noodling rather than a traditional ending. It might seem odd, but this is not the kind of song that wants to do things the "right" way. "Doom" is exactly what the title says. It's another long one, but much more straightforward than its predecessor. Still, the playing is so articulate that the fourteen minutes pass in time that defies the clock.

If the radio was still worth listening to, "J Bankston Manor" would become a late-night FM classic. At almost 34 minutes, it would certainly give the DJ time to do more than just use the facilities (as the old joke about "In-A-Gadda_Da-Vida" goes), but the listener would be lost in its waves of ethereal heaviness. While it doesn't have that heavy hook to latch onto like the Iron Butterfly classic, it certainly has that underlying groove that is punctuated by great musicianship across the board.

Notice that nowhere did I mention the vocals. That's because there are none and no one will miss them. Tia Carrera is so subtly dynamic that I had to go back to be sure I wasn't so wrapped up in the music that I missed the vocals.

There's no shortage of bands that are as heavy as Tia Carrera. Some are even heavier, but none can balance that heaviness with such deceptive delicacy for such a trippy, heady ride. The November Session is still a little too far out to transcend its genre, but it certainly sets a standard for the stoner rock trip (whether you're a stoner or not).

Rating: 8/10

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Saturday, July 14, 2007

Review: Landonband - Defying the Stereotype

Label: self-released (available at CD Baby

Released: 2006

Defying the Stereotype is a bit of a misnomer for this album. Perhaps Confused About the Stereotype or Lost in the Stereotype would be more appropriate. It's certainly not "stereotype" that I object to, but "defying," because this record defies nothing.

From the opening track, Landonband spends their time genre-hopping. True, there has been some great albums that have done the same, but every one of those albums found its own voice as it explored a broad musical palette. Landonband's voice is smothered to the point that it's questionable if they even have one.

"Only 20" sounds like a hard rock Spice Girls. They try to capture the funk rock of the Red Hot Chili Peppers on "Hush," but its groove is derailed by the stiff performance. "Angry" is an average alt rock song, except it's about 10 or so years too late. "Coming Out in the Wash" tries to mix in a bit of punk edge, but the result is stifled rather than wild. "Amazon" might have come off alright had it not devolved into a generic ballad. "Dirty Virgin" tries to break out and sound loose, but the problem is that it tries too hard. After the cliched intro to "Free at Last," none of its references to cloves, burned CDs or Sonic Youth should be a surprise. (I do have to wonder if they've actually listened to Sonic Youth though. If they did, they certainly didn't get it.) Speaking of cliches, was that actually a J Lo reference in "Wind-Up Monkey?" That was as painfully unoriginal as anything on the album.

A couple songs aren't total disasters: "The First to Come in Last" let's the facade of over-production down just enough to get a glimpse of Landon Dunning's potential as a vocalist. Likewise, "Ms. Jones" is loose enough to have a genuine edge, even if it isn't a particularly interesting song.

This album has a few fatal flaws. First, the production is overwrought. Rather than enhancing the band's sound and helping them find themselves, it buries them in digital effects. Twenty years ago, there was an excuse to get caught up in this kind of production, but now it just sounds cheap.

Second, the band has no synergy. Landon's a pretty good rock singer, but she almost never cuts loose. She has a good voice and she should trust it. The band itself is as entirely competent as it is soulless. They sound like they're playing everything from sheet music. If they want to be a good band rather than just a collection of good players, they need to drop all of the electronics and learn to feed off of each other. If they strip away all of the nonsense, they may be able to play together rather than simply playing at the same time. A looser band would likely allow Landon more latitude to really use her voice. As it stands, the band is entirely competent to play and entirely incompetent to rock.

Last, the songs are mediocre at best. With this repertoire, they'll be relegated to being a very good bar band at best. Part of the problem is that Landon wrote the songs with the producer rather than the band. The other part is that these songs were designed to fit the stereotype rather than defy it.

All in all, Defying the Stereotype is a waste of time, but Landonband, or actually Landon Dunning herself, has some potential. The band as it is sounds like a group of studio musicians. Either they have to become more cohesive or Landon needs to find a band that can help her unleash her voice. She definitely needs some songwriting help, but next time it should come from someone who will push her creatively rather than trying to pigeonhole her songs for target audiences. The key to Landonband is Landon herself, but she won't really go anywhere under these circumstances. The album title is either a lie or a misconception. If it's the former, than the band needs to come clean. If it's the latter, there's little hope.

Rating: 3/10

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Friday, July 13, 2007

Review: Chuck Ragan - The Blueprint Sessions (singles club and CD)

Label: No Idea Records

Released: September 2006 - June 2007

For those expecting to hear the next generation of Hot Water Music, go buy the Draft's In a Million Pieces. Chuck Ragan's The Blueprint Sessions only shares his former band's emotional appeal, but the music itself is far closer to the raw folk/punk that he did with Rumbleseat.

This is not a traditional release. It came out as a series of 7 inches limited to 1100. Subscribers got an additional 7 inch and a CD that included everything from the vinyl along with two bonus tracks. It wasn't cheap, but the unique format along with No Idea's beautiful (as always) vinyl made for a great package.

The Blueprint Sessions is as raw as it can be, largely just Ragan and his guitar and an occasional harmonica. There are no studio tricks to clean it up or cover up its lumps. That's not to say it's poorly recorded, because it isn't. It is perhaps more challenging to capture the coarse, organic nature of roughhewn passion than it is to process that passion into clean perfection. Perfection, after all, is counter to the purity of Ragan's music. Perfection would ruin it.

Lyrically, Ragan wears his heart on his sleeve. Not in the maudlin way that is so characteristic of the dying emo genre, but in a way that creates trust through exposure. He reaches out to the misfits "In the corner, where all the lost souls have been found." He touches on old-time country loneliness and mortality on "Hold My Bed." "For Broken Ears," a protest song against the war in Iraq, is subtle enough not to mention anyone by name, yet we all know who and what he's talking about. "Valentine" could be the love of a lifetime or a moment or, more likely, the lifetime in a moment. Everything Ragan touches, he touches with his soul, like an old Gospel recording. The Blueprint Sessions is a soul-enriching experience and it's about all of life, including death. The album itself might be best captured in Ragan's own words, "I wanna dance like nobody's watching, and sing like nobody cares. Climb to the top of the mountains we see to find peace and to die up there."

Chuck Ragan is not the next Bob Dylan. He's poetic, but not obscure. His power chord folk owes some debt to Billy Bragg, but his content has a more raw, emotional appeal. At his core, he may be most like Johnny Cash. There are no frills, no facades, no lies, just Chuck reaching out and touching us with honesty, passion and love (and a fair dose of righteous anger). This is not the kind of album that changes music. Instead, it's the kind of album that changes hearts.

Rating: 10/10

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Myspace: Baker Act

After my review of the Explicits, their fellow Jacksonville band Baker Act contacted me about doing the same. After a brief listen, I agreed. It's always nice to hear a new punk band without a trace of emo and Baker Act has the emotion without the whining.

The four songs on their page all show influences from the artier side of punk. They're more moody, but not sappy, with some rough edges. Their influences seem varied from song to song, yet the result is a cohesive sound. "Psycho Chick" taps into the old Dead Kennedys sound that, oddly enough, few bands have been able to capture. The harder chorus is more straightforward and rock oriented, but taken as a whole, the song has a unique ebb and flow to it. They draw more from darker mid-80s punk/alternative bands like Jet Black Berries and Naked Prey, with a hint of the Avengers. Once again, the song has enough variance to its course to keep it from the doldrums that so many punk bands fall into. "Ignorance is Bliss" is the most straightforward of Baker Act's songs, but still throws a few curves and is carried by Danielle's passionate vocals. It's a pretty angry song and while the anger isn't focused, it is somewhat articulate. Appropriately, they finish up with "Story of Faye," a song that shows Baker Act's unique strengths most obviously. Like the other tracks, it reaches back to some of the dark side of underground 80s American rock, but more successfully. "Story of Faye" is certainly their emotional peak and they show a real mastery of their own creativity, striking a perfect balance between tight and loose.

Baker Act isn't doing anything completely new, yet their sound as a whole belongs to them alone. They don't draw from the hardcore or pop punk wells as many of their peers do, but they are without question a punk band. They are rooted in many things that have remained buried for years and benefit from Baker Act's fresh take. They've been together long enough to have developed a collective intuition that makes their music more subtle and compelling. While Danielle's vocals are particularly evocative, the solid work of the rest of the band, while less overt, is the subtlety that gives them real potential.

Baker Act has been together for about two years and have a demo EP titled Co-Dependent for sale or download via their Myspace page. In October, they head into the studio to record their first full-length and I for one am anxious to hear the results.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Review: 31Knots - The Days and Nights of Everything Anywhere

Label: Polyvinyl Records

Released: March 6, 2007

Often a great album is one where everything comes together in ways unimagined with hooks that make one wonder how anyone could write something that instantly likable. Other times, great albums take effort. The Days and Nights of Everything Anywhere, 31Knots' fourth full-length release, is like that. A consistently unsettling work, it achieves this by juxtaposing different styles, creating discord that runs deeply throughout the album. The result is an uncomfortable listen, yet one that is not to be missed.

From the opening moments of electronic noise on the first track, “Beauty,” 31Knots manage to challenge. With its agitated vocals, simple piano bass pattern, harsh staccato guitar and odd math rock rhythms, it creates a blueprint for the album as a whole. But that blueprint is very general, because the tension it creates is never done in quite the same way from cut to cut.

For instance, “Savage Boutique” mixes alternating vaudeville and baroque pop and a subtle hook in the horns with vocals that sound as if they’re sung straight from a padded cell. Call and response vocals and fuzzy, jangly guitar pull at the loose ambling rhythm of “The Salted Tongue” while smooth interludes break the tension. Cold electronics give way to hints of pop and then let loose with prog guitar riffs on “Hit List Shakes.”

The rough vocal melody of "The Days and Nights of Lust and Presumption" is just shy of having single potential, yet the quick guitar blasts and a simple bass drum rhythm keep it off kilter. It leads into the album’s most accessible song, the near pure prog of “Imitation Flesh,” but it’s only accessible insofar as it’s perhaps the only song on the album that can be pigeonholed into an existing genre.

The Days and Nights of Everything Anywhere closes with the low-key, but still disturbing, “Walk With Caution.” Thin, dirty vocals suddenly give way to a cleaner, impassioned voice (somewhat reminiscent of U2’s Bono) and echoey church bells. The sounds of a scratched record and sad, but heavenly voices join in before the song, and therefore the album, closes with the soft ambient dissonance of an old sci-fi flick. It is perhaps a perfect finish even if it leaves more discomfort than satisfaction.

This is an album that borders on both pop and sanity, yet both seem to (diliberately) elude it. It is so often just a hair shy of pop perfection and manic collapse all at once and that is what makes it brilliant. The musicianship is deceptively strong, but never indulgent and the absence of glossy hooks forces the music to be taken on its own merit, exposed in a way that’s bold and honest. The Days and Nights of Everything Anywhere is not the kind of album that is easy to like. It’s not really even the kind of album that can be enjoyed. But it is definitely the kind of album that is worth experiencing. It is difficult, but isn’t that the road to enlightenment?

Rating: 8/10

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Review: Bryan Ferry - Dylanesque

Label: Virgin

Released: June 26, 2007

One would think that an accomplished artist who dedicates an entire album to covering another single artist must be both enamored and well-versed in his or her subject. An all-Dylan Bryan Ferry release might sound a bit odd considering that Dylan speaks to our hearts in warm, organic imperfections while Ferry speaks in cold, precise formulas. Still, it at least piques some interest. How will someone like Ferry put himself into Dylan's songs without stripping them of Dylan? How will Ferry show his love and understanding of these songs?

From the opener, "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," it becomes clear that Ferry isn't up to the challenge. He fails to capture anything remotely reminiscent of Bob Dylan. Even the short studio time (the album was recorded in a week) doesn't loosen things up. He largely takes the music as it would appear in a songbook and plays it in his own adult pop style. It has no life, no passion, no point. When Ferry takes on the 60s protest anthem "The Times They Are A-Changin'," he shows only that the times have indeed changed, but not for the better. There is no sense of anything other than status quo in a song that should, with little effort, drip with revolutionary spirit. But even in these fragile times, Ferry can't muster anything that would stir anyone's pot on a social level (although I must say it stirs my pot a bit that he expects anyone to pay money for this album).

Dylanesque also includes two Dylan songs that were successfully covered by others, a bad choice for Ferry when he's already struggling to create credible covers for himself. "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" is a far cry from Dylan's original and Guns n Roses 1991 cover. As if that weren't sad enough, he also chooses "All Along the Watchtower." While it isn't as bad as a lot of the album, it strives more for Hendrix's definitive version than Dylan's. Even with guitar help from Robin Trower, Ferry's is an utter failure next to Hendrix.

Only once over the course of 11 tracks does Ferry come anywhere close to pulling off what he's attempted. "Positively 4th Street" is a fine, though non-essential, track where Ferry hasn't removed all semblance of Dylan's soul. It certainly doesn't make the album worth buying, but instead raises the question as to why the whole album couldn't have at least hit this mediocre bar.

One would think that Bryan Ferry must be both enamored and well-versed in Bob Dylan's work to have even attempted Dylanesque, but it doesn't take long to start wondering why Ferry would bother, because he surely neither loves nor knows Bob Dylan.

Rating: 2/10

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Sunday, July 08, 2007

Review: Buzzcocks - Singles Going Steady

Label: I.R.S.

Released: September 1979

Whenever I see (or make as the case may be) a list of the "Greatest Albums Ever" or the "Top 100 Albums of All-Time," I find it unfair to include greatest hits collections and anthologies...with one exception: The Buzzcocks' Singles Going Steady. I love the album, but that's not the reason for the exception. Unlike most collections which are made up of the singles and best tracks from other albums over the course of a career, this one is a collection of singles that were released over a period of less than two years. None of these songs appeared on a regular studio album, so this is the only full-length format on which they appear. In that sense, it's more like a regular release than a typical anthology or greatest hits collection.

Unfortunately, I only own this one on CD, but the LP had the A-sides of the singles on the first side and the B-sides on the flip. It's a pretty good way to organize the songs rather than just going in chronological order, but it's no longer apparent on the CD.

The first single included is 1977's "Orgasm Addict" b/w "What Ever Happened To?" Both songs are more angular and agitated than the Buzzcocks would be a short time later, but not to the point that they don't fit in. "What Do I Get?" is probably fairly familiar these days having appeared in a Toyota commercial. Interestingly, it's B-side, "Oh, Shit" caused quite a row in its day as prudish (or punk-hating) workers at the pressing plant refused to press the single. Over the course of the album, the Buzzcocks craft their sound ever so slightly without losing their punk rock edge. It's pretty amazing that there is almost no difference in quality between the As and the Bs. "Ever Fallen in Love?" and "Everybody's Happy Nowadays" (another Buzzcocks song that appeared in a recent commercial, this time for old-folks organization AARP) are great catchy punk songs, but no better than "Autonomy" and "Noise Annoys" which were B-sides. The album's second to last track is also a bit of a forgotten gem. "Why Can't I Touch It?" finds the Buzzcocks stretching out with a song rooted in its bass line rather than a wall of guitar and hooky vocal melody.

I suppose in a sense the fact that the band's progression can be heard over the course of the album might argue against it being the exception to the "no greatest hits" rule, but there are plenty of regular releases that have taken years to record and have the same issue. There aren't many bands that can spit out 16 tracks, each of which has the potential to stand on its own, in less than two years. Most bands can't do that in a lifetime.

Rating: 10/10

Note: Rock of Ages has a video for "Ever Fallen in Love," so head over and check it out.

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Friday, July 06, 2007

Review: Len Price 3 - Rentacrowd

Label: Wicked Cool

Released: May 29, 2007

There's a difference between cover bands and revivalists. The former, when done right (or as right as basing your existence on covers can be), sounds like a particular band. The latter, when done right, taps into the energy and soul of a band or a genre and brings it out for a fresh listen. A great cover band might be almost as good as a bad revivalist, but a great revivalist can do great things in its own right. The Len Price 3 is just one of those great revivalists.

I first heard the title track of the Len Price 3's Rentacrowd, on Little Steven's Underground Garage and liked it instantly. It didn't take long to figure out why: I also really like "Substitute" which "Rentacrowd" totally rips off. Nonetheless, they do it with style and passion and a perfect dose of edgy anger. They have that same ability to be melodic and chaotic that the Who had. Copy-catting aside, it was good enough for me to seek out the full release.

By and large, the album moves along at a fast pace, seeming even shorter than its 37 minutes. The trio doesn't get bogged down in long songs, but simply cut to the chase whether tapping into 60s British soul on "If I Ain't Got You" or fuzzy garage rock on "Girl Like You." They show they can create a great groove on "Cold 500" and a great hook on "Julia Jones." They provide a reprieve from the breakneck pace on two songs, the Byrds-ian jangle of "Doctor Gee" and the Beatlesque pop of "Mesmer." They even fill in the blanks between the 60s R&B of the Yardbirds and the Kinks and the 70s punk of the Buzzcocks and the Jam. Throughout all of this, they mix huge overdriven guitars, straightforward, driving rhythms and edgy lead vocals with the sweet harmonies that seldom accompany music that really rocks at its core.

Rentacrowd closes on a light-hearted note with the mellow psyche trippiness of "Australia," which even hints at the Beach Boys. Don't turn the album off right away though, because after an annoying four minute gap, the Len Price 3 has a nice surprise: a raw soul groove on organ, bass and really laid back drums supporting thin, echoey vocals. It allows the record to settle down at the end rather than being harsh and abrupt. Plus, it's as good as anything on the album.

With their second release, the Len Price 3 revives the British Invasion even if it's a one band show this time. Fuzzy guitar, solid rhythms, sweet harmonies and vocals full of bitter yet fun anger make up the kind of album that's just plain LOUD, whether you set the volume at one or eleven. It's nothing new, but near perfect in its own way nonetheless.

Rating: 8/10

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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Paul (should be) dead...

...at least as a good career move. Check this out. Thanks for the heads up, Chuck.

Bad Brains on vinyl!

For those of you stuck buying it on the inferior compact disc format, here's how cool the new Bad Brains album is on vinyl:

Maybe I should give it another point just for a great package (and because the colors are like my dreams: red, gold and green).

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Monday, July 02, 2007

Album Track: The Clash - Rebel Waltz

"Rebel Waltz" is a forgotten song on the Clash's forgotten Sandinista album. As the title says, it is a waltz, but with an edge. I'm not sure what war this involves or even if that's important, but the lyrics describe the resolve in a rebel army before (or perhaps after) a battle they cannot (or did not) win. There is a surreal sense to "Rebel Waltz" that suggests that the scene may actually follow the battle in which the rebels were slaughtered. At any rate, the song shows that the Clash can be a powerful band even on low-key songs. Even their waltz is for rebels.

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Sunday, July 01, 2007

Pratt Songs

Everyone should read Chuck's blog. Because he uses Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library as his music collection, his reviews have something for everyone. Besides, he's the only guy out there that compares every album to some kind of food. Seriously, check it out if you have a chance.