erasing clouds

15 Music Reviews

Accelera Deck, Sunstrings EP (Scarcelight)

Accelera Deck's Sunstrings EP opens like a late-night panic attack, like a power-plant explosion in the middle of nowhere, like all of the world's computers shorting out at once. A fuzzed-out soundwave gets clearer and louder, then gives way to a mad mess of fighting lightning bolts - jittery and harsh yet entrancing enough to stop you in your tracks. Think of the peaceful horror of that scene in the film The Ice Storm, where the electrical wire comes loose and winds its way through the air - take that feeling, shred it up, and amplify it by a million. Then you'll be getting close to the horrific sort of beauty generated by Sunstrings's 17-minute, hardcore first track (hardcore even as the noise attack sometimes gives way to silence, and to more intermittent but still sharp buzzing sounds, and to an assortment of other noises nearly impossible to describe). Keep your ears open; this is not a one-note EP. The second half leans away from the same sort of chaos, towards more of an overwhelming but steady cloud of brilliant noise. The Sunstrings EP is an extremely exciting voyage, a wild trip off to some other, other planet, far away from most people's existence. Enjoy it, sink into it, let your mind try to figure it out. But don't even start thinking about the fact that so many of these sounds were generated from a guitar, or your head will explode. - dave heaton

Aqueduct, I Sold Gold (Barsuk)

You have to love an album with its own personality - especially when it's as lovably eccentric as Aqueduct's I Sold Gold. You grow up in Oklahoma listening to heavy metal, jumping around on the bed like you're a rock n' roll star, and now here you are, your own kind of superstar, with a wry sense of humor and a gift with both melodies and words. That seems to be the case with David Terry, the main man behind the "quintessential bedroom rock" (as their bio puts it) of Aqueduct, whose second album I Sold Gold is their first for Barsuk. Already they've got a song in an episode of The O.C., so who knows, maybe superstardom is in the works. If so it'll be deserved, not just because I Sold Gold is filled with catchy songs that I could handle hearing all the time (examples: "Growing Up With GNR, its title self-explanatory, the first single "Hardcore Days & Softcore Nights", and the oddly touching "Five Star Day"), but because their style - 80s keyboards meeting a loose and sort of funky kind of rock n' roll messing-around - feels somehow suited to our times. In other words, here's an album people should hear. They'll like it. "To anyone who likes this song / there's probably ten who hate it," Terry sings at the start of one song, but I think he's being modest. Aqueduct's handle on both goofiness and raw emotion is really endearing (lyrics like "I wanna be with you all the time / instead of lonely every night" feel really honest and real), and these songs are catchy, goddammit. - dave heaton

Destroyer, Notorious Lightning and Other Works (Merge Records)

For some reason I've yet to be completely won over by the eccentric pop-rock songs of Dan Bejar, aka Destroyer...not for any reason, they just haven't really penetrated my brain yet, haven't made a strong enough impression. Yet his last album Your Blues was quite gorgeous at times, with a really delicate, lonely feeling about it, even as it retained his often enigmatic lyrical personality. Notorious Lightning and Other Works shows that those songs weren't as delicate as they sounded, actually; the CD has Bejar re-visiting 6 Your Blues songs with Frog Eyes as his backing band. The experience is a revelation, as the songs sounds so muscular and forceful in this state, without losing any of the melodic, slightly theatrical grace that some of them have (listen to "Don't Become the Thing You Hated," for example). In my mind I never would have put Destroyer and Frog Eyes together, yet the combination feels so right. Frog Eyes singer Casey Mercer belts out wild accent marks in the background, while the band toughens the songs up in a winning way. Notorious Lightning is not only a lively, almost transcendent experience, it made me revisit Your Blues and hear it more clearly than before. I'll be working my way through Destroyer's back catalogue, and wouldn't be surprised if I become a devoted fan. Notorious Lightning's rethinking of the songs has made me do the same. - dave heaton

Devotchka, How It Ends (Cicero Recordings)

"Sweetheart/how I miss your heart/beating next to mine," Devotchka lead singer Nick Urata sings to begin the beautiful and sad love ballad "Dearly Departed," a little over halfway into the Colorado-based group's third album How It Ends. When Urata sings for his departed lover to return, it feels like he's channeling the collected ghosts of a thousand dead lovers from centuries before, like the feelings of countless lonely people of the past are captured inside of his voice. That effect is partly a testament to his intensely sensitive, stylish and powerful singing voice, but it's also about Devotchka's music, which effortlessly blends together folk and pop styles from across the globe and across the centuries, in a way that feels newborn yet ancient. As one song title so aptly puts it, "This Place Is Haunted." Their style of music incorporates who-knows-how-many folk traditions (particularly European, but not solely - there's definite Tex-Mex nods, for example), but sounds completely natural, not some sort of awkward "world music" hybrid that yuppies listen to to feel better about how worldly they are. Strings, horns, piano, guitars, an accordion, a theremin, a bouzouki, a glockenspiel...with these instruments and more the 4-member band, accompanied by a handful of guests, deliver sweeping, eclectic music that perfectly fits with the songs' tales of star-crossed love, lust, betrayal, jealousy, romance and war. Devotchka's songs tell timeless stories, but they're also filled with so much atmosphere and style. At times it seems like the songs could easily step over into the territory of film scores or ambient mood-pieces, yet they also often embody classic styles of songwriting and storytelling. Ultimately, How It Ends is a really majestic, gorgeous album; the music stretches across time and geography, but the feelings are personal and close-to-home. - dave heaton

Shuyler Jansen, Shyler Jansen's Hobotron (Black Hen)

The Hobotron is the home studio in Canada's Alberta province, where Shuyler Jansen began recording this album. Jansen, a member of the band Old Reliable, a fixture in Canada's roots scene for the past nine years, has produced an intriguing mixture of old-style roots music and retro space-age sounds. Jansen has for years collected ancient tape machines, primitive synthesisers and effects units, with which to embellish his traditionally-created sings. What he has produced is a pleasing, and at times amusing, melding of two genres, and one that works very well. Indeed, the burbling, twittering synths, backwards tapes etc. that decorate each track come across as perfectly natural. In fact, it's actually interesting that Jansen, who normally plays gritty roots with Old Reliable, has not relied on the kind of instrumentation that goes with the genre. What he has done is use special effects to enhance his often deeply melancholic songs in the same way a roots band might use a fiddle or pedal steel guitar. The construction of his songs, however, is totally normal. Jansen's roots-informed songs - "Whipping Boy" and "Street Heart Beat", for example, both of which have attention-grabbing melodies that actually transcend their arrangements - tumble forth to create a whole that is fascinating and rewards repeated plays. Jensen, who has contributed to the Corb Lund Band and The Swiftys, also utilises the services of Oh Susanna and Shawn Jonasson. Together they make Hobotron a bewitching brew. Its worth having a sip. - john stacey

Leigh Marble, Peep (Laughing Stock)

Ever played an album and been less than enamored, only to return to it a few days later, slap it the CD player and been utterly converted? That's what happened with Peep. Initially, Marble's DIY take on rock was a tad too lo-fi for my tastes. Then I started to realise that every song had a massive hook, only I hadn't spotted it. Add to that clever instrumentation and a heart-warmingly home-made approach to recording, and I was hooked. Marble is not ashamed to boldly use his influences - a Dylanesque take on the vocals and Beck-like arrangements. And what about the songs? They just get stronger and stronger as the album unfolds from the speakers. Rooted mainly on a thrashed acoustic guitar, Marble brings in harmonica, mellotron, harmonica et al to provide colour and interest. Try "Killed Instantly", "Long Overdue", "Parting Shot" and "Airlift" for starters. Peep covers all its bases, is an idiosyncratic delight that deserves to be a massive successive. This Marble is on a roll. - john stacey

Lorrie Matheson, A Dime At A Time (Western Famine)

Canadian Lorrie Matheson's excellent second album, A Dime At A Time, can be summed up quite adequately as this: great music, lousy cover. Yes, I know, that it's the music which matters most, but if you were a casual buyer and happened upon this release, you might feel inclined not to buy it. So, how is anyone going to find out if A Dime At A Time is a real turkey - as the cover could suggest - or is worth your money? Read the review. A Dime At A Time is a gem, a real find, a beautifully-written, produced and executed work that is rich in instrumentation and songwriting. In his home town of Calgary, Matheson is regarded as a minstrel laureate, one of the best songwriters the city has produced - er, can you name any others? - with a reputation as a more than adept producer and arranger. All this is true. On this follow-up to 2002's You Should Know By Now, Matheson has refined his craft, managing to distil elements of contemporary rock music from the past 40 years into his songs while still retaining his identity. Americana, power-pop, confessional singer-songwriter, it's all there, with lyrics that are perceptive and witty. Nods to Costello and Dylan complete the picture. Add to that an acute ear for a pop melody, the clever use of a repeated synthesiser figure throughout the album - sounding like it was lifted straight off the Who's Next album - and A Dime At A Time should propel Matheison to the same league as Ed Harcourt, Ben Christopher and Tom McRae. As it is, insufficient people - over here, anyway - will probably hear this lovely album, which would be a shame. In years to come, if you spot a copy lurking in a second-hand record shop somewhere, buy it. It's worth a few dimes of anyone's money. - john stacey

The Matinee Winter Warmer (Matinee)

"Winter warmer" might sound more like a coffee than a CD, but let me tell you...on a cold, grey day getting a package of fantastic CDs in the mail was definitely enough to brighten the day. Among those CDs was indeed The Matinee Winter Warmer. The winter edition of Matinee's seasonal compilations shows off what the label has to offer as well as any of them; more than that, though, it's filled with really splendid pop songs, songs that are sensitive and melodic and fetching. The collection opens with two familiar songs, at least to listeners who've been dutifully following all of Matinee's releases (as any fan of smart pop music should): Slipslide's "Baked Alaska" and The Fairways' "Winter Song". Both are winter songs without a cliched "isn't the cold bitter" sort of attitude, but still with a tinge of sadness appropriate for the season. That tinge falls across the rest of Matinee Winter Warmer as well. It includes rarities and unreleased songs, like Pipas' truly pretty, lightly melancholy "Boxes," Harper Lee's just-as-pretty, even sadder "Bad Christmas" (as in "one year forward is two steps backwards / it's another bad bad christmas"), the lovely, kind of funny and kind of sad family-reunion ballad "High Street" by The Pines, and a great new Lucksmiths song called "The Winter Proper," filled with atmosphere and feeling (label head Jimmy Tassos is right on the money when he notes in the CD's notes that this song "is a nice reminder of how lovely a new lucksmiths album would be"). Overall a splendid compilation - pay attention to Matinee in 2005, as always they have a lot of great music in store for us. - dave heaton

Dale Maxfield and the Silver Hammers, Stratosphere (self-released)

Kansas City singer-songwriter Dale Maxfield's last album, 5'6' in a 6 Foot World', was a loose affair that had him getting in touch with his bar-band side, to good effect. And apparently that served as a nice jumping-off point to even better things, as his latest album Stratosphere, credited to Dale Maxfield and the Silver Hammers, is the power-pop album he's always had in him (albeit a power-pop album with quieter moments throughout, some of them quite lovely). In other words, he's let the most serious 'adult-alternative' moments fall away in favor of really catchy, melodic, upbeat pop-rock songs. The lyrics aren't bubblegum, they're still of the examine-your-heart variety, but there seems to be a continuing theme of going with the flow, of getting beyond the worries and fears that can sometimes keep us from enjoying life. Or maybe I'm just transferring that from the feeling of the music, as the overall musical personality of the album is light and hopeful, and completely infectious in that way. - dave heaton

Steve Mayone, Bedroom Rockstar (Umver Records)

For a man who's been around for 20-odd years, it's incredible that this is Mayone's debut solo album. Judging by the sheer quality of songs, the immaculate playing and the subtle arrangements and production, he hasn't put all that experience to waste. Mayone has played guitar, mandolin and bass with the likes of Kris Delmhorst, Levon Helm and Dave Mattacks, and brings a highly professional approach to each of the 12 songs. This is obviously his opportunity to show the world what it is missing and Mayone is quick to open up his box of tricks - whether its bluesy guitar on "I Don't Deserve You," a quick John Lennon/Gerry Rafferty homage on "Deeper In The Well," with lovely backing harmonies and roots banjo, the out-and-out power pop of "Other Side," or the country swing of "Going Down," Bedroom Rockstar is a compendium of styles and sources, more like a greatest hits compilation. That being said, there's a refreshing diversity and humour running through this album. Perhaps this might be the release to take Mayan out of the bedroom. - john stacey

Outrageous Cherry, Our Love Will Change The World (Rainbow Quartz)

For some years now, Outrageous Cherry have strangely been regarded as a kind of garage rock Moody Blues (yes, really!), due in part to their concept albums Supernatural Equinox and The Book Of Spectral Projections. With Our Love Will Change The World, the Detroit-based four-piece have opted for shorter, more dynamic songs, most of which come in at around three and a half minutes, with the exception of the nattily-titled "You're A Reflection Of Infinite Chaos", a slow-paced slow-burner. Whereas the earlier albums have been more complex in concept, arrangement and delivery, Our Love Will Change The World sees Cherry take on the mantle of a British mid-sixties beat group, utilising neat guitar breaks, plangent piano and luxurious harmonies. This simple approach to music-making - verse, verse, chorus, solo etc - might be rudimentary, but hey! it has given the band a pleasing grandeur. Our Love Will Change The World is like taking a trip back in time to the days when rock's potential was untapped. This album won't change the world, but it might change OC's fortunes for the better. - john stacey

Pinkie, Sharon Fussy (Planting Seeds)

"And we tried to be someone we couldn't be," Alex Sharkey sings during the first proper song on Pinkie's debut full-length Sharon Fussy. That theme, of who we are and who we act like we are, is central to the album, which is filled with melancholy pop songs that are generally in the vein of groups like Brighter (of which Sharkey was bassist), their offspring Harper Lee, the Field Mice, and their offspring Trembling Blue Stars. Think of that as the starting-off point, but don't let those references be all you take from this review, as Sharon Fussy is a really beautiful, complex work that should be taken on its own. Pinkie is a one-man band that doesn't sound like one. The album does has a solitary feeling, but it's also quite lush, with guitars and drum machines and synthesizers and other instruments blending together for soft, pretty textures to calmly boost the splendid, sad melodies. Sharon Fussy is filled with a questioning of identity - every thought and feeling seems to carry with it the question 'what's making me act this way?' There's a real longing for understanding, to be understood and to understood. The front cover photo shows a woman dancing and smiling; the back cover reveals that she's acting in a play. The songs are about this same issue, of where our happiness and sadness come from, of how we know what's really going on within us, who we really are versus who we're trying to be or who we're expected to be. - dave heaton

Swank, The Survival Issue (Killbeat)

Whiskey-drenched, cotton-pickin', often dark and old-timey but full of spirit and humour, this wonderful little album comes complete with a cover that is a real work of art. Produced by Howard Redekopp of New Pornographers fame, you can't help but smile as each track is revealed in all its animated glory. Rockabilly, Elvis Presley, the great god Nick Cave, Tom Petty, blues, soul, roots, pop, country...everything is squeezed in and performed with abandon. It's obvious that the five members of Swank have moved on from their rockabilly roots and have decided to throw everything into their swampy melting pot. Check out the groovy "Reverend Pleasant," with its chunky, soulful beat, the sinister, bluesy, slide-guitar drenched "Neighbours" or the uplifting "Harvest Time," complete with gum-suckin' harmonica, for a good time. With The Survival Issue, Vancouver's finest really have something to swank about. - john stacey

The Vestals, The Vestals (Warming House)

There are many bands out there who cite The Beatles as an influence. The Vestals went even further. This Minnesotan four-piece earned their street cred by entering a John Lennon Songwriting Contest, getting as far as the final. So they must kinda like the Fab Four. The Lennon-Beatles link is pretty obvious; you only have to hear the woozy, Lennon-esque lead vocals, supplied by Jeremy Gordon. But The Vestals have more in common with acts acts like The Grays and with singer-songwriters Jon Brion and Jason Faulkner. Once you peel back the Liverpool influence, therein lies an album that is rich in instrumentation, texture and tunes a'plenty, and one that deserves to be regarded as truly Vestals music. The moody "Childhood Timeout" displays a darker edge, while "Three Girls" sparkling guitar and edgy drumming is classic US college rock. However, isn't long before that Beatles influence rears its head with "Before The Colour Dries," complete with melancholic "Eleanor Rigby"-ish string section. Altogether a quirky pot-pourri of sounds, influences and directions that nods to the past but has its feet planted firmly in the present. Worth a spin. - john stacey

Gina Villalobos, Rock 'N' Roll Pony (Laughing Outlaw)

Former photography student Gina is a veteran of the Santa Barbara musical scene, earning her spurs supporting the likes of Weezer, Counting Crows and The Breeders with her band The Mades. Citing influences as diverse as Led Zeppelin, Carole King and Neil Diamond - mainly LPs in her parents' record collection - Gina's debut album Beg From Me was the launchpad of her career, which leads her to Rock 'N' Roll Pony. It's obvious from the sure-footed opening track "California" that Gina's years honing her craft in the Nineties has paid dividends. The album is a confident, mature offering that cherry picks the best of folk, country, rock and pop. Full of instant hooks, sharp lyrics and topped off by Gina's sweetly husky voice - not a million miles dissimilar to Lucinda Williams - the standout track is "Fooling Around", which has the potential to be a classic paean to love, loss and regret. This pony certainly has more than one trick. - john stacey

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