erasing clouds

4 Music Reviews

by dave heaton

Approach, Ultra Proteus (Coup d'Etat)

Early on in Ultra Proteus, Approach claims to be kicking "intelligent facts over 70s funk tracks." And while the first claim is a bit shakey - he's more likely to build a track around a sentiment like "move your body tonight" than anything cerebral - the second one is undisputable. This Lawrence, Kansas-based MC loves to ride funk and soul music completely indebted to the 70s, with thick bass lines, guitar grooves, and occasionally a bright horn section, all played by a tight, live band. Over all of this Approach rhymes in a manner so casually sharp that the skill of it is almost easy to overlook at first. His talent is less in writing witty lines or wowing you with verbal acrobatics, more in placing his voice naturally over the track and rhyming with energy and sincerity. This is a streamlined album, with no filler and nothing pretentious or showy. Approach sounds driven to make music that'll mean something to his listeners, that'll move their hearts and feet in the way that classic funk, soul and jazz of the past clearly move him. Yet the overall impression one gets from the album has to do with its style and sound than any particular idea or emotion that Approach expresses - if you're into smooth funk and like losing yourself in a groove, this will be right up your alley. (Note: The CD includes bonus remixes of 5 of the album's tracks, most notably a sophisticated and evocative take on the title track by ID of Archetype.)

The Damnwells, Bastards of the Beat (Epic)

There's a conflict in the Damnwells' first full-length Bastards of the Beat, and it's laid out in front of us on the first two tracks. First up is "Assholes," a beautiful sketch of a song that has a ghostly sound and a style remiscent of Whiskeytown or Uncle Tupelo. That quickly segues into "What You Get," an arena rock rave-up similar to the Goo Goo Dolls before they got too in love with themselves. To my ears the first song is lovely and evocative, the second song has some energy but is ultimately quite bland and pedestrian. Most of Bastards of the Beat lies somewhere between these two extremes; the album is filled with country-rock ballads that tread the line between heartfelt and mundane. A few tracks stand out like diamonds: the stunningly spare, slightly goofy but completely sincere love song "I Will Keep the Bad Things From You"; "Sleepsinging," where a slightly dream-like backdrop melts into a power crunch around lead singer Alex Dezen, who sings a great melody in a raw way; the casually catchy, radio-ready "The Lost Complaint;" and the sublime closer, a long-distance love song called "Texas." The Damnwells are at their best when they kept things loose and leave room for a sense of mystery in their songs, which they do about half the time on Bastards of the Beat. They're a group with a lot of promise, even if this album isn't a complete success.

The Sadies, Favourite Colours (Yep Roc)

Country-rockers The Sadies have certainly shown an interest in the music of the 1960s before, but not until now have they thrown themselves into the must of the past so wholeheartedly. With Favourite Colours they've adopted a certain hippie-ish, rustic Americana vibe, heavily influenced by late 60s Byrds, the Band, early Grateful Dead, early Allman Brothers (the album's lead-off instrumental "Northumberland West" is very Allmanesque) and psychedelia. Whether they're offering an oblique folksong-story of power, greed and war ("1000 Cities Falling") or slowly tripping away ("The Iceberg"), they definitely sound like they've been living in the woods and getting in touch with their inner love children. And they're good at it - much like The Sixth Great Lake's Up the Country, Favourite Colours is a successful imitation of a particular attitude, feeling, and sound drawn from classic albums of the past. If you're looking for something fresh-sounding, though, you'll find yourself satisfied only in the moments where styles collide - for example, how "Translucent Sparrow" shifts into an orchestral pop song partway through, or the unique, slightly off-kilter quality that guest vocalist Robyn Hitchcock brings to the closing track "Why Would Anybody Live Here?" During much of the album I find myself thinking about the better bands and albums that this was inspired by, but in these few, more surprising moments I find myself intrigued.

Shark Quest, Gods and Devils (Merge)

I'll be honest, when it comes to instrumental music I tend to go most ga-ga over music that is way out there on an experimental level or music that is sublimely overloaded with atmosphere, though a keen melodic sense can sometimes be enough. The North Carolina group Shark Quest does not attempt innovation, but they do take a familiar sense of atmosphere - the vageuly Western, Ennio Morricone-type vibe - and form it into songs that are melodic and filled with energy. That last quality makes them resemble an instrumental rock outfit (The Ventures, etc.) more than one of today's more abstract "post-rock" groups...but their songs are ultimately less simple than you might expect by my referring to them as a rock band. The songs on their third album Gods and Devils, most of which were created as accompaniment for the screening of a work by animator Bruce Bickford, have a sense of straightforward motion to them, but will surprise you with piano asides and eclectic instrumentation (cello, mandolin, marimba, and a water bottle used as percussion). The generally long songs unfold in interesting ways, with a nice array of textures and sounds. I can't imagine someone being knocked to the floor by Shark Quest the way you can be by more overtly explosive instrumental acts, yet there's a lot going on here.

Issue 25, July/August 2004

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