erasing clouds

5 Music Reviews

by dave heaton

Bobby Birdman, Heart Caves (States Rights Records)

Experimental pop crooner Bobby Birdman is like a Frank Sinatra for modern-day surrealists, belting out gorgeous songs of love and loneliness that are also mysterious and downright strange. With each release his songs seem to become both weirder and more romantic. His latest EP, Heart Caves, builds on the promise of his most recent, more electronic album Born Free Forever by taking guitar out of the mix almost entirely, in favor of a minimalist backdrop of crashing beats and bubbling synth. A consummate phraser, Birdman (Rob Kieswetter, actually) stretches his words across sonic landscapes both peaceful ("A Feat So Bold") and jaunty ("I Will Come Again"), in both places giving his words real presence and force. On "Gone Beyond," he sings over a light hip-hop shuffle that in a different world would be the right setting for a Bobby Birdman/Mary J Blige duet. That's followed by a synth-gospel goodbye called "Let My Burden Be" that leads into the choppy "Ultra Shape," an instrumental deconstruction of the moods of the other 5 songs. In 18 minutes, Heart Caves makes you feel like you've traveled across a vast landscape, and leaves you floating, happily.

Mark Eitzel, The Ugly American (Thirsty Ear)

Mark Eitzel, once the unstable, self-deprecating musician likely to leave the stage mid-song murmuring curses against his own name, seems to have found a certain confidence in his music that's allowing him to do all sorts of interesting things (some more successfully than others). The most recent is The Ugly American. Recorded in Greece (and originally released there last year), the album finds him taking some of his best songs and placing them in a new setting. A band of traditional Greek folk musicians backs Eitzel on every song giving them a unique, pretty veneer to brighten up the dark material (nearly every other song could realistically be described as one of the saddest songs you'll hear). The song selection should be really intriguing for Eitzel fans, ranging as it does from classic American Music Club songs (the album opens with three songs from United Kingdom, for example) to a song from his hard-to-find Lovers Leap USA rarities collection. The bulk of the songs were originally recorded by American Music Club, who broke up nearly 10 years ago but are reportedly getting back together. The distance between the originals and these versions makes The Ugly American even more compelling for Eitzel fans, as it's him re-visiting classic songs from a while back. And his singing voice is in great form here. He pulls each bit of emotion out of every song. That makes The Ugly American not just an interesting experiment but an emotional powerhouse.

Joe Ely, Streets of Sin (Rounder)

"I've got a feeling I'm fightin' for my life," Joe Ely sings at the start of his new album Streets of Sin, sounding like a hard-edged outlaw on the run, part of the personality he's cultivated over a diverse yet consistently interesting career making country music with a rock n' roll edge. The other part of his on-album personality is that of a hardened romantic, a poet of missed chances and tumbleweeds. Streets of Sin is filled with tales of hard luck in West Texas, from a man betting his family's last dollar on a horse on "Run Little Pony" to farm families fighting tough weather and a tougher economic picture on "A Flood On Our Hands" and "All That You Need." The album has a grittier (and more C&W) sound than his last two Tex-Mex-flavored albums, and none of the attempts at being a rock star that crept into some of his earlier albums. Yet it isn't a play-it-by-numbers affair, either; "Carnival Bum" and "I Gotta Find Ol' Joe" are unique amalgamations of song and poetry, and all of the songs are filled with enough heart and sweat to feel truly inspired. One of the most consistent albums yet from a great American troubador.

People Under the Stairs, …Or Stay Tuned (Om Records)

The L.A. duo People Under the Stairs' laidback style of hip-hop is always treading the line between retro and modern. If their devotion to the roots of hip-hop, love for sampling the 70s, and rejection of much of today's music makes them seem almost old-fashioned, their skills on the mic, DIY creative sense, and "party like today could be your last" mentality make their music very much of the now. Their latest release, a between-albums collection of new songs, B-sides, remixes and unreleased tracks called …Or Stay Tuned, is typical PUTS, a great showcase of their personalities and talents. Yet the songs on the whole also feel even fresher and more modern than on their past releases. On "Plunken' Em" and "Fly Love Song" they take the jazzed-out, low-key style that A Tribe Called Quest pioneered and funk it up for today, while on "Take the Fruit" they're experimenting with off-beat moods and sounds. As an odds-and-ends collection, …Or Stay Tuned does lack the consistency of the duo's proper albums. But it's just as enjoyable a trip into Thes One and Double K's lives. People Under Stairs is one of those groups where you feel like their music really is a reflection of who they are and where they come from. Their songs are about everyday situations, and have a universal quality because of it…all of which is cool, but would be irrelevant if they weren't so on top of the game in terms of beats and rhymes, style and sounds.

We Came From Beyond Volume 2 (Razor & Tie)

The mix CD has become omnipresent in hip-hop; whether made by a DJ, a producer or whoever, every time you turn around there's another one, filled with the promise of unreleased tracks by groups you like. We Came From Beyond Volume 2 was put together by Mike Nardone, an L.A. radio DJ, yet it isn't just another mix CD. The liner notes say it's about "exposing good music to those willing to open their ears to the experience," and that is indeed how it works. The CD is filled with 16 tracks by the best up-and-coming hip-hop artists on the indie-label scene, and while followers of that scene will know many of the names already (J-Live, People Under the Stairs, Aesop Rock), your average hip-hop fan likely won't. In other words, this is a top-notch introduction to people making top-notch music. Nearly every song matches sharp beats to razor-sharp MCs, from the opener "Devastating MC's" by Esoteric, Celph Titled & Apathy through to the killer album-closer "Matter of Time," by Maroons (Lateef & Chief XL). Other highlights include Vast Aire's darkly philosophical "Why Is the Sky Blue?" and Wildchild's melodic, high-speed rhyming on "The Justice." The artists here are essentially a who's who of so-called underground hip-hop, with artists from the RhymeSayers, Quannum, Stones Throw and Definitive Jux crews, but most importantly, the quality of material here is high. These aren't cast-offs that aren't good enough to grace real albums; these are ace, hot-as-hell tracks, all the way through.

Issue 15, September 2003

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