erasing clouds

14 Music Reviews

by dave heaton

Click on a musician's name to go directly to the review, or scroll down and proceed through them all.

Belle & Sebastian, Isobel Campbell, Edison Woods, Fortress Madonna, Jean Grae, Grandpa Boy, Green Pajamas, Her Space Holiday, The Impossible Shapes, Metal Fingers, My First Days on Junk, The Pines, The Relict, Wig in a Box

Belle & Sebastian, Dear Catastrophe Waitress (Rough Trade)

With their 2000 album Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, Belle & Sebastian succeeded in becoming an artistic collective in more than just name, with songs that beautifully weaved the various members' voices, tastes and sensibilities together into one. Their newest album Her Catastrophe Waitress takes that unified spirit and applies it to a batch of songs that reflect genres and personalities that the group has barely explored before on record. They bring to the forefront the 60s pop style that fueled their "Legal Man" single, the taste for classic soul sounds that before only emerged in brief moments, and a previously unseen flair for theatre that makes their songs big, bright and loveably cartoonish. Add to that mix slicker-than-ever production(mostly provided by famed producer Trevor Horn, a former member of both Yes and the Buggles), a cache of stringed instruments and horns, a tendency to switch styles from song to song, and one song that's straight up 1980 (think a funkier Squeeze), and you have an album guaranteed to shatter any preconceptions you have of the band. But while the first listen to Dear Catastrophe is likely to shock anyone who's heard any of the group's previous albums, the more you listen the more it sounds very much like a Belle & Sebastian album, just one that's more diverse and Technicolor-bright than their others. The lyrics are still sharp and compelling portraits of love, loneliness, and nonconformity: "Step Into My Office, Baby" indulges in playful sexual innuendo, "Lord Anthony" is a story of a youth who doesn't live up to society's expectations that's as raw and affecting as some of the group's earliest songs (reminds me of "Beautiful" in particular), and "Asleep on a Sunbeam" is a typically articulate moment of introspection. And the songs are all as alluring and catchy as ever. More than anything, Dear Catastrophe Waitress is a confident step forward from a group that's all-too-often typecast as too delicate or predictable.

Isobel Campbell, Amorino (Instinct Records)

When Belle & Sebastian first became widely known and loved, to many people their lead singer sounded a lot like Nick Drake. Now ex-Belle & Sebastian member Isobel Campbell has made an album that feels like a Nick Drake album: lush, sweeping, beautiful, and full of melancholy. But Amorino, Campbell's first solo album after a couple albums with her group The Gentle Waves, is so much more than just a folk-pop daydream. It's a romantic, stylish pop record with touches of samba (an album very much in the style of Antonio Carlos Jobim), and a sexy, jazzy collection of torch songs delicately crooned by Campbell against an orchestral backdrop. And then there's a song like "The Cat's Pyjamas," where a vocal sample about discovering the unknown breaks abruptly into a gleeful, brassy New Orleans-style jazz number, or the album-closing "Time Is Just the Same," a lazy-day country ballad (think Gram Parsons with strings). Yet everything holds together under one mood. Even when the album jumps genres, it comes off as a meditation on love and life that's filled with gorgeous melodies and real heart, a real beauty of an album.

Edison Woods, Seven Principles of Leave No Trace (Glitterhouse/Habit of Creation)

Edison Woods' self-titled debut album was a splendid, relaxed foray into pop dreamland, with singer Julia Frodahl's gentle voice resting on a bed of strings. Their second album Seven Principles of Leave No Trace starts in the same place but has a grown-up, sophisticated feeling which makes that debut look like baby steps. The songs here feel both more refined and larger in scope. The instruments are the same - violin, cello, piano, harmonium, guitar, bass, drums - yet the arrangements feel fuller and more complex. And, perhaps most impressive, Edison Woods have managed to widen their scope while making the emotional content more focused and intimate. Songs like "Muted Thunderstorms" and "Shirts For Pennies" come off like stark late-night confessions even though Frodahl's voice is surrounded by a warm blanket of instrumentation. Simply put, these songs are moving even when you're not listening to the words, or when the words are too mysterious to get a firm grip on. Based in New York, Edison Woods have also created art installations and performance art. Seven Principles… exudes an interest in exploring the unexplorable through art. They use music to fly you through unique musical places, in search of something new. And in the jewel case, beneath where the CD goes, is a real feather, a reminder of the flight they've taken you on.

Fortress Madonna, One Hundred Beacons (Laughing Outlaw)

Fortress Madonna's debut album One Hundred Beacons lists 16 band members in the liner notes…a fortress, indeed. Don't expect to hear an orchestra when you play the album, however; this is rock n' roll, streamlined and straightforward. The lengthy band lineup makes it hard to tell who is exactly behind the songwriting (though ex-Dentists Mick Murphy and Bob Collins are the two most recognizable names, one Brian Sullivan is credited as "writer" and the press materials all claim the band is headed by ex-KGB agent Alex Serikov, who the record sleeve credits simply with "cello"), but it doesn't really matter. The album kicks off with "Serikov," an energetic power-pop song with a darker edge, and continues through a batch of simply constructed pop-rock songs that at times recall the literate-pop of the Go-Betweens but occasionally get more reckless and slightly creepy. The singer sounds a lot like Robyn Hitchock, but the lyrics are more like love odes filtered through the suspense-filled world of the other Hitchcock. In other words, this is a fairly upfront rock record, with catchy hooks and big guitars, that from time to time comes off as a bit of an enigma.

Jean Grae, The Bootleg of the Bootleg EP (Babygrande Records)

Jean Grae is as hardcore as MCs come, with an unmatched skill at coming up with edgy barbs and spitting them with bitterness. Yet her head is in much deeper places than just boosting her ego or showing off. Though the opening track of her new EP The Bootleg of the Bootleg, "Hater's Anthem," is all about angry battle rhymes aimed at all comers, by the next track she's walking along the wall between heaven and hell and having nightmare visions of the apocalypse, feeling lost in the wilderness. "God help me, I'm having trouble with your master plan," she exclaims, later getting even more serious: "See this dirty knife on the floor, this chrome 9 in my hand, these foul thoughts in my conscience…" "Swing Blades" pairs Grae with the equally dark-minded (and equally skilled) Cannibal Ox for a searing look at the hardships of life; in her verse Grae again looks upward for guidance while having violent dreams. The EP's other collaborative track, "Code Red (featuring Block McCloud and PumpkinHead)," starts "So every life brings a moment of intense hatred/body inseminated with foul thoughts and drained of patience" and continues from there into an exploration of what makes people commit violent acts. "Chapter One: Destiny" ends the EP with an exercise in storytelling that dips into the same material, as Grae goes into the mind of a killer. A poet of darkness who understands that nothing's scarier than the wicked thoughts you have in your own mind, Grae's also an MC who can stand toe to toe with the best of them in terms of sheer skill, as evidenced one last time by the EP-closing bonus track, a 45-minute mix of some of her best rhymes.

Grandpa Boy, Dead Man Shake (Fat Possum)

Four albums into his solo career, Paul Westerberg figured out that a major reason the Replacements were so loved is how loose and wild they seemed. His last pair of releases--"Stereo under his own name and Mono as Grandpa Boy--felt completely off-the-cuff, like he just threw down a bunch of tracks in the middle of the night and let them be, without worrying about how they'd appeal to the masses. Judging by one of his two newest albums, Grandpa Boy's Dead Man Shake, that working method is becoming a habit, and we're so much the better for it. For while Westerberg's a great songwriter even when his records are over-produced and belabored over, there's a spark inherent in his most casual records that gets drained out a bit the more he fusses over how perfect everything is. Dead Man Shake is his unrehearsed blues album, which you might have guessed from who's releasing it (the blues label Fat Possum). He's basically taking a musical tradition and running with it-the album's filled with old-fashioned blues tropes, from smoky guitar licks and well-traveled chord progressions to song titles like "Natural Mean Lover" and "Bad Boy Blues." But the main reason Dead Man Shake works is that he doesn't sound like a cartoonist or an impersonator, more like a guy who's always loved the blues and has decided to play his songs in that style. "All tracks was cut during the sunless hours and Mama digs the Jimmy Reed," Grandpa Boy writes in the liner notes, and that pretty much tells you what you need to know. But these are Paul Westerberg songs, not empty blues routines, and the longer you listen the clearer that becomes. On songs like the opener "MPLS" (which starts with a surprisingly Mats' like sound, despite the fact that it's a clear riff on the blues) and "Vampires & Failures" he's clearly still singing about his own life, not trying to fake like he's an old bluesman or something. There's also some non-blues covers that show that Dead Man Shake's main focus is on informally running through songs about heartbreak and hard times, the foundation of the blues. The cover of John Prine's "Souvenirs," one of the great meditations on the passing of time, is out-of-tune and weary but entirely honest and affecting. He accentuates the bluesy side of Hank Williams' "I'm so Lonesome I Could Cry" and plays up the loneliness in his singing and guitar playing like you wouldn't believe. And then there's the album-ending "What Kind of Fool Am I?", delivered in a "go home, the bar's closing" exhausted crooner's voice that had to have been recorded on no sleep, unless Westerberg's just a better actor than I'm imagining him to be. In any case, Dead Man Shake makes you feel like you stayed up all night in a bar listening to a blues band stomp through hell and back, but it also feels like a great new Paul Westerberg album, which it is.

The Green Pajamas, Through Glass Coloured Roses: The Best of the Green Pajamas (Hidden Agenda)

The Green Pajamas have been around in some form since 1984, as an outlet for Jeff Kelly's mysterious, literate and hyper-melodic art-rock songs about love and ghosts and secrets. Through Glass Colored Roses is subtitled as "the best of" the band, though all of the songs come from the albums they've released in the last five years or so…especially from their most recent four albums (1997's classic Strung Behind the Sun is only represented by one song, sadly). As an introduction to the band, it's an ace collection, as the group's skill at crafting songs and idiosyncratic vision are well-represented. That said, to a fan of the albums from which these songs came it can't help but feel both disjointed and incomplete. The Green Pajamas always strike me as a band that makes albums-not to play down how great their songs are, but their recordings always have a real cohesiveness to them which this collection lacks. And it's hard to take a "best of the Green Pajamas" at face value when it's missing so many of my favorite songs of theirs. I suppose that reflects my inherent bias against greatest hits albums. The songs on Through Glass Colored Roses were selected by the band, and thus represents what they feel to be their best songs. Accept the album on those terms, then, and if you have never heard the Green Pajamas before, by all means pick up this album or one of their others, as they're a singular pop-rock entity that is eternally under-regarded.

Her Space Holiday, The Young Machines (Mush)

"Suck on my fingertips until you kill all my prints, so your boyfriend has no clue of how much I've been touching you," Marc Bianchi sings two songs into his latest album as Her Space Holiday, The Young Machines. With songs like "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend" and "Girl Problem," it's clear that lust is the major theme of is sonic movie. He might just come off as a wanna-be Don Juan on songs like "Something to Do With My Hands" and "Tech Romance," if he wasn't supported by a drop-dead gorgeous backdrop of beats, synthesized strings and other electronics. The music here makes him sound sensitive and deep even when he should like a cretin. It's also what makes The Young Machines stand out from the recorded output from a billion "sensitive" emo-kids that are just trying to hook up. To be fair, though, Bianchi's persona on record is much more complex than Mr. Lover Man. The prime example is "Sleepy California," where he admits he misses his mom and confesses his feelings about his grandmother's death. As the album goes on, he even shifts his focus from romance to his status in the music industry and the beefs he has with critics; though those songs come off as whiny and inconsequential, and drag the album down a bit, they also help keep his musical personality rounded. In general the album works best the softer it is, the more he revels in the lushness of his soundscapes. The way he whispers his sentiments over a symphony of beats and melodic textures is what makes The Young Machines mostly a joy, an album you can fall back into comfortably.

The Impossible Shapes, We Like It Wild (Secretly Canadian)

Indiana psych-rockers The Impossible Shapes' new album is called We Like It Wild, but though that could double as the title of the latest strip-club anthem, from the music it sounds like their version of being wild might involve tripping on a mountaintop somewhere. "Wild, we like it wild/what is left of our kind/making love in the pines," Chris Barth sings on the title track, a slightly countrified, lazy-afternoon ballad that's typical of the album as a whole in a number of ways. On We Like It Wild the group plays a more rustic, "Americana" version of psychedelic rock that makes it sound like they've been spending some serious time communing with nature. But there's also a thick, heady atmosphere and dark edges throughout the album. On their last album Bless the Headless they rocked together more tightly than ever, exploding off in mysterious and weird directions. We Like It Wild takes that same unified approach and throws it in different directions: often softer, quieter, and friendly, but just as driven and strange. Death is the ghost that follows humans around on every Impossible Shapes album; as always, they sound at peace with that even as they realize that it creeps us out. "Just as volcanoes erupt sometimes human beings explode in your face," Barth sings in a friendly tone on "You Are Not the Target," one of several tracks that feel relevant to our "war on terror" times, even if you can't pinpoint why. In a way that's one of the key reasons I love The Impossible Shapes so much: their songs touch you even as they mystify you. We Like It Wild, as with most Impossible Shapes recordings, feels like both a haunted house and a guest house, a place you can feel welcome and a place where you never know what to expect. The album has enough pretty melodies and mind-blowing jams to make you feel like they're your friends, but then you come across something like "Lovers Living Uphill," where mid-song they decide to bludgeon you, heavy-metal-style. With the Impossible Shapes, who knows what to expect?

Metal Fingers,Presents Special Herbs Vols. 3 & 4 (Nature Sounds/Metal Face)

MF Doom, indie-label hip-hop's Man of a Thousand Faces (and names), exercises his beat-making skills on the instrumental Special Herbs series, volumes 3 and 4 of which have just been released on one CD. Volume 3 is like a classic R&B soundtrack to a superhero film, with quiet storm soul textures, melodic grooves, and an overall mood that's colorful and snazzy. Everything on Vol. 3 is minimalist and funky; he keeps the sound streamlined and cool. On a track like "Elder Blossoms" (yes, each track on both volumes is named after a 'special herb'), Doom uses nothing but the basics-just some drums and a few chords played on an organ-but it sounds heavenly. Vol. 4 funks things up in a thicker, crazier way, starting with a freakazoid track called "Blood Root" which falls somewhere between Bitches Brew, a blaxploitation soundtrack, and Mars. All eight songs on Vol. 4 have a sound that's darker, more textured (with rising strings, creepy synth, and more), and less overtly "hip-hop." It's a varied, experimental batch of songs that's richer and more complicated than Vol. 3, with Isaac Hayes, nightclub jazz and rock elements all crashing into each other. Taken together, the two volumes are a dazzling trip into seriously unique hip-hop sounds and moods.

My First Days on Junk, Songs for Darla The Fake Girl (North of January/Danger Five)

The first three songs on My First Days on Junk's album Songs for Darla the Fake Girl each begin with a loud, full, dreamy swirl of guitars that immediately marks the group as My Bloody Valentine-lovers. There's no hiding it, not that they're trying to. That lovingly warped MBV sound is pleasurable in its own right to many of us, but My First Days on Junk's songs benefit from having at their core great pop melodies. These songs don't need the blissed-out veneer; they'd be great pop songs if stripped down to just a singer and a guitar. As the album proceeds, that gets more and more evident, as by song #7, "Tired From the Trip," they've done away with the effects and are down to the basics. The songs that follow it, "How Do I Tell if You've Gone Too Far?" and "Forever," are slower and more minimalist songs that sound like the weary mornings-after the far-out trips of the earlier songs. Then there's a bouncy summer pop song ("Vacation Head Revisited") before the group dives back into the hurricane, announcing with a resounding crunch at the beginning of "Headfirst for the Good Guys" that they're on a trip once again. The album ends with "Missing Darla," one more fuzzed-out meditation that should be played loud as hell. When the unlisted bonus track starts with the line, "What kind of a band is this, I know", you laugh, cause My First Days on Junk do seem to be jumping back and forth a bit. But that indecision is A-OK with me; as long as they keep writing catchy hooks, they can dress them up in a wall of sound or not…either way sounds great. After all, as one of the group members, Colin Clary, sings on the first song, "Attention deficit is what you make of it."

The Pines, True Love Waits Volume Two (Matinee)

"The boy I sent a rose is a stickler for good prose," sings Pam Berry on "Ungrammatical," the first track on True Love Waits Volume Two, the new EP from the Pines. A goofy acapella pop song about a copy editor who loses his strictness about grammar when he writes love letters, it could easily have been the 70th Love Song in Stephin Merritt's magnum opus. Yet what makes it more than just cute is how it's set up as a hymn, with Berry and the duo's other half, Joe Brooker, providing a vocal backdrop that's simply gorgeous. Crafting a beautiful melody and having beautiful voices sing it is part of what The Pines are about. That's enough right there to recommend the EP, but there's more. "Ungrammatical" is followed by "Anita O' Day," a song with a melody that is so much more than pretty. The melody alone has a real weight to it that makes it touching; combined with clever but heartfelt lyrics about the complexity of relationships makes it even more so. The EP is filled out with three more songs that are pretty and catchy, have wit and a sense of humor, yet also hit you in the gut with truths about love. "Marie Claire" is a lovely duet about sacrificing love for career, while on "Familiar" Berry sings a stark, haunting love ode. The EP ends with the brilliant "The Rest," 8 melancholy minutes of Brooker exploring the ways love goes astray. "What the world needs now is love without the tears," he sings at one point. True Love Waits Volume Two gives us love in all its sadness and beauty, within some of the best-written pop songs you'll hear.

The Relict, Tomorrow Is Again (Vegas Morn)

"I saw your eyes today/they whisper through my mind" goes the chorus to a song on the Relict's debut album Tomorrow Is Again, perfectly capturing the way people can haunt each other. Here's a secret: most of the best love songs of the last few years were released on 7" singles and had the name "The Relict" on them. Essentially ex-Clientele member Innes Phillips and a cadre of friends (including other Clientele members and stellar indie-pop vocalists like Pam Berry, Abi Marvell and Lupe Núñez-Fernández), The Relict has been quietly making its mark for a few years but is just now releasing their first proper album. Tomorrow Is Again takes many of the best songs from the singles and re-records them in fuller, crisper fashion, and adds a handful of new songs that are just as good. Phillips' love songs are imbued with melancholy, from the lyrics to the soft shades cast over them by his delicate, ghostly guitar playing. "So many words/but I don't think I spoke them/at least not to you," the first song ends, taking the glow of love and giving it a reality check. Love's allure runs through every song here, but so does the hurt and confusion that always accompanies it. Like their friends The Clientele, The Relict can express a world of feelings in one brief series of images or phrases or notes. Both groups also have an amazing sense for atmosphere; when the Relict sing a line like "the sun was setting fast along the avenue," everything about the song makes you feel like you're there. From the album's start to its end, the songs on Tomorrow Is Again are tender and exceedingly gorgeous. Really, these songs are like a painting or sunset that catches you completely off guard with their beauty, in a way you'll never forget. {}

Wig in a Box: Songs From and Inspired By Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Various Artists (Off Records)

Should someone who has never seen the rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, in either its filmed or stage versions, be reviewing a CD that's a tribute to the show? Probably not, but the album has won me over on its own terms, as a friendly and fun celebration of not just the show or the songs in it but also the gleefully subversive side of rock and how much you can get out of doing the unexpected. Having Sleater-Kinney and Fred Schneider of the B-52s sing a Broadway-ized punk rock song about a botched sex change operation is either inspired or misguided; after hearing it I know it's the former. The same goes for having an overly dramatic Cyndi Lauper rocked up by The Minus 5, in a way that perfectly shows how theatre and rock can meet successfully (I know, that was proved decades ago by David Bowie, the New York Dolls…Little Richard, even, but still, this pairing really works). Yoko Ono & Yo La Tengo's pairing might also seem unusual, but on their version of "Hedwig's Lament/Exquisite Corpse" they travel along the continuum of storytelling and experimentation in an explosive way. Throughout the album, you can feel the genuine admiration all of these musicians have for the play and its songs; that's probably the key reason this album is so splendid, because the musicians really understand the material. Nowhere is that more evident than on The Polyphonis Spree's "Wig in a Box," which sounds exactly like I imagine the musical to, and sounds brilliant: big and dramatic but also filled with real passion. Other highlights of the album include Robyn Hitchock's "City of Women" and Jonathan Richman's "The Origin of Love (reprise)"-both filter Hedwig through their own personalities so successfully that you'd be forgiven for forgetting that they didn't write the songs themselves. There's also straightforward pop-rock tunes from Spoon, Frank Black, and Ben Kweller with Ben Folds and Ben Lee. And the musical writers, John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask, contribute one song themselves, a terrific ballad called "Milford Lake." There's a couple songs I just don't get; most notably, Bob Mould's "Nailed," a misshapen collection of samples from the original musical. But overall Wig in the Box works amazingly well for such an off-the-wall project.

Issue 16, October 2003

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