erasing clouds

10 Music Reviews

Blanket Music, Cultural Norms (Hush Records)

The new Blanket Music album opens with a song that starts off sounding like the Youngbloods' "Get Together" before becoming a soulful rock song that offers a humorous take on serious freedom of speech issues (it's about a rock band that gives a death sentence to a member who makes seditious statements) . Then there's a New Orleans jazz-inflected song about "Guernica" and fascism, with obvious relevance for today. What is this, are Blanket Music expanding their sound to take in a wider array of American musical forms while broadening their songs' perspectives to look critically at today's political, social and cultural climate? That is the case, and the result is grand and complicated, yet 100% easy on the airs, with the band mixing their usually streamlined, stylish quiet-pop sound with R&B, blues, folk and jazz sounds to great effect, while also turning a wide lens towards today's world, bringing up all sorts of issues and ideas in a manner that's both joking and dead-serious. Why are we so worried about oil prices? What is the mind-state of today's soldier? How much Internet activism will it take to defeat Bush? How would Jesus react to the fact that gay people can't get married? How do reality-show losers get their lives back to normal? These are the important questions of the day in Blanket Music's minds, and their songs insightfully probe them, while also being fun and snazzy and lovely to listen to. - dave heaton

Coastal, Halfway to You (Words on Music)

"Stars light me to your eyes"; six words typed on a blank page within the CD booklet to Coastal's album Halfway to You. A line from the album's title track, it's a lovely sentiment...but the music overall is even lovelier than you can imagine. A man and a woman sing gorgeously together over sparse guitars that slowly unfold, as a dreamy glow hangs over every note and word. "Night Sky," "Drift," "Until You Sleep,"... these are song titles which are brought to fulfillment by music that perfectly captures these same feelings. Coastal aren't creating a new musical formula (Low is an obvious touchpoint), but Halfway to You is so magical that no one should care. Everything about this CD is absolutely beautiful. Yet it's more than just surface-level beauty, there's deep emotions here. Coastal explore feelings of longing, of hope, of sadness in a way that is sincere and powerful. They arrange their songs with empty space that works to create the mood but then also serves as a canvas for them to paint additional textures and feelings onto. Halfway to You is a remarkable album, I'm not sure what else to say. Coastal play the sort of graceful and patient music that makes me feel like I could become a more patient, better person just by listening to it. - dave heaton

El Muniria, Stanza 218 (Homesleep)

Fact: in the '60s Italian singers and composers ruled. People such as Ennio Morricone were not only famous, but highly respected, idolized and deemed source of inspiration by many musicians all over the world. More than forty years have passed since then and the situation has changed quite a bit. Nowadays, Italian music and bands are indeed the Cinderella of the music scene. So what is it that exactly happened to Italian music? Why are many Italian bands struggling to get on the international scene and are not able to produce anything new and original? Hmm, it might just be laziness or lack of inspirations, who knows. Emidio Clementi's new band El Muniria is another example of an Italian band gone wrong. Clementi is the founder of Italian band Massimo Volume and a minor literary sensation in his country (mind you, very minor). El Muniria's debut album, "Stanza 218", was supposedly going to be recorded in two weeks in a hotel room in Tangiers (Paul Bowles and William Burroughs are responsible for a lot of things in this world…), but something went wrong and the band had to finish the recordings in Bologna. The album opens with the words "Amico, tutto ciò che separa è santo" (My friend, all that divides is holy) from the track "Santo" and, after one second, Italian listeners will be cringing at the meaningless lyrics (check out: "Ho un pezzo del mio cuore incartato sotto la sedia/era per voi, per voi, era per voi", which translates as "I have a piece of my heart wrapped up under the chair/it was for you, for you, it was for you" - dear oh dear) made difficult to stand also due to the massive use of rhetoric figures such as enumeration and anaphor. If you're not Italian or if you don't speak the language, you will be spared a full understanding of the lyrics, but will be generally left listening to background music that sounds like a mish mash of Badalamenti, Tricky and Massive Attack with a touch of blues (in the track "Narrating a Photograph") and loads of samples. Indeed noises, voices and samples build most of the soundscape of this redundant, out-of-its-time album. You get the impression that the band went around Tangiers, minidisks in their pockets, trying to capture exotic sounds, to later disorderly put them on the various tracks. By using all these sample and noises, El Muniria apparently wanted to do what KLF did with "Chill Out". Unfortunately, what they achieved was a major flop. Suggestion for Clementi and friends: must try harder. - anna battista

Jedi Mind Tricks, Legacy of Blood (Babygrande)

Like anger in your music? How about fierce, bitter, overpowering rage directed at everything and everyone, for no reason except that they exist? If so I have a feeling that Jedi Mind Tricks might be up your alley. On their new album Legacy of Blood the duo - rapper Vinnie Paz and deejay Stoupe - give their songs' titles like "The Age of Sacred Terror" and "Verses of the Bleeding"; they see pain and anger as holy, they worship them. Vinnie Paz's first rhymed words on the album (which, by the way, has a man on fire as its cover) are "I make you bleed with knives/I was born with all-seeing eyes/I can snatch a rapper's heart before he even dies." If you can handle that level of braggadocio seriously, then he has plenty more in store for you. He's out to destroy everyone he sees, and frames his quest as a spiritual one, casting himself as a prophet of pain and torture ("we coming for blood/in the name of the lord" goes one chorus). In fact, though, the further he gets away from average thuggery and starts talking mythology and history, like on the Killah Priest collaboration "Saviorself," the more his rhymes threaten to get interesting, as muddled as his thoughts still seem. What's really interesting about the album, though, and about the only thing that keeps me listening to it (not counting two typically riveting appearances by the Wu-Tang Clan's GZA/Genius), are the cinematic musical tracks, layered in strings and drama. Stoupe lessens the force of Vinnie Paz's anger by not using the music to up the energy (as, say, M.O.P. do so well, turning anger into an uplifting force through infectious energy), but in the process gives the album the personality and emotional drama that the Halloween-thug raps lack. The music threatens to make Vinnie Paz both irrelevant and ridiculous (sometimes he comes off like a cartoon character jumping into the frame of a captivating film, yelling 'look at me'), but it also saves Legacy of Blood. I can't wait for the instrumental version, though... - dave heaton

Lovejoy, 'Strike a Pose'/'Someone to Share My Life With' 7" (Unpopular Records)

Lovejoy's last album, 2002's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, used melodic pop songs to criticize the materialism and media culture of today's society. Similarly, the A side of this 7" single, "Strike a Pose," is pretty and the surface and more subversive underneath. An 80s dance-pop groove with drum-machine beats, "Strike a Pose" alludes toward Madonna, but the only pop diva here seems trapped in the song, singing "rescue me/there must be much more" in the background. Meanwhile Lovejoy vocalist Richard Preece sings about fashion and discos but also tells us, "you don't need your mobile phones/you don't need your neon lights..." It's a nice foray into dance music that cuts against dance-club culture at the same time. On the flip side is another side of Lovejoy: a stripped-down, straight-from-the-heart love song, "Someone to Share My Life With." It's an absolutely gorgeous song, with Preece smoothly and sensitively singing about a desire for real love, based on equality and companionship, with someone who isn't putting on airs. - dave heaton

Luna, Rendezvous (Jetset Records)

By most accounts 1995's Penthouse was where Luna hit their career peak; it still stands as one of the best late-night albums ever, with spacey guitars shimmering through songs that evoked an after-hours big city feeling. Each of the three albums that followed Penthouse suffered in its wake, yet each was also better than its immediate predecessor. Now it's 2004, close to 10 years after Penthouse, and Luna is calling it quits...but releasing one last studio album first, Rendezvous. And right from the first track, the gorgeous "Malibu Love Nest," you hear that this is it, the next Luna album after Penthouse that'll truly haunt you. Luna's once again loaded their songs with an overwhelming sense of atmosphere, through the guitars, the subtly persistent melodies, and Dean Wareham's lyrics - sly and romantic couplets that alternate between sexy come-ons and close-to-nonsensical surrealism. Rendezvous nearly matches Penthouse for atmosphere, yet it offers a brighter, more polished feeling, like the new beginning after the crazed night, or the moment when the hangover from hell finally clears. For as Rendezvous has a consistency of atmosphere that Luna's been missing for a few albums, it also cultivates the love for blissful, prettier sounds dabbled with on their last album Romantica. There's still a lovely haze hanging around Luna, but it's less filled with dark mystery, more like a perfume cloud or a sunrise. For examples listen to the dreamy ballads "Still at Home" and "Broken Chair" (the latter with Wareham adopting a sensitive falsetto). Rendezvous is a return to form in a way, yet it also pleasantly, gently pushes them forward into new terrain. Ultimately it's a sweet goodbye kiss, a farewell which wears a blissed-out smile. - dave heaton

The Organ, Grab That Gun (Mint Records)

My first reactions to Grab That Gun, the debut full-length from the Canadian band The Organ, were that lead singer Katie Sketch's singing echoes both the stylish drama and the heartbreaking yearning of Smiths-era Morrissey better than it seems possible and that the group's catchy, streamlined guitar lines are a pleasurable reminder of Boys Don't Cry-era Cure. Of course a cursory look at the press on the band reveals that these comparisons, and some to other bands from the 1980s, have been trotted out so often that the band must be sick to death of them by now. I'm sick to death of them, and I agree with them wholeheartedly. Comparisons can be limiting for sure, but when I distance myself from all the press I still can't help but stick with these comparisons, as I think they're fruitful. For The Organ don't sound like these bands in a hollow, imitative way - they channel them, consciously or not (the apparent Smiths tribute "Steven Smith" would hint that they were aware of that one at least), in a way that resonates emotionally within you while still maintaining the sense that The Organ is its own unique band, with emotions to communicate, melodies to get trapped in your head, and a sound for you to fall for. Their lyrics powerfully evoke complicated feelings of desire, fear, hurt while their melodies and overall sound are at once romantic, sad and - above all else - filled with heart. - dave heaton

Outerspace, Blood and Ashes (Babygrande)

The hip-hop duo Outerspace is affiliated with their fellow Philadelphians Jedi Mind Tricks, but they don't share that group's taste for building music out of extreme anger, rage and hatred. Instead, on their debut full-length Blood and Ashes, Outerspace seem most focused on hip-hop, on creating music that people will want to turn up loud and get into. Their tracks are dramatic but energetic, with light textures like strings layered nicely over pounding beats. Both MCs - Crypt and Planetary - have sheer rhyming skills that are impressive, even as they're not out to deliver messages or give you deep thoughts, just to show you what they can do. "I came to take the world by storm/transform every word put my life into song/it don't really matter if it's right or it's wrong/you gonna feel what we do when the mic's turned on," begins "Top Shelf" (featuring Sadat X). Putting their lives on wax is part of Outerspace's agenda - they rhyme a bit about the struggles and pain of their lives, particularly on the heartfelt "Whatever It Takes," which suffers from a weak R&B chorus but benefits from their candor. But mostly they seem driven by making music that's blazing hot, music that's raw and'll get you swept up in their sound. And at that they succeed; Blood and Ashes isn't going to change your life, but it's consistently solid and powerful - rough hip-hop that sounds good and feels good. - dave heaton

The Primary 5, North Pole (Bellbeat Music)

Those of you who, a few months ago, got the compilation "Ave Marina - Ten Years of Marina Records", might have found among the various Scottish bands on the album, The Primary 5. If you had bothered looking up their name on the CD booklet you would have discovered that The Primary 5 is the name of Paul Quinn's new band. Quinn, who played the drums with the Soup Dragons for 5 years and later on became the drummer with Teenage Fanclub, has indeed recently founded his own record label, Bellbeat Music, and his own band, The Primary 5. Entirely written by Paul Quinn, the band's debut album, "North Pole", was recorded by Ryan Currie with a little help from Teenage Fanclub, who loaned the equipment to the band, and from Paul "Guiggs" McGuigan (ex-Oasis bassist), who, after hearing The Primary 5's tracks, offered them time in his studio. "North Pole" is heavily influenced by Teenage Fanclub, but it also echoes here and there The Kinks and the Beach Boys. The opening track, "Comin' Home", has got a good chorus and energetic guitars; "Everybody Knows It Hurts" is pure rock and "Easy Chair" has the potential to be an anthemic song. Most of the tracks are quite short, barely reaching three minutes in length, but I suppose being this Quinn's first experience as songwriter, singer and guitarist, we can be quite happy with the final result. - anna battista

Sister Flo, Ttragician's Hat (Delphic Recordings)

Beauty "could be destroyed by anyone...even you," the Finnish band Sister Flo tells us at the start of their second full-length album, Tragician's Hat. You might imagine that line delivered in a sneering punk-rock tone, but no. Here it's sung softly and sadly, to a beautiful melody in a song with a flowing, rustic-pop vibe. All of the Tragician's Hat has that perfect-day-in-the-park feeling, along with a certain open-ended feeling of subtle experimentation - musically the album points toward a Gram Parsons-Radiohead fusion, if both were sunnier. Yet there is a consistent undertone of sadness, one hammered home through lyrics that often cynically ponder the ways that love is ripped apart. There's an optimism/pessimism battle going on here, and it's hard to tell who is winning. "I am a lover but i hate life," one line reads. The lyrics alternately express anger and love, freedom and entrapment, contentment and nervous expectation. And sometimes they veer off in surrealistic directions, which is fitting for a band that always leaves an open escape door in the corner, through which they can momentarily take residence in the netherworlds of free jazz or electronic experimentation. As on their 2001 debut album Boys of Cat, Sister Flo approach melodic pop songs with an openness that leaves space for other interests and influences to sneak in. With Tragician's Hat they've streamlined their sound into one direction a bit more; the country-folk tendencies hanging around in the background on Boys of Cat have moved to the forefront. That focusing gives the album a consistent feeling that makes it easier for listeners to sink comfortably into world of Sister Flo. Lucky for us, though, they haven't abandoned the tendency to keep things free and open, to carefully but gently cultivate surprise. - dave heaton

Issue 27, October 2004

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