Some Love, Some Hate, A Lot of In-Between: 22 Brief Reviews
by dave heaton
Action Now, All Your Dream...and more 1981-1984 (Avebury Records)
A lost album from a somewhat forgotten California power-pop band from the 1980s, All Your Dreams is filled with lovelorn, Monkees-eque melodies over energetic, bounce-your-head-around pop-rock. 12 catchy songs, rounded out with one more, and then a complete live show from 1981. A great introduction to newcomers like me, and no doubt a nice gift for Action Now fans.
Simon Apple, River to the Sea (self-released)
"Stand on the edge of a moment/looking out, but I never look down"...Oh, God help us. Simon Apple's River to the Sea is overly serious, overly ponderous singer-songwriter dreck about finding your place in the world and struggling against the river. This is the musical equivalent of a really bad self-help book. I hate to be negative, but this kind of touchy-feely, pseudo-spiritual junk would send even the most committed pacifist in search of a deadly weapon.
Atomic 7, ...en Hillbilly Caliente (Mint Records)
It isn't fair to Atomic 7, but reviewing their CDs is beginning to feel redundant to me. ...En Hillbilly Caliente is packed with 17 instrumentals that generically would be called "surf rock" (think Dick Dale, the Ventures, etc.) but stylistically reference country swing, big-band jazz and more. The songs have clever titles ("What I Liked About the Lord of the Rings," "Kicking at the Ghost of Ass"), the musicianship is supurb, and the whole affair is as fun and light as their previous albums (and those of predecessor Shadowy Man on a Shadowy Planet).
Blue Sparks, self-titled EP (In the Attic Records)
"In the car crashes on the freeway/you say I'm Ok and you walk away," goes the chorus to the first song on Blue Sparks' 5 tracks. As lyrics to me they're fairly nondescript and impersonal, and that's how I feel about Blue Sparks' lyrics in general ("paint it gold/I'm gonna paint it gold" is another repeated chorus). Musically, on the other hand, Blue Sparks have a lot of zip and style, and some really catchy melodies. They fit vaguely in the realm of bands that remind me of college radio in the mid-90s, of 120 Minutes and Alternative Nation, and have a crisp, guitar-driven sound. Think Magnapop, think Throwing Muses, think Veruca Salt.
Carmen Borgia, North (Arctos Records)
Carmen Borgia's North opens with a Monty Python-meets-Disney instrumental hoopla before getting to the songs, which are similarly bright and goofy. This is like the Barenaked Ladies if they could write a decent melody, or like They Might Be Giants if they were more into show tunes. Nothing earth-shattering, but a lot of fun.
Communique, Poison Arrows (Lookout Records
"If you want me/if you need me/then please feel free to ouija me"... say what? Communique deliver those words with a big anthemic chorus and an 80s bounce, but still I scratch my head. More often they're singing about lies and sex, over a bold and shiny mix of hooks and synthesizers. Poison Arrows isn't distinct enough for me to keep it nearby, but I could see people being swept up in their sound.
Diffuse Light, Winter Trails (Lord Sir Skronk)
Synthesizers can be beautiful too, even when they retain their cheesiness. There's a charming goofiness inherent in Diffuse Light's mix of slacker vocals, lightly bouncing synthesizers, and a drum machine. But there's also some real emotion here, and a sense of mystery...and both of those come through even when the synths are at their cheesiest.
El Jefe, El Jefe's Amorphous Phormula (Zip Records)
Bands that try to unite hip-hop and rock seldom find an interesting direction to go in. El Jefe come close to finding one, as their music gets spacey, moody and mysterious, not just macho and aggressive. My problem with El Jefe's Amorphous Phomula has less to do with their genre-crossing attempts to "push the limits and outer bounds" (which generally succeed) than with their rhyming skills. The MCs have a distinctly West Coast sense of laidbackness and an admirable sense of positivism, yet they lack spark and distinct flows. File this under nice try; musically it's pushing forward but lyrically they're heading backwards.
Extended Play (Regularbeat Recording Co.)
4 songs, 4 artists, all carving out a home in a country & western field. Ambrose Tompkins' "Running On Grass" kicks the EP off with a bluegrass singalong that's fragile and involving at the same time. Yellow Kid's "Lazy Song" is darker and bluer, with him hanging in a tree and smoking a pipe. Mitch and Murray slowly creak their way through sadness and longing on the pretty "Dave's Tweaks." And then Matthew Wood brings things to a close with a folk song ancient in tone but intimate in feeling. Extended Play is a pleasant and intriguing time, a nice showcase for four musicians I'd like to hear more from.
The Flesh, self-titled (Gern Blandsten Records)
Haunted-house organ music and a glam-rock devil preacher trying to baptize us kick off The Flesh's self-titled album. Other songs have titles like "Death Ship," "Fall to Heaven," and "Death Connection;" they're obsessed both with salvation and death. Yet they also sound obsessed with fashion, with sleek songs that deliver an impression of style more than anything else. Blending post-punk intensity with 80s new wave lightness, The Flesh's style is a unique one, even if sometimes they remind me of MTV, Hot Topic, and that pseudo-goth band that covered "Blue Monday" and then disappeared.
D.W. Holiday, Technical Difficulties, Under the Influence... (Three Ring Records)
The cover of Technical Difficulties, Under the Influence... is filled with pills, and the music inside sounds influenced y them. D.W. Holiday's songs sound like once they were country-rock ballads, until Spacemen 3 got hold of them. Then again, sometimes they seem less earthbound than they are. Songs like "Winter" set up an appearance of intergalactic mood with hazy electronics and synthesizers, but in the middle D.W. Holiday's singing not like an astronaut or a junkie, but like a little kid begging for attention, wildly singing off-key with the hope that someone will show him some love.
Dustin James, Being (self-released)
Perhaps there's a little narcissism inherent in releasing a CD to the public, but this is ridiculous. Dustin James' album is called Being, as in "Being Dustin James", its front cover is a photo of a shirtless Dustin James, it back cover a photo of a fashionably nonchalant Dustin James. Inside he's sitting against a wall with his shirt open to expose his chest, is hair flowing across his face, his expression the disaffected look of a fashion model. The music? Oh yeah, there is music inside this fashion portfolio, but it's remarkably unremarkable, songs as serious as cancer about all the deep thoughts he has.
Rob Levit, Anatomy of Ecstasy (Symbol System)
"Electronic Soundscapes" is the subtitle, and that says exactly what's going on, in a manner as clinical and scientific as the 39 tracks on this 2-disc set. Guitars and computers are Levit's tools here, and the results range from songs that feel like a science-fiction soundtrack from the 80s to songs that are some kind of cluttered attempt at improvisational dance music. There's some songs that generate a relatively eerie or pretty atmosphere, but overall Anatomy of Ecstasy doesn't have the heightened mood or emotional presence to keep me tuned in all the way through.
The Loves, Love (Track and Field)
"The sound we make is love," sing the band The Loves, on their album Love. Ok, we get it, they're into love. Seriously, though, their revved-up British Invasion-in-your-garage sound and peaceful trashiness are lovable and infectious. Alternately blues-via-the Stones and bubblegum-pop, The Loves are retro in style but play their songs like today's all that matters.
Bill Madden, Samsara's Grip (Mad Muse)
I understand music's power to make people think, but damn! What's with all these ultra-serious singer-songwriters out to change the world? "The world is goin' crazy/and the state of affairs is very sad," Bill Madden sings at the start of the first song. His response to the madness? Meditation, of course. This is a case of someone with something important to say, except that Bill Madden says nothing we haven't heard a million times. He's an alternative-rock version of the wanna-be prophet, with a sound akin to Grant Lee Phillips and Goo Goo Dolls and an annoying habit of making every song into a hollow sermon.
MC Idobelus, 88 Oranges (Splitwood Records)
Want proof that a "lo-fi" sound just doesn't suit hip-hop as well as it does rock music? I present 88 Oranges. "This entire record was poorly mixed and unmastered," Idobelus boasts, but maybe he shouldn't. "Still trying to solve the Rubik's Cube inside your mind?," he asks before diving into word-heavy, science-fiction rhymes that give the impression he's aiming his sights toward Anticon. Nerd rap? Cartoon rap? I don't know, but this isn't my thing,
Anders Parker, Tell It To the Dust (Baryon Records)
Varnaline fans wake up! Anders Parker of Varnaline is back, with an album that's very much in the vein of that fine country-ish pop-rock band. For some reason I'm never really blown away by Parker's songs, and this album is no exception. At the same time I have no real criticisms to offer - his songs are catchy and heartfelt as ever, and still for some reason they never get under my skin.
Potluck, Harvest Time (Lost Koast)
Harvest Time..."Inhale/Exhale"..."Smokin On a Blunt". Yep, PotLuck have one thing on their mind, as evidenced by how they surround themselves with leafy green plants on their album cover. To be fair, getting high isn't all this duo - a gruff black guy and a whiney white guy - rhyme about. They play tough, and dream about making enough money on music to live comfortably. In fact, there's moments on Harvest Time when they're surprisingly open-hearted. That said, their rhyming skills have a lot to be desired; they're consistently one-upped by their guests, Living Legends and especially Kansas City's own Tech N9ne.
Soap Star Joe, ...Tell Her on the Weekend (Laughing Outlaw)
In Pavement's wake there's a boatload of guitar bands that turn jadedness and lack of ambition into melodic songs about life. Still Soap Star Joe are affable and entertaining against the odds. Their first song begins "suckin' cock for rock," references post rock and has a very Pavement-esque "la di da da da" chorus, but still it's catchy and a lot of fun. The rest of the album is a lot like that: it's nothing new but still it works, hitting notes both heartfelt and smart-ass (and sometimes both) in a winning way.
State Shirt, Don't Die (Los Fucking Angeles Records)
Don't Die, the album title implores us, yet on the cover is the ghost of a dead man, on the ground in front of some cars. Ethan Tufts is State Shirt, and on Don't Die he sings in a half-dead voice over trip-hop beats and layers of atmosphere. The soundscapes are more complicated than you expect - hectic when they seem to be peaceful, and filled with open spaces - yet the songs themselves are pretty dull. Still, there's a question mark hanging over Don't Die, a certain something that keeps enticing me.
This Is a Process of a Still Life, self-titled (Firefly Sessions)
An instrumental band that keeps things mellow even when you expect them to do the now-typical build-release, "post-rock" thing, This Is a Process of a Still Life are true to their name to the end, with songs that gently shimmer. That's no criticism; get used to the slow pace of this CD and you'll find yourself entranced with melodies and atmosphere that carefully creep around you and ease you into a nap filled with beautiful dreams.
Twinkie, self-titled (Avebury Records)
"Twinkie wish to thank all our lovely pals, partners, pets, pimps, panks, politicians, postmen, postlady..." Twinkie cutely note in the liner notes to their self-titled album. But expectations of cuddly music are shattered from the first notes, somewhere between Fugazi and metal. Twinkie seem to get off on playing loud, making their sound thick and heavy and keeping the lyrics disjointed, but to what end? It all feels kind of hollow to me.