erasing clouds

20 Reviews of Music

by Dave Heaton, Anna Battista, Ryan McKee

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

1905, Aroah, Devendra Banhart, The Beatifics, The Bitter Little Cider Apples, Blurred Images, Brando, Brideshead, The Caribbean, The Creeping Bent Organisation - Nouvelle Vague, DJ Ordeal, Duke Fame, Elevator Division, Emak Bakia, Essential Underground Hip Hop, Ether, Free Loan Investments, Frock, The Girl With the Replaceable Head, The Green Pajamas

1905, Voice (Exotic Fever)

Kicking off with a frenzied introduction of rock n' roll noise, just to make sure you're awake, the DC-based band 1905 uses their Voice CD to rage against what they view as impediments to a free, peaceful, happy society, like war, conformity, the "work your life away" mentality and people who view strangers with cynicism. "I won't let emptiness fill my heart," vocalist/pianist Jess sings during a calm second in the title song. 1905's criticisms are based in a desire to make the world a better place, plain and simple, to not let themselves or others just accept things as they are and fall into an empty cycle of complacency and boredom. "Just because I can't change everything/doesn't mean I can't change anything," they sing at one point, over melodic and harrowing punk-ish rock. They're a band that plays loud and fast but is also likely to throw in an acoustic guitar interlude or let a pretty pop melody shine on its own. That mix of sweetness and raw power is in tune with their tendency to criticize while keeping their hearts filled with hope for a better day. They sing "Throw," a call for us to abandon militarism ("turn your tanks around/use the metal to build a playground"), as a spritely acoustic pop song and then follow it with a punk-rock thunderstorm about not accepting the Bush administration's lies or their faux war on terrorism. Both are powerful, important letters to the people (in other words, you and me and everyone) that also happen to be superb songs. Voice is a political album in the best sense of the word--a timely call for action--but 1905 know how to write their messages into songs without lessening the music's value as music, not always an easy task.--dave heaton

Aroah, No Podemos Ser Amigos (Acuarela)

"If it can't be obvious somehow why bother say it," sings Irene Tremblay during one song on her band Aroah's first full-length album. Her lyrics are obvious, in that they reveal secrets and dissect personal relationships with a distinct sense of bluntness, but also exactly not that, as they take a poetic approach to doing so. She has a way of phrasing everything which gets the feelings across while retaining an air of mystery that fits the gentle temper of the music. Her songs deal with relationships in a frank way; she sings about love in a way that reflects the confusion, disappointment, pleasure, hurt, joy and anxiety behind it all. The title song ("We Can't Be Friends") deftly puts us inside the head of someone torn between continuing a relationship and ending it, while "Whiskey" paints a vivid picture of someone waiting in a bar for a lover's call when she knows she shouldn't be. "It is sad and even funny that it amounts to this/drinking whiskey for no reason because I heard it in a song/that's what you do when things go wrong," she sings. No Podemos Ser Amigos is music to quiet your mind, with melodic pop and acoustic folk meeting at a crossroads of melancholy. It should put Aroah's name in your mind as one to remember. A debut album this good, coming after an equally remarkable debut EP (Cuando termines con todo, habrá terminad contigo), makes the future look bright.--dave heaton

Devendra Banhart, Oh Me Oh My The Way the Day Goes By the Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit (Young God Records)

21-year-old singer/songwriter Devendra Barnhart has one of the most unique voices you'll hear…that is, one of the weirdest voices, a high but gritty, off-kilter, androgynous, wailing, trembling voice that is beautiful and scary. It's hard to take if you're not in the mood for it--as he'll shake you out of your chair when he really gets going--but absolutely transporting if you're ready for it. He sounds like an interplanetary Billie Holiday singing folk songs. Filled with surrealism, his bizarre songs present a world filled with mystery, one where it's hard to find solid ground or logic. Even when he sings something as seemingly simple as "you certainly are nice people," he shrieks it in a way that makes you wonder what he really means by it. That multiplicity is part of what makes Oh Me Oh My… so fascinating. Banhart's songs are stunning puzzles, music that'll keep you up at night.--dave heaton

The Beatifics, The Way We Never Were (Bus Stop Label)

Shining from right out of the gate, The Beatifics fill their second album The Way We Never Were with gorgeous pop-rock melodies. Recalling at various moments the Beatles, Elvis Costello, Tommy Keene and more recent pop-songwriting masters like the Pernice Brothers, this Minneapolis band quite simply knows how to write amazing songs…songs you'll sing in the shower, songs you'll remember. With a slight orchestral lilt, the Beatifics tend more toward mellower grooves and laidback ballads than rockers, letting emotion and melody entwine and take the songs to heavenly heights. It seems like a cop-out to say simply that an album has catchy songs that you'll enjoy playing, but in essence that's what's going on here. The Way We Never Were is a delight, one fine work of pop songcraft.--dave heaton

The Bitter Little Cider Apples, Still (Pink Hedgehog Records)

The back cover photo of the Bitter Little Cider Apples' Still album shows the band members in old-time military outfits, but don't be deluded into thinking that revivalism spreads into their music. The group, featuring all of the members of the Lucky Bishops, delves head-on into melodic pop-rock with a guitar-heavy edge. To some extent they're all over the place, likely to evoke the Beatles and their ilk one minute and then jam in the fashion of the Allman Brothers and Crazy Horse (and dare I say it, Phish) the next. That melding between melody and guitar-driven exploration, with an extra punk-rock edge in places, gives the album a buoyant, animated mood. Some of the highlights include "Sad Lady," a bouncy number about sadness, and "Scented Garden," where the band unleashes its rock n' roll animal. According to the press release, lead singer/guitarist Steve Huntington cites both the Sex Pistols and Frank Sinatra as heroes. That mean seem puzzling, but it won't once you hear the album; The Bitter Little Cider Apples find the common ground between wild rock energy and stately pop tunefulness, creating an album likely to appeal to fans of both.--dave heaton

Blurred Images, On the Horizon (self-released)

Blurred Images is the perfect name for Jose Banuelos' dreamy instrumental music, as his songs are not straightforward snapshots or stories, but evocations of moods, feelings and atmospheres. With his mellow, expressive guitar playing at its center, On the Horizon is melodic but not in a direct way. Tunes and sounds swirl around listeners, bringing them into a sonic dreamworld filled with beauty. It's not unlike the sound some of the mellower of the so-called "post-rock" groups has (say, Tristeza, for example), yet from what I understand Blurred Images' music is all the work of one person, a 19-year-old prodigy from Tijuana, Mexico. On the Horizon could be a movie soundtrack, but there's no need for the movie. Its gentle lullaby-esque rhythms and waves of guitar are enough to generate visions and feelings of their own. The album closer, "In Dreams," has a minimalist framework and overlapping guitars which create an atmosphere both spooky and beautiful, just like dreams should be.--dave heaton

Brando, double EP (Instantly Spaceships/Every 16 Year Old Girl's Guide to Brando) (Smokeylung Recordings/Recordhead/Mr Whiggs)

The funny thing about Brando's new double EP--a single CD separated into two halves--is that the half called Every 16 Year Old Girl's Guide to Brando is actually the weirder half, while Instantly Spaceships is the more accessible, more melodic half. The Spaceships half, which begins the CD, collects previously unreleased songs from 2000 and 2001 that are some of the group's catchiest songs yet. These 11 tracks take a lowkey and dreamy atmosphere and settle into it, making listeners feel like they've sunk deep into a comfortable yet haunting bed of rock and roll ghosts and shadows. Brando's frontman Derek Richey takes crisp guitar lines and entwines them in a melodic, hazy way, while singing songs that feel simultaneously like straight-ahead pop-rock ballads and out-there psychedelic lullabies. While Instantly Spaceships's songs were more recently recorded than those in the even trippier second half, which come from 1995-1997, Richey has said that the second half reflects "the future of Brando." If that future is indeed like Every 16 Year Old Girl's Guide to Brando, it'll be exciting and puzzling at the same time. While on one level the second half of the double EP is more stripped-down and simpler, less likely to include synthesizers or more intricate song arrangements, it's also more likely to trip off into early Pink Floyd-style journeys of imaginative weirdness. It's also more diverse, including inspired non-rock moments like the minute-long piano tune "Your Baby Married Me." That fact makes the double EP as a whole even more fulfilling. In its own way, it's a true showcase of the many sides of Brando, from their ability to pull you into a cohesive dreamworld to their skill at surprising you from time to time.--dave heaton

Brideshead, In and Out Love (Shelflife)

If the retro cover art doesn't give them away, the song about "the swinging love we had" will. Brideshead are one of those indie-pop groups who cloak their songs in the costume of the 1960s--not the San Francisco, flower-in-your-hair 60s but the stylish, swinging London 60s. Yet this is in no way Austin Powers-style kitsch, just a snazzy stylistic framework in which personal expression takes place. In other words, there's heartfelt songwriting taking place under the stylish veneer. In and Out Love is on one level a commentary on the many sides of love, from giddy infatuation to heartbreak. While the album kicks off with jangly guitars and a horn-inflected party mood, it also starts with the sentiment that once pure love has been corrupted. And as the album proceeds, its concept of love keeps getting more complicated, though to the sad, reflective "No Answer," where singer Martin Nelte asserts that love can't be explained. The album-closing piano coda, "Morning," both reflects the sadness of this fact and suggests the hope of a new start. What's most amazing about In and Out Love is that it retains the air of a party, where a huge group of friends are getting together to play music, while ruminating so seriously about such an intimate subject as love. While most popular music deals with love, Brideshead do so in a way that feels more genuine and more illuminating than most, while keeping everything moving at a pace that's perfect for dancing.--dave heaton

The Caribbean, "Bulbs and Switches" 7"-a-matic (self-released/Endearing)

After the Caribbean's splendid cocktail pop-meets-indie rock debut album, 2001's Verse By Verse, I've been eagerly awaiting what they'll do next. The follow-up album is still a few months away, but here's a quick taste of it: something called a 7-inch-a-matic. What is that, you ask? Basically it's two songs you can hear for free on a web site). The title track is "Bulbs and Switches," a pretty piano ballad with a heartbeat running below it, with delightfully enigmatic lyrics ("all my best designs went the way of the boxed eel"). Sharply arranged and recorded, it's a sublime piece of oddball-pop. On the flip side is the quiet, electronically kissed folk song "Fresh Out of Travel Agent School." Similarly relaxed (these songs do not rock) and just as graced with a Technicolor-type aura where voices and sounds are catching your ear from second to second, the song ends with a collage of rhythms that feels both imposing and beautiful, being dropping away with a quickness. Check this out if you want to witness musicians who use the tools of pop history to build future-oriented music with a fresh, involving sound.--dave heaton

The Creeping Bent Organisation - Nouvelle Vague, Various Artists (Creeping Bent)

Pocket Radiodrops Volume One completes the title of this compilation released by our friends at Creeping Bent. This Scotland-based label has always released records by amazing bands and extremely cool compilations. As usual, with Nouvelle Vague Creeping Bent presents us another perfect product, an experiment that starts with ex-Pop Group's Gareth Sager's (hidden under the name CC Sager) wonderful "The Johnny Bristol Flu", continues with Creeping Bent pearls Nectarine No.9's "22 Blue" and with The Secret Goldfish, the latter playing the Edwyn Collins song, "Ain't That Always The Way". And those of you who enjoy experimental music and electronica can explore the sonorities of Mongoose's "Sanitizer", Transelement's "Marlyborne Rusk" or Scientific Support Dept.'s "Stringz". Honourable mention to the genial tracks of the compilation: Alan Vega and Revolutionary Corps of Teenage Jesus' "American", ex-Subway Sect's Vic Godard's "Nothing Is Easy" and punky The Leopards' "Forget It". And we haven't even mentioned all of the bands featured on this album. There's only one thing that we can do now, wonder if and when a Volume Two of Nouvelle Vague will be released. Can't have enough.--anna battista

DJ Ordeal, You Win 4 I (Sparticus Stargazer)

If you have any preconceptions about what a record from a DJ is supposed to sound like, now's the time to burn them. DJ Ordeal, who on previous releases has carved up the history of Hollywood and made songs out of the remains, is likely to subvert your idea of what a DJ does. His new EP You Win 4 I is a 4-song glimpse of the audio dimensions hidden around us. It starts with the title track, where we're stuck inside a maze of a daytime soap opera, its piano theme looping around our ears. Then there's "Delicious," where a late-night club DJ fights with an old-fashioned jazz ensemble, while a woman tells us mysterious nothings. Flip it over and you've got "Marianne," sounding like every 1980s pop single was placed in a food processor and pureed, creating a warped dance-pop track…somewhere between Bananarama and The Time, but with shampoo ads and martial arts shows mixed in. The EP ends with (of all things) a piano solo, pure and pretty. Take the long-suppressed sounds and melodies that are bouncing around your subconscious and slice them all up; the result will be something close to the marvelous enigma that is You Win 4 I.--dave heaton

Duke Fame, Regrets (Geeves Records)

The CD art for the Atlanta-based band Duke Fame's first album Regrets has a cover photo of a young boy kissing a doll of a girl, while the inlay photo is of the band playing outdoors under a tent. Both photos fit the music perfectly. Duke Fame sound like the sort of band that you'd find at a school picnic or summer block party, playing catchy pop-rock tunes for people to dance and drink away the regrets of their youth to. That's not meant as an insult. Duke Fame have a knack at making melodic rock songs that are fun on the surface and melancholy underneath, songs you can dance to that will also get you thinking about the one that got away. This is an album that starts with the line "You've made a lot of mistakes/and now you're heading out of state…" and ends with a song called "Sad But Beautiful." These are stories about people and their not-so-perfect lives, set to snappy hooks and power chords. That balance works well; it's what makes Regrets music for the masses that doesn't condescend to its audience by acting like music has to be dumb to be accessible. Duke Fame aim toward the lives (and hearts) of regular people and hit them dead-on.--dave heaton

Elevator Division, Whatever Makes You Happy (Department Records)

Maybe it's because these guys are from Kansas City, but when listening to them, I have a hard time not comparing them to The Get Up Kids. The Get Up Kids, though, vary from expressing pent-up longing leftover from high school to at times just being fun, whereas the Elevator Division's singer sounds like he needs to up his dosage of Prozac. I have no big criticisms against them technically. Their sound is clean: the vocals crisp, the guitars alternate between dreamy and bracing, the drums poppy. However, I really see no new direction here. Nothing to distinguish them from other teenagers who are putting together a band aimed at Vagrant Records fame.--ryan mckee

Emak Bakia, Un Cuerpo Extrano (Acuarela)

Sounding like Leonard Cohen set against an ambient futurist backdrop, where radio waves commingle with Spaghetti Western mood, Emak Bakia kick off their new EP with the enigmatic "Moreno." After whispering a hard-to-follow story into your ear, the mantra "It's just a souvenir" is repeated at the song's end, leaving you feeling like you've read a hard-boiled detective novel after all the pages have been shuffled. The other three songs continue this mood of mystique and melody, with jazz rhythms meeting pop hooks near a closed-down electronics store, as a poet reads words both attractive and puzzling. A collaboration between three Spanish musicians (two from Migala and one who used to play with Aroah), with appearances by Thalia Zedek (ex-Come) and Miguel Marin (Piano Magic), Emak Bakia play music that pulls you into its atmosphere. Un Cuerpo Extrano is a puzzle without a solution, but one you'll be delighted to sink into again and again.--dave heaton

Essential Underground Hip Hop, Various Artists (Landspeed Records)

The "essential" part of the title to Landspeed's Essential Underground Hip Hop compilation might lead you to the incorrect conclusion that it's a greatest-hits album or a collection of classic tracks from the past. Likewise, if to you "underground" means experimental, artsy or "positive," you might be in for a surprise. Essential Underground Hip Hop is 74 minutes of raw hip-hop coming out of inner-city America, with rhymes that are braggadocious to the extreme and reflect the eternal struggle of keeping your head above water when the odds are stacked against you. Featuring acts like 50 Cent, Cormega, N.O.R.E., Royce Da 5'9" and Infamous Mobb, this compilation is for serious hip-hop fans, who find strength in the beats and rhymes of straightforward, traditional hip-hop, with an MC showing off his skills over a sparse beat. There's a new DJ Premier-produced track from Big Daddy Kane, the elder of this bunch, who abandons the Don Juan side of his personality to offer poignant advice on surviving the street life ("If you in this for the cheddar, you better get it fast/cause in another minute ain't gonna be no middle class"). There's a forceful collaboration between R.A. the Rugged Man, Havoc and The High & Mighty, an especially virulent critic-attacking Talib Kweli verse on a track with Main Flow, a cinematic gangster tale from OC ("King of New York") and remixes of cuts by Inspectah Deck and Guru and Masta Ace. At 19 tracks, this isn't the most succinct compilation. But if you're with this from the first track, you'll be with it to the end.--dave heaton

Ether, Great Ocean Sound (Ether)

The huge wave on the cover and the album title might have you dreaming of California days and nights…that is, if you don't know your geography too well. Great Ocean Road is named after a highway along the coast of Australia, which is where Ether hails from. Still, the graphic design angle isn't all that evokes days spent laying about on beautiful beaches. Ether's music has a decidedly laidback approach and a focus on beautiful acoustic guitar playing, conjuring up an image of a relaxed beachfront jam. Lead singer Garth Adam, the group's frontman, has a gently inquisitive voice that fits the mood nicely; he sounds like a daydreamer, and a friendly one at that. Ether's ability to paint a broad sonic picture, to bring you into its world, is one of Great Ocean Road's best qualities. Another is the spectacular guitar playing of Adam and multi-instrumentalist Doug Sandrini. At times both verge too close to innocuous new-age acoustic music for my tastes, but play in a lively enough style to keep drawing my ears in the direction of the guitars. The element of Great Ocean Road that diminishes its overall success (to say the least) is Adam's lyrics, which have the air and tone of deep thoughts but none of the depth. Eternally asking basic, rather shallow questions like "what is the link between the moon and the sun/why does your skin have to be who you are?" and uttering clichés like "life is short and we can't borrow time," Adams demolishes the album's pleasant mood, taking the intelligence quotient down a few miles in the process. Great Ocean Road might be the perfect album for people who don't really listen to lyrics, but for others it'll remain a genial album with an evocative mood, marred by distracting lyrics that are at best obvious and at worst idiotic.--dave heaton

Free Loan Investments, Ever Been to Mexico? (Shelflife/Wiaiwya)

If you're looking me a quick pick-me-up, some music to brighten up your day in 10 minutes or less, the Ever Been to Mexico? EP by the Stockholm-based quartet Free Loan Investments might be what you should turn to. With uptempo pop-rock songs that have the perfect mix of melody and spunk, Ever Been to Mexico? should make anyone wake up and dance. And like all great pop music, there's heartbreak beneath the sunshine. The EP starts with the line "I saw the boy I love kiss another girl" and proceeds from there, through various states of infatuation, disappointment and anger (for the latter check out the great "you need to get rid of that boy" message song "Kick His Balls Out"). The album ends on a note of both sweetness and melancholy with a quick, gorgeous cover of The Cat's Miaow's "To Be With You." That song, like all six of the songs on Ever Been to Mexico?, is a refreshing burst of pop born from the eternal spring that is the creative lifeblood of most great music: the heart.--dave heaton

Frock, Frozen Jungle Entertainment (I Like Records)

On the surface the UK-based group Frock makes music that has the gentle mood and peaceful melodies of groups like Simon and Garfunkel and Nick Drake. On their debut album Frozen Jungle Entertainment, songs like "Looking At You" and "Frozen Jungle" are acoustic moments of introspection, pretty little songs where one man is expressing his thoughts and feelings. But as good as that man, singer/songwriter Fredrik Kinbrom (who essentially is Frock), is at that sort of quiet pop music, he has other tricks up his sleeve. The album's first track, "Coincidence Rocket Ride," takes that style of music but adds a level of espionage to it, with lyrics like "they found me on a pier/grabbed me and threw me here" and a backing melody reminiscent of the James Bond theme. Then there's songs that move further musically from folk-pop, like the catchy rock song "Monday Adventure," the Beatles-esque, somewhat-psychedelic ballad "Lagoa Wish" or "Turning Off the Telly At Dawn," which starts like a friendly, somewhat odd Robyn Hitchcock ballad before throwing in both rock n' roll angst and a horn section. Frozen Jungle Entertainment is, like the name suggests, filled with accessible, straightforward songs that also have their surrealistic side. That mix helps Frock give listeners both the pleasure of simplicity and the pleasure of the odd…a compelling partnership.--dave heaton

The Girl With the Replaceable Head, Ride My Star EP (Bus Stop Label)

The Girl With the Replaceable Head has an attention-getting name and an even more distinctive voice. Her three song EP begins with the gorgeous ballad "Ride My Star," where The Girl… expresses the sentiment that "there's an awful lot of people getting hurt today, ain't that a shame?" before launching into a dreamy come-on. The second song, "Bobby's On Fire," places an equally starry surface over a melodic, sensual tale of lust, love and dreams of escaping life's dreariness. While that song has a light, at times slightly humorous tone, the final track, "Sun Will Let You Down," is a darker expression of loneliness and alienation, with The Girl… singing in a highly dramatic manner over a moody, electrified texture. 12 minutes and 12 seconds in length, this EP is long enough to introduce you to a newcomer's songwriting and singing talents, and just short enough to make you want to hear more.--dave heaton

The Green Pajamas, If She Only Knew (Recordhead/Mr. Whiggs)

The Green Pajamas' Jeff Kelly is perennially at the top of "underrated songwriter" lists for good reason. He writes pop-rock songs that have sensual melodic surfaces, with an abundance of mystery lurking underneath. "If she only knew what I do to her," goes the chorus to the catchy title song of the group's If She Only Knew EP. Kelly delivers those words with a certain cunning sense that he knows something we don't know. There's a similarly curious story of eulogy and secrets going on in the second track "Jessica Byron," one given an extra layer of creepiness through echoing guitars and somewhat ghostly backing vocals. "When You're Good to Me" feels more like a love song but isn't necessarily. It's a tribute of sorts, but a hard one to pin down. "Aren't you a bad girl, when you're good to me," Kelly sings. All of this dark mood and mysteriousness leads up to a more epic, more languorous trip into similar territory: a 10-minute cover of "Autumn Leaves," a song by Goblin Market, a more overtly gothic band consisting of Kelly and fellow Pajamas member Laura Weller. "Autumn Leaves" casts a broader net, evoking a story of centuries before spreading into a melancholy guitar-driven jam. If She Only Knew might be an EP, ostensibly something to hold fans over between albums, but it's a rich work filled with secret corners and surprises.--dave heaton

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