erasing clouds

21 Reviews of Music

by Dave Heaton, Ryan McKee, Jonathan Dirksen, Scott Homewood

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

Afrika Aware, Aspects of Physics, Beat Happening, Hudson Bell, Belle and Sebastian, Blackeyes, Brando, Callow, Cornershop, The Creeping Nobodies, The Decemberists, DJ Ordeal, DJ Shadow, Eltro, Nik Freitas, Fuzzy Boombox v. 1, Goner, Japancakes, Faith Kleppinger, The Liberty Ship, Me & My Ship

Afrika Aware, mixed by Bob Brown (Afrika Aware/Project Concern)

If the words "benefit album" make you think of celebrities looking to boost their image by participating in a vaguely defined, feel-good, "we are the world"-type project where the money never really goes to help anyone, then you should definitely become aware of AfrikaAware. It's a benefit project that is everything the glossy 1980s benefits were not: honest, practical, humble, purposeful, carefully planned and accompanied with useful information. It's also as artistically successful as it is conceptually so, bringing together talent from all over the world for a worthy cause. The cause is the raising of awareness about the sweeping, devastating AIDS epidemic in Africa. The musical genre is techno/house/electronic dance music. AfrikaAware is a mix CD, mixed by Bob Brown, a DJ originally from Ohio and now based in Philadelphia. He has taken tracks from 37 different DJs (if you count himself) from places all over the world and combined them into a seamless 71 minutes of pulsating energy. Though each participant's personal style is glimpsed at, everything is melded together to form one voice. That sound is unerringly uptempo and funky, with various voices, sounds and samples coming and going as each track leads to the next. The idea of many creative voices joining as one suits the concept of an AIDS awareness campaign perfectly. Everyone is helping a common cause without losing any of their individuality. What makes AfrikaAware particularly exciting on the benefit-project level is the way it is set up to fund an already existing, functioning group. 100% of postproduction profits for the album go to Fountain of Hope, a Zambian community-based organization which supports orphan and refuge children made homeless by AIDS, poverty or civil conflict. What makes Afrika Aware exciting on a musical level is the way Brown has made the atmosphere both energetic and meditative at the same time, and how he has guided diverse artistic personalities into one cohesive work of art. Dance to it, drive to it, chill out to it or whatever…it works on several levels while helping keep people thinking about the issues our global society needs to deal with, the people who need our help.--dave heaton

Aspects of Physics, Systems of Social Recalibration (Imputor)

In school I was never good at physics…or any other science for that matter. Similarly, I don't really follow the theories behind the music of the San Diego group Aspects of Physics, as outlined in the CD booklet for their album Systems of Social Recalibration. Energetic loss, one-to-one ratios, huh? I do get the general themes, though: they're interested in making music something which progresses the human race and brings us closer together. That sounds good to me, but what I like most about Aspects of Physics is their music. Using computers and guitars, they create layered compositions related to both modern composers, like Reich and Cage, and the "post rock" groups which follow similar patterns now. Whether they're using electric blips and crackles rhythmically or playing a hyper-minimalist but melodic composition, Aspects of Physics keep you alert and engaged by continually throwing different sounds and textures at you, never letting the music get too relaxed or stay the same for too long.--dave heaton

Beat Happening, Crashing Through (K)

Given the way creative freedom and independence of thought are qualities more socially accepted among 5 year olds than among 35 year olds, it's logical for a band to embody that child-like adventurous spirit and use it rebelliously as adults, toward punk-style DIY artistic aims. At the same time, logic has nothing to do with Beat Happening--their music was always more about feeling, spirit, attitude and heart. Crashing Through, the new 7-disc retrospective Beat Happening box set, is the place to visit or revisit that band, to feel once again the magic aura that hovered around everything they did. With all 5 of their albums, a sixth disc of B-sides and compilation tracks (Music to climb the apple tree by) and a seventh disc featuring a few live audio tracks and 6 videos, plus a great book about the band, an oral history put together by Lois Maffeo, this set is definitive and then some. Following their whole career like this, from the quick, sparse (some might say "amateur") songs they started playing through to the longer, more emotionally and musically complicated songs they created for their great final album You Turn Me On, shows Beat Happening as not just a band with a unique sound, but a band that continually refined that sound in interesting ways. Whether you're reliving these great songs, catching up with the ones you missed or experiencing them all for the first time, Crashing Through is perfect.--dave heaton

Hudson Bell, Captain of the Old Girls (Upper Works)

Hudson Bell's third album Captain of the Old Girls has a good story behind it, one PR types would summarize as "California indie-rock singer-songwriter returns to the South of his youth to work with legendary blues producer." Yet that would make you expect something different, something much more gimmicky than what you get. Though Bell did indeed record the album with a blues producer, Fat Possum Records' Bruce Watson, this doesn't sound like a young rocker trying to sound like an old blues singer. Bell has an artistic voice of his own. He writes, sings and plays personal songs that also tap into the history and geography of the US, not unlike Silver Jews or Palace, yet with more spunk and spark. He has a bluesy guitar sound and a sparse rock setup (either him and a guitar or him with guitar, bass and drums), plus a voice which, though it wouldn't be polished enough for industry professionals, has a real power about it. His songs are straightforward and catchy, yet he leaves room for swatches of noise and other expressions of sonic freedom. His lyrics deal with personal feelings and subjects, but go further than that by matching our individual histories and emotional geographies to those of the country we live in. He explores the past--deeds and misdeeds, relationships, feelings and moods--in a way that focuses on our collective story as well as our individual stories. "America's guts drained by the money in her veins/and as I touch her skin she just doesn't feel the same," he sings during "Expatriate." Another standout is the gorgeous what-if ballad "The Other Side," where the singer's haunted by photographs and memories. What's missing in life is a constant theme here, and Bell subtly, poetically ties together what we're missing as people and what we're missing as a society. He does this through vibrant, stirring songs that cut past the gloss of the world. There's 9 originals and one cover, Lou Reed's thematically fitting "Vicious Circle," and all of them are remarkable.--dave heaton

Belle and Sebastian, Storytelling (Matador)

Even though most of the music didn't make it into the film, and some of the songs weren't finished until after the film was completed, Storytelling is still essentially the soundtrack to Todd Solondz's film of the same name. That makes it an atypical Belle and Sebastian album, as seven of the 13 songs are instrumental pieces written as the film's score. Those songs, though, aren't a stylistic departure for the band, more like a distillation of the group's pop songwriting talents into a score. They still have the melancholy yet sunny mood and melodic adroitness, as well as their 1960s-ish folk-pop sound. The other five songs, with vocals, are Belle and Sebastian at their most brilliant: descriptive, smart, warm tales of people and their inevitably messed-up lives. They include "Wandering Alone," an energetic jazz number with a lovely string section, the British Invasion-style rave-up "Scooby Driver" and the short, stark, sad "I Don't Want to Play Football." While my extreme love for their last album, 2000's Fold Your Hands Child You Walk Like a Peasant makes me scoff at band member Stevie Jackson's liner notes-assertion that Storytelling might be the best record they've made in a while, it's nonetheless a treasure.--dave heaton

Blackeyes, self-titled (Kosher Rock Records)

Country music has always seemed haunted in some way, as has its relatives, traditional folk and acoustic blues. Toronto's Blackeyes play up that feeling, with country-ish music that has dreamy, dark, moody textures, while staying connected to reality through lyrics about people and their relationships. The lyrical glimpses at love, betrayal and sadness fit the haunted feeling of the music, as these emotions are like ghosts themselves, carrying with them the lives and stories of an infinite number of people long gone. Blackeyes' dreamy atmosphere is aided by male and female vocals that gently mix the rough and the smooth, dialogue clips from Werner Herzog and Henry Jaglom films that are evocative even though taken out of context, and their tendency to play slow waltzes. Yet it's not all mood alone; Blackeyes has memorable melodies, superb musicianship and skillfully written lyrics. Those lyrics, mostly written by singer/guitarist Nick Taylor, have a surreal air that helps bring out feelings of dread but also describe real people's lives in vivid ways. Take, for example, "January," which describes a snow storm that'll bury you forever and ghost living in a house, but then uses them to give a litany of human circumstances … "Rosie fell in love, and Andy started drinking." Call it "gothic country," if you will, but this is also as close to real-life as it gets.{}--dave heaton

Brando, Single Crown Postcard (Recordhead/Mr. Whiggs)

What Bloomington bands really have is atmosphere. Someone who has helped several of them in that achievement is Derek Richey, whose recording skills have been utilized by Gentleman Caller, Valender and probably others that I don't know about. His own project, Brando, has been around ten years, 4-tracking it. Their latest, Single Crown Postcard, has a mood both ominous and friendly. Take the first track, "Frech Algiers," which creeps slowly and then soars into pretty synth, and then creeps slowly again, like a creepy masked guy crawling across your bedroom floor in the dark who adopts a kind demeanor and bursts into the prettiest song you've ever heard, only to transform back a bogeyman again. Their lyrics are enigmatic poetry that reference both the darkest years of history and an afternoon spent grabbing a beer with friends or reading books. Psych-rock with a deliberate pace, dark textures and genuine alertness, Brando's music refers not just to our present world but the past and possible futures as well. They're a band you can rock out to it that'll also get you thinking about tyranny, slavery, liberty and destiny.--dave heaton

Callow, Up Is a Direction Not a Location (Red Roses For Me)

If you live anywhere from Tennessee to Maryland, odds are you've heard of Callow. This East Coast septet formed in late 1999 and released Up is a Direction, Not a Location in early 2002, combining recordings from their two self-released EPs as well as four new songs exclusively for this album. Now on the Red Roses For Me label, Direction is their full-length album debut. Callow mixes tranquil melodies and subtle pop into a lightly woven web of airy melancholy. They play the type of music you would notice at a coffeehouse: mellow enough the blend into the ambiance but occasionally rising up to remind you that there's more than white noise coming out of those speakers. Most notable throughout the album are the guitars, both acoustic and electric, that dance around the accompanying drums, vocals, keyboards, and occasional violin. Played varyingly by Ben Douglas, Kris Heath, and Chuck Macola, this concoction of guitars gives Callow its niche. Quite the contrary, Douglas' vocals sometimes seems to dull the bands effect. Only with harmonic lifts from vocalist Tiffany Chilote does his voice sound fresh. Even with its cookie cutter vocals, Direction gathers strength from its ten other musicians and contributors. From a would-be cacophony of instruments, drums and cellos, keyboards and xylophones, most every song sounds thick and rich. And those that don't play on the minimalistic attitude of "less is more." By the end of the album, its obvious that Callow can play big, small, and everywhere in between. For more on these players from Pasadena (Maryland), go take a gander at and (Rating: 6 out of 10)--jonathan dirksen

Cornershop, Handcream for a Generation (Wiija Records/Beggars Group)

Conershop has always come forth with a synthesis of styles and cultures and traditions, particularly rock, dance music and soulful pop as well as traditional Indian music. When I was Born for the 7th Time, their biggest success thus far thanks to the infectious single "Brimful of Asha," was their most pop album yet, stressing catchy melodies. Handcream for a Generation, their latest, shows that they can still do melody without neglecting their knack at combining styles in unique ways. This album feels like an inclusive, celebratory multicultural party, with a "people have the power" theme in favor of community and unity. Everything's funky and catchy, but they're also pushing barriers by diversifying--Handcream… is in turns reggae, rock, hip-hop, funk and techno, with nods to Indian music, both Bollywood-style pop songs and ragas. The latter is beautifully incorporated with psych-rock and pop on the album's most stunning track, the sublime rave-up "Spectral Mornings," featuring Noel Gallagher on guitar. But as transcendent as that song is, there's just as much pleasure to be found in the less ambituous, more compact songs, from the garage rock of "Lessons Learned From Rocky I to Rocky III" to the melodic electro-funk of "Slip the Drummer One" (which, like a few other tracks, features scratches from the incomparable Rob Swift, of X-ecutioners fame). This is a party with after-effects lasting longer than the next morning. It's a substantial, diverse joy.--dave heaton

The Creeping Nobodies, I-X-U (Kosher Rock Records)

The rumors are true, The Fall and Pixies had a illegitimate child. It's living in Toronto and going by the name The Creeping Nobodies. The proof is in the six-song romp called I-X-U that takes us through hints of Pixies' surf spins and CBGB's punk, while exploring the line between post-punk and pop. Though, to keep from being completely overshadowed by its mammoth parents, The Creeping Nobodies use space rock and electronica to make the bookend songs, "The Creep-In" and "The Long Creep-Out." The Creeping Nobodies started out as a Fall tribute band and grew into what we see on this CD. I like it. The band is not taking themselves too seriously and the fun they are having with their music really shows. They are experimental, but in a way that keeps one foot planted firmly in the late 70's/early 80's and one foot pointed towards the 21st century. Yes, it's obvious they're still feeling around for their own sound, but hell, a year ago they were still a tribute band. I look forward to hearing how they progress.--ryan mckee

The Decemberists, Castaways and Cutouts (Hush)

The Old World looms over the Decemberists' debut album Castaways and Cutouts: it's in the musical allusions to European strands of traditional folk music, in the accordion which shows up here and there and, especially, in the lyrics, which reference courtesans, sailors and Mount Vesuvius. Yet this isn't a "Pirates of the Caribbean"-style costume party, but a group which starts a curious dialogue between the past and present by referencing both the old and the new, musically and lyrically. What do you do when Colin Meloy (whose voice sounds quite like both Robyn Hitchcock and Jeff Mangum) sings a line like "we are vagabonds, we travel without seatbelts on" or "I'm a legionnaire, camel in disrepair, hoping for a Frigidaire to come passing by." The Decemberists' world is both modern and ancient. It's also wryly dark, with ghosts, murders and wars galore. With a sound vaguely similar to one of the great underappreciated pop albums of the 90s, World Party's Bang!, the Decemberists jump into the space between the past and how we view it through modern eyes, and come back with unique, engaging songs. --dave heaton

DJ Ordeal, John (self-released)

If cinema is truly an international language, than DJ Ordeal is a translator of some sort, taking movie history and distilling it into music. Where his "Maureen" 7" was a trip into the after-hours intrigue of film noir, the mini-LP John is more like the sound of Golden Age Hollywood romances and melodramas. Filled with rising all falling strings, this "montage of sound" pulls from over 40 songs from the past. Though there's plenty of legendary pop songs here, from the theme of Laura to songs from West Side Story and other musicals, the melodies, as familiar as they should be, hardly stand out from each other. Instead they blend together as one creation, a meditation on not just Hollywood films but the feelings they evoke in us. It's also as mysterious as "Maureen" was, though here the mystery comes less from direct allusions and more from the intriguing way the songs meet each other and cut each other off, not to mention the album's enigmatic title. There's also something fetchingly unusual about DJ Ordeal's whole approach to music; it's like he's building a new universe from our collective cinematic memory. (Note: All of the proceeds from this release go to Cancer Research, a worthy cause indeed.) {Distributed by Backs Records Ltd., St. Mary's Works, St. Mary's Plain, Norwich NR3 3AF, UK} --dave heaton

DJ Shadow, The Private Press (MCA)

It's hard to think about DJ Shadow without thinking about a particular scene in the film Scratch, a recent documentary on the history of DJing in hip-hop. In it, Shadow sits amongst literally thousands of records in the basement/secret vinyl stash of his favorite record store, searching through them for the right break, the right sound, the right vocal sample. Right from the start of his second proper album, The Private Press, that fondness for odd samples is displayed, as we hear a woman reading a letter to her family. From there, the album takes off, mostly in the direction of ambient soundscapes that retain soulful, hip-hop grooves and textures. The music in general is funky and spacey, with tones that are pretty but also slightly ominous. Strings and piano show up here and there, as do synthesizers, stringed instruments and R&B vocals. There's also a couple tracks given to straight-up displays of Shadow's skills, with him mixing and scratching in a quick, somewhat futuristic style. Whether he's taking listeners on a drum-and-bass-ish car ride with guest MC Lateef ("Mashin' on the Motorway") or making a hip-hop form of surf music and blending it with ghostly, hovering synth ("You Can't Go Home Again"), Shadow's concerned with moving things forward, with creating tracks that take you in new directions. The album's futurism is leavened by a recurring atmosphere of sadness, exemplified by the funeral march/spiritual trip "Blood On the Motorway" but present throughout The Private Press. That blend creates a bridge between the imaginary future and the more rugged now, making Shadow a true sci-fi artist, one using fresh new sounds to explore the darker emotional terrain of today's human.--dave heaton

Eltro, Information Changer (Absolutely Kosher)

Eltro's 2001 album Velodrome was a future-pop dreamscape, with melodic bounce, electronic textures and a hazy space-out aura. Their first album, 1998's Information Changer, recently reissued by the band's label Absolutely Kosher, leans toward the latter, with longer, slower songs that'd be the perfect soundtrack for dreaming. "Lay on the ground and watch a cloud," goes a line on the first track, "Storm Cloud of the Century," before it leads into the second, even spacier song "Grand Canyon." If I didn't know better, that song would make me believe that the grand canyon was on the moon, not in Arizona. There's a mellow funkiness to "Elements of Style" which makes it somewhat dance-inducing, yet also swirls of guitar that makes it galaxies removed from dance-club or prom music. Those swirls are present throughout Information Changer, like a circling mothership waiting to take Eltro back to the fabulous planet from which they came. {}--dave heaton

Nik Freitas, Heroes Laughing At You (Future Farmer Records)

For a relative newcomer, Freitas has a very well developed melodic sensibility. He is also the possessor of a skewed sense of how to realize his musical vision. For comparison's sake, Tom Waits and Ben Folds making an album together or even Waits fronting the Beatles would be decent analogies for the music and production styles exhibited on this album. Now, Freitas has a much purer and sweeter voice than Waits, but Wait's often cracked production and arrangments would seem at home on this album. Digging under the surface, one finds songs that are very well-constructed melodically and that possess a lot of the same pure pop qualities of the Beatles post-Revolver work. I would recommend this to people who are interested in very melodic songwriting who also like artists who aren't afraid to push boundaries and stretch limits. Fans of the new Wilco, for example, Beatles, Waits and even Strokes will love this record. (Rating: 4 stars)--scott homewood

Fuzzy Boombox, v.1 (Fuzzy Box)

One of the modern era's greatest inventions: the $6 label compilation, filled with unreleased songs. This time the label is Fuzzy Box, and the CD is not restricted to the label's artists, but is more like a showcase of new electronic music. This form of electronic music is, generally speaking, minimalist, melodic and laidback, with an experimental edge, yet the 17 artists represented offer an array of styles and personalities. Starting with Montage Spiral's "Road Rage," a meditation on violence delivered via samples of film and TV dialogue about fighting, the CD is packed with exciting, vibrantly modern sounds. Fuzzy Boombox v.1 starts with a series of low-key-funky, catchy and pretty tunes from the likes of Dietrich Schoenemann, Handheld Soundsystem, E*Vax and B. Fleischmann. Then it gets gradually weirder, shifting toward artists, like Fidget, Dalglish and Zipperspy, who have more of a jittery, cut-up, take-no-prisoners style, before closing with Color Filter remixing a piano composition by Miki Kuwabara, a sprightly send-off. If all of these names mean nothing to you, you should check this out for an introduction to some adventurous, mesmerizing musicians. If any one of these names means anything to you, you know you need this.--dave heaton

Goner, Dollar Movie (Eskimo Kiss Records)

If punk had been based on keyboards instead of guitars, the world would have been filled with bands like Goner back in the late '70's. Instead, we get to enjoy them now, which is much, much cooler as far as I'm concerned. Definitely not techno, Goner is instead keyboard punk without a stitch of new wave or electronica. These songs sound warm and human, catchy as hell and not at all detached and cold. Think Hugh Cornwell fronting the group Air back in the day and you'll have a smidgen of what's going on here. It's catchy, it's keyboard, it's krazy!!!!!!!!!!! (Rating: 3 and a half stars)--scott homewood

Japancakes, Belmondo (Darla)

Belmondo opens with the sound of meandering wind, as played on guitar. The guitars whine, wind, float and dream, giving a gentle introduction to Japancakes and their unique style of instrumental music. Their songs evoke the Old West, or at least the West of our collective imagination, by alluding to both sprawling landscapes and Morricone scores. But the West is more of a touchpoint than an accurate description of their music. They use echoing guitar lines, pretty cello and, more sparsely, drums and piano, to transport listeners to a peaceful, vivid scene. It has a cohesion to it which is fitting for an album that is part of Darla's Bliss Out Series (Belmondo is vol. 19). Yet that sense of unity doesn't equal sameness. Each track has its own personality, from "Handguns & Firearms,' which takes a melodic theme and meditates on it in a floating, spellbinding way, to "Duluth 75," which has a more rugged, bluesy feel but is still ghostly and beautiful. One track is called "Theme for a Film." While you could easily picture Japancakes' music playing over a film, who needs the film? There's plenty of intrigue, drama, action, sensuality and romance right here.--dave heaton

Faith Kleppinger, Asleep in the Well (Two Sheds Music)

While the "asleep" part of the album title correctly alludes to the dreamy, afternoon-nap quality of Faith Kleppinger's acoustic pop songs, it doesn't hint at the stunning vivaciousness of her gorgeous voice. Captivating from the first syllables uttered, she has a truly unique voice that has both weighty grit and an unearthly, graceful buoyancy. And while her slow, gentle songs about where we fit in the world and, as one song puts it, "find(ing) out who we really are" would be attention-grabbing even if it was just her voice and her acoustic guitar, here they're set in a gorgeous, rich atmosphere. It's provided by David Barbe (ex-Sugar) and Blake Rainey, playing guitar, bass, vibraphone, percussion and piano. They give the songs an extra dose of placidity, a calm that adds another layer of meaning to Kleppinger's already meaningful songs.--dave heaton

The Liberty Ship, "I Guess You Didn't See Her" 7" (Matinee)

"When the fighting's over, who'll announce the winner? who'll be there to keep the score?," sings The Liberty Ship guitarist/singer Marc Elston on the A-side of the Nottingham, England-based trio's "I Guess You Didn't See Her" 7", but he's not asking about a boxing match or a wrestling battle royale. The game here is love, the battles lovers and would-be lovers play out every day. The group's sound is remarkably relaxed to be writing songs about anguish and confusion; with sweet harmonizing and melodic guitar lines that for some reason evoke holidays and summer vacations, The Liberty Ship have a pleasurable pop sound. The flip side is a snappy, straightforward cover of the Gene Clark-penned Byrds classic "She Don't Care About Time" that's just as enjoyable. "Let the daylight in to purify," Elston sings near the end of the A-side. He's seeking calm, joy, beauty…the same things The Liberty Ship brings us through their music.--dave heaton

Me & My Ship, EP (self-released)

Is it just me or has the solitary man with acoustic guitar been done before? It's a romantic notion, man + guitar = a poetic voice for a brave new generation. Or, in the very least, cool visions of a guy sitting on a bar stool crooning through a haze of cigarette smoke. I'm as much a dreamer as the next person, but let's face it, smoking has been outlawed in many of our favorite bars, and unless you really have some amazing lyrics, you alone with a guitar isn't that exciting. Ben, the lone captain of this ship, has a melodic and somber voice. More something you'd hear in a coffee shop rather than a bar, his sound plus alcohol could equal you passing out on a table. His lyrics are good but not great. And though he does mix in a little distortion on "Paper Doll" and then some drums and other guitars on "One in the Foot," the EP sounds pretty much the same from beginning to end. It really sounds more like five demo songs. I'm not real sure what Me & My Ship's plans are; however, I'd suggest getting a band behind him. He's no Bob Dylan or even Jeff Mangum (Neutral Milk Hotel). Not that you have to be to succeed with the acoustic thing, though it doesn't hurt.--ryan mckee

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