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20 Music Reviews

reviewed by dave heaton, scott homewood

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

Aarktica, American Song-Poem Anthology, Andrew, Ape House, Arab Strap, Avoidance Theory, Bobby Birdman, Bluebottle Kiss, Boxing, The Boxing Lesson, Bronze, Bunny Nightlight, Candy Colored Clowns, Capitol Years, Daniel Carter + Reuben Radding, Johnny Cash, Loren Connors, Cubalive!, Evan Dando, The Decemberists

Aarktica, Pure Tone Audiometry (Siber Records)

"Am I out to sea/farther than I need to be to find my way home?/I don't know," sing Aarkatica mainman Jon DeRosa and guest Lorraine Lelis of Mahogany at the start of Aarktica's new album, Pure Tone Audiometry. As they sing, waves of synth gently break over the landscape of our aural imaginations, evoking a vast space that is comforting yet isolating. Pure Tone Audiometry is a trip into a sonic plane that soothes while revealing feelings of loneliness and emptiness. We are out to sea, perhaps farther than we should be, and out here life is still, in a way that's eerie yet embodies a certain basic state of grace. Pure Tone Audiometry is filled with gorgeous sad music. Aarktica takes new wave ballads of despair (a la Depeche Mode's loneliest moments) and stretches them out, accentuating both the beauty and the sadness through atmosphere and a slow pace. DeRosa's guitar and vocals (his voice is the epitome of yearning) under your skin while loops and programming offer textures that relax and intoxicate. More meditative and exploratory than even Aarktica's superb entry in Darla's Bliss Out Seris (2002's Or You Could Just Go On With Your Life and Be Happy Anyway, Pure Tone Audiometry does have a purity to it that is centering, that makes you think less about the frills of life. {}--dave heaton

The American Song-Poem Anthology: Do You Know the Difference Between Big Wood and Brush (Bar None Records)

Give people the room to create and they'll come up with some crazy stuff. Make them think that creation is their ticket to superstardom and things get even more complicated. The songs on The American Song-Poem Anthology are relics that give a glimpse into human eccentricies. They were created from what was essentially a low-rent scam built on the average person's dream of being somebody: people sent in poems or lyrics, along with some money, to a company and the company made it into a song. The 28 songs on this collection are thus both the creations of unrecognized musicians earning a bit of money and of nonprofessional, completely unskilled lyric writers. The music consists of pedestrian versions of jazz, country and lounge-pop, while the lyrics are remarkably odd, dealing with everything from fingernails to Jimmy Carter to disco to building a patriotic birdhouse. They represent pure creativity, adults unleashing their inner 3-year-old, and as such are surreal, hilarious, wild, fun, and quite awful. The American Song-Poem Anthology makes another convincing case for the interesting-ness of those unusual offsprings of art and commerce, recordings no one would consider as 'great art' but are nonetheless fascinating.--dave heaton

Andrew, Happy To Be Here (The Bus Stop Label)

Whenever you see an album on CD that still is split into "side one" and "side two" when the tracks are listed, it's likely the musicians are nostalgic for something about the time when records were the norm. In the case of Andrew and his Happy to Be Here album, it's an obvious longing for the AM radio days, for the time when the two-and-a-half-minute catchy pop song was celebrated. Happy to Be Here is filled with 11 such songs, all sublimely melodic songs leaning toward the orchestral-pop of groups like the Zombies (and their modern offspring, the Pernice Brothers). With Ric Menck of Velvet Crush playing drums, Brian Kehew of the Moog Cookbook co-producing and harmonium and harmonies featured all over the place, the 60s are definitely a touchstone, yet nothing here sounds retro or uncomfortably imitative. The songs sound fresh. And if Andrew's singing voice isn't remarkable, his songs most decidely are. Sometimes the song is the thing; Happy to Be Here's songs are gorgeous, buoyant, and magnificent. {}--dave heaton

Ape House, …Minutes to Go… (Crof-tone Records)

With song titles like "Length Does Matter" and a band name like Ape House, you might think this DC-based quartet is a bunch of ultra-macho classic-rock neanderthals. You'd be wrong; they're more like a bunch of wise-ass rock n' roll comics who take a wry, self-deprecating look at romance, the music business and everything else while playing rock of the uptempo, melodic, a tiny bit punkish power-pop variety. Their debut full-length …Minutes to Go… is energetic and a hell of a lot of fun, an album to put on repeat whether you're having a party or hanging out lonely in your bedroom. Both those scenarios seem apropos for …Minutes To Go…, both for the songs that handle relationships with a real-world combination of humor and melancholy ("We Shouldn't Have Made Out") and for those where the band's daydreaming, half-seriously, of hitting the big time ("Tour of Japan"). Ape House might not be touring Japan any time soon, but it's not for lack of talent. …Minutes To Go… is the sort of rock album everyone in the world should be blaring out their car speakers. Even if the members of Ape House know as well as I do that that isn't going to happen anytime soon, they still rock the house like they're Rock Gods. Listening to the 13 hit songs on …Minutes to Go…, you get the impression they'd rock the crowd up and down whether they're playing to a packed arena in Japan or 5 guys in a living room somewhere in the Midwest.--dave heaton

Arab Strap, Monday at the Hug & Pint (Matador)

The Scottish duo Arab Strap are one of those groups who seem like they're continually remaking the same album. But that's not a bad thing. There's something comforting about putting on a new Arab Strap album, knowing essentially what you'll get-not unlike the comforting feeling I get watching the opening credits of a Woody Allen film, knowing pretty well what's coming. In Arab Strap's case, what listeners get is late-night drunken pop ballads about the complexities of sex and love, with cynical wit and brutal starkness, delivered in a measured speak-sing over drum beats and delicate but moody orchestration. Monday at the Hug & Pint picks up the pace more than their other albums, even when it doesn't really. Even the slowest songs have a certain compact energy that adds an extra spark to their style. That said, it's definitely an Arab Strap album, and exudes the bitter beauty that marks everything they do.--dave heaton

Avoidance Theory, Promise to the Refrigerator EP (Shmat)

The California duo Avoidance Theory made a promise to the refrigerator, but I'm not sure what it was. Actually it wasn't just a promise to their fridge, but to all fridges. And they broke the promise, whatever it was. That feeling that there's eerie things going on with and around everyday objects is at the heart of Avoidance Theory's Promise to the Refrigerator EP. The songs have a congenial creepiness; they're low-key, pretty pop songs along the lines of Elliott Smith, but there's a slight tone of weirdness always present. Laser beams and unidentified voices are lurking in the background throughout the EP, and over the course of two instrumentals ("Untitled Bells" and "Bells Revenge"), the whirings and buzzings of alien-infiltrated appliances battle it out. "Bring out the mesh ring tape and chair," Bryan sings on the first song, followed by "I'm still friends with you, right?" Um, yeah, we're still friends…what was that you were saying about your fridge? The Twin Peaks of bedroom pop, Promise to the Refrigerator soothes while it intrigues and slightly unsettles. It ends with "View From 300 Million B.C.," a gorgeous whisper across millennia that brings things to a comforting close even as it leaves you walking around singing, "I must believe the world is gone."{}--dave heaton

Bobby Birdman, Born Free Forever (Hush Records)

Bobby Birdman is a crooner for the modern age, acutely aware of how to phrase each word exactly right, adept at pulling you into his world with a simple turn of his voice. It's easy to get lost, deeply, in the sound of his voice, as it is with the best singers. His music is intimate and introspective, yet it's also thoroughly enigmatic. Even as his singing sometimes recalls the great pop singers of the past in its force and expressiveness, Birdman sets his voice against a more experimental backdrop, with a heightened sense of atmosphere but also a spectral tone. "Oh the Blood," the second track on his second album Born Free Forever, bases a dark mood around clicking noises that sound like a CD skipping. More often, though, the album achieves its mood not through esoteric sounds but through a crisp arrangement of dreamy elements. Booming bass, banjo, organ tones, backing voices (delicate oohs and aahs)…all are brought together as a force of low-key beauty that carries with it the aura of being a sublime mystery. That aura is at times truly breathtaking, like taking in a force of nature, but also hallucinatory. It makes you feel like you're sleepwalking.--dave heaton

Bluebottle Kiss, Revenge Is Slow (In Music We Trust/Nonzero Records)

At first glance, the Sydney, Australia-based rock band do a superb job playing straightforward, melodic pop-rock (think Bill Janovitz, Elvis Costello). That approach is itself enjoyable-their songs are catchy, and filled with honest emotion-yet the more you listen the more complex and ambitious their music reveals itself to be. They're continually injecting an element of surprise into what at first seemed typical: diving headlong into dark, moody, heavier territory here ("Prussian Blue"), setting and offbeat melody against ghostly piano and harp there ("Peewee's Dream"). They end the rock song "Gangsterland" with brash feedback and end the at first quite sedate waltz "Hello Stranger" in a trombone and trumpet-fueled dreamy crescendo. They pull from the traditions of pop ballads and folk music, yet they're also a dynamic rock band that's always on the verge of leaping off the edge of something. Lyrically they're also capable of taking your mind in disparate directions, contemplating the theatricality of life as readily as they get to the cold, stark center of things. The first song itself is a mystifying splendor that sets images on images to get your brain turning itself inside out. To a quiet, gentle acoustic song they put lyrics like this: "I believe she is my mother as a young girl/two bluest eyes to penetrate my small world/they're boring through me over my grandmother's grave." "Watch the wheels collide," the song ends. It's a fitting description of the album; Bluebottle Kiss take varied feelings, musical themes, and images and smash them together for an exhilarating, at times almost magical, effect.--dave heaton

Boxing, Way Down East (self-released)

Most of the press releases that accompany CDs are filled with ridiculous hyperbole, to say the least. If you believed every PR one-sheet, you'd think every band was the most innovative one around and that their latest release is by far their most ambitious, most successful to date. Yet sometimes musicians know best how to describe their own music. The press information for Boxing's third album Way Down East describes it as "classic rock deconstruction," and they're dead-on right. That description's so apt, I can't think of a better place to start when trying to convey what the music is like. The basic elements of Way Down East are familiar to anyone who's listened to rock music in the last 30-40 years, yet here they've been reassembled into something that sounds new and daring. Working class anthems, expansive 70s rock desert jams, countrified hippie ballads, hyper-melodic pop-rock tunes, psychedelic spaceouts…all of these are here, but they're not completely intact or recognizable. Instead they've been cast into some kind of strange sea, or blown apart and then sort of put back together. Way Down East's songs sound both familiar and unfamiliar by using the building blocks of rock in a more circuitous, experimental way. They make you feel both at home and lost in space, which is a great place to be if you're a rock fan who longs to be taken places you haven't been before. It's a fascinating experience in invention and re-invention. Boxing hit you upside the head and knock you off center, but do it with sounds, styles and feelings taken right from your musical memory box. They take your favorite songs of all time and mess them up in strange and beautiful ways, leaving you discombobulated but ecstatic about it.--dave heaton

The Boxing Lesson, self titled (Send Me Your Head)

Although I've never been a fan of moody, more contemplative rock music, I have to admit I like what The Boxing Lesson is doing here on their new 4-song EP. Maybe it's the fact that their music isn't spread out over a whole album-length project. Because of the relative brevity, their music never becomes a total downer to listen to, like some bands who play this style of alternative rock. While two songs are considerably longer than the other two, as a whole the band's music doesn't ever reach the point of becoming dull. In fact, it is quite interesting and intricate and has an element more bands seeking to slow their tempos down should study. I would call their music very thoughtful and while I would not want to turn on this CD on a Friday night when I am getting ready top go out, I would turn it on during a blissful Saturday morning when it's raining and I don't want to do anything but relax. Definitely worth your time. {3 and a half stars}--scott homewood

Bronze, The Statue In The Stone (BusStop Records)

I am happy to report some great news! Pop is back! Not Britney Spears-like goofy girl pop, not Backstreet Boys-type punk-ass pop, not even the sacchrine crap bands like Foreigner and Journey used to pump out. But real stuff. Cheap Trick-sounding, Big Star/Badfinger/Beatle-loving pure pop that rocks, crunches and pounds it's catchy guitar sounds right into your heart and through your feet. Thank you, garage rock fad! Thank you Strokes, thank you White Stripes, thank you Hives! Thank you for showing people that catchy melodies and minimal production can actually be popular when done the right way. It's the same gospel labels like Bus Stop had been preaching for years but hadn't really succeeded in pushing to the mainstream despite the plethora of music insiders joining the choir, yearning for more melodic substance. Bus Stop even had to take a vacation, go to sleep for awhile while the music scene turned. Eventually, it did reawaken and the label is thankfully thriving, with a great new roster of pop bands, of which Bronze is perhaps the best. This is the band's new full length, and it draws from some of the EPs the band has put out in the past year but stands alone as a marvelous musical statement as well. Full of the garage-rock sound currently gaining attention, as well as some polished Who-stuff, Hollies-psyche, and Beatle-isms that will make music lovers' teeth fall out from the sweet melodic goodness contained herein, the album is a pure pop joy. Anyone craving catchy melodies, concise meaningful guitar solos that don't wank on forever, and a primal garage-y thump that will shake your ass mightily, needs to buy this CD now. I would call it the best garage rock CD of the past two years but that would be limiting its' scope. It's one of the best guitar pop releases of the decade, is what it exactly is, and sounds more like a missing Revolver-era Beatles-slash-early R.E.M. time-meld track than anything else I've ever heard. Simply wonderful pop. {4 and a half stars}--scott homewood

Bunny Nightlight, Hail (Shelflife CD-R Series)

Sometimes the best music is the most unassuming. Bunny Nighlight's Hail, part of Shelflife's CD-R series, came about when the duo, Marie Kare and Ben Berkley, "decided to try (their) hand at recording a little music." Those humble words might make you except something amateurish; instead you get 4 pop songs that, while they indeed sound like they were recorded in a minimalist, homemade manner, are simply gorgeous. Kare's beautiful singing voice graces catchy, playful ditties that take a friendly, sometimes humorous but also knowing approach to daily-life subjects, from feeling bored when you're the only one awake in a house to the more serious intricacies of love relationships. With 4 songs in under 7 minutes, Hail is over almost before it began, yet it leaves a lasting impression and makes you eager to hear more.--dave heaton

Candy Colored Clowns, Self titled EP (Bus Stop Records)

Despite the band's Orbison-esque name, there is no operatic style rock to be found here. What is contained on this 3-song EP is a good introduction to a pop band who delights in pseudo-80's soundscapes. This three-piece band creates quite a raucous pop stir on this set, showing off their flair for songwriting and also musical dynamics, as each song is arranged very well and has textures outside the scope of most pop bands. If I were to pick a comparison I would say XTC with a little more punk flair, but not too much punk flair. As it is, it's quite good and bodes well for a full-length release. {3 and a half stars}--scott homewood

Capitol Years, Jewelry Store (Feel/Full Frame)

On their Jewelry Store EP, the Capitol Years play bluesy rock with style; think Rolling Stones meets Ziggy Stardust. Their songs are quick, loud, gritty, and have both sonic and emotional power. Six songs and then they're gone, leaving you hungry for more. This is huge, wild rock and roll. What's amazing is that the group's genesis was a one-man band often compared to Beck and Bob Dylan. Now they sound like born rock n' rollers. The fact that they've toured with the Mooney Suzuki and the Realistics should tell you something about how they sound. The last song, "Train Race," has both a lighter psyechedelic touch and dark, heavy gut-churning blues. The song slows down as the train nears its station, grinding the rock n' roll fun to a noisy halt, taunting you to kick-start it again.--dave heaton

Daniel Carter + Reuben Radding, Luminescence (AUM Fidelity)

Luminescence is a fitting name for the music on Daniel Carter and Reuben Radding's new album, as the jazz they play exudes a gentle glow. With Carter playing alto saxophone and Radding on double bass, the album opens with a piece of careful yet captivating improvising called "You and I Are Disappearing" (note: this album is filled with appropriate, evocative titles). Here Carter and Radding sound less like they're freely following their whims and feelings, more like they're delicately constructing a piece of music together. As the CD goes on, the music gets looser and more turbulent, yet there's always an overriding sense of grace and beauty. Both musicians play in a thoughtful, probing way. The album has a uniquely stark setting; there's just two instruments, with no fancy studio trickery or gloss. The first 4 of the 7 tracks were even recorded in live performance at the Earshot Jazz Festival in Seattle (though no crowd noise is detectable, so the focus is on the music, not the event where it was recorded). Radding's liner notes offer an interesting reason for the few number of instruments on the album: Carter was flying from NYC to Seattle in October 2001, a month after 9/11, for the recording sessions, and due to stricter baggage limitations wasn't able to bring the other four instruments that he planned on playing. I don't know if it's a case of unexpected restrictions leading to creative spark or if the album would have been just as good either way, but for whatever reason Luminescence is fascinating and exciting. Both instrumentalists get equal opportunity to shine, and also play together wondrously. And even in the album's wildest moments, like the abrasive opening of the album's final track ("Occurrences, Places, Entities and The Sea"), Luminescence embodies peace.--dave heaton

Johnny Cash, American IV: The Man Comes Around (American)

From the title track's re-telling of the book of Revelations to the "fare the well" covers of "In My Life," "Danny Boy," "Streets of Laredo" and "We'll Meet Again," Johnny Cash's newest album carries with it an acknowledgement of old age and the inevitability of death. To be frank, it's hard to hear Cash sing about death or about looking back on his life without thinking about Cash the man, and the fact he's looking ages older with every passing day. And it seems from the song choices, not to mention the video for his cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt," that he's aware that he might not have that many albums left in him. That fact might add an extra level of emotional power to the songs on American IV but, to be honest, most of the songs pack plenty of power just through the way he performs them, stripping them down to their emotional essences. Like the other albums he's done with Rick Rubin for American Recordings, the songs are a mix of numbers he's written and recorded over the length of his career and covers, including songs you wouldn't expect Johnny Cash to cover. In those case those surprises are the Nine Inch Nails cover and Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus," both of which are affecting. There's also a brilliant duet with Nick Cave on Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," and sharp renditions of his own "Sam Hall" and "Tear Stained Letter." Though Cash excels at taking songs I don't like and making me like them-see his cover of Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage" on a previous album, for example-this album loses several points for me when he takes on songs I hate and does nothing to redeem them. I'd be happy if I never heard "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" ever again, no matter who's singing it, and Cash teaming up with Don Henley for a cover of "Desperado" strikes me as a god-awful idea, in theory and in practice. That said, Cash's American recordings, whether there's more of them or not, will rightly have a mighty place in his discography. American IV might not be my favorite of the four, but its memorable moments do make you forgive its mis-steps.--dave heaton

Loren Connors, The Departing of a Dream Vol. II (Family Vineyard)

The fact that a guitarist can take a Miles Davis song and loosely interpret it for the length of two CDs says as much about the talent of that guitar player as it does the expansiveness and genius of Miles' music. Loren Connors is an amazingly expressive and, lately, amazingly prolific musician. His The Departing of a Dream Vol. II is the second album within which he's taken Miles Davis' "He Loves Him Madly" from (Get Up With It; it's already a 32-minute song, but still) and loosely reimagined it. Even when the song itself isn't recognizable, you can hear Miles in Connors' playing, in his use of space especially. The album shimmers along slowly, fading in and out, with waves of sound almost silently existing in the background. It's often difficult to tell which of the three instruments Conors uses here is at work in the background: guitars, tapes or sounds? It all sounds like one instrument, and a ghostly one at that, yet an instrument that can simultaneously deliver several voices. The album bears a melancholy mood of loss but also a trace of release and escape. Within those moods, Connors quietly but steadily uses his guitar as the supreme instrument of expression, finding hidden feelings and voicing them through sad, beautiful and weighty sounds.--dave heaton

Cubalive!, Various Artists Rounder)

The Rounder Records Cubalive! collection, part of their "Roots of Rhythm" series, bears the subtitle "Recorded Live in Cuba." And right there is the essence of this album: it's 13 songs recorded live in Cuba, songs which vividly capture the moods of the places where they were recorded. Listen to the opening track, Septeto Nacional de Ignacio Pinero's "Maria Antonia," and you feel like you're in a crowd of dancing people having an amazing time. Listen to the final track, a recording of a Carnival group playing at 2 am, and you're there as well. The songs in between similarly place you in all sorts of different settings and atmospheres. These recordings wisely leave crowd noise and ambient sound in, giving you a true sense of being there. And the performances themselves are spectacular. The liner notes claim that "In Cuba, music is everywhere." The album convinces you that not only is music everywhere, but amazing music is everywhere.--dave heaton

Evan Dando, Baby I'm Bored (Bar None Records)

Part of the charm of the Lemonheads' music always came from Evan Dando's personality: kind of quirky, kind of wild. His debut solo album, the first album he's made in quite a long time, showcases an Evan Dando drained of his personality, who's making an obvious attempt to put the focus on his songwriting skills. That's both good and bad. On the positive side, it means the catchy melodies are here and the extreme eccentricities are not. The side of Dando behind the unbearable noodling of Come on Feel the Lemonheads's closing song "The Jello Fund," the side that made him think that putting the same song on an album twice but having Rick James sing it one of the times was a good idea, is gone. On the negative side, it means that he often sounds rather ordinary and sort of bland. The bulk of Baby I'm Bored has a slow pace, an ultra-serious tone, and too much reliance on the same tricks, like throwing thick guitars over everything to indicate it's time to rock. But while Dando doesn't rock too convincingly, he does reflection and introspection better. His persona on Baby I'm Bored isn't that of the eccentric party guy but of the weathered soul, someone who's living through crazier times and come out feeling pretty OK. If that persona at first seems like a hard-sell, there's songs where it feels authentic. There's places throughout the album when it seems like he's seriously probing his life, when he's trying to reach a more heartfelt place and actually reaches it. "Hard Drive" is a moving encapsulation of that feeling that life isn't so bad, that where I'm at is all right. "Why Do You Do This to Yourself" is a countrified Paul Westerberg-like examination of extreme behavior and its effects. And "My Idea" and "All My Life" similarly capture that same mood of self-reflection. But if those songs make a convincing case that the Evan Dando of today can still make music that affects you, the album's last track, the enigmatic, lazy poem "In the Grass All Wine Colored" gives a hint that his songs could be even more moving if he managed to leaven those heartfelt feelings with a dose of the imagination that lurked behind his oddball love songs of years past. "In the Grass…" has line, the title words, yet it somehow makes those enigmatic words even more moving than the most emotional of his life-examining ballads.--dave heaton

The Decemberists, 5 Songs (Hush Records)

Tall tales, eccentric characters, slightly surreal situations and exotic locales form the setting for the Old World-meets-New pop songs written by Colin Meloy, singer for the Decemberists. Because of its length but also its tone, the group's 5 Songs EP feels less like an epic journey to an undiscovered reality, as their debut album Castaways and Cutouts did, than a breezy afternoon at sea. The six songs showcase Meloy's gift for melody and slightly fantastical lyrics as well as those on their album, yet have a mood that's a bit more laidback. The songs are less ambitious time-travel trips than offbeat, relaxed love ballads. Especially striking are the gorgeous opener "Oceanside," the bouncy "Angel, Won't You Call Me?" and the yearning melancholy "I Don't Mind." All the songs are superb, yet again showing The Decemberists to be stand-out purveyors of song and story with their own unique worldview.--dave heaton

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