erasing clouds

20 More Reviews of Music

by Dave Heaton, Scott Homewood

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

Melodie Group, Mid-State Orange, Miles, Shelley Miller, Moonbabies, Mus, No. 2, Noise for Pretend, Orange Cake Mix, People Under the Stairs, Pipas, Randwiches, Resplandor, The Sames, Simpatico, Valendar, The Windmills, X-ecutioners, Young and Sexy, Zipperspy

Melodie Group, Summerness 7" (Matinee)

Feeling broken, alone, ready to sleep the years away, on Melodie Group's three-song Summerness 7", singer Roy Thirlwall revels in sweet melancholy. In places sounding a lot like the similarly jaded, similarly gifted Lloyd Cole, here Thirlwall's songs are in a much more solitary way than with his other band, The Windmills. While the A-side title track has him backed with a delicate, slightly electronic sonic atmosphere, the two B-sides, "Nineteen Eighty Nine" and "Small Grinning Thing," find him alone with his guitar. In both cases the songs are raw, powerful, and undeniably sad. Even when describing good times, his tone is rueful and bitter. With thoughts like "love is a weapon" expressed throughout, it's clear that Thirlwall's idea of a summer song is quite different from the stereotype of beach balls and bikinis. Not that that's a reason to stay away from this record; far from it, Thirlwall's a consummate songwriter who gets captures that biting feeling that life's getting away from you in a vivid, honest way.--dave heaton

Mid-State Orange, Flag Festival EP (Drive-In Records/The Lost and Lonesome Recording Co.)

The title song to the Melbourne group Mid-State Orange's Flag Festival EP is an organ-led upbeat pop tune with a bouncy summer-vacation feel. Yet there's more confusion in the song's emotions than the sunny tone indicates, as singer Louis Richter ponders a relationship that's insincere and not necessarily going anywhere, but still sort of makes him happy. The other four songs similarly wed perfect, bright pop tunes with feelings of self-doubt, nervousness and confusion. There's also a second version of "Flag Festival" which sounds like the underwater-dance remix. Picture a crowd of young lovers on American Bandstand, dancing with gleeful abandon while discreetly wiping tears from their faces.--dave heaton

Miles, Structure vs. Happiness (Feel)

The German rock trio Miles is one of those bands which know a lot about the art of writing sugar-sweet pop songs, but also want to rock. They play pop songs that rock or rock songs with pop's melodic sweetness, not unlike bands like Sloan, Creeper Lagoon, Beulah or, um, the Beatles. While Miles' first album, 1997's The Day I Vanished, was filled with sharp rockers, their self-titled second album, released in 1999, had them working with the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra to add softer textures to complement the rock. This album collects songs from both of those recordings, and is their first U.S. release. Despite its hybrid nature, it doesn't sound like a mish-mash, but is a great showcase for a band that knows how to rock in a beautifully sophisticated way. They sing about love and relationships, self-image and self-consciousness, but also tell fantastical, elliptical tales about birdmen and baboons. They kick out the jams but also dream in a majestic, romantic way, as on the gorgeous ballad "Where Does it All Belong To?" One criteria for judging an album's success is how well the band can get you to sing along even when you have no idea what they're singing about. So it is with Miles, as every time the album comes to a close with "Grasshopper's Gone," I'm singing passionately along, like I really care about that grasshopper.--dave heaton

Shelley Miller, self-titled (self-released)

Shelley Miller is a folk-pop singer at times reminiscent of Dar Williams or Ani DiFranco, but with a bluesy edge and a particular focus on open-hearted ballads about relationships and the conflicts, desires and heartbreaks found therein. She plays and sings gently but has a ferocious side, one interested in exploring extremes of human emotion. The songs are sharply written, with lyrics that get at something real without being too obvious; for example, "Just wrap me up in pretty pop songs/say we'll talk about it later/all we talk about is how we'd rather shout about it." This type of confessional songwriting works best when it touches listeners in some way, when it seems relevant to life. Tear Me Down mostly does that. Except for one detour into the kind of smug cutesiness that I hate about the current folk-music scene called "Mama's Brand Spankin' New Redneck Boyfriend," Tear Me Down really cuts to the core of life.--dave heaton

Moonbabies, Standing on the Roof/Filtering the Daylight EP
A Bouncing Space)

The Swedish duo Moonbabies is an indie phenomenon, one of those groups that seem to be everywhere you turn. Though their name suggests otherworldly beings, their music hits its heights through the more earthbound craft of writing high-quality songs. Their skill is at creating winning pop melodies and singing them in a pretty, airy manner against an equally pretty backdrop of piano, guitar, percussion and light electronics. At least that's how they sound on the 4-song Standing on the Roof/Filtering the Daylight EP, a nicely packaged 7" on the Portland label A Bouncing Space. Recorded at a studio called Sweet Morning Themesongs in Portland, the songs here are sweet…and gentle, gorgeous and artful. {}--dave heaton

Mus, El Naval (Darla)

Tender lullabies with a haunting aura about them, the songs on El Naval are a mind-quieting antidote to busy days and restless nights. The Spanish duo Mus play gentle music with presence, music which transports. Playing pretty pop songs on mostly piano and guitar, Mus have a down-to-earth immediacy, but also a transcendent etherealness, like the Cocteau Twins playing sparse folk songs. Part of the transcendent powers of their music come from lead vocalist Mònica Vacas, whose voice is breathy, quiet and calmly enticing. But it also lies with an echoing glow hovering over their songs, a beauty that's hard to analyze but easy to feel.--dave heaton

No. 2, What Does Good Luck Bring (In Music We Trust)

Power pop, a much maligned genre of music, may just end up being the new musical fad consumers and executives have been looking for since the mid '90's. If you're asking yourself why, just think about it. Many of the bands like Wilco, Jayhawks and Old '97's, the same ones who were going to take that new genre to the top of the sales charts, have all become enamored with pop and are putting their country textures aside for a little mellotron, strings, and piano to pop up their melodies. Punk bands are starting to get older and discovering their songs need some melodies to keep them fresh. Where does this have to do with No. 2? Quite a bit. They seemingly approach their music from the opposite side of the bands. Songs that are very crunchy and melodic sit next to songs that are still melodic but have their catchy melodies surrounded by country touches that cannot be denied. Where bands like Wilco decided country was too confining and have disappeared up their own ass trying to change themselves, No. 2 seems as if they have found the perfect balance between the two and are not concerned with trying to be this or that but let their influences and music flow organically and a fairly good blend of the two has evolved. This puts them in a great position. Power pop and melodic rock fans are sure to love them and their sing-along songs while music fans into Americana and roots rock have plenty to like as well. The perfect hybrid. (Rating: 3 and a half stars)--scott homewood

Noise for Pretend, Happy You Near (Hush Records)

Spy movie themes, torch singers' laments and cocktail-hour jazz help form the setting for Noise for Pretend's music, yet this Portland-based trio doesn't wear a retro costume as much as they create their fresh pop sound from these elements. They do have an aural sense for fashion, demonstrated through snazzy sounds and sultry singing, but it's more abut flair and personality than the empty illusion of glamour constructed by the fashion world. Noise for Pretend's music has a sophisticated feeling to it, but is filled with as much heart as style. A guitar-bass-drums trio, augmented by keyboards and Wurlitzer, they have a crisp, swinging sound which conjures up moods of romance and mystery. These are given emotional weight and extra style through the vocals of Esperanza Spalding, who at age 17 already has a nuanced, spellbinding way of singing, and, on a few songs, Ben Workman, who sings in a more straightforward, bare way that is no less affecting. Happy You Near is an inviting and rewarding collection from adept musicians who really tap into their creative whatevers for all they're worth, giving birth to fresh, fun sounds.--dave heaton

Orange Cake Mix, Harmonies and Atmospheres (Twilight Furniture/North of January)

Harmonies and Atmospheres would be an appropriate title for any Orange Cake Mix release, of which there are many. As Orange Cake Mix, Jim Rao creates dreamy melodic synth-pop, with romantic atmospheres conjuring up tropical hideaways, quiet nights on the moon and the warm feeling of lying in someone's arms for hours upon end. Harmonies and Atmospheres is mostly instrumental, reminiscent in sound of one of his prettiest past recordings, Silver Lining Underwater (the third installment in Darla's Bliss Out Series). Like on that album, here Rao plays Eno-ish guitar to waves of synth and electronics, occasionally singing lyrics about the sky and light, flowers and space. He's one of the indie music world's great romantics and has created quite a body of work. Harmonies and Atmospheres is a gorgeous addition to that discography.--dave heaton

People Under the Stairs, O.S.T. (Om Records)

Representing Los Angeles, People Under the Stairs do hip-hop in a way in synch with its roots as music for block parties. Over soul and funk grooves, the duo rhymes about partying, having fun, making music and, in general, keeping a positive outlook on life despite hardships. It sounds a lot like their last album, Question in the Form of an Answer, though here they seem more intent to present themselves as separate from most of today's hip-hop, mocking more avant garde stylists as getting too far away from the music's roots. But if they're traditionalists in their outlook on the music, it doesn't make their sound any less fresh or their rhyming skills anything less than evident. Whether it's on story-songs like the two-part "Suite for Beaver," celebrations of the art of hip-hop like "The Dig," or more introspective turns like the powerful "Empty Bottles of Water," Thes One and Double K both rhyme nimbly and memorably, while exuding a laidback cool. This is the perfect summer music.--dave heaton

Pipas, "Troublesome" 7" (Matinee)

"A Short Film About Sleeping" is a rich title, but the equally rich song that carries it seems more like a call to wake up than a bedtime tale. "Come on, wake up, the movie's about to start," the two singers (one male, one female) sing in a pretty, stylish way. Propelled by a laidback-funky beat aided by catchy bass and keyboard parts, they also allude to Pasolini and Cassavettes and to being on the screen themselves, all in an enigmatic way that makes the already catchy song doubly enticing. The two songs on the b-side are guitar-led upbeat pop tunes more reminiscent of groups like Dear Nora or The Aisler's Set, both with the same infectiousness as the A-side.--dave heaton

Randwiches, What Year (Kosher Rock Records)

Randwiches' What Year album has a loose, anything-goes, not-exactly-professional-but-that's-OK feel, like people getting together and running through a bunch of songs. And in a way that seems like a true description. Randwiches songs are all written by Randy Ray, a member of several bands in the Toronto rock scene. The 14 other musicians on What Year are all members of Toronto rock bands, the same people that show up in other bands on the Kosher Rock label, bands like Deep Dark United and Blackeyes. It's a "supergroup" that's not about a bunch of well-known personalities getting together, but about a bunch of friends joining behind Ray and helping blast through his songs. That gives most of these songs a really spontaneous vibe; one of the songs is even called "Spontanouitis." Given that whole back-story, there's still a variety of musical styles on What Year. A few of the songs are dirty-rock with a guttural guitar sound. There's also a couple psych-country ballads, a melodic pop-rock ditty about a rooster, and a spoken-word piece backed by New Orleans jazz and rock guitar. Oh and then there's "Ocean Steamer," a violin-rock jaunt sung with a fake British accent. In general the album has an early Pavement/Half Japanese-ish, stream-of-consciousness goofiness about it, but is also filled with solid guitar riffs and pretty melodies. If the purpose was just to get together and have a good time, Randwiches did themselves one better by making a dynamic album that's as fun to listen to it as it likely was to create.--dave heaton

Resplandor, Luna (Arnold)

The title of the Peruvian band Resplandor's 4-song single Luna, part of Poland-based Arnold Records' singles club, refers no doubt to the moon, not to the band. Resplandor have their heads titled skyward, as they use ambient, textured rock to dream themselves into the depths of space. The title song launches that journey right, with waves of guitar and synth meeting electronic blips behind dreamy vocals that project a pleasant haze over the listener. "Bajo Oscuro Cielo" continues that sound in a melodic manner that's slightly more "pop," while "Suenos De Un Ave" rolls itself out majestically, giving the feeling that astronauts must experience, the notion that you're glimpsing something that's gone unseen until now. The final track, "Eterna Marea (ecos)" feels like both a peaceful respite and another launching off into the new, leaving listeners both calmed and exhilarated.--dave heaton

The Sames, EP (Pox World Empire)

There's a reason that the liner notes to The Sames' self-titled debut EP say "songs and noises by The Sames.' They definitely play up the noisy side of rock in their delivery. These 5 songs are energetic rockers reminiscent of various early 90s indie-rock pioneers. They're melodic and catchy, yet delivered with force and feedback. Their lyrics are enigmatic yet somehow touching witticisms about what to do or not do with your life. They have memorable titles, like "I Wish That You'd Written This Song" and "Plight of the Bumblebee," and equally memorable songs to back those titles up.--dave heaton

Simpatico, The Difference Between Alone and Lonely (Matinee/Gifted Records)

Simpatico's latest album spells everything out in its titles: The Difference Between Alone and Lonely, "His Goodbye Echoes," "Cold Season." These are pop ballads about being left behind, having to leave someone, dealing with emptiness, isolation, desire, infatuation and lost love, and feeling hopeless and alone. It's a trip inside a soul, with all the questions, conflicts and stories therein. There's also some exceptional songcraft: Jason Sweeney, who also records as Sweet William and Other People's Children, has a gift at writing low-key, melodic songs with a 1980s tinge, as drum machines and synth meet guitar and voice. There's subtly here; the guitar, for example, delicately scales the walls, beautifully echoing his sentiments. Unrequited love, heartbreak and loneliness have been themes for music forever, but Simpatico dives further into them than most artists do, getting seriously into tales of people looking at old photographs and crying themselves to sleep.--dave heaton

Valendar, The Giant Slingshot (Smokeylung Recordings)

Like fellow Bloomington, IN residents/Smokeylung recording artists Gentleman Caller, Valender play music with a distinctly late-night mellow vibe. Their debut?? The Giant Slinghot is the perfect "turn the lights down and dream" sort of rock album, one which uses melody, mood and ambiguous lyrics to great effect. The trio, helped by producer Derek Richey throughout, play their instruments--guitars, bass, drums--in a way that envelops you like the so-called shoegazer bands did while also highlighting interplay and cohesiveness, like a jazz trio would. Each instrument stands out strongly while being integral to the whole sound. Equally important are the vocals, from Andy Flynn and Scott Gustafson, which mimic the dreamy melodic-ness of the guitars and bass but also perk up with intensity in places to highlight certain thoughts. Valendar urge you to play their music loud, and they're right. Fill your space with a rock n' roll fantasy world, with ambiguous tales about the orbit of planets and a giant slingshot. You'll feel instantly at home, in a strange sort of way, like when dreams are both unreal and familiar at the same time.--dave heaton

The Windmills, Walking Around the World EP (Matinee)

There's a million ways to say "I love you," and at least as many ways to express regret. The Windmills do the latter beautifully in "What Was It For?," a melancholy pop-rocker about miscommunication, one of three songs on the Walking Around the World EP. "I tried a thousand times, then a thousand more/What was it for?," sings lead vocalist Roy Thirlwall. "Amelia" is an even prettier ballad, with Thirlwall singing so delicately he sounds downright sheepish, as he encourages the title girl to keep dreaming and not give up hope on life. The closing title track sets up a melodic stroll and then takes off on a guitar flight, begging listeners to hit play again, like the best singles always do.--dave heaton

X-ecutioners, Built From Scratch (Loud Records)

X-ecutioners take the dynamo approach to putting their DJing skills on wax, keeping things moving with energy through an assortment of showcases and collaborations. At all times the focus is on raw hip-hop, though the style varies from track to track. There's tracks amped up with rock guitar, club-oriented tracks and straight-up soulful, classic-style hip-hop. There's also a strong nod to the past, shown through appearances by often under-appreciated greats of the music, like Kool G Rap and Large Professor, as well as a remake of Tom Tom Club's "Genuis of Love," a hip-hop track in spirit if not sound. What's most impressive about the collaborations is the way they work with the guest MCs in a way that doesn't at all cloud the work going on behind the turntables. In fact, every track here shows the X-ecutioners' mixing and scratching skills--plus that of their DJ friends, including DJ Premier, Dan the Automator and some of the Beat Junkies. This album isn't just about the X-ecutioners; It's a tribute to the music and culture of hip-hop and its enduring power.--dave heaton

Young and Sexy, Stand Up For Your Mother (Mint Records)

Young and Sexy is an audacious band name, but it seems meant to be less descriptive than about attitude. "There's no need to be shy or sad or coy with me, there's no need to be anything but young and sexy," co-lead vocalists Paul Hixon Pittman and Lucy Brain sing over a funky stroll, with organ and handclaps, on one song ("Chikubi"). Being "young and sexy" is about confidence, assurance…and the group Young and Sexy takes a remarkably confident approach to pop music. They have a gentle but sophisticated sound ("sophisticated" in both the "grown up" and "cocktail hour" sense of the word), meaning solidly crafted melodies and hooks, plus diverse instrumentation, including piano, guitar, percussion, keyboards, recorder, tambourine, trombone and cocoanut. They also have two talented singers who harmonize beautifully. It all ads up to a self-assured sound which gives their lyrics further weight. When they sing "things are going to get better," I believe that they will. When they tell me that the city I live in is ugly but it doesn't have to be, I'm ready to do something about it. Their songs have both concrete realism and head-in-the-clouds fantasy, the latter exposed through their flair for theatricality (see the multi-part "Television," the Facts of Life-quoting "Bobby Baby"), the former in their Motown-like way of putting weighty feelings like inside sweet songs.{}--dave heaton

Zipperspy, Glass Bomb Baby (Fuzzy Box)

There's a certain class of music fans who only want to hear pretty, "uplifting" music. They should probably stay away from Zipperspy, aka Maria Moran. She creates an oddball style of electronic music that has a jittery, squirming sound that at times distinctly evokes worms and insects. If that doesn't sound appetizing to you, know that she has all sorts of tricks up her sleeve on her CD Glass Bomb Baby--she's like a mad scientist seeking to challenge our notions of reality. Songs like "Hingslip" have a percussive quality that recalls feet slapping the ground or someone rhythmically cutting something, while the more drum n' bass-ish "Sippa Snowa" has a circular quality, like getting stuck in a garden maze during an outdoor rave. There's also a live improv collaboration with Heartworm, songs that sound like dance tracks played using steak knives, ambient pieces with loud repeating tones, a song that sounds like a symphonic piece played on car horns, and who knows what else. This is exciting, exploratory music.--dave heaton

Issue 10, July 2002 | next article

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