erasing clouds

10 Music Reviews

Jamie Barnes, The Recalibrated Heart (Pink Bullet)

Louisville-based folk-pop singer/songwriter Jamie Barnes' third album The Recalibrated Heart is instantly marked by a clean, crisp sound – an especially refined version of his distinctly humble, hum-able, and hushed style of introspection. Other instruments subtly add to the voice-and-guitar set-up, expanding the palette (as his last LP did from the one before it), but in a thoughtful and not over-reaching way. And his voice and guitar alone shine, as well. His last two albums probed the shadows of one person's soul in a way, looking into inner conflicts and confusion. This album is just as probing, yet right from the start seems more attuned to the world around us, to social justice issues. The first few songs all unite personal fitting-in-the-world issues with global tales of struggle – with songs set in North Korea ("Song for the Mofa Seven") and Africa ("Conflict Diamond") – and add to that a filter of Biblical tales and spiritual journeying. The lyrical scope is even wider than that implies, though, with personal relationships of course playing a role; and there's an intriguing song about R.E.M. that starts with Bill Berry's brain aneurysm ("Violet Morning"). Every subject matter is handled deftly, poetic yet direct, with an emphasis on humanity. Singer/songwriters may come a dime a dozen, but those who mark their own distinct mark, as Jamie Barnes does, deserve our utmost attention. – dave heaton

Pelle Carlberg, Everything. Now! (TwentySeven)

Swedish crooner/songwriter Pelle Carlberg's debut album Everything. Now! has a smooth, sensitive pop sound and sardonic wit. It's like he's singing a pretty nightclub ballad on the surface and telling a caustic joke underneath, whether the song is a kiss-off to a music critic who writes negative things but doesn't have the nerve to back them up with an actual conversation ("Go to Hell, Miss Rydell") or one lamenting the hold of consumerism upon us ("Riverbank"). There's much self-deprecation, or more often social criticism disguised as self-deprecation. It all has the loveliest of sheens – and, sometimes, great big catchy melodies (the hook-y "I Had a Guitar", the breezy Belle & Sebastian-esque "A Tasteless Offer") – making the sharp ideas go down smooth. – dave heaton

Charming, Turn Down the Lights (self-released)

There's a darkness to Charming's new album Turn Down the Lights, unlikely for a cute-pop group whose specialty is sleek and dancefloor-ready music. Not that this music isn't sleek and dancefloor-ready, cause it is, but there's a general aura of unease and instability within these melodic, hook-based and rhythmic songs. It's in lyrics about the distance among people, caused sometimes by heartbreak but more often by money. The album opens with a song with a minor-key, unsteady demeanor (though still catchy-pop), about corporate control of lives ("Working Man"). The next track, "Lost and Found", is a sparkling disco song in the vein of their energetic last album (2001's Champagne and Magazines). It's about a broken relationship, but again there's money: "I paid the bills / you played guitar." Money's the subtext throughout, what's bringing everyone down. A would-be pop star is giving up her creativity for it (the title track), the working life is draining the excitement out of life for many ("Song for the Nightshift"), and the lack of money is killing the night life, as on the sad soul song "Stay Home With Me", where "nobody's dancing in the clubs / everybody's waiting for some money to come." This is modern-day New York City pop music, set within the climate of rising costs as much as international style. The instrumental "Sunday Morning" is the most blatant expression of this sense of weariness. Still, within this mood of uncertainty there's still room for diversity. "Sunday Afternoon" is a bright love song in the middle of the worry; "Stranger (I Will Never Be A)" is a stirring '60s-style soul ballad of devotion, with horns and strings and lead singer Nicole St. Clair Stoops singing to the rafters. The instrumental "Sunday Evening" closes the album on a note of jazzy sophistication. And throughout the album Charming's pop-music chops are sharp as ever, with rewarding melodies and well-crafted songs, played with panache. – dave heaton

Brenda David, Better Part of Me (Cadillac Records)

Right from the very first track, Brenda David's Better Part of Me wraps the listener up with her silky voice and smooth grooves. Her incredibly honest delivery of these first-class songs gives you the feeling that she has known you all of your life. Somehow she seems to know your most personal secrets that you never would have told anyone but your own soul mate. Yet from the knowing sensuousness of “Come In From the Rain” to the declaration of eternal companionship in “I'll Be the One,” you will come away with the feeling that you somehow have known her as well for a very long time. Aside from the songs themselves, I found myself re-listening to the whole album for the subtle, yet awe-inspiring musicianship. Nothing overpowered or overshadowed anything in the production. The guitars (especially on “Second Chance”), violins, and drums were all extremely complimentary to each other as well as to the songs themselves. I highly recommend giving Brenda David a listen. You might just discover a better part of yourself. - michael sutton

The Five Mod Four, Whiskers (Contraphonic)

I can't wholeheartedly endorse The Five Mod Four. Their songs are a little too clumsy and cluttered, the vocals too tuneless. On the other hand, the lyrics to them are genuinely clever, displaying a sardonic wit and knowing irreverence toward the institution of rock and roll. Whiskers makes me laugh, and that's a very redeeming quality. As is the frequent use of the Farfisa organ--I'm a sucker for that, just like everybody else. The album's twelve songs are each short, the longest just under four minutes, the shortest just under forty seconds. That's good, because the band's sound is easily wearing. The music kind of clunks along until a particularly sharp lyric comes in to illuminate the tune briefly before fading out. To their credit, the Five Mod Four have something worthwhile to say. Their lack of musical focus, however, makes it less compelling to hear repeatedly. – ted kane

Susan House, Gifts of the Season (Sisu Heart Records)

Having released two charming Christmas CD singles last year, that jazz-pop vocalist Susan House would follow them up with a full-length of Yuletide standards wasn't too surprising. However, like her Christmas one-offs House isn't playing it safe here; every holiday cover on this album is given its own unique touch. On "Silent Night," House duets with Filipino crooner Norm Santarin - with a twist. House sings her lyrics in English while Santarin sweetly coos in his native Tagalog. It's a beautiful touch, transforming what, in less ambitious hands, would've been a run-of-the-mill remake. "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire" begins with House singing a capella, which is delightfully surprising. See a theme here? Although House has tremendous affection for this material, she isn't bound by tradition. In a season of giving, House gives it her all, making this a stocking stuffer worth cherishing a lifetime. - michael sutton

Matt and Kim, self-titled (I Heart Comix)

The epitome of spunk, Brooklyn duo Matt and Kim come fiercely out the gate with a barrage of pop hooks over unleashed drums and new-wave synths. There's something sweetly DIY about it: the vocals aren't the sharpest, the sound overall isn't the smoothest, and the duo seems in a hurry to get somewhere, even when they're playing more slowly. Songs run together like one stream, with similarities in structure. Punk spirit (1-2-3-4 count-offs, chant-like choruses) is given to more 'pop' songwriting, though raggedly so. Some songs succeed through energy and brashness alone, others through their hooks. "Grand" is like an instrumental rendition of the rough spirit behind the album. Closer "Light Speed" slows things down and gets emotional, while adding a futuristic tinge to the vocals. There's not a whole lot of diversity here, but you can't beat this self-titled LP for a good old-fashioned rush of energy, a fresh slap in the face. – dave heaton

Mid-State Orange, Odds (Candle)

There's nothing better than a pop album (bright, catchy, melodic) that also has heft to it, and surprise. Odds keeps growing before your ears, seeming more complex, with each track more like unending layers of song than something to be quickly consumed and discarded. Here the Australian group Mid-State Orange is playing textured pop that may seem innocuous at first, but gains in stature as you listen. It comes from the array of instruments, from the stylistic changes, but most of all from the overall songwriting and musicianship. Odds begins with a lounge-y, Kraut-rock-ish instrumental jam before gliding into a sprightly pop/rock anthem, Lucien Richter singing firmly but softly about life's ups and downs, about trying to live with the "Best Intentions." Odds contains a bunch of smart, tightly composed songs about love and the lack of it; guitar-based pop songs with strings and synths and other balancing/competing elements; hints of bossa nova, of rhythmic Neu!-like jams, of rock explosions. These stylistic surprises and shadings add mystery and dynamic force to songs that are already potent considerations of life, stories of people and their problems. The hooks here carry a lot of feeling – listen to Richter's emotive singing on the standout string-laden ballad "Rivers" – but so does the music itself. Listen for the surprising moments where the rock backdrop explodes to the front, as on the charged "Second in a Two-Horse Race". It explodes without annihilating the song itself. Overall Mid-State Orange takes a muscular approach to sensitive-pop music. Odds showcases both wide reach and the courage to go in whatever direction seems right at the time. – dave heaton

My Teenage Stride, Ears Like Golden Bats (Becalmed)

Ears Like Golden Bats starts off swinging with style on opener "Reception", with a snappy beat, melodic bass, guitars that punch up at the right moments, and Jerediah Smith singing in a romantic tone, "God bless the criminals / God bless the crime / when you've got something good you've got to take your time." And we fall right in line, under their spell… There's a casual efficiency to this music that I love. It's smooth and breezy but also filled with sparkling melodies and harmonies, expressive and unique lyrics, guitars that ring out, bass that rolls, drums that kick, synths that accent and surround (all in perfectly pleasing ways), and upward motion, an energy of moving forward. It's obvious they're in love with the smart, sensitive pop classics, with the Smiths, Felt, the Go-Betweens, Television Personalities, but it's also music very much in the moment. This is instantly pleasing, immediately classic music to those of us who appreciate this style. Listen to a song like the title track, with the synth delicately leading in to a surge, and lyrics like "I never thought that it would be this way / you're going to let me down." Everything feels exactly right. So fresh, so clean, humorous ("To Live and Die in the Airport Lounge") and emotional…a pop sound that hits all the right buttons. The album packs a punch (a melancholy-pop punch), with power moving in the direction of harmonic perfection, melodic optimism expressing uncertainty. Guitars that rise up to hide the tears. – dave heaton

Smart Brown Handbag, HarryLarry (Stone Garden)

HarryLarry is the 10th album from Smart Brown Handbag, and I'm not going to pretend it isn't the first one I've heard from them. Musically, they seem to aspire to the kind of pop songs that the hip kids like. I like that kind of music as well as the next fellow, but this collection didn't really inspire me one way or the other. HarryLarry is a competently put together recording, but not one thing about it strikes me as outstanding. "Clearing the Slate" begins promisingly enough, with some nice sonic flourishes suggesting the band might take a slightly experimentally road. Soon enough, though, they settle into more predictable pop territory. The band performs well enough, but the songwriting isn't strong enough to carry the day. The hooks are unmemorable, the lyrics a bit forced. Consider this from "Sliver of Light:" "It’s pure/A polygraph/Your history dissolves/Into chicken scratch." Or, from "Let's Start:" " The L.A. sky is stingy/Is it a star or is it a airplane?/Either way there’s a light up a ahead." If those grab you, then maybe you should give this one chance. If not, you'll probably want to pass. – ted kane

Carolyn Southworth, At the End of the Day (Heron's Point Music)

Washington State-based artist Carolyn Southworth composes sumptuously melodic instrumentals that film vivid images in the brain. This is soundtrack music with a poet's ear. On "Highlander," a homage to Southworth's Scottish origins, and "Silver Lining" Southworth conjures images of wide-open spaces, visions of raindrops falling on emerald trees and vast miles of land. Her piano playing is delicate yet dramatic; they can drift across the ears with the plaintive walk of tear-filled clouds, like on "Once in a Lifetime" and "In the Wake of the Storm," or stroll with uplifting self-confidence ("Sideways," "Where Eagles Soar"). Whatever moods they are conveying (which is open to interpretation), the overall effect is a relaxing, engaging one. Produced by Grammy nominee Paul Spear with Southworth herself, the CD sounds utterly pristine; there isn't an awkward note or recording flaw on it. However, the studio slickness doesn't detach the listener from the feelings that Southworth is attempting to get across. - michael sutton

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