Welcome to A&A. There are 22 full reviews in this issue. Click on an artist to jump to the review, or simply scroll through the list. If you want information on any particular release, check out the Label info page. All reviews are written by Jon Worley unless otherwise noted.|
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A&A #243 reviews (July 2003)
Black Lines to Battlefields EP
(The Militia Group)
Coming in on the power pop side of emo, Acceptance creates wonderfully tight hooks that don't overdo the sugar. I kinda like that, myself.
This is highly-crafted stuff, the sort of work that doesn't bear much resemblance to the band's punk roots. Nonetheless, it's easy to hear that energy in the performance, where the manic energy is channeled into an almost pristine intensity.
The sort of EP that makes me wish for a full-length. Acceptance fits into the current scene, but it has carved out a fine niche for itself. That's rather tough to do in this area of the music universe, but these boys do seem to have a knack for getting things right.
So imagine that there really is a direct line from new wave to goth pop to industrial dance music. Such a musical etymology would require some sort of missing link to put everything together. A Piltdown Man, if you will--except for the fraud, of course.
Avenpitch does this nicely. There are some industrial dance style guitars, and the vocals are pleasantly distorted as well. The keyboard melodies flow straight from the early goth school, and the sound of those keys and the drum machines are pure Human League (Dare, of course).
The song construction style is fairly conventional, but the cool presentation gives these pieces a truly unique sound. Avenpitch is one of those bands that takes a few moments to truly wend its way into the brain. Once it's there, though, it's like those worms from Wrath of Khan: Remove and you die.
Highly addictive once the poison sets. Very few bands are able to take a plethora of "historic" sounds and blend them into something truly modern. Avenpitch is extraordinary.
I'm always surprised whenever I hear an MC who can really flow the rhymes. It's not that I think it's all that tough to be smooth. It merely takes a lot of hard work. But the style today (and for the last decade) has been overwhelmingly messy. Richard Marshall (who goes by Bien) prefers to float against the tide.
Thank God. Hey, I like loopy, disjointed hip-hop as well as the next guy, but it takes hard work to make that sound work as well. And most of the folks who sling slop are simply lazy. Marshall and producer Matt James have crafted eleven superb tracks that spin some fine science but are also just as comfy throbbing at parties.
The sound is late 80s, a sophisticated, complex version of the pop rap that destroyed the street value of hip hop for a time. Bien gets it right, using catchy electronic beats and a clean production sound to create a real sense of adventure. What I'm trying to say is that Bien is at home in the mainstream, but there's so much depth in these songs that the more studied listener will also find plenty to enjoy.
Yeah, okay, so I'm an old fogey. I actually like to know what people say, and I'm not above enjoying some throbbing bass. But there's no questioning Marshall's skills on the mic or James's studio acumen. This album is for real. Bien is a true master.
Stephen Clair's songs sound like he's writing them at the same moment as he's playing them. There's an off-the-cuff feel that he infuses into his performance that is positively electric. While I know that these songs are the result of countless hours of struggle and practice, I always feel like I'm discovering the pieces at the same time Clair is.
Does that make sense? I hope so. Clair is that peculiarly New York sort of singer-songwriter (think Paul Simon or Lou Reed, two guys who have a lot more in common than you might think) who manages to be sentimental and cynical and slyly cool at the same damn time.
Part of that comes from his impeccable phrasing. Clair is often just off the beat--much like Reed. This presentation works because of the informality it adds to the arrangement. Unlike Reed or Simon, Clair works in that post-post-folk, alt. country kinda sound, though he does a nice ear for a pop hook. He doesn't overplay the candy, but he acknowledges its power.
An album full of understated gems. Don't let Clair fool you--it takes more work than you can imagine to create such an effortless sound. When you toil so long as to remove all the scaffolding of craft, you know you're done. Clair has done it.
It wouldn't be too hard to dismiss this stuff as Eno-era Bowie. Especially when you consider that these boys were riding herd in the late 70s. But there are a couple of key differences.
First, this stuff is fun. Okay, it's fun in a Gary Numan sort of way, but shit, man, that's still fun. And where Bowie was obviously just trying on a new coat, these guys truly believed in the sound they created.
Which isn't to say this is anything more than great early new wave stuff. It's not. But I'm one of those people with a strange passion for vaguely robotic vocals and gorgeous melodies processed through a synthesizer. Must come from being born in 1970 or something like that.
I rarely review reissues (or retrospectives, which is more what this is). This one is worth the look back. Not for historical importance or anything silly like that. Just for fun.
Alice Despard Group
Thinning of the Veil
Alice Despard is one of the great songwriters going these days. That she's been around D.C. for almost forever probably has something to do with that. Couldn't hurt.
If her writing skills weren't enough, Despard has a haunting, low-alto voice that immediately brings chills to the spine. She uses it well, holding back its full power until just the right spot in each song.
Despard's songs generally resemble road trips. They meander, often running through the same territory over and over again until ultimately cresting the hill and discovering a stunning vista. This isn't conventional by any standard, but that doesn't mean these songs are difficult to grasp. Just the opposite. Despard's repetitive approach is hypnotizing, and she always snaps her fingers at just the right moment.
I'm not sure I can say much more than I have in the past. Despard is one of my favorite singer/songwriters. She's unique and utterly compelling. I can't think of a higher compliment.
The Edge of the World 2xCD
You know how the liner notes in CD cases are called "booklets"? Dragonfly does that one better. The CD case is a book in itself, complete with a plethora of photos and artwork in addition to the usual liner materials.
The kind of care and dedication that such a presentation requires also went into the music. Dragonfly plays rock music. Somewhat dramatic and "important sounding," if you get my drift, but always with a deft touch. There's nothing ponderous or overdone here.
Rather, most of the songs are somewhat understated. I like that. Miki Singh is quite an emotive singer, but he doesn't allow himself to fall into trick of excessive histrionics. He just sings with feeling. That applies to the rest of the band as well. There are a million chances here to fall off the cliff, but Dragonfly resists.
This is the sort of music that used to thrill millions. You know, the same kinda stuff that used to sell boatloads of U2 and Pearl Jam albums (very general references, to be sure). With any luck, millions will find their way to Dragonfly.
I reviewed the last Dragons record, and while I was somewhat impressed by the band, the production on that disc was way overdone. I thought these boys needed to strip down and let the energy flow freely.
That's exactly what happens here. Like those great, lo-fi Motorhead albums of the early 1980s, every instrument has a little space and there's just enough distortion to give an edge. Everything else is pure attitude and aggression.
Which these boys have in droves. Each song starts at 100 and then accelerates. The writing is sharp and the lyrics are good--sometimes even inspiring. But what works the best is the sharp-yet-loose production sound. It suits these boys perfectly.
It's amazing how much the producer has to do with a successful album. The Dragons are proof of that. This album is so much better than the last that it might as well have been recorded by a different band. I haven't heard a pedal-to-the-metal rock album this great in some time.
The Man on the Burning Tightrope
Anyone who has been reading A&A for a while knows I love Firewater. I'm not the most objective person when it comes to judging the muse of Tod A and company. So it shouldn't surprise anyone that I adore this album as well.
This disc finds Tod A in full roar. Unlike last year's Psychopharmacology, whose dreariness was necessary to properly address the subject, this puppy is ringed with a dark light. The lyrics are as blistering as ever, and the circus theme (which isn't omnipresent, but does crop up from time to time) seem to have inspired the band to truly twisted heights.
There are 16 songs here, a definite expansion from the 10 we received last time out. The album isn't that much longer, but it feels more complete. Once again, Tod A stretches himself musically and lyrically--a couple songs go places where I've never heard Firewater before.
Some surprises and some (as it were) comfy "traditional" Firewater songs. There are bands that run out of steam. And then there's Firewater, which always seems to know how to keep its juices potent. Another great album.
About what you might expect from the Dead Teenager posse. Blistering hard rock infused with spectacular riffage and oozing attitude from every pore. Reminds me of Zeke.
I wonder why. Dead Teenager is the home of Camarosmith (a post-Zeke project), but Flamethrower outdoes the ex-Zekesters at their own game. Short, fast songs that last just long enough to leave a righteous stain.
Jack Endino helmed the board, and he did his usual bang-up job. This puppy has real power. The low end is almost infinite in its reach. Damn, that's one fine rumble.
A simple pleasure, and one that I refuse to apologize for in any way. Some folks know how to kick ass. The guys in Flamethrower are masters.
Imagine White Zombie (post-Caroline, natch) reincarnated as a funky industrial dance outfit. No, a really soulful one. Freax does show a few seams at the points of assembly, but even those fault lines have some charm.
Mostly, though, there's this fun fuzzy riffage laid over tight grooves. The stuff is hardly complicated, and I think that's why it works so well. When what you do works, why screw it up with extra shit?
Don't get me wrong about these folks--there's plenty of little electronic bits dropped in here and there. Has to be, really, to fit the style. But those little extras are just that. They don't get in the way of the stuff that works. There's no distraction from the joy.
A little heavy fuzz and soul for the summer. Something to bring me up and let me down easy. Can't as much more than that.