Welcome to A&A. There are 17 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 #246 reviews
(October 2003)

  • The Abstractions Ars Vivende (Edgetone-Pax)
  • Cheer Accident Gumballhead the Cat comic book and soundtrack (Skin Graft)
  • Fiel Garvie Leave Me Out of This (Words on Music)
  • Hello Defective Kill Us Now (Element 115)
  • Hum & the Quick Like...This (self-released)
  • Katie the Pest | Banner Day split EP (Toy Records)
  • Mark McKay Live from the Memory Hotel (Dren)
  • Mojave 3 Spoon and Rafter (4AD/Beggars Banquet)
  • Motorpsycho + Jaga Jazzist Horns In the Fishtank (Konkurrent-Touch and Go)
  • Plink The Sleeping Lines (Wordclock)
  • The Ramblin' Ambassadors Avanti (Mint)
  • Slowride Building a Building (Deep Elm)
  • Spottiswoode and His Enemies Building a Road (self-released)
  • The Stills Logic Will Break Your Heart (Vice)
  • Surrounded Safety in Numbers (Deep Elm)
  • 383 Stroker You Keep Yours (Space Ape)
  • Tigerella Tigerella (Shmat)
  • Also recommended: The best of the rest

    The Abstractions
    Ars Vivende

    The Abstractions are Ernesto Diaz-Infante, Rent Romus, Bob Marsh and a host of friends. If you know anything about the folks listed above, then you know what you're getting into here.

    Or maybe not. These songs do have a highly improvisational feel, but there's a strange sort of avant-groove riffing through many of them. Sort of a lurching, menacing feeling that the noise is, indeed, coalescing into something deeper and infinitely more terrifying.

    The folks also utterly deconstruct "But Not for Me," a delightful Gershwin tune that is rendered into burnt offal. It's not supposed to be funny; I'm really not sure of the intent, period. Which goes for the whole album. I don't have a firm grasp on what these folks are doing most of the time, and that's probably what makes this album so attractive to my ears.

    Ominous rumblings from an alternate dimension. This is music for those inhabiting the outer realms of reality. If you think you're normal, be afraid. Be very afraid. And run away. Now.

    Edgetone Records
    P.O. Box 2281
    El Cerrito, CA 94530
    www: http://www.edgetonerecords.com

    Pax Recordings
    P.O. Box 591138
    San Francisco, CA 94159-1138
    e-mail: info@paxrecordings.com
    www: http://www.paxrecordings.com

    Gumballhead the Cat comic book and soundtrack CD
    (Skin Graft)

    I can't really say if this is what might be described as "the new Cheer-Accident album" or if it is, as the cover says, merely a soundtrack to the enclosed comic book. Skin Graft specializes in this sort of thing, and I think I've already spent too long pondering my silly question.

    I mean, what we have here is more than an hour of new Cheer Accident music. And a nice comic book. The set is packaged as a seven-inch might be, which might post some display problems for record stores, but since there are only four stores left that would even think to sell anything such as this, well, I guess it doesn't matter.

    Right. Cheer Accident. A Chicago-based semi-collective which features (on this outing) Jamie Fillmore, Thymme Jones, Jeff Libersher and Kyle Bruckmann (Bruckmann has the dreaded "with" appellation attached to his name, whatever that means). These guys like to play highly-deconstructed rock music, but somehow they make it sound almost accessible. Almost.

    Mostly instrumental fare, which isn't unheard of for these boys. After all, this is a soundtrack. Anyway, if you know Cheer-Accident, then this set of songs won't disappoint. And if you're in the mood for some pleasantly warped takes on the future of music (not to mention a cool, snarky comic book), well, you could do a lot worse than this. Let the grooves blast their way into your brain. In no time at all, they'll have you living right.

    Skin Graft
    P.O. Box 257546
    Chicago, IL 60625
    Phone (312) 989-9865
    Fax [312] 989-9202
    www: http://www.skingraftrecords.com

    Fiel Garvie
    Leave Me Out of This
    (Words on Music)

    Dreamy, lush, Britpop that reminds me a lot of Mazzy Star or Elysian Fields or stuff like that, except that Fiel Garvie is never lethargic.

    Which is not to say these songs are quick or in any way fast-paced. Nope. Fiel Garvie navel-gazes as much as anyone, and the songs can pretty much all be lumped into the languid category. But there's just too much going on to fall asleep when this stuff is playing.

    Part of it is the tasteful distortion and echo-filled sound achieved by the producer. These songs are interesting on their own, but the vaguely mysterious feel caused by the sound made me bite almost immediately. Just a bit of a skin crawl combined with nervous curiosity.

    One of those albums that took a while to really prick up my ears. Cool stuff, to be sure, but how cool? I'm beginning to think that this album is much better than I first imagined. I keep coming back for another hit.

    Words on Music
    715 University Ave. SE #201
    Minneapolis, MN 55414
    e-mail: tidings@words-on-music.com
    www: http://www.words-on-music.com

    Hello Defective
    Kill Us Now
    (Element 115)

    A few months ago, Hello Defective (which contains the creative core of the fine band ESP All-Stars) released the Plastic Hearts EP. I dug it immensely. Now comes a full-length which also features the four songs from the EP.

    I've never liked that sort of marketing. Makes the folks who bought the EP feel cheated or something. But enough of my soapbox. Time to talk about the music. And, as with everything I've heard from Mssrs. Armitage and Kirby, the five songs on this disc I haven't heard before (Stop it! Just stop it!) are simply outstanding.

    Yes, these boys are from Oklahoma City, and yes, they play a highly-processed form of psychedelic pop music. Not unlike another band we all know and love. The comparisons are obvious, and I'm sure Hello Defective is a bit tired of them. Too bad. They'll have to change their sound to get rid of all that nonsense. But I wouldn't do that, because these boys sure do know how to make their songs shimmer.

    And in the end, there's no way to rip off the Flaming Lips, apart from stripping out actual chunks of music. Hello Defective plays in the same pool, and it also produces similarly impressive sounds. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, if all bands were as creative as these boys, no one would be bitching about how terrible music is these days. I dunno. I'm a sucker for this stuff. You know that. These boys play it real nice. 'Nuff sed.

    Element 115
    P.O. Box 2754
    Oklahoma City, OK 73101
    Phone (405) 408-4686

    Hum & the Quick
    Peek EP

    The album is merely 18 songs long. The EP contains a new version of "Peek" (which also appears on the album) and two other tracks. You get both of them at once, as long as supplies last. And thus ends my shill.

    Or maybe not. Hum & the Quick plays extensively orchestrated fare. There's plenty of piano and accordion and strings and other nice bits of accompaniment. The songs themselves are generally introspective downers, with lyrics that often express utter confusion with the reality of the world.

    That would be as seen by the character of each song, of course. The lyrics themselves are deft enough to turn themselves around, illuminating their own inconsistencies. I'm not sure if this is meant to actually contradict, or merely to exude ambiguity. I'm not sure that it matters much.

    Hum & the Quick is the rare band that is able to play what might be construed as depressing fare and still leave its listeners with a smile. After all the pondering and hang-wringing and toil, it turns out that maybe life isn't so bad. As long as that 16-ton weight hanging over my head doesn't fall.

    www: http://www.humandthequick.com

    Katie the Pest
    Banner Day

    split EP
    (Toy Records)

    Katie the Pest is a dead-ringer for Cub, except that instead of a trio, only two women make up the band. Talia Rose and Mary Suzuki play blissful pop tunes. It's amazing how sweet a simple guitar and drum sound can be. The four songs here are just wonderful.

    Banner Day also plays peppy, poppy stuff, though with more attitude (and, you know, bass). The hooks are on the complicated side, but these boys carry them off with ease. As with Katie the Pest, there are only four songs. And once again, I'm left wanting more.

    Quite a fine introduction to both bands. I'm particularly taken with Katie the Pest (for the obvious reasons, I suppose), but Banner Day is just as impressive. Sheer happiness.

    Toy Records
    P.O. Box 7771
    Long Beach, CA 90807
    e-mail: music@toyrecords.com
    www: http://www.toyrecords.com

    Mark McKay
    Live from the Memory Hotel

    Actually, this is live from Jammin' Java outside of D.C., but I have to admit, Mark McKay's title sounds cooler. Not that he needs any special enhancers. What he does is certainly good enough.

    McKay is all alone on three tracks. Four more feature Kris Delmhorst's smoky vocals and evocative fiddle playing. The second half of the disc shows off June Star, a fine rootsy four-piece band. No matter the personnel, the key here is McKay's songwriting.

    Here's a fine test: He does a version of Springsteen's "Atlantic City," and it fits right in with the rest of his electified tunes with June Star. This isn't to say that McKay writes like Springsteen--he really doesn't have much in the way of anthemic tendencies whatsoever. But his chops are solid, and his songs stand up quite nicely.

    And the performances, well, they range from merely very good to incendiary. These songs were recorded on three nights over six months of last year, and McKay sounds like he was on every time. Sure, that's why you edit, but still. This set shows off a fine songwriter in full play. A very nice set.

    Dren Records
    P.O. Box 22496
    Philadelphia, PA 19110
    e-mail: drenrecords@yahoo.com
    www: http://www.drenrecords.com

    Mojave 3
    Spoon and Rafter
    (4AD-Beggars Banquet)

    Anyone who has heard Mojave 3 has an opinion. I know folks who love these guys, and I know those who would take the band's CDs out for skeet practice. Very few people are ambivalent, which is kinda odd, considering the measured, highly-crafted folk pop the band purveys.

    It's something of a cop-out to say that this album will enchant current fans and irritate those in the opposite camp. But this is just another outstanding Mojave 3 album. The song are flawless, though that very fact is exactly what can drive people to violence. How can you dislike something so perfect?

    Well, I don't know. I'm in the pro-Mojave 3 group, and I happen to think that very few bands write such consistently good songs. Sure, this isn't the stuff you're going to play at your next kegger, but I think that's the point. There's plenty of room for thoughtful, nuanced pop music, which is exactly what these folks play.

    This is no groundbreaking album, and it's not likely to garner many new fans for the band. But I fail to see the shame in praising a band that has hit its stride. When music is this good, I can't help but get a little excited.

    Beggars Banquet
    580 Broadway
    Suite 1004
    New York, NY 10012
    Phone (212) 343-7010
    Fax [212] 343-7030
    e-mail: banquet@beggars.com
    www: http://www.beggars.com

    Jaga Jazzist Horns

    In the Fishtank
    (Konkurrent-Touch and Go)

    For those not in the know, Konkurrent is a Dutch label. Every once in a while, it invites a band to jam in the studio--often with another band in tow. The results are chronicled by the In the Fishtank series. This is the tenth such jam.

    But which Motorpsycho would show up? Perhaps the horn section provides a hint: These sessions are all about cool jazz, funky soul and, um, prog rock. Of all the thousands of ways the boys might have gone...

    To be sure, Motorpsycho is just about impossible to pigeonhole, and the five songs here (including the 21-minute behemoth "Tristano") defy easy description. Let's just say that the horn section is an ace addition to Motorpsycho's unique sound. This album sounds nothing like any other Fishtank session. These are no improvisations; these songs are burnished to a shine.

    Wow. I suppose any moron could have predicted this outing would, indeed, be mindblowing. But come on, man. This is one of the great albums of the year, period. If Motorpsycho has the creativity to put together something like this in a week's time, then their next "planned" project ought to be a real stunner. Contact:
    Touch and Go
    P.O. Box 25520
    Chicago, IL 60625
    Phone (773) 388-8888
    Fax [773] 388-3888

    The Sleeping Lines

    So do you remember the "experimental" new wave bands? The ones that used electronic pop sounds to try and create something utterly new?

    Yeah, me neither. I mean, there were bands like Can, but was Can new wave? Yeesh. Don't ask me. In any case, Plink sounds a lot like the early goth new wave bands (say, the Mission) with everything stripped down to its bare essence: minimalist rhythms, the occasional keyboard wash and ethereal vocals. And boy, is this stuff seductive.

    Not in a "I'm gonna make love to you, woman" kinda way. More of an intellectual seduction, a sly, slinky wit that slowly deceives your brain into believing that Plink is actually doing more than it is. There is the illusion of greatness here. It's an illusion that's truly tough to break.

    In the end, this house of cards stands. The foundation is rock solid, and even if the walls might be paper thin, they're decorated with the most beautiful patterns imaginable. I'm entranced.

    Wordclock Records
    P.O. Box 3266
    Merrifield, VA 22116
    www: http://www.wordclock.com

    The Ramblin' Ambassadors

    So is it fair to say that most of the best instrumental rock and roll comes from the great white north? Oh, sure, perhaps the finest instrumental band of the last 20 years (Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet) was Canadian, but does that mean Americans don't know how to rock without vocals?

    The Fucking Champs aside, I'd have to answer yes. But in any case, Mint seems to find these wacky Canadian instrumental quartets and trios with ease. Which brings me to the latest example: The Ramblin' Ambassadors.

    One part surf (there's always one part surf), one part spaghetti western (ditto), one part psychobilly and one part bad attitude, these three guys really have a great feel for the instrumental. These songs say more than most songs with vocals. Well, they say it louder than most songs with vocals, anyway.

    Easy to love, easy to play over and over again. The Ramblin' Ambassadors have crafted a short, sweet album full of cheesy licks that are very quickly addictive. Quite the confection.

    P.O. Box 3613
    Main Post Office
    Vancouver, BC V6B 3Y6
    Phone (604) 669-MINT
    Fax [604] 669-6478
    e-mail: mintrand@aol.com
    www: http://www.mintrecs.com

    Building a Building
    (Deep Elm)

    Highly-crafted power pop rock, turbocharged with a heavy dose of garage attitude. How's that for combining yer trends?

    In short, the tempos are just short of breakneck, the riffs fuzzy and the hooks sharp but sweet. The vocal melodies are vaguely atonal--that's part of the garage bit, I guess--and that just adds to the dirty feel of this album.

    Which is where the sterling production comes in. Slowride writes great songs, but these things could have had the life produced out of them. Instead, this grungy (you know, as in greasy and gritty) mess scrubbed into the songs gives them a cool, "authentic" sound.

    A whole lot of fun, with songs that have a bit more heft to them than might be excepted on first listen. This album is yet another example of how good these guys are at making good music.

    Deep Elm Records
    P.O. Box 36939
    Charlotte, NC 28236
    Phone (803) 631-6319
    Fax [803] 631-6314
    e-mail: info@deepelm.com
    www: www.deepelm.com

    Spottiswoode and His Enemies
    Building a Road

    Jonathan Spottiswoode has a pleasant rasp that is moderately reminiscent of Tom Waits. He's also got a way of traversing genres (with truly twisted results) that might remind a listener of Mr. Waits. Of course, if you listen to just one song, you'll realize that Spottiswoode is completely and utterly his own man.

    Yes, the mood is dark--sometimes spooky, sometimes quirky--but these aren't songs steeped in depression and disappointment. They're just windows into the deeper recesses of humanity.

    Spottiswoode likes to write about flawed characters. Many of these songs revel in dysfunction, encouraging the listener to embrace his or her own inner turmoil. After all, everyone has to face the demons someday.

    I guess the most astonishing thing about these songs is their delicate nature. Even when steeped in the blues and backed by a gospel-style choir, the writing is precise and direct, with each song progressing at its own pace until fully unfurled. The sort of music that is immediately unforgettable.

    www: http://www.spottiswoode.com

    The Stills
    Logic Will Break Your Heart

    Four guys from Montreal who really, really, want to be the Smiths. But hey, they sound great doing it, so why complain?

    Okay, yes, there is the standard complaint that it's still remarkably easy to buy Smiths records. And there are those who think a band ought to aspire to more than simply aping someone else. Fair enough. But perhaps I'm making too much of the similarity.

    The vocals aren't nearly so affected as Morrisey's (a big plus, in my book), and these songs are decidedly upbeat. Imagine if Johnny Marr had been allowed to kick mucho ass within the construct of the band. Then you might have an idea of what's really going on here.

    Here's the deal: The Stills have appropriated the soft-edged pop approach of the Smiths without actually stealing a song or even a riff. True-blue Smiths fans will (probably rightfully) turn up their noses. Those of us who are less doctrinaire will simply kick back and enjoy this fine bit of work.

    Vice Records
    75 N. 4th St.
    Brooklyn, NY 11211
    www: http://www.vice-recordings.com

    Safety in Numbers
    (Deep Elm)

    Grandiose, sweeping rock, with reverb-filled yet delicate guitar lines, anthemic melodies and loads of special effects. Surrounded has worked its ass off trying to make an album that sounds important. Which begs the question...

    No, it doesn't quite live up to its own billing. Yeah, this sounds like the "greatest fucking album in the history of the universe." And it's pretty damned good. Just not quite great. Some of the songs aren't complete (and if that's intentional, then it was a bad intent), and every once in a while the lyrics wander down a side path for a bit too long.

    Nonetheless, I won't hesitate to recommend this puppy. The production is quite good--if a bit overdone--and even the "unfinished" songs are good. Ambition is always good in my book, even when a band can't live up to its own desires. Hey, these boys came close. That's worth a lot.

    Again, there are those who might read this as a pan. Hardly. Surrounded has put together a fine album. It's not as good as the boys intended, perhaps, and it certainly doesn't quite live up to the scope of the sound. It's still a most engaging effort. These guys have real potential.

    Deep Elm Records
    P.O. Box 36939
    Charlotte, NC 28236
    Phone (803) 631-6319
    Fax [803] 631-6314
    e-mail: info@deepelm.com
    www: www.deepelm.com

    383 Stroker
    You Keep Yours
    (Space Ape)

    Time for one last blast of summer. 383 Stroker plays a wonderful sunny brand of rock and roll that packs a tuneful punch. The key to this kinda stuff is to keep things loose. Don't get complicated, and when in doubt, push the tempo.

    These boys execute to perfection. Fizzy three-chord chunks of joy, with just enough power to provide that right bit of heft. When done right, this kinda stuff sounds effortless.

    As it does here. Sure, we're talking about confection, but dessert is a vital part of meal time. 383 Stroker doesn't need to apologize for making people tap their feet and smile.

    Simple pleasures can be some of the finest. These boys don't plan to take over the world, but they'll entertain for a while. And that's just fine with me.

    Space Ape Records
    P.O. Box 7007
    Rochelle Park, NJ 07662


    Mannered pop music with the necessary clever lyrics and slightly off-kilter delivery. Reminds me a lot of the band Clockhammer (a reference that few will recognize, but whatever), with a the Wedding Present coming in on slight return.

    The songs are built around the lyrics, but unlike most band who focus on what their songs "say," Tigerella makes sure to keep the music fresh and interesting. You'd be surprised how many folks can't do this.

    The sound is simple and undecorated. Bright, but without any shiny extras. Right where a band like this ought to be. Give the vocals the space they need, and give the stellar playing all the room it needs as well.

    Quite simply, a joy to hear. Tigerella has a modest vision of itself, but high standards for the end result. The work paid off. This is one fun, quirky album.

    Shmat Records
    P.O. Box 1191
    Alhambra, CA 91802

    Also recommended:

    Ashen Pull and Repel (Two Sheds)
    Dreamy, intricate, long-form post-pop sounds. Ashen trips around and around and around, eventually arriving at a most agreeable destination. An unusual idea executed extremely well.

    Darby Jones Harmony and Discord (RSM)
    Crunchy bash 'n' pop, replete with shiny hooks and sharp riffage. If AOR radio had picked up on this kinda stuff 10 years ago, it would still have listeners. This stuff may be a little lost in today's marketplace, but the idealist in me likes to think there's always space for good music.

    Good for You Neurotic Showering Habits (Good Forks)
    Two guys (and a revolving set of bass players) who play whatever comes to mind at any given moment. Really. Yeah, most of the songs pop out at some point, but Good for You is almost ritualistically opposed to sonic cohesion. Me, I like that sorta attitude. Every song has three or five surprises. Most engaging.

    High Llamas Beet, Maize & Corn (Drag City)
    Sounds like Sean O'Hagan and the boys have finally given up on mass acceptance. Those who already like the Llamas dig the obsessive production and eerily complicated song structure. This album is not just more of the same; it's a lot more of the same. This puppy will most definitely not win many converts, but devotees should be ecstatic.

    Ted Leo and the Pharmacists Tell Balgeary, Balgury Is Dead (Lookout)
    A full set of punk experimentation, with everything from shiny pop ravers to decidedly artsy screeds, Ted Leo and the boys sure know how to fill a small sock with plenty of goodies. Something of an acquired taste, to be sure, but one that satisfies with a real kick.

    The Mexican Blackbirds Just to Spite You (Dirtnap)
    Garage punk (that's actually a description and not simply me repeating myself) produced with as little flair as possible. The Mexican Blackbirds are extraordinarily energetic, and that verve translates into a most exciting album. Subtle? No. Fun? Oh yeah.

    Midnight Syndicate Dungeons & Dragons official roleplaying soundtrack (Entity Productions)
    Midnight Syndicate has been making quality instrumental goth/darkwave stuff for ages. The hook-up with D&D is a natural, and it's a great way to bring more people into the fold. The thing I like about these boys is their sense of scope. Despite being created more than performed, these pieces have real heft. Most enjoyable.

    Sarah Pillow remixes 2xCD (Buckyball)
    Here's an interesting idea: One disc with Pillow singing "straight" (that is, with period instrumentation) versions of classical songs. And then a second disc of "remixes," or the same vocals set to a wide variety of music. Not every "remix" is a winner, but most are. I like the concept. There's plenty to explore here.

    Sick of It All Life on the Ropes (Fat Wreck Chords)
    Hardcore stalwarts being, well, stalwart. Sick of It All doesn't need to apologize for putting out another solid album. Sure, this is immediately identifiable as SOIA--and the songs don't deviate much from the band's long-running conception of hardcore--but in my book that's a plus. These boys know how to fill out the sound.

    Subset Dueling Devotions (Tight Spot)
    A smart trio that crashes its way through some thoughtful rock. Oh, these guys make a lot of noise, but there's a layer of ideas beneath the surface that gets my attention. More going on here than initially meets the ear.

    Trace|Rocketship split EP 2xCD (Omnibus)
    That's not a misprint. Each band gets its own disc, but the total time of both is less than 27 minutes. Rocketship is (well, was) a fun group of studio fiends, and Trace is a trippy, ADD-addled rock band. I'm not entirely sure how these bands fit together, but they sure do make some fine noise.

    Various Artists The Socumtonar Collection: Volume One (Ascetic)
    Three songs from DMS and two each from Riddle of Steel, Houston and Ring, Cicada. The connecting factor here is a decided disregard for conventional songwriting. I guess the bands all fit (rather vaguely) into the whole post-rock sound, but each is so unique it's hard to really slap the same label on all of them. Quite a fun disc.

    Various Artists Wide Hive Remixed (Wide Hive)
    Sixteen tracks that show off the wide array of artists who call Wide Hive home. Variable Unit alone is more diverse than most labels. The remixes do a nice job of presenting old stuff in a new frame without losing track of the original. Quite the showcase.

    Vue Down for Whatever (RCA)
    There's something oxymoronic and slightly silly about a major label releasing garage music. Vue is slicker (and more importantly, much thicker) than most of today's garage revivalists, but the songwriting is solid enough to keep me interested. It may be flavor of the month, but at least these folks do it with style.

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