Welcome to A&A. There are 20 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 #251 reviews (March 2004)
On the Culture Industry
This Asheville (N.C.) trio plays close to my heart. The label web page lists Don Caballero and Colossamite as obvious influences--damn, these boys are too good to be true!
And, yeah, they play a funky, proggy, jazzy sort of post-rock kinda thing. I understand some folks are calling this type of technical rock "math." That's cool. Beats "post-rock," I guess. Hell, I'm always five years behind genre names, anyway...
What's important is the music. And what Ahleuchatistas (I don't know what the name means, either) does is lay down some basic themes and then riff on a few variations. You know, like all those dreary compositions your piano teacher tried to get you to play. Except, of course, these pieces are hardly dreary. They're bright and exciting, brimming with all sorts of ideas.
That's the best thing about this sort of abstract music. It's whatever you happen to make of it. Let your mind wander a bit and see where the lines take you. Chances are you'll end up in most interesting environs.
Azeem with Variable Unit
Variable Unit is a wide-ranging collective of musicians and such. Azeem is one of the most inventive and perceptive MCs going these days. From what the press notes say, these talented folks kinda hung out for a while and, after a good amount of jamming and experimentation, this album emerged.
Certainly, Azeem seems to be in more of a freestyle mode here, though as Variable Unit is very much into crafting the final product, my guess is that these are hardly dressed-up improvisations. Rather, the songs have an exciting spontaneous feel enhanced by the depth that comes from hard work in the studio.
Much more low-key than recent albums from both Azeem and VU. The feel is cool--as in the birth of the--but combined with the burbling undercurrent of those earliest fusion ventures. Using the Miles reference once again, something's definitely brewing.
The sound on this album is simply amazing. It lulls the listener into a comfort zone and then raises the stakes. The intensity is constant throughout, but it becomes apparent only now and then. Ah, the benefits of fine crafting. Quite a divine organic experience.
The Bloody Lovelies
Some Truth and a Little Money
The Bloody Lovelies play a pleasant sort of rollicking pop, lying somewhere between the Box Tops and Big Star. Except for the piano. That changes everything.
Nearly every song is driven by singer Randy Wooten's piano playing, which adds a certain Randy Newman (early 70s, not Toy Story) or maybe Supertramp (again, from the 70s) element. Jaunty, see, but still with a bit of the brood. It's nice that way.
Actually, the boys take care to fully instrument their arrangements, adding horns, a drum machine or whatever else is necessary to fill out the sound for a particular song. The core is always the piano, but there are plenty of decorations.
Those pretties simply add luster to songs which have a natural shine. I guess it's obvious that these boys worship the pop rock of the 70s--and thinking back, a lot of that stuff was purty damned good. Songs that tell stories. Songs with attitude and personality. Songs that are immediately catchy and yet deep enough to withstand incessant replays. It's a crime that these boys are still hawking their own wares, though I think those circumstances will change sooner than later.
I don't get many bluegrass albums in the mail, and it's a shame. I love the stuff. There's something about the frenzied--yet technically perfect--banjo and mandolin picking and raucous shouts that speaks directly to my soul.
But Cairns shows off many more sides of the sound than that. His songs take on all tempos and subjects. He even throws in a gospel quarter for good measure. Cairns is a fine songwriter, and he plays a nice banjo (and rhythm guitar), but most importantly he creates wide open spaces for his compatriots on fiddle and mandolin and such.
That's the nice thing about bluegrass, and acoustic music in general. There's plenty of room for every player to shine without overshadowing anyone. The sound on this album is immaculate--there's none of that tinny "authentic acoustic" sound that I just hate. Rather, the tones here are rich and full. Which is, after all, truly authentic.
If I had to quibble, I do wish Cairns would relax and let loose a bit more. There's plenty of energy on this album, but I need a bit more to send me into the stratosphere. Still, this is a fine collection by any standard. And, for the record, I'd love to hear lots more in the future.
Sounds Like Circles Feel
Calliope is all about fusion. Fusion of rock, jazz, funk, electronica, hip-hop and a few other sounds I can't quite put my finger on just yet. The result is an arresting set of low-key moody rockers. You know, lounge music for music snobs.
Hey, I think that might be a catchphrase or something. Readers from a few years back might recall the derision I heaped upon most "lounge" acts, and so they've probably already picked up on my distinction. This is lounge done well, or perhaps more accurately, mellow mood rock for moderns.
Wow, the hits just keep on coming. What Calliope does better than most is find a solid groove and then chill. The songs don't really go anywhere, but damn, they sound good. And the little stylistic and instrumental decorations about the edges subtly burnish the sound. Just enough to make my smile grow eight miles wide.
Cool. As in cool. You know, cool. Very cool. Am I repeating myself? Maybe, but Calliope deserves as much praise as I can wring from my increasingly meager pen. Everything else written here is mush.
In the Year 20XX...
Damn, I think this set of reviews might end up being some sort of 70s tribute. In a good way, which isn't exactly something I ever expected to hear myself saying. Nonetheless, Chromelodeon channels 70s prog cheese excess into four songs of epic grace and power.
Not unlike a sci fi-nerd version of the Fucking Champs, these boys play synth-drenched mini-operas full of martial beats and sweeping melodies. This stuff is so excessive that it comes almost all the way back to the mainstream.
Yeah, the stuff is silly, but I think the eight members of the band know that. They're just having fun. And that's why this album soars. There's no pretension to be fond anywhere. Just a few folks getting as loopy and geeked-out as possible.
So by now you oughta know if Chromelodeon might be your bag. If you dig music made on a grand scale, I haven't heard better stuff in ages. I haven't had an album thrill me and make me laugh out loud in sheer bliss in ages. Quite the package.
Last Train to Cocksville
The album so brutal that it took three labels to release it. Well, maybe not, but still. This collaboration between two mostly one-man electronic noise masters (each hauls in some friends to help out now and again) is truly staggering.
Andy Ortmann (Panicsville) and E.W. Hagstrom (Cock E.S.P.) are two of the more inventive noise deconstructionists around. They like to take "normal" sounds and reduce them to feedback, distortion and crackle. Then they'll throw in something vaguely recognizable just to fuck with your head. Put the two of them together, and the results are cosmic.
Which isn't exactly what I expected. Often this sort of sonic chaos is best created by one person. If you keep adding cooks, the soup is reduced to burnt beef tips and dried onions. But Hagstrom and Ortmann are nicely restrained, and the pieces here retain the playfulness which characterizes much of their individual work.
It's supposed to be fun, goddamnit! And, truth be told, this album is a blast. Okay, so maybe 500 other people on this planet might agree with me (I'd be willing to go as far as an even thousand), but we know good noise when we hear it, and these two boys have created one fine stew. Hearty enough to eat with a spork.
You Say It Like It's a Bad thing
(Bent Rail Foundation)
Combining the strident, insistent riffage of "old" emo (you know, back before it became pop punk) with the caffeine-inspired manic rhythms of ALL or Descendents (take your pick), Gainer thrashes out 10 altogether lovely songs.
This stuff is very simple, and these boys play by only one rule: Keep the energy levels pegged to 11. Even when the tempos drop a hair, the intensity remains. Gainer simply refuses to get out of your face.
Which is one of the nicer things I've every said about a band, I think. The sound of this album is fine--a little ragged on the edges but razor sharp in the rhythm section. I'm sure that's one of the things that keeps this album so focused and bright.
A fine little adrenaline wire. That Gainer actually knows how to write solid songs with well-considered lyrics is simply another plus. This one's the real deal.
On the surface, Jim Lampos sounds like any other nuevo-folk singer-songwriter. There's the half-sung, half-spoken vocals, the walking guitar lines and the spartan arrangements. All that is de rigeur. But what continues to impress me, album after album, is how much Lampos does with so little.
While my reviews are notorious for ignoring lyrics (a valid complaint), Lampos's phrasing is so exquisite that it's impossible for me to miss his. He's a good guitar player, and he isn't willing to allow his vocals overshadow his rolling picking.
Lampos sings about everyday life--most of the time, lives that reside a few miles from the freeway. He doesn't dress up his characters or try to make them more than they are. He just gives them a quiet dignity. There are echoes of Russell Banks and Richard Russo in his people, and that's only fitting. Like them, he celebrates the natives of the unseen parts of the northeast.
Given his previous efforts, I'm always expecting something wonderful. And it seems that I've always forgotten just how amazing Lampos's songs are, because every time I'm knocked out all over again. Sometimes the great just get greater.
Snow Gas Bones
(Devil in the Woods)
Somewhere between the Jayhawks and Fountains of Wayne (which, come to think of it, is one of the prettiest valleys around) sits Meow Meow, a foursome who can't quite kick the alt. country habit as it launches its songs into pop perfection overdrive.
Did I mention that there's a solid dose of Neil Young (particularly in the sue of feedback and distortion as musical adornments) as well? Hey, these folks sure know where to plumb for inspiration. Lucky for us that they take those ideas and create something entirely, astonishingly new.
Soaring pop songs with pure distortion at the center of the hooks. Gorgeous melodies that slip onto a back road just as they're about to become unbearably beautiful. Subtle, sensitive pieces that are irretrievably marred by the presence of shocking sonic violence.
All that is really, really (really) damned good, by the way. Meow Meow has some sort of inner barometer of great music, because in breaking just about every rule I can think of, these folks have created one of the most breathtaking albums I've heard in ages. Each song is a new adventure; the album is an epic of improbable proportions. Bathe in wonder.
Decomposition: Reinventing Minefield
Four songs from Minefield's After the Ball EP go under the knife, and these 10 remixes emerged. I generally don't get off on remix albums, but this one works for me.
Dead Poets Society, Karl Mohr, Soviet Radio, Cryptomnesia and Soy Futura did the slicing, and what's impressive is how different the interpretations are. Perhaps that's why this collection impresses so much. Creativity unleashed can be fearsome, indeed.
The intent behind this, of course, is to put a larger spotlight on Minefield. Judging by the sounds here, that would be a good thing. There aren't many ethereal industrial goth acts around (that's my description, not the band's), and I'd say these folks are among the best. Quite an impressive set.