Welcome to A&A. There are 16 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 #252 reviews (April 2004)
The Aluminum Group
Essentially the Navin Brothers (Frank and John), joined by pals like John Ridenhour, John McEntire, Doug McCombs, Bill Loman and others. For those uninitiated into the Aluminum world, the sound is electronic pop with an experimental edge. Things get kinky, but there's always a wonderfully warped hook to bring the pieces back to the center.
And not peppy plinks of laptop pop. The Navin boys prefer to use "real" instruments as much as possible, which lends a cool 80s feel to the drum machine-driven beats. Comparisons to Magnetic Fields (and Stephin Merritt in general) are quite apt, both musically and lyrically.
There's a deft economy to the songs. Nothing is overdone, and still the songs sound rich and complete. There's just enough noodling to please the more adventurous folks, and enough wit to sate even the sharpest wag.
The Navin boys aren't mainstream. They don't want to be. They make music for people who actually like music. Most pleasing music, at that.
Eric Barber plays tenor and soprano sax. At least, that's what he does here. The "Maybeck" in the title comes from the Maybeck Recital Hall in Berkeley, where this album was recorded. Not live, as near as I can tell, but simply in the empty hall to take advantage of the marvelous acoustics of the place.
This is Barber alone, by the way. Just him and his muses and demons. The pieces themselves have starkly different characters. Barber is more than willing to deconstruct his own instruments in order to find original sounds, and he's also able to play extremely technical fingerings in a fluid and expressive manner. His adventurousness and ability to shift gears are what really grab my ears.
As for the acoustics of the recital hall--they're amazing. As a former high school band fag, I can attest to the astonishing difference the right performance location can make. The Maybeck is warm, but not mushy. It's forgiving, but not to the point of obscuring subtle moments. It sounds like a wonderful setting for the solo artist who wants to present his or her music in the best way possible.
Barber's compositions are intense and thought-provoking. His playing is as varied and skilled as his composing, and he really brings these pieces to life here. Top it off with the perfect setting, and you have a truly exceptional album.
Susan the Boy Scout EP
(Electric Frog Recordings)
Five songs, and not a one sounds like another. There's some wonderful sonic construction, a little acoustic pop, a raver and more. Yeah, I guess this all ties in with Big Star one way or another, but Bonz insists on playing this game by his own damn rules.
Right, on, man! No use making music that everyone's heard before. Take some of the old rules and then blow them out yer ass. Or something like that. Bonz isn't so much a revolutionary as an iconoclast. He doesn't seem to have any desire to make "normal" music, and that's more than cool with me. In fact, that's why I like this decidedly diverse EP.
In pieces, this set probably doesn't make a whole lot of sense. But whip it all together, and I think I've gotten a pretty solid snapshot of Bonz's brain. It's not a pretty picture, but that's why this EP is so good. Taking chances is always good for the soul.
Hurts So Good: The Cock E.S.P. remix album
(V/Vm Test Records)
As the cover says, 99 tracks, 88 artists. Lots and lots of folks lay their hands on Cock E.S.P. tracks, with generally bizarre results.
But, of course, that's the point. I'm reasonably knowledgeable about the experimental noise scene, and I've heard of just a handful of the folks messing about here on this CD. That's cool. The results are what counts. Well, that and the headache I got after listening to this thing on headphones.
I kept getting this subliminal message to keep turning up the volume, and so I did until I was overwhelmed. It's hard to deduce exactly what the source files for these remixes sounded like in the first place, but these restatements are impressive. The sort of stuff that could render the entire Republican National Convention sterile with even minimal exposure. Hey, I've got an idea...
Oh hell, most of those folks are too old to breed anyway. Whatever. This disc is a happy trip through the wide variety of sounds that encompass the whole noise "thing." As I noted in last month's review of the Cock E.S.P./Panicsville collaboration, there's some seriously wonderful screwing around going on, and I feel privileged to have survived it.
Andre Ethier with Christopher Sandes featuring Pickles and Price
Now, it's possible that the entire name of the act is the same as the title. Hard to say with any certainty. It does seem likely that Pickles and Price is one person, but then again, maybe not. Like I said, it's hard to say.
What is obvious is how fine this music is. Ethier wrote all the songs here (Sandes assisted on one), and the style is gold rush music hall. Seriously. Sandes plays this twinkly piano, and Ethier just belts out these great songs, occasionally breaking them down with a ukelele solo. I suppose there are folks that would call this "Americana," but as these guys are Canadian, I'm not sure exactly how appropriate that appellation would be.
Whatever. This is the sort of music that must be played with utter conviction or it will sound contrived. Ethier and company must be channeling some mighty old souls, because it sounds to be like they've been possessed by this music.
Just a stunning work. I could throw another dozen superlatives on the fire, but there's no need. One listen to this album should be enough to sell anyone on these boys.
Walking with the Beggar Boys
If you've been wondering who stole all yer old T. Rex records, I'd suggest paying Elf Power a visit. These folks play fuzzed out power pop with such a bite as I haven't heard in ages. Where's the time machine, folks?
Not a straight rip, of course. That would be dull. Elf Power adds in some modern touches--the production is sharper, the songwriting is much more diverse and the lyrics are a more clever than poetic--so that it can rightly claim this sound as its own.
Man, this is lovely stuff. I'm a sucker for Bolan and the boys, so this kinda album is always gonna make me smile from the get-go. But as I said, Elf Power isn't content to simply take a fab old sound and replicate it. The newer mutations fit in nicely, helping to create something new.
Something great. This album is engaging from the first note, and Elf Power proves that it has the chops to sustain its ambition throughout the disc. Quite a ride, and not just one through time.
Chris Forsyth/Chris Heenan
A tale of two Chrises: Forsyth on the guitar and Heenan on reeds (alto sax, bass and contrabass clarinet). Improvisational to the extreme.
Fans of these two guys know that they prefer to use their instruments in, shall we say, non-traditional ways. Forsyth is just as comfortable using his guitar as percussion as he is wringing melodies from the strings, and Heenan sounds just as good not blowing a note as he does hitting one.
I'm just guessing here, but I think the six pieces here were recorded live to tape, with no overdubs. That's pretty impressive considering the wide ranges of noise that populate each piece. In particular, Heenan seems to be shifting between instruments in fairly rapid order. Or maybe I'm just hearing things funny.
All of the song titles are statements that begin with "I" ("I Am Not a Technologist," "I Listen," etc.). I'm sure there's a point to that, but right now I have no idea what it might be. I simply enjoyed listening two fertile minds plumb the depths of sound and find some striking gems.
Soundtrack to Your Escape
(Nuclear Blast America)
Long-time readers might know that A&A started out as a "loud music" tipsheet. Nuclear Blast stuff was right up my alley. And then a few years back we kinda lost track of each other.
In Flames fits very well as an update of that "old fashioned" Eurometal sound. Plenty of melody, but with more of a modern extreme edge to the vocals. Not death metal by any means (I know, I know, no one uses that term anymore, but old habits die hard), but really just a stylish, more forceful restatement of the Iron Maiden sound during the Paul Dianno era.
Oh, there are a lot more keyboards and general orchestration (this is a modern Eurometal album, of course), but strip away all the window dressing and you get old NWOBM songs. Which is a good thing, of course.
An enjoyable album. Nothing particularly awe-inspiring, just fun fare that takes me back a few years. I'm not clued into the scene nearly enough to be able to say whether or not In Flames is particularly unique in its sound and songwriting, but I do like what I hear. Which is good enough for me.
Les Savy Fav
Over the last nine years, Les Savy Fav has been releasing a series of 7"s as part of a greater project called "Inches." Each slab of vinyl came out on a different label, which meant that at least one of the things might have arrived at the cool record store in your area (if you have one), but the chances of collecting all nine were slim for all but the most devoted fans.
So all 18 songs (A and B sides, of course) are on this disc, together for the first time. And while I do think they probably work better as two-song bursts (there's really not much continuity between each 7" other than the late 80s Fall-esque BritPop rantings often favored by Les Savy Fav), this disc is a generous helping of scalding rock.
Kinda like the first Rocket from the Crypt 7" compilation (which is still my favorite "album" from the boys), and I think that the 7" may be the best way to experience Les Savy Fav. Short doses of highly energetic rock and roll, supercharged with attitude.
Exciting and impossible to shut down. It wouldn't be advisable to create such a long string of live-wire songs for an album--there's gotta be a respite somewhere. Then again, sometimes it's fun to grab the wire and bite down. Bite down hard.
Brotherhood of the Plug
Fans of Emperor Penguin and other loopy laptop funk "bands" ought to groove on this puppy all through the night. Mission Giant has created a bright, shiny universe for its music, and the songs sparkle until eternity ends.
Yeah, the whole robotic vocal thing has been done before. There's really only one way to use it, too. So the key is the music. And while Mission Giant doesn't break new ground there, either, the folks always seem to understand that "fun" is the only criteria that needs to be satisfied.
The songs themselves have the occasional experimental opening, but otherwise conform to traditional pop forms. The sound is tres-dork--and that's intentional. Works for me. I couldn't get the smile off my face.
Okay, so maybe it helps that Mission Giant does a vicious rip of my favorite Ratt song: "You're in Love." Damn, that's hilarious. Funny, but the song works on its own terms as well. That's what makes this album so impressive.
Chris Heenan and seven friends just hanging out for an afternoon last spring. An improvisational mini-orchestra, if you will.
Every sound is represented: percussion, strings, brass and reeds. Now, these folks are crafty; they often do things to their instruments that "normal" players would never dream of doing. Which is why this is so cool.
For me, improvisations work if they engage me. A lot of improvisational music is just about making noise. That's not very interesting. These folks are making noise, but they're doing it in concert with each other, reacting to what they're hearing.
That these folks have years and years of experience in this type of music is also important. The uninitiated ear might hear just the jumble, but there is a line of thought that is being passed around individually and collectively. It's easier to find that line if you don't try. But then, this music is about letting go. And the faster you fall, the better the trip.