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 Morehappyness (Wishing Tree)
  • Eric Barber Maybeck Constructions (pfMENTUM)
  • Brian Bonz Susan the Boy Scout (Electric Frog Recordings)
  • Cock E.S.P. Hurts So Good--The Cock E.S.P. Remix CD (V/Vm Test)
  • Andre Ethier Andre Ethier with Christopher Sandes featuring Pickles and Price (Sonic Unyon)
  • Elf Power Walking with the Beggar Boys (Orange Twin)
  • Forsyth/Heenan Forsyth/Heenan (Reify)
  • In Flames Soundtrack to Your Escape (Nuclear Blast America)
  • Les Savy Fav Inches (French Kiss)
  • Mission Giant Brotherhood of the Plug (Uncle Buzz)
  • Mount Washington Mount Washington (Reify)
  • Sharks and Minnows The Cost of Living (Two Sheds)
  • Son of the Velvet Rat By My Side (Starfish)
  • The Spits The Spits (Dirtnap)
  • The Ukrainians Istoriya (Omnium)
  • Veneficum Enigma Prognosis (Forever Underground)
  • Also recommended: The best of the rest


    The Aluminum Group
    Morehappyness
    (Wishing Tree)

    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.

    Contact:
    Wishing Tree
    P.O. Box 197
    Warren, RI 02885
    www: http://www.wishingtreerecords.com


    Eric Barber
    Maybeck Constructions
    (pfMENTUM)

    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.

    Contact:
    pfMENTUM
    P.O. Box 1653
    Ventura, CA 93002
    www: http://www.pfmentum.com


    Brian Bonz
    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.

    Contact:
    Electric Frog Recordings
    9281 Shore Rd. #427
    Brooklyn, NY 11209
    www: http://www.electricfrogrecordings.com


    Cock E.S.P.
    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.

    Contact:
    V/Vm Test Records
    e-mail: vvm@goldserve.net
    www: http://www.brainwashed.com/vvm/


    Andre Ethier
    Andre Ethier with Christopher Sandes featuring Pickles and Price
    (Sonic Unyon)

    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.

    Contact:
    Sonic Unyon
    P.O. Box 57347
    Jackson Station
    Hamilton, ON L8P 4X2
    Canada


    Elf Power
    Walking with the Beggar Boys
    (Orange Twin)

    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.

    Contact:
    Orange Twin Records
    475 Forest Rd.
    Athens, GA 30605
    www: http://www.orangetwin.com


    Chris Forsyth/Chris Heenan
    Forsyth Heenan
    (Reify)

    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.

    Contact:
    Reify Recordings
    1418 Hazelwood Ave.
    Los Angeles, CA 90041
    e-mail: contact@reifyrecordings.com
    www: http://www.reifyrecordings.com


    In Flames
    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.

    Contact:
    Nuclear Blast America
    2323 West El Segundo Blvd.
    Hawthorne, CA 90250
    Phone (323) 418-1400
    Fax (323) 418-0118
    e-mail: mail@nuclearblastusa.com
    www: http://www.nuclearblastusa.com


    Les Savy Fav
    Inches
    (French Kiss)

    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.

    Contact:
    French Kiss
    111 East 14th Street
    Suite 229
    New York, NY 10003
    www: http://www.frenchkissrecords.com


    Mission Giant
    Brotherhood of the Plug
    (Uncle Buzz)

    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.

    Contact:
    Uncle Buzz Records
    5014 Arbor Ridge
    San Antonio, TX 78228
    www: http://www.unclebuzz.com


    Mount Washington
    Mount Washington
    (Reify)

    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.

    Contact:
    Reify Recordings
    1418 Hazelwood Ave.
    Los Angeles, CA 90041
    e-mail: contact@reifyrecordings.com
    www: http://www.reifyrecordings.com


    Sharks and Minnows
    The Cost of Living
    (Two Sheds)

    Buoyant, joyous pop music with a deep undertow. Bright and shiny on the surface, these songs have some very dark corners. Just when I'd been lulled into a sense of security, I got bit.

    And that's cool. Good pop music must have at least two levels of access. The best, of course, is exceptionally complex even while it maintains a surface of sheer simplicity. This sounds impossible, and actually it's harder than that to accomplish.

    Sharks and Minnows aren't quite up to godhead status, but these boys are awfully good. The hooks ring out straight and true, and the little subversive bits provide a welcome balance.

    First rate. I had a blast listening to this album, and I heard plenty that will engage me in the future. A blissful summer's day--with occasional thunderstorms.

    Contact:
    Two Sheds Music
    P.O. Box 5455
    Atlanta, GA 31107-5455
    www: http://www.twoshedsmusic.com


    Son of the Velvet Rat
    By My Side
    (Starfish)

    Quite the long name for essentially a one-man project. George Altziebler sings plays all the instruments (which generally consist of guitar and bass with some electronic texture behind). Ingrid Moser does add some vocals here and there, but Altziebler is essentially the complete show.

    The stuff itself falls into what I like to call alt.alt.country. That is, dark and somewhat deconstructed roots fare. Most of the other acts I connect with this sound (Molasses and Willard Grant Conspiracy) have a singular leader, but are somewhat sprawling collectives. Altziebler marches alone, and that gives his songs an even more disconnected feeling.

    The sound is simple and stark. Even that electronic soundscape stuff that rumbles in the background now and again sounds stripped down. You want cold and brutal? Try the take on "Love Will Tear Us Apart." Damn.

    There's nothing more arresting than a single note echoing against the darkness. Altziebler seems to have figured that out, and he's written songs that accentuate the isolation of the sound. Or maybe he found a sound that matches his songwriting. Either way, this album kills.

    Contact:
    Starfish Records
    6144 Glen Tower St.
    Los Angeles, CA 90068
    Phone: (323) 462-2505
    e-mail: starfish@earthlink.net


    The Spits
    The Spits
    (Dirtnap)

    Exceedingly lo-fi renderings of tres-Ramonesy pop punk. To be completely honest, the Spits sound like a drunken tribute band. And see, there's a certain charm to that.

    For starters, these boys are anything but pretentious. This is silly, throwaway fare, recorded on a fraying shoestring budget. And it might be more accurate to call this an EP (nine songs, 17 minutes...I dunno).

    Fast, furious and noisy as hell. Utterly toe-tapping and generally appealing. Yeah, plenty of folks will dismiss this as some sort of wannabe stuff. But I can't. The Spits do have that certain something that screams "charisma."

    Don't know why. Can't put my finger on it. But this album managed to worm its way into my brain. I somehow doubt it will be leaving any time soon.

    Contact:
    Dirtnap
    P.O. Box 21249
    Seattle, WA 98111
    www: http://www.dirtnaprecs.com


    The Ukrainians
    Istoriya
    (Omnium)

    More than a decade ago, a friend of mine played me Pisni Is the Smiths, a set of Smiths covers all done up Ukrainian style. This weird little EP was the latest effort from Wedding Present guitarist Peter Solowka's side project, and I was hooked. But you know, finding albums by the Ukrainians back then was as difficult as picking up something by the Weddoes themselves.

    For those who aren't familiar with these boys, this "greatest hits" package contains something from all of the Ukrainians albums and a new cover of "Telstar" to boot. Twenty tracks in all, more than enough to paint a vivid picture of the band.

    In short, the music has plenty of Ukrainian folk influences (many of the members play Ukrainian instruments), but at the core, this is rock and roll. Think the Pogues, though significantly more worldly. Yeah, it is that much fun.

    And yes, the songs are sung in Ukrainian (the titles are given in both Roman transliteration and the original Cyrillic scripts. I find this stuff too infectious for words. This rich set is more than worthy of the band's continuing legacy.

    Contact:
    Omnium Recordings
    P.O. Box 7367
    Minneapolis, MN 55407
    www: http://www.omnium.com


    Veneficum
    Enigma Prognosis
    (Forever Undergound)

    Back in the day, black metal was death metal reduced to keyboards and drum machines. Not necessarily the most interesting fare, though the sheer speed and energy of the stuff was undeniable.

    Veneficum is an extreme band that uses keyboards and ultra-speedy double bass rum rhythms in a different way. Think Dream Theater meets Count Grishnakh--if that second reference is spelled correctly and means anything to you. The songs are long, the keyboards are more an atmospheric element than an instrument of aggression and the drums are almost theatrical in nature.

    The mix is a bit odd--I can hear everything, but there are times when nothing coalesces. The effect at higher volumes (which is certainly the way to listen to this stuff) can be disconcerting. Though I imagine these boys don't mind that at all.

    I think this album could have benefited from some judicious editing--more in the complexity of the music rather than the length of the pieces. At times, I think Veneficum tries to do too much. And I really can't fault the boys for that. They've created a vital and exciting album, one chock full of truly innovative songs. Hats off.

    Contact:
    Forever Underground
    P.O. Box 8
    Hobart. IN 46342
    www: http://www.foreverunderground.com


    Also recommended:

    Audiokarate Lady Melody (Kung Fu)
    Audiokarate has a nice mix of the strident and the melodic. This is more of a "throwback" in terms of emo--reminds me a lot of a band called Hemlock, though I doubt that name means anything to anyone else--and that's welcome to my ears. I'm not sure this album fits the way the trend winds are blowing, but the music is solid.

    The Beeps Music for Awkward Situations (Ilegalia)
    Oh, so groovy. The Beeps feature that lovely organ sound that made 60s party music so, well, hip. The rest of the stuff is a vague sort of Eurotrashy lounge affair--think Stereolab dialed down. Well, and a bit more diverse. The Beeps do venture into other bright 60s sounds (an orchestrated surf tune, for example) but always, always keep things cool. And that works just fine.

    Catdesigners Strange Little Creature (GooglieMooglie)
    Dreamy Britpop--and it's actually British, too! I know, that's a bad joke, but most of the Britpop I've heard in the last year or so has been American in origin. Nice to hear some of the real thing. These folks sure do know how to arrange--that's the strongest element of what they do. The songs themselves are fairly generic, but Catdesigners manage to wring every last bit of energy out of them.

    Corpsefucking Art Splatter Deluxe (Forever Underground)
    If the band name and album title don't tell you everything you need to know, then perhaps you ought to skip this one. These boys grind it out in finest Carcass (early) tradition. The noise is raw and heavy and fast--brutal, to (ahem) coin a term. Takes me back to the good old days. This is extreme at its most extreme, feeding much needed energy to my tired bones.

    Decrypt Holy Erotic Rapture (Forever Underground)
    If Corpsefucking Art is a modern rendition of Carcass, these boys channel Napalm Death (and Exit 13, to a lesser extent). some may ask how (or why) I make the distinction, but there are a few people who will understand and appreciate such notes. Fast and generally out of control, with some terribly amusing interludes. Pretty damned cool.

    Fivehead Guests of the Nation (Tight Spot)
    Bright pop with a few classic emo overtones. The occasionally strident rhythm guitar and the often thin vocals key that reference for me. The songs themselves are wonderfully-crafted gems, and the playing is bright and engaging. There's something to be said for knowing what you're doing and doing it well.

    Fire Divine Fire Divine EP (Deep Elm)
    Ah, the "let's make a bunch of anthems and make them really loud" school of thought. I happen to like this kind of over-the-top approach, especially when it's practiced in such a reckless and exuberant way. Fire Divine would do well to diversify its writing style, but these songs are very good in small doses.

    Jeff Genetic and His Clones Need a Wave (Dirtnap)
    Um, yes, they do need a wave. Or, at the very least, they've caught an extremely old one. That's cool. Even more so than most Dirtnap bands (most of which acknowledge the new wave in one way or another), Genetic et. al. are straight out of Buzzcocks territory. And they pay this stuff very well. Most engaging.

    Nap Attack! Choose Your Own Adventure EP (Monosyllabic)
    A fine trio that does its best to noodle its way through a series of post-rock ideas. A bit more proggy and less rock than, say June of 44, Nap Attack! really sets itself apart with the production sound. The tones are round and almost impossibly gorgeous. And the songs themselves are quite well-executed. Perhaps a bit more feeling in the performances would be nice, but this is a solid disc as is.

    Raising the Fawn The North Sea (Sonic Unyon)
    For a variety of reasons, this band reminds me of the Cowboy Junkies--over that band's entire career. Raising the Fawn is alternately jaunty and moody, with plenty of moping about in general. A languid feel encapsulates this album, a shroud that even the brightest songs can't escape. And that's not altogether bad. Raising the Fawn has definitely crafted a niche for itself, and it's an interesting one at that.

    Team Up Team Up (Reify)
    Jeremy Drake on guitar, Stephen Flinn on percussion and Chris Heenan on reeds, all doing the extreme improvisation thing. I like the way the trio works together--each of the three occupies a completely different sonic space. The ideas here are infectious.

    Ten Words for Snow Spit on Electrics EP (Boy Arm)
    Finally, some unabashed rock and roll. Well, maybe slightly abashed. Whatever. This classic power trio bashes out six fine songs. With heavier production and a little judicious editing, this stuff might pass for AOR. As it is, it sounds rough and most pleasing to my ears.

    Tight Phantomz Night Fool EP (Southern)
    Ah, loosely-played hard rock. Or perhaps more accurately, 70s-style heaviness played with an indie-rock attitude. There's some wonderful riffage, but these songs are anything but ponderous. Perfect for putting the top down and cranking the stereo. A true pleasure.

    Todd Tijerina Band Welcome Home (self-released)
    Tijerina is a top-notch blues guitarist. He writes songs about things many bluesmen would never touch--like, say, the beauty of his son. As B.B. King likes the say, there are many colors of the blues. Tijerina's style is bright, and that works for him. Solid electric blues from a good songwriter and even better guitarist.
    Contact:
    P.O. Box 67916
    Albuquerque, NM 87193
    www: www.toddtijerina.com

    Various Artists Shite 'n' Onions (Omnium)
    As the disc says, 22 tracks from 15 up-and-coming Celtic-punk bands. I couldn't say it any better myself. The bands range from fairly traditional to mostly punk, and that gives this disc fine, varied flavor. Plenty to savor here.

    VCR VCR EP (Pop Faction)
    Speaking of the 80s...damn, those tinny keys are amazing. Especially when combined with punchy, almost hardcore riffage. Kinda like Devo meets the Descendents. Lots of melody, lots of energy and lots of fun. I've never heard anything quite like this, which is always a plus. I'm not sure all of these songs quite work--the extremes of the elements can cancel each other out--but boy, is this puppy entrancing nonetheless.


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