Welcome to A&A. There are 15 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 #286 reviews
June 2007
  • Bottom of the Hudson Fantastic Hawk (Absolutely Kosher)
  • Cat-A-Tac Past Lies and Former Lives (Needlepoint)
  • Gerald Collier How Can There Be Another Day?: Demos and B-Sides (In Music We Trust)
  • Driver of the Year Driver of the Year Will Destroy You (Future Appletree)
  • The Great Depression Preaching to the Fire (Fire)
  • Kurt Hagardorn Ten Singles (Bladen County)
  • Hunger Anthem Hunger Anthem (self-released)
  • The Jena Campaign A Panda for Amanda (Nobody's Favorite)
  • Casey Neill Brooklyn Bridge (In Music We Trust)
  • Retina.it Semeion (Hefty)
  • Schooner Hold on Too Tight (54-40 or Fight)
  • John P. Strohm Everyday Life (Superphonic)
  • Terrene The Indifferent Universe (Wax Orchard)
  • Track a Tiger We Moved Like Ghosts (Deep Elm)
  • The Unseen Guest Out There (Tuition)
  • Also recommended: The best of the rest


    Bottom of the Hudson
    Fantastic Hawk
    (Absolutely Kosher)

    This reminded me enough of the Wrens (who have been nicely ensconced at AK for some time now) that I wanted to make sure it wasn't, in fact, some sort of side project or something. In short: No. But these guys do make stellar, wide-ranging pop music as well.

    As well as? Well, now, that would be close to blasphemy. Bottom of the Hudson is, in fact, somewhat more subdued than the Wrens (there's an R.E.M. influence here that the boys from New Jersey don't have), but the commitment to whatever means necessary is still in full effect.

    It's tricky throwing in everything and the kitchen sink. You always run the risk of extraneous parts. But not here. This stuff is tightly-crafted, but played with such verve that you wouldn't know.

    Don't try to guess where the next song is coming from. Just listen and stand entranced. It's the safest thing to do.

    Contact:
    Absolutely Kosher
    1412 10th St.
    Berkeley, CA 94710
    www: www.absolutelykosher.com


    Cat-A-Tac
    Past Lies and Former Lives
    (Needlepoint)

    If there were such a thing as rock-steady pop, this would be it. Cat-A-Tac rips off one tuneful, rhythmic midtempo popster after another. They're all different. And they're all pretty good.

    Reminds me a bit of that Canadian band Pluto, who put out a great album on Mint in 1995 and a so-so major label effort a year later. Some friends compared those folks to Everclear. I didn't hear it then, and I don't hear that comparison here. But I put that in there just for full disclosure.

    There's a nice buzz to the guitars and some fine work in the hooks. Vaguely atonal, but that hint of drone just makes these song that much more hypnotic. My head was bobbing from the first beat.

    And, yeah, that made all the difference. The sound isn't the most sophisticated in the world, but these folks have a knack for making the ordinary extraordinarily catchy. Pretty isn't the right word. Addictive might be.


    Gerald Collier
    How Can There Be Another Day?: Demos and B-Sides
    (In Music We Trust)

    This stuff was recorded about ten years ago, around the time when Collier was recording his album for Revolution. Self-titled, that album still ranks as one of my all-time favorites. The wry and bitter lyrics are some of the most searing ever put to tape. Which is probably one reason why very few people picked up on it.

    Nonetheless, a cult of Collier (so to speak) has sprung up around his sporadic recordings (and even more sporadic distribution). With good reason. The man has a gift for expressing the darkest sides of the human condition. You can't hear his songs without getting a bit of a lift. After all, your life doesn't suck as much as his (or, at least, those of his characters).

    These songs are looser (in every way) than what appeared on Gerald Collier. Even the demos of songs that made the album are much more laid back. There's a bit more of his natural country (or, really, alt.country) bent here, and it works well. There's a bit more "fuckit" and a bit less gloom and doom. But the writing and singing is just as fierce.

    I'm a full-fledged member of the cult, so I'm the first to admit my words are somewhat tainted. But Jesus, if music this good can't sell, then humanity is truly doomed.

    Contact:
    In Music We Trust
    15213 SE Bevington Ave.
    Portland, OR 97267-3355
    www: http://www.inmusicwetrust.com


    Driver of the Year
    Driver of the Year Will Destroy You
    (Future Appletree)

    Eight tracks here...I'll call it a short album. Feels like an album, like a complete thought. But maybe I'm thinking too much and not enjoying the tremendous visceral appeal of this album.

    Operating in hazy sneer throughout most of the album, these boys snarl their way to some vaguely-defined (but acutely-felt) pleasure center of my brain. There's plenty of noise, but what really works here is the sly bits of rhythm that kick each song down the road. Not exactly slinky, but really, really dirty.

    And plenty of attitude to back that up. This is some solid rock and roll, old school style. Well, early 90s rock and roll, anyway. That sort of post-modern, distortion-laden hipster groove kinda school, anyway. If that makes sense to you.

    So, yes, Girls Against Boys, Love and Rockets (80s, I know...sue me), that kinda thing. Updated for the oughts, of course, but still that sort of grind. And it's a lovely grind at that. Slides down oh so easy.

    Contact:
    Future Appletree
    P.O. Box 191
    Davenport, IA 52808
    www: http://www.futureappletree.com


    The Great Depression
    Preaching to the Fire
    (Fire)

    Lush. Almost subversively apocalyptic. Each song here sounds like it ought to be the last one sung before the Earth is consumed by a nova or Vogons or whatever. You kinda wish they were around a hundred years ago so these songs could have been sung on the Titanic.

    Which puts these folks in the fine company of other Brit bands like Black Box Recorder. Though I'd say the Great Depression has taken quite a bit of instruction at the feet of such post-rock masters as Tortoise and Calexico. The cool grooves are jazzy more than funky, though not in any sort of cloying way.

    Indeed, this entire album could have been an exercise in drivel. I've heard countless folks ply this vein and end up sounding merely bored. These folks keep up the intensity even as they spin their gauzy lines.

    Mood music, but not for relaxing. Rather, these songs should almost immediately put your brain into an attentive alpha state. From there you can solve all the problems of the world...or simply get lost. You make the call.

    Contact:
    Fire Records
    The Old Vicarage
    Windmill Lane
    Nottingham NG2 4QB
    United Kingdom
    www: http://www.firerecords.com


    Kurt Hagardorn
    Ten Singles
    (Bladen County Records)

    Ten singles...as opposed to ten songs that would constitute a coherent album. I've been digitizing my old 7"s (it'll probably take me another three or four months to finish), and I've been struck by how many bands--even not particularly good ones--seem to work harder for the singles. I don't know if Hagardorn worked harder, but the singles ethic does seem to be in force here.

    The sound is modern Americana--loosely-played roots stuff with organ and other appropriate accouterments. Hagardorn, who has played with Thad Cockrell and Caitlin Cary (among others), tends to sing more about the internal than the external, which makes some of these songs a bit difficult to enter. Though the music is decidedly inviting.

    These songs were recorded over six years, so I don't know if these really are ten singles. I don't think they were, but it is a cool title, and it does set up the structure of the album.

    Deceptively simple songs that impress in a backward sorta way. Recognition comes at the end of the songs, not the start. So stick with this one and you'll be most pleased.

    Contact:
    Bladen County Records
    www: http://www.myspace.com/bladencountyrecords


    Hunger Anthem
    Hunger Anthem
    (self-released)

    The token obsessive one-man pop spectacular of this issue. Brendan J. Vaganek (and his engineer) may not a master of the knobs (I haven't heard a case of "demo sound" like this in ages), but he makes up for any sonic deficiencies with impossibly boundless energy.

    These crunchy rockers are kinda like caramel corn. Once you pop a kernel in your mouth, there's just no way to put down the bowl. Vaganek writes some really catchy, if minimalist songs. And then he plays the hell out of them.

    That "demo sound" leaves the tracks tinny and a bit too distorted. It's vaguely annoying, but at least it fits the style alright. Turning this into a lush mushbowl would have been much worse.

    I have a feeling the average listener will either love or hate this immediately. There's really no middle ground for stuff like this. I latched on from the first hint of noise. Try it for yourself.

    Contact:
    www: http://www.myspace.com/hungeranthem


    The Jena Campaign
    A Panda for Amanda
    (Nobody's Favorite)

    Moody pop songs placed in a rootsy setting, with lyrics that pretty much range all over the map of human experience. Not so much mindblowing as free-thinking, these songs do wander though places that most folks generally try to avoid.

    I like that. I also like that, when necessary, these folks put away the nice acoustic instruments and make a hell of a lot of noise. That's a good impulse, and it shows that these folks are as inventive with their music as their lyrics.

    Probably too serious for most people (I'm a big Eleventh Dream Day fan, too, and I still hear about that from some of my friends), the Jena Campaign has a knack for analysis that is most impressive.

    Yes, the songs are logical, but they sound great, too. There's no way to get bored listening to this. Around every corner is a new idea waiting to assault you. That's a very good thing in my book.

    Contact:
    Nobody's Favorite Records
    34 West Main St.
    Dudley, MA 01571
    www: www.nobodysfavoriterecords.com


    Casey Neill
    Brooklyn Bridge
    (In Music We Trust)

    Neill's last effort was a striking minimalist (yet modern) folk album. He sang songs about the down and out, and he painted pictures of the west and south (though not exclusively). As the title of this album indicates, he's gone in a slightly different direction.

    The songs are still about the down and out, but the focus is more global. There is a lot more electric guitar, but even more striking is the extended instrumentation (not to mention background vocals).

    Working with an expanded sound palette works well for Neill. He doesn't overreach or try to make his songs more important. He just allows for a bit more shading in the corners. It may soften the sound, but not his approach.

    Memory Against Forgetting has become one of my favorite albums. My sons love it, too. I'm thinking they're gonna like this one a lot, too. Neill is really coming into his own, and that's most exciting to hear.

    Contact:
    In Music We Trust
    15213 SE Bevington Ave.
    Portland, OR 97267-3355
    www: http://www.inmusicwetrust.com


    Retina.it
    Semeion
    (Hefty)

    A collection of odds and ends from this Italian outfit. Most of the tracks here appeared on earlier EPs or digital-only albums, so this is their first "wide" availability. The sound is strikingly minimalist electronic fare, with an emphasis on playful rhythms.

    Austere, to be sure, but somehow still warm to the ear. If there's a way for this kinda stuff to sound jaunty, this does.

    If you're still trying to place the sound, think somewhere between 70s krautronica (Like that? I'm not sure I do) and late 80s techno. Never overbearing...hell, this stuff is so unassuming that it could serve as background music. Of course, if you didn't actually listen to it, you'd be missing everything.

    And there is a lot to hear. Given the genesis of the tracks, this isn't really a particularly cohesive album. But the songs within are as intriguing as anything you'll hear this year.

    Contact:
    Hefty Records
    400 N. Racine
    Suite 104
    Chicago, IL 60622
    e-mail: hefty@heftyrecords.com
    www: http://www.heftyrecords.com


    Schooner
    Hold on Too Tight
    (54-40 or Fight)

    I was hooked with the first song (second track), "Carrboro," and its first lines: "You moved to Carrboro so you could find/Places to go that were not so unkind." You kinda have to know the whole Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area for that to make sense, but I thought it was funny.

    The opener for the next one, though, convinced me this is a great album: "You said tonight/That God was on our side/So I prayed for you to die." Damn. Wish I'd thought of that one.

    Schooner reminds me a lot of Magnetic Fields, but with more of an eclectic indie rock musical base. Indeed, the songs themselves cycle through most of rock history ("Pray for You to Die" is something of a 50s ballad, and it works really well that way), even as the lyrics wax post-modern (and blackly witty) all the way.

    You gotta listen to this one, but as the examples I threw in should tell you, it's worth the effort. Albums this cutting come along seldom. Albums that make you smile while eviscerating the human race are absolutely devastating.

    Contact:
    54-40 or Fight!
    P.O. Box 1601
    Acme, MI 49610
    www: http://www.fiftyfourfortyorfight.com


    John P. Strohm
    Everyday Life
    (Superphonic)

    This is Strohm's first solo album in eight years. He hasn't strayed too far from what made his first two records so much fun to hear.

    Chunky guitar chords, plenty of twang in the lead and a stellar sense for the dramatic. Americana on steroids, I guess. With some killer hooks. But then, folks who know where Strohm has been (Blake Babies, Lemonheads, etc.) already know that.

    This is wonderfully-produced album. Major label quality, but without the bombast and overblown edges that would come with such an enterprise. There's plenty of power straight down the middle, and a slight tapering away on the extremes. Just makes you want to pour a glass of bourbon and set a while.

    The songs themselves aren't exactly easygoing, but they sure put a mind at ease. This is the kinda stuff that made some people think the indie rock revolution would last. Strohm took all the best from his past and has made a thoroughly enjoyable modern record. One of those that just screams "repeat."

    Contact:
    Superphonic Records
    1618 Roseland Drive
    Birmingham, AL 35209
    www: http://www.superphonicrecords.com


    Terrene
    The Indifferent Universe
    (Wax Orchard)

    Fans of the New Pornographers and the Shins will recognize some similarities. For that matter, fans of Straightjacket Fits will cock their heads when they hear this. Dreamy, excessive pop is all the rage these days, and it seems I get fifty of these albums every month.

    Few do it as well as Terrene, however. It's one thing to promise dramatics and then peter out at the hooks--I can't tell you how many people seem to have been sleeping in English class, or they would have a clue as how to sustain suspense through a song (or story). Terrene's writing builds from both the music and lyrics. Sometimes unevenly, which actually makes the tension that much more intense.

    Phil Ek produced, which is either a stamp of approval or simply proof that some folks are working too hard. I can't speak to the latter, but this stuff should impress anyone who hears it. I wish Ek and the band tried a little harder to craft a more distinct Terrene sound, but that's a quibble. The music is more than inspiring.

    So many bands like this simply create an unholy mess. Terrene manages the chaos and brings each song to its proper conclusion. These boys were paying attention when their teacher was discussing dramatic tension. Good for them.

    Contact:
    Wax Orchard
    www: http://www.waxorchard.com


    Track a Tiger
    We Moved Like Ghosts
    (Deep Elm)

    And on the other side of obsessive pop music...Track a Tiger. These folks are more from the Brian Jonestown Massacre school, steeping themselves in a variety of pop forms--but always returning to the 60s. Maybe that Fender Rhodes has a little something to do with it.

    The 60s by way of Stereolab, though. Track a Tiger crafts its songs immaculately, and often enough it simply gets weird. In that laid-back, "we're not really trying to be too cool" sorta way. These folks are master of flow.

    The shimmery production helps a lot. These songs rarely get bogged down musically, but when that possibility looms, there's just enough reverb to keep the song going. It's a technique rather than a cheap trick--these songs ride the edge, and you need to keep them in check now and again.

    Reading back over this, you might think I'm disparaging these folks. On the contrary. The best music rides the edge of disaster. It just stays on the high side. Track a Tiger keeps both wheels on the ground, if only barely. Fine thrills.

    Contact:
    Deep Elm Records
    P.O. Box 5260
    Clover, SC 29710
    e-mail: info@deepelm.com
    www: www.deepelm.com


    The Unseen Guest
    Out There
    (Tuition)

    Recorded in India, mixed and mastered in Ireland and finished up in Hamburg. That kinda gets you ready for this sound.

    To my ear, this is traditional pop construction combined with traditional Indian melodies--in the music, mostly--and proffered up as jaunty acoustic rockers. It's not at all showy or pretentious, just vaguely otherworldly.

    The sound is full, but not overly lush. All of the instruments, from acoustic guitar to veena, come through nicely. Declan Murray and Amith Narayan have a wonderful touch on their harmonies, and the songs themselves sound seamless and complete.

    This isn't "western music with Indian influence" or some other such thing. It's music, with musical influence. The pieces may seem disparate, but Unseen Guest makes them all fit together as if that were the most natural thing in the world. You know, maybe it is.

    Contact:
    Tuition
    www: http://www.tuition-music.com


    Also recommended:

    American Catastrophe Excerpts from the Broken Bone Choir (Oxblood)
    Featuring members of Kansas City-area bands like the Black Water (which I reviewed almost a decade ago), this quartet mines the doomy side of the American landscape. Not quirky, like Trailer Bride, but more just plain fearful, like Molasses. These songs go where you don't want them to go. Which is what makes them so cool.

    Capital Moment of Silence EP (self-released)
    Ripping rockers played at breakneck speed. Kinda punk, but with a definite AOR edge, especially in the vocals. But it is, as I said, really, really fast. Maybe if you remember Fastway (or was that before you were born?), though leaner and meaner.
    Contact:
    243 16th St. Apt. #S1
    Brooklyn, NY 11215
    www: http://www.capital-music.com

    Cobretti Violation Guaranteed (Wondertaker)
    More like Fastway, period. The vocals are more "punk," but the riffage is Van Halen all the way. Though, you know, really, really fast. There's something to the idea that if you push simple guitar riffs to the edges of recognizability you can create a really exciting sound. Cheap and nasty, but tasty as hell.

    Evolve Happy Hour in the Gene Pool (self-released)
    Electronic mood music, sophisticated-like. Evolve never strays from the middle of the road, but it throws in an awful lot of interesting ideas into that highly-accessible sound. A nice bridge for those who wouldn't mind finding more adventurous electronic fare than what they're hearing now.
    Contact:
    215 N. Larchmont Blvd.
    Hollywood, CA 90004
    www: http://www.evolvemusic.us

    1888 Honey, I'd Kill... (Clay Garden)
    Solid songs on the safe side of rock and roll. There's nothing terribly out there or even exciting about this stuff, but as each song tumbles by, I can't help but feel more affection for this disc. Sometimes all you have to do is make good music, I guess.

    Enders Room Hotel Alba (Tuition)
    Johannes Enders and a few friends take a spin with some jazz-electronic fusion. Much more in jazz than acid jazz, this stuff does kick out some fine grooves. It's a little wonky to be truly funky (think Tangerine Dream muscling past Banford Marsalis and D-Mob), but Enders has a nice feel on his reeds, and the songs are an awful lot of fun.

    The Hanslick Rebellion The Deli of Life EP (Eschatone)
    Another New York outfit with Kramer's fingerprints on it (he mastered this disc). Nothing complicated, though these guys do cycle through an astonishing amount of material in six songs. They're pretty successful with their genre jumping, but it might be good for the guys to narrow their focus a bit.

    Bobby Hebb That's All I Wanna Know (Tuition)
    Hebb is best-known for "Sunny," a song whose success earned him a spot opening for the Beatles. That might explain why you've think you've never heard it, though he thoughtfully includes a new version on this disc, his first in 35 years. The grooves are vintage r&b, filtered through modern production. The sound is a bit too sterile for my taste, but Hebb's voice is still in fine form. Quite enjoyable.

    The Johnbenders The Johnbenders EP (self-released)
    The cover is a fine parody of the Nagel (Duran Duran's Rio album cover, etc.) style, and the songs are similarly off-kilter takes on the rock side of new wave. The songs and vocals have that vibe, though the production is more modern and full. I like that. It's nice to hear an update done right.
    Contact:
    www: http://www.thejohnbenders.com

    Steuart Leibig/Minim Sulfur (pfMENTUM)
    Leibig and pals Andrew Pask, Sara Schoenbeck and Brad Dutz riff through three pieces (one in 24 parts) with more verve than would seem possible. This is adventurous stuff, even for modern composing, but it never seems too far out on the edge. Fine fare for wrapping your mind around.

    Limbs Stages (self-released)
    A trio that dances around the math style but never quite gets its feet wet. Rather, this ends up as intriguing, introspective fare spinning line after line into the breeze. All you have to do is reel them in.
    Contact:
    604 Union Ave. #2
    Brooklyn, NY 11211
    www: http://www.limbsmusic.com

    The Measure [SA] Historical Fiction (Team Science)
    The "SA" stands for "Strictly Analog," which, of course, refers to the recording rather than the medium (CDs are, of course "strictly digital"). The songs themselves are raggedy chunks of rock that blaze forth with little concern for the damage they might be causing. Tap into the energy here and you'll never drink coffee again.

    Mochipet Girls (heart) Breakcore (Daly City)
    And now for something truly demented. There are all sorts of sick beats here, presented in an almost-accessible interpretation of digital hardcore. This is the sort of stuff I danced my ass off to 10 years ago (before kids and other signs of impending geezerhood cropped up). Feel the throb and let it do as it will.

    Ohn Revolutionary Revolution (Ill Dough)
    Remember Propellerheads? One absolutely brilliant album and then poof? Well, Ohn has replicated that immediately-addictive organic electronic groove--complete with conventional song structure--and then rolled with it. This isn't Decksanddrums-worthy, but it's a lot closer than you might want to believe. Throw this on at your next party and see who gets down first.

    Andrew Pask/Jonathan Besser Griffith Park (pfMENTUM)
    Pask does the reeds and Besser strokes the keys. These seem to be structured improvisations, not quite so formal as variations on a theme but with recognizable elements. I like the way the sax and bass clarinet sound with the piano--maybe as much as the music itself. Sometimes, stuff just sounds cool.

    Patient Patient Professionals and Convicts (self-released)
    Textbook "modern" rock, complete with backbeats and the odd little roots groove now and again. Still and all, these folks do this kinda thing very well. Nothing new, really, but simply solid music. And that works for me.
    Contact:
    www: http://www.patientpatientband.com

    Tenderhooks Vidalia (Rock Snob)
    A fine four-piece trafficking in good, old-fashioned punk country, or whatever the hell it was that Uncle Tupelo was trying to do back in 1989. This is a lot more crunchy than yer average Americana outfit, but a lot more twangy than most rock. I still find this particular combination of sounds highly attractive, and Tenderhooks do it well.

    The Ugly Beats Take a Stand with the Ugly Beats (Get Hip)
    Reminds me a lot of a surfer-rockabilly band called the Untamed Youth. The Ugly Beats go one step further and drop in some mid-60s organ as well, but this is definitely pre-Sgt. Peppers rock and roll. And done exceptionally well. Criminally fun.

    Vulture Whale Vulture Whale (self-released)
    Britpop by way of Alabama. Well, garage-y Britpop, anyway. Vulture Whale sometimes get a little bit too ambitious--it succeeds best on its simpler songs--but I'm always in favor of trying. I hear something, and I'm curious where these folks will be in a year or two.
    Contact:
    www: http://www.vulturewhale.com


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