Welcome to A&A. There are 13 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 #295 reviews
April 2008
  • John Amen Ridiculous Empire (self-released)
  • Astral Sleepwalker (Vibraphone)
  • Scotland Barr & the Slow Drags All the Great Aviators Agree (self-released)
  • Claws of Paradise Claws of Paradise (self-released)
  • Dallas Orbiter Motorcycle Diagrams (self-released)
  • For Against Shade Side Sunny Side (Words on Music)
  • The Foxglove Hunt Stop Heartbeat (Common Wall Media)
  • Head of Femur Great Plains (Greyday)
  • Leopold and His Fiction Leopold and His Fiction (self-released)
  • Ming & Ping Causeway Army (self-released)
  • Moreland & Arbuckle 1861 (NorthernBlues)
  • The Red Romance The Red Romance EP (self-released)
  • Voyager One Afterhours in the Afterlife (Loveless)
  • Also recommended: The best of the rest


    John Amen
    Ridiculous Empire
    (self-released)

    There's a type of music that seems almost endemic to the urban south. There's plenty of blues, a fair amount of folk and more than a smidge of country. It's not really americana--or if it is, it's decidedly unpolished. Back when I lived in Durham (N.C.), I heard this sort of thing all the time. Sometimes it was more bluesy, sometimes more folky and oftentimes simply more old school.

    John Amen hails from the Charlotte area, but he sounds like he grew up in New Orleans. Or maybe even Chicago. There is a great windy city blues sound to his guitar, especially when it gets rockin'. Kinda like the Band by way of Appalachia, with a Buddy Guy kicker.

    More Buddy in the guitar sound than the blues feel. A lot of this does sound a lot like New Orleans rock from the 70s, which is fine by me. There's a certain malevolent laid-back sensibility to that sorta stuff, and Amen seems to channel a fair amount of vague unease within the easy-going songs here.

    Most of all, though, this is music for the back porch. Two (or three) fingers of bourbon in the glass and nothing to do but sit for the rest of the day. Now that's the life.

    Contact:
    www: www.johnamen.com


    Astral
    Sleepwalker
    (Vibraphone)

    So your older sister listed to a lot of Cure and then got into My Bloody Valentine--right before the apocalypse. That sort of thing is bound to make an impression.

    It sure did on the members of Astral, who play music right in that alley. There's not a whole lot more going on, but it sure it some noise. Glorious noise, that is.

    Modestly gothic songs disfigured by curtains of distortion and reverb. The songs themselves are kinda lost behind the veil, but that certainly seems to be the point. We are talking about early Cure, the stripped-down stuff that often rocked your socks. To obscure such throb is an interesting idea, one that works more often than not.

    A pleasant trip into a yesteryear that never was. Astral has planted its flag in a most interesting sonic territory, and since I'm a geezer who was old when the music the band is appropriating was first around, I must admit a fair amount of affection for the stuff. Smiley smiles for me.

    Contact:
    www: www.astralsf.com


    Scotland Barr & the Slow Drags
    All the Great Aviators Agree
    (self-released)

    Reminds me nothing so much as Josh Lederman, that purveyor of Irish americana from Boston. Scotland Barr hails from the other coast, and he dips into just about every musical tradition he can find and runs it through a bright filter.

    See, this is americana. It's sharply produced and polyglot by design. It works because Barr's songs are solid and his band plays with a loose, accomplished feel. Nothing sounds rushed, but all the notes arrive on time.

    And when you've got this much stuff in the pot, you need a strong hand on the knobs. If you allow too much sloppiness, then this would become incomprehensible. There's a clear vision in the sound, and this album was produced with that in mind.

    Down and dirty songs that ought to make just about anyone feel good. Bring your troubles to this bar, and you're sure to go home happy.

    Contact:
    www: http://www.scotlandbarr.com


    Claws of Paradise
    Claws of Paradise
    (self-released)

    Badass rock and roll, with horns. It's not a new concept, but few bands have attempted it with such a ferocious attitude. It's not just that this album is one blistering blast after another (think Voodoo Glow Skulls meets "Paranoid" Black Sabbath and then slips into a bloozy hot tub). Well, maybe it is.

    The horns really make the sound, too. The whole caffeinated stoner bar band thing is cool, but the horns just set it off. Otherwise you've got a low-tech Hanoi Rocks with more guitars. An intriguing idea, to be sure, but one that these boys surpass.

    The other key to these songs is that they remain in motion throughout. If the beat wasn't so insistent, the energy would drain out quickly. But once Claws of Paradise opens up the throttle, there's no looking back.

    A big ball of fun, with some kick-ass riffage as a bonus. One for the testosterone set, to be sure, but even adrenaline junkies prefer quality. And there's plenty of that here.

    Contact:
    www: http://www.clawsofparadise.com


    Dallas Orbiter
    Motorcycle Diagrams
    (Princess)

    Loopy math-ish stuff. Reminds me a lot of Brainiac. I guess that reference may be lost on some of you. Too bad, man. Brainiac was the shit.

    What I like is that these guys mix their obvious proficiency and inclination toward analytical sounds with what can only be described as a deranged sensibility. There is no sense to a fair portion of this, except within the minds of the folks propagating it.

    And even when Dallas Orbiter retreats into geekland, the songs are engaging. There's always an interesting rhythm somewhere, and the sense of melody here is involved, but rarely convoluted beyond the realm of reality.

    Sure, it's a little weird. And it's guaranteed to reduce your chances of romance. Sacrifices must be made if good music is to survive.


    For Against
    Shade Side Sunny Side
    (Words on Music)

    Another venture into the spooky side of 80s indie pop. For Against doesn't so much emulate a particular band or two but rather simply basks in the glow of the sound.

    At times languid and at others insistent, For Against never hurries. These pieces take a while to unfold, though they're not particularly lengthy. Patience is required, but it's the sort of patience that comes naturally when listening to such engaging music.

    The sound is just hefty enough to provide a nest for a speck of reverb. That hint of unsteadyness washes these songs in a molecule-thin gauze. Just enough to notice, but not enough to annoy.

    And the craft is spectacular. These songs connect the dots effortlessly, and more importantly, the junctions are inaudible. Once again, For Against has put together some truly fine work.

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


    The Foxglove Hunt
    Stop Heartbeat
    (Common Wall Media)

    The partnership of Rob Withem and Ronnie Martin (Fine China and Joy Electric, respectively), this is yet another album in this set of reviews that skips through the fields of the 80s.

    In this case, these guys dive straight into the bounding synth pop that brought dolts like me to the dance floor back in the day. Interestingly, the sound doesn't stick to a particular era; there are plenty of Get Ready-esque numbers as well as those that would feel at home on Low-Life, if you want to use the New Order comparison.

    In other words, there are a few sterile dancefloor anthems, and sometimes there's a bit of leavening in the dough. Just enough fluff to provide a comfy spot for the ever-widening butts of the geezers who will appreciate this most. And yes, we're most grateful.

    What strikes me most here, though, is the sheer joy of the music. I'm all for moody introspection--if it's done well--but sometimes I just want my personal cheese. This satisfies like almost nothing else.

    Contact:
    Common Wall Media
    PMB 142
    4050 W. Ray Rd.
    Chandler, AZ 85226
    www: http://www.commonwall.com


    Head of Femur
    Great Plains
    (Greyday)

    A gang of three with a baker's dozen of side players. Sixteen folks working their way through a complex web of mostly acoustic psychedelic tunes that would have fit in real well in the 60s.

    Yeah. That cool, really. Imagine early Urge Overkill with an orchestral acoustic bent. And then twisted a few more times for good measure. These songs often fold in upon themselves, but when you pull on the ends they turn into a gorgeous work of origami.

    Okay, that was a pretentious analogy. But Head of Femur walks a tight line between brilliance and excessive pretentiousness. Somewhat astonishingly, the folks never cross. I kept waiting for that to happen, but no. Simply one astoundingly fine song after another.

    That's the thing with tightly-crafted pop. It can get overbearing fast. Maybe it's that vague psychedelic twitch or simply the bands obvious enthusiasm for the songs that saves the day. In the end, it works. And somewhere out there, Roky Erickson is smiling.

    Contact:
    www: http://www.greydayrecords.com


    Leopold and His Fiction
    Leopold and His Fiction
    (self-released)

    A fine bit of caterwauling. Leopold and His Fiction play the bash and wail as well as the Kings of Leon or anyone else. There's not a lot of sophistication to this sound--for my money, the first Uncle Tupelo album and the first Jon Spencer outing make fine bookends for this kinda stuff--which puts all the stress on the songs themselves.

    And these boys have put together some good work. Uncomplicated fare, which might seem oxymoronic except for the number of folks who seem to think that more is always better. These boys don't. There are some fine guitar licks and a fair amount of pleasant distortion, but no notion that this is something it isn't.

    It's merely solid roots fare masquerading as loud music. And doing a damned good job of it, too. Like one of those old patio chairs with half the stuffing ripped out. There's nothing more comfortable, really.

    Sometimes there's nothing better than taking it easy and turning the volume way up. We're getting into that season, so now is the time to stock up.

    Contact:
    www: http://www.leopoldandhisfiction.com


    Ming & Ping
    Causeway Army
    (self-released)

    The third, and easily most-assured, effort from the brothers. They've always had an intuitive feel for the fluidity and playfulness of 80s electronic pop, but these songs are much more accomplished than what I heard before.

    Compared to this album, the first two sound incomplete. Some of that was by design, as there were plenty of asides an interludes among the songs. This album is songs alone. And while that makes Ming & Ping slightly more conventional, it also binds this album together that much better as well.

    A worthy trade-off, I think. At some point the guys had to decide whether to become full-time musicians or conceptual performance artists. This album leans much more towards music, and that's for the better.

    The little eccentricities--especially in the lyrics--haven't completely disappeared. Ming & Ping have a charm that is apparent from the first beats. Even if those beats are intentionally copped from New Order (the song is called "Dream of Pop," so you know...). A big step forward from an act that was already one of my favorites.

    Contact:
    Bao Vo Creative
    2357 El Molino Ave.
    Altadena, CA 91001
    www: http://www.mingping.com


    Moreland & Arbuckle
    1861
    (Northern Bues)

    The label may be Canadian, but the band hails from central Kansas. The sound is even more southern than that. This is pile-driving Delta blues, with some added brighteners here and there.

    Dustin Arbuckle sings and handles the harp, and Aaron Moreland handles a variety of stringed instruments--guitar, most often. They've got a drummer (Brad Horner), who provides a beat when necessary, but the real attraction here is the stellar interplay between Arbuckle and Moreland. Their rapport is electric.

    The sound is electric, too. What I mean is that there's some organ, and the guitars are wired as often as not. This is a lot closer to the Allman Brothers than Muddy Waters, and that's just fine. There's a real 70s groove to these songs, something of a blues power thing going on.

    So, yeah, fans of John Mayall or even Led Zeppelin might well find kinship here. Moreland & Arbuckle aren't purists by any stretch of the imagination, but they know their way around the blues and they play like their souls are on fire. That's more than enough for me.

    Contact:
    NorthernBlues
    225 Sterling Road
    Unit 19
    Toronto, ON M6R 2B2
    Canada
    www: http://www.northernblues.com


    The Red Romance
    The Red Romance EP
    (self-released)

    There can be no doubt: This issue is dedicated to all forms of 80s pop. The Red Romance plays that tuneful, organic side of new wave, kinda like Joe Jackson circa I'm the Man. The choruses are more latter-day OMD or Tears for Fears, but the guitars are high in the mix. Psychedelic Furs aren't a bad reference, either, though the vocals are far to clean to make that comparison perfect.

    These boys have tapped into a line of pure pop music, and it just so happens that this style was probably the last great expression of the form. Tightly-crafted, played with style and produced with a smooth hand. This stuff is polished to perfection.

    Which is exactly what's called for, of course. The key to 80s pop is that "blissed out" moment. The Red Romance hits it five times out of five. I'd like to hear if the folks can do it on a full-length. Then I'll be truly impressed.

    Contact:
    www: http://www.theredromance.com


    Voyager One
    Afterhours in the Afterlife
    (Loveless)

    Stellar electronic pop that relies on guitar for most of its punch. That's a combination that almost always makes me smile.

    So yeah, Jesus and Mary Chain comes to mind, but Voyager One is much more ethereal and melodic. Think Pink Floyd meets the Charlatans, with an emphasis on the groove. These are songs for dancing. They're always in motion.

    Which isn't to say there aren't moments where ideas take flight. Voyager One does get a little trippy now and again. Those meanders stay within the sound of the band and ultimately make for some intriguing songs.

    In truth, the entire idea behind the band's sound is rather fascinating. I have a sense of having heard this kinda stuff before, but when I dissect it, I realize that there's something unique going on here. And, you know, it kicks my ass into gear. When you hit the head and the heart, you know you're on to something.

    Contact:
    Loveless Records
    1122 East Pike St. #1361
    Seattle, WA 98122
    www: http://www.lovelessrecords.com


    Also recommended:

    The Accident that Led Me to the World The Island Gospel (Nobody's Favorite Records)
    Mark Mandeville and company wind their way through minimalist roots fare. I like the touches of banjo and clarinet that brighten up the sparse sound here. The songs are gorgeous and involving. Sometimes threadbare blankets can be the most warming.

    Amelia A Long, Lovely List of Repairs (Slow Down Records)
    A fairly wide-ranging Portland trio produced by Mark Orton (Tin Hat Trio, etc.). Orton's playing also helps to fill out the rootsy, old-timey sound. This is one of those albums I couldn't quite get my head around. There's so much going on for such a quiet set. I might have to listen a few dozen more times before I figure it out.

    The American Plague Heart Attack (Feedback Symphony)
    Round two from the Knoxville trio, and the boys haven't lost anything off their punch. This southern-fried take on 70s hard rock (Kiss and AC/DC come to mind first, but the list is long) is highly addictive. And like anything with killer riffage and crackling drumwork, listening is always better when pinning the volume knob.

    Be Your Own Pet Not Rocket Science vinyl EP (Infinity Cat)
    The A side has six songs. Fast, modestly tuneful punk ravers and the like. Kinda like the title says. The B (or as they put it, "Z") side is the same six songs played backwards. This is such a cool idea I wonder why I've never heard it done before. In any case, this band's loopy energy is most invigorating.

    Lawrence Blatt Fibonacci's Dream (self-released)
    For those of you who took any serious math, you know what the Fibonacci sequence is. Blatt has gone and written songs using Fibonacci numbers, or so he says. I can kinda hear what he's doing, and he sure does have some skill with the acoustic guitar. Some of this stuff gets a little close to new age cheese for my comfort, but like the conceit and much of the execution. An interesting thought.

    Brass Set to Drop (self-released)
    Highly dramatic and, um, brassy math tunes. Kinda like highly mannered emo, if you were to filter out most conventional senses of melody. I like the way the lines collide here, and I like the way the band keeps challenging the listener. I think these songs may be slightly obtuse, but they're most intriguing nonetheless.
    Contact:
    www: http://www.brasslungs.com

    The Furious Seasons The Furious Seasons (The Eskimo Label)
    David Steinhart (Smart Brown Handbag) and his brother Jeff. To my ear, this just isn't quite up to Steinhart's usual exceptional quality. A lot of these songs sound unfinished, though perhaps that's just because this is much looser than his normally tightly-wrapped alt pop sound. Fans should find this to be a cool departure of sorts.

    Giraffe Hear Here (Eh?)
    Joseph Jaros and Luke Polipnick improvising their way through found sound, samples and some stuff that, on rare occasions, sounds a bit like "normal" music. I like the way they kinda flit in and out of consciousness. I'm not sure if this is supposed to approximate a harried brain settling down to sleep or is simply meant to sound cool. Either way, I like it.

    Katie Herzig Weightless (self-released)
    Herzig brings an off-kilter americana feel to the highly-crafted art pop song. I'm not sure if she's an extremely mannered singer-songwriter or a true stylist who simply likes the sound of acoustic guitar, accordion and the like. I've never heard anything quite like this, which is always enough to bring a smile to my face.
    Contact:
    www: http://www.katieherzig.com

    History Ghosts in the City (24 Hour Service Station)
    The success of the Mars Volta has led to a sharp increase in the number of obsessive prog/metal/etc. bands out there. History is one of the better ones I've heard in a while. Soaring vocals, skin-popping percussion work (a real highlight, to be sure) and some cool guitar slinging. A glorious mess that is more than worth sorting out.

    Intodown Brave New World (self-released)
    My first thought was "This sounds like the 13th Floor Elevators." And then I heard the lyrics on the first track and said, "That's 'Reverberation.'" Then I saw the title of the song: "Elevator." So. There it is. Intodown is a moderately modernized version of the psycho 60s psychedelia purveyed by Roky Erickson and pals. It's out there, but the ride to the edge is most invigorating.

    La Scala The Harlequin 7"/CD (High Wheel)
    I'm not sure I'm down with putting the same songs on vinyl and disc, though the inclusion of a CD bonus track is a welcome cheeky touch. La Scala traffics in throbbing, affected pop rock. Kinda like Blondie meets Firewater. Or, you know, something like that. Pretty cool.

    The Lions Rampant Play Rock N Roll! EP (self-released)
    Six songs that blast their way out of a 60s soul package and emerge as fully-blown rock and roll. Kinda like the Delta 72 or something like that. I'd like to hear a bit more variation among the songs, but the raucous energy here is impossible to put down. Crackling.
    Contact:
    www: http://www.myspace.com/thelionsrampant

    Look Mexico The Crucial Collection (Lujo)
    This disc contains the contents of the Crucial EP and assorted odds and ends. This reminds me a lot of the emo I heard back in the mid 90s (back when emo was something completely different). And that's about it. I hadn't heard this sound in a while, and I was glad it happened along.

    Bob Marsh Viovox (Public Eyesore)
    This from the liners: "Not all the words are words. Most are almost words..." The idea is that the listener should complete the thoughts. I like that. Marsh leaves plenty for the listener to do, but he does provide a fine blueprint. Give this one a chance to work on your brain and you might never come back. It's tempting, let me tell you.

    Mission Giant Golden Triangle (self-released)
    Some lovely synth and keyboard work laid over Devo-eque workups. It's a bit precious, I know, but still fun. Hypnotic, actually, in precisely the way music ought to be hypnotic. Geeks of the world, unite!
    Contact:
    www: http://www.missiongiant.com

    Moving Mountains Pneuma (Deep Elm)
    Going back to what I said earlier about the Mars Volta... Moving Mountains is much more punk oriented, but there's a streak of virtuosic grandiosity to these songs. It could be off-putting for some, I suppose, but these guys push the limits of their sound so much that I'm simply left to marvel.

    Never Enough Hope The Gift Economy (Contraphonic)
    Orchestral weirdness that weaves between the sound of tuning up and some more discernible musical thought. The presentation is a bit confusing, but the effect is impressive. This disc immediately pushes the listener into a chair, which is the best place to contemplate everything going on here. Everything seems to be thought through. Just enjoy the ride.

    Polar Bear Club Sometimes Things Just Disappear (Red Leader)
    Overwrought, to be sure, but Polar Bear Club still manages to rip off some of the tastier chunks of rock I've heard in a while. Very modern rock in a modern rock sorta way, and then there's that whole "these songs are the most important you'll ever hear in your life" style of playing, but I still found myself bobbing my head along and waiting for the next song with anticipation. Go figure.

    The Polka Floyd Show The Polka Floyd Show (Static)
    That would be playing Pink Floyd songs with accordion as the featured instrument. I don't think much else needs to be said, except that this works much better than you might imagine.

    The Wire Orchestra Cordinridinheedinridintrombone (MT6)
    The latest release from my favorite lunatic B-more label is everything I hoped for: noisy, trippy, intelligent and utterly whacked out. More a collection of ideas than songs, there are some really cool moments here. Patience will be rewarded.


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