Welcome to A&A. There are 12 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 #297 reviews
June 2008
  • The Heys Youngbored&broke (4 West)
  • Jr. Juggernaut Ghost Poison (Suburban Home)
  • Kingen Ride With Me (Black Cat Songs/Fargfabriken)
  • Oppenheimer Take the Whole Midrange and Boost It (Bar/None)
  • The Pedaljets The Pedaljets (Oxblood)
  • Radars to the Sky The Big Bang E.P. (self-released)
  • David Sanchez Cultural Survival (Concord)
  • The Scarring Party Come Away from the Light (self-released)
  • Jon Sonnenberg Acoustic Selections (Old Man Records)
  • The Thin Man Spectres (self-released)
  • The Transport Assembly Improbable Songs (Broken Twilight)
  • Sarah Vonderhaar Are You Listening Now (self-released)
  • Also recommended: The best of the rest

    The Heys
    (4 West)

    Yes, the whole garage thing played out a long time ago. A long time ago in "fad years," anyway. But there's something about music played with immediacy and attitude that just doesn't go out of style.

    Being British, the Heys sharpen the garage sound to a fine edge and then provide one hell of a shave. These are songs stripped down to their barest elements: power, melody and electricity.

    Oh, and they're good. The Heys know how to kick out the hooks, and more importantly, these songs are decadent examples of exceptional rhythmic grooves. In other words, shaking your ass is required.

    Not the next coming of anything in particular, but awfully tight and refined in such a way as to maximize the pleasure. Just in time for summer.

    Jr. Juggernaut
    Ghost Poison
    (Suburban Home)

    Suburban Home specializes in punk-tinged country music, often coming in trio form. Most often, its bands owe old school (No Depression, Still Feel Gone) Uncle Tupelo a great debt--even while carving out their own little piece of the sound. That's pretty much what Jr. Juggernaut does, too.

    Which is cool by me. Uncle Tupelo was the house band of my college years at Missouri, so I kinda have an emotional connection to this style. Jr. Juggernaut is more muscular than most. In many ways, these boys have more of a Blasting Room sound than many bands that record at the Descendents HQ.

    Behind that throbbing wall lies some really nice thinking. These songs may be bashed out with abandon, but they're put together with grace and care. Not many bands can sound gentle even while thrashing out rootsy riffs at 11. These boys certainly do have a special talent.

    And they're from California. California? I feel like I'm in that old salsa commercial. California? Good music works everywhere, I suppose. And these boys sure do good music right. Lovely noise.

    Suburban Home
    P.O. Box 40757
    Denver, CO 80204
    www: http://www.suburbanhomerecords.com

    Ride With Me
    (Black Cat Songs/Fargfabriken)

    Kingen is a lake between Sweden and Norway, and it is also the name a certain T. Karlsson has been using for some time. Just not quite as long a time as the sound of his songs might make it seem.

    These pieces have the feel of 1950s American r&b and the 60s British invasion redux. There are a few modern improvements (the drum machine on "She's Mine" explodes the song right out of the speakers), but the influences are nice and weathered.

    Kingen himself is of indeterminate age. Someone on the web said they'd seen Kingen more than 10 years ago, and his photos put him somewhere between 30 and 50. Doesn't really matter, though. These songs take old school rock and roll and very subtly bring the sound into modern times. Nothing contrived; just solid writing and exuberant playing.

    Some folks might liken this to Amy Winehouse and the other Brit replicators. But Kingen's influences are much more wide-ranging, and he's much too interested in the music to insert himself above it. Maybe he's the Swedish Nick Lowe, which wouldn't be a bad thing at all.

    Take the Whole Midrange and Boost It

    The title is a great description of what most power pop bands need to do to their mix. I suppose it's some sort of inside joke, as these Northern Irish folks play wonky power pop that does, indeed, boost the middle range.

    Not so much as to make a mud puddle, of course. These songs have all sorts of ornaments dangling from them, and it would serve no purpose to hide them. This sort of eclecticism comes close to sounding forced, but in the end it simply comes across as a decidedly less-freaky version of Ween.

    Take that as you like. The folks in Oppenheimer seem to know that they're not misunderstood geniuses. They're just solid pop musicians with a fair number of fun ideas. That's okay by me.

    More than okay, really. The largely electronic flights of wackiness didn't distract from the business of pumping out solid hooks and sturdy harmonies. More like enhanced them, really. Highly enjoyable.

    P.O. Box 1704
    Hoboken, NJ 07030
    www: http://www.bar-none.com

    The Pedaljets
    The Pedaljets

    The press sticker overstates the Pedaljets place in history just a bit. The band that inspired Uncle Tupelo? Influenced, sure. Befriended...might well be. I saw the Pedaljets once when I was at Missouri. They were damn good, one of the best regional bands of the mid 80s. And they went away right when things seemed to be getting good.

    This album is a re-recording of the band's second effort. Some of the original tracks from that 1989 album are still here, but most of this is new. I don't have a copy of that earlier version, but my memory is that it was rougher. Had to be, really. Everything indie in those days was pretty much hack and slash.

    As for the style, Uncle Tupelo is not the correct reference. "The Toup" stirred itself a Minneapolis cocktail that was equal parts Jayhawks and 'Mats. The Pedaljets remained firmly in Westerbergian and Stinsonian territory, though they had (and have) the ability to craft gorgeous songs without sounding forced.

    This is a stylish remake. The songwriting is definitely 1989, but the modern production brings out the band's many influences. This is a very strange sort of project, but the results don't lie. If this album wasn't already a classic, it sure is now.

    Oxblood Records
    www: http://www.oxbloodrecords.com

    Radars to the Sky
    The Big Bang E.P.

    Most EPs break out fast and make their points early. Radars to the Sky decided to roll out in a contemplative mode. It works. Probably better than if the disc had kicked off with one of the more uptempo bits.

    Radars to the Sky plays slightly-more-than-minimalist fare. They've got a bit of jangle in the hooks and some pop in the percussion. But the real attraction here is the simple beauty of the songs themselves. These folks know how to paint pictures with their songs. Really interesting pictures.

    Took me a couple minutes to latch on to this one. But my interest turned to devotion almost immediately. The delicate strength of these songs is a rare treasure.

    David Sanchez
    Cultural Survival

    The life of a modern reed man is almost unfathomable to me. Every stone has pretty much been overturned, and yet folks are expected to come up with something new. David Sanchez seems to follow in the footsteps of Branford Marsalis: Take the old as given and insinuate yourself into every crevice you can find.

    Most artists don't have the chops or ambition to make this approach work. Sanchez does. This album is dedicated to Mario Rivera and Cachao (Lopez), two jazzmen who were at the forefront of adding Caribbean rhythms and melodies to the canon. There are echoes of those rhythms and melodies from time to time, but Sanchez is more of a traditionalist. He sets forth his ideas and lets the band work them out.

    His rendition of "Monk's Mood" is a perfect example. Less formal than Monk, but languorous rather than sloppy. And while Sanchez's tone is one of the silkiest I've heard in ages, there's nothing "smooth" about these pieces. Lage Lund's guitar work is wonderfully complimentary, serving as either backbone or counterpoint to Sanchez's musings. Their interplay is fantastic.

    The centerpiece is the last track, "La Leyenda del Canaveral," 20-plus minutes of sublime exploration. The piece flew by for me, lasting perhaps five exhilarating minutes in my mind. It's a fitting summation for the album, and worthy of a disc of its own. Mindblowing stuff.

    Concord Music Group
    100 N. Crescent Dr.
    Beverly Hills, CA 90210
    www: http://www.concordmusicgroup.com

    The Scarring Party
    Come Away from the Light

    Any band that features accordion, banjo, tuba, a variety of reeds and strings and something called a "tongue drum" is a winner in my book.

    True enough, this stuff is extraordinarily mannered. Daniel Anthony Bullock sounds like the bastard child of Leon Redbone and Les Claypool. Maybe that's what he imagines to be "old timey" singing. Or maybe he just thinks it sounds cool. But again, when played off the accordion and tuba and the like, it works.

    Nonetheless, there's no escaping the novelty nature of this stuff. The Scarring Party is interesting because it's so weird. And if I'm calling something weird, you know it must be true. The songs are a bit clunky, which might also be part of that whole gimmick. The sound is immaculate, giving lots of space to each of the instruments while remaining intimate.

    All qualifications aside, this is a stirring album. It does help to have a preference for the unusual--but if you didn't, you wouldn't be reading this, would you? Give the accordion a few minutes and see how it grows on you.

    www: http://www.scarringparty.com

    Jon Sonnenberg
    Acoustic Selections
    (Old Man Records)

    Better-known as an electronic artist, Jon Sonnenberg decided to revisit some of his pieces in an acoustic context. The results are interesting. It's still quite possible to hear pacing and melodic ideas that are more at home in the electronic universe, but the "real" instrumentation does bring out something new.

    The liners take pains to say that there is no qualitative difference between electronic and analog. Both are good and useful. I'd insert that combining the two approaches can lead to something really intriguing. Perhaps Sonnenberg will try that approach next time out.

    Sonnenberg's pieces are relatively minimalist to begin with, and that makes the transition here much easier. He seems to have used the electronic approach as a means to an end, and now that his talents and recording technology have caught up to his ideas, he's able to make a record like this.

    Truly beautiful stuff. Sonnenberg's compositions are exquisite, making the most out of a simple, aching melody or subtle shift in rhythm. This context brings a whole new dimension to his music. And like I noted earlier, he might climb to greater heights if he can combine the electronic and analog. I know I'd love to hear that.

    www: http://www.oldmanrecords.com

    The Thin Man

    This is the third Thin Man album I've heard, and it's just as warped and twisted as the first two. This isn't americana. It's americana gothic. These songs drive straight for the rotting souls of your friends and neighbors. There's a song called "Optimist's Blues" that is so caustically ironic it corroded my CD player.

    Not that I'm complaining. I'm a sucker for black humor and dyspeptic debris of all sorts. My favorite book is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. This sort of dreary attitude makes me feel warm all over.

    And, in fact, I think these guys have gotten darker and meaner...a lot darker and meaner, actually. That's a good thing. There's no point in being kinda harsh. Don't stop at the nose; blast the whole face off, if you know what I mean.

    The Thin Man just might scare the pubes off your privates. These are songs for people who can toss back a scotch without blinking, people for whom the sour juice in a bottle of Duchesse du Bourgogne is truly mother's milk. Life is a twisted joke that simply heaps misery upon misery. And damned if stuff like this doesn't make me feel a whole lot better about that.

    www: http://www.thinmansongs.com

    The Transport Assembly
    Improbable Songs
    (Broken Twilight)

    Anthems with polygonal structure. Math-y pieces that accidentally wandered down a 90s indie rock alley. Something like that, anyway.

    The label (which happens to be run by Transport Assembly guitarist/producer Chad Imes) calls this "angular art rock strategies." I kinda like that, too. In any case, these songs start with a low-key but insistent beat that is complemented by hypnotically repetitive guitar licks and somewhat dissociate singing.

    Sometimes these guys wander into full-blown Bauhaus territory. Most of the time, though, they noodle a bit too much for that. I can dig it. The noodling is a nice counterpoint to the tight rhythm work. Sometimes it even turns the songs inside out.

    There's a real sense of sonic exploration here. The Transport Assembly never quite arrives at its own sound, but the dance is most exhilarating. Songs worth a spin or ten.

    www: http://www.brokentwilight.com

    Sarah Vonderhaar
    Are You Listening Now

    I really went back and forth on this one. Not about liking it--I love it. But it is so similar to albums by Sarah Shannon and Paul Kelley and others. That whole "big pop" thing, women singing loudly over vaguely-Bacharachian constructions.

    Vonderhaar actually trends a bit more modern, spinning some wanky back-beat guitar into her post-disco confections. And, you know, as long as you're going to cheese out, you might as well go all the way. Vonderhaar dives in and doesn't even think of glancing back.

    Which is what sells this as a full review for me. It's utterly enjoyable, but I'm a sucker for this kinda thing. What kicked this over the edge for me is Vonderhaar's complete devotion to her songs. Mostly her songs, anyway, as a couple are written by members of her band. But that's no matter. She sells these babies hard. And that turns the merely attractive into something exceptional.

    Fun fare that might well leave a hangover in the morning. But as long as I'm getting a buzz off this, I'm not putting it away.

    P.O. Box 76
    Lake Zurich, IL 60047-0076
    www: http://www.sarahvonderhaar.com

    Also recommended:

    Atris Lensing (self-released)
    Extensive rhythmic programming combined with piano, acoustic (and electric) guitars and more. The songs themselves are vaguely math-like, with a definite gothic pop lean. Mannered moodiness is a fine sound to appropriate. Quite appealing.
    www: http://www.atrishq.com

    Bipolaroid E(i)ther Or (Surreal But Kind)
    Wandering in from some 60s time warp, Bipolaroid makes genial pop that doesn't quite exist in this universe. It's often just a wee bit inexplicable. Swoops of melody and warps of sound crash through with astonishing frequency. The label name is most appropriate.

    Andreas Brandal This Is Not For You (Eh?)
    Brandal refers to the music within his pieces as sounds. That's about right. This exploration of the outer reaches of convention never quite sheds the bounds of earth--the melodies can be stunning--but it sure does dance along the edge. Let the sounds roll over you, and you'll find yourself transported to a better place.

    End the Century Hammer & the Anvil (self-released)
    Back in the day, this would have been called death metal, and that would be that. I don't know what this stuff is called these days, but I like the transposing of harsh vocals with technical, melodic riffage. The alternate vocals (gothic hardcore, I suppose) lend a decided Fear Factory feel to this. It's nowhere near that good, but interesting nonetheless.

    Arrington de Dionyso/Thollem McDonas Intuition, Science and Sex (Edgetone)
    McDonas plays the "beatup piano," and de Dionyso wails on a bass clarinet. The sonic collisions are impressive, and I'm a sucker for the sound of an abused clarinet, no matter what size. These guys play well off each other, complimenting the other's ideas and working hard to make each piece that much better.

    Ghosty Answers (Oxblood)
    Ghosty's songwriting does put it in the same league as the Wrens, Shins and Big Star, as the press sticker says. The arrangements and performances on this disc, however, are a bit limp. I kept waiting for moments of bliss, but these guys kept their stuff just a bit too much under wraps. I hear loads of potential. Perhaps they ought to head down NC way and pay a visit to Mitch Easter. He'd kick it up a notch.

    William F. Gibbs My Fellow Sophisticates (Old Man Records)
    Gibbs affects an old-school roots patina, but his songs are pretty much well-crafted jangle pop with a dollop of Ryan Adams's somber pomposity. That works for me, but it is awfully pretentious. And he doesn't always hold up his end of the bargain. Still, anyone who tries this hard and almost succeeds ought to be recognized. Someday he might make all the pieces fit together just right.

    Incommunicado Losing Daylight (A-F)
    You'd expect a Pittsburgh hardcore band to be, well, blue-collar. And Incommunicado doesn't disappoint. There's also plenty of sophistication mixed in with the power--these guys obviously love bands like Refused--which leavens the band's strength without diffusing it. Substantive and exciting.

    Joshua Marcus Reverse the Charges (Contraphonic)
    It may seem impossible to make retro roots music sound too mannered, but Joshua Marcus comes close. Which is too bad, because Marcus sets an wonderfully austere tone and creates some truly beautiful songs. At times, however, the soul seems to drop out, and all I hear is a vaguely atonal singer plucking notes. If Marcus can keep "feeling it," he'll improve on stuff that is already quite good.

    Natalie Portman's Shaved Head Glistening Pride (Team Swan)
    Laptoppers who love the Human League. Exceptionally geeky and criminally silly (start with the name of the band and go from there). The simplistic new wave melodies are a kick, and the beats are so old they've got their own walkers. Sweet Jesus, this is fun!

    The National Rifle Wage Life (Fang)
    Borrowing from just about everyone (the collage cover art is indicative of the music within), the National Rifle seems to be trying to kill our culture with a million tiny slashes. I must admit the repeated musical thefts annoyed me at first, but once I got into the groove of what these folks seem to be doing, everything seemed to make more sense. One of those albums I'll need to keep revisiting frequently.
    www: http://myspace.com/thenationalrifle

    Osgoods Smoother & Shrink (San Zabelt)
    These guys have the power trio feel down--everything is very important. But Osgoods vary their sound with almost insane frequency. There's some light-hearted pop, a bit of the Bowie/Eno axis and some classic rockin' power trio fare. And then plenty of other stuff as well. Osgoods don't stay in one place often, but wherever they rest their feet they do the job well.

    The Oswald Effect Love & Sabotage (self-released)
    For a moment, it seemed like Rocket from the Crypt might well become one of the most influential bands ever. Okay, so maybe it was just a second. The Oswald Effect, though, was paying attention all those years ago. These high-energy, slightly off-kilter blisterpaks make for exhilarating listening.
    www: http://www.theoswaldeffect.com

    Ride the Boogie Ride the Boogie (Longhair Illuminati/Boogie Discs)
    Lordy, lordy, folks. Just because you can be weird doesn't mean you should. Though I have to admit that these often manic (and generally demented) songs wormed their way into my brain with little effort. Those who like their rock and roll with a side of lunacy should find a friend here.

    Rent Romus' Jazz on the Line Quartet Filmtrax-ROBOT (Rats and Other Memos) (Edgetone)
    More than 20 years ago, Rent Romus focused on the quartet. He called his Jazz on the Line. He moved on to broader ventures almost 15 years ago, but when asked to do a little film work he returned to his roots and went back to the quartet. These seven pieces (some more composed and some more improvised) range widely in sound and inspiration, but each is compelling. I don't hear the story of the movie here, but I do hear fine work.

    Sad Sailor Link to the Outside World (Eh?)
    Seven people, three songs. Sounds a lot like Dirty Three, except much more improvisational and much more densely populated. The songs themselves, however, are lovely explorations. They unfold quite slowly, but eventually come together into radiant wholes. Easy to get lost--not that I minded.

    Skamper Thunderbeast (self-released)
    Loud, throbbing and incredibly well-ordered. Skamper does noise with exquisite grace and grace with astounding noise. The riffage alone is worth the price of admission. These folks will rock your ass off until you're ready for the beach.
    www: http://www.skamper.com

    Various Artists Funky Kidz (Funky Kidz)
    New Orleans musicians play children's classics and kids-friendly songs like "Yellow Submarine" or "This Land Is Your Land". Some of it is overproduced, but most of it has that multi-instrumental charm that characterizes even the most cheesy of New Orleans fare. One note: Despite what the liners claim, the "Hokey Pokey" on this disc is not the Richard Thompson tune. Just so you know.

    We Versus the Shark Dirty Versions (Hello Sir)
    "Dirty?" Perhaps. Loud, though, to be sure. This is (mostly) live-to-tape (or whatever) in a purported attempt to replicate the band's live sound. If this is what these guys sound like live, it's hard to imagine many surviving the onslaught. Years ago folks might have called this "no wave." Now it's just what the kids are listening to these days. Who says the future looks dim?

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