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 #300 reviews
September 2008
  • Chris Cotton The Big Sea (self-released)
  • Honeycomb Worldwide Electric Inventor's Kit (self-released)
  • June Star Cora Belle (Milltown)
  • KiNo Map of the Universe (self-released)
  • The Legendary Pink Dots Plutonium Blonde (ROIR)
  • Los Angeles Electric 8 Plays Shostakovich, Mendelssohn, Braddock, Siegel and Kohl (self-released)
  • Pillars and Tongues Protection (Contraphonic)
  • The Pineapple Thief Tightly Unwound (K Scope)
  • Tito Puente & His Orchestra Live at the 1977 Monterrey Jazz Festival (Monterrey Jazz Festival/Concord)
  • Sleeping in the Aviary Expensive Vomit in a Cheap Hotel (Science of Sound)
  • The Swear Hotel Rooms and Heart Attacks (self-released)
  • Topaz & Mudphonic Music for Dorothy (self-released)
  • Also recommended: The best of the rest

    Chris Cotton
    The Big Sea

    Fronting a trio (with special friends) of guitar, drums and upright bass, Cotton plays a certain type of old-timey blues that brings to mind Tin Pan Alley or Bob Wills almost as much as Leadbelly.

    By mixing up rural blues, jazz, American song and some sweet western swing, Cotton has brought all these sounds into modern times. The song structures are mainly modern, and the playing is decidedly up-to-date. But the sounds within recall scratchy 78s and acetates.

    I'm speaking of the musical elements, of course. The sound on this disc is immaculate. Like I said, this is modern music. Cotton knows his influences, but he's most concerned about making his own music.

    And it is music most impressive. Cotton's expressive playing and singing drive this album, and his sidemen and pals paint some real pretty (if often sad, of course) pictures. A quiet gem.

    www: http://www.chriscottonmusic.com

    Worldwide Electric Inventor's Kit

    A solid pop duo that veers between laptop peppiness and full-bore power pop muscle. Kinda like the Wrens, if the Wrens were inclined to noodle a bit more often.

    The hooks are what, well, hooked me. There's bliss in them bits, and Honeycomb knows how to set them properly. The songs are arranged so that the hooks derive the greatest impact.

    And the sound is hardly laptop duo. There is the ubiquitous quirkiness that seems to inhabit solo and duo pop acts, but once the choruses break in, all is forgiven.

    If you're not sure about any song on this disc, wait thirty seconds. Then a smile will pass over your face and you'll mumble, "oh yeah." Gentle bliss is great stuff, indeed.

    www: http://www.honeycombhoneycomb.com

    June Star
    Cora Belle

    This one didn't make the cut last issue, and for the life of me I can't figure out why. Maybe it's that I've been listening to more Uncle Tupelo lately...lead singer and songwriter Andrew Grimm is an aural doppelganger for Jay Farrar.

    But these aren't Uncle Tupelo (or Son Volt) songs. They're Andrew Grimm songs, and played by June Star. Timothy Bracken is the other half of the duo, and he does a lot of the playing and all the producing. The two guys make one hell of a team.

    It's hard to make rolling roots music with just two people. Takes skill, devotion and a little luck. June Star has all that. These songs sound like they're being played live to tape, with just enough knob-twisting to bring out the sweet spots. Most solid.

    I'm still stumped as to why I didn't dig this as much the first time around. Maybe because it is right up my alley. I just don't trust something that stabs me in the heart and twists the knife. Oh well. If I listen to a good album enough times, eventually I'll figure it out. I'm thinking it won't take quite so long for most other people.

    www: http://www.milltownrecords.com

    Map of the Universe

    Not the Russian band Kino ("cinema"), which has been defunct for almost two decades. Rather, these are the demented musings of a certain Poet 9. And no, I don't have any other information, except to say that this release is only available by download.

    Though, of course, I'm listening on a CD. Never mind. Critics are geezers. New technology will rule the world. KiNo probably won't, but these meandering songs that sound inspired equally by 80s indie rock, Aphex Twin and Frank Zappa ought to get some attention.

    In no small part for the mere sound of the songs, which is much fuller than the average electronic pop/rock noodler generally achieves. It's a lush prog pop ambient universe that could exist only in someone's mind.

    Except, of course, that it's pouring out my speakers. Weird. Oh well, this album is a series of unexpected encounters and jarring bliss. Most of the time the songs come together. The thing is, I think I like the ones that don't even better.

    www: http://www.kinomapoftheuniverse.com

    The Legendary Pink Dots
    Plutonium Blonde

    The Legendary Pink Dots are, after some 28 years, actually legendary. It's safe to say that certain corners of the goth movement sprouted from the LPD branch, though I can't really think of any bands today that are meandering around this universe.

    That's not to say that LPD are goth--this is prog-folk-electro-pop that hinges on Edward Ka-Spel's affected vocals. A first time listener will hear this and scratch somewhere. Give the music a little time, and the scratching might hit the spot.

    All that is for the uninitiated. If you're an old fan wondering if this set is worth the dough, prepare to cough up the cash. It's not a career-renovating set, but it's very solid. I have only heard one of LPD's four previous albums released this millennium, and this is better. Weird, eccentric and perhaps a wee bit overly trippy, but quite good nonetheless.

    When you're a living legend (even when that legend is circulated among a relatively small set of folks), it's hard to do wrong. But Ka-Spel and LPD do much better than okay. There are a number of compelling songs here, and they sound that much better considering that very few bands are trying anything like this these days. Good stuff.

    P.O. Box 501
    Prince St. Station
    New York, NY 10012
    www: http://www.roir-usa.com

    Los Angeles Electric 8
    Plays Shostakovich, Mendelssohn, Braddock, Siegel and Kohl

    That would be eight people on electric guitar playing classical music. Mostly modern (Braddock, Kohl and Siegel were all born after 1950, and Shostakovich is one of the great 20th century composers), mostly full of motion.

    The arrangements are the most interesting part of this album. It's not that hard to break down most any piece of music into eight parts or less. The different instruments in orchestras provide different textures even as many of them play the same part. Which makes the real challenge arranging these pieces so that the textural intent of the works comes through.

    Sometimes it doesn't. There are spots where the sound of eight guitars noodling around a theme sounds like so much mush. The playing is exquisite, but the setting does illustrate many of the limitations of electric guitar, no matter how beautifully it can be played.

    Still, I like the way these folks think. I like the way they attack the pieces rather than sit back and let the music play them. I like that these folks take chances, even when they don't always work. You've got to understand: This is an almost impossible undertaking. When all the pieces come together (which is most of the album), the results are transcendent. Wildly beautiful at the most unexpected times.

    www: http://www.losangeleselectric8.com

    Pillars and Tongues

    Fiddles and harp and percussion and lots more. Pillars and Tongues throw classical ideas into rootsy instrumentation and tie it all up with eccentric song structure. There is a decided lean toward the epic soundscapes of Dirty Three, but these folks are a lot more circumspect. Oh, and there's some singing.

    Sometimes quiet is more ominous than noise. The anticipation of what comes next can almost kill. These pieces are deliberate in drafting and execution. It's impossible to guess what's coming next, but when it arrives the effect can be devastating.

    The sound of the album is utterly sparse. Every string rattle and reed squonk echoes for a time. The tunnel vision of this sound (I think you know what I mean) is harrowing.

    Not for the weak of bladder. This album will devastate serious listeners. It's intense beyond imagining. A real spine-tingler.

    P.O. Box 2203
    Chicago, IL 60690
    www: http://www.contraphonic.com

    The Pineapple Thief
    Tightly Unwound
    (K Scope)

    The album opens with a bit of Nik Drake-ian musing. Then it shifts gears, wandering through a variety of 70s sounds before settling on a thoroughly modern rock sound.

    I didn't mean that as a pun. Not exactly, anyway. But these guys grapple with modern rhythms and 70s prog and space sounds as if possessed. I suppose it's kind of a Radiohead thing, but much less orchestrated. These guys aren't out to rock the arenas.

    Maybe they should. Some of these songs don't have enough of a kick in the chorus to really hit overdrive. This is often pretty stuff, but a bit more backbone would add that much more.

    Nonetheless, it works for me. I kinda nodded along throughout and then tried to figure out why I liked this album so much. It is hypnotic, and that's rarely a bad thing. Take a little time, hit that alpha state and take a new look at life. Worse things could happen.

    www: http://www.kscopemusic.com

    Tito Puente & His Orchestra
    Live at the 1977 Monterrey Jazz Festival
    (Monterrey Jazz Festival/Concord)

    One of a number of live albums from Monterrey fests getting a fresh release, this set showcases one of Latin music's first superstars still going strong after decades on the road.

    Puente's best-known piece (among general music fans, anyway) is "Oye Como Va." While that song is strongly associated with Santana (as it already was when this set was recorded), Puente's 15-piece band tears through it with the assurance only a creator can give.

    That's pretty much the way the rest of the set goes as well. It's easy to hear how this performance helped Puente to get a contract with Concord back in the late 70s and move into the jazz mainstream, as described in the liners.

    This is one of six current releases from the Monterrey label. The others include Jimmy Witherspoon, Cal Tjader, Art Blakey (with one serious band behind him), Dave Brubeck and Shirley Horn. The best moments of these discs are perfect illustrations why music is best "seen" as well as heard.

    100 N. Crescent Drive
    Beverly Hills, CA 90210
    www: http://www.concordmusicgroup.com

    Sleeping in the Aviary
    Expensive Vomit in a Cheap Hotel
    (Science of Sound)

    The album title is fairly indicative. These are songs of caustic wit and even more corrosive loathing. The venom seems to be delivered at both the subjects of the songs and (perhaps) other band members as well. I'm not sure about that last part, but this album is tension city.

    Which makes for compelling listening. Sleeping in the Aviary plays a raggedy sort of rock of roll, one that dips its toe into folk and the blues before galloping back into the world of cranging guitars. Sonic tension, if you will. And like I said, it works quite well.

    Indeed, just about everything works here. The songs are tight, the band is just loose enough to give some room to breathe and the sound is a couple steps above demo-quality--exactly what these folks need.

    The easiest touchpoints would be the Brian Jonestown Massacre or the Flaming Lips (circa 1993 or so), though these folks are more anarchic and antisocial. This one sounds good from the start, and then it grows on you. Loverly, kids.

    Science of Sound
    P.O. Box 14573
    Madison, WI 53708-0573
    www: http://www.scienceofsound.com

    The Swear
    Hotel Rooms and Heart Attacks

    Easily the most commercial album I've reviewed in while, and I took a long time deciding what to do. In the end, the album won me over. It's basic power-pop rock with throaty female vocals. Done exceptionally well, I must add.

    Anthem after anthem tumbles out, and yet each has its own space. No two songs sound alike. Given the gist of this album, that remarkable.

    The sound is full and lends the songs plenty of power. This is ass-kicking music, and the production has given it the necessary steel-toed boots. Almost as thick as Hammerbox's A&M album--a compliment, by the way.

    Cheap and easy, to be sure, but awfully tempting. The Swear breaks no new ground. All it wants to do is make music that could warp a mill saw. A success, I believe.

    www: http://www.theswear.com

    Topaz & Mudphonic
    Music for Dorothy

    Somewhere between the blues, soul and funk lies Topaz & Mudphonic. These songs have some serious grooves, and a heavy load of harp to boot. It's not pure anything, but that sort of mutt pedigree is always welcome.

    This album is a grabber from the start, and even when the songs drop down for a spot of introspection there's no letting up. This is the perfect album for slow summer evenings watching sweat bead up on a glass of bourbon and ice.

    Oh, and it sounds that sweet, too. There's nothing complicated or tricky about the production. Topaz's vocals have plenty of space, as does the rest of the band. That open, airy feel accentuates the power of these songs. When things get raucous, they really roll.

    A nice way to wrap up reviews. This is exit music most sublime. Wish I'd had it at the beach last summer. Oh well. Put it down for next time out.

    www: http://www.topazmusic.com
    www: http://www.mudphonic.com

    Also recommended:

    Banner Pilot Resignation Day (Go Kart)
    Raucous, underproduced, wonderfully thrashy pop punk. Pop more in construction rather than execution. This is noisy, almost atonal, sloppy fare. But it's played with lots of energy and a fine sneer. I guess that makes it "old school" or something. Whatever. It's a blast.

    Beaten by Them Signs of Life (self-released)
    Exceptionally introspective stuff. The press sticker references Mogwai and Dirty Three...ballpark, I guess. Beaten by Them is more orchestral and more crafted. Not particularly overwrought, however. Just some candy for the frontal lobes.
    www: http://www.beatenbythem.com

    Circus Circus Brooklyn Nightlife (CI)
    Okay. There's only one Mars Volta. Lots of folks (like Circus Circus) try to replicate the mashup of intense styles, and lots of folks (like Circus Circus) actually do a fair approximation. It's just that I prefer the Mars Volta. Now, if an entire genre called "The Mars Volta" comes into existence, Circus Circus should be at the top of heap. Good stuff. I just have the feeling I've heard it already.

    Clawjob Manifest Destiny EP (self-released)
    A couple guys who have an interesting take on disjointed rock and roll. The clunkiness is more raggedy than geeky (if you follow me), and the songs themselves have more than a few interesting moments. Something to keep an ear on.
    www: http://www.clawjob.com

    Digital Primate Digital Primate (Public Opinion)
    Tricked-out tunes that fit right into the whole N.E.R.D. genre-crossing affair. A little dub, lots of hip-hop and plenty of pop, rock and soul. Just a bit too commercial for my ears, though maybe I'm just overreacting 'cause it flows so smoothly into my ears. This stuff sounds too tasty to be real.

    The Dirty Hearts Pigs (Socyermom)
    Gyrating tunes with an awful lot of grooves for the throb-pop sound. Another album that grabbed me so tightly that I didn't trust my instincts do a full review. Still not sure if that's the right call. But the Dirty Hearts sure do know how to kick out some gorgeous songs with a kick.

    Gentleman Caller Gentleman Caller vs. the Elephant (MFT)
    Kinda like Guided by Voices meets Uncle Tupelo...and yeah, it does sound a bit like the Capstan Shafts. Except that the production remains within the rational universe. Lots of great little songs...and that's one of the higher compliments I can give.

    Gultskra Artikler/Lanterns split EP (Other Electricities)
    Two artists (bands? I dunno) making some fine electronic (ish) mood music. You know, the kind that takes your mind on a journey. Lanterns has a bit more focus (in the accepted sense of the word), but both of these artists sure know how to ride the edge of the musical universe. I got lost, in the best way possible.

    Linfinity A Manual for Free Living: Installation EP (Secretly Canadian)
    Take old-time rock and roll riffs and add a madman singer...wait, that just sounds like old-time rock and roll. Hmm. Well, the band plays the stuff really fast and doesn't worry much about locking in the hooks. Either you catch the train or you don't. A manic ride that's worth the leap, in my book.

    The Listing Ship A Hull Full of Oil and Bone (self-released)
    Seven folks--and a few more friends. These intensely-orchestrated songs belie a solid grounding in rock and roll craftsmanship. If you can get past the occasional involved into, there's some fine rootsy songs here. I really like the way the band plays together. Bet the live show is something else.
    www: http://www.listingship.com

    Jeremy Messersmith The Silver City (Princess)
    The album's title and artwork are vaguely Oz-ian, but the music is more one-man pop. Messersmith does have a large number of pals who play with him, but his writing has that cool, eccentric quality of so many singular projects. Not quite lush, but well-formed and pretty, verging on gorgeous.

    Prints Just Thoughts EP (Temporary Residence)
    Four trippy, loopy laptop pop tunes. There's a lot of deconstruction going on here, but the melodies still shine brightly. Not quite enough here to make a full judgment, but plenty to make me smile.

    Proud Simon Night of Criminals (self-released)
    Dreadfully pretty pop, almost devastatingly so. To the extent that I really can't get a handle on anything else. Every song is pitch perfect, and every note is precisely in place. I wish these guys would loosen up just a bit, because there's a dearth of personality. I assume live shows are a bit more...more, really. The early Posies albums were like this. I just liked them better when their live personas finally made it on a record. Proud Simon would do well to travel that path as well.
    www: http://www.proudsimon.com

    Rurik Re-Education (Athir Creative)
    Exceptionally rhythmic stuff that infuses techno into Devo-esque new wave sounds. The constant motion (and not just in the percussion section) is astonishing. These songs move fast. Makes me believe that there might, in fact, be such a thing as perpetual motion.

    Seven that Spells Black Om Rising (Beta-Iactam Ring)
    I'm not even going to guess as to what the record label name might mean. Seven that Spells is a tough nut in its own right. These burbling, lurching compositions bring to mind Pigface, Jan Hammer and Hawkwind. Pretty cool, when you think about it. There's some serious excess going on, and I'm happy to feast on the drippings.

    War Tapes War Tapes EP (Sarathan)
    Let's say the Cult leaned a bit more on the gothic and the pop rather than the AC/DC. You might have something like War Tapes, a shimmery (yet blistering) pop band fronted by a vocalist with some serious pipes. Decidedly crafted, but not in a bad way. These folks purvey quite the rush.

    Matt Weston Not to Be Taken Away (7272 Music)
    Weston is a percussive nightmare. He demands that his notion of rhythmic bliss be noticed and appreciated. Hard not to notice such a collection of distorted and flat-out blistered recordings. While I'm an unabashed fan of such abstract fare, this one took a while to make me smile. That made me appreciate it all the more.

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