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 #304 reviews
The Bitter Tears
Jam Tarts in the Jakehouse
Ultra-stylish pop music that draws on almost more influences than the band can handle. Well, almost. But that overreaching is a large part of what makes this album so exciting.
The songs have an innate sense of drama that draws from the question, "Will they pull it off?" A number of these songs start off as lurching shuffles, and then rootsy elements and some horns are draped on this spare skeleton. Then jazz and rock bits are sprinkled in, and the effect is much like pixiedust. All of a sudden, it's quite apparent just how well these songs are working.
Not an easy sell, by any stretch, but a rewarding one in the end. The sophisticated arrangements aren't for everyone, but they're awfully impressive. There's a somewhat basic resemblance to a fair amount of latter-day Tom Waits, but the Bitter Tears are, despite the name, much brighter.
Quite a lovely piece of work. I'm not sure it that's the sort of review these folks want to read, but there it is. I'm sold.
Dead Heart Bloom
In Chains EP
Dead Heart Bloom finishes up its triple EP cycle in style, meandering off into even more genres unknown. I said it a year ago, and now that I've heard the full run I remain convinced: These three EPs make for one hell of an album.
The EP form has allowed for a bit more experimentation, of course. This one is more rooted in the early 70s. A bit of Nick Drake here, a bit of Big Star there. In fact, "Halfway Gone," the middle track and centerpiece of this set, reminds me a lot of what it might sound like if Elton John had tried his hand at an Alex Chilton piece back in 1973. The sound is lush, but the melodies are tight and inviting.
Pretty cool stuff. I don't know where these guys are going next, but I'm with them all the way.
(Go Johnny Go/Elephant Park)
Pretty, highly-involved pop. The Deaths throw as much as is possible into their sound--orchestration, electronics, distortion, you name it---and then let the almost otherworldly beauty of the melodies blast these songs into orbit. This is, of course, a time-honored technique.
Most bands tend to screw it up, though. They go for excessive excess, and the only band that managed to pull off that trick was My Bloody Valentine almost 20 years ago. The Deaths are more circumspect in their use of the bludgeon; the songs here actually sound like songs.
And with a nice, full sound that really fleshes out the writing. There is something beneath all the sonic gimmickry, and it's worth hearing. These are well-crafted songs that are arranged quite nicely for the modern pop setting.
The album just keeps rolling along. Solid, occasionally inspired, work. I'd have to hear more from the Deaths to make a real judgment, but this is good stuff. Lots here to like.
Mike Mictlan & Lazerbeak
Hand Over Fist
Harking back to the days when hip-hip was about rapping, Mike Mictlan and Lazerbeak tear through 13 tracks full of slamming beats and plenty of honest-to-God rhymes.
Don't get me wrong. The whole hip-hop as an alternative version of pop music is interesting. Or it can be, in the right hands. A lot of the time, though, MCs seem to simply be speaking prose over tired samples and grating vocals. This is not the case here.
Lazerbeak goes back to the rock, throwing plenty of guitars and noise into his beatwork. He's certainly a fan of the Bomb Squad, but there's a deftness and subtlety to his work that sets it apart. This is one fun album to simply experience. Mictlan, likewise, is a born rapper. Don't know if he's got stage presence or the sort of personality that sells a video. But he knows how to spin rhymes and keep listeners glued to the speakers.
Yeah, this is a lot more 1989 than 2009. And hey, I'm a geezer. That's just fine with me. There's some serious power here.
Happy Fun Party
Tight, well-crafted pop tunes that are played with abandon. If there's a better way to make me smile, I just can't think of it right now.
Middle States simply blaze through this material, sometimes so quickly that I think something might have been left out. Certainly, the production sound is strikingly primitive. Don't know exactly how these guys accomplished such a demo-ish sound in this day and age, but it does add a certain charm.
And it also adds to that rushed feeling. I'd like to tell these guys to take a break. Chill for a moment and let the songs settle. This is great stuff, and I can't imagine why there was any great rush to set it to tape. Then again, there's the side of me that likes a bit of the harried.
When I sent my brain away for a holiday, I had a great time. Those nagging thoughts are just that. There's room for improvement, but this is one serious calling card. Keep an ear out for these boys.
Chris Robley and the Fear of Heights
Movie Theater Haiku
The album is subtitled "A Masque of Backwards Ballads, A Picturesque Burlesque." Alright, so there's just a wee bit of pretension creeping about.
That's fine by me. For the most part, Robley is also the Fear of Heights (he does let a few friends sit in now and again), which is just another signpost. Robley thinks very highly of his music. And he's got a really geeky sense of humor.
I can relate. This loud, fast, ultra-stylized pop-rock reminds me a lot of Firewater and the Wrens. A combination, actually, which is very exciting to my ears. I love those bands almost to death. As this is a one-man project, there's an awful lot of eccentricity to the writing, arrangements and production. On the plus side, Robley simply refuses to repeat himself. Luckily, he's pretty good at whatever sound he appropriates.
The sort of album that starts off strong and then continues to get better. My guess is that a lot of folks will be slapping this on a ten-best list in eleven months or so. Who knows? Maybe I'll be one of them. I'm duly impressed.
The Small Cities
The Small Cities EP
Four tunes that wander through four sides of the pop-rock sound. There's the tuneful tapper (#2), the jangle waiting to happen (#3), the morose arty waltz (#1), and the almost-ethereal summation (#4). That's all well and good.
Actually, it's better than that. The Small Cities do a great job with each of these sounds, and perhaps more impressively, the guys manage to maintain a cohesive band sound throughout. That's no small task.
An interesting set. I have no idea where this trio might find itself in the future, but I'd venture to guess it will be finely-crafted and expressively played. A fine introduction.
Some Sweet Relief
Speck Mountain plays on the verge of incitement. I kept waiting for something to burst out and splat against the wall. But what actually meanders out is an intensely moody set of songs that always keeps a more-than-even keel.
That may sound like a complaint, but it isn't. The tension between the impulse to let loose and the compulsion to keep a lid on things is palpable and exciting. Reminds me a lot of Black Box Recorder, the Brit band that sounded like a much more exciting Mazzy Star.
The horns are the kicker. Whenever horns (and electric piano, for that matter) come in, you just know there's an anthem in the offing. But no. Not here. Speck Mountain just keeps on keeping on. And on. And on.
I can go for that. These songs are electric, even in their ponderous and introspective style. There's so much between the lines that it's hard not to get all riled up. I like the way this makes me feel.