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
February 2009
  • The Bitter Tears Jam Tarts in the Jakehouse (Carrot Top)
  • Dead Heart Bloom In Chains EP (KEI)
  • The Deaths Centralia (Go Johnny Go/Elephant Park)
  • Mike Mictlan & Lazerbeak Hand Over Fist (Doomtree)
  • Middle States Happy Fun Party (Effen)
  • Chris Robley & the Fear of Heights Movie Theater Haiku (Cutthroat Pop)
  • The Small Cities The Small Cities EP (Common Cloud)
  • Speck Mountain Some Sweet Relief (Carrot Top)
  • Various Artists Artefacts of Australian Experimental Music 1930-1973 (Shame File)
  • Venice Is Sinking Azar (One Percent Press)
  • Winfred E. Eye Til I Prune (Antenna Farm)
  • Yukon Medallion EP (Infinite Limbs)
  • Also recommended: The best of the rest

    The Bitter Tears
    Jam Tarts in the Jakehouse
    (Carrot Top)

    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.

    Carrot Top
    3716 W. Fullerton
    Chicago, IL 60647
    www: http://www.carrottoprecords.com

    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.

    www: http://www.deadheartbloom.com

    The Deaths
    (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.

    www: http://www.doomtree.net

    Middle States
    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.

    Effen Records
    P.O. Box 50260
    Minneapolis, MN 55403
    www: http://www.middlestates.net

    Chris Robley and the Fear of Heights
    Movie Theater Haiku
    (Cutthroat Pop)

    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.

    www: http://www.chrisrobley.com

    The Small Cities
    The Small Cities EP
    (Common Cloud)

    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.

    www: http://www.commoncloud.com

    Speck Mountain
    Some Sweet Relief
    (Carrot Top)

    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.

    Carrot Top
    3716 W. Fullerton
    Chicago, IL 60647
    www: http://www.carrottoprecords.com

    Various Artists
    Artefacts of Australian Experimental Music 1930-1973
    (Shame File)

    Clinton Green has been sending me tapes, mini CDs, CDs and more ever since I started A&A more than 17 years ago. Even considering the decidedly eclectic (and even bizarre) music that I turns up in my mailbox, his stuff is consistently some of the strangest and most challenging.

    This 14-track set is something of a career capper for Green. He did an outstanding job on the liners, and the music on this disc is positively mindbending. If you care at all about interesting music of any style, these pieces will say something to you.

    I'm just knocked out by everything. Like I said, the liners are exquisite. Green distills his knowledge into short descriptions that illuminate and intrigue. A perfect job. The track selection, likewise, is simply brilliant. Every single piece here is electrifying. All but the first three tracks come from the period of 1965-1973, so there's plenty of jazzy improvisation and general fusion (before fusion was even an articulated concept). But it's not that hard to hear how these works presaged a lot of mainstream music.

    That is the point of the underground, of course. Those of us who lurk beneath are always searching for a new way forward. There's a lot of dreck, but as this compilation shows, there's plenty of exceptional material as well. I'm completely blown away. This is utterly amazing.

    Shame File
    Clinton Green
    15 Neil St.
    West Footscray 3012
    www: http://www.shamefilemusic.com

    Venice Is Sinking
    (One Percent Press)

    Pop and such from the hearts of space. Venice Is Sinking is equally adept at playing laptop-style pop (with a band, natch), that peculiarly midwestern sort of dirge music or venturing off into the deepest realms of space rock. Without a lot in-between, really.

    The spacey stuff seems to be part of a concept ("Azar One," Azar Two," etc.). I don't know what that concept might be, but I don't care. The pieces make for interesting interludes.

    What I like is the light, utterly jaunty pop that, by all rights, ought to have been pumped out of a computer keyboard. But this is a band, alright, kicking out the chintzy beats and sing-along melodies. The sonic effect is a bit off-putting, in a good way. The center of these songs always seems to be off-balance, making the listener think just a bit more.

    But the midwestern dirges are the things that get to me the most. Think of Dirty Three with vocals, and then add in some horns. I don't know exactly what Venice Is Sinking is trying to do, but I sure like what I hear.

    www: http://www.onepercentpress.com

    Winfred E. Eye
    Til I Prune
    (Antenna Farm)

    It's dangerous to ply that whole minimalist roots/americana sorta thing. You get compared to Wil Oldham, and then people pigeonhole you and then...

    Yeah, well, Winfred E. Eye (that would be a band, not a person) wanders through familiar ground, but there are just enough ravers here to keep the proceedings from getting positively dreary.

    Patience is required, of course, but these aren't the inscrutable ravings of madmen. Rather, they're keenly observed pieces about the human existence. Wags may ask, "What's the dif?" with some justification, but I have to say that these songs are simple enough to make sense and introspective enough to be interesting.

    Oh, and that high lonesome sound is one of my faves, as well. Aaron Calvert and Mikel Garmendia have been doing this for a while, and they seem to have the hang of it. I liked digging into this one.

    Antenna Farm
    P.O. Box 29855
    Oakland, CA 94604
    www: http://www.antennafarmrecords.com

    Medallion EP
    (Infinite Limbs)

    Yukon arrives 20 years too late. This is straight outta Touch and Go territory, back when the Jesus Lizard and Arcwelder and great bands like that blasted big noise and occasionally touched on a fine melody or two.

    Oh, but I love this melange of sound. Yukon plays a fairly style, but the music itself is messy. The lines are technically sound, but they don't necessarily have a lot to do with each other. The songs fit together well enough, but the anarchy is what sustains them in the end.

    Perhaps more Arcwelder than Jesus Lizard. And more math-like than either. But in that ballpark. I no idea who's listening to this stuff these days (other than geeks like me), but that's fine. These boys make great noise, and I'm not gonna complain about that.

    Infinite Limbs
    www: http://www.infinitelimbs.wordpess.com

    Also recommended:

    Steven Baker Lunar Etudes (Edgetone)
    Baker works with mostly self-made instruments (as near as I can tell), and he creates some truly unique sounds. These pieces are fairly understated, and Baker can take a while to get to the point. But that's fine. There's no need to hurry when you plan on leaving the planet.

    The Brilliant Mistakes Distant Drumming (Aunt Mimi's Records)
    Pretty jangle pop that doesn't go a whole lot deeper. It's pleasant and occasionally vaguely dark, but never particularly disconcerting. Fine tunes for lazing away a warm afternoon.

    Knox Bronson Pop Down the Years (Tangerine Sky Interactive)
    The bastard child of Kraftwerk and the Lightning Seeds, Bronson is perfectly at home with jaunty elektropop or the more chilly prog side of things. He gets lost now and again, but the constructions on this album are more than impressive. Folks just don't do electronic quite like this these days.

    Jack Conte Sleeping in Color EP (Shadow Tree)
    Disjointed, strikingly assembled music and affected vocals. I think Conte might be trying a bit too hard, but he has created a most arresting sound. It doesn't always work for me, but I kept listening and waiting to see what popped out next. Most intriguing.

    Copper Sails Hiding Place (self-released)
    Ringing anthems that reveal just a bit of a roots edge. Copper Sails definitely went for the "important" sound, which in their case lies somewhere between The Joshua Tree and Actung Baby. It's rather well done, even if I get the feeling I've heard it before.
    www: http://www.coppersails.com

    Manze Dayila and the Nago Nation Sole (As Is)
    Daylia claims both New York and Haiti as home, and her music is vaguely Caribbean. Many of the pieces here are reworkings of Haitian folk songs and are sung in the Haitian French dialect. I like her voice a lot. I do wish the music had a bit more spirit--I wasn't kidding when I said "vaguely." An interesting side trip.

    Faces of March Confessions (Kurfew)
    Ever-so-tasty maintream hard rock (with female vocals!) that takes me back to 1993 or so. These folks drink deep from the grunge playbook (with the requisite "modern" electronics thrown in as a bonus), and they have a nice feel for the sound. There's nothing particularly unusual here, but Faces of March knock these songs out of the park.

    Hans Grusel's Kranken Kabinet Blaue Blooded Turen (Resipicent)
    Lord have mercy! Grusel and company create some of the strangest and darkest sounds imaginable and then turn them into stories. This is a wild set of extended suites (each piece is split into sections) that never lets off the intense-o-meter. It will either drive you to ecstasy or insanity. Either way, you win.

    Hi Red Center Assemble (Joyful Noise)
    Utterly crafted stuff that finds influences in math, noise and the master himself, Frank Zappa. The trippy vocals (often in twisted harmonies) are a treat unto themselves, with the added benefit that they often don't match up with the rapidly-morphing music. Cool, if you're into controlled anarchy.

    Logan 5 and the Runners Featurette (self-released)
    I dig the reference (I worshipped Logan's Run when I was a kid), and the music is pretty good, too. These guys are a bit too serious about their rock and roll; their best songs are when they lighten up. But there's some fine writing here and plenty of potential.
    www: http://www.logan5andtherunners.com

    Peel Die in June EP (Peelgrim)
    Four Norwegians who know how to put a fine blister on the ol' hard rock. The songs are anthemic and predictable, but I kept getting the urge to throw my fist in the air at the climax. These guys must be doing something right.

    Point Juncture WA Heart to Elk (MapleMusic)
    The band name is about perfect, obscure and more than slightly strange. These folks create an atmosphere with electronics, orchestration and found sound, and then they play a song. It's an interesting way to do things, and by and large it works. Off the beaten path, but fans of offbeat pop will want to scour the bushes.
    www: http://www.pointjuncturewa.com

    Pronto All Is Golden (Contraphonic)
    Mikael Jorgensen and Greg O'Keeffe get some friends together and revisit some of the better parts of the 70s. Rock and roll, mostly, with nods to Elton John and Steely Dan here and there. The album sure sounds the part, though these songs are certainly modern pieces. Quite the kick-back set.

    Quatre Tete Art of the State (Sickroom)
    Very Chicago, which is fitting. Another band that fits in nicely with the Touch and Go lineup of 15 years ago. I love this sort of rhythm-heavy sonic blizzard. I could listen to that bounding bass style for hours. I don't think these folks take the sound anywhere, but these songs stand up well for themselves.

    Red Light Driver ...And Now We Can Be Ourselves (MFT)
    There must be some sort of trend back toward the rock sound of the late 80s. Ringing guitars, vaguely droning vocals and a serious anthem jones. I've been hearing it all over the albums in this set of reviews. Red Light Driver does a solid job with this sound. No shivers up the spine or anything, but I have to recognize the exceptional craftsmanship.

    Undecisive God Everything's Broken (Shame File)
    The latest set of experimental fare from Clinton Green (the creator of the Artefacts set reviewed above). As usual, these pieces don't necessarily fit together in any rational sense, but the album comes together in the end. Green has always pushed the envelope and managed to end up in good shape. That goes double for this set. I particularly liked "Non-Cricket," which takes the background sounds of a test match and turns them into something astonishing.

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