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 #305 reviews
March 2009
  • Casiotone for the Painfully Alone Advance Base Battery Life (Tomlab)
  • Death in the Park Death in the Park EP (End Sounds)
  • The Flying Change Pain Is a Reliable Signal (Scarlet Shame)
  • The Handsome Family Honey Moon (Carrot Top)
  • Kenneth Ishak Silver Lightning from a Black Sky (Division)
  • Kate Mann Things Look Different when the Sun Goes Down (Orange Dress)
  • The Parlotones A World Next Door to Yours (Sovereign)
  • Alice Peacock Love Remains (self-released)
  • Sleeper Behind Every Mask (Mush)
  • Sweet Water Clear the Tarmac (Golden City)
  • This Is Benji... Far Too Honest (self-released)
  • Valina a tiempo! a tiempo! (Joyful Noise)
  • Also recommended: The best of the rest

    Casiotone for the Painfully Alone
    Advance Base Battery Life

    This compilation of assorted tracks from 2004 to 2007 is easily the most diverse set from Casiotone for the Painfully Alone. That's not saying a lot, as each "regular" album has tended to wander through a particular corner of the laptop universe. Nonetheless, odds and ends packages are often dull. This is anything but.

    The collection is a real hodgepodge, and it includes such nuggets as a completely fuzzed-out rendition of "Born in the U.S.A." and "White Corolla" (just Google it, if you don't know already). The sonic jumping about works well.

    You do have to have an appreciation for the laptop creation process, of course. Casiotone is much more adventurous than most of its contemporaries, but don't pick up this disc expecting oceans of sound. I think it's great, but the sound is what it is.

    I love Superchunk, but I always go back to Tossing Seeds, its first "singles" (vinyl releases, anyway) compilation. I think the same may be true here. This set provides as full a picture of the band as any album. Very fine.

    www: http://www.tomlab.com

    Death in the Park
    Death in the Park EP
    (End Sounds)

    Something of a preview for the upcoming album, this five-song set tell me all I need to know. The sound is fairly commercial emo with plenty of kick. Reminds me a bit of the Ataris, though slightly more technical when it comes to the melodies.

    The key to this sound is fun. If the songs rev up the heart and bring a smile, then the particulars just don't matter. Death in the Park knows how to create songs that simply cannot be put down. I suppose one might whine about commercial aspirations, but I'm much more interested in how the music makes me feel.

    Emo is not about thinking, heavy analysis or musical theory. It's about being alive. And this too-short set breathes plenty of sun into this particularly chilly winter.

    End Sounds
    P.O. Box 684743
    Austin, TX 78768
    www: http://www.endsounds.com

    The Flying Change
    Pain Is a Reliable Signal
    (Scarlet Shame)

    I do believe that the minimalist roots sound is on its way back in. This is the tenth (or twentieth?) such disc I've heard recently. Maybe that's why the New Yorker did a profile of Wil Oldham. I dunno.

    It's so easy to screw up this sound. There's really nothing to save bad songs from themselves. Sparse arrangements and relatively spartan recording techniques don't leave a lot of room for hiding. The Flying Change has the songs to make this sound sing.

    And there are just enough brighteners to keep things lively. These guys aren't slavishly devoted to some false "real" sonic ideal. They're trying to make good music. Where the songs demands just a bit more, the Flying Change makes sure to use that little bit.

    An album that enchants more and more as it rolls along. I really like the way these folks put together their songs. There's a sweet off-handed feel that lends an immediate intimacy. Watch out--you just might fall in love.

    www: http://www.theflyingchange.com

    The Handsome Family
    Honey Moon
    (Carrot Top)

    I first encountered the Handsome Family at a Mekons show in Baltimore. Well, I was late, so I missed the band, but I recall Jon Langford saying, "They take a little getting used to, but they're great!" as the Mekons cranked up.

    This latest effort from the Handsome Family fits that definition perfectly. Not country, not rockabilly, not rock and roll, not doo-wop, not Elvine...not anything, exactly. But all of that, too. Probably the best way to approach this band is as the opposite of the White Stripes: A still-married couple that plays its songs with care and devotion.

    Fans of the band are similarly devoted, and once cast, the spell is irrevocable. It will take a few minutes to unclutter your mind and allow the modestly unconventional arrangements and singing to soak in. Trust me, it's worth the effort.

    Another fine outing from the band. Brett and Rennie Sparks hit upon this style quite a while ago, but they certainly seem to have plenty of miles to roam. Let the songs wash over and bathe you in their glory.

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

    Kenneth Ishak
    Silver Lightning from a Black Sky

    I'm always interested to hear how folks from overseas reinterpret American music. European jazz bands are often a trip, but the European take on rock and roll has always been even trippier.

    Kenneth Ishak is Norwegian, but you'd never guess that from his vocals. This sounds like crackling-clean indie pop. And it's that almost clinical quality to the sound that distinguishes it from the generally "dirtier" American feel.

    That almost astringent production--even when the arrangements get busy, it's easy to hear every single element--lays these songs bare. Ishak comes through with a bevy of pleasant, introspective tunes that generally go nowhere fast, but charm nonetheless.

    And these days, charm goes a long way. Ishak knows what he's doing, and he's done it quite well here. Pretty is as pretty does.

    Division Records
    www: http://www.divisionrec.com

    Kate Mann
    Things Look Different When the Sun Goes Down
    (Orange Dress)

    Mann is belter trapped in the body of a somewhat strait-laced folk singer. She surrounds herself with a veritable americana orchestra (harp, fiddle, cello and even saw) and then lets loose.

    The songs themselves are somewhat mannered, and Mann generally sings within the lines. That's precisely what makes her moments so momentous. When she lets go, it's like the light of the world has been extinguished.

    Her songwriting style is similar to that of Patty Griffin, but unlike Griffin, Mann rarely makes full use of her voice. Most of the time, she prefers to use the music and lyrics to make her points.

    This works pretty well. Generally, I prefer the belters. And I think Mann may end up there someday. Her alto is perfect for that type of singing. Still, she acquits herself well here. Well-crafted and utterly engaging. Contact:
    www: http://www.katemann.com

    The Parlotones
    A World Next Door to Yours
    (Sovereign Entertainment)

    Britpoppers who, well, like to britpop. Throbbing tunes with all the quirks and creaks that seem to be required over the pond. Not that I'm complaining, mind you. I like my music interesting.

    The Parlotones crank out one punchy tune after another, backing it up with a thick production sound and the aforementioned squiggles. Every song seems to have at least one head-scratching sound.

    That could be distracting, but the hooks here are too tight. The Parlotones play things just enough off-the-cuff to erase the lines of craft, thus walking the tightrope almost perfectly.

    In the end, there's only one question: Did I have a good time, all the time? Yes. Everything after that is commentary. Useless commentary, at that.

    www: http://www.parlotones.com

    Alice Peacock
    Love Remains

    In contrast to Kate Mann (reviewed above), Alice Peacock is a country singer who belts. She sings better than she belts, and luckily for everyone involved, she sings most of the time.

    This sharply-produced album (done up in Nashville, even) is polished within an inch of its life. But Peacock has a good feel for the material (hers, either entirely or co-written) and delivers a solid performance.

    The "big-time" production does leave the music sounding a bit generic, but by and large the sound stays in the general americana range. There aren't any Mutt Lange moments here.

    Rather, Peacock tends to her songs well. I wish she'd have left a bit more room for herself in the sound, but that's not how you get the big deal. That's the way of life. You sacrifice a piece of yourself in order to get a bit more attention. If you do it right (the way Peacock has done here), you're left with something worth hearing.

    www: http://www.alicepeacock.com

    Behind Every Mask

    One of my favorite hip-hop collaborations of recent years was Id & Sleeper's Displacement. Sleeper (a.k.a. Carlos Ransom) shows here that he hasn't lost his touch with innovative beats.

    But beats are just the beginning. This is more about a complete sound. It's noisy as hell, what with all the distortion and such, but all that crackle simply makes it that much easier to ease into this world.

    Not a pretty world, but one that is populated by spectral rhythms and disjointed melodies. I like it. There's a lot going on, but everything is connected to the main package. Sure, a DJ ought to be able to craft some fine music, but often enough they can't.

    Sleeper can. Indeed, this is one of the most full-realized sonic projects I've heard in ages. After full immersion, it becomes clear just how much Sleeper is able to say. The deeper you dive, the more you find.

    Mush Records
    1742 Laurel Canyon Blvd.
    Los Angeles, CA 90036
    www: http://www.mushrecords.com

    Sweet Water
    Clear the Tarmac
    (Golden City)

    A bit too fuzzed-out to be power pop, but far too full of catchy riffs and sticky hooks to be cock rock. Something that cuddles up in between the two, I suppose.

    These northwest boys have a bit of an Oasis jones, I suppose, but there's the slightest hint of Madchester in the rhythm section as well. Take that and then add some drenching guitars and you get the mishmash I described up top. An interesting set of ideas, I suppose, but execution is key.

    By and large, Sweet Water comes through. There are a couple leaden moments when the band seems to be working through some songwriting issues, but the playing is loose and the energy level is high. These guys are having fun.

    Sweet Water might have to make more of a conscious choice between the pop and the rock if it wants to hone the songwriting. Or maybe this will be the band that finds a middle way. Either way, I'll be most interested in the progress.

    This Is Benji...
    Far Too Honest

    The band's name is This is Benji, but in truth, this is mostly Benji. With some help from a few friends and producer Ken Stringfellow. Steeped in the sounds of early 70s pop and (not as strange as it sounds) Steve Earle, Benji throws down one rootsy pop gem after another.

    Not strange, perhaps, but I've had this disc around for a while. After my fifth or sixth time through, it finally clicked. I found I couldn't take it out. Maybe it is the unusual interplay between pop hooks and the looser rootsy song construction. Maybe it's Stringfellow's reverb-laden sound. Maybe I just wasn't paying attention.

    I've played this for some friends, and they picked up on it much faster. I like the way Benji enters his songs sideways, and I really like the way he sings. It's not quite desperate, but there are hints here and there. Stringfellow recorded this so as to peg the levels as often enough--sounds a bit like the Capstan Shafts, except with much better post-production.

    Now that my brain is clued in, I'm utterly smitten. That's how it works. Sometimes, the best albums sneak up on you. Once you've noticed them, it's all over. Benji writes some great songs, and he's recorded a great album. Give it a little time, and you just might feel the same way.

    www: http://www.thisisbenji.com

    a tempo! a tempo!
    (Joyful Noise)

    I'm beginning to think that the ol' strident guitar sound of the early 90s is on the way back. Or maybe it's just that Steve Albini recorded this album. Hard to say.

    Or maybe not. I've been hearing a lot more of this throbbing, quasi-atonal, rhythmic rock of late. I loved the stuff back in the day--whether talking about the Jesus Lizard or June of 44 or the Shipping News or Trans Am...damn, those were good bands.

    So's Valina. Anatol Bogendorfer has just a hint of the Jello in his vocals, which adds another cool sound to the mix. He and his mates hail from Austria, and they play together with intelligence and purpose. They even get some friends to throw in a bit of brass and wind. Most importantly, they rock.

    Yes, it does come down to that. You can noodle around with intersecting lines and see where unconnected ideas might lead, but in the end you have to rock. And Valina rocks with a vengeance.

    Joyful Noise
    P.O. Box 20109
    Indianapolis, IN 46220
    www: http://www.joyfulnoiserecordings.com

    Also recommended:

    Philip Clemo The Rooms (self-released)
    Philip Clemo/Ysanne Spevak Soundzero (self-released)
    Clemo's "solo" disc is chock full of languid, lush compositions that tend to excite as much as they lull. The collaboration with Spevak is much more oriented toward Tibetan melodies and vocals. I think I like Clemo "solo" just a bit better, but both discs take the time to explore lots of interesting ideas.
    www: http://www.philipclemo.com

    Doctors and Dealers Lost Friends and Newfound Habits (Bluesong)
    Fourteen new songs from one of the more impressive one-person bands I've heard in a while. Sparrow Lindgren writes wonderfully off-kilter tunes and then plays them with style. She sounds like nothing else, exactly, which is why I think there's definitely something here.

    Dare Dukes Prettiest Transmitter of All EP (Starland)
    Dare Dukes hails from Savannah, and there's an early R.E.M. feel to his songs. He's more straightforward in his delivery, but the songs have a winning quirkiness to them. He makes sure to bring in some cello and horns and generally puts his songs out in fine form. Good stuff.

    Bruce Friedman O.P.T.I.O.N.S. (pfMENTUM)
    The acronym stands for Optional Parameters To Improvise Organized Nascent Sounds. Indeed. Friedman has organized a fine chamber group of nine to wander through a few of his "parameters." I prefer "orchestral" improvisations to those created by smaller groups, mostly for the wider range of ideas expressed. Fun and witty.

    Greater California All the Colors! (Subtitled Audio)
    Lovely pop rock, lots of harmonies and, yes, plenty of color. Reminds me a lot of Chris Stamey--if Stamey was, in fact, the bastard child of Brian Wilson. Very pretty, and generally meaty enough to satisfy.

    The Hot Puppies Blue Hands (self-released)
    Kind of a more punchy version of Black Box Recorder...the Hot Puppies stick to the midtempo, but they've got a bit of power in their languid pop. Overblown? Oh yeah, but that's simply part of the charm.

    Immaculate Machine High on Jackson Hill (Mint)
    Brooke Gallupe takes a firmer hand on this set, and the results are solid. The notes say these pieces are less crafted than earlier releases, but I'm impressed by the tight writing and playing. I don't hear much of a departure, but that not a bad thing at all.

    Michelle Malone Debris (SBS)
    The new album from Malone. It's probably not her best (no crime there), but if yer in the mood for some blues tunes belted by one of the best, this oughta do the trick. The songs are good, the playing is brash and Malone sounds as fine as ever.

    Mono Hymn to the Immortal Wind (Temporary Residence)
    The album title might seem a bit pretentious to those unfamiliar with Mono, but rest assured: the music lives up to the name. The pieces on this set are somewhat more slow-building than on other albums, but that merely makes the payoff that much more fulfilling. Quality work, as usual.

    The Poles Twelve Winds (Doubleplusgood)
    It's official: The days of highly-crafted, guitar-oriented loud music is back. The Poles would have been right at home at Touch and Go some 15 years ago, and I must admit I still like this sound. The Poles make some fine noise, the sort of technical, throbbing fare that tends to excite both the intellect and the senses.

    Ralpheene Quiet Seems Asleep (self-released)
    Basic rock and roll that errs on the sloppy side. Ralpheene keeps the sound just clean enough without sacrificing any energy. I think there's a lot more going on just beneath the main wall of sound, but the muddled mix kinda hides a lot. That okay. Plenty of time to listen again and figure out what I'm missing.
    www: http://www.myspace.com/ralpheene

    Roma 79 Praise the Divide (Ascetic)
    Rhythmic rock that doesn't shy away from melody, harmony or hooks. Vaguely proggy, I suppose, as would be any mathlike sound that incorporates keyboards. My brain got excited first, but my heart came right along moments later.

    The Shortwave Set Replica Sun Machine (Wall of Sound)
    Ambitious, lushly-arranged songs that unfold predictably--but still manage to surprise from time to time. The folks utilize discordance within hooks better than anyone I've heard in a while. Exhilarating.

    Paula Sinclair Steady Girl (Old Sombrero)
    Sinclair has the perfect voice for an americana singer (somewhere in the Rosanne Cash range, I suppose), and she writes some fine songs as well. The production gives these songs plenty of punch, but leave room for the songs to shine as well. Sinclair comes on strong, and the album never quite lets up. Impressive.

    We Are Hex Gloom Bloom (self-released)
    A quartet that plays whatever the hell it likes. Wails, shouts, meandering guitars and more are laid over an impressively throbbing rhythm section. I suppose you could call this "gloom," but the drums and bass are simply too jaunty. A fine collection of disconcerting sounds.

    Susan Werner Classics (self-released)
    In the last three or four months, I must have gotten a dozen cover albums. hip-hop songs done by an a capella group (not great), indie rock done by a jazz band (better, slightly) and others. This is the best of the bunch. Susan Werner takes pop songs from the 60s and 70s and adds classical music touches. It's a conceit that actually adds to the songs. These aren't so much songs with more orchestration, but rather something more: songs reimagined. A intriguing set.
    www: http://www.susanwerner.com

    Western Civ Shower the People You Love With Gold (self-released)
    Guys from Chapel Hill who got Mitch Easter to produce their disc. The results are predictable--but that's a good thing. The results are slightly off-kilter rock songs that keep a toe in the pop waters. Vaguely reminiscent of Archers of Loaf, I guess, but more crafted. I'm curious what's next.
    www: http://www.westerncivrock.com

    The Whore Moans Hello from the Radio Wasteland! (Mt. Fuji)
    Loud, fast and unrepentant. Sounds a lot like stuff I used to get from Dirtnap (back when Dirtnap sent me music). It's not complicated or even mildly complex, but it sure gets the blood moving.

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