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 #321 reviews
October 2010
  • The Agony Family Yourself United (self-released)
  • Cashes Rivers Cashes Rivers (Aqui Estamos)
  • Cowboy Indian Bear Each Other All the Time (The Record Machine)
  • Betsy Franck and the Bareknuckle Band Still Waiting (self-released)
  • Harmonious bec Her Strange Dreams (Monotreme)
  • The Lovetones Lost (Planting Seeds)
  • Mariage Blanc Mariage Blanc (self-released)
  • Masonic Live Like a Millionaire (self-released)
  • Shuteye Unison Our Future Selves (Parks and Records)
  • Soft Reeds Soft Reeds Are Bastards (The Record Machine)
  • Whole Sky Monitor Twisted Little Piggies (FR)
  • Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3 Northern Aggression (Yep Roc)
  • Also recommended: The best of the rest

    The Agony Family
    Yourself United

    Some bands play a certain style or stick to a certain genre. Other bands use all of the tools at their disposal to create awesome music. The Agony Family falls into the latter category.

    The basic sound is pop, I suppose, though there's plenty of rock and even a bit of electronic experimentalism wandering through. Most of the time there's a dominant melody and some harmonizin' in the hooks. All backed up by not-quite-sterile electronic-ish instrumentation.

    Which is to say that the songwriting is great and the arrangements are quite arresting. The Agony Family doesn't sound like anyone in particular, though the sounds here are quite familiar.

    I guess the easiest reference point would be a poppier (and yet kickier) New Order. With plenty of departure points. This is one well-appointed album. Fine stuff.

    www: http://www.theagonyfamily.com

    Cashes Rivers
    Cashes Rivers
    (Aqui Estamos)

    Yet another of those one-man bands with a name that is not the name of the artist. As is common with this species, the music is intricate, eccentric and often breathtaking. I don't know what it is about folks who refuse to record under their own names, but that extra level of detachment does seem to add a layer or few of quality.

    Or maybe it's just that "Cashes Rivers" sounds cooler than Matthew Garcia. I dunno. In any case, Garcia plays an epochal style of jangle pop. He dumps all sorts of sounds on top of this simple core, but more extra instruments than noise or samples or such. A kick-ass riff at an unexpected moment, for example. Or simply an extra guitar when an extra bit of ringing would be nice.

    I love the sound Garcia gets here. It's full, but rounded enough to provide a lush backing to his songs. The sharp edges are in the lyrics. These songs sound as fresh and tossed off as Matthew Sweet's stuff, though Garcia's songs do have a bit more polish.

    Quite a remarkable album. I haven't heard anything this self-possessed in a while. Matthew Garcia can call himself anything he likes as long as he makes albums like this.

    Aqui Estamos
    P.O. Box 21040
    Des Moines, IA 50321
    www: http://www.aquiestamosrecords.com

    Cowboy Indian Bear
    Each Other All the Time
    (The Record Machine)

    A trio from the wilds of Lawrence, Kan. These folks play a well-crafted sort of affected pop. The songs generally trip along, often sounding more like puzzles. By the end of each, however, the glory of the whole has been revealed.

    Not for the timid or impatient. Cowboy Indian Bear takes its time in building these sonic structures, and real listening is required. I'm not trying to scare anyone off, but if you're looking for some mindless music for the car, this is not that.

    On the other hand, if you're looking for music that will worm its way into your consciousness and create something completely unexpected, then come on in. The sound is almost as cryptic as the songs themselves, shifting gears from song to song. Suffice it to say that the "band sound" is fully contained within the way these songs are structured. Many pieces have electronic components, and there are plenty of math and post-rock elements, but there's not a genre that contains what these boys do.

    Other than "damned good music," of course. This stuff rocks, rolls, blips, trips and scrapes its way to greatness. Astounding.

    The Record Machine
    7103 Tracy Ave.
    Kansas City, MO 64131
    www: http://www.therecordmachine.net

    Betsy Franck and the Bareknuckle Band
    Still Waiting

    Some folks get the blues, and some don't. Betsy Franck not only gets the blues, she knows how to make the blues sound utterly compelling.

    Purists probably would throw this into the "americana" pile, but Franck merely throws a few rootsy elements into her blues stew. Her voice is strong, mid-range and true. When she sings, you believe her.

    At least, I do. These songs just sound right. The production gives her voice plenty of room, but there's some fine guitar, piano and pedal steel work here as well. Every element has enough space to come into it own without sacrificing the feel of the band.

    As I said, this one just sounds right. Franck and her band have great songs, and they deliver on every one. Pain rarely sounds this good. Despite playing for many years, Franck is still young. I'd keep an eye on her. Something's about to give.

    www: www.bareknuckleband.net

    Harmonious bec
    Her Strange Dreams

    A couple of Japanese guys who adore electronics and avant garde composition. Sounds like a recipe for extreme annoyance, right? Not quite.

    There are plenty of geek-out moments, but much of this album is dedicated to somewhat more introspective fare. Many of the pieces here layer variations on a theme in a most engaging way. I suppose it's helpful to have an intellectual approach, but I think many of these pieces are just as exciting in a visceral way.

    There's plenty of motion, in any case. Harmonious bec (that lower-case "bec" is the way the folks like it) riffs through the ambient and then takes off. There are so many ideas flying around that it can be hard to keep track. I like that sort of approach, but I know that can wear on some. Oh well.

    Hardly mainstream, but much more approachable than many might think. Every once in a while, this album pricked something in the upper-right-hard part of my brain--an area I rarely notice. I don't know what that was all about, but it sure was cool. Kinda like this album.

    Monotreme Records
    Box 31395
    London SW11 1XT
    United Kingdom
    www: http://www.monotremerecords.com

    The Lovetones
    (Planting Seeds)

    Pop with an americana accent. The Lovetones are pretty straightforward in their approach; there's nothing behind the curtain. On the other hand, the show on the stage is utterly compelling.

    The hooks are understated, but the verses are so well-wound that it's hard to complain. Indeed, the music sells these songs as well as the singing. I've always been a fan of songs that don't simply fade away when the vocals drop in. At times, the music intensifies as the singing starts. Excellent.

    The sound is full and ringing, though the vocals are the only element that could be described as lush. It's that whole "basic basic" approach, I suppose. The songs are on the table, and we get to partake as we like.

    I suggest digging in whole-heartedly. The first few bars should sell you. If not, you're probably in the wrong shop. A lovely set of songs.

    Planting Seeds
    P.O. Box 64665
    Virginia Beach, VA 23467-4665
    www: http://www.plantingseedsrecords.com

    Mariage Blanc
    Mariage Blanc

    No, they're not French. And if they're fans of Billy Idol, they hide it well. This Pittsburgh five-piece rocks through some heavy-duty 60s pop grooves and comes out shiny.

    With just enough bite to add contrast, these songs fit the sound perfectly. Almost a musical doppelganger of the Rollo Treadway, but with lyrics that are a bit more appropriate for the sound.

    I have to say that I like the shadows when they fall. Mariage Blanc is almost too perfect for its own good. These tightly-crafted songs are just loose enough to give a little air. Craft is a wonderful thing, but it can be stifling. These boys might want to keep that in mind.

    Still, all's well that ends well. And Mariage Blanc has recorded an impressive album. Ride the thermals and soar on some serious sun.

    www: www.mariageblanc.com

    Live Like a Millionaire

    Peppy, bright pop that doesn't fit a particular style. I suppose there's a bit of the new wave in the perky rhythms, but this stuff is almost timeless in its construction and sound.

    Much more textured and layered than most outfits, Masonic takes care to shift gears in its sounds. Some songs feature a ringing keyboard, others are more guitar-driven. The focal point is Eryn Gettys's vocals, which couch their steel with a thin layer of velvet.

    The songs, too, are often barely-concealed paeans to minor doom. The failures of everyday life make for fertile fodder, and Masonic dives right in. This is a classic application of the pop sound, and it's done well here.

    Despite the downer themes in many of these songs, though, Masonic manages to find provide plenty of uplift. Sometimes dark clouds can provide the most pleasure. I'm impressed.

    www: www.masonictheband.com

    Shuteye Unison
    Our Future Selves
    (Parks and Records)

    Shuteye Unison comes on quietly. With great intensity, but quietly nonetheless. These insistent, intricate songs didn't immediately impress me, but I couldn't shake them. And after I got through the album, I had to listen again.

    Think math without all the noodling. The precision of these songs is impressive, but the quiet nature of the songs takes away a lot of the natural pretension in such an approach. And when the songs hit their climaxes, well, they're really climaxes.

    The sound is a bit muddy, which helps file down some of the edges. These songs are written with a basic, but elongated, rock construction. They can take a while to get to the point. That's the plan, and it works quite well here.

    A most unusual album. It's hard to be both this kinetic and this quiet. That's an impressive achievement. I like the way these folks roll.

    www: www.parksandrecords.com

    Soft Reeds
    Soft Reeds Are Bastards
    (The Record Machine)

    After a Nashville sojourn, Ben Grimes (Golden Republic) returned to Kansas City and got this outfit together. Aggressive, shiny and ultra-catchy pop stuff.

    Grimes does throw a fair amount of angst into his vocals, but that affectation merely pushes the feel of irresistible desperation that runs through this album. Kinda like the Fountains of Wayne on a speedball, complete with the post-party crash.

    With music this prepossessing, the songs have to deliver. They do, particularly the energetic hooks. To put it simply, this album starts fast and then melds the pedal into the floor. There are plenty of interesting elements (particularly horns) which really kick in when some of the songs devolve.

    The cacophony is outstanding. While these songs are wonderful when they come together, they're even more impressive when they fall apart. This album may bring on a nervous breakdown, but it's one hell of a lot cheaper than therapy.

    The Record Machine
    7103 Tracy Ave.
    Kansas City, MO 64131
    www: http://www.therecordmachine.net

    Whole Sky Monitor
    Twised Little Piggies

    Finally, the theme of the issue is revealed: Intricate, up-tempo, often jumbled pop. Whole Sky Monitor does it all, from crashing percussion to wailing riffage and occasionally shrieked vocals.

    This was all the rage, what, fifteen years ago? Something like that. Slow it down and you get post rock. At this speed it would probably have gotten some sort of "punk" label. I'm not sure. What I do know is that I like the mess.

    Which isn't to say that these songs don't work. Indeed, they're a fair bit more coherent than, say, the stuff from Soft Reeds. But there are some fine moments of deconstruction (there is a song titled "My Regeneration"), served with a joyous noise chaser. The production left all the edges in, which makes this sound even louder than it might otherwise.

    Turn it up, jump around and try not to smile. The energy is infectious, and the quality of the songwriting ought to ensure that this takes a long time to get old. An exhilarating ride.

    www: http://www.wholeskymonitor.com

    Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3
    Northern Aggression
    (Yep Roc)

    Steve Wynn has been around since forever. I remember thinking he was "old" back when I was in college--more than 20 years ago! But I always liked his stuff; he sounds a bit like Lou Reed on those rare occasions when Lou wants to kick ass. Thing is, though, that Wynn likes to kick ass most of the time. His aggressive cynicism is a tasty treat.

    This album is an accomplished set of uptempo rockers. That's pretty much the norm for Wynn. I think he does a better job than usual in melding his lyrics and music; the flow on this album is great.

    Just about everything here shows off a master's touch. Wynn's first release was as part of Dream Syndicate in 1982, and he sure ought to know how to make a record sound good. What I like is that these songs are as energetic and assured as the stuff he was making almost 30 years ago.

    Some folks should die before they get old--or at least, they ought to quit inflicting their lame-ass music on us. Wynn sounds like letting up hasn't even crossed his mind. Exceptional stuff, as always.

    Yep Roc
    449-A Trollingwood Rd.
    Haw River, NC 27258
    www: http://www.yeproc.com

    Also recommended:

    The Black Sun in the Day Moon at Night (Moon)
    If you're gonna do the 50s and 60s, you might as well do it all. Rock and roll Byrds, country Byrds, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino and then some. What's most interesting is how these Austin boys (who are moonlighting from their gigs with Voxtrot and Trail of the Dead) chew it up and spit it out. Hardly reverent, but that's all for the best.

    Diego Bernal For Corners (Exponential)
    Mid-tempo hip-hop beats done up in 70s soul. For obvious reasons, this reminds me more than a bit of RJD2, but there's a bit more reliance on instruments. The throb, though, is highly reminiscent. I'd kinda like to hear Bernal work out a bit more of his own style.

    Blag'ard Mach II (Pig Zen Space)
    Blag'ard is former Capsize 7 guitarist Joe Taylor and drummer Adam Brinson. Whatever limits there are to the sound are made up by the sheer will and energy of the duo. This latest album is much like earlier Blag'ard: Loud, sweaty and occasionally tuneful, in a raggedy way. Kinda old school that way. I like that.

    Daddy Lion Daddy Lion EP (24-Hour Service Station)
    Basic rock and roll as imagined by a keyboard-heavy outfit. Wave after wave of keyboards draped over jaunty rock songs. Sometimes a piano replaces the keyboards and it's a little easier to hear what's going on. I'm intrigued, but I'm not sure the wall of synth fuzz does this stuff justice.

    Rae Davis Positive Thinking! (Exponential)
    Rae Davis Cabello isn't satisfied with basic electronic noodling. So he throws in plenty of samples, found sound and instruments. I think he aspires to jazz, although this stuff doesn't quite fit there, either. It is intriguing, though. Cabello finds some create ways to use everyday sounds.

    Elevator Art Elevator Art (self-released)
    Exceedingly-crafted pop songs that may be a bit too clever. Too involved, to be sure. There are so many twists and turns that the structure of the songs almost seems to disappear. Still, I like the effort. There are lots of cool moments here. I'd just like the songs to work a little better.
    www: http://www.myspace.com/elevatorart

    Francis and the Lights It'll Be Better (self-released)
    Sparsely-arranged pop songs. There's so much space that this sounds like it was recorded in a gym--without the echo, of course. By and large the songs work. They're obviously intended for a wider audience, and maybe they'll reach it. If you stick around New York long enough, anything can happen.
    www: http://www.francisandthelilghts.com

    George & Carlin Secluded Malls & Scenic Byways/Requiem for an Encyclopedia 2xCD (Plastic Sound Supply)
    Trippy americana on the first disc, and just plain trippy loops on the second disc. This sprawling effort doesn't really make sense when mashed together, but there are lots of cool bits within. Sometimes editing can be good.

    Ghost Beard Stochascticity (C-Side)
    Crusty, ultra-jumbled roots stuff. Far too uncultured to be considered "americana," but that's fine by me. The quality writing belies the messiness of the arrangements and production. There's some good stuff hiding out here.

    Goldbug The Seven Dreams (1k)
    Tim Motzer and friends whip out some improvisational groove jazz. Some of these pieces really come together. Some never do, with intent. Patience will reward, but the price is sometimes steep. You have to dig deep, a task I found quite enjoyable.

    I Am Sonic Rain Between Whales and Feverish Lights (Deep Elm)
    Grandiose, mind-expanding rock. Pink Floyd as filtered through stoner rock, perhaps. Though without so much fuzz. Just power. Lots of it. These long pieces are occasionally ponderous, but they do have charm. Give them enough time, and they'll bludgeon you into submission.

    In Grenada Break (self-released)
    Bounding, basic pop. None of that tricky, tangential stuff that's been reviewed all over this issue. In Grenada throws its best punches first, and they land nicely. A fine palate-cleanser.

    Jupe Jupe Invaders (self-released)
    Romping in somewhere betwixt New Order, Deee-Lite and the Human League, Jupe Jupe is utterly bouncy and almost effervescently cute. Is there a there here? I dunno, but with stuff this infectious it's really hard to care. Sometimes ear candy is the best medicine.
    www: http://www.jupejupemusic.com

    The Loomers Reeling Down a Road (self-released)
    A few fifty-something guys get together to make raucous rootsy rock. Not complicated and not particularly original. But damn, these boys sure know how to roll down the lane. This album flies by with nary a care.
    www: http://www.theloomers.com

    The Moaners Nocturnal (Holidays for Quince)
    The latest effort from Melissa Swingle and Laura King finds the Moaners in familiar territory. They riff through a southern gothic landscape of broken hearts and warped dreams. Veteran Nashville session piano player Earl Poole Ball sits in, and his addition helps fill out some of the songs. Still, the highlights remain Swingle's fluid guitar work and her off-kilter vocals. The mainstream ain't calling, and that's just fine.

    Morrow Morrow (Excursions into the Abyss)
    Raw, served up in a variety of styles. Morrow isn't much for niceties, so whether the style is jangle pop, grungy rock or something a bit more esoteric, the edges are always blurred. The bones are good, though. Dive right in.

    Tim Motzer + Markus Reuter Descending (1k)
    Much more introspective and quiet than Goldbug, the other Motzer project I reviewed in this issue. These improvisations build slowly, and sometimes they don't come to a neat conclusion. All the better for consideration and rumination, I think.

    New London Fire Happiness Through Radios and Wires (self-released)
    Back when there was such a thing as hit radio, New London Fire would've done well. Playing basic pop-rock with a serious back beat (think early Nick Lowe with a lot more polish), the boys throw in some nice harmonies (even a bit of doo-wop) and solid hooks. Not sure where this will land these days, but in my kind of universe, the kiddies would dig this.
    www: http://www.myspace.com/newlondonfire

    One Hundred Flowers Mechanical Bride (self-released)
    Another band that almost tries too hard. The layered harmonies here aren't as intricate as, say, Brian Wilson's, but they are more oppressive. On the other hand. the music is strong enough to hold them up. Barely. These songs could use a bit more balance, but often they do find themselves in interesting places.
    www: http://www.onehundreflowers.com

    Parlour Simulacrenfield (Temporary Residence)
    In the end, there's only one way to (instrumental) rock: Be bold. Parlour plays lengthy pieces with absolute confidence and conviction. The melodies are generally synth-driven, with the guitars providing most of the rhythm work. The band is a solid unit, and it fills out these songs well. Compelling stuff from a band that hasn't been heard from lately.

    Ember Schrag Jephthah's Daughter EP (Eh?)
    Four songs given the full minimalist folk treatment. Schrag's voice is a wonderful instrument, and she gives each song her all. Pretty songs that have steel in their bones. Well done.

    Kim Taylor Little Miracle (self-released)
    Kim Taylor's voice is a bit ragged and raw. That fits her folk-pop songwriting style quite well. Indeed, these songs are served well by the lack of polish. Lends an air of authenticity. This album may be quiet at times, but Taylor smolders throughout. She sings from a source of power.
    www: http://kim-taylor.net

    Thee Sgt. Major III The Idea Factory (Spark and Shine)
    Crunchy punk pop with all the trimmings: short, sweet and hooks that glisten. The production leaves the sound sharp enough to crackle. Nothing particularly unusual here; just good, solid songs played with flair, as might be expected from these longtime Seattle veterans.

    The Vita Ruins A Day Without a Name (Radar/Nois)
    Tim Kratzer and Greg Balleza sure have a way with fuzz pop. These electronic-laden guitar-driven songs are pretty impressive. I wish the boys would kick the hooks into overdrive a bit more often (it's blissing out, not cheesing out!), but I like the way the pieces interact. Turn it up until your brain dissolves.

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