stabbing_phixrThe Queen Killing Kings, Tidal Eyes (Windup Records)
The sounds-like list with which one could tag this Connecticut 4-piece is nearly as long as the unabridged historical roster of upper-middle-class-targeted radio-pop-rock artists itself: Marillion, Ben Folds, Supertramp, this kind of thing.   Singer Coley O’Toole’s androgynous tenor resembles low-end Geddy Lee retrofitted with Styx’s clipped delivery, the piano-driven hard-rock underneath him is more than a little bit 80s-Brit-pomp, and that’s really that: aside from a few sparsely laid techie samples it’s pure 70s that wouldn’t hurt a fly (unless the fly were too ghetto to fit in at the keg party). Unlike so many 90s/00s kids who got their Supertramp second-hand from their moms and struggle with basic context when trying it themselves, this lot are simpatico with Decembrists to an extent, offering serious, humorless songs with good melodies laid wall-to-wall, leading to stuff that even Ben Folds wouldn’t immediately throw out of bed, such as the skronk-dotted “Birds With Iron Wings.”   A strong album overall, if somewhat linear, further evidence that alt-rock is growing up (and with Decembrists, M83 and so on throwing down a mean AOR gauntlet, the Bowery Ballroom/Pitchfork fringe has to be feeling a tad isolated down at the animal farm). Grade: A- [street date: 7/14/09 for MP3, hard-copy release date unknown]

Harry Skoler, Two Ones (Soliloquy Records)
Beyond the old-guy-musical notion of a serious, illustrative improv album spotlighting clarinet (the bandleader), vibes and flute, there are two instantly recognizable uses for these sounds: 70s movies and long meandering drives.   I won’t go over the specifics of who’s-what in this quintet as you’d forget all about it in seconds, but essentially it’s a meeting of scowling Berklee College of Music faculty guys and their peers making things up as they go along, tossing random neural impulses into their workaday hotel-bar stew as they come along, for instance the few bars of “Girl From Ipanema” Matt Marvuglio’s flute sneaks into “Two as One,” the album’s most revealing moment of unbridled hackdom.   But shut up, if these guys love doing this, who cares, and mind that this is depthlessly pleasant if you’re able to banish the image of Linda Lovelace clad only in a silk scarf from your mind.   And third, friends is friends, so even if Skoler could have traded his flute guy for a top guitarist, trumpeter or Coltrane clone, he wouldn’t have, as in the final analysis he’s at heart a musical philanthropist and educator, always up for channeling Benny Goodman and exposing kids to music. Grade: B- [street date: 6/2/09]

Lisa Donnelly, We Had a Thing (BT Media)
Perhaps it’s symptomatic of the economy, but more and more I’m seeing artistes putting their most commercial feet forward at the beginnings of their albums and then revealing their true selves, take for instance this Kansan, who’s hasn’t outwardly been spoiled by the LA scene she’s adopted.   “Laugh,” the album kickoff track, is painfully cutesy wallpaper for your typical Hallmark chick-flick, not much of a vehicle for the kd laing beast she really is (it’s not until mid- through late-tracklist that she allows the slide guitars and whatnot to unleash the thing).   The ride to her more honest styling is a pleasant one, though, particularly if you’re any sort of sucker for the sound of a Rhodes (the keyboard used in the theme song for Taxi, if that helps), as found in “Better,” a breezy open-convertible cruiser that fortifies its lonesome Bonnie Raitt corn-belt pinings with a KT Tunstall-sized hook. Overall the aim would seem to be Sheryl Crow with more trailer-trash chic and much less Hollywood baloney, and this girl has as good a shot at success in that area as anyone. Grade: B [street date: 6/2/09]

Crosby Loggins, Time to Move (Jive Records)
The son of 70s bingo-hall-radio fixture Kenny Loggins, Crosby Loggins won top-dog on MTV’s Rock the Cradle in 2008 on the strength of his inherited adult-contemporary tendencies.   His trip, a combination of Peabo Bryson’s lemon-puckered tonsils, James Taylor nice-daddy warmth, Ben Folds piano and James Blunt old-soul-ness, could easily have him leaping over Ben Kweller in the race for retro-clean MOR dominance.   He’s certainly loaded for bear if the dreadful hacks who soundtrack Kate Hudson rom-coms need something for a montage, as revealed in leadoff track “Good Enough,” a grandma-rocker that steals from some vapid Dave Matthews source or other I can’t be arsed to try identifying.   “Seriously,” a tacking toward the Peabo Bryson end, is a similar slam-dunk, water-colored with shades of Five For Fighting’s idea of an important-sounding piano riff.   “Better Days,” possessed of a flighty Tom Petty-ish hook that doesn’t appear to be stolen from anyone, is a high point, whereas “Heaven Help Me,” resembling aimless drivel composted during a Taylor Hicks chill-out songwriting binge, is not. Grade: B [street date: 7/14/09]

Time & Distance, Gravity (Oarfin Records)
The 80s do seem to be creeping into the adult-emo space, unless it’s been there all along and I’ve missed it due to the plain-vanilla-ness of it all.   But no, I don’t hear outright 80s-ness coming from Athlete or Air Traffic, just to start with the A’s, thus maybe it’s the fact that the rollout track from this one, “First Time Caller, Long Time Listener,” so devotedly resembles The Outfield’s “I Don’t Wanna Lose Your Love Tonight.” Singer Greg McGowan isn’t all Hoobastank worship, although the plogged-nostril adenoids are willing; not restricted to the 5-note scales where all the other boy bands slum, he affects a Goo Goo Dolls yin relative to Tom DeLonge’s (Blink 182) borderline-punk yan — the songs aren’t nancy-boy eyeliner stuff but they do walk a fine line.   There are teases of both Bowling For Soup on one end and Three Doors Down on the other that may simply come from DeLonge’s inability to pull off New Found Glory’s high-pitched nonsense, but as the record moves along it does show a clear leaning toward more mature songwriting in spite of the gelded-garage Warped Tour guitar sound.   Catchiness is above-average for what the band is attempting to accomplish, but DeLonge could stand to unleash his inner Chris Martin/Thom Yorke, if he has one, lest this get lost at record speed in the proverbial shuffle.   Grade: B- [street date: 6/30/09]

Nicki Gonzalez, Moron Love (Paxil Rose Records)
It’s okay to admit it, we’re friends: when you see a writeup about an “older lady” with “a rockin’ album,” you usually run off to read another critic who’s maybe getting his/her CDs from real record labels.   But hey man, this older lady does have a nice jazz-alt-bubble album, and I get serviced by major label reps who have no idea who the hell I am, so try and trust a little. Gonzalez is cougar-bordering-on-puma old, yes; she’s got a teen or 20something kid, but the yeah-whatever part ends there.   Among the influences you’ll grok from her are (in varying measure) Fiona Apple/Tori Amos (“You Love Her”), Liz Phair (“On My Side”), Amy Winehouse (the horn-riddled “Leave”) and your hated Gwen Stefani (“After Tonite” and the vocoder-swathed “Insomniac”).   The songs are well constructed enough, showcasing Gonzalez’ voice, which pegs to Stefani-belting territory nearly every tune.   Engineer Mitch Easter, whom you actually should know if you’re all that goddamned hip, worked wonders with this, getting a big-deal sound. Grade: B [street date: 6/30/09]

Portland Cello Project, The Thao & Justin Power Sessions (Kill Rock Stars Records)
Like you, I’m a bit tired of people with cellos trying to break down those mean old barriers and become accepted as rock musicians, but also like you, one part of me says why the hell not, at least they’re not hocking xylophones, like all those indie-tards are doing.   Meantime, when a band like A Perfect Circle gets grief from their fans for using cellos, well, don’t use goddamned cellos. While all this is going on, some people are sick of guitars, I guess, and this group of classically trained Oregonians is all up in that. The album opens with “The Lamb”; since the band or whoever thought I couldn’t be trusted with the CD insert, I don’t know if the draggy little piece is an original or not, but it does have something in common with the opening theme to The Shining (an interpretation of “Dies Irae” by Berlioz, from Symphony Fantastique, if you want to get all snobby and cello-y about things).   “Beat (Health Life & Fire)” follows with a Kate Havnevik moonbat-alt-rock thing that actually does work nicely with cellos, this leading into “Cut the Rope,” wherein the ensemble gets all guitar-strummy with their instruments in a Pavement-vs-Decembrists joint.   Their girl singer (thanks again for no insert) does Havnevik again in “Tallymarks,” and “Violet” before more woodsy Decembrists shows up in “Hungry Liars.” Obviously the summary sentence should read “Kate Havnevik and Decembrists on a squishy waterbed,” but instead I’d like to close by saying that I’ve got a soft spot for French horns (and taco-flavor Doritos, which didn’t survive very long).
Grade: B- [street date: 6/30/09]

Tower of Power, Great American Soulbook (TOP Records)
I’m a little late to the ball here as far as release date, but after 41 years touring as a funk-and-soul circus — which this set of cover faves celebrates — a little more press love is just a needle in the great unfathomable haystack.   The crew’s name itself fires Pavlovian responses: images of a honk of brass goosing the very best out of a singer (Tom Jones leads the charge on “I Thank You”); a chorus so divine it’d be gauche to waste it on a Kate Hudson chick-flick montage (Joss Stone guests on “Heaven Must Have Sent Your Precious Love”); and of course foot-dragging blues things you swear you’ve heard a million times, even when you haven’t (Huey Lewis croak-roars along with “634-5789”).   Stevie Wonder’s “You Met Your Match,” the roll-out track, is no forced audition demo but a joy-filled tribute, perhaps an endeared remembrance of yet another special night on the bus headed to either Manhattan or Muskogee, who can remember which and what’s the difference. Grade: A [street date: 4/7/09]

Charnett Moffett, Art of Improvisation (Motema Music)
Acoustic bass virtuoso Moffett has stumped on albums from — oh, everybody: Herbie Hancock, Dizzy Gillespie, Pharaoh Sanders, you name it.   But this isn’t your basic sideman solo project that supposedly “features” a guy holding down his most comfortable rhythms while the harmonic instruments do all the heavy lifting — the squealing/slithering/shimmering sounds Moffett pinches/strangles/tickles/wiggles out of his upright are faraway, ethereal beings; an acquired taste, yes, but he’s as much a virtuoso doing his thing as Miles was with his.   Sacrilege?   Sure, and I hope you like the taste, because Moffett is due credit for all the months and years of sleep he obviously lost fine-tuning these jaw-dropping runs, channeling Jaco Pastorius one moment and some impossibly exotic animal the next.   At the least, every bassist who takes hir instrument the least bit seriously should wear out a couple copies of this. Grade: A [street date: 6/2/09]

Baby Teeth, Hustle Beach (Lujo Records)
Your awful Pitchfork Media likes these guys, which is axiomatic being that if Baby Teeth could warp back to 1971 they would have fit in great on a bill with retro-hipster darlings Big Star.   I’ve not had the, you know, pleasure of hearing earlier material from BT, but I can say that as of this album they’re decent for what they do (green-bottle flies are great at slurping up old dog poop, mind you), a half-serious heterogeneous slapdash of Van Morrison, Blue Oyster Cult, Talking Heads — anything that bespeaks cheap beer and bad dancing.   Their core sound gets most of its profundity from a cutely dated Van Hagar synth, though not writ as large; it’s the big gorilla in the room around which the other musicians affect other 80s bar-band effects: doonk-doonk bass, Fee Waybill-vs-Van Morrison vocals, hokey-jokey self-derisive stuff like that.   “I Hope She Won’t Let Me” dredges up old Rascals; “The Rules” doles out a little Rocky Horror.  
Grade: C [street date: 7/14/09] —
Outraged ranting, indie label release news and spaghetti sauce recipes are always welcome.   Email esaeger@cyberontix.com


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