The Swimmers, People Are Soft (Mad Dragon Records)
There was a metallish, hard-rock release on Mad Dragon Records a few years ago that had the most slovenly album art I’d ever seen and really bad music to match — I forget who they were, but they left a taste in my mouth that didn’t compel me to race to the stereo when their succeeding releases showed up.
But Mad Dragon is a co-op from Drexel University; expectations should be low. And thus met, here, by a definitively vanilla flavor of Strokes vs Interpol vs Gang of Four. All is not utterly hopeless, though: the production is decent enough (except for, gack, a purposefully cheesebag, poorly rendered LCD Soundsystem-ish segue in “What Is the World Coming To” that’s really unnecessary — we get it, you guys have listened to crummy college rock in your lifetimes), and in fact “Drug Party” is the sort of noise-rock no-wave nobody should hate if they have a rock n roll bone in their body. Some 88-patterned metrosexual nu-mod Kinks-mania (“Nervous Wreck”) sews up the clumsy but sociologically correct scattershottedness of it all.
Grade: B- [street date 11/3/09]
Brim Liski, Brim Liski (EP) (Latenight Weeknight Records)
Side project from Colorado’s Shoreline Dream, who are slowly developing a rep as a player within the Sigur Ros sphere of similitude. What this spells is carte blanche for the trio to drown electronics and bright shoegaze guitars in slowness and some degree of gloom, though, in this instance, not to the point of setting the listener to fits of impatient violence against defenseless plastic disks. There’s a navel-gazing Colin Newman angle to much of this, meaning that it could have worked during the more reflective slices of Buffalo Bill’s home life in Silence of the Lambs, but the band is aware of this whole new millennium thingamajig being out there, thus we get “All the Things,” Daft Punk redrawn for Martians. Since this is an EP, an uncomfortable amount of remixes shows up, knocking the legs out from under spotlight track “Fight” and its drawling pair of shimmer-guitar arpeggios. But that’s a common lesson learned in DIY — Latenight Weeknight is their, and Shoreline Dream’s, own label — and if you’re looking, meanwhile, for next-generation super-mope, you’ll want this.
Grade: B+ [street date 11/10/09]
Frankie Knuckles, Motivation Too (Nervous Records)
Widely regarded as the Godfather of House for being one of the pivot men at Chicago’s Warehouse at the dawn of the genre, Knuckles, now 55, here uncorks his second uninterrupted flow of “deep house” (ie disco by any other name) punctuated with pump-up you-can-do-it speeches from divas and would-be preachers. Scary idea to anyone who cringes at the thought of 70s soul still having a place in the world, but these are probably the most capable hands available for this kind of thing. None of it’s his own work, but that’s the only real-world complaint I can come up with, for the music itself does carry a big, danceable, motivational stick. The warmup is “Faith,” a low-key pair of chords over which Dr. Gary Gray gently proselytizes from a Tony Robbins soapbox, this prior to Big Brooklyn Red dishing the irresistibly floor-filling “He Moves” with its monster Temptations-on-steroids chorus. Michelle Weeks’ “A Purpose” puts the kibosh on any fun longtime-disco-haters are having, but a nicely modern rub of Jon Cutler’s “One” is worth the slog.
Grade: B [street date 10/20/09]
Janus, Red Right Return (Realid Records/Warner)
You’ve heard things like this before — emo-tinged AOR as radio-humping nu-metal — but doubtless with not quite this much backing up the noise. There are hooks, yes, from the 70s AM radio-fashioned chorus of “Six Letters Sent” to the soaring angst-therapy in “The Nerve,” but here’s something where the PR promises actually back up all the exclamation points: it’s truly an album-album, perhaps with some sort of concept in mind but not as inaccessibly self-indulgent as Tool’s Aenima, if you can dig that. These Chicagoans do ebb and flow, but never take their eye off the reason regular plebs buy albums in the first place. There’s also a good feel for what works in a particular song — the cello in “Maybe It’s You” helps things rather than making a pompous, too-obvious guest-shot out of itself.
Grade: A- [street date 9/22/09]
Matthew Ryan, Dear Lover (IPO Recordings)
In the past, Pennsylvanian Matthew Ryan, who used to do everything unplugged, could have been mistaken for Tom Waits after drinking Lindsay Lohan under the table, and the story would have ended there; he’s nearly 40 now, and if he were content being a sub-headliner at folkie fests there would have been no reason to switch gears. But this is a very notable release, similar to a dizzy, nearly retired pitcher going out and throwing a no-hitter relative to these experiments in sound, a lot of them electronic, all of them demanding attention and not simply hoping someone looks up from their magazine at Barnes & Noble. This funny-looking Gollum-faced dude has fortified his unplugged guitar with some Nintendo ambience, not too glitchy at all, more like late 90s nonsense like Air, Third Eye Foundation and Flowchart, that sort. Esoteric, off-putting crap like that usually comes with a dazed sounding chick singer or whatnot, so Ryan’s stock automatically goes up a few points just for having his ruined throat do the singing. The tunes are more hypnotic than catchy, this owing to an antiphonal style that pauses for effect after every line, but it’s easy stuff in which to lose oneself, in turn owing to his years of experience thinking folk-rock. A huge surprise that may deservedly wind up on some year-end best-ofs in high places.
Grade: A [street date 10/27/09]
James Moody, Moody 4A (IPO Recordings)
Jazz sax-player Moody is a name recognizable to your regular Joe Wine-Taster, and perhaps for you as it does for me, for whatever reason, his name has always conjured a younger guy, not one of those old super-legends who’s either in the grave or has one foot in it. But holy crow, man, he’s 84, and has accumulated a bit of legend of his own, having been a part of Dizzy Gillespie’s unit (he’s with the Dizzy All Stars nowadays) and put out a set of records, as legends tend to do, on Prestige. In this quartet-setting collection of jazz standards, we’re asked to pay some attention to pianist Kenny Barron, considered one of the best pianists in the world, but it’s Moody’s genial, talkative sax that seems perpetually spotlighted. No real burning to speak of; this is low-key high-class dinnertime stuff, such as Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” and Sammy Fain’s “Secret Love,” the latter segmented with “blues march” military snare. Barron’s comparatively uptempo “Voyage” also gets a run-through.
Grade: A [street date 8/25/09]
Pelican, What We All Come to Need (Southern Lord Records)
Never pictured myself concurring with Pitchfork.com (and let’s just be clear that there’s nothing wrong with breathless, overblown rock journalism per se, so you shouldn’t hate Pitchfork just because they use big words — you can certainly hate them for attributing superpowers to regular-Joe slacker bands, but go ahead and try writing 1200-word CD reviews yourself and see how whacky you end up looking. It’s the quantity, not the quality, with those guys, so blame the zine’s insane slave-driving editor), but they nailed it an album or two ago when it comes to Pelican: their drummer is a huge failure. Such a sad thing, because for this album the guitarists have come up with some riffs that’d compete with just about any band for sheer mid-tempo-doom brutality. Their trip is a singer-less one, though, and in order to make people forget that their competition, the drummer-led Don Caballero, is around also making singer-less albums, you need someone a smidge more interesting than a cut-rate Tommy Lee keeping boring, workaday time on a loose hi-hat. These guys are just never gonna get it, and that’s such a shame — if they could find a singer like the guy from Crowbar it’d be a whole new ballgame.
Grade: B- [street date 10/26/09]
Bad Lieutenant, Never Cry Another Tear (Triple Echo Records)
If you’d ever thought there was something about New Order frontman Bernard Sumner that bespoke James Taylor or a cuckolded Michael Stipe, there was evidence to be found here and there, but this project does have a knack for spotlighting the pure pop element of which he’s capable. Matter of fact, until the familiar highwire bass line shows up 3 minutes into second track “Twist of Fate,” it may as well be a Regis & Kelly-approved REM album. That’s not a bad thing at all if you ever made out to the island-vacation patter of “Love Less” from New Order’s Technique — and what citified 80s survivor didn’t — a tune that now has a not-horribly-distant grand-nephew in “Summer Days,” a tune done up with a lot of intimate, historically correct 80s touches and an extended-length beach-time guitar solo. Speaking of REM, again, distorted cowboy-alt guitar suits the band adequately enough in “This is Home,” and it’s about there where you’re hoping for something goosebump-raising along the lines of “All the Way.” “Poisonous Intent” comes close, but the intent here is toe-tapper piffle for retired crook-leggers, so it’s ixnay on any really excitable stuff.
Grade: A [street date 10/13/09]
Mem, Archaea (self-released)
Success is elusive for any band doing things on their own label, and that’s probably the only reason you haven’t heard of this Brooklyn band. Configured similarly to a less hiphop-acknowledging Pendulum, they obviously want a piece of the Killers’ pie, if from the side more flush with techno, and they’ve also got their fingers in things Muse, Radiohead and Coldplay — their little Minus The Bear-sized fist is shaking at an awful big world. Such is the tale of this LP’s tape: some great piano shimmer, some prog runs, haunting 4-chord filibusters, and you know, what the hell, why not some Chris Brown vocodered plastic-soul. The question ultimately becomes one of whether or not one of the aforementioned big fish would allow any of these songs on an album, and the answer — despite the chump-change price Archaea can be had at from Amazon — is absofrickinlutely. “The Trenches” has a stunningly mature synth fractal, the type of sound you’d only ever hear on a Jolie/Cruise/Clooney soundtrack, and you could easily picture Coldplay and The Killers getting into a bidding war over “I Just Can’t” for B-side use. And this is a debut LP? Big things to come if they can keep this ship afloat through the inevitable major-label horrors ahead.
Grade: A- [street date 3/17/09]
Kristeenyoung, Music for Strippers, Hookers, and the Odd On-Looker (self-released)
St. Louis-raised gothie-pinup Kristeen Young bangs her piano into smithereens for the sixth time, scrawling a nuance-less Dresden Dolls across her long-held girl-keys/boy-drums setup. There are two voices to her, one being a shakily perturbed Ani DiFranco/Tori Amos for dummies, the other her everyday singing voice, the basics of which you’ve heard before from any townie girl able to pull off Pat Benatar karaoke. The problem is verisimilitude of the songwriting; the first 2 songs are so identical as to seem like one big huff-puff nyeah-nyeah-bouncing tantrum that’s already gone on for one too many verses resurfacing in an unwanted reprise — the two-tone nyeah-nyeah thing is a Where’s Waldo throughout the whole album. Thus put off, it’s hard for jerks like me to concentrate on the more thoughtful/useful/tolerable bits; it’s very likely that the track order screwed her up, which happens, and doesn’t detract from the clown-shoes bombast of “Everybody Wants Me To Cry,” an epic slant on paranoia. And whatever, TV-psycho-movie background cacophony always has a place in punk gestalt.
Grade: B [street date 10/13/09]
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