Story of the Year, The Constant (Epitaph Records)
Pedestrian post-hardcore/nu-metal will come and go, but at least this St. Louis 5-piece once got into a fight with Godsmack’s roadies. Would that their ambition spread to breaking a musical mold or three, but this is strictly for their fan base, kids too young or unadventurous to know that POD and 30 Seconds to Mars already did the kid-chorus thing used on “The Children Sing” and who don’t mind that most of the remainder of this record would never have existed had Hoobastank never formed. We should talk about “To the Burial,” though, because not only does it cruise at power-metal speed but it also has a noise-steeped guitar solo in which the whammy bar is used in ways not usually sanctioned by this genre (there are a few similar efforts scattered throughout some of the other junk). Mars Volta-ish pseudo-prog is attempted in “Remember a Time” before it realizes what it’s doing and defers to Papa Roach typicality, and then obligato ballad “Holding On To You” tries to further the myth that girls actually listen to this type of stuff.
Grade: B- [street date: 2/16/10]
Various Artists, Afro Beat Vol. 1 (Strut Records)
The business-type business of this can get complicated — Strut Records, if I’m getting this right, was based out of the UK until 2003, went belly-up, and is now run by a German fellow as serious as his predecessors about preserving seriously 70s pan-African music (they have some Kid Creole in their catalog, for the record). Another monkey in the wrench is this same compilation was released by Kona in 2001, but that’s the end of that — this joyous set of throwbackery runs a logical gamut of funk, disco, and tribal jamming, the latter of which can tend to get lost in this set’s translation, if you really want to get wonkish about it (Gouda traditional “Kyenkyen Bi Adi M’awu” is transformed from its primitive, found-percussion foundation into a nightclub routine fit for Dr. No by K. Frimpong and His Cubano Fiestos). But again, that’s getting pretty wonkish — among others, Geraldo Pino, “the Nigerian James Brown” is here, doing a jazzy electric-piano-driven version of “Heavy Heavy Heavy” that, laid against modern studio technology, sounds like an echo from the dawn of man.
Grade: A [street date: 3/2/10]
Cindy Blackman, Another Lifetime (Four Quarters Entertainment)
The crazy skinny black chick playing drums on the Volkswagen commercials is this 50-year-old (boy, does she not look it) jazz neo-legend, first inspired by Miles Davis drummer Tony Williams but now in the grip of a Bill Buford fetish (plenty of Wakeman-style organ and other antiquated keyboards back up the point). In opening track “Vachkar,” Blackman carefully lays a cymbal-carpet over a blocky troop of hard-but-smart chords, the sort of stubbornly uninviting, dissonant strokes popularized in Close to the Edge. But she does do wonders with it, seeming four-armed while splashing away and throwing in random rattles of paradiddles and the like. There’s real fame involved now; she’s gone from busking the streets of New York to accompanying Joss Stone, so there are some draggy, non-jazz, even non-prog contributions that could have been handled by the drummer from Tool, or worse, a machine. The curveball is her torchy, deranged turn at the mike, singing the role of a messed-up moll in “There Comes a Time.”
Grade: B [street date: 2/23/10]
Watson Twins, Talking to You Talking to Me (Vangard Records)
Roots rock is the claim here, but this pair of Kentucky girls have been around LA long enough to have thought about becoming a pair of Sades singing for a non-techno-fied Zero 7, which is what’s done on the tranquilly torchy “Forever Me” and the swampy but bouncy “Brave One.” They know about Peggy Lee, though, and Amy Winehouse too — “Midnight” is a perfectly named song wherein the video could be a nice wholesome raggedy couple of first-daters measuring each other’s slow-dance moves at a deserted blues bar. “Roots rock” to these two doesn’t necessarily mean Sheryl Crow (“Devil In You” is cut from Cowboy Junkies cloth), and lonely unplugged-guitar ballad “Snow Canyons” has a nice Roberta Flack-ringer adventurousness to it, a nice switch from the sunny Jewel/Jenny Lewis-style same-old that so often pastes such things. Lots of rock-a-bye mellowness for new mommies — “Tell Me Why” is like Softies gone girl-group, while “Calling Out” is undiluted Norah Jones.
Grade: B [street date: 3/1/10]
Past Lives, Tapestry of Webs (Suicide Squeeze Records)
You have to be a bit content with the confines of existence in order to appreciate what this Seattle indie quartet is doing, particularly since it’s an offshoot of Blood Brothers that isn’t wanky-spazzy, a fact that’s bummed out a reviewer or two. Wanky spazz isn’t the only way to scare the Bananarama-buying soccer mom trapped in the record store or hint that the world confuses you; this crew gets the message across by rubbing The Cars’ face in a little indie mud and stubborn (if not nearly as enthusiastic as the Brothers’) riffage — “Paralyzer,” dolled up in Raveonettes and Clinic finery, is a Juno kid’s “My Best Friend’s Girl.” In that song the basic but not strictly enforced game-plan is revealed: moderate sparseness, mud, one tape-track reserved for long, meandering guitar-noodling that helps convey a certain ominous holding-back. But there’s more to this album than that, many more sounds and colors — add a little amateurish death-jazz to a B-52s B-side and you have “Falling Spikes”; off-key Clash-wannabe singing matches perfectly the thick, woody riff in “Don’t Let the Ashes Fill Your Eyes.” The aforementioned wanky spazz some folks so require holds court in “K Hole,” one of those deals that evinces Flaming Lips being electrocuted.
Grade: B [street date: 3/1/10]
Various Artists, Fabriclive 50: D-Bridge & Instra:mental Present Autonomic (Fabric Records)
Although seminal London dance-club Fabric professes to specialize in several electronic genres it overwhelmingly belongs to the DnB/breakbeat community. The seemingly endless Fabriclive compilation series has highlighted the work of their preferred DJs over the years, its 50th set here mixed by D-Bridge and Instra:mental, collectively known as Autonomic. Get all that? Assuming you don’t known squat about all this stuff, suffice to say that there are rebels within the DnB rebel alliance, DJs who believe there’s another side to music outside the jackhammer glitch-frenzy native to the genre. This stuff is chill-glitch comparable to what you might hear from the High Contrast label (or Hive Records, actually, during the parts that are free of robotic DnB-generic buzzings and such). Mostly new jack elevator music, then, put it that way, mixing chippy, mercurial breakbeats with acid house elements, soul, whatever’s handy, much of it sans vocals. The triumph, as has been duly noted by folks in the DnB community, is the continuity and logical flow of the tunes; it’s more a math puzzle than a collection of random, disconnected current faves of the participants.
Grade: B [street date: 3/1/10]
Beth Thornley, Wash U Clean (Stiff Hips Music)
Alabama singer/songwriter Thornley is doing her DIY spaceshot-chick shtick well enough to have earned her tunes a fat handful of cameos on TV shows. DIY, though — especially, it seems, when done out of LA — is often hobbled by one embarrassingly misplayed angle or another, in this girl’s case her wanton desire to be compared to Beth Orton when in fact she’s a Taylor Swift soundalike with all the cartoon-flowery, Lisa Loeb-steeped nice-chick-in-bad-paradise wonderment that a million girls are doing (a credit on Dawson’s Creek should provide ample reference for the shapes of things here). If this were truly an Orton (or PJ Harvey) kind of trip there’d be far fewer uneventful Swift-ish ballads on board, even if “What the Heart Wants” has a bridge straight out of Abbey Road (its stock drops, however, when the too-similar “Bones” follows). Albums of this type always channel Sheryl Crow when it’s time to punt, a tradition to which “There’s No Way” gleefully adheres, not that it’s poorly constructed (Thornley’s classically trained). Bouncy-happy piano lords over the pastel Feist-ness of closeout track “A to Z”; “You’re So Pony” is Ting Tings on ludes.
Grade: C [street date: 3/1/10]
Soren Moller & Dick Oatts, The Clouds Above (Audial Records)
The magic of PR is breathing second-life into this ’08 masterpiece of jazz duets from Danish pianist Soren Moller and saxplayer/flautist Dick Oatts. Good that it did, too — it’s not often that I mumble, “Gee, not a lot of this kind of stuff comes in here” and not mean anything snarky by it. Not ambiance, not chill, this is a truly passionate joint, the goal being European atmospherics, but with all the intimate look-seeing into these two players (and I don’t mean just the miking, which catches the physical swirling of air over Oatts’s reeds) it’s a Grimm’s fairy tale volume in song. Both of these guys try to hurt stuff, Moller banging at the keys as though hired to do a live soundtrack for an Olympic gymnast, Oatts doing an overtired Sonny Rollins, wringing alien squeals out of his sax. Yes, it’s Euro — the depth here isn’t something you get from your everyday overeducated Berklee crew — but more so it’s worldly, taking on Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet at one point. More for headphones than dinner, this will move you in ways you won’t quickly forget.
Grade: A [street date: 12/23/08]
Perfect, French Connection (Groove Attack Records)
Like most of its competition, the roots reggae of Saint Ann, Jamaica’s Perfect has to find its way in a world dominated by Elephant Man, a task that requires no small amount of wild-eyed chicken-rattle craziness. The riddims are mostly primeval skanky one-drops (behind the strident chorus of “Absolute Blessings” and the obvious radio-prostration cover of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine”), but spread out into foot-dragging 4/4 (“Son of Jamaica”) and other hip-hop sounds. In fact, what’s different about this feller is his tongue-in-cheek anything-goes similarities to early Jay-Z — melodies are group-whistled, vocoder is used in an interesting-enough turn, call-outs are hinted at with cleverness. The big play tune, “Mi Nah Cut My Dread,” is po-faced, though, feeling like a storm cloud refusing to rain; it could surely be seized upon for remixes by outside-the-genre guys.
Grade: A [street date: 2/16/10]
Mission Hill, Mission Hill (Toucan Cove Records)
Who wouldn’t want to have a sexy-grungy adult-emo pop song on radio and a runway model girlfriend, most definitely, but generally speaking, the achievement of such selfless, gregarious aims requires a little more originality than what this Boston foursome possess. “This Town” cradles the stoic lovey-dovey bombast of Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris” and adds a Wallflowers finishing touch, not an earthshakingly original thing but not one smacking of dittoheadedness either. But any Third Eye Blind worship one senses previous to “Forever Anyway” is proven out in spades, as the verse to “Jumper” could be sung on key over the main chord pattern. I know you’re waiting for accusations of Snow Patrol theft by now, and I shall not disappoint (“Save Me From Me”). “6th Avenue Heartache”-influenced bar-rock reappears, Tom Petty-esque organ and all, in “Long Time Comin’,” and then it’s back to Snow Patrol/“Jumper” nicking again at “Down With Young Love.”
Grade: B [street date: 8/4/09]
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