Miracle Condition, Miracle Condition (Tizona Records)
Consider yourself forewarned: your bliss-out flavor of the year is this veteran outfit, two-thirds of whom survived the sinking of US Maple, a band whose stock-in-trade was ostensibly a variety of “reactions to shoegaze” but actually a mishandled, unsellable crapshoot of indie, crazy-ass math-rock and, take a wild guess, shoegaze. To be honest this “space-gaze evolutionary step” was exactly what I expected, but in fairness, any CD reviewer or completist who’s been around the block a psychologically damaging number of times will never be as surprised/enchanted/nauseated as normal people are when presented with albums like this one, which is, pretty much as subtly advertised, a set of unremarkable Spoon-vs-Warlocks-tinged geek-rawk ditties tossed into a sea of Sunn(((O))) ringout-ology colored in King Crimson tones. What this stuff will eventually accomplish, like all its recent brethren, is making a few people anxious at their local “underground” record store (let’s face it, there’s nothing more joyful than experiencing a loud auditory hallucination of being flushed down a Martian toilet when you’re already well out of your comfort zone, racing around some smelly alt-pop-culture sewer while simply trying to find the new White Stripes or whatever and get the hell out of the stupid place), and then life will go on, and this will be forgotten, rinse, repeat.
Grade: C+ [street date: 2/24/10]
Peasant, Shady Retreat (Paper Garden Records)
Peasant is Damien DeRose, a Pennsylvanian who could play Art Garfunkel to Iron and Wine guy Samuel Beam’s Paul Simon if the twain were to ever share some studio time. Same goals as Iron and Wine — pleasant, idyllic folk, but DeRose is more 70s-steeped, blessed of an almost gimmicky voice, high-pitched but without saccharine or laughable inexperience. The keyboard backdrop for opener “Thinking” and a few other tunes is laid over the furnishings like white shabby-chic linen, and its Zero 7-ish effect puts more distance between this and peers like Noah and the Whale and the aforementioned Beam. “Well Alright” is along the lines of Harry Nilsson, while the sedate “Prescriptions” flirts with Postal Service, although there, as elsewhere, one can’t really ascertain whether effects are electronic or not (hint: that’s a good thing).
Grade: B- [street date: 3/2/10]
Jen Gloeckner, Mouth of Mars (Spinning Head Records)
One negative to things not being like they were in the old days is the whole quantity over quality thing thanks to digital music, with artists battling way out of their weight class to fill space, resulting in, you know, many minutes of utter crap per album. Not with this piercing-addicted Iowan, though, whoever the hell she is; her MySpace “Friend” choices point directly to what you have here: Massive Attack, some Bjork and Fiona Apple, pretty much, but then again — and this is the pivotal part — not really. Yes, she loves the laid-back acid-jazz groove Portishead made “Sour Times” out of, who doesn’t, and she borrows that idea in a lot of these whispery dark spaces, the title track for one, but give her a few tunes and you see that she does have her own sound, not tightly wound like Fiona, not too space-loony (despite a Softies-inspired song or two), and her weird-beard weapon of choice is a fuzz-distorted cello that gets an amazing amount of mileage. As with all acid-chill-tech, it’s more about fog than hooks, but not often do two disagreeable tones meet within this overly generous heap of 15 songs.
Grade: A- [street date: 11/24/09]
James Zollar, Zollar Systems (JZAZ Records)
Bronx-based trumpeter Zollar started out on bugle, thus the occasional splashes of brashness to his style come as no great shock. The consensus is that he’s built up plenty-enough cred to have finally won this leader role (he did head up a crew last year in The Charlie Parker tribute LP Soaring With the Bird), and he spends it here establishing himself as a serious curator, mostly doing swing and bop. With such an enticing album cover I’d expected a more whiz-bang approach, but mind you I was as unfamiliar with this cat as you are now, not knowing that he’s done time with Wynton and the Basie Orchestra and so on, two experiences that play heavily on this one (Eddie Harris’ “Spasmodic Movements” is played straight as though for a Mardi Gras party, while “Chicago Preferred” is comprised of the sort of clean-as-a-whistle big-band sound that Basie’s inheritors are doing now). Singer Nabuko Kiryu is weirdly androgynous and did little for me with her couple of assignments, but she’s a good choice of foil, providing Zollar an excuse to whip out the mute and do a Satchmo imitation on her composition “Take the Subway Home.” You won’t catch anything at all out of the ordinary here, nothing progressive, but there’s a good reason for there being a lot of that going around these days.
Grade: B [street date: 3/2/10]
Alphanaut, Out of Orbit (self-released)
If I listed the soundalikes of this LA-by-way-of-Seattle act, you’d likely have no idea what I’m talking about, but since I don’t care so much about that, here you go: Haujobb and Backlash (fine, okay, to serve you better, another way to put it would be a very pop-minded Postal Service). The mind behind this is Mark Alan, whose boyish enthusiasm sometimes hobbles the offbeat, rebel-mysterious techno vibe he obviously wants to conjure, that Massive Attack sort of x-factor, you see. Slightly amateurish vocal moments — imagine some C-list Hollywood producer’s ProTools-tinkering, George Michael-karaoke-ing boyfriend getting the gig to soundtrack Species IV or something, if you can dig that — mar a few lines in the beginning tunes, but when Alan stops trying so hard and simply allows his mid-high tenor to croon like it doesn’t care, it’s like Simple Minds gone android, ie a bit like the aforementioned Haujobb, which actually puts him ahead of the aforementioned Backlash (a Wtii Records crew who are probably bussing tables nowadays). Lots of deliberate, thoughtful sci-fi effluvia, pulled off nicely without pegging the echo on every line. More light hookage and sprechgesang-style singing a la Tricky would make this act pretty formidable.
Grade: B- [street date: 3/16/10]
Johnny Butler, Solo (self-released)
It’s high time I got back to my critiquing roots by giving love (where no other love, I assure you, will ever dare shine) to an off-the-wall experimental record like this, a one-man one-take sax-and-Echoplex orgy of self-indulgence. Robert Fripp did an album similar to this in A Blessing of Tears: 1995 Soundscapes, Vol. 2, but he’s a guitar guy, not a saxman like Butler. On the other hand, and here’s the rub, Fripp waited over 25 years to pull this, where this is Butler’s debut. Four compositions make up the album, firstly “Cathedral,” a swampload of eerie, amorphous layers remindful of 80% of what metal bands have used as intros since 1980. “Katrina” is the meat of the album, Butler piling on the layers until classical vibes happen and then quickly melt as if through an aural kaleidoscope. “Glitch” is self-explanatory, a romp in the hay with his laptop and a few samples, and the album ends on the suitably morose “Eulogy.” Not for everyone — and that includes Mingus fans — but it’s surely a gauntlet thrown in the general direction of sax-players who might be considering adding cybernetics to their toolkit of sounds.
Grade: B- [street date: 3/9/10]
Mind.In.A.Box, RETRO (Metropolis Records)
Owing to their thoroughly captivating tuneage I’ll give this 2-man Austrian team a free pass for abandoning the video-game-style Matrix-vs-Hackers concept approach of their last 3 albums, all full of dark, unresolved skulking and no plotline whatsoever as far as I could tell. I knew I liked these guys for a reason other than their uncanny ability to wetwork trance to futurepop, and come to find out they’re old Commodore 64 hackers who wrote PC games and music in Assembly and — holy crap — hex code back inna daze. Being that this LP is at times a loose homage to the C-64, the beats are slower and a tad cheesier than those of their last few tries, but the overall blueprint maintains the VNV Nation-like approach of meandering instrumentals surrounding an archipelago of stellar hooks, like Eiffel 65 all growed up. It’s stuff you’d expect will be powering Euro clubs of the future, mature, soaring lines with hormonal-yearning fist-in-the-air melodies, aurally compact but bearing an irresistible vision of someone’s — maybe just my own, sure, but whatever — vision of club Nirvana.
Grade: A [street date: 3/9/10]
Emanuel and the Fear, Listen (Paper Garden Records)
Mad-composer-indie from New York, largely unmarketable in case that wasn’t a red flag, although it could, sure, inspire a few pale, hairy prog wannabes who don’t get out a lot. Their effort is big — a lot bigger than the Arcade Fire opening slots they’re probably angling for: they’re more into violins than fiddles, see, sounding like latter-day Nick Cave trying to be Point of Know Return-era Kansas during “Ariel and the River” or a symphony-backed Sufjan during “Free Life” (their Cali-stoner surf-alt, as you might guess, is wonderfully advanced; see “Jimmie’s Song”). It gets more oddly enticing when some clench-throated Jose Gonzalez-like vocalizing drops in on the Tin Pan piano-shtick of “Dear Friend,” at which point it becomes clear that there’s something conceptual and off-Broadway to it all, a point magnified by the faraway sax and canny, slow-spotlight theatrics of “Trucker Lovesong.”
Grade: B- [street date: 3/9/10]
Drumpoems, Verse 2 (Compost Records) [import]
If you’ve ever read me you know that I like only a little Detroit/Chicago depth to my deep house — King Britt’s about the size of it — and this was a pleasant surprise of candy-coated drone. I’d avoided the first comp from this community-minded DJ collective because of the title, figuring (and you can’t blame me for this, being that Compost has a bit-hit-and-big-miss history) it to be some bizarro attempt to weld, whatever, Aboriginal tribesmen to, whatever, probably oldschool acid jazz or some such ridiculousness. With lots of echo, repetition, and stifled primal screaming, this is the stuff that plays during the settle-in period at the club (more like the shopping montages on What Not to Wear), Detroit parsed through Euro-house, mostly supported by snappy-skippy runway-model hi-hats that break absolutely no ground whatsoever. The test here is its hypnotic ability, and it’s more than successful toward that end. Some too-many-cooks missteps, like the utterly useless “Feelin’ It.”
Grade: A- [street date: 12/8/09]
NeuHuman, NeuHuman (800lb Gorilla Records)
Las Vegas techno experimentalist Albert Azar has Massive Attack taste on a Flowchart budget, but for about a fifth or so of his debut artist album he gets the damn-near-impossible done. There’s a dubstep part to the guy, but only relating to some what-the-heck cheese and an occasional on-the-phone-patch added to his bemused Sprechgesang-style vocal, which at turns prostrates to each of Massive Attack’s main players. I appreciate that Azar eschews the wacky fake-ennui BS in which so many trip-hop and DnB artists immerse their every public move (I think this is the first black-and-white 8-by-10 glossy I’ve received in months aside from the ones that show up in you-better-review-this-or-else packages from the big labels), but he could stand to lay off the almost Carl Sagan-like earnestness he projects — trip-hop is supposed to invent universes, not study them.
Grade: B- [street date: 3/9/10]
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