Sugar & The Hi-Lows, Sugar & The Hi-Lows (self-released)
Throwback-chill-rock from a boy-girl duo of TV-soundtrack hacks, but it’s not as bad as I just made it sound.   World domination isn’t the plan here, more like a few more montage slots in TV shows for annoying 30somethings; it’s stuff for soccer moms whose empty heads gravitate to Rickie Lee Jones on 60s/70s binges (there’s some great pulp-B-movie orchestral cheese on “Show and Tell”) or duets with sleepy KT Tunstall duets (honky-tonk-piano bouncer “Skip the Line”).   They’re out of Nashville, so the Chuck Berry guitar on “Think I Said Too Much” makes sense, but mostly it’s a fairly lush pastiche emanating from around the time Jaws was the big summer movie.   Pleasant-enough background-morphine, it could be said.
Grade: B+ [iTunes Release Date: 11/15/11, hard copy 2/14/2012]

Lucas Field, Conquest of Happiness (self-released)
Out of nowhere, former Low vs Diamond frontman Field apparently developed a jones for 70s soul, and here we are, the Killers/Strokes stuff roundfiled in favor of Babies and Guess Who vibes, apropos to a degree being that Field could win a Burton Cummings karaoke contest if he wanted, or if anyone would even care abouit such a thing now.   So anyway, he’s still into epic finishes, evidenced in the Rhodes-decorated “Givin It All Ya Got,” (like most of this stuff, the tag line is driven home by a disposable gospel chick), but without the hard-ass guitars and whatnot it comes off as 1970s AM radio on a mild steroid.   “Just How It Goes” is perhaps more relevant to the here and now, its Postal Service glitches working to keep it from being identified as the filler track it probably was.
Grade: B- [Release date 11/15/2011]  
MicLordz & Sauce Funky, My World (Independent Records)
Canadians are not known for their roughness, and Rage Against the Machine, whom these boys sort of want to emulate, would use the guys in this band as urinal brushes.   But I can’t blame whichever PR blurb-writer mentioned Rage Against the Machine when promoting MicLordz & Sauce Funky; it can be a real drag to have to put down the Smartphone for five seconds and actually think about what you’re saying, especially when all there really is to say about your band is that they’re like They Might Be Giants trying to sound like Marky Mark, Weird Al and Red Hot Chili Peppers at the same time.   As more hot gigs at annoying college bars surface for this crew, this item shall fade into history, its epitaph reading something about ketchup, fries and Angry Birds or some damn thing.
Grade: C [Release date 11/8/2011]

Color Radio, Architects (Mapless Records)
The easiest way to say it is that this should have been on a lot of best-of-2011 lists, including my own.   Believe it or not, even given the massive volume of music that’s being put out (surely you personally know at least three people who have albums out?), not a lot of it is great to listen to, but that’s been changing over the past year or so, thanks to the wave of quirky, infectious neo-pop that drowned out all the Brooklyn-hipster clothes-less emperors around 2009, in the wake of fascinating albums from Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective. Of course, the next phase of all this is we’re going to take great music for granted, but it definitely beats the alternative, and that brings us to this Chicago band, who take Radiohead angst, stuff it with Pavement vocals, and then beat their hooks into the ground the way M83 does.   Owing to just a little — repeat, little — engineering inexperience, the Lilys-esque shoegaze guitars aren’t quite where they should be in relation to the dorky vocals, but man is it close, and regardless of that it’s just an epic pisser of a record, as if indie-rock had evolved without a hitch.
Grade: A [Release date 10/11/2011]

Jim Keller, Soul Candy (Elisha James Music)
Fedora-hat Americana-rock from one of the evil Tommy Tutone bastards responsible for “867-5309,” thus it’s even more remarkable that I find myself recommending it.   But yet, if this heartland-hoedown stuff had been sung by almost anyone else it wouldn’t have worked — Keller’s voice can only be described one way, that being a cross between Duane Allman and Bruce Springsteen, heavy on the druggy side, giving the overall impression of a good singer who’s too wasted/oversexed/cool to be affected by reviews or reviewers, which would be too bad, because, like I said, I usually beat Peavey-powered bar-band jamouts like this stuff like a redheaded stepchild.   Kicking off the droned-down Huey Lewis rock proceedings, “Meltdown” is better than anything Tom Petty could write nowadays, put it that way; nice squishy percussion sample (Corporate Rocker Discovers Weird Layering!   Film At 11!) in the not-overly-obviously Velvet Underground-inspired “Sweet Lorraine,” Otis Redding breeze in “Julianne,”
Grade: A [Release date 10/11/2011] Charred Walls of the Damned, Cold Winds on Timeless Days (Metal Blade Records)
Strategically tossed salad of epic death-metal/NWOBHM headed up by Howard Stern lackey Richard Christy, latter-day Judas Priest’s not-the-Halford Tim “Ripper” Owns and the two other guys who apparently force folks to blurt the term “heavy metal superband” while peering at this with not-complete disinterest. Owns doesn’t just do a great Rob Halford, he’s also got Chris Cornell, Dio and the dude from Fates Warning on his vocal speed-dial, and he does have a knack for knowing which guy to mimic under every circumstance of riffage, whether it be low Meshuggah drone, out-and-out Maiden, or your basic Dimebag.   Christy’s drums are reminiscent of everone from Nile to Suffocation, another aspect to this crew that’s unoriginal, not that it’s unlistenable by any measure.
Grade: A- [Street date 10/11/2011]

As You Drown, Rat King (Metal Blade Records)
Cannibal Corpse meets Stephen King on the set of Hostel.   Lots of lyrical prose about cocaine, cyanide, love=razorblade-torture, random apocalyptic visions, lines delivered with the traditional pig-monster vocals, basic nutritional accoutrements of a death metal vision that’s older than your grandmother’s ribbon candy.   Some menacing Meshuggah telephone-line-bending for content reveals these Swedes for the apt cultural pupils they are, leaving no stone turned in a quest for relevance in the eyes of the 2-count-em runaway teen chicks who frequent their local metal club after the weekly arguments with their mommies.  
Grade: B- [Release date 10/7/2011]

Stars Go Dim, Between Here And Now (JMA Music)
On face, there’s nothing this modern MOR trio does wrong, as already proved when their first EP helped win them a Subway-sponsored contest to open for Goo Goo Dolls, their natural progenitors in both hooks and looks.   The songs lope and soar without shoving the stuff into your ears in the manner of most American Idol twits; guitarist Joey Avalos’s songs are fully loaded Cadillacs, not blinged-out Humvees.   If any diss could be uttered — and trust me, this didn’t just jump out at me — it’s the chameleon-like sound: sourball-mouthed Matchbox 20 vocal inflections in opener “Hesitate,” myna-birding of Maroon 5’s steez on “Like I Mean It,” and there’re some Dashboard Confessional ideas hanging out as well.   But even that could be pardoned as soul-searching; they’re young guys who aren’t idiots (hint: it’s very cool that they’re comfortable with EPs, aiming for quality and not quantity), major corporations like Delta have already assimilated some of their stuff into their marketing fabric, and if they keep writing at this high of a level, ASCAP may as well just set up a money pipeline right into their bank accounts.
Grade: A+ [Release date 10/3/2011]

Yelena Eckemoff, Flying Steps (YelenaMusic)
Russia-born jazz pianist Eckemoff has plenty of room to allow her instrument to roam in this trio setup, so much so that the ancillary double-bassist and drummer often seem to disappear in these romantic, reflective doodles.   There are ups and downs in these wanderings, but mostly ups; it’s probably more steeped in the chapters of an inner journey than it seems at first listen, which is all there’s time for by this reporter.   But I do plan to get to know this genial little record better when there’s nothing pressing, during lazy occasions toward which this is more conducive.   Most of the passages are quiet, mercurial and slow; there’s no Chopin-esque fractalism until the 10th track (“Steps”), but even that is handled with kid gloves.
Grade: A [Release Date: 11/15/2011]

Big Deal, Lights Out (Mute Records)
Yuck.   Maybe it’s a case of pearls before my inner swine, but I just don’t feel I need another big tall glass of these 20something lovers amateurishly strumming their guitars and wasting their youth in my face.   The quiet-loud-quiet shoegaze-twee setup here is a British girl and an American guy, no drums, no bass, no panache, about as much style as a Gwyneth Paltrow duet, and even more importantly, little in the way of substance, unless your idea of substance is listening to a pair of half-asleep Bonnaroo rejects blather on and on, essentially about how complicated it is to be college-age and good-looking (“All I wanna do is talk, cuz seeing you f–ks me up” — come on marine, lemme see your angst face!).   There’s certainly a klunky romanticism on offer, sure, and it’s unique in that you can file this right between your My Bloody Valentine and Bon Iver albums for convenience’s sake, but there’s no range of sound at all — they don’t harmonize, and only occasionally try counterpoint on for size.   We get it, you saw Juno, but let’s be honest, that movie contained no real evidence that people naturally gravitate toward existential mediocrity.
Grade: C+ [Street date 1/24/2012]

Outraged ranting, indie label release news and spaghetti sauce recipes are always welcome.   Email esaeger@cyberontix.com.

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