disclaimer is not a toy



Gold: Greatest Hits

Willie's comments: I recently took a quiz at selectsmart.com to help me decide what my favorite musical group is. Interestingly enough, I was found to be most compatible with ABBA, with Tool, Live, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the Dave Mathews Band [sic] rounding out my top five. Granted, everyone else on the Music Babble messageboard who took the test also got ABBA as their favorite, so there may have been a subtle bias built into the quiz, but I nevertheless decided that it was my diss-tiny (as ABBA pronounces it in "Waterloo") to fall in love with those poppy, goofy Swedes. And, after listening to Gold, I did! They'll never be my favorite band- for some reason, "Super Trouper" doesn't resonante with me quite as much as, say, "Fake Plastic Trees"- but Gold makes it clear why ABBA has such a huge place in people's hearts, and why they've been lauded in the media of stage (Mamma Mia!), screen (Muriel's Wedding), and indie rock (Stephin Merritt's melodic sense owes a lot to songs like "Fernando").

Like their successors Roxette, Ace of Base, and Savage Garden, ABBA's music is unabashedly cheesy, with synths all over the place, the same stupid high-hat rhythm in every song, and an unfortunate tendency to turn drippy ("I Have a Dream," "The Winner Takes It All," "Thank You for the Music"- all of these could've been left off of this compilation, which would've made it a more managable length). However, the band's strengths are enough to allay any guilt you might feel at singing along to "Dancing Queen" in the privacy of your car or apartment. ABBA is too chipper and theatrical to be considered disco, too danceable and catchy to seem pretentious no matter how many ethnic affectations they might employ ("Voulez Vous" and "Chiquitita," for example), and too bloody happy for you to carp about their unstylish enthusiasm. Who, for example, can deny the genius of "S.O.S," a song that lurches from a beautifully sad verse (which sounds like it was the basis for Madonna's "Like a Prayer") to one of the most exquisite pop choruses ever? Or "Knowing Me, Knowing You," which has a melody that's at once familiar and yet just out-of-step enough from pop traditions that it still sounds fresh? Gold has at least a dozen such moments of invincible pop bliss, and if you still refuse to give in to their dippy vision, then you are in the wrong, my friend. Grade: A-

Ginny's comments: Crickeys. This is an annoying freakin' album. Good thing I broke up with Will before I knew he and ABBA were meant for each other, because that little tidbit alone would've done it in for me alone. I guess it sort of fuels the fire as to why I think he's a closeted homosexual, but that's a different story altogether. ABBA is Sweden's precursor to the manufactured boyband craze as of late, that reminds me a lot of David Cassidy-esque sugar pop crap. However, if David Cassidy's music was a sunny day, ABBA would be STARING INTO THE SUN AND BURNING OUT YOUR EYEBALLS. Not that an album has to be completely without a happy outlook, but it doesn't have to be FREAKING RETINA-BURNING BLINDING AGGGGUUGHH! Okay, for instance, "I Have A Dream." Just listen to these lyrics: "I believe in angels/something good in everything I see/I believe in anchors (or something that sounds like that, who knows)/when I know the time is right for me/I cross the street/I had a dream." I kid you not! Those are the ACTUAL LYRICS. C'mon, people! Are ABBA for real? Is THIS the heritage Martin Luther King intended for us? I DON'T THINK SO. And if you still like them, just to put it in perspective, just imagine your parents shagging to this tripe, which they probably did. YOUR ENTIRE EXISTENCE MAY BE DUE SOLEY TO ABBA! (WILLIE'S NOTE: Well, if they're to blame, I may have to downgrade them to a C- or so.) Makes me almost ashamed to admit I'm Swedish by heritage. Crickeys. Grade: D


Actual Tigers


Gravelled & Green

Willie's comments: If it's early in the morning, and you're in the mood for Paul Simon, but don't feel awake enough to deal with his sociopolitical lyrics or occasional ethnic pretensions, the easygoing folk-rock of the Actual Tigers is a great cheerleader for your path to full brain function. Thoroughly undemanding and agreeable, their debut album is one of those records that you can listen to several dozen times and remember only a few songs afterward, but they all come rushing back every time you put it on, eager to please. When he puts his mind to it, frontman Tim Seely comes up with some moments of gobsmacking songwriting genius, though, that I wish he would've deployed more often. Take "End of May," for instance: I fancy myself something of a connoisseur of breakup songs, so believe me when I tell you that this is one of a handful of note-perfect breakup songs ever written. With little more than a pensively plucked acoustic guitar, Seely practically whispers as he bemoans how dull and empty his life has become since his lover split, "and it doesn't help to make-believe that you're right behind me, saying, 'It's okay.'" It'll bust your already-shattered being into a million pieces. "Testimony" (unabashed Simon adoration) and "Bad Day" (a curiosity that suggests Wilco doing a reggae version of Big Audio Dynamite's "Rush") are also top-tier, and more than reason enough to justify finding a little room in the A section of your CD case for this record. Even when the songs don't fully connect (the cutesy "Time and Space" drags on for several centuries), the band's good-timey tunefulness and the generous production of Dennis Herring (Camper Van Beethoven) keep things aloft. It's a really good warm-up album to ease into your day, before The Man starts breathin' down your neck and hasslin' ya. Grade: B+


Add N to (X)


Add Insult to Injury

Willie's comments: You know how sometimes you go over to a friend's house, and that friend's dog wants to play with you, so you start chasing it all over the place and as you get more and more tired, he seems to get more and more wound up, until you're just lying sweaty on the sofa and he's bouncing up and down in front of you, nudging at your leg and wanting you to play some more? That's kind of what Add N to (X) are like. Getting a lot of mileage out of the same retro synths that Adult. and Ladytron are so fond of (but in a loopier way that incorporates so much buzzy distortion and freestyle drumming that they come out sounding like a cross between Kraftwerk, Trans Am, and, to a lesser degree, The Cramps), this trio's music is hilariously spastic and catchy, but if your energy doesn't match that of their chaotic/robotic antics, it's easy to want to just yell, "Enough!" Their fourth album, Add Insult to Injury, hits a fine balance between tunefulness and obnoxiousness, though. The keyboards grind and pulsate in an indisputably fun fashion, whether they're employed as a punkish background to an entertainingly gross conversation between Ann Shenton and an iMac ("I want to catch your fleas!" "I want your heart disease!") on "Hit for Cheese" or as a sexy backdrop to the slightly Prince-inspired computer foreplay of "Plug Me In." If it hits you right, it's easy to be caught up in the enthusiasm of things like the bouncy "la la la la" pub chanting of "Monster Bobby," too, though I suspect you have to be partial to the sounds of synths zipping around and burbling to find this album as infectious as you're supposed to. Even with that predisposition, things are harder to take when the energy flags toward the end ("B.P. Perino," "Incinerator No. 1"), but the whole endeavor closes with the mature, funereal "The Regent is Dead," proving the band's impressive versatility within their limited cache of timbres. Mostly, though, it's a marathon of loosey-goosey analog electro-rock. Just... make sure you're in the mood for it. Grade: B+





Willie's comments: In high school, a friend of mine occasionally had panic attacks that she described as feeling like a Mexican guy was doing an endless lunatic dance in her head. Replace that Mexican guy with an army of cyborgs, and that's pretty much how it feels to listen to the music of Detroit electronic duo Adult. (Technically, they have a period after their band name, but in the interest of making these reviews reasonably easy on your eyes, I plan to forgo it in the same manner that I did the quotation marks in "Weird Al" Yankovic's name.) They may not be particularly original in their appropriation of now-outdated synths and drum machines to construct new-millennium electro-pop that threatens to crumble into chaos at any moment despite its tight, mechanical structure, but they do have a unique ability to make music that's remarkably spooky without even doing anything specifically aggressive. That is, it's easy to assault the listener with a series of crazy noises to come across as disturbing (e.g., Venetian Snares), but Adult finds it far more interesting to present a series of steady, growling webs of twitchy, buzzy keyboard noises and tiny-but-antsy percussion that's not dissonant, but re-creates the shivery feeling of suddenly realizing that the creepy stranger you hadn't thought much of when he was several blocks away is slowly coming right at you. This compilation of songs recorded between 1998 and 2001 highlights their propensity for repetitive madness, while maintaining a danceable accessibility throughout. "Hand to Phone," to give just one example, is about the best update of Kraftwerk's "The Telephone Call" imaginable, with the latter's distant loneliness replaced by the climbing-the-walls isolation of Nicola Kuperus's one-note melody. Kuperus's vocals are really cool, too, even though she doesn't really sing so much as rhythmically chant lines like "You dropped your burning matches on my boots," or occasionally fall into a one- or two-note computer cadence, all of which is often run through harmonizers, vocoders, and other effects that emphasize the emotional instability of the proceedings. In fact, amid the itchy weirdness, only two tracks lighten the mood at all: "Contagious" may sandpaper its uncharacteristically affable melody with a layer of grinding noise that runs throughout, but it's still oddly cheerful, and the wonderful "Nausea" sounds like a Mega Man soundtrack. Otherwise, though, there's not a whole lot of variation in this style, so I don't think it'd be a catastrophe if a few of the songs toward the end of the disc were trimmed, but since Adult's music is all about understated overkill anyway, I suppose the redundancy makes a certain amount of sense. And you can always turn it off three or four songs before the end, I guess, after you've had all the jittery-robot enjoyment you need for one day. Grade: A-


Anxiety Always

Willie's comments: After a number of EPs, remix albums, compilations, and the like, Adult brings the pain with what I take to be their first proper studio album, Anxiety Always. Though, again, they share an affinity for vintage synthesizers and new wave cliches with retro-robotic bands like Ladytron and Add N to (X), Adult's music has thankfully eschewed the self-indulgent weirdness that the latter frequently falls prey to, instead grooving on a messy-but-logical structure reminiscent of Devo's landmark Duty Now for the Future record. However, as exhibited on ResuscitationAnxiety Always marks their progression/regression from the friendly kitschiness of early tunes like "Silent Property" and "Nightlife" to more disturbing, somewhat less tuneful subject matter involving violent break-ups and callous headgames. Kuperus takes on the role of an antisocial dominatrix here, chanting lines like, "Wouldn't it be nice to go to a party and be the only one there?" "Glue your eyelids together!" and "Nyah, nyah, NYAH!" in a positively cruel intonation over beds of rhythmic, pulsating scratches and bleeps (created by her and her cohort, Adam Lee Miller). When they hit a groove, as they do more often than not, Adult evokes the sensation of being descended upon by a bunch of evil robots who are also incongruously cute. You'll get the point several songs before the album grinds to an exhausted halt, but on high-strung songs like "Blank Eyed, Nose Bleed" and "People, You Can Confuse," Adult's musical tics build a masterfully claustrophobic padded room of synthesized paranoia. Grade: B+


The Advantage


The Advantage

Willie's comments: '80s nostalgia is a hard thing to do right. As the final decade before The Simpsons, Nirvana's Nevermind, and Seinfeld brought self-referential, self-parodic irony into the mainstream, the '80s still have a charming, innocent glow in many people's minds, despite being a decade that brought the evils of Reagan and Wall Street to their ultimate, selfish acme. Particularly if you're a kid who, like me, grew up at that time, it's stupid to reduce every pop-culture title to a punchline, like segments on VH-1's I Love the '80s that basically say, "Har har Kajagoogoo har har Urkel har har Burples har har." The '80s sucked in a lot of ways, but at least the kids' entertainment at the time wasn't a bunch of cynical remakes starring Lindsay Lohan or cartoons that attempt to pass dated sitcom references off as satire. Those who get the decade right, like the Brothers Chaps or the guy behind www.x-entertainment.com, are smart enough to recognize that, although '80s culture may be dated and chintzy by today's standards, the time also had the naive excitement of cultural and technological discovery.

So although their gimmick of covering soundtracks from NES game cartridges may sound like opportunistic, ironic gimmickry, The Advantage gets the balance right on their debut album. Two guitars, a bass, and a drummer articulately run through any number of videogame themes, and it's actually thrilling! It's surf-rock for Midwestern kids who grew up aware of surfing only through California Games. Though it's by no means humorless (if you've ever played Bubble Bobble, you'll giggle when the soundtrack kicks into double-time to announce the arrival of the shark skeleton), the band's run-throughs of segments like the fortress music from The Legend of Zelda and the harrowing epitath from Castlevania 3 are less concerned with getting you to exclaim, "Hey- I remember that!" than they are with getting you to exclaim, "Damn- that was a great little tune accompanying my character's 8-bit adventures!" No synths, no vocals, minimal effects pedals; the whole record overflows with the joy of a band having figured out the genuinely difficult arpeggios that are looped ad infinitum as you get stuck behind some stupid wall (if your hand-eye coordination is as stunted as mine). Even if you weren't a videogame dork when the phenomenon was new, it's difficult not to respond to the melodic pleasures of "Goonies 2" and "Marble Madness." The fact that the album kicks off with the music to Mega Man 2's "Flash Man" level- in my opinion, the catchiest music Nintendo ever released- is enough to convince me that these guys are serious. And that's the only trait that's necessary to levitate these songs into the realm of classics, in a weird way. Grade: A-


Afghan Whigs



Willie's comments: For all the drooling critics did over this album, it's really kinda boring. It's a sort-of-concept album consisting of a bunch of monologues by the participants in an extremely unhappy and unhealthy relationship that seems doomed to last forever. Lead singer Greg Dulli can write lyrics for controlling lovers with the best of them ("Spit it up, get it out/ Now let me kiss that beautiful mouth... Bit into a rotten one, now didn't you?"), but the music veers too far into classic rock/grunge genericism, and Dulli's voice, though powerful, can't really do anything but rasp, shout, and wheeze. Everyone but die-hard aficionados of pain-as-love albums should stick to Sugar's Copper Blue or Fiona Apple's When the Pawn and so forth. Grade: B


Richie Evans writes: Gentlemen boring? No chance, and their last album 1965 is even better. In fact it's one of my favourite albums EVER. It rocks!




Moon Safari

Willie's comments: It would be hard to write sexier songs than the ones this French electronica duo comes up with. A single that predates this album (later appearing on Premiers Symptomes), “Le Soleil est Pres de Moi,” mixes a slow, throbbing bass line with stylistic elements copped from Stereolab, J.S. Bach, Barry White, and the Taxi theme song and achieves the ultimate in musical foreplay. Moon Safari more than delivers on the promise of that single, with 10 hypnotic, sensual tracks. Most are based around a simple bassline and spiced up with inventive keyboards and a glaze of giddy weirdness (nowhere is this true more than on the wonderful, Ween-meets-Kraftwerk single "Sexy Boy"). If more techno bands were this inventive and talented, the fabled "electronica boom" might actually have come to pass. Grade: A+


Premiers Symptomes EP

Willie's comments: This refurbished edition of an early EP contains the inimitably great "Le Soleil et Pres du Moi," as well as five other instrumental, ambient-funk numbers. While Premiers Symptomes is a worthwhile investment for "Le Soleil" alone, and it is an effective mood piece, fans of Moon Safari might be disappointed in this EP's narcotic lack of hooks. The remaining five songs really aren't memorable in any way, and play better as a "come down" piece to follow Moon Safari rather than an experience in their own right. Grade: B


10,000 Hz. Legend

Willie's comments: Air's second "real" album (following their effectively moody soundtrack to Sofia Coppola's effectively moody film The Virgin Suicides) is a difficult little cruller that prompts a bunch of "why" questions. Why, for example, would the band abandon the warm, cheesy funk that won them universal acclaim as electronic revolutionaries? Why did their sweetly surreal lyrics suddenly take a nosedive into puerility ("Wonder Milky Bitch" is a fellatio fantasy, the album is named after the mythical "brown noise," etc.)? Why would they let Beck put a harmonica solo into the otherwise great "The Vagabond"? 10,000 Hz. Legend really doesn't make sense, except as a document of a band that's unsure how to follow an album that became an instant classic.

Moon Safari's infectious, joyous concoctions sounded like the music made by machines throwing a party when no one was around, but on 10,000 Hz. Legend, the machines sound like they're being tortured by a cruel ringmaster. The rhythms, once so lively and bouncy, have been replaced by mechanical thuds. The keyboards, which once gurgled with happiness, now moan and sigh haunted house themes that rarely remain intact over the length of a song. And the melodies, which were formerly memorable enough to appear in Revlon commercials, have often been overlooked in favor of Radiohead-esque experiments in percussion. If you give Air's new, substantially creepier direction a chance, the album succeeds about half the time. "How Does It Make You Feel" is a charming little tale of computer love, "Sex Born Poison" enlists the Japanese band Buffalo Daughter to chirp non-sequiturs over a Flubberized drone, and "The Vagabond" sounds like a muscular outtake from Beck's Mutations. However, songs like the spoken-word "Don't Be Light" and the annoyingly monotonous "People in the City" just sound like more aimless pretentiousness from Godard's homeland. Ultimately, their willingness to explore new musical galaxies is encouraging, but Air really doesn't seem to know what they're doing here. Grade: C+


Talkie Walkie

Willie's comments: Even though it's seeming increasingly likely that Air will never relocate the easygoing, romantic charm of Moon Safari, they've at least gotten over the off-putting shapelessness of their previous record. Talkie Walkie doesn't dispense with the cold, mechanical atmospheres entirely, but ambient-pop songs like "Biological" and "Another Day" at least remember to give the listener something to latch onto in the form of simple themes that are agreeable even when they don't quite connect. And when the hooks are there, as with the giddy whistling of "Alpha Beta Gaga" or the shimmering vocal arrangement of "Cherry Blossom Girl," the stark arrangements make every element count, whether it's a banjo or a flute or the band's beloved antiquated synths. Still, the hooks really are the most crucial element to Air's success, and only about half the songs are in any way substantial, with the other half comprising forgettable diddling like "Mike Mills" and "Run." With a little more work, I suspect the throwaways could've attained the majestic sweep that the duo reaches on the opener, "Venus," which runs a simple piano figure through a forest of droney '80s keyboards and comes up with something truly unique and haunting. As is, though, Talkie Walkie is thoroughly pleasant, but not as consistently emotionally gripping as its best moments indicate it should be. Grade: B





The Impossible Thrill

Willie's comments: The first wave of trip-hop albums that came along in the early '90s, with bands such as Massive Attack and Portishead, reveled not just in the downcast, dramatic tunes of film noir soundtracks, but also in the grimy, seedy mood of the films which inspired them. Hovering beneath the hip-hop rhythms and R&B-based melodies was a detached urban edge that would sound as appropriate accompanying a shot of Fred MacMurray walking the streets in Double Indemnity as it did on your stereo. The second wave of trip-hop artists chose to clean up this grit by fortifying their hypnotic songs with layers of clean analog keyboards and strings; Hooverphonic perfected this with their second album, Blue Wonder Power Milk, and now British duo Alpha has released another trip-hop keeper with The Impossible Thrill.

Alpha is signed to Massive Attack's Melankolic label, and Massive Attack's Grant Marshall contributes vocals to "Wishes" on this album, so it should come as no surprise that Alpha's music owes a bit of a debt to the Attack, relying as it does on droney basslines and sweeping orchestration. (Alpha also borrows their mentors' trick of having several different guest vocalists over the course of the album for variety's sake.) However, Alpha's soundscapes are much less gloomy than we're used to in the trip-hop genre, with songs like "AI Station" gliding on an updraft of Wendy Stubbs's crooning, flutes, and vibraphones that recall Beth Orton. Even when Alpha chooses to stay moody, they do so in a very emotional way, with such touches as the plaintive harmonica(!) on "Still." The Impossible Thrill doesn't yield any memorable, "Unfinished Symphony"-esque trip-hop classics, but it does provide 50 minutes of ethereal bliss. Grade: B+



Tori Amos


Little Earthquakes

Willie's comments: Reviewing Tori Amos is a very tricky proposition for me. This is because, despite what my middle school gym teacher frequently said, I am a man. As a man, whenever I hear Tori's music, my first thought is, "Please make it stop!" (This refers to the music, and failing that, my life.) This, in turn, is because Tori's music is unashamedly designed for women only, and men simply cannot get it (sorry to generalize, but it's true, guys- we can't fully understand where she's coming from without being a woman)- it's an aural chick flick. The musical equivalent of a film like Walking & Talking. Add to that the fact that Tori's followers are a bunch of loons and you've basically got yourself a recipe for a plethora of death threats being e-mailed to me. Nevertheless, I shall plow on with my review of Tori's solo debut, which followed the demise of her laughable band Y Kant Tori Read.

Quite honestly, the music on Little Earthquakes should be reasonably listenable to people of either gender. The better part of the album (quantity-wise) is made up of Tori's distinctive, piano-based twiddling, and that's pretty much a grab bag. The title track, "China," and "Leather" are all pretty if interchangeable, whereas "Girl" is utterly tedious, and "Silent All These Years" piles on the cheesy harmonies until it winds up sounding like Wilson Phillips. Little Earthquakes is much better when Tori mixes things up a bit. "Crucify" kicks the album off with a bass-driven number that rocks in a very particular, subdued fashion, and "Happy Phantom" provides a similarly welcome energy boost.

"Me and a Gun" is probably the most well-known song on here, and it pretty well sums up the love/hate relationship I have with this album: The song is a first-person recollection of all the things that go through a woman's mind while she's being raped. Maybe it's autobiographical, maybe not, and there's no denying that Tori can conjure some powerful imagery in lines like "Is it my right to be on my stomach [on] Fred's Seville?" However, it's also hard to deny that incorporating both Mr. Ed and Jesus into any song, regardless of context, courts silliness. The song is also performed without any backing for Tori's voice, and though it's a fine melody and the arrangement underscores how alone the narrator feels at the moment, it would have been more effective with some instruments behind her. As she would further illustrate on her later albums, Tori evidently feels that self-indulgence, incomprehensibility, goofiness, and frustrating pretentiousness are all small prices to pay for naked emotion and the Truth as she sees it. And good for her! The question is, is it good for you? Grade: B


Boys for Pele

Willie's comments: Tori spits out a lot of twisted religious imagery on this album, and understandably so. She's a minister's daughter who is rebelling against her oppressive father by denouncing his religion. So it's no shock to hear her write songs like "Father Lucifer" and "In the Springtime of His Voodoo." Nothing new there. However, what amazes me is that she expects to be taken seriously! This is a woman who thanks "the Faeries" in her liner notes without a hint of irony! This is a woman whose album art includes a picture of her suckling a baby pig! Unless you are a person who holds Anne McCaffrey's Acorna books as the sacred texts of your personal theology, it might be hard to put much stock in any such grand statement Tori makes. She's much better when she comes back down to Earth and writes songs that ordinary people can relate to, such as the intimate breakup tale "Putting the Damage On." That song is heartbreaking not just because of Tori's mercifully lucid lyrics, but because she abandons the sneering, whining, and other vocal gymnastics that permeate the rest of Boys for Pele and just gets down to singing.

It's a terribly self-indulgent album. Songs like "Horses" and "Professional Widow" sound as though she's making up the melody as she goes along, and so you can listen to them three or four times and still not feel like you're getting anywhere useful. As I understand it, she actually was making up "Not the Red Baron" as she went along, and her nonsensical lyrics on this song singlehandedly undercut the intended intellectual depth of obtuse songs like "Hey Jupiter" and "Doughnut Song." For some reason, Tori's instrument of choice on this album is the harpsichord, which serves to make her meandering musical creations appallingly tinny... You may feel I'm being overly harsh here, but Boys for Pele is a long, sprawling album, and when Tori proves herself by writing a perfect little cabaret number like the minute-long "Mr. Zebra" or a nifty pop song like "Caught a Lite Sneeze," it's hard not to feel gypped at boring crap like "Twinkle." Again, I am a man and I don't get it, but I sat through Boys for Pele hoping that Donita Sparks from L7 was going to show up and drown out Tori in a wall of feedback. Grade: C




Everywhere Outside

Willie's comments: It would be really easy (though somewhat unfair) to write a review of Antietam's third album by simply writing three simple words over and over: Yo, Tengo, and La, though not necessarily in that order. Sure, the similarities to 1991-era Yo La Tengo are a little uncanny- husband-and-wife team with different last names (guitarist Tara Key and hubby bassist Tim Harris) playing clangy, droney rock heavily influenced by the Velvet Underground. However, Antietam is friends with Yo La (the latter covered "Orange Song" on President Yo La Tengo and produced at least one of Antietam's records; Key appeared with YLT in I Shot Andy Warhol), so you can't accuse Antietam of ripping them off or anything. Frankly, I prefer the galloping racket of Everywhere Outside to the comparatively timid jangling of Yo La's New Wave Hot Dogs. So let's stop talking about Yo La Tengo now, because this is an Antietam review.

The songs on Everywhere Outside stick to a pretty rigid formula, for the most part: Harris thumps sixteenth notes on his bass, drummer Josh Madell seems to make up a beat as he goes along (which isn't a criticism; if anything, his random drumming enlivens the songs even more), and Key's guitar roars triumphantly as she breathlessly bellows like Grace Slick. Just about every song sounds the same, though, which is kind of a bummer, considering that the hooky "World Love" and the precision-crafted instrumental "Teleplay" prove that Antietam's talent ranges well beyond their beaten-down path of blustery, open-throttle roiling. It's about as subtle as having a firehose turned on you, but it's still good, cathartic fun. Grade: B



Aphex Twin


Selected Ambient Works Volume II

Willie's comments: It doesn't get much more ambient than this double album of long, nameless, practically motionless soundscapes by Richard D. James (the creepy bearded guy who is Aphex Twin). The 23 tracks here are based around keyboard noises (sometimes ominous, sometimes gorgeous) that flow as slowly as ketchup and do create an extremely effective variety of moods. The first song on disc one, for example, is as relaxing as an innertube ride down a lazy river, with interesting looped murmurs and soothing banjo sounds overtop of a comforting, three-chord synth bed. By song nine, however, James sounds like he's crafting backing tracks for the Swans (only without that band's unintentional silliness), with a pulsating industrial drone carrying a series of modal keyboards into a musical haunted house. Those are just the atmospheric extremes that are represented on Selected Ambient Works- the album hits a lot of moods between comfort and hopelessness as well. And while I don't recommend taking in both discs at once (particularly if it's a sunny afternoon when you'd rather be listening to Built to Spill, as was the case when I first attempted it), Eno himself could not craft such perfect music to accompany a person's meditative, yoga moods. Grade: A-


Fiona Apple


When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks Like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He’ll Win the Whole Thing ‘Fore He Enters the Ring There’s No Body to Batter When Your Mind is Your Might So When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth is the Greatest of Heights and If You Know Where to Stand, Then You Know Where to Land and If You Fall It Won’t Matter, Cuz You’ll Know That You’re Right

Willie's comments: On her admirably ambitious sophomore album, Ms. Apple has created the most nuanced, emotional, and wrenching portrait of a dysfunctional/failed relationship since Sugar’s Copper Blue. Nothing on When the Pawn has the same slinky charm as “Criminal” or her cover of the Beatles' “Across the Universe,” instead favoring an energetic, shape-shifting style of piano banging that is more appropriate to her tumultuous lyrics. “Fast as You Can” hurtles along like Underworld’s “Push Upstairs,” only to stop dead in its tracks for the chorus, while “A Mistake” manages to incorporate some laser-like guitars. It’s all wonderfully listenable, but what marks When the Pawn as a masterpiece is Fiona’s brilliant detailing of the spite, misery, codependence, and mind games that can get tangled up with love. In the fantastic, acerbic “Limp,” for example, she gets the last laugh on a selfish lover by telling him, “It won’t be long till you’ll be lying limp in your own hand.” “Love Ridden,” on the other hand, is a heartbreaking chronicle of trying to wean oneself off of an unhealthy relationship despite still having feelings for that person (“Only kisses on the cheek from now on/ And in a little while, we’ll only have to wave”). The fact that Fiona suffuses the whole album with pitch-black humor keeps it from ever being irritating, however. When the Pawn is good for you, but it tastes great, too. Grade: A

Ginny's comments: Aside from that one rather ill-advised acceptance speech, and that one anorexic/drug addict music video she did (let's just conveniently forget those, shall we?), Fiona has had a pretty smooth ride so far in her music career. Her sophmoric effort after the decent Tidal, When the Pawn Hits the Man With The Plan And His Canal, is right on- she's nailed down her style, taking inspiration from jazz, blues with just the right dash of folk mixed in there, and has managed to finally outlive endless categorizations with Tori Amos and Sarah McLaughlin (well, at least in my book, anyway). She's made something of a theme album with When the Pawn, mostly with dealing with being "the crazy one" in a relationship. That said, the lyrics tackle the incredible feat of not being sentimental or hokey-- they are just the right amount of cynicism and vulnerability. (ex: "I went crazy again today/looking for a strand to climb/looking for a little hope.") The recipe for the modern woman!

The production on this album is excellent-- Fiona's melodies stop relying so heavily on her keyboard playing and become more of a tapestry of interesting rhythms and instruments ("Fast as You Can" for instance). Fiona has also kept from using her voice as something of a music tome as many female artists tend to do. She just sings! None of that Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey, 500 octave-jumping rediculousness. I don't even like jazz and blues, but Fiona's managed to bring them into the Zeros. Or whatever this decade is supposed to be called. What is it called, anyway? Anyone know? If you do, email us and tell us. Cuz I'm sick of not having a convenient word to refer to this decade. Anyway, so if you can get past the pretentiousness of the title, which you should, (I think it's kinda funny, myself) and if you don't like typical whiny girly music (I don't either) then Fiona is your man. Grade: A+


DavidYouKnow writes: I believe fiona apple to be one of the few younger artist that is comfortable not molding. her notions are omfortingg in the least. i truely admire how she embraces the frustrations with life to satisfiy her own need to vent.


Apples in Stereo


Fun Trick Noisemaker

Willie's comments: This is the first full album by one of the three founding bands of the Elephant 6 collective (which is an increasingly far-flung group of artists who are enamored of '60s psychedelic pop, and which has since swelled to include every band in the United States except I think Deicide). In retrospect, Fun Trick Noisemaker seems like little more than a warm-up for the funloving masterpieces of nostalgia they would later create. As written by Robert Schneider (not the Deuce Bigalow guy, but rather the Apples' guitarist and lead singer), these songs chug along like throwaways from the Nuggets box set: chipper and catchy to be sure, but rarely do they stick with you once you've moved on to something else. "Dots 1-2-3" is the exception- an oddly polite garage rock blowout with three or four clever turns over the course of two and a half minutes. As for songs like "High Tide," though, the wobbly nature of the performances does a disservice to Schneider's melodies; the band still has one foot in the Pavement pool of lax arrangements, which can't properly evoke the sort of instant musical familiarity the Apples in Stereo are striving for. It's all well above average, but unless you have an appetite for musical throwbacks that hasn't been satisfied by the Apples' other albums, the Olivia Tremor Control, the Sunshine Fix, Neutral Milk Hotel, Sloan, Ladybug Transistor, Beulah, Essex Green, the Marshmallow Coast, Elf Power, Of Montreal, or actual '60s music, I can't say Fun Trick Noisemaker is an essential purchase. Grade: B


Science Faire

Willie's comments: This is a compilation of the Apples' two early EPs, recorded on a four-track before Fun Trick Noisemaker came out (and back when they actually were known, simply, as the Apples), and although the lo-fi nature of the songs lends them a buzzy, raw energy reminiscent of early Kinks, the songs themselves are often underwritten and sloppily performed. "Haley," for example, would be a fine- if forgettable- number if the band members didn't keep falling out of time with each other. The instrumentals "Turncoat Indian" and "To Love the Vibration of the Bulb" seem redundant, while "Time for Bed/I Know You'll Do Well" and "Motorcar" glide cheerfully along in first gear, without a great hook or chorus to punch things home. (The latter song is now inextricably linked, in my mind, with the rabbit I saw get run over while I was listening to it on the way home last night. The poor guy was already crippled from a previous car, and was flopping pathetically in an attempt to get out of the way, but couldn't move, and then he got smashed. I'm sure that the Apples in Stereo, whose music is always determinedly upbeat, would utterly hate this mental association, but it hurt me a lot to see, and I cried hysterically for like an hour, so I thought I'd bring it up because I'm a sap.) But I digress. Science Faire isn't without its highlights. "Tidal Wave" is presented here in an awesome, aggressive rendition that utterly destroys the comparatively soggy version on Fun Trick Noisemaker, and "Not the Same" shows the band at their most frantically catchy. Moreover, as I said, the mood here is one of unerring levity and joy, which is always welcome. However, the garage-rocker goodwill of the Apples in Stereo can't carry this release alone. Stay tuned, though. Things got better in a hurry. Grade: C+


Tone Soul Evolution

Willie's comments: If Sean Lennon fronted Sloan, the result might sound like this- perfect neo-'60s pop songs, yet catchier and more intelligent than much of what that decade actually produced. The Apples in Stereo avoid falling into the trap that plagues many lighthearted '90s artists- namely, writing individual songs so purely catchy that the album suffers from a bland sameness- by imbibing their tunes with hooks that seem just the slightest bit unstable, to keep you on your toes; the chromatic guitar line that shows up occasionally in "Try to Remember" and the vocal melody of "Seems So," for example. A giddy pleasure from beginning to end. Grade: A


The Discovery of a World Inside the Moone

Willie's comments: Following a dishearteningly derivative- if catchy- EP (Her Wallpaper Reverie), the Apples return to form with this inventive, joyous long-player. Typical Apples songs like "Stream Running Over," "Look Away," and "Allright/Not Quite" pretty much stick to their established formula of Beatlesy riffs and life-affirming lyrics, and you won't get complaints from me about any of them. However, the band makes a few charming attempts at '60s funk with "Go" and "The Bird That You Can't See" (the latter of which would sound awesome covered by Lambchop), "I Can't Believe" takes a guitar riff you've heard a million times and makes it seem new, and secret weapon Hilarie Sidney writes the best song of her career with the ultra-hooky "20 Cases Suggestive Of..." If anyone is going to save rock music, it's going to be the Apples in Stereo. Or Fountains of Wayne. They should tour together! Wouldn't that be great? Grade: A


Velocity of Sound

Willie's comments: Huh? On first listen, Velocity of Sound is a what-the-hell? combination of noisier-than-usual guitars, barre chords, and Robert Schneider's incongruously high-pitched voice squeezed into 11 three-minute songs. No awesome, '60s throwback harmonies to be found here- not even any discernible Beatles influences in the songs! It's not your typical Apples record, inotherwords. If you're not really paying attention, it actually sounds like a disappointing bid for garage-rocker credibility in the wake of the Strokes/Vines/Hives popularity, but that's really not it at all: it's really just a more energetic, amped-up take on the band's usual upbeat AOR stylings. I will say that the melodies aren't as consistently awesome as their past two albums here, what with a couple boring tracks like "Mystery" and "That's Something I Do" taking up too much of the record's brief playing time, but there are still more than a few corkers in the bunch. "Baroque" has a delicious "baa-baa-baa" chorus that's a clever little nod to the titular era, "Please" is an all-gravy power-pop gem, and Hilarie Sidney's "Rainfall" and "I Want" are stellar, muscular, Barbara Manning-esque mix tape fodder. (Could someone give this woman a solo album, please?) A move like this doesn't especially smack of self-confidence, but the fact that the Apples have managed to rough up their sound a little bit without losing the optimistic twinkle in their collective eye is enough to justify calling this record a minor success. Grade: B+


New Magnetic Wonder

Willie's comments: Five years after Velocity of Sound, and following Schneider and Sidney's divorce and subsequent side-project albums (he with Ulysses and Marbles, she with the High Water Marks), the Apples are back with a whole mess of production-happy new material. Vocoders, keyboards, friendly guitar riffs, thrilling harmonies, and killer hooks abound, as though Schneider's trying to make up for the band's absence by barraging you with every single trick he knows and every influence he can invoke, from ELO to Motown. And for awhile, it totally works, as smart, catchy utopia pervades. "Energy" in particular, is as light and jubilent as any pop song ever written, and Sidney's ultra-melodic "Sunndal Song" steals the show as she is wont to do. As the disc wears on, though, the full-fledged songs get buried amid track after track of undeveloped ideas and indifference-prompting instrumentals. (Just a side note: The three-step instrumental "Mellotron 1" is the exact backing track to The Handsome Family's creepy cobweb of a song "These Golden Jewels." I'm not accusing Schneider of anything unethical; I can't let an opportunity to praise The Handsome Family go by.) If you trimmed the filler, you'd be left with slightly more than an EP's worth of psych-pop that's irresistible in its unhinged glee, so it ultimately raises the question of why Schneider wouldn't postpone New Magnetic Wonder's release until he had a thoroughly solid album recorded. Grade: B






Arab Strap


Elephant Shoe

Willie's comments: Arab Strap singer Aidan Moffat writes some of the best slice-of-lovelife lyrics in all the world. On this, the band's third album, the songs' narrator and his lover throw temper tantrums, storm out of the house, openly flirt with other people, bait each other into breaking up, apologize, and then engage in rapturous sexual marathons with each other. Sometimes it's darkly funny, but more often, it's almost unbearably sad to hear Moffat recite these tales of romantic headgames and power struggles in his detached Scottish mumble. Nowhere is this tendency towards emotional devestation truer than in the recurring theme of having a baby that runs throughout Elephant Shoe. In "Autumnal," he daydreams, "When they've grown up (that's hoping that I don't shoot blanks), could we move right up North?" and the lovers name their imagined offspring in "Aries the Ram," but it all comes crashing down in "Pro-(Your)Life," in which the narrator chokes back his emotions and concedes his belief that an abortion is the couple's only practical option when she does get pregnant. (Notice I said "his belief," referring to a character in a song. Please do not send me angry pro-life or pro-choice propaganda.)

Heavy stuff, to be sure, but these stories are also tremendously rewarding emotional releases. If only the music were up to these standards. Unlike the absorbing, repetitive masterpieces that compose their later masterwork The Red Thread, the songs on Elephant Shoe simply feel undercooked. Moffat's cohort, Malcolm Middleton, tends to slowly repeat one simple, two- or three-note guitar line over and over for the length of almost any given song, with a tinny drum machine providing the only forward momentum. With the exception of the surprisingly peppy "Tanned," the barren production on this album doesn't give you nearly enough focal points as the songs mope along. The lyric sheet itself is a masterpiece, but it's nevertheless not enough to sustain the 57 minutes that the CD requires. Grade: B


The Red Thread

Willie's comments: On this album, Arab Strap writes songs that envelop you like a bedspread. Moffat mutters brilliantly phrased lyrics overtop of stark, downcast arrangements of bass, guitar, drums, and sometimes violin or piano, and it's perfect music for a lonely midnight drive. They're quiet songs that are meant to be played loud, and if you give The Red Thread your full attention, you'll be enthralled. The album is full of sex- it's like a male counterpart to PJ Harvey's Is This Desire? (only this one might find its way into your stereo more often). Moffat spins eloquent tales of seemy, seedy romantic encounters that are full of great musical soundbites like "It's best in the morning when we know we won't be rushed/ So leave the curtains closed and come back when you've brushed." "Love Detective" is a great noir story about a cheating lover, but most of the other songs document an unsatisfying series of one-night stands. A sticker on the album's jewel case reads "Not for the weak-hearted," and this is an appropriate warning- only those with working hearts will appreciate or understand this awesome mix of emotion, disenchantment, and melody. Grade: A



Archers of Loaf


Icky Mettle

Willie's comments: This album is packed with great, tightly-wound indie rock songs- "Wrong," "Hate Paste," and the incomparable single "Web In Front" (from whence came the classic line, "All I ever wanted was to be your spine")- but it's slightly marred by Caleb Southern's production. I can't quite put my finger on what sounds wrong, but no matter how loud you turn it up, Icky Mettle still sounds frustratingly quiet. Maybe the guitar sound is a bit too tinny, or maybe the bass is too far down in the mix, but it begins to grate right around "Fat." Nitpicking aside, there are a few must-hears on this album- most notably "Web In Front" and the bizarre "Learo, You're a Hole"- so if you see it used, why not pick it up? Grade: B+






Willie's comments: This band received a somewhat chilly reception when they opened for Neil Finn on his Try Whistling This tour, which is a shame. Granted, the two acts have very little in common- whereas Finn's songs put the Beatles through a kaleidoscope of '90s musical reference points, Arnold sounds like a stripped-down version of Radiohead- but Arnold's songs are nonetheless great, and accessible too. On Hillside, songs like "Fleas Don't Fly," "Fishsounds," and "Face" resonate with delicate melodies and falsetto harmonies that are buoyed by chunky power chords. They incorporate occasional elements of country-rock into their downbeat songs, but that just adds up to a subtly Western flavor, rather than coming across as full-blown Wilco bombast. Sometimes the band gets a little self-indulgent, as with the grating, spoken-word "Rabbit," but for the most part, Hillside is a quiet treasure that should appeal to fans of Crowded House as easily as fans of OK Computer. Grade: B+





Willie's comments: There are four great songs on this album: "Goldfinger," which is a power rock ballad that's sentimental without being sappy; "Girl From Mars," which is the noisiest a song can be while still remaining catchy pop; "Kung Fu," which is a bouncy tribute to Jackie Chan and the Ramones; and "Gone the Dream," which is pretty and endearingly cheesy (what with the strings and all). All are built around simple melodies and bulked up with layers of guitar miles thick, and are minor masterpieces. The rest of 1977, however, is less wonderful. There are 80's metal goofs and some more passable power pop, but none of it is even a fraction as memorable as the above four. Grade: B-




Richard Ashcroft


Alone with Everybody

Willie's comments: After Richard Ashcroft's bandmates in the Verve packed up their Big Bag o' Stone Roses Riffs and split, Richard embarked on a solo career that began with this, his debut album. Kicking off with the chewy single "A Song for the Lovers," Alone with Everybody announces that post-Verve Ashcroft is not just going to be a footnote in that band's history, but rather a force to be reckoned with. The song gallops by with a propulsive drumbeat (on actual drums instead of fake David Gray ones!), magnificent orchestration, and most importantly, the best chorus the man has ever written. Unfortunately, though perhaps inevitably, it's all downhill from there (with the exception of "You on My Mind in My Sleep," which would've been a nationwide prom theme if our country's youth had two brain cells to rub together). Melody-wise, Ashcroft still writes the best secondhand U2 tunes in the business, with "Crazy World," "Brave New World," and "C'mon People (We're Making It Now)" providing highlights, but too many songs galumph along for upwards of six minutes without ever really locating a properly affecting arrangement to back up his voice. It's impressive that Ashcroft was able to regroup and put a record as ambitious as Alone with Everybody together for his first solo shot, but it nevertheless works better as a promise of greater things to come than an end in and of itself. Grade: B



Murray Attaway


In Thrall

Ginny's Comments: Murray has poured the contents of his troubled soul into this lengthy collection of revealing ballads. Songs such as "Allegory" and "Angels in the Trees" offer insightful, dare I say profound lyrics, that he obviously mulled over in the murkiest depths of his brain for. However, Murray has but one continuous tone throughout the album, and even though it's not a bad tone per se, it's difficult to distinguish where one song stops and the next starts. Grade: B-

Willie's comments: Occasionally, folk-power-popster Attaway stumbles across a serviceable hook- especially on the wonderful "Allegory"- but more often than not, he merely comes across as warmed-over Matthew Sweet. Bleh. Grade: C




At the Drive-In


Relationship of Command

Willie's comments: The main reason I've never really gotten into hardcore music- or its offshoot genres of rap/metal and noisier emocore- is that all the aggression and vocal bellowing that comes with the territory makes it hard to differentiate between the righteous anger and well-structured songs of someone like Minor Threat and the tuneless posturing of someone like Rage Against the Machine. Most of the time, the singers' put-upon cynicism and shouting just makes me want to reach for an unpretentious pop confection like, oh, "Shake Me" by Mint Royale that isn't going to try to take on the world with a manufactured attitude as opposed to an actual agenda. I had these thoughts several times while listening to this album by emo darlings At the Drive-In, but ultimately, the album won me over.

The band trafficks in a form of slow hardcore that occasionally tries extra hard to be sinister and sometimes just comes across as silly (the half-spoken "Invalid Litter Dept." is basically a long string of words with ominous connotations that sounds like a Dead Milkmen parody of emo music). It also takes a little while to get acclimated to the shouted vocals of Cedric, whose voice resembles Adam Sandler doing an impression of Geddy Lee. However, what makes At the Drive-In stand out from the pack is the fact that they make terrific songs, letting their offensive attack yield on occasion to delicate songs like "Non-Zero Possibility" or the gratifyingly weird "Enfilade." Even when they stick to a more tried-and-true hardcore formula, they never seem like they're stooping to bombastic emulations of Fugazi so much as using generic conventions in the service of their own ideas. Though it might be difficult to take their lyrics seriously, At the Drive-In's musical chops make it clear that they're not to be laughed at. Grade: B+


thatcoolbrotha@aol.com writes: I can't believe you didn't mention that Wishing Well song. I heard it on the radio one day and it was freakin' awesome. It's like melodical-hardcore music(if such a thing is possible). Probably the best song on the album.I sort of disagree with your description of Rage Against the Machine. I'm a really hardcore pop sort of light weight music fan. And I used to plop them in with the rest of the rap-crock crap that's on the radio so much. But Tom Morello, the guitarist of the band, is amazing. He creates these unusual guitar sounds that propel the songs past mediocrity, and he's the first really powerful riff maker of our generation. He's like Jimmy Page or Keith Richards in the rif territory. The only problem with the band is that they are making the same rocking socio-political album over and over again. Luckily they've broken from their frontman and joined with that lead guy from Soundgarden they might just luck out and get really good. So pick up one of their albums any one, they're all basically the same.

xhamishgunnx@hotmail.com writes: i just want to clear up one point. the abomination that is the genre of rap-metal is not an offshot of hardcore, if anything it's an offshoot of bands like faith no more and red hot chilli peppers. please please please do not blame such a horrible genre on hardcore, which is altogether innocent of causing it.

anyways, ATDI are a post-hardcore band rather than a hardcore band, meaning they have more in common with bands like fugazi, quicksand and jawbox than with the hardcore bands that preceded those. i think, however, this album is incredibly over-rated and i'd rather listen to the afformentioned bands. i give it a B-.



Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery soundtrack

Willie's comments: The soundtrack to the only watchable Austin Powers film is soaking with lounge-rock kitsch. And sometimes the irony of it all does wander into the realm of grating, as with the Mike Flowers Pops' cover of "Call Me," or the Wondermints' "Austin Powers." Mostly, however, the album stays true to the lighthearted spirit of the film, since Mike Myers does have a wholly unironic love of '60s culture. There's an essential song by Strawberry Alarm Clock ("Incense and Peppermints"), Quincy Jones's wonderful "Soul Bossa Nova" (the flute-laden ditty that plays during the film's opening titles), a neat reworking of "What the World Needs Now" by Burt Bacharach and the Posies, and lots of other good loungey folderol. All that's missing is the Pizzicato Five. Grade: B+


The Autumn Defense



Willie's comments: With unashamedly sappy harmonies, syrupy pop arrangements, and a gooey '70s-singer-songwriter attitude, there's every reason to assume that the second album from the Autumn Defense (the collaborative project of Pat Sansone and Wilco bassist John Stirratt) would sound like a big, retro plate of mush. The fact that it not only works, but attains a consistent level of heart-stopping grandeur throughout, is a testament to just how fully the two partners have embraced and explored their inner wusses- not to mention their old Nilsson, Chicago, and Zombies records. Gentle acoustic riffs are the basis for most of these musical milkshakes, but they're delivered in so many layers of smiling, sleepy keyboards, strings, and/or horns that it's hard not to want to just plop down in a beanbag chair and not move until the album's over. However, the presentation, snuggly as it is, doesn't disguise the fact that these are some truly beautiful pop songs first and foremost: check out the Paul McCartney-esque effervescence of the piano-based single "Written in the Snow" or the stirring, swooning refrain of "The Answer." The overly simplistic "Some Kind of Fool" rubs me the wrong way, but I don't expect it to stick in anyone else's craw, and at any rate, it's easily washed away by the album-closing one-two massage of "Iowa City Adieu" and "Circles," both of which are lulling campfire melodies. There's no question that sensitive indie kids and peace-loving ex-hippies will get more out of this than anyone- the delicacy of Circles makes Belle & Sebastian sound like Motorhead- but come on: make sure no one else is around, light a scented candle, put on your warmest pajamas and just go with it, you big softy. Grade: A




The Avalanches


Since I Left You

Willie's comments: A group of six turntable artists from Australia, the Avalanches knit a charming, occasionally outstanding potholder of samples from any number of musical styles: big beat, Minnie Riperton-esque exotica, film scores, lounge jazz, hip-hop, disco, and entirely random noises (they seem inordinately fond of the sound of a horse whinnying, which appears in at least three or four songs). Their debut album, Since I Left You, plays more like a seamless house music mix than a wholly original creation, and that's to the band's credit- although the record only sporadically captures the unhinged whimsy of a mix like Fatboy Slim's On the Floor at the Boutique, the Avalanches are eclectic enough to keep their beats coming from a number of different places at once. The single "Frontier Psychiatrist" is by far the best of the songs here, combining clips from what sounds like a dozen bizarre films and novelty records: an overdramatic choir, dialogue from one of the movies that sprung from the psychoanalysis craze of the early '40s, and a singing parrot merge in a way that's simultaneously hilarious and as brilliant as anything DJ Shadow has ever done. I do like "Tonight," as well, which subtly messes around with a smoky old Blue Note Records album without tarnishing its lonely qualities. The rest of Since I Left You, though, doesn't do nearly as much to distinguish itself beyond "nice, upbeat dance music." If I were the sort of person who hosted parties, I'd probably get a lot of mileage out of this album, but if, like me, most of your human contact comes via coworkers and the occasional drive-thru window, you can put it on your "look for it cheap" list and be all set. You do have a "look for it cheap" list, don't you? Get organized, people! You should be writing this stuff down! Grade: B


Tom McKeown writes: Hi Will, how goes it? It's that time again, I'm afraid, where I send you a long, involved comment on a review you no doubt wrote years ago. I considered writing a one line "man, how cud u not like this album? u suck" sort of comment just as a joke, but I decided, thankfully, to just stick with the usual. Here it is.

Re this album, I have to say that I'm inordinately fond of it - yes, it certainly tends to get put on at parties (there have been a grand total of, oh, three of those in the past year and a bit) but I also like to listen to it in the traditional, just-me-in-my-room style, in which case it can serve two functions - feel good, dance-around-'cos-no-one's-watching music, or dense aural collage that you can just sit and listen to, trying to pick out all the hundreds of overlapping samples. I'd say that, pretentious as this now doubt sounds, the various samples used here are intended to create a sort of sound picture of an alternate world - the B-movie samples, the French pop, the wave noises, the washes of static, it all seems to build an image in my mind of an alternate 1950s, one where all this kitschey stuff has somehow fused with modern dance music. I'll admit there are only a few tracks that work as stand alone songs - Frontier Psychiatrist being the best of them - but I don't think that's such a problem, as - pretensions arriving again - the album seems to almost have several 'movemements', with groups of tracks merging into each other, which are all based around a few similar themes.

Anyway, there it was. As parting advice to the citizens of America, I feel that I should pass on something that my housemate Rich used to tell people with alarming frequency, usually when drunk: "Stay safe, kids. Go to college, and don't carry a piece".


Azure Ray


Burn and Shiver

Willie's comments: Apparently former members of Bright Eyes (though can anyone really be said to be a member of Bright Eyes except Conor Oberst?), sweet-voiced multi-instrumentalists Maria Taylor and Orenda Fink struck out on their own and formed Azure Ray, whose intimate, contemplative soundscapes occupy the same special, cozy corner of the music world as Barbara Manning and Hem. The similarities aren't so much stylistic as emotional: like those acts, Azure Ray's songs are so lovingly arranged (with the integral help of Crooked Fingers' Eric Bachmann), kind-hearted, and brazenly vulnerable that they seem to exist in a bubble of pure love that's so fragile the very thought of its being punctured could make you cry. On Burn and Shiver, their second full-length album, the duo fashions warm musical shelters from simple, slow, quiet patterns of sound- pensive acoustic fingering, delicate piano sequences- that are subtly supported by similarly understated keyboards, horns, strings, and other helper instruments. All this, however, is in the service of the duo's vocals, which share a murmured beauty so specific that it's hard to tell who sang which songs. Although Burn and Shiver never breaks its trance-inducing mood (somehow straddling benevolent disappointment and hushed contentment), the album also never gets inappropriately samey or monotonous. The triumphant "How You Remember" is practically anthemic by Azure Ray's low-key standards, "Favorite Cities" actually captures the sounds of the sun rising through drones and loops, and "The New Year" is a bubbling, clicking music box that practically verges on trip-hop. The music wraps its way around you like a hug, and Fink and Taylor's lyrics go even further, gently celebrating love and life, and finding silver linings everywhere ("Your Weak Hands" starts as a rebuke of a wishy-washy lover but reveals itself as a tale of discovered independence) until you feel like maybe things really aren't so bad after all. I should clarify, though, that this album isn't some rah-rah, hooray-for-everything smilefest; it's more like the feeling of a close friend wiping away your tears in a gesture so genuinely thoughtful that it just makes you cry more, but this time out of gratitude. A gem. Grade: A