The Albemarle Sound
Willie's comments: If you're the sort of person who can't get enough of indie rock's parade of bands who take pride in their unabashed, unironic love of '60s pop (Sloan, Apples in Stereo, etc.), you'll love the Ladybug Transistor. Their second album contains plenty of winsome, psychedelic pop nuggets that are as catchy as the day is long: "Oriental Boulevard," "Like a Summer Rain," "Vale of Cashmere." Many of the songs are augmented with gorgeous flute and trumpet work, but it never becomes irritating to the point of, say, the Austin Powers theme song. The singer's voice isn't as distinctive as that of (head Apple in Stereo) Robert Schneider, and there are perhaps three too many instrumentals in this bunch (though a great spaghetti western theme, "Cienfuegos," does emerge halfway through The Albemarle Sound), but the songs are so hooky that I can wholeheartedly recommend this album nonetheless. Grade: B+
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Willie's comments: With an array of humming vintage synths cruising along to dancey breakbeats and chintzy drum machines, and two emotionless vocalists (Bulgarian-accented Mira Aroyo and sexily detached Helen Marnie) conducting the proceedings, Ladytron is a fantasy come true for anyone who's ever found robots sexy. Their debut album really contains nothing but the aforementioned ingredients, composed of infectiously streamlined dancepop gems that constantly sound lost between 1980 and the future. Like Adult. and Add (N) to X, Ladytron's aesthetic owes a tremendous debt to Kraftwerk and the clunkiest of the early new wavers, but they know when to sit back and coat their songs in genuine, Buggles-style sweetness rather than letting the rusty seams rule all their songs. The songs Marnie sings are the most instantly addictive in that regard: besides featuring lovable mechanical melodies, tunes like "Discotrax," "Ladybird," and the magnificent "Playgirl" are chronicles of sad little people who can't figure out to relate to one another, to whom all sex is cold and robotic, and who are so confused about the notion of human connection that they simply go through the motions day in and day out. They're really poignant little stories, all shrink-wrapped for your dancing enjoyment. For Aroyo's part, she doesn't really sing so much as chant, but it's put to good use on the amusing department store directory "Paco!" ("Ground floor: ladies' clothes, sportswear, stationery/First floor: kitchenware, furnishings, confectionery") and the heartbreaking "He Took Her to a Movie." I could do without the draggier of the several instrumentals ("Mu-Tron" and "CSKA Sofia"), but 604 is an otherwise unblemished showroom of shiny, retro-futuristic pop that does exactly as it's programmed to do: scare and sadden you with its cold comforts. Grade: A-
Light & Magic
Willie's comments: "They only want you when you're 17/When you're 21, you're no fun," sings Marnie toward the beginning of this sophomore album, and if that chilling indictment of oversexualized youth seems like a more aggressively sinister Ladytron than 604 presented, you've hit it right on the nose. Unfortunately, the pointed heaviness of both the arrangements and the vocals on this release breaks the deceptively airy spell they'd cast on their previous record. Of course, no band wants to make the same record twice except for the Strokes, so I can't blame them for trying to mix things up a bit, but Light & Magic's dead, thumpy percussion and tense, disagreeable melodies ("Fire," "Nuhorizons," et al) can't really be seen as a progression in their sound. The title track, "Seventeen," and "Evil," on the other hand, are steps in an interesting direction, with fuller-sounding vocals and keyboard tapestries, while "Turn It On" successfully adds a vocoder to Ladytron's palette, but there's not much else of note. (Though you can tell they've purchased some cool new synths.) It's much easier to pay attention to them when they're apathetic toward your presence. Grade: B-
Willie's comments: Not a proper album, but rather a dream come true for every band whose sound is proudly assembled from bits of rock history: Softcore Jukebox is a thoroughly thrilling compilation of Ladytron's favorite songs, some of which audibly influenced their own style, and some of which are just great in their own right. A sticker on the album's shrink wrap touts it as a "new-wave dance party," and that's what you get, albeit a more eclectic one than the description implies. Ladytron devotes as much time to uncharacteristically dancey songs by bands like My Bloody Valentine ("Soon"), Wire ("The 15th"), and The Fall ("Hit the North, Part 1") as to acts that are unmistakable in their claim on electronica/dance/funk territory, like the Fat Truckers (the drone-rock snack "Teenage Daughter") and the reliably addictive !!! ("Feel Good Hit of the Fall"). Although Ladytron themselves appear only twice, their credit as the artist of this disc is deserved, as the set flows perfectly, sustaining their studio work's rhythmic angularity while unearthing gems like the gleefully self-destructive "What's a Girl to Do?" by Cristina, which is like Men Without Hats gone Goth, and "Crazy Girls" by Codec and Flexor, which sounds like a sample-heavy version of Rinocerose. They really didn't need to waste six minutes of disc space with the New Fast Automatic Daffodils' blahfest "Big," but any mix that can logically connect the dots from the silly hip-hop of Fannypack's "Hey Mami" to the truly unsettling psychedelic folk of Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra's essential "Some Velvet Morning" deserves the Nobel Prize in Mix Assembly. Grade: A
Willie's comments: The first song ("High Rise") is a drone-rock soldering iron whose one-note bassline and doped-up E-Bow guitar suggest Yo La Tengo at their very angriest. The second song ("Destroy Everything You Touch") is the nastiest bit of mental sabotage ever to crib from New Order- over an urgent drum machine and sequencers galore, Marnie mischievously/pityingly encourages pre-emptive interpersonal isolation because "anything that may desert you... cannot hurt you." The third song ("International Dateline"), however, is just Ladytron's trademark minor-key philosynthphizing, and is the one that cements Witching Hour's beguiling devil-on-your-shoulder defeatism. Even if its relatively slick production seems out of step with the remainder of the album, which emphasizes impatiently pounded guitars over electronic doodads, it's an early centerpiece on the cynically hypnotic release that Light & Magic aspired to. Thereafter, things start repeating themselves, but the balance of "life hurts me so I'll hurt back" misanthropy and complementary understanding is masterful, as are the minimal melodies amid the purposefully dated din. I loathe "CMYK" (an instrumental rip-off of the Pet Shop Boys' "West End Girls") to a degree that I sort of wish Witching Hour would be recalled to destroy evidence of its existence... but that might be a bit extreme when it's the sole misstep on the record. Especially since the aggressive likes of "Sugar" and "Destroy Everything You Touch" come closer than ever to approximating what would've happened if Andy Warhol could've surrounded himself with actual androids in The Factory instead of just The Velvet Underground. Grade: A-
THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: KINGS OF CONVENIENCE
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Between Darkness and Wonder
Willie's comments: I was in a record store in Louisville last year, talking with one of the clerks, when he asked me if I enjoyed Radiohead. I affirmed that I do, and he asked if I like Massive Attack. Yes, I like Massive Attack! What about Lamb? I told him that I was unfamiliar with Lamb. He seemed genuinely offended, and he demanded that I immediately go to a different record store nearby and pick up one of their albums (his store was currently sold out), because it would blow my mind. He went on to say, "You know, it makes me really angry sometimes to see all these albums coming in and out of the store, and some of the shit that people buy, because there are really only, like, three albums that matter." I didn't bother asking him why he would want to work in a record store if that was indeed the case, since that struck me as being equivalent to a raging misogynist going into the gynecology field... though I suppose that's really more of a question for W. David Hager... so instead, I just filed Lamb away in the back of my head as someone to check out. However, if Between Darkness and Wonder is indicative of their catalog (which it may well not be, as I haven't heard their previous three albums), they're really not a band that I could understand getting especially excited about, because they seem like just another Portishead-by-numbers trip-hop band- like Antimatter, 8mm, et al. Vocalist Louise Rhodes does a dead-on imitation of Beth Gibbons's jazz-inflected, swooning crooning, and Andrew Barlow's lush production manages, on tracks like "Angelica," to nail the cinematic sweep that's Portishead's trademark. The problem is that, more often than not, Between Darkness and Wonder just comes across as toothless. "Sugar 5" has a cool, loping rhythm that suggests the influence of Gomez, and the strong "Wonder" and the wonderful "Stronger" are tight and hooky, but when the percussion dribbles away (as on the shapeless, orchestral "Learn," which frequently seems primed to leap into a wrenching, Denali-style torrent of sadness, but keeps chickening out), it's really hard to care about the resultingly thin arrangements. There's plenty of dreamy atmosphere here, if that's your thing, but the melodies aren't distinctive enough to work as Lush- or Slowdive-style dreampop; instead, songs like "Darkness" are basically fuzzy-headed musical versions of the Teletubbies talking gibberish to themselves. I guess if you're so into trip-hop that you'll listen to anything that's got slow, steady, electronic rhythms and semi-pretty female vocals, then this might be worth buying cheap, but... no, you really don't need it. Grade: C+
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How I Quit Smoking
Willie's comments: The 14-person conglomorate known as Lambchop are often pigeonholed as an "alt-country" band, but the only thing they have in common with more blatantly countrified bands like Wilco and Velvet Crush is an affinity for slide guitars and an obvious love of Gram Parsons. Otherwise, Lambchop's music is pretty clearly just introspective indie rock, with splashy dashes of soul thrown in. This, their second album, is probably their most accessible and consistent. Frontman Kurt Wagner grounds the songs with slow, pensive picking on his ancient electric guitar, as his bandmates carefully look for spaces in the music in which to insert their parts. It's all utterly beautiful, and the band has a style all their own, even as they vary the album's mood from song to song. "The Scary Caroler" is creepy enough to make the band sound like a rural Tindersticks, while "The Man Who Loved Beer" is amazing orchestral pop. Wagner's lyrics- random observations like "I'm thinking I should be talking; saying something instead of nodding and eating most of the chips"- are clever and often funny, though the smug braininess of "Garf" is unbecoming of the band's unpretentious sensibilities (it's a song about pestering Garth Brooks for money, and it ends, randomly, with the lick from the Status Quo's "Pictures of Matchstick Men"). It's the sole misstep, however, on a mesmerizingly weird and terrific album. Grade: A
Willie's comments: This wittily titled release is less an album than an EP, really- it contains 8 songs, three of which are covers of songs written by East River Pipe's F.M. Cornog. Of the remaining five, one (the title track) is nothing more than an atmospheric slice of distant feedback. Given all this, it's tempting to write Thriller off as irredeemably slight, but the band's homespun charm and Wagner's gracious sincerity (even when singing songs with titles like "Your Fucking Sunny Day")- not to mention the beauty and twisted catchiness of the music- make this required listening. Grade: A
What Another Man Spills
Willie's comments: What Another Man Spills is mostly made up of ballads by Kurt Wagner, and if you're in a mellow mood, it's a great listen. The band's music plays like Yo La Tengo's quieter side, with the bizarre arranging capabilities of Camper Van Beethoven, and songs like "Interrupted," "The Saturday Option," and "N.O." are hypnotically catchy. The album also features several far-reaching covers, all excellently rendered: a cover of Dump's "It's Not Alright" ditches the original's drone-rock moping in favor of energetic, poppy charm, while a relatively straight version of Curtis Mayfield's "Give Me Your Love (Love Song)" is made classic and hilarious by Wagner's weirdo attempts at a falsetto. Grade: A-
Willie's comments: More slow, soulful ballads muttered by Wagner; more evocative lyrics about minutiae ("Try to spit onto the sidewalk/ Instead you wipe it off your chest"); another great album. Even by the spare standards of What Another Man Spills, Nixon is a very spacious album. In songs like "The Book I Haven't Read" and "The Old Gold Shoe," you can pick out each individual note of each individual instrument- no mean feat when you have a band this large. "Grumpus" is perhaps Lambchop's catchiest number ever, while "Nashville Parent" is just lovely. Nixon trips up at the end, with the creepy (though largely tuneless) "The Petrified Forest" being followed by an ineffectively thumpy version of the standard "The Butcher Boy." However, the musicianship is top-notch, and Wagner's endearing voice is endlessly fascinating. Grade: B+
Tools in the Dryer
Willie's comments: This is a 16-track compilation of various tunes that one imagines have been lying around on the floor of Kurt Wagner's garage for awhile, patiently awaiting release on a proper album. (They've almost all seen previous release as 7" singles, B-sides, or on assorted homemade tapes.) As you might expect, most of the songs are just more beautiful Lambchop crafts: "Whitey," "The Petrified Florist," and covers of songs by Vic Chesnutt and Teddy Pendergrass are essential for even casual fans. Some of the oddities are, well, a bit too odd to be representative of the band's M.O., so this isn't a good place for the newcomer to start. (While early, no-fi tracks like "Flowers of Memory" and "Style Monkeys" are cute, did we need a self-indulgent Mark Robinson remix of "The Militant"?) However, once Lambchop wins you over and you draw them into your confidence, Tools in the Dryer is as satisfying as going through old yearbooks with your best friend, laughing at how stupid you used to look. Grade: B+
Is a Woman
Willie's comments: Let me kick off this review with some movie trivia, to make myself feel like I'm actually putting my film degree to use: when the Coen brothers released a fifteenth anniversary director's cut of Blood Simple, they actually made the film slightly shorter than its original incarnation, with Ethan Coen explaining, "What was once a glacial pace is now merely slow." That quotation popped into my mind while listening to Lambchop's Is a Woman, because this disc takes the band's style in exactly the opposite direction. Whereas their albums usually mosey peacefully along, even the empty spaces radiating casual Southern charm, this album is downright lethargic. The majority of the songs shove most of the players way into the background, instead focusing on Tony Crow playing piano as slowly as he possibly can (as with albums by Low or Fuck, there are times when you can literally count seconds between notes), and other instruments occasionally whispering in the dead air. In isolated spots, it works- the murky "Caterpillar" is a particular treat- but it grows indescribably tiresome over the course of an hour, with overlong and largely interchangeable murmurings (e.g., "Bugs," the eight-freaking-minute "My Blue Wave") plodding along aimlessly, and Wagner's miniscule vocal range not helping matters. The result is perilously close to tunelessness half the time. The only flickers of energy come in the form of "D. Scott Parsley," which is a David Byrne-style twee-funk-pop song, and the reggae outro of the title track, and neither style is a good fit for the band. It's a strange and frustrating misstep in their discography: instead of evoking the feeling of sitting on the porch, drinking a beer and watching fireflies as Wagner usually does, this time he mostly evokes tsetse flies. Grade: C
THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: KINKS TRIBUTE ALBUM
THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: DUMP; ZERO 7; JOSH ROUSE
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Willie's comments: Although Los Lobos members David Hildago and Louie Perez are the only credited songwriters on this side project, it's easy to hear what their fellow bandmembers Tchad Blake and Mitchell Froom (ordinarily a production team, who've worked on Lobos discs as well as masterpieces by Crowded House, Soul Coughing, and others) bring to the party. The latter duo is always interested in bringing the filthy corners of the recording studio out into the harsh light of day. Sometimes that means incorporating stumbling ethnic beats, samples cribbed from deteriorating tapes, or jarringly exotic instruments, but it almost always means there's a focus on the rhythm section. With fat (and phat, I suppose) basslines and determinedly thumpy drums, spiced up by other, polyrhythmic elements, the Latin Playboys project is no exception to that rule, and Hildago and Perez make for great collaborators here, composing their consistently solid, Latin-speckled songs and then having a ball deconstructing them. At first, this album might just seem badly recorded, but that's not it at all: the foursome simply likes coating their jazz-blues-funk-rock-whatever concoctions in layers of grime, for a rawer vibe. Those audible seams are as important to the Playboys as their addictively simple patterns of sound, and it results not only in moments of ass-kicking bilge-rock like "Chinese Surprise" (think Tom Waits's Bone Machine reimagined by David Byrne), but also wondrous slices of creepy bliss that sound like nothing you've ever heard. "Rudy's Party" boasts a fabulous violin line that suggests an Irish drinking song covered by a band that has only ever heard traditional Chinese music (and then tacks on a gigantic 808 bass drum!), "Mira!" features a frantic voice repeating some random Spanish phrase over and over to tremendous laughter and applause while a parade-or-something rages behind him, and so on. Like Froom's underappreciated solo album Dopamine, this album is focused so intensely on moodiness, timbre, and repetition that it might sound slight to someone expecting any sort of melodic development, but once you come around to the Playboys' unpretentious love of stomping around in slimy musical puddles, this one will be put into your permanent rotation. Grade: A
SEE ALSO: MITCHELL FROOM
THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: SOUL COUGHING, ELVIS COSTELLO, CROWDED HOUSE, RICHARD THOMPSON, RON SEXSMITH; NEIL FINN
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Willie's comments: This is one of the coolest electronica records I've ever heard. (Just to give you some perspective, however, my friend Kris gave this to me because he'd purchased it and it annoyed the living hell out of him. So perhaps my opinion doesn't constitute a consensus here.) This guy lb.- irritatingly pronounced "pound," like the unit of measure- took ten classic rock songs, shredded them, and then reassembled the little confetti pieces as adorable, sputtery robot-rock. He puts his voice through various detuners, delays, vocoders, and reverb effects until it sounds like a friendly android, and sings over rhythm tracks that consist of dinky, sexy beats and subtle, belly-crawling bass noises, all of which are then surrounded by swarms of awesome clicks, buzzes, and pops that don't disorient the songs so much as drape them in a comforting, Pole-esque atmosphere. So lb. never sounds like he's just out to be a smartass; when he reinterprets songs like Donovan's "Sunshine Superman" or James Brown's "Superbad," the effect sounds like the original songs were just beamed all around the galaxy, in a pinball game of satellite checkpoints, and then back to Earth, retaining all the interesting transmission errors that the songs picked up along the way. Granted, a cover of Prince's "The Future" doesn't have much hope of being stamped with the label "melodic," but warm, futuristic versions of Bowie's "Ashes to Ashes," the Rolling Stones' "Angie," and ABC's "Be Near Me" add up to tremendous make-out music for our technology-choked times. Grade: A
SEE ALSO: SENOR COCONUT
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I Love My Computer
Willie's comments: Emma Davidson, Lektrogirl herself, loves her computer. Specifically, she seems to love the sounds that issue from the PC speaker when she plays really old videogames from the days of 5 1/2" floppy disks, as evidenced by her busy little keyboard melodies. The album title certainly doesn't seem to refer to any sort of mechanical composition or programming assistance; it sounds to me like Davidson recorded track over track of manual, MIDI-free Casio lines. Even the dinky drum sounds seem, on some songs, to be tapped out by clumsy humanoid fingers, judging from the wobbly tempos. The first five tunes in particular are brisk and simple enough to believably serve as companions to poorly-rendered digital men trying to solve timed puzzles, and they're all sprayed with high-pitched noises to confuse your dogs. The songwriting quality is more uneven thereafter, but you still get plenty of highlights like the timbre-happy "Progressive Euro Track" (which would work as a Lemmings theme) and the sarcophagus-evoking "No Rap No Rock" (which might work with Snake), and throughout, there's a lovable, freewheeling individualism at work. None of the songs sound as studied in their debt to classic videogame soundtracks as Nintendo cover bands like The Advantage and the Minibosses, or even the bleep-rock buffs on the 8bitpeoples label, but Davidson's inspiration doesn't seem drawn from any identifiable rock touchstones either. I Love My Computer sounds closer to the understated robo-catchiness of Mark Mothersbaugh's Muzik for Insomniacs discs, and its very unpracticed silliness strangely makes the album a more personal enterprise than you'd expect. (You can download the album for free over at Lektrogirl's blog.) Grade: B+
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It's a Shame About Ray
Willie's comments: Evan Dando doesnt do anything innovative at this point in the Lemonheads' career. He just writes simple, non-challenging, folk-based tunes that stick to your brain like rock n roll Band-Aids. He mutters his way through boingy songs like Rudderless and Bit Part in a charmingly disaffected voice, while bassist Juliana Hatfield provides a gorgeous vocal counterpoint on the low-key Buddy. And its not everybody who could pull off a cover of Simon n Garfunkels Mrs. Robinson! Grade: A-
Come On Feel the Lemonheads
Willie's comments: Juliana Hatfield has left the band, and so have the contents of Mr. Dandos bag of songwriting talent. It seems Evan was a bit of a junkie by this point, and it shows both in the druggy, droning haze of the music and the mindlessness of the lyrics (Im not gonna get high/ Im not gonna get stoned/ But Im not gonna not get high/ And Im not gonna not get stoned from Style). I think just about everyone in the world lost interest in the Lemonheads after this one. Grade: C-
Ann Gardiner writes: True Juliana did play bass on the records. She sang. But she never wrote them (or did she?) not to my knowledge. Anyway, yes Evan was lost after 'ray'. thank god he got it together, for now. cbc was a record i was prepared to not like but to my surprise, it was another winner. he, Evan, just can't do wrong. looking forward to the next record ev, and i know by now (7 years) that i'll love it.
Andy Neal writes: I personally don't agree that Come on feel...The Lemonheads was nearly as bad as all that. I certainly don't think Dando had run out of talent or songwriting ability. He still had that fun, alternative, 'i'm just gonna do what a feel like doing' attitude which made the Lemonheads who they are loved to be.
There are plenty of examples of pure, good Lemonheads music on this album. The opener 'Great Big No' is well put together dreamy folky pop.
'Down About It' is easily as good if not better a song than any of the more upbeat songs on 'Shame About Ray'. It's bouncy,melodic and has a great choppy guitar and rythm on the '..she's gonna give me all the time I need..' bits.
And as for 'Style', that song is just a bit of sloppy grungey fun, with lyrics about the mindset of people smoking pot etc which me and a lot of my mates used to listen to at high volume back in the day! There's even a tounge-in-cheek ultra slow blues version of this song on the album.
Even going way back to the begining of their career in the 80's The Lemonheads have just done what they feel like doing and had some fun. The lyrics are just about life, love and general stuff.
'Come On Feel...' is a good example of The Lemonheads doing what they do best, the same as 'Shame about Ray' is, and the same as all their other albums are.
THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: SCHOOLHOUSE ROCK ROCKS!
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Into the Sun
Willie's comments: In concert, John Lennons more talented offspring (That is to say, more talented than Julian. Not John.) churns out tunes so energetic and hooky they practically grab you and bounce you up and down like a basketball. Hearing the same songs through headphones isnt quite as cathartic an experience. While songs like "Bathtub," "Home," and "Spaceship" are all quite catchy on their own (something about the fuzzy guitars interacting with Seans wispy voice is indescribably thrilling), on Into the Sun, they all basically sound like the same song. The Wannadies-esque lounge-pop of songs like "Breeze" is cute, and the weirdo free jazz of "Photosynthesis" is great, but theres ultimately not much to this album. Maybe significance will come with age. Grade: B-
THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: DELTRON 3030
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Live on Letterman (songs performed on the Late Show):
Willie's comments: Given the fact that David Letterman is responsible for the success of Hootie & the Blowfish, it should come as no surprise that this album of live performances from the Late Show is as safe and toothless as the music of Darius Rucker and friends. R.E.M.s reasonably good version of Crush with Eyeliner is as dangerous as this compilation gets, but it seems out of place (as does Lou Reeds ecstatic Sweet Jane) among numbing numbers by Rod Stewart, Paula Cole, Jewel, Aretha Franklin, et al. Only people whose lifelong dream is to hear Sinead OConnor, Van Morrison, and the Chieftains performing Have I Told You Lately? need apply. Grade: D+
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Up the Bracket
Willie's comments: According to my colleague Adrian Denning, the Libertines are currently "the only band that matters" in the UK, and although I can't really understand how yet another "garage rock" band could inspire the sort of slavish devotion that's required to take a nation by storm, these Brits' songwriting is both strong and mildly diverse enough to make their debut album a winner, even if it's nothing special in the grand scheme of things. Produced by Mick Jones (more for the sake of credibility than of the presence of any particular production skills), Up the Bracket manages to meld the best attributes of the band's fellow trendhoppers- the Strokes' dispassionate tunefulness, the Hives' reckless bombast, the Exploding Hearts' studied punk whimsy- into an album whose sincere craftsmanship makes you willing to suspend disbelief in the Libertines' usefulness. Granted, its first half yields more potential than quality- the nifty guitar interplay and shifting time signatures of "Boys in the Band" make it the only true success of the first six songs, the rest of which make the band sound like a slightly smarter Jet. Once the title track locks into gear, however, these guys punch out a quick and ceaseless succession of great, catchy melodies both sloppy ("The Boy Looked at Johnny," which explodes into a hilarious, wordless pub-rock chorus that rivals Split Enz for glorious cheek) and taut (the closing one-two punch of "I Get Along" and "What a Waster," both of which show more attention to musical detail than a million White Stripeses, and are truly essential listens), all of which are doubly impressive for wringing new life from the otherwise quickly-tiring genre of basic, raucous guitar rock. They're no New Bomb Turks, but the Libertines not only earn their buzz, but could easily rise to the top of their class if they keep this up. Grade: B+
THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: THE CLASH
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A Life Less Ordinary soundtrack
Willie's comments: Im tempted to recommend this soundtrack to the winsome Ewan McGregor/Cameron Diaz romantic comedy just on the strength of Becks "Deadweight" alone, but that would be to overlook the vast reserves of crap contained here. Im glad the producers included the original version of Bobby Darins "Under the Sea" instead of the tone-deaf version that Diaz sang in the movie, but I could certainly do without Elvis Presleys "Always on My Mind," and other uninspired tracks by Faithless, Prodigy, and Underworld. And while the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Sneaker Pimps contribute worthy tracks, R.E.M.s dour version of "Leave" lacks the intensity of the original. Actually, its not even R.E.M., even though its listed as R.E.M.- the only member of the band that actually appears on the track is Michael Stipe. All the instruments are played by someone named Johnny Dollar. So thats unforgivable. Grade: C-
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Willie's comments: Lincoln is a goofy, unpretentious little pop band that wears its Van Morrison influence on its sleeve in much the same way Counting Crows and Third Eye Blind do. However, whereas those bands are content to wallow in alt-folk genericism and self-pitying lyrics, Lincoln enlivens its musical constructions with nifty keyboards, They Might Be Giants harmonies, and witty lyrics that take a cynical but hopeful view of Gen-X life. I love you and I miss you and I wish that you were dead, sings frontman Christopher Temple at one point, and his voice has a plainspoken innocence that is a boon to more serious numbers like Straight, which details the struggle of trying to kick a drug habit. The album does get a little homogenous at times, but Id take the bouncy, happy music of Lincoln over crap like Semi-Charmed Life anyday. Grade: A-
THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS; JOHN LINNELL; FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE
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State Songs EP
Willie's comments: This five-song entry to John Flansburghs Hello CD of the Month club contains five songs about states, part of Linnells 50-song project. Two of them are essential: "South Carolina" is a story of a bike accident as hooky, bizarre, and funny as any of Linnells TMBG work, and "Maine" is a wonderful denouncement of the big state to the east. "Oregon," "Pennsylvania," and "Las Vegas," however, are thrown-together and bad catchy (to illustrate what I mean by bad catchy, think "Its a Small World." Get it?). Heres hoping Linnells full-length state songs LP is more consistent. Grade: B-
Hall of Mayors EP
Willie's comments: This purports to be an EP of songs about New York City mayors of the past, but its mostly instrumentals. Instrumentals for which Linnell doesnt even bother to tune his instruments, thus making them unbearable. "Preamble: Fernando Wood" reproduces a speech made by Wood, who was apparently a huge crackpot ("I, Fernando Wood, hereby declare our city a free and independent state to be named Tri-insula"), and weirds it up even further with siren noises and odd vocal effects, but nothing else here even approaches that level of creativity. Grade: D+
Willie's comments: This full-length album of songs about states includes every song from the State Songs EP in identical form (except for "Nevada," which is improved upon), so you completists can stop searching for that one. There are some reasonably catchy numbers here ("Idaho" and "Utah" are fun), but nothing to rival "South Carolina." In typical Linnell fashion, two songs were specially written and performed on a merry-go-round machine, which is interesting but not prone to encourage repeated listens. The album is free of the experimental bollocks that ruined the Hall of Mayors EP, but Linnell's indulgences and a lack of truly great songs still make this feel like little more than a(nother) placeholder between proper TMBG albums. Grade: B-
Rich Bunnell writes: The State Songs EP is perfectly fine and the new full album is even better. I do agree that Linnell needs Flansbrugh to back him up, since Flans always provided the musical hard edge which kept Linnell from popping like a sugar-coated bubble, but Linnell can swim on his own, especially proven by "South Carolina," possibly one of the top ten songs he ever did.
The House Of Mayors EP, however, is much worse. It just sounds to me like boring accordian muzak, which it is. The Fernando Wood opening is cool, but it's not a song, and the only listenable musical track on the album is the title track, a bit dinky but tuneful and well-written. The whole EP just sounds like Linnell just wasn't trying, for once. How could the same person who wrote "Ana Ng" write any of this?
SEE ALSO: THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS
THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: FRANK BLACK; LINCOLN
WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT JOHN LINNELL
Willie's comments: Lithops is the experimental digital noise project of Jan St. Werner, who is better known as half of the miraculously brilliant electro-laughing-gas duo Mouse on Mars. Whereas MOM frequently takes the sounds of misbehaving computers (feedback, static, data hiccups) and programs them into detailed rhythmic stipple art in which the individual sounds' potential to annoy is mitigated by St. Werner and Andi Toma's aural choreography and melodic instincts, Lithops leaves these sounds alone, more or less letting them play out by themselves, with much looser structures holding them together and hardly anything in the way of musical themes. The third Lithops album, Scrypt, is alternately fascinating and pointless as a result. Though only a few songs (e.g., "Generator," "Thrash Application") are as punishingly aggressive in their malfunctioning maelstroms as, say, Kid 606 or Venetian Snares, the buzzing and squealing can nonetheless get kind of old- even if, like me, you enjoy listening to "wrong" noises for their own sake. It's pretty much just a big, amorphous pile of sound percussion, and that's that. I'm not saying there aren't a lot of really interesting bits on Scrypt- such as "Arcart," which flails around for awhile before congealing into something approximating an Irish pub tune, or the oxymoronically placid "Self-Stencil"- and the whole deal doesn't even strike me as particularly self-indulgent, since it's clear St. Werner thinks these sounds are really cool. Still, compared with the care that he takes with his Mouse on Mars compositions, it's hard not to feel as though he might be half-assing some of this stuff. At any rate, regardless of whether Scrypt is something that it's easy to be enthusiastic about- which it isn't- it's fine for what it is: a weirdo mood piece constructed from computerized chaos. Whether that's something that's up your alley is up to you, but Mouse on Mars fans shouldn't pick it up expecting more of that band's accessibly goofy style. Grade: B
SEE ALSO: MOUSE ON MARS
SEE ALSO: MICROSTORIA
WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT LITHOPS
Living in Oblivion: The 80s Greatest Hits
Willie's comments: The first volume of EMIs series of 80s music compilations does a remarkable job of integrating that decades synth-pop milestones (Kajagoogoos Too Shy, Thomas Dolbys She Blinded Me With Science) with more obscure numbers that are no less essential for receiving less airplay (The Stranglers Grip, Talk Talks Talk Talk). Many of these songs arent readily available elsewhere, so this is a useful collection to begin with, but when you consider that it includes Haysi Fantayzees sublimely strange and ahead-of-its-time single Shiny Shiny, this should shoot right to the top of your CDs to get list. Grade: A-
Willie's comments: Volume two of this series doesnt fare nearly as well. The song selection is still very esoteric, but rather than filling the disc with forgotten goodies, most of the unfamiliar tracks here are bland, useless dung like the Nails 88 Lines About 44 Women or the self-titled song from Living in a Box (a short-lived band featuring Robert Palmer). And the classic 80s tracks that were chosen for this collection are horrible. Case in point: Katrina and the Waves Walking on Sunshine. While its nifty to own Limahls theme song to The Never-Ending Story, and some people might get a charge out of hearing Sigue Sigue Sputniks Love Missile F1-11 (from Ferris Buellers Day Off) again, a Spanish version of Toni Basils Mickey should douse any potential pleasure. Grade: D-
WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT LIVING IN OBLIVION
Up a Tree
Willie's comments: Stuart Davids spoken-word free jazz excursion A Space Boys Dream was the perfect way to break up the sameness of Stuart Murdochs compositions on Belle and Sebastians The Boy with the Arab Strap. However, an entire album full of his laid-back spoken-word songs is rather trying, no matter how charming the vocalists accent is (and Davids wide-eyed burr is irresistible). Burning Flies, The Ballad of Ray Suzuki, and the nifty spy-themed Columbos Car are all winners, but most of the other songs dont have enough musical ideas to sustain them for as long as they go on. Grade: B-
SEE ALSO: BELLE & SEBASTIAN
THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: GENTLE WAVES
WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT LOOPER
Chokin' on the Jokes
Willie's comments: If there was ever a band whose familial connections should've brought it an instant hipster following, it'd have to be Lotus Crown (well, or Unbelievable Truth, but they actually have a following). They're led by Jimi Shields, former drummer for My Bloody Valentine and brother of that band's revered frontman Kevin Shields. This, their debut album, was also produced by Mercury Rev's Dave Fridmann, in his days before The Soft Bulletin made him an acid-drenched Phil Spector figure for the indie-rock circuit. Serendipitously enough, the band's music sounds basically like a charmed cross between post-Boces Mercury Rev and MBV: peppy arrangements that are half-psychedelic and half-buried in a curious mist of synths and furry guitars, melodies that are as catchy as they are technically rudimentary (if not always on-key), harmlessly zooted lyrics like "We are the keen needle sharp keepers," and production gimmicks galore. It takes a couple tries to understand the off-kilter structures of songs like "Circus, Circus," which uses acoustic guitar strumming mostly for atmosphere and lets a Pink Floyd-esque synth run the show instead, but Shields is creative enough to make it seem as though he has a point even when he's just being weird for weird's sake. True, there's some filler on here (the boring techno exercise "Beginnings"), but I cannot express how much I love "Swallow the Bee," which kicks off with a guitar construction as sublimely unhappy as Metallica's "One" and then builds on it with warbly drones, pitch-changed backing vocals, and an overall vibe of strained resignation. It's a vibe that Shields and his buddies are able to pinpoint with surprising reliability, even as they're giddy with the helium rush of plunking whimsical noises and tones down in the middle of their pop songs.
As of this writing, there are a bunch of copies of this album available for 75 cents each on half.com (plus the ridiculously high shipping fee half.com always tacks on), so why not pick one up and work on building this band the indie fanbase they deserve? If they're still together, that is... I haven't been able to find any information about their current status, and they haven't released anything since this album (1997). I hope they haven't disbanded, because Chokin' on the Jokes sounds like a warm-up to a masterpiece. Grade: A-
email@example.com writes: After the debut, "Chokin' on the Jokes," Lotus faded into top 1000 obscurity. Jimi and Kevin trace thier ancestral lineage to Chicago, and that's where Jimi ended up. The "Alvar Aalto EP" of 1998 faded with no fanfare and 2000 saw the release of a 7 inch vinyl split entitled "Lotus Crown & the Lunar Rhythms" (not diffrerent bands necessarily, just helpin' the locals) fading with even less fanfare, but it's probably still for sale, so buy it and support the poor bugger. The songs are "Clifden Calling" and "The Pebble and the Mountain" and the record label is Food Records. If you are a new band, hire Jimi as your producer... you will be amazed.
THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: MY BLOODY VALENTINE, MERCURY REV
WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT LOTUS CROWN
Willie's comments: Attention promising young bands: If you're looking for songs to cover to pad out your live set or independently released album, look no further than this, the third album from Love. The songs are old (1967) but not very well-known, psychedelic but poppy, and well-constructed while still leaving room to be improved upon in the right hands (the right hands most likely belong to Yo La Tengo or Barbara Manning, but you can give it a shot). Most of Forever Changes plows along in a cheerfully trippy folk-rock vein- imagine Nick Drake fronting Jefferson Airplane- and memorable songs abound. "A House is Not a Motel" is arranged in a fashion that sounds almost contemporary, but would sound great in any decade nevertheless. "The Red Telephone" scores points by suddenly descending into a somewhat unsettling chant, while "The Daily Planet" is as catchy as a Kinks song. The songwriting quality of Forever Changes does a bit of a swan dive toward the end, with "Bummer in the Summer" and "You Set the Scene" never really registering, and the singing voice of frontman Arthur Lee is a little too over the top with its foppish vibrato (it overpowers some of the gentler songs), but this is still a cool classic-rock discovery. Grade: B+
THIS ARTIST APPEARS ON: HIGH FIDELITY SOUNDTRACK
WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT LOVE
Things We Lost in the Fire
Willie's comments: T h i s i s w h a t l i s t e n i n g t o L o w f e e l s l i k e. Every note the band plays is followed by enough empty space to cram in an entire Minutemen song, and depending on your mood, it's either soothing and aesthetically appealing, or as enervating as a dentist's waiting room. The husband/wife team of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker murmur their way through a bunch of indie-rock numbers that sound like slowed-down Yo La Tengo (if you can imagine) and manage to work in a few interesting images like "When they found your body/Giant Xs on your eyes." Since rhythm really isn't going to be one of Low's major draws, they basically live or die by their melodies and arrangements, which work roughly half the time on this, their ninth album. "July" provides plenty of pretty musical scenery to take in while the song ambles along: nice harmonies, shuddery strings, quietly raw guitars, and a prominent bassline from Zak Sally, who is nearly inaudible on much of the rest of the album. "Kind of Girl" is an acoustic number that Elliot Smith would be proud of, too. However, a lot of the songs suffer from a pace that's half a step too slow even by slo-core standards (most notably "Whitetail"), and the vocal lines of songs like "Laser Beam" aren't as memorable or enticing as the band seems to think they are. Things We Lost in the Fire doesn't really traverse any ground from the second it starts until the second it's over- it just sort of slowly spins around- but if you're feeling taxed and you don't have a copy of Windy & Carl's superior Consciousness handy, Low can provide you with some decent mental Rolfing. Grade: B-
LoadesC writes: One of the best groups
of the 90s.They've never really improved on their debut album, but it was
almost perfect. My ratings:
I Could live in Hope A
Songs for a Dead Pilot B+
The Secret Name A
Christmas EP A-
Things we lost in the Fire B+
THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: SOUL COUGHING
WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT LOW
Bricks are Heavy
Willie's comments: For my money, rock doesn't get any harder than L7. I suppose that fans of Pantera or Corrosion of Conformity or other such bands would object to that assertion, but I disqualify those bands. I, for one, say that "rock," by definition, needs to contain elements that are recognizable as notes or melodies- even if those notes and melodies are extremely warped, as in the case of Sonic Youth. And L7 have melodies to spare; what separates them from other punk bands is the superhuman energy that they pound into their music. Bricks are Heavy, their third album, is like someone took every punk rock album ever made and put it into a trash compactor. On "Shitlist," vocalist Donita Sparks shrieks with such raw intensity that your throat will hurt from the effort. "Wargasm," too, is like a musical trip on the punk rock Autobahn, with infectious hooks and righteously angry lyrics whizzing by you so fast you won't have time to absorb it even as it's sandblasting the flesh off your pathetic face.
I apologize for mixing my metaphors here, but L7 puts most punk bands to shame on this album. However, they're savvy enough to slow things down on a few tracks, both to shift the album's dynamics and to make the fast rockers seem that much more unexpected and powerful. "Diet Pill" is a midtempo emo-core treasure, while the fabulous single "Pretend We're Dead" is a fuzzy new wave song. Throughout the album, Sparks channels her influences, whether crooning like Joey Ramone on "Slide" or rolling her Rs like Johnny Rotten on "Scrap," but never knuckling under to derivativeness. Bricks are Heavy is incredibly tuneful, too. To use one last instance of tortured imagery, the album is like hooking a distortion pedal up to your stereo and listening to the Buzzcocks' Singles Going Steady through it. Or something. Trust me- it'll blow your head off. And I didn't even have to tell you that it's an all-girl band! Grade: A
Hungry for Stink
Willie's comments: Judging from the evidence of this 1994 album, by this point in time, Donita Sparks's vocal chords must look like a zebra carcass after the lions are finished feeding. Throughout this album, she screams so loud you can practically hear blood vessels in her eyes bursting, without ever degenerating into tuneless hardcore bellowing. Sparks's angry enthusiasm is a blessing here, because the songwriting on Hungry for Stink is much less consistent than Bricks are Heavy. For every transcendent firecracker like "The Bomb," there's a sluggish, mid-tempo number like "Baggage." For every successful experiment, like the Butthole Surfers tribute "Talk Box," there's a failed one, like the annoying "Shirley," which sounds like a particularly abrasive addition to the Gran Turismo 3 soundtrack. It's enjoyable, catchy, and sporadically cathartic, but after the tour de force of Bricks are Heavy, this one is like the barely noticeable buzz heroin addicts get from smoking a cigarette. Grade: B
WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT L7
Willie's comments: As dream-pop goes, it doesnt get any better than Lush (except, arguably, My Bloody Valentine). The beautifully dark, candy-coated guitars that cloak every song on this album seem to fill all the empty spaces in the songs like cytoplasm, making songs like "Stray" and "Ocean" perfect, searching landscapes. However, given the gift for indelible hooks that guitarists Miki Berenyi and Emma Anderson possess, its a shame that the only really memorable song on Spooky is "For Love." But what a song it is! Catchily mournful, this is a haunting, sympathetic tale about a girl who remakes her entire personality to please her lover, and loses both him and herself in the process. So I can recommend Spooky on the strength of "For Love" alone, but for good, murky pop to navel-gaze to, this album is hard to top. Grade: B+
Willie's comments: Rather than sinking deeper into the crowded dreampop scene, Lush replaced their snowy guitars with more pronounced ones on this album- even adding distortion on numbers like the hilarious anti-playa anthem Ladykillers (Im a five-foot mirror for adoring himself/ Heres seven years bad luck). More pronounced, too, are the hooks- 500 and Olympia rank among the best Britpop in recent years. The albums ultimate highlight, though, is Miki Berenyis Papasan, which is a bittersweet goodbye to an old flame. Grade: A-
Bosco writes: I still listen to my Spooky cd since I purchased it in '93. I saw the "For Love" video on some late night weekend video filler show, that always followed the end of a movie. I fell in love with the idea of two great looking chicks that played guitars. Their songs are really cool too. I played in bands in the 60s and still do, plus record. The Robin Guthrie touch to this was outstanding. I only wish I could've seen them in a gig somewhere.
THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: THE RENTALS
WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT LUSH
Willie's comments: This album has the ability to change lives. I know this because the guy in Lake George, Minnesota from whom I purchased this tape said he spends at least six hours a day listening to it. While I cant match his enthusiasm, I can certainly understand it. Using only a collection of synthesizers (mostly), Lynch creates evocative, bubbly soundscapes that perfectly suit titles like Celestial Soda Pop and Tiny Geometries. The albums highlight is The Oh of Pleasure, which contains synth parts as haunting and grand as anything from Pink Floyds Wish You Were Here (or Mobys Everything is Wrong, for that matter), but its all good, tranquil mood wallpaper. Grade: A-
WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT RAY LYNCH
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