disclaimer is not a toy


Madder Rose

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Panic On

Willie's comments: Nothing here has the infectious, off-kilter appeal of Bring It Down’s “Swim,” but if you’re a fan of the Cranberries (and who isn’t?), you’ll probably love Panic On. Mary Lorson’s voice has all the yearning beauty of Delores O’Riordan, without the irritating yodeling or bellowing, and her lyrical melodies have a pleasantly generic Lilith Fair appeal: Not quite catchy enough to be memorable, but gorgeous in the background. The music, written largely by guitarist Billy Cote, ranges from pretty ballads like “What Holly Sees” to ravers like “Sleep, Forever” which obviously owe a large debt to Barbara Manning’s Lately I Keep Scissors. It’s actually a pretty good album, forgettable though it is. Grade: B

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Madness

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Madness

Willie's comments: Bands like Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Save Ferris have given ska a bad name with their flavorless punk-ska fusions. However, bands like Madness (and, to a lesser degree, Camper Van Beethoven) take the Jamaican(?) rhythm and merely use it as a creative musical tool rather than a crutch, much like They Might Be Giants use an accordion to add flavor to the songs. And Madness writes some really good songs. We all know the big 80s hit "Our House" ("... in the middle of our street"), but this self-titled greatest hits collection also includes the deliriously goofy horn melange of "House of Fun," the clever "Cardiac Arrest," and the rave-up "Night Boat to Cairo." Good, peppy fun. Grade: A

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Madonna

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Madonna

Willie's comments: Since I was a wee lad of three years when this album came out, I can't really speak to how revolutionary Madonna's debut was or wasn't at the time. (I missed the whole Thriller and Toto IV phenomena as well.) Listening to it with jaded 21st-century ears, though, Madonna is a consistently enjoyable flashback to the days of new wave songs that were as insubstantial as musical balloons. In fact, the airy, synthesized production- coupled with Ms. Ciccone's shockingly high-pitched singing- sounds more at home coming out of tinny Walkman headphones than a decent stereo system. Even in her career's nascent state, though, it's clear that Madonna is merely playing the ingenue act because that's what the people want, as opposed to the genuine record company tools we have today. (She makes it pretty clear in "Burning Up": "Do you wanna see me down on my knees?/Or bending over backwards, now would you be pleased?/Unlike the others, I'd do anything/I'm not the same/I have no shame." Some would view that as the mission statement that would perservere for the next 20 years.) This winking calculation pretty much eliminates the guilty-pleasure aspect to the music, leaving only the magnificently memorable hooks to songs like "Lucky Star," "Holiday," and "I Know It." The album sometimes puts its homogenous happy-fun-dance-time tone above actual melodic inspiration, which can be irritating on draggier songs like "Physical Attraction" and the overrated "Borderline," but it's precisely that willful superficiality that imbues the entire album with such a delightful combination of innocence and hedonism. Grade: B+

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: SNATCH SOUNDTRACK

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The Magnetic Fields

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Holiday

Willie's comments: Stephin Merritt- the man who is the Magnetic Fields- is refreshingly fearless in his music, and it’s exhibited perfectly on Holiday. Lyrically, he spins cynical, eloquent tales of loveless love with amounts of bile that would stagger Courtney Love, as well as genuine love songs which are chock-full of great lines like “Our lips blue from cotton candy/ When we kiss it feels like a flying saucer landing.” Musically, his songs are as catchy as any 80s new wave hero (“Deep Sea Diving Suit” is great aural popcorn), but he undermines that with cheapo keyboards, famously emotionless vocals, and brilliantly bizarre arrangements (“The Trouble I’ve Been Looking For” is led by a synthesizer that threatens to commit suicide after each note, making the song hilariously dizzy). This is the band's third album, and the first on which Merritt himself sings, and his voice, too, is a revelation. It hits a dead-sounding, hypnotic middle ground between Leonard Cohen and Johnny Cash. Imagine if the Smiths were good, and more lo-fi, and you’ve almost conjured the Magnetic Fields! Grade: A

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The Charm of the Highway Strip

Willie's comments: Ten songs of commentary on country music and traveling might not sound like the most ideal project for a tinny, synth-based musical outfit, but it works incredibly well here. The music has a countrified twang to it, making “Two Characters in Search of a Country Song” and “Born on a Train” all the more invigorating for being played almost exclusively on keyboards. There are Merritt’s requisite ruminations on love, including a heartbreaking breakup song, “I Have the Moon.” Still, on this album, Merritt saves his most tender admissions for the open road itself. When he croaks, “Lonely highway/ Don’t you cry/ Let me hold you in my arms tonight,” the charm of Highway Strip becomes nakedly evident. Grade: A+

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Get Lost

Willie's comments: Merritt evidently modeled this album after Pavement’s disjointed compilation album Westing (by Musket and Sextant), so Get Lost intentionally lacks focus or any thematic thread, a la Holiday or The Charm of the Highway Strip. That’s all well and good- the tracks are entertainingly eclectic, from the slow, mandolin-based ballad “Don’t Look Away” to the sequencer-driven “The Desperate Things You Made Me Do.” However, the album also lacks any truly good melodies, and Merritt’s lyrics lack their usual bite, save for “When You’re Old and Lonely.” Oh well- one less-than-stellar outing shouldn’t decrease anyone’s respect for Stephin. Grade: C+

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69 Love Songs 3-CD set

Ginny's comments: I should have been amply warned by the sophomoric title. 69 Love Songs goes for quanity rather than quality: 69 Love Songs is the bulk warehouse item of the music industry if I've ever seen one (and a good value, too! Only 42 cents per song, and that ain't bad!). Though a few of them are catchy and a couple are cute ("Let's Pretend We're Bunny Rabbits," for instance. Can everyone say "Awwwwww..."?), most of them remind me of family vacations with my cousins making up rediculous, usually offensive songs off the top of our heads- songs like "Fido, Your Leash is too Long." Though it would've been hilarious when I was younger, it hardly qualifies as something I'd keep in my normal disc rotation. Each track is pretty short, averaging about a minute or two per track, and none of them are as brilliant as I know Stephin Merritt is capable of, though, if I had to come up with 69 love songs, I'd probably pretty tapped out on the genius, too. Yes, the concept is kinda cute, though it seems like far too much of an effort just to make a crude double entendre out of the title. GRADE: C-

Willie's comments: If every rock magazine in the world hadn’t already printed up their “Best Albums of the ‘90s” issue before this triple album came out in September of 1999, it surely would’ve been in the top ten of everyone’s list. As the title suggests, 69 Love Songs contains 23 songs on each CD, all about love and- more often than not- heartbreak. Merritt’s lyrics are more inimitably acerbic and hilarious than ever, as titles like “The Cactus Where Your Heart Should Be,” “How Fucking Romantic,” and “No One Will Ever Love You” should indicate. Merritt himself sings only 45 of the 69 songs, turning vocal duties over to four other people on the remainder, and they all adeptly handle their songs. Sensing that 69 traditional Magnetic Fields songs might get a wee bit monotonous, Merritt makes things as eclectic as possible- “Wi’ Nae Wee Bairn Ye’ll Me Beget” sounds like an Irish folk song, “I Shatter” sounds like Kraftwerk backed by the Kronos Quartet, “Blue You” is chamber music of the highest order, etc.- but there are still plenty of good old Merritt synth-pop numbers, like “Long-Forgotten Fairytale” and “Fido, Your Leash is Too Long.” 69 Love Songs’ only weak point is in Merritt’s inexplicable reliance on the ukelele to ground a large number of songs (particularly on disc one). It doesn’t make much sense, and it makes the songs sound like Tiny Tim slowed down... but I’m being nitpicky here. 69 Love Songs is, like the Flaming Lips’ Zaireeka, a work of genius whose execution actually delivers on the brilliance of the concept. Grade: A

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i

Willie's comments: Arriving nearly five years after the embarrassment of riches that was 69 Love Songs, the next proper Magnetic Fields release is much more modestly scaled than its predecessor in every possible way: 14 songs, all beginning with the letter I, alphabetically sequenced by the letters that fall thereafter, and, as the liner notes emphasize, no synthsIf the removal of synthesizers from a Magnetic Fields album smacks of an Oblique Strategies-esque exercise in conquering writer's block, it's not quite as bad as all that... but it certainly has sucked the life out of a good portion of this record. That's not to say Merritt's new organic philosophy doesn't yield a few gems: "If There's Such a Thing as Love" offers the listener a banjo, a stolen ABBA lick, and a few hearty chuckles, while "I'm Tongue-Tied"'s cheerfully old-fashioned ukelele-and-xylophone arrangement is as sweet and memorable as anything from The Muppet Movie, and "Infinitely Late At Night" sounds like Chet Baker about to pass out in a vomit-filled ashtray. (In a good way.) However, the two songs that stand out as twin highlights are those that hew closest to the Fields of old: "I Don't Believe You" is a sprightly acoustic-pop kiss-off, and "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend" is a single-worthy expression of stunned heartbreak that gallops along to a tense drum machine and a piano and cello that have been treated to approximate programmed synths. Given those tracks' taut appeal, it's something of a letdown to have to then slog through tedious fare like the too-proper "I Die" and the mannered "In an Operetta" and the flat-out boring "Irma" and... well, like I said, it's really not that bad, but I wish the music were more frequently up to the crackling cleverness of lyrics like "So you quote love unquote me..." and "I was young, then not so young/Scary either way." There's half a terrific album here; the other half seems to hit a red light at every intersection. Grade: B-

SEE ALSO: THE 6THS

SEE ALSO: STEPHIN MERRITT

SEE ALSO: FUTURE BIBLE HEROES

SEE ALSO: GOTHIC ARCHIES

WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT THE MAGNETIC FIELDS


Stephen Malkmus

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Stephen Malkmus

Willie's comments: After the distracted-sounding Terror Twilight, Pavement broke up, leaving co-founder Stephen Malkmus to take up with a new backing band, the Jicks, and keep churning out the smarty-pants indie-rock on this solo album. (His erstwhile partner, Scott Kannberg, founded the Preston School of Industry, who are supposed to be pretty good.) In many ways, the songwriting on Stephen Malkmus is a logical progression from Pavement's last album: there are a few slow, pretty ramblers ("Trojan Curfew," "Deado") and a surprising amount of power chords from a guy whose guitar stylings tend to favor strange note clusters. There's no reason to quibble about the new band's talents, either- it's hard to imagine Pavement ever kicking out a number as disciplined and playful as "Phantasies" (though they do take an unfortunate detour into Wowee Zowee sloppiness with "Troubbble").

The only downside to a solo Malkmus seems to be that he feels even freer to indulge his penchant for smarmy irony in his lyrics. He can still make a non-sequitur like "the black book that you took was permanently diversified" sound catchy, but cutesy attempts at writing through the eyes of pirates ("The Hook") and Yul Brenner, of all people ("Jo-Jo's Jacket"), are just irritating. They're balanced somewhat by the unexpected sweetness of "Jenny and the Ess-Dog," which is a sad little love story, which prompts hopes that he'll learn to rein in his overeducated brain and let his heart take a turn at the wheel more often. Grade: B

SEE ALSO: PAVEMENT

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Aimee Mann

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Whatever

Willie's comments: Fans of Aimee Mann's brilliant new wave outfit 'Til Tuesday might be the tiniest bit disheartened at her first solo album, Whatever. Mann has reinvented herself as a sort of female Elvis Costello, and in place of the tight, singable hooks she'd previously written (remember "Voices Carry"?), Whatever is full of songs that are a lot prettier than they are catchy. However, if you're willing to go with it, you might find Aimee's new incarnation addictive. "I Should've Known" is a genial little boogie, spiced up with Mann's "bap bap bap" backing vocals and the clever arrangement of wunderkind producer Jon Brion. The ballad "Mr. Harris" is pure Costello, and, incidentally, better than anything he's written since "Veronica." The best song, however, is the creepy, hooky "Jacob Marley's Chain." There are a few lengthy stretches of dull, unremarkable country-pop on Whatever, but Mann's songs are never as toothless or generic as, say, Shania Twain, as exemplified by the kiss-off "I Could Hurt You Now." Whatever. Grade: B

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I'm with Stupid

Willie's comments: This album finds Mann rocking a lot more than she did on Whatever, which yields such great, bouncy pop as the infectious "Superball," "Frankenstein," and "Long Shot." This latter song is an ambivalent meditation on love that's as close to perfection as anything Mann has ever done, with as much weight given to the line "Please love me more" as the line "You fucked it up." And on I'm with Stupid, even when Mann slows things down, she doesn't sacrifice the piercing insight of her lyrics or the memorable quality of her melodies. Take a listen to the gorgeous "Amateur" or "You're with Stupid Now," and tell me that they aren't just as great as "Long Shot." Well... actually, I won't go that far- I still wish Mann would craft exclusvely uptempo songs, because anyone can write ballads and she's so good at the poppier numbers. But regardless of my sniping, I'm with Stupid is an entirely satisfying meal. Grade: A-

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Magnolia soundtrack album

Willie's comments: This soundtrack is usually lumped in with Mann's body of work despite the fact that it contains two abysmal Supertramp songs, Gabrielle's amusingly cheesy "Dreams," and a superfluous instrumental by Jon Brion. The nine songs that Mann contributes, though, are terrific. Some of them have been previously released elsewhere, and some of them appear on her subsequent album Bachelor no. 2, but they're all magnificent. Well, all except for the instrumental "Nothing is Good Enough," which is a retread of "You Could Make a Killing," but that doesn't matter. The songs will probably hit you harder if you've actually seen Magnolia, because they play an important role in the film- particularly "Wise Up," which masterfully walks the line between saccharine and cynical (the song's final line, "Just give up," is the quintessential Mann bon mot). However, even those who haven't seen the film won't be able to avoid being charmed by Mann's deadpan dissection of Harry Nilsson's "One," the yearning "Save Me," or the surprisingly infectious "Driving Sideways." By this point, Mann seems to have hung up her rock hooks for good in favor of slow pop crooning, but she has also matured to a point where she is probably the best balladeer in the biz. Grade: A-

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Bachelor No. 2 or, the Last Remains of the Dodo

Willie's comments: This album was held in major-label limbo for quite some time, until Mann was able to escape her horrid record deal with Interscope (in a well-publicized battle) and release it on her own SuperEgo label. You should therefore buy Bachelor No. 2, if for no other reason than to support a woman who dared to buck the RIAA's dictatorial practices and pave her own way. You will be rewarded with Mann's most consistently great album to date. It contains two and a half songs from the Magnolia soundtrack ("Deathly," "Driving Sideways," and a vocal version of "Nothing is Good Enough," which proves just how much of a difference Mann's deadpan vocals can make to an unremarkable instrumental), and an additional 10 top-notch pop songs. Stylistically, there's not much new here: ballads a'plenty broken up by a few engaging, mid-tempo boogies ("Ghost World," "Susan"), quotably acerbic lyrics, inspired production from Jon Brion, etc. What sets Bachelor No. 2 apart from anything that precedes it is the fact that Mann's relaxed songs are now memorable, as opposed to being terrific but forgettable. "Calling It Quits" and "You Do" boast melodies as addictive as the best one-hit wonders, only played at half-speed. Come to think of it, remember when people used to think Aimee Mann was one of those one-hit wonders? Dodos. Grade: A

READER COMMENTS:

Damien Browning writes: the soundtrack to Magnolia is pretty good.I especially like the supertramp songs at the end. However what is most interesting about all the songs is the song momentum, because there is a song by emerson lake and palmer called hallowed be thy name. And the song momentum is obviously a rip off of that song.

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: MURRAY ATTAWAY; JIM WHITE

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Barbara Manning

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One Perfect Green Blanket/Lately I Keep Scissors

Willie's comments: After her original band, 28th Day, broke up, Barbara Manning struck out on her own and recorded Lately I Keep Scissors, an indie-rock classic. “Scissors” and “Never Park” are beautiful, unadorned pop songs that owe more to New Zealand bands like the Clean than to any American model, while “Mark E. Smith & Brix” is a charming ode to The Fall. The highlight is the clamorous, witty “Every Pretty Girl”- obviously the song around which Liz Phair has based her entire career. The lyrics of the song are brilliant, as Manning details the jealousy she feels when her boyfriend looks at other women (“I’m acting so silly, but what can I do?/ I tear at her clothing, but more skin shows through”).

Right now, Lately I Keep Scissors is available only on the CD of One Perfect Green Blanket, a seven-song EP that irons out a lot of Manning’s jagged edges. There’s a sweet cover of the Bats’ “Smoking Her Wings,” and “Sympathy Wreath” is really pretty, while “Straw Man” would do Sebadoh proud. Nothing on the CD is as unassailably glorious as, say, “The Arsonist Story” from 1212, but it’s still perfectly clear why Manning is the most intelligent, great female indie rocker of all time. Grade: A-

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Barbara Manning Sings with the Original Artists

Willie's comments: Since Manning's skills at interpreting the songs of others are perhaps more legendary than her own superb songwriting ability, it makes sense that the Original Artists would have recruited her to sing and play guitar on an album's worth of their songs (mostly). It's a terrific experiment, as Manning makes the Artists' occasionally sprawling songs her own, sweetly murmuring her way through the infectious waltz "Gold Brick" and "Untitled #2." The music is perfect indie rock, running the gamut from the giddy calypso of "Here Comes Love" to a sexy, smoky blues cover of "Cry Me a River." "Daddy Bully" shares an unfortunate resemblance to Deadeye Dick's "New Age Girl," but it's revelatory to hear Manning singing as enthusiastically as, say, Kate Pierson. Manning's own "Optimism is Its Own Reward" is a highlight, but the whole album is pure joy if you can find it. Grade: A+

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1212

Willie's comments: Indie rock doesn’t get any more clever than the 20-minute rock operetta that opens 1212, "The Arsonist Story." In this suite, Manning takes on the role of a fireman, an arsonist, a match, and the arsonist’s mom (yielding some canny wordplay on "Our Son"), all with an eye for detail and an ear for a great hook. From there, Manning produces a terrific cover of Richard Thompson’s "End of the Rainbow" and a truly disturbing cover of Tom Lehrer’s "Rickity Tickety Tin," as well as great originals like "Blood of Feeling" and the cocktail blues of "Isn’t Lonely Lovely?" Only a couple weak covers toward the end prevent this from being the masterpiece it truly deserves to be. Grade: A

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In New Zealand

Willie's comments: As I understand it as an ignorant Yank, there are two main factions of rock music in New Zealand. There is the more accessible, Beatles-derived bunch, which contains Crowded House, Dave Dobbyn, and the Mutton Birds. And then you have the more laid-back, Velvet Underground-based clique, which is composed of the Bats, the Clean, the Chills, Tall Dwarfs, and others. Well, Barbara Manning has long been a fan of this latter group, so she decided to take a trip to NZ and record an album with the musicians she admires. It's a charming, if slight, excursion. Chris Knox nicely complements Barbara's more unconventional side, making "Your Pies" a weird treat. David Kilgour helps out on several tracks: the piano-driven "Everything Happens by Itself" is beautiful, chiming indie rock, while the 11-minute instrumental finale, "Aramoana," is a lulling triumph of repetition. The album is weakened only by a dull cover of the Clean's "Whatever I Do is Right/Wrong" with John Covertino and Joey Burns (of Giant Sand and Calexico), and Manning's uncharacteristically tepid lyrics on several songs. Nonetheless, it's another quiet slice of genius from Barbara Manning. Grade: B+

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Under One Roof: Singles and Oddities

Willie's comments: This new compilation pulls songs from Barbara's myriad side projects (SF Seals, 28th Day, Glands of External Secretion), one-off recording sessions, and 7" singles, and it covers basically every stage of her career to this date. Therefore, it gives you a perfect excuse to investigate one of the best singer/songwriter's you probably have never heard! True, you don't get a tremendous taste of the "songwriter" aspect, since Manning herself wrote or co-wrote only six of these 18 tracks, but that's okay for two reasons: First, her covers of others' songs always shine, and that's especially true here. She tackles songs by Jackson Browne, Young Marble Giants, Hank Williams, and even Wings, and turns them into gorgeous, homey Barbara Manning showcases. Even better is her version of "B4 We Go Under," which is a song written especially for Barbara by the Bats' Robert Scott, and definitely ranks in her top five best recordings. The second reason is that the songs that she wrote herself are also top-notch. "Damned Lucky" is a hilarious, punkish account of a hellish tour she spent in a van with the Silos ("Being forced to hear godawful Pearl Jam 28,000 times"), while "Haze is Free (Mounting a Broken Ladder)" is terrific, murky, ominous pop. She saves the best for last, though: The final track, "I Can't Watch You Play Drums," is an outtake from a session she did with two members of Bettie Serveert and Dump's James McNew. It's a simple, catchy jam session that encapsulates everything that is great about Barbara and the indie rock genre as a whole: When talent, intelligence, and charm come together, the effect is heavenly, regardless of whether you have slick production. Grade: A-

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You Should Know by Now

Willie's comments: After a year or two of living in Europe, Barbara returned to the United states with a new backing band (the Go-Luckys!) consisting of twin brothers named Fabrizio and Flavio Steinbach, who play guitar and drums, respectively. Following a decent EP (Homeless is Where the Heart Is), the trio released their first full-length album in 2001, and it marks a return to the spare, Fall-derived rocking of Barbara's early work. "Buds Won't Bud," "Don't Neglect Yourself," and "You Knock Me Out" are all keepers from this genre ("Goof on the Roof" isn't quite a keeper), but the real pleasure of the album comes from the more complex, more melancholy melodies at which Barbara has been peerlessly talented since 1212. "Time to B." does this without losing an ounce of energy, but the slowly simmering "I Insist" and "Never Made Love" calm things down in a way that underscores the intimacy of lyrics like "We never made love often enough, but we made love count." The Steinbachs contribute a perfectly memorable little instrumental ("Boston Song"), too. At times, You Should Know by Now seems as though the recording was a bit rushed, to the songs' detriment- the guitars on "You Knock Me Out" aren't even properly tuned- and the sporadic appearance of Jeff Palmer's musical saw doesn't compare favorably with the lush arrangements of her past few releases, but it's still another quality album from Ms. Mannin'. Grade: B

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Enjoy the Lonely Time EP

Willie's comments: It's hard to keep finding new ways to say, "More Barbara Manning music that you'll be doing yourself a disservice not to check out," but that's what this 2006 Go-Luckys! EP provides. It's got six songs in 22 minutes, and it basically distills everything lovely about Barbara's music to a quick, energetic primer. The guitars are chimey/noisy, the production is pretty spare (while still allocating an extra track here and there for Barbara to harmonize with herself), and the songs embody the simple catchiness of the best garage rock without becoming redundant. "Dreaming" moves from boppy indie-rock pensiveness to a frothy howl, "I Mean Nothing" runs full-throttle before skidding into "Coy Tongue"'s sweaty stomp, and "Read Between the Lines," whose music was penned by the Steinbachs, breaks itself down and rebuilds a couple times over the course of six minutes without overstaying its welcome. As always, Barbara uses her voice to imbue her lyrics about regret, heartache, and self-doubt with an audible sense of the fun she has making music, and things never get close to mopey. The EP concludes with two more of Barbara's justly lauded covers, neither of which could be more different from the other: there's a soulful, earnest take on Graham Nash's "Chicago" (highlighted by Flavio's subtly expressive drumming), followed by a joyous version of The Snivelling Shits' punk mess "Isgodaman?" which manages to be even more hilariously sloppy than the original. In short, Enjoy the Lonely Time is every bit as personal, unpretentious, and smile-inducing as anything Barbara has ever done. If only it went on for another 20 minutes... Grade: A-

READER COMMENTS:

Pearce Duncan writes: TISM are from Australia. Please do not slander New Zealand music like this again. Next you'll be blaming us for Kylie Minogue! [WILLIE'S NOTE: This has been corrected. Can't believe I made that error in the first place. I am dumb.]

Barbara Manning herself(!) writes: I was feeling so blue today and thought, hell why not ego boost alittle and see what is out there in cyber space about me. I was getting discouraged since I get alot of fairly medium comments, then I came across your site and whooohooooooo! I am feeling like a million bucks!
thank you will! I wish I could hang out with you.
love
barbara

SEE ALSO: SF SEALS

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: NO ALTERNATIVE; WHATS UP MATADOR

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: THE 6THS; DUMP; THE BATS; THE CLEAN; SUNNY DAY REAL ESTATE

WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT BARBARA MANNING


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Man on the Moon soundtrack

Ginny's comments: I've always loved the Taxi theme song, and I can't tell you how happy I am that I have it on this album. Aside from the annoying and un-funny clips of dialogue, it's a fun soundtrack album. It's got R.E.M.'s world-famous "Man on the Moon" (don't get too excited- it's identical to the album version) along with an AMAZING new song called "The Great Beyond," which is fun-loving R.E.M .at full throttle. I DARE you not to sing along, even the first time through! Even though the instrumentals are done by R.E.M., they aren't worth knowing they are done by REM- they're still just basic movie fodder. Exile's "Kiss You All Over" is COMPLETELY out of place... I have NO idea what it's doing on this soundtrack and even if Andy did have many sexual exploits, I'd rather not have this song remind me of that. "This Friendly World," a trio between Michael Stipe and Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman and Tony Clifton is cute one or two times and it captures the spirit of Andy. Don't think of this as a mini-R.E.M. album in between albums because the only real new song is "The Great Beyond," but for something light-hearted, it's worth it especially if you enjoyed the movie. GRADE: C ("The Great Beyond" gets an A+, however)

Willie's comments: This soundtrack to the wonderful Andy Kaufman biopic is, like the film, perhaps a bit light on substance, but a good time nevertheless. R.E.M. ably handles most of the album's musical duties, with two versions of the title song (the Automatic for the People version and a haunting orchestral version); some nice selections from the score they wrote for the movie; a fun cover of "This Friendly World" in which Michael Stipe duets with Jim Carrey as both Kaufman and Kaufman's alter ego, Tony Clifton; and one outstanding new song, "The Great Beyond," which contains the band's best chorus since, well, "Man on the Moon." The rest of the album plays like filler, with the inclusions of Exile's "Kiss You All Over," snippets of dialogue, the theme songs to Mighty Mouse and Taxi, and a funny but irritating rendition of "I Will Survive" sung by Clifton. It's better to think of this as a sort of unofficial R.E.M. album between R.E.M. albums. Grade: B+

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Marbles

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Expo

Willie's comments: Marbles is an old, new-wavey home-recording project that Robert Schneider took out of retirement when the Apples in Stereo went on a divorce-fueled hiatus. Though his wholly untalented garage band Ulysses is a complete waste of digital recording technology, Marbles does a fine job of swaddling Rob's ultra-simple hooks in saw-wave synths, vocoders, and the sort of unchallenging, optimistic arrangements that make the Apples such a treat. Those who've been waiting for more of the man's tight, Beach Boys-worshiping hookery since the Apples' uncharacteristically loud Velocity of Sound will find plenty of treats here. "Magic" in particular is pure bliss that makes the Salieri in me want to bow to the pop composer in Schneider- with just a few flangers, how the hell can he come up with a four-chord song so impossibly catchy? Seriously, that song will be appearing on mix CDs I make until the day I die (2009). As always, Schneider's lyrics straddle the line between "acceptably disposable" and "annoyingly disposable" ("Hello, sun! Thank you for the sunny day!"), but don't be a jackass about it, Will. If you purchase the actual CD instead of downloading it, you'll get four nifty bonus tracks, which include two versions of a Depeche Mode-inspired home recording by Robert and two woodwind-based jazz-lounge instrumentals of the sort for which I am a certified sucker, but it's nothing you don't get from the three cinematic instrumentals ("Jewel of India," "Expo," and "Blossoms") on the actual record, or the memorably smiley, keyboard-drenched pop songs that fill the rest of the running time. It ain't Devo, but it's also far from being a negligible side-project. If you like the past couple Of Montreal albums, in which Kevin Barnes surrounded himself with synth-pop glamour, you'll dig this as well. Grade: B+

SEE ALSO: APPLES IN STEREO

SEE ALSO: ULYSSES

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: HIGH WATER MARKS

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Bob Marley & the Wailers

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Legend

Willie's comments: First off, I know next to nothing about reggae. Apart from Musical Youth's "Pass the Dutchie," Weird Al's "Buy Me a Condo," and a couple songs on the Snatch soundtrack, I don't think there are even any reggae songs in my collection- generally speaking, it's not my thing. However, my brother recently joined the Columbia House CD Club (because what makes music shopping more enjoyable than scads of hidden fees?), and since he is notoriously lazy, he did not return the "I don't want this month's featured selection" card on time. Thus, he got stuck with a $23 copy of Legend: The Best of Bob Marley & The Wailers. After laughing at him for a good hour, I told him that I'd give him $5 for the CD, and he agreed to it. Sucker.

Quite honestly, I never expected to enjoy a reggae album as much as I do this one. I knew that Marley has always been (and probably will always be) the undisputed king of reggae and Jamaican music, but I never before understood exactly why. Judging from the evidence here, it's because the man refused to make generic reggae- there are no hours-long jams, laid-back ganja anthems, or half-baked vocal melodies to be found here. Instead, Marley's songs were fiercely political, and he somehow managed to make songs like "Get Up Stand Up" and "Exodus" transcend the inherently relaxing rhythms of the songs and resonate as barking nationalistic manifestoes. Better still, he and the Wailers masterfully vary the tone of their music from song to song- the marvelous "Jamming" is tight and hooky, "No Woman No Cry" is a tear-jerking live track, "Could You be Loved" could almost pass for mid-period Talking Heads, and so on. Though I could do without the abrasively sappy "One Love/People Get Ready," the rest of Legend gave this dyed-in-the-wool rock fan a much-needed lesson in the genius of Bob Marley. Though I'll still probably never buy another reggae album (unless, of course, Tim neglects his Columbia House duties again and winds up with a Linton Kwesi Johnson box set or something), I wholeheartedly recommend Legend to anyone who is interested in music on any sort of serious level. Grade: A

READER COMMENTS:

John Schlegel writes: I agree that these are profound songs that successfully merge reggae with timeless pop music. However, personally, I find that it is still possible to get tired of this music. Bob Marley was a monumental figure in music during his time, but I do grow weary of hearing stuff like VH1 and white college kids over blow him to death. I mean, good as it is, a lot of lesser-known music is pretty spectacular too, but Bob Marley's Legends just happens to be one of those CDs that every average Joe and Jane owns, even if they just have like twelve CDs; kind of like the Steve Miller Band's Greatest Hits. Maybe it's profound that a lot of people who have passive interests in music still can groove on this one; or, perhaps, maybe white America's love for Bob Marley stems from multiculturism, political correctness, and "the great white guilt." Not that I'm trying to be too cynical--these are great songs, but I am tired of hearing at least one of them at every bar and social gathering I frequent. I guess I'm just challenging a popular paradigm: Why do white people love Bob Marley so freakin' much?

billyozark@aol.com writes: it is also interesting to me that you love Bob Marley’s Legend but say you won’t likely bother with other reggae - ya gotta cheque out early Toots & the Maytals, Burning Spear, Big Youth, and dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson !

Andrew@threeinabox.com writes: Well, it’s true. Legend is probably the world’s most ubiquitous album. I’ve travelled throughout North and South East Asia, Europe, and North America (including Jamaica, mon) and it’s absolutely mind boggling where you’ll find Bob. He’s not just in the beach huts and down-tempo restaubars. He is in grocery stores in South Korea. He’s in taxi cabs in Japan. You hear Bob everywhere in South East Asia, and it’s not just in the touristy areas that his music soothes the listener. I’ve heard Bob in the mountain villages of the Annapurna Range in the Himalayas while eating fried Yak and drinking home-made apple brandy. In Jamaica you wake up and fall asleep to Bob being played from the rented sound systems placed willy-nilly throughout the mountains, the beaches, the towns and the cities. Why has his music proliferated throughout our wee globe? It’s inexplicably universal. It’s also comprehensive…I like other reggae stars (Peter Tosh being a fave), but I will compare all I hear to the one, to the legend, to Bob.

LoadesC writes: If you're only going to buy one Reggae album don't choose Legend. It's the idiots guide to Marley. As a hardcore Reggae fan for over 20 years I would highly recommend The Heptones-The Meaning of Life The Best of as a magnificent collection of soulful Rocksteady, that absolutely pisses all over the Legend album and is great value too. You won't have to be a Reggae freak to like this one.

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Marshmallow Coast

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Seniors & Juniors

Willie's comments: Despite the fact that I had a dream last night in which the Marshmallow Coast was the home recording project of Kevin Fitzgerald (the awesome, sleepy-voiced doctor from Emergency Vets), the Marshmallow Coast is actually the intimate musical outlet for Andy Gonzales, a member of the dementedly chipper Of Montreal. Though Seniors & Juniors shies away from the kinetic pop passion of Gonzales's other band, he successfully transplants Of Montreal's sense of innocence and wonder to the more intimate setting of his four-track. The 13 compositions here rely mostly on an ancient-sounding piano, bass, and acoustic guitar, occasionally boosted by woodwinds, an air organ, a glockenspiel, or- on the most boisterous numbers- distant-sounding drums, all adding up to a beautifully personal album that occasionally recalls the naive soundtrack to the fake musical in Waiting for Guffman. Though it's all pretty slight, Gonzales invites us to share his nostalgia for his childhood: many of the songs explicitly relate to his youthful education, and he borrows elements from such unlikely sources as Mr. Rogers ("Off to School" recreates the music announcing the arrival of Trolley) and The Grinch (the title track's chorus is taken from that "Dahoo Dorays" song the Whos kept singing). I wish he would have excised some of the more unnecessary instrumentals here in favor of more fully-formed songs like "Little Pythagoras" and "Mashed Potato Light," because his nasal voice is incredibly endearing and his melodies are unusually warm. However, the instrumentals themselves are full of minor surprises, and they ably assist in creating a mood as cozy as your mom thrusting a mug of hot chocolate into your hands as soon as you get home from kindergarten on a blustery winter day. Grade: A-

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Ride the Lightning

Willie's comments: This time around, Gonzales tapped his Of Montreal bandmate Derek Almstead to help out with another album full of pop minutiae. While Almstead's musical contributions seem limited to bass and the occasional percussion and/or keyboard role, his presence is more noticeable in the areas of recording and engineering, because the cheekily titled Ride the Lightning sounds tighter and more complete than Seniors & Juniors' admittedly sweet lo-fi-isms. Rather than sounding like the musical diary of a lonely dreamer this time around, Gonzales's compositions come closer to a lounge-pop incarnation of They Might Be Giants on full-band songs like "Classifieds" and "Ghost With Wisdom." With the added confidence of his slicker arrangements, too, Gonzales is free to indulge his somewhat spookier, vaguely trippier side. "Darkside of the Moon" merges fever dream imagery with a subtle, Police-style arrangement, while "Chameleon" and "Jebodiah's Restraints" reveal an endearingly strange stream of consciousness beneath the songs' shiny whirligig surfaces. Granted, the more ambitious nature of these popsters means that the filler is nakedly obvious here ("Guitar Suite for Little Debbie," the instrumental bits), but when the tunes coalesce into wimp-rock masterpieces, you'll be glad you stuck around. Grade: B+

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Antistar

Willie's comments: With the addition of flutist Sara Kirkpatrick, the Marshmallow Coast goes for Bacharach-style baroque breeziness on Antistar. But as you know if you're familiar with Gonzales's previous work, if there's one quality his songs don't need more of, it's breeziness, lest they blow apart like origami birds. Well, that's what happens here. Pretty though the arrangements can be on tracks like "Sunrise" and "Tea for Two," and accomplished though Kirkpatrick's contributions are, the songs are too twee and twirly to add up to much, particularly when you consider that Gonzales sounds more unsure of himself than ever. Not only is his voice shyly pushed into the background of a bunch of tracks, his melodies sound frequently grasping, occasionally half-improvised, and rarely memorable. There's a nice, loungey vibe to it all, but the acoustic guitars and bongos and such were put to much better use on Ride the Lightning; this really does sound like Of Montreal lite. "Chinese Lady" closes the album in a cute fashion that recalls XTC at their most intentionally inconsequential, and "Day and Night" offers up a nice, sturdy hook, but only those who like their pop so fluffity and puffity that it's 95% air need investigate this one. Grade: C+

SEE ALSO: OF MONTREAL

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL

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Massive Attack

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Blue Lines

Willie's comments: Any band that lists the Coen brothers’ film Blood Simple under “influences” obviously has taste. And Massive Attack has that in spades. Ultimately, though, you might begin to wish the band’s trip-hop was more exciting than “tasteful.” Don’t get me wrong- Blue Lines is a killer listen. “Safe from Harm” is sexy and funky, while the soulful “Be Thankful for What You’ve Got” is hypnotically catchy and lots of fun. And any track which features vocals from Tricky is charming, thanks to his mumbled British rapping. However, danceable and trancey though the album is, I would’ve liked to hear more groundbreaking, complex numbers like “Unfinished Symphony” rather than the basic hip-hop of “Five Man Army” and “Daydreaming,” which get a bit one-note. If you’re into the trip-hop music, though, this is really cool. Grade: B+

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Mezzanine

Willie's comments: Massive Attack's third album abandons a great deal of the R&B elements that marked their first album in favor of more stark, spacious trip-hop. Most of the songs sound as though they were recorded in a city street at midnight, with seedy, noir-ish overtures being backed by occasional buses going by. Guitars play a key role here, tending to bob slowly along on waves of phasers, flangers, and wah-wah pedals, providing a hypnotic structure for songs like "Angel" and "Group Four." Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins turns in a mighty vocal performance on "Teardrop," a song which melds elements of pop with slow electronica just as memorably as Loreena McKinnett's "The Mummer Song," but twelve times as effectively. Unfortunately, the album nearly screeches to a halt when Horace Andy takes the mike on "Man Next Door"- with his weird, Parkinsons-like delivery, Andy is as abrasive here as he was on Blue Lines's "One Love," but it's Mezzanine's sole misstep. Mezzanine is the musical equivalent of staying in a dank urban hotel, slowly lulling yourself to sleep by staring at the neon light that's flashing outside your window. Grade: A-

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: THE INSIDER SOUNDTRACK; SNATCH SOUNDTRACK

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Mates of State

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My Solo Project

Willie's comments: The Mates of State may have a pretty simple indie-pop formula to all their songs, yet they're saved from seeming formulaic by the undeniably infectious and sunny energy that this duo (husband-and-wife team Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel) exudes. Both partners sound like they honestly live to make music, and above all, to sing, sing, sing! Without ever becoming obnoxious about it, Gardner and Hammel both sing at the top of their lungs throughout this entire record (think Neko Case performing a duet with Doug Martsch)- sometimes harmonizing, sometimes singing in unison, and sometimes falling into a grin-inducing polyphonic state where they each sing vocal parts that bear seemingly no relation to each other except that they're complementary in a truly delightful way. With all these kinetic vocals front and center, it's fitting that the Mates' musical arrangements rely solely on Gardner's keyboard playing (heavy on cheesy organ noises and chintzy percussive sounds) and Hammel's drumming to avoid overwhelming things, but that doesn't mean they're "minimal." I get the impression that nothing about the Mates of State is ever going to be "minimal," really; they're such naturally enthusiastic and hyper musicians that everything they do bounces merrily off the walls. The instrumental parts are impressively complex, and songs like "Tan/Black" and "What I Could Stand For" make use of numerous, abrupt changes in the time signature and tempo, stapling disparate melodic fragments together until your head is spinning like a happy barbershop pole. Given all that, My Solo Project doesn't offer much in the way of big, New Pornographers-esque pop hooks the way I wished it might've. The sweet "I Have Space" and the rollicking "A Control Group" are really the only songs that stick with you, but there's such a surplus of joy on this record that it hardly matters. Grade: B+

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Our Constant Concern

Willie's comments: A-ha! Hooks! A big, spiky, painful pile of hooks! Our Constant Concern marks a small step forward in the Mates' songwriting style: no less quirky, but a bit more streamlined. Songs like "10 Years Later" get from point A to point B in a relatively logical way, as opposed to the moments on My Solo Project where the couple behaved like (admittedly adorable) children impatiently yanking their mom all over a department store while yelling, "Hey- look over here! Wow- look over here now! Can I please have an Icee?" Gardner and Hammil's unique vocalizing style continues to charm, but it sounds more practiced and confident, and the same goes for Gardner's keyboard stylings and Hammil's skin-pounding (and drummi- er, sorry about that). That means you've got plenty of songs like "Hoarding It for Home," on which all the elements come together for a bonanza of playful pop greatness reminiscent of Ben Folds Five at their most inspired. However, it also means you get moments like "Girls Singing," a pretty, mature sparkle of a tune on which the Mates calm down enough to let a simple piano line do most of the talking. Even though the lyrics still sound- probably accurately- like they were written by two people working at cross-purposes ("I can see how it poured once before/The thoughts form on call/What if the sun is right?"), they're delivered in a way that's both sincere and not without a sense of humor, adding to the cozy, melodic comforts to be found on this record. If they keep this up, I could see the Mates of State graduating to the upper echelon of sensitive indie idols in no time, but even for the time being, they're fun enough to bring a smile to the face of even a jaded young man who's got a pounding caffeine-withdrawl headache. Grade: A-

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Matmos

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A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure

Willie's comments: This album might not be everyone's cup of tea. Or everyone's cup of cerebrospinal fluid, to be more exact. California electronica weirdos (and production wizards) Matmos have assembled here a collection of songs made up of sampled noises from the medical establishment. What does this entail? Using bones as percussion ("Memento Mori"), sequencing the clicks and beeps of an acupuncture detector or a hearing test booth into melodies ("Ur Tchun Tan Tse Qi" and "Spondee," respectively), plucking and bowing the bars of a rat cage (the ambient "For Felix [and All the Rats]"), and, for the rest of the album, constructing intricate house music from the sounds of actual surgeries recorded by the band. I doubt that most people will get past the hilariously gross liposuction slurping of the album opener, or the piercing metallic screeches that open "L.A.S.I.K" (which visibly freaked out my brother, who is due to have the laser eye surgery in a week), but those who do will be rewarded with some of the best unconventional dance fodder ever made. Rather than being a mere novelty album that can't transcend its gimmick- brilliant though the gimmick is- A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure proves that Matmos are as adept at constructing techno rhythms, grooves, and tunes as they are at finding unique sounds with which to do their construction. Unlike such dull electronica artists as, say, Spring Heel Jack, Matmos makes techno music with a face. It just so happens that the face is being assaulted by scalpels and lasers on this album. Grade: A-

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: BJORK

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Dave Matthews Band

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Remember Two Things

Willie's comments: I can’t really understand Dave Matthews Band’s reputation for being such a wonderful live band (and this pre-fame, mostly live CD doesn’t offer any insights). Granted, I’ve never actually seen them live, but the live documents I’ve listened to have been nothing more than unnecessarily strung-out jam sessions. The band is full of wonderful musicians, and their improvisational skills are impressive, yes, but they lack the Phish-esque eclecticism necessary to make such journeys interesting. As such, Remember Two Things is full of live songs (“Ants Marching,” “Tripping Billies”) that would later appear on superior studio albums, and it’s not necessary to hear them any other way. Grade: C

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Under the Table and Dreaming

Willie's comments: Dave Matthews’s nasal voice and rubbery guitar playing add a goofy charm to songs like “The Best of What’s Around,” but it’s the bluegrass-based talents of his backing musicians that made Under the Table such a welcome diversion from Top 40 radio back in 1994. The hippie-drippy lyrics of songs like “Typical Situation” are pretty stupid, but there’s a nice, benevolent atmosphere about the album that suits it well. Catchy, too- My introduction to the band was their performance of “What Would You Say?” on Saturday Night Live, and I was blown away by what a great song it is. Grade: B+

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Crash

Willie's comments: This album seems a lot longer than it is, largely because there are only a couple songs that are really noticeable as anything other than background trifle. “Too Much” showcase’s Matthews’s darker side (and provides some useful abrasion), while “Two Step” is a bouncy, bittersweet treasure. “Crash Into Me” calls attention to itself in a more irritating fashion, however, with its pseudo-mystical chimes and quasi-seductive lyrics (though I am surprised and impressed that he managed to get the lyrics “Crash into me/ I come into you” on the radio). The rest of the album falls somewhere between those extremes, and it’s never quite appealing enough for me to pull it off the shelf, what with Meat Puppets II sitting right next to it. Grade: C+

READER COMMENTS:

John Schlegel writes: I totally agree that Under the Table and Dreaming is their solidest outing (as do most people it seems). "The Best of What's Around," "Jimmy Thing," "Dancing Nancies," and "What Would You Say?" are all stellar songs. However, I find the other hit single, "Ants Marching," very irritating--partly for personal reasons, and also because of those horrendously self-righteous hippy lyrics. Yes, they all do it the same way, don't they Mr. Matthews? Except for you, of course--you're an original artist and rich rock star, and such a god compared to your legions of ignorant, slobbering fans. But whatever. I hear "Satellite" on the radio a lot too, and it bores me to tears. I guess I find a considerable portion of DMB's stuff to be boring, but the back-up band is sure talented, especially drum virtuoso Carter Beauford. They're good; I just think they're overrated, and I can't stomach how every mediocre band on my college campus tries to sound exactly like them. In closing, I'm a little embarrassed to say that I own the Under the Table and Dreaming CD. But, like I said, it's decent.

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Andrea Maxand

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Angel Hat

Willie's comments: Like Cat Power's Chan Marshall with subtly trenchant humor in place of her gauzy otherworldliness, Andrea Maxand is a songwriter whose hypnotic recordings take a couple listens to really make sense. Relying, more often than not, on only her voice and scruffy electric guitar to carry her songs, Maxand has an affinity for relatively simple melodies that are supported by counterintuitive collections of chords, and the end result can be anything from a charmingly bent lullaby ("Peace on TV," which recalls Yo La Tengo at their most subdued) to a clattering racket ("Spun," which ratchets up the tension via a mechanical tape loop). She's at her best when she's at her most aggressive, actually: the magnificent clenched-teeth rumblings of "Survival of the Sentiment" and the fuzzbox-powered "When God Shuts the Door" can't help but overpower some of the sweeter songs, like "Velveteen." Luckily, Andrea's savvy enough to keep even her prettiest songs from becoming treacly by injecting her lyrics with a regret that wavers between exasperated and accepting. And better still, she has a secret weapon in producer Chris Walla, who proves he is as resourceful at capturing Maxand's minimal style as he is with the sunnier pop of Death Cab for Cutie and the Prom. It's all deliberately unostentatious music, which I fear might tempt people to overlook it. Don't. Angel Hat is the equivalent of seeing a coffeehouse singer who sucks you in so thoroughly that you don't even notice your mochaccino's getting cold. Grade: A-

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Paper Cut EP

Willie's comments: Andrea described this EP as sort of an "informal" release before her next album, and on the laid-back terms it sets up for itself, it's a kicky little appetizer. Four of these six songs are reinventions of tracks from Angel Hat, recorded with a full band. Of these, "Distractions" is most improved by the full-band setup; what was once a charming-but-minor song blooms into an insistent, alluring jangle song with a huge low end (kudos to drummer Jason McGerr!), showing off the melody for the killer that it is. As for "When God Shuts the Door," "Spun," and "Keep Away," they don't really gain or lose any ground for being bashed out by three people instead of one; they're just quality songs played differently from before. (e.g, "When God Shuts the Door" forsakes the nervousness provided by the awesome, twitchy drum loop on Angel Hat, but that also allows the song to snowball into a firey, borderline-punk tune.) (And yes, those metaphors were mixed intentionally.) You also get two new tracks: "Paper Cut," which is another of Maxand's superb, angular rockers, and "Practice Hour," which is an indescribably gorgeous, wintry solo song that features Andrea's most un-self-consciously clear singing to date. Paper Cut isn't quite as full an experience as Angel Hat, obviously, but it's both a treat for those who already dig her music and an economical way to discover this buried treasure of a songwriter, if you haven't yet. Grade: A-

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Where the Words Go

Willie's comments: Maxand's second album comes packaged with a beautiful booklet that does its best to re-create the look and feel of an introvert's prized journal, where fancy homemade paper, cut-out kitten shapes, and pressed leaves conceal the author's most personal thoughts. And if the album can be considered an audio journal, those personal thoughts are what you get: an artfully direct nontet of songs that breathlessly let fly with anger, accusations, and revolution. Where Angel Hat quietly seethed, this album is out for blood in its chronicles of disappointed and disappointing lovers, occasionally set against clever backdrops of spiteful car crashes ("The Shape of Hands") and angry sports fans ("Winners"). Maxand has borrowed Death Cab's entire rhythm section this time (McGerr and bassist Nick Harmer), and they provide a nice, malleable backing for her songs that goes even farther than the full-band recordings from Paper Cut. That is, on tracks like the twisty "Cassie's Song" and the aptly titled "Song in Two Parts," the extra musicians are both expertly integrated into the arrangements and give Maxand enough room and support for her scrappy guitar stylings and increasingly compelling voice to shine. Even the calmer, slower tunes ("Columns," for instance) are fueled by a certain acerbic quality that suggest a spiky companion piece to Fiona Apple's When the Pawn and So Forth. With confident, memorable melodies and chewy lyrics galore, Where the Words Go should handily prove to be one of 2004's best records. Grade: A

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE

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John Mayer

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Room for Squares

Willie's comments: I know, I know: the idea of a guy who makes his living by merging the musical styles of Ten Summoners' Tales-era Sting and the Dave Matthews Band sounds about as appetizing and flavorful as Kool-Aid made with twice as much water as the package calls for. (And a kind of gross Kool-Aid flavor at that; Mountainberry Punch or something.) Current radio favorite John Mayer is something of a slave to that formula on his debut album, but he nevertheless deserves some credit for the frequency with which his music rises above its components. For although his voice (simultaneously breathy and nasal), pleasant melodies, and acoustic guitar-based songs aren't particularly expressive, they give off a charmingly relaxed air that's just this side of loungey. The breezy "Your Body is a Wonderland," for example, finds Mayer so humble in his sexual overtures that it's refreshingly cute- in exactly the sort of sexy way that Dave Matthews's leering "Crash Into Me" isn't. "My Stupid Mouth" is playful enough to provoke a few smiles as well, and although Mayer is hardly Paul Simon, it's easy to see a welcome glimmer of cleverness behind even his most obvious lyrics (e.g., the trite carpe diem anthem "No Such Thing"). Unpretentiousness alone can't carry an album, though, and songs like "Why Georgia" and "Not Myself" crumble into melodic mush, settling for Sting-esque blandness instead of serving up big, juicy hooks like Josh Rouse or Tahiti 80 would do in a similar situation. Thus, it's never quite enough to supercede my wish that no one had ever stumbled upon the contradiction in terms that is "lite rock," but there's such a cheerful vibe to Room for Squares that it's impossible to actively dislike. If only it were more original or catchy, though, it'd be easy to love. Grade: C+

READER COMMENTS:

jroach@sisna.com writes: In your comments about John Mayer, you mentioned that John's music wasn't very 'origional or catchy'. Personally, I feel that his music is just about as original as you can get! Before John, not many artists wrote that type of music. He has definatley paved the way for the other up and coming artists that write what he does. As a matter of fact, the original sound of his music is what has turned me into such a big fan! I think John is a genius and I completely disagree with you. Although his voice may be, "breathy and nasal", he deserves better comments than that!

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Bruce McCulloch

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Shame-Based Man

Willie's comments: This album from the Kids in the Hall’s resident dadaist comedian is funny almost half the time. "Daves I Know" is hilarious and catchy, "That’s America" is a brilliant satire of the USA ("The land where spelling doesn’t count; people’s pets do!"), and all the little call-in radio snippets are funny, but, like most comedy albums, the unfunny bits are embarassingly bad and sadly frequent. You may as well just stick with the soundtrack to Brain Candy. That one has "Happiness Pie." Grade: C

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: KIDS IN THE HALL: BRAIN CANDY SOUNDTRACK

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Meat Puppets

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Meat Puppets II

Willie's comments: This album was revered almost exclusively by music critics until Nirvana’s Unplugged album came out, when its total sales probably increased by 6,000 percent. Sadly, the three songs from this album that Nirvana covered (“Plateau,” “Oh, Me,” and “Lake of Fire”) do sound much better coming from Kurt Cobain’s mouth: Meat Puppets frontman Curt Kirkwood sang in an endearingly off-key warble until Forbidden Places, and the songs on this album have a clumsy charm to them, but the aforementioned songs are much tighter on the Nirvana album. However, the twangy folk-rock the Puppets trafficked in here is one of the single most significant milestones in alt-rock history, and with good reason. The airy charms of songs like “Climb” and “Lost” capture the soul of the desert, while fuzzy rock songs like “Split Myself in Two” and “New Gods” are great post-punk fun. This is a deservedly important album. Grade: A

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Up on the Sun

Willie's comments: Replacing their fuzzboxes with lightning-fast finger-picking, Curt and his bassist brother Cris paint as mellow a rock soundscape as you’ll ever hear. “Up on the Sun,” “Two Rivers,” and “Away” are as beautiful and narcotic as their titles suggest, while Curt’s nonsensical (read: stoned) lyrics connect the music to odd utopian places in his head, even when he’s singing gibberish like “Got no head/ It’s a bucket with teeth.” Grateful Dead fans will love songs like “Creator,” while everyone should love whimsical numbers like the jazzy “Enchanted Pork Fist” and “Mother’s Milk.” If you’re physically exhausted, this is a good album to relax to. Grade: A

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Huevos

Willie's comments: Merging their Grateful Dead influence with an ill-advised dollop of classic rock (ZZ Top is an easy reference point), the Puppets have nothing worth salvaging on this album except the cool title. The album is poorly-produced (it sounds like wastebaskets were placed over all the microphones) and there isn’t one memorable riff or hook to be found. Huevos is ultimately a really draining album. Skip it. Grade: D-

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Monsters

Willie's comments: More of Huevos, but at least there’s one good number here: “Attacked by Monsters,” which is remarkable for Curt’s jolting, unhinged (read: stoned) shrieking in the middle. His voice has become a lot better- it’s not atonal anymore, but still rather weak. The mix is a lot better, too, so even though the classic rock elements are as artificially jacked-up and irritating as all classic rock, it’s tolerable to listen to. I still wouldn’t recommend it, though. Grade: C-

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Forbidden Places

Willie's comments: The epitome of the Meat Puppets canon. Curt dumped a truckfull of musical ideas, hooks, and styles into 11 songs here, ranging from the grinding metal of “Open Wide” to the bluegrass getaway music of “Six-Gallon Pie.” The most memorable songs are the ultra-fast rocker “Sam,” which makes Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” seem like a funeral dirge, and the dreamy country of “This Day,” but Forbidden Places is full of songs that surprise you with their complexity and infectiousness on every successive listen, like “No Longer Gone” and “Another Moon.” If They Might Be Giants were raised in Arizona, they might have come out sounding like this (and they did cover the superb “Whirlpool” from this album). Get this album. Get it now. Grade: A+

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Too High to Die

Willie's comments: Too High to Die might seem a bit anticlimactic after the tour de force of Forbidden Places, since it’s mostly limited to one genre per song, and some of the songs are big boring failures: “Violet Eyes” isn’t quite off-key, but still distractingly off-sounding, while “Why?” and “Shine” fall in a bland fault line between country and folk. The songs that do connect, though, are great. The twisted power-pop of “Backwater” was the big hit here, while “Roof with a Hole” is a brilliant foray into blues, and “Things” goes on forever, but it’s so catchy you won’t care. Brother Cris writes two engagingly weird rockers, “Station” and “Evil Love,” and the album closes with a vital reworking of Meat Puppets II’s “Lake of Fire.” By that point, you should be well satisfied. Grade: B

Backwater EP

Willie's comments: As an EP, this certainly does its job. The title track is brilliant, as you already know, and Forbidden Places’ “Open Wide” makes an appearance, as does the terrific, creepy churner “Animal” from the White Man’s Burden soundtrack. To complete the package, there’s a new, improved version of the title track from Up on the Sun and a spiffy cover of Marty Robbins’s ‘50s prom tune “White Sport Coat.” Slight, to be sure, but economical and fun, too! Grade: A-

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No Joke!

Willie's comments: This was the Puppets' final album with their original lineup, which is disappointing, because the prospect of more albums like this is a tantalizing one. No Joke! is packed with some of the gloomiest songs ever heard: “Scum” opens with a wall of guitar noise as terrifyingly strange as the Butthole Surfers’ best work (which should come as no surprise, given that Surfers guitarist Paul Leary produced the album) and then locks into a messed-up groove, while “Nothing” has noisy bombast that would shame Sonic Youth, and “Head” is a foreboding piano-and-cello number that somehow manages to make perfect sense in its punky surroundings. If lyrics like “Since I hurt myself, I feel so much better/ Suck my eyeball” appeal to you, you will love No Joke! Grade: A-

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Golden Lies

Willie's comments: By the time of No Joke's release, Cris was in the grip of a powerful heroin addiction. His behavior became increasingly erratic, arrests became increasingly frequent, and his whereabouts became decreasingly, er... known. (The last report I heard said he was in a Texas jail.) Derrick Bostrom left the band, too, leaving Curt to reinvent the Meat Puppets, which he has done for this, their first album in almost five years. Understandably, Curt seems rather confused about where to go from here on Golden Lies. Much of the album aspires to pick up where No Joke left off, with murky, minor-key power chords and unrelentingly ominous (though hummable) choruses. However, the inspired layers of noise and trippy weirdness are mostly gone here. Worse, too many songs are melodically underdeveloped, content to simply run around in stoned cowpunk circles for four minutes or so. "Tarantula" is a useless rewrite of Too High to Die's "Never to be Found" and "Take Off Your Clothes" fails to live up to its promising title by eschewing any sort of hormonal inspiration (along with any sense of rhythm, at times), but the true nadir comes with "Hercules." As Curt speaks mind-numbingly dumb lyrics in a voice that makes him sound like John S. Hall's less talented brother, the band sinks into sub-Primus hillbilly funk. It's moments like that which put Golden Lies in danger of tarnishing the band's legacy; a threat that is narrowly averted by a few tight, top-notch rockers like "I Quit" (repetitive but memorable) and "Push the Button." In the end, Golden Lies and the new incarnation of the Meat Puppets are good enough to earn the benefit of our doubt, but they're a bit of a disappointment nonetheless. Grade: C

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Rise to Your Knees

Willie's comments: Bostrom didn't participate in these sessions (a shame, since new drummer Ted Marcus doesn't really gel with the Kirkwoods, to the point of kinda wrecking "Radio Moth" by missing his cues), but Cris Kirkwood is back on the bass! More importantly, his harmony vocals are back on the mike, which has been perhaps the Pups' best attribute since even before either he or Curt could sing! The result is an album that mostly sounds like the midtempo bits that separated the best numbers on Too High to Die and No Joke: nice stuff, even pleasantly memorable, but so content in their pot-addled coziness that they run the risk of flatlining. Some of the songs ("Island," "This Song") sound like the bashful practice sessions of a high school garage band whose members picked up their instruments only a few weeks ago, though in a way that emphasizes charming simplicity rather than sloppiness. That's not to say it's an acoustic-rock campfire: Curt still overdubs plenty of psychedelic noodles, and he ups the tempo on a few tracks like "Spit." It's just that only a few tracks (such as "Enemy Love Song," which transcends its crappy, Sting-worthy ska arrangement to be embarrassingly catchy, and the trashy insect ode "Fly Like the Wind") add anything significant to the discography, and it's a really long album that gives them ample opportunity to do so. It's a step in the right direction, though, for those of us who really enjoyed their major-label output. Grade: B

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: THE X-FILES: SONGS IN THE KEY OF X SOUNDTRACK ALBUM; GIMME INDIE ROCK, VOL. 1

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: BUTTHOLE SURFERS; NIRVANA

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The Men They Couldn't Hang

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The Domino Club

Willie's comments: When anyone discusses this little-known British band at all, comparisons to the Pogues immediately surface: both bands play energetic, pub-rocking folk anthems, yadda yadda ya. However, it seems to me more apt to compare the Men They Couldn't Hang to the Australian band Weddings Parties Anything (a comparison which is boosted by the slack cover of WPA's "Industrial Town" on this album). Like Weddings Parties Anything, TMTCH's songs basically stick to bittersweet working-class tales with occasional forays into creepy folklore and tall tales, rather than serving as de facto radical tracts, like the Pogues' tunes. (Even "Billy Morgan," a terrific tale of a revolutionary terrorist, places narrative concerns above any political ones.) Truth be told, TMTCH's blue-collar pastiches are largely ineffective. "Handy Man" and "The Family Way" lack the gift for language possessed by WPA's Mick Thomas, and a more cynical critic might accuse "Great Expectations" of carrying a whiff of condescension... Much better are narrative singalongs like "Grave-Robbing in Gig Harbour" and "The Lion and the Unicorn," but the others are redeemed by solid songwriting (it wouldn't be hard to imagine Robyn Hitchcock crooning "Kingdom of the Blind," and "Dogs Eyes, Owl-Meat, Man Chop" is a fiesty little honkytonk). It's probably a moot point anyway, since this album has been out of print for some time, but if you should stumble across it someday, The Domino Club is well worth a few bucks. Grade: B+

READER COMMENTS:

Paul Simmonds (frontman of The Men They Couldn't Hang) writes: i thought about a long rebuttal, but decided not to. journalsim is a cover for fools. we stand 4 square behind our output, we are the geat survivors.

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Mercury Rev

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Yerself is Steam

Willie's comments: After guitarist Johnathan Donahue quit the Flaming Lips (following the band's triumph of overkill Hit to Death in the Future Head), he formed Mercury Rev, a band that initially sought to continue his previous band's legacy of squalling, psychedelic noise as the Lips took a fruitful turn for more accessibly pop-oriented material. Unfortunately, in the band's nascent state, Mercury Rev didn't seem to have a member with the restless guiding vision of Wayne Coyne, and the band simply turned out pointless jumbles of noise that have neither the Lips' rock smarts nor the entertainingly unhinged psychosis of freaks like the Butthole Surfers. Bizarre lead vocalist David Baker speak-sings his way through wanky half-trips like "Chasing a Bee" sounding as though he's about to either burst into giggles or into a McDonald's with a shotgun (and he sounds like he's doing a Nixon impression on the droney "Blue and Black"), but that's not enough to provide a reason to listen to most of these songs; in fact, the piercing feedback of "Syringe Mouth" renders it entirely unlistenable. The lengthy "Frittering" and "Very Sleepy Rivers" hit upon hypnotic grooves of chemical bliss that successfully update the druggy sprawl of Jefferson Airplane for the paint-huffers of the '90s, but those seem like flukes amid the rest of the boring driftwood here. Grade: C

Everlasting Arm EP

Willie's comments: “Everlasting Arm” is quintessential Mercury Rev: Donahue’s gorgeously squawky vocals, a weird arrangement (piano and horns, but the vocal melody seems written for a neo-psychedelic, guitar-based band like, say, the Olivia Tremor Control), and a fair bit of good-natured self-indulgence. However, this EP is a pretty poor value when you can get “Everlasting Arm” on the far superior See You on the Other Side. Here, all you get besides the title track is a pointless, pretentious spoken-word exercise and about 30 minutes of a barely-audible (and not at all interesting) conversation taped in someone’s living room. Grade: D-

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See You on the Other Side

Willie's comments: Mercury Rev’s first CD with Donahue as lead singer is the first one you need to bother with. On the Other Side, the self-conscious weirdness of their first couple albums is somewhat toned-down in favor of song craft. The Rev are at their best when they can manage to integrate those two strengths- listenability and creativity- to the exclusion of neither. Although the noisy “Young Man’s Stride” strains too hard in its detour into commercial territory, they succeed with flying colors on tracks like “Empire State” and “Peaceful Night,” which sounds like a hallucinatory take on Kermit the Frog’s “Rainbow Connection.” Grade: B+

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Deserter's Songs

Willie's comments: When I first heard this subtle, lush chamber-pop album, I was entranced by the fragile beauty of songs like “Holes” and “Opus 40,” as well as thrilled that a band who had been so previously chaotic could’ve created semi-orchestral gems like this. Then I heard the Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin, which does basically the same thing, only with catchier songs and affecting lyrics, and basically forgot about Deserter’s Songs. Because, as pretty as the songs are on the Rev album, they’re not particularly memorable or catchy, except for “Holes,” “Funny Bird,” and the superlative “Goddess on a Hiway.” Everything’s very well-constructed, and there’s no question that Rev is sincere about what they’re doing, but it’s just not very mind-altering so much as charming. It does make a nice double-bill with The Soft Bulletin, if you have a 2-disc changer that can shuffle the two together, though. Grade: B+

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All is Dream

Willie's comments: Since most critics either forgot about Deserter's Songs or retroactively downgraded it in the wake of The Soft Bulletin (this critic included, it must be admitted), Mercury Rev seems to have called a "do-over" for All is Dream. That is, this album feels like an attempt to remake their last album with more fully-formed songs in place of the gauzier bits, in a bid for history's eventual approval. In a manner of speaking, they've succeeded: had All is Dream been released in 1998, Mercury Rev would probably now be considered more than just Flaming Lips Junior. The songs retain Dave Fridmann's groundbreaking, Phil-Spector-does-a-Kubrick-score arrangements and Donahue's gently spacey lyrics, while toning down the fey whimsy in favor of more user-friendly hooks. This painstaking revisionist effort is ultimately for naught, however, because do-overs are not allowed in anyone's discography, and virtually every song here is the doppelganger of something from Deserter's Songs. The vocal melody from "Holes" is recycled for "Nite and Fog," the sing-songy "Tonite It Shows" is intolerably remade as "A Drop in Time," and the only thing distinguishing "Tides of the Moon" from its predecessor, "The Funny Bird," is a new title. Even the best new song, "Little Rhymes," with perhaps the most indelible melody Donahue has ever written, borrows its bass-based formula from "Goddess on a Hiway." All things being equal, All is Dream is unquestionably a better album than Deserter's Songs, and definitely the one you should pick up if you're only now discovering Mercury Rev... but the fact of the matter is, all things are not equal, and this sort of backpedalling is rather unbecoming for a band that used to take pride, for better and worse, in being the kid who would run kilometers ahead of the group without looking back to see if anyone was still following. Grade: B-

SEE ALSO: THE FLAMING LIPS

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS; SPARKLEHORSE; MOGWAI; LOTUS CROWN; DELGADOS; MOUNTAIN GOATS

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Stephin Merritt

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Eban & Charley soundtrack

Willie's comments: I have never heard of the film that Stephin Merritt composed this soundtrack for (judging from the stills adorning the digipak, it's a gay love story that looks interminably talky and slow, and stars a guy who looks like a vaguely threatening version of Rowan Atkinson), but luckily, that's not a prerequisite for enjoying the album. Just like his music in the Magnetic Fields, the 6ths, the Gothic Archies, and the Future Bible Heroes, Merritt's "solo" work shows him entirely at ease with nearly any style of music or emotional tone. The pieces are equally enjoyable whether Merritt is crooning a teary-eyed ode to an unfaithful lover ("Maria Maria Maria") or just playing silly word games (the assonance exercise "Water Torture," which consists of a lot of phrases like "Lulu glues two blue shoes to tutus to lose the blues"), and the music ranges from infectious, Latin-tinged ballads to strangely charming percussion experiments. Frankly, there are a few too many tracks that fall into this latter category to the exclusion of more fully-formed songs, but it's still hard not to like the cheerful little plinks and plunks as Stephin creates avant-garde chamber music from zippers, toy guiros, and wind-up music boxes. Eban & Charley is more of a toss-off than anything, but it's nevertheless full of understated, twee beauty. Grade: B+

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Pieces of April soundtrack

Willie's comments: No curious instrumental tinkering on this soundtrack, however; just ten of Merritt's hopeless/romantic lo-fi pop gems. Granted, three of them are from the Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs collection and two of them are from the 6ths' Hyacinths and Thistles (there's the catch for hardcore Merritt fans eager for new material), but Pieces of April nevertheless holds together as a collection very well. The three 69 entries- "Epitath for My Heart," "The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side," and "I Think I Need a New Heart"- might've seemed like minor tracks within the context of that album's sprawling loquaciousness, but here they shine as tiny classics in their own right. The 6ths tunes are nice ballads, and the new tracks attain the same serendipitous mixture of playfulness, pain, and punning that marks all Merritt's best work. The two most noteworthy are "Heather, Heather" (whose distorted keyboard plunks harken back to the Fields' great 1994 album Holiday) and "Stray With Me" (whose insanely catchy guitar/violin hook suggests the Young Marble Giants gone country), but it's all sweet, buoyant, and melodic. While it's too short to justify spending a ton of money on- especially if you own the two albums from which half these songs were culled- Pieces of April is otherwise exactly what you want from Stephin Merritt. Grade: B+

SEE ALSO: THE MAGNETIC FIELDS

SEE ALSO: THE 6THS

SEE ALSO: FUTURE BIBLE HEROES

SEE ALSO: GOTHIC ARCHIES

WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT STEPHIN MERRITT


The Microphones

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"The Glow" pt. 2

Willie's comments: If you're the sort of person who's enthralled by the sounds of an orchestra tuning up before a performance, you're probably the target audience for the fourth album from the Microphones (basically a guy named Phil Elvrum, with help from some of his friends). It's a downcast record full of lo-fi, acoustic guitar pop, and it has a surprising following among indie-rock-type types, given that there's nothing on here that hasn't been done before- and better- by Badly Drawn Boy, Neutral Milk Hotel, and the Marshmallow Coast. There are very few proper songs on here, with most of the simplistic, demo-quality melodies evaporating before they have time to register, and being replaced by annoying musical dithering or lengthy, inexplicable moments of near-silence. (The songs themselves are, excepting the title track and "The Gleam pt. 2," rather too dull, slow, and shapeless to make much of an impression anyway.) I'm unsure whether this is all supposed to be atmospheric or what, but despite sporadic moments of beauty and catchiness- and Elvrum's consistently poetic lyrics- listening to "The Glow" feels as needlessly time-consuming as being stopped at an extraordinarily lengthy red light. Grade: C-

READER COMMENTS:

kenthebox@hotmail.com writes: Hi there. I've been reading your site for a while now, and I really enjoy it. You've turned me on to a whole slew of good new music, and I appreciate it. =]

Anyway, that said, I've got a bit of a bone to pick with you regarding your review of "The Glow pt. 2" by the Microphones. The comparison to Neutral Milk Hotel is a valid one, and if you put a gun to my head and forced me to choose one album (why would you do that, though?!), I would probably go with "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea", but personally I think they're both pretty close to being equals. The big difference of course is that, where "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" is carefully crafted and arranged in order to create eleven near-perfect lo-fi pop gems, "The Glow, pt. 2" is a near-Guided by Voices sprawling mess of a record going in a zilion different directions at once. Where you hear an album that's "dull" and "shapeless", I hear a record filled with gorgeous melodies -- some more gorgeous than others, because the songs work very much on a hit-or-miss basis -- and varied, eclectic arrangements.

Though this could all be just a matter of personal taste, as so many music arguments are. I've been hurling adjectives like dull, slow and shapeless at Pink Floyd for years and preached Genesis Genesis GENESIS for years now to no avail. =]

A word to the wise, though... if you thought "The Glow, pt. 2" was dull, then stay the hell away from their other highly-touted album "It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water". Not only is that thing deadly dull, it seems like Phil is actively trying to annoy the shit out of me when I listen to it.

LoadesC writes: This is one of the best bands going these days. The only criticism I can give is that their albums sound too similar, but seeing as they make music that is pretty much unlike any other band then thats just a minor gripe. Great music that never annoys and is light years away from shitty chart pop.

WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT THE MICROPHONES


Microstoria

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_snd

Willie's comments: Until I got fired for getting headaches, I worked as the administrative assistant at a nonprofit organization, which required me to spend a lot of time in the copy room. Though it wasn't the most intellectually challenging environment I've ever been in, I came to crave the meditative smothering that the copy room imposed upon me. Particularly before my daily caffeine kicked in, I found there was a techno-Zen tranquility hidden amid the constant voicemail beeps and fluorescent hums of an office that barely understood the dated technology it possessed. That's the tone of this, the second album from Microstoria, which is an experimental project from Jan St. Werner (of Mouse on Mars and, less notably, Lithops) and Markus Popp (of Oval). It's not "ambient music" in the usual, Eno-derived sense of the term, by which I mean it's not, largely, based on identifiable notes... unless you have such naturally perfect pitch that you could pick out notes in an electronic door chime or the buzzing of a snoozing postage meter. Rather, it's ambient noise presented in patterns, with underplayed titles like "Quit Not Save," "Sleepy People/Network Down," and "Bpi." If you pay attention, you can pick out bass chords and synth samples, but you're really not supposed to consciously notice the content of tracks like the transcendent "Per Formal," which invites a sort of bureaucratic hypnosis that you won't get in trouble for indulging. Even when feedback threatens to puncture the dazed haze, it remains mostly subliminal: server troubles in someone else's office. _snd is a choir of cherubim for IT guys. The squalling of fax machines disappearing into the sound baffles on disposable cubicle walls. You can almost smell the toner. Grade: A-

SEE ALSO: MOUSE ON MARS

SEE ALSO: LITHOPS

WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT MICROSTORIA


Midnight Oil

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Head Injuries

Willie's comments: The second album from these perennially iconoclastic Aussies (after a self-titled debut) will probably surprise fans of their later, more aggressive work. Understandably, the band hadn't quite decided on a defining sound at this point in their career, which allows for a nice buffet of tones and styles on Head Injuries (see Capricornia below for an explanation of how finding a "defining sound" can mean creative paralysis), but for all its bright spots, it's a smorgasboard of tones and styles from 1979. "Section 5 (Bus to Bondi)," for instance, sounds like a tribute to Split Enz with its dorky piano banging, and the artfully arranged guitars of "Naked Flame" recall no one so much as Rush. All this is fine if, like me, you dig early new wave production values because of their artificial glossiness, but it's really not a style that suits Midnight Oil's spitefully didactic "message" songs. Although Nightmare Before Christmas-looking frontman Peter Garrett is less explicit in his politically motivated rants than he would later become, the protests of songs like "No Reaction" don't quite fit with their chimey guitars and chewy choruses (which aren't powerhouse-anthemic at this point so much as they are disposably catchy). Still, if you're going into the album just looking for some moody, early-'80s rock as opposed to effective Green Party jingles, Head Injuries is consistently engaging. "Koala Sprint" is worth a listen if only for its gorgeous, synth-based coda, while "Profiteers" is an ominous delight, and "Cold Cold Change" is an infectious- albeit muted- rocker that seems like it harbors ambitions to become a Poison-esque hair metal epic. You know how it feels when you're looking at dorky old pictures of your girlfriend in her high school yearbook, and although you're jokingly making fun of her, you secretly think that she looked pretty hot even then? That's what Head Injuries is like, in retrospect. Grade: B+

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Place Without a Postcard

Willie's comments: Geez-o-pete. "Dated" does not begin to describe how obsolete and ineffectual this album sounds today, though I'd question whether anyone was particularly impressed by it even twenty years ago. Famous rock producer Glyn Johns was recruited to helm Place Without a Postcard, and the album bears the marks of a producer who was enamored of all the then-trendy punk/new wave production tricks (which are here in even greater force than on Head Injuries) and determined to use them regardless of whether they fit the style of the band he was working with. The experiment yields a couple of crazy guitar tones (the super-flanger on "Written in the Heart," for example, or the slow-building solo on the otherwise limp "Brave Faces"), but mostly, Midnight Oil's songs are just saddled with an unbecoming jerkiness. Jagged rhythms, airless drums, and sharp guitars might have worked for Wire, the Talking Heads, and Black Sea-era XTC, but it leaves Midnight Oil's blustery tunes sounding stranded and detached. Compounding the problem, the band frequently stops in its tracks in the middle of songs like "Basement Flat," slipping into quasi-"smoldering" breakdowns when they should be hitting their stride. Catchy little licks do pop up here and there on Place Without a Postcard, particularly on the three-song suite composed of "Quinella Holiday," "Loves on Sale," and "If Ned Kelly Was King," which bounds madly about through a series of musical fragments that, if fleshed out, could probably have yielded a mini-album's worth of great songs on their own. However, the performances are muted, and even Garrett never really comes unhinged in his uniquely compelling way. And believe me, nothing kills the charm of Midnight Oil faster than the red-faced emotion being sucked from their music. Grade: C

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10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1

Willie's comments: The first album on which the band seems as though they've fixed their collective glare on a definite patch of musical territory, 10987654321 shows Peter Garrett finally getting specific with his gripes ("US Forces" includes an amusing jab at L. Ron Hubbard, while "Short Memory" lists numerous atrocities that have been committed worldwide) and the band finally coalescing into a confidently scrappy unit. True, the new wave cues that dominate songs like "Outside World" (which sounds like a pissed-off Psychedelic Furs outtake) and "Somebody's Trying to Tell Me Something" are becoming increasingly uncomfortable as the band moves toward more anthemic material, but any chintziness is overpowered by the militant charge of the songwriting. "Power and the Passion," for instance, is a solid enough rocker to surmount not only its jerky, Oingo Boingo-style arrangement, but an embarrassing drum break in the middle. Still, the band is at its best when it charts its own path and plays down the early '80s nonsense, as on the hummable "Read About It" or the gratifyingly complex "Scream in Blue," which begins as a trippy bit of guitar abuse but suddenly falls into a twisted, Noel Coward-by-way-of-Pink Floyd chamber-rock song. This album stops short of becoming a classic, concluding as it does with three relatively weak tracks, but it's the first real exhibition we've had of the pairing of combative anger and accessible hooks that Midnight Oil would build their reputation on. Grade: B+

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Red Sails in the Sunset

Willie's comments: This album is sort of like the Bizarro Place Without a Postcard. It's a return to the fake-sounding cheese of that album, but this time it all works except for the three-song suite at the end ("Harrisburg," "Bells and Horns in the Back of Beyond," and "Shipyards of New Zealand," which might not qualify as a suite, strictly speaking, but they flow pretty neatly into each other and all feature the same bland synth-drone structure). The difference between the two albums is that Postcard was full of smudgy, half-formed songs that were further hampered by its trapped-in-the-'80s production, whereas Red Sails in the Sunset embraces the mid-'80s musical zeitgeist and employs it in the service of the sort of newly mature slogan-rock they'd perfected on their previous record. It's a strange listen at first: guitarists Jim Moginie and Martin Rotsey are relegated to the background on most tracks, with the musical focus shifting to bassist Peter Gifford and drummer Rob Hirst (whose instruments have been electronically tweaked until they almost sound like transplanted rhythm tracks from Joy Division songs). This confusion is furthered by the exciting opening track, "When the Generals Talk," which replaces Garrett's righteous bray with Hirst's somewhat plainer, Aussie-accented vocals, and cruises along to a thin (yet funky) arrangement that could've sprung from Michael Jackson's pre-Bad songbook. Stop fighting this inexplicable turn of events, though, and you've got a great collection of songs that are as simultaneously memorable and dark as anything Midnight Oil has ever done. The singles "Best of Both Worlds" and "Kosciusko" are comparatively normal tracks that will help most listeners find their way through the thick overgrowth of the rest of the album, but it's more rewarding to work a few moments to appreciate slower tracks like "Sleep" (a great musical lick in the chorus lands this among my favorite Oil songs) and "Who Can Stand in the Way" (is that a sample from the Psycho score?). Most of this stuff probably falls as close to Rockwell as it does to the Midnight Oil who wrote "Blue Sky Mine," but what a fabulous middle ground they find. Grade: A-

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Diesel and Dust

Willie's comments: Interesting album covers really aren't Midnight Oil's thing, are they? Just an observation. Anyway, this album marks a return to the pounding anthems of 10, 9, 8... but with all of the new wave elements finally out of their system. In fact, because this album contains two of the band's biggest Stateside hits- the top-notch blisters of Aboriginal support "Beds are Burning" and "The Dead Heart"- this jangly, harmonic style of rock is the sound that most people associate with Midnight Oil in the first place. And if you like those songs, you shan't be disappointed in the rest of the record. Diesel and Dust is fairly stripped-down, generally sticking to a simple guitar/bass/drum formula and skimping on the amusing noises that made their previous couple albums so oddly fascinating, but jaw-droppingly catchy songs like "Sometimes" and "Bullroarer" don't need any fancy guitar shredding or production tricks to be terrific. (Though I do enjoy the way the latter song is set to a rhythmic sample of a whooshing boomerang.) Despite some irksomely logy tempos here and there ("Put Down That Weapon," "Warakurna"), and a big, boring whiff in the form of "Arctic World," Diesel and Dust is a good starting point for Midnight Oil newbies: it's not challenging in the least, but that just means that there's a lot of easily accessible substance here. Grade: B+

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Blue Sky Mining

Willie's comments: This album opens with the absolute pinnacle of Midnight Oil's career: the sort-of title track "Blue Sky Mine" is the crushed lament of a sugar refinery worker that contains one of the most exhilarating choruses ever penned, a galloping tempo, and a strangely upbeat bridge, as well as urgent backing vocals and a terrific, howling harmonica break. If R.E.M. were out of the equation, I'd call it the best jangle-rock song of all time. Blue Sky Mining itself is, unfortunately, only sporadically as thrilling as that song. "Forgotten Years" contains another in the group's series of genetically enhanced SuperChoruses, and both "One Country" and "Antarctica" capitalize upon Midnight Oil's penchant for occasionally dispensing with a driving rhythm, and patiently bringing some songs to a slow boil. (The former is actually quite moving, while the latter turns the phrase "I am a storm cloud" into something far scarier- even if it does sound like Garrett is saying, "I am a snowplow.") However, their fondness for slow, droney numbers becomes fatally annoying on the uneventful "Bedlam Bridge" and the OMD-esque "Mountains of Burma." It's interesting to hear this singlemindedly political band attempt a love song on the catchy "Shakers and Movers," and ultimately I wish the Oils had taken a few more risks like that here, as opposed to phoned-in tracks like "King of the Mountain." At any rate, I can't see giving this album a wholehearted recommendation to anyone who was planning on spending more than maybe six dollars on it, but it's still not an album that a self-respecting Midnight Oil fan should really be without. Grade: B

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Scream in Blue Live

Willie's comments: To say that Peter Garrett has a unique stage demeanor is understating things a bit. In the band's heydey, he would thrash madly all around the stage, like a short-circuiting battle-droid, bellowing political statements and just generally making it impossible to look anywhere else. (I saw the band perform on Saturday Night Live when I was 11, and he scared the living crap out of me.) I recently caught the band on the Capricornia tour, and though the years seem to have calmed him a little bit, there's still no preparing you for how unnervingly captivating- and a little intimidating- it is to see this hulking, hairless, ripped Aussie giant leap onstage and fix his scowl of blame squarely on you. He's like a socially-conscious version of Kurtz from Heart of Darkness, in the sense that his very presence is so imposing that he seems practically omnipotent, and you're never quite able to let your guard down because he carries such an air of frustration and vague menace. That powerful attitude comes through even without his visual hijinks on this live retrospective (culling tracks from various shows between 1982 and 1990), and the rest of the band steps up their performances to match his urgency. Where the Oils' studio tracks are occasionally marred by a certain airless distance- a feeling that they've handicapped the songs' energy a little, for some reason- here the band comes out firing. Songs that seemed rather minor on previous albums, such as "Brave Faces," "Stars of Warburton," and "Sell My Soul," are recast as arena-size rock classics- inventive solos and all- while the already-classic "Beds are Burning" and "Sometimes" are present in heartfelt renditions that are boosted by the way the band is obviously feeding off the crowd's enthusiasm. One gets the impression that these guys are never happier than when they're able to totally deliver on the audience's desire to rock, to a point where the crowd even gives it up for improvised screeds about the Aboriginal people of Australia (such as the one present at the end of "Progress"), and that joy permeates the entire album. I bet videos of these performances would be even more packed with revelations, but failing that, Scream in Blue Live is a fine collection of snapshots of Midnight Oil at their best. Grade: A

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Earth and Sun and Moon

Willie's comments: The Oils sound more confident and energized on Earth and Sun and Moon than they have on any studio album since 10, 9, 8. Even on the slightest of tracks here ("Now or Never Land"), the harmonies are sharp, the rhythm section crackles, and Garrett sounds practically Bono-esque in his cocksure vocal swagger. It's kind of a shame, then, that the pleasures of this album are considerably scaled down when compared with the peaks of their previous work- consistently though they deliver those pleasures here. That is, there are no unimpeachable, quintessential Midnight Oil tracks here on par with "Blue Sky Mine" or "Sometimes" that immediately stand out as brilliant. Instead, you just get clever melodic turns like the naggingly rousing chorus to "My Country" and the goosebump-inducing, haunting piano line to "Bushfire": isolated moments of joy whose sheer numbers more than add up to a satisfying listen, but vanish like disappearing butterflies as soon as the songs are over. Even after several listens, solid songs like "Feeding Frenzy" and "Drums of Heaven" still lack a certain musical substance that I can't quite put my finger on. When you get right down to it, Earth and Sun and Moon is more a light snack than a proper, heavy, sit-in-your-stomach-like-a-hockey-puck Midnight Oil meal. If that's what you're in the mood for, terrific- it's good ephemeral fun. Grade: B+

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Breathe

Willie's comments: If you're not averse to living in a land of fantasy and imagination, listening to Breathe can be an interesting experience. Here's how: pretend that it's twenty years in the future, presumably after Midnight Oil has retired from the lucrative world of rockin', and Peter Garrett has gone on to an even more lucrative position in the Tostitos brand United Nations. To mark their belated induction into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, some record company has finally released Breathe, the so-called "lost" Midnight Oil record that was recorded on a whim during the band's five-year hiatus between Earth and Sun and Moon and Redneck Wonderland but deemed too weak to release by the band. (To be clear, Breathe was actually released in 1996; we're still pretending here.) With the lowered expectations that come with this curiosity finally being unearthed, it's a decent little conversation piece (assuming that, 20 years from now, you'll be traveling in social circles that consist mostly of chatty Midnight Oil fans). It's easy to see why the record was shelved for so long- it's awfully bland for the Oils, without any of their trademark hooks or energy. The songs sound like they were recorded during a period of writer's block for the band, as the songs just sort of trudge around restlessly without much notable happening. Just utterly average beats, exhausted riffs, and occasional one-off genre exercises like the dull cowboy tune "One Too Many Times." One can practically hear Garrett stalking madly around the studio on midtempo sludge like "Star of Hope," "Surf's Up Tonight," and "Common Ground," futilely willing inspiration to strike. And in all fairness, inspiration does make a couple cameos here, in the the identifiably Australian melody of "Barest Degree," and in "Sins of Omission," which finds the spirit of David Byrne possessing Garrett in some interesting vocal contortions. That's not enough to make for any sort of relistening value here, but if you view it as a commemorative bone thrown to the band's fans who've been clamoring to hear these rejected demos all these years, it can be worth a spin. For those of you who prefer to spend your waking moments in reality instead of an Amelie-esque fantasy world, though, Breathe really doesn't have any such redeeming historical value to make it interesting. It's just a cold, unappealing little blip surrounded by better albums in the Oils discography. Grade: C-

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Redneck Wonderland

Willie's comments: From the opening seconds of the album, when an agitable drill-'n'-bass drum machine flutters around a highly processed guitar line, only to be instantly slaughtered by a furiously noisy hook that puts Trent Reznor to shame, it's clear that Redneck Wonderland is not going to be content to lounge around on the same shimmery beach that the band has been successfully broadcasting from at least since Diesel and Dust. As the armed kangaroo on its cover suggests (if you can see him as vaguely threatening instead of cute), this is the most aggressive music Midnight Oil has ever produced, and like David Bowie's Earthling, the liberal use of techno and industrial elements here doesn't at all seem like a desperate bid for relevance, but just an expert use of musical technology to reinvigorate an artist in the mood for a stylistic reinvention. The effect is incredible: hearing Garrett let out a few primal howls to compete with the raging guitars on "Concrete," feeling Dwane Hillman's bass in your chest as it's distorted until it sounds like an airplane even on the calm "The Great Gibber Plain," forgiving uninspired lyrics like "White skin black heart" because the band's music finally matches the passionate lash of their political vitriol. Don't worry, though, if the thought of Midnight Oil taking inspiration from Ministry seems unappetizing; there is no shortage of amazing melodies here. Whether they're just turning in spiked variations on their typically anthemic style ("Comfortable Place on the Couch"), Beach Boys-style pop songs ("Drop in the Ocean"), or even experimenting with oddly-tuned, swampy piano rock (the astoundingly creepy "Safety Chain Blues"), this is the most consistently well-constructed and original set of tunes they've ever turned in. Best of all, "Return to Sender" is an impressively smooth funk-rock confection that's based around a nifty organ that sounds borrowed from Beck's "Where It's At," but is also more sultry and hummable than anything off his Midnite Vultures. I'll allow that "Blot" is a mistake, sounding as it does like several song scraps that were sewn together by some mad studio engineer, but it's the only track here that's not handled with the utmost care. I know I'm probably the only person ever to rank this as the band's best album, but trust me on this one. Moreso even than political punks like Bad Religion, Redneck Wonderland presents the sounds of musicians who are at warGrade: A

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Capricornia

Willie's comments: Well, it seems Midnight Oil have their niche pretty well staked out on this, their fourteenth studio album. Garrett spits political/environmental screeds at you as his bandmates play some of the most anthemic music ever recorded. As always, Midnight Oil's music is all about the chorus- they take the position that, like any good political slogan, if it doesn't get stuck in your head, then it doesn't work. If the chorus doesn't positively soar with their tight harmonies and rhythms, then they'll write a verse section that sounds really ugly so that the chorus seems heavenly by comparison (as they did on "Beds are Burning"). Finally, they add some resourceful, jangly lead guitar playing atop it all (that doesn't do anything particularly inventive but is nevertheless engaging), and you've got yourself a recipe for catchy rock music, my friend. You certainly can't complain that this formula isn't effective on Capricornia. If anything, songs like "Golden Age" and "Been Away Too Long" are as refreshing as a cold Foster's on a hot Outback day would be (if Foster's didn't taste like Pine-Sol). However, it's hard to escape the feeling that this album marks a step backward for the band. Unfortunately, Redneck Wonderland was roundly ignored by fans and critics alike, so this seems like the band is sheepishly returning to what has worked for them in years past, and the strain to write another "Blue Sky Mine" or "Beds are Burning" is obvious in a few phoned-in tracks like "Too Much Sunshine" and "Mosquito March." Still, those songs are the exception rather than the rule here, and whether the band is running in place or not, Capricornia is anything but unsatisfying. Grade: B

READER COMMENTS:

John Schlegel writes: Regarding earlier Midnight Oil, it's refreshing to hear from someone who likes Red Sails the most. 10,9,8... is my favorite Oils album (and one of my favorite albums of all time), but Red Sails is probably my second-favorite, and easily falls within my top 30 list. Some reputable on-line critics (Alroy, Brian Burks) aren't too wacky on that release. It sounds excessive, but all the unique studio tricks are still enticing, except for on the last three songs, like you said.

As for Head Injuries, I think 10,9,8... deserves a somewhat higher grade, but your overall summation is good. I have but one complaint about your comments. Or maybe two. "Section 5 (Bus to Bondi)" and "Naked Flame" are MY FAVORITE SONGS ON THE ALBUM!! But whatever . . . Those are actually two of the All Music Guide picks for best songs on the album (although that may come as an insult to me).

As for 10,9,8... itself, you said the last three songs were mediocre, or something like that. But I rather like "Tin Legs and Tin Mines," and I think a lot of fans may like that one too. That eerie, '50s style dance groove is pretty cool if you ask me. But no biggie.

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A Mighty Wind soundtrack

Willie's comments: The joy of Christopher Guest's mockumentary films Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show (like Spinal Tap before them) lay chiefly in the deadpan subtlety with which the characters spoke lines of utter insanity. No out-of-character mugging, no Kevin Smith-style hyper-articulate monologues, no pratfalls: just dozens upon dozens of quiet little moments where, say, Fred Willard's character would unflinchingly brag, "We consider ourselves bicoastal if you consider the Mississippi River one of the coasts." Off-kilter enough to be funny, but more importantly, just realistic enough to be hysterically so. The same principle applies to the soundtrack of Guest's newest film, A Mighty Wind, which concerns the reunions of three fictional folk acts from the '60s and '70s; but for the occasional, well-placed comic exaggeration of the genre, the 17 songs here could be an actual, K-Tel-worthy overview of the folk era. The tunes are evenly split among the three bands: The Folksmen (a corny trio modeled on the Kingston one, featuring Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, and Guest), Mitch & Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara, mocking Sonny & Cher and a host of other folk couples), and The New Main Street Singers (a side-splittingly cutesy take-off on The New Christy Minstrels, led by John Michael Higgins and Jane Lynch), and the songs were all written and performed by the actors. And they're all brilliant.

Musically, it'd be hard for even the most earthy of hippies to top the lush acoustic arrangements and flawless harmonies featured here. Especially on the Mitch & Mickey tunes (genuinely pretty ballads like "One More Time" and "A Kiss At the End of the Rainbow," with Levy and O'Hara's voices rapturously embracing one another), these songs are as sturdy and tuneful as anything ever written by, say, Peter, Paul & Mary or The Kingston Trio themselves. (Or, in the case of Shearer's "Loco Man," Harry Belafonte.) Even if the New Main Street Singers' tunes are intentionally annoying in their up-with-people cheeriness, they're consistently arranged with the utmost care. This is important when you consider that the frequent laughs come not from blatant, "Weird Al" Yankovic-style goofiness, but rather from minor tweakings of folk's syrupy-sincere formula until the whole song comes out transcendentally silly. The Folksman's "Blood on the Coal," for instance, is ostensibly a commemoration of a train disaster from the 19th century, but it's really a treasure trove of hilariously bad lyrics like, "Every miner worked the coal face/Every one of them alive." The tiny details pile up more and more- the bewildering logic leaps in the Biblical story "The Good Book Song," Guest's pretentious Spanish accent in "Skeletons of Quinto," and so on- until you're left in stitches. Obviously, you're going to get more out of this disc if you've seen the movie and know the characters well enough to understand how their quirks relate to the music, but the jokes never derail the songs to a point that they couldn't be enjoyed by an inquisitive, uninitiated music consumer like yourself. (One word of caution, though: don't listen to the uproarious title track until after you've seen the film, or you'll spoil the best cinematic punchline of the last five years for yourself.) Wha' happened?! Grade: A

READER COMMENTS:

SoulCrusher77 writes: My dad's purchase of a 60's folk box set from PBS around the same time I first saw the movie definitely helped me appreciate the musical elements further. To me the best example of Guest and company's subtle parody of the folk-song style is the opening lines of "Never Did No Wanderin'": "My mama was the cold north wind/ my daddy was the son/ of a railroad man from west of hell/ where the trains don't even run". It took me a couple viewings of the movie to suddenly grasp how hillariously they deconstructed typical "origins of a loner folk hero" type lyrics into complete nonsense there. Not to mention the line "They say the highway's just one big road, and it goes from here to there" in the very same song. And of course "A Kiss At The End Of The Rainbow" is just a gorgeous song no matter how you slice it. The Folksmen's hillarious rendition of the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" is a great extra, but I really wish the incredibly macabre murder ballad duet Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara performed in one of the outtakes on the dvd was included, if only for it's bizarre contrast with the rest of their material.

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Rhett Miller

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The Instigator

Willie's comments: Listening to the second solo album by Rhett Miller, frontman of the Old 97's, is like eating an entire bag of potato chips for dinner. For awhile, it's good, homogenous, unhealthy fun, but about halfway through, you'll start craving some sort of substance or variety, and that craving gives way to remorse by the end of the experience. Toning down the country influences that mark his usual band (whose albums are more like eating an entire bag of pork rinds- just as unhealthy, and they don't even taste good to begin with), and hooking up with producer/multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion, Miller has assembled a bunch of really simple three-chord guitar-pop songs here, and roughly half of them fall on the happy side of the line between "disposably enjoyable" and "irritatingly underwritten." Power-pop numbers like "Our Love" and "The El" are really nothing special, but they're basic and hooky enough to stick with you for weeks at a time, and the sweet, quiet "World Inside the World" overcomes its thuddingly obvious rhymes ("If love is all we're made of, then what am I afraid of?") with a gentle chorus that simply demands that you sing along to it. Lots of the other songs, though (most irksomely "Your Nervous Heart"), just sort of float around and don't have much to offer in the way of memorably dumb melodies the way the best songs do. It doesn't help that Brion's production is stupefyingly unimaginative until the final track, "Terrible Vision," which overflows with the sort of ear-candy bells and whistles that he usually indulges in, and that might've spackled in some of Miller's songwriting holes elsewhere. As is, I'd still take The Instigator over Ryan Adams anyday, but it's not consistently interesting or satisfying enough for it ever to be mentioned in the same breath as great guitar-pop records like Matthew Sweet's 100% Fun or Odds' Good Weird Feeling. (Except a breath that compares it unfavorably, as I just did, I suppose.) I kinda want some chips now. Grade: B-

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: ROBYN HITCHCOCK

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Takako Minekawa

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Roomic Cube

Willie's comments: Takako Minekawa occupies a fun middle ground in the world of Japanese pop: her music is neither so thoroughly kitschy as the lounge parties of Pizzicato Five, nor as emotionless as the perfectionistic, studio-bound products of Cornelius, instead managing to be both cute and brilliantly produced (in the case of this, her second album, by Minekawa and her countrymen Buffalo Daughter). Shame, then, that so much of Roomic Cube plays like the underwritten filler of someone who's so excited to have learned how to use ProTools that it winds up being all arrangement and no song. That's not to say Minekawa isn't capable of great tunes, because when she applies herself, she winds up twinkling in the pop stratosphere, and the production of, say, "Fantastic Cat" (kiddie bounce-pop powered by a recorder riff!) or "Klaxon!" (vocoders and pitch-changed vocals!) improves things even more. Even the minimal "Destron," with its droning keyboards and clanging, distorted drums, is a success because of the way Minekawa throws herself into her singing (she's got an impressively emotional little-girl voice), but songs like the loungey "1.666666" and "Wooooog" don't have that one crucial element to make them feel finished, instead amounting to little more than piles of loops, samples, and other sorts of repetition. It's fun enough, but it's a card that's played far too frequently for Roomic Cube to be fully worth repeated listens. Grade: B

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: BUFFALO DAUGHTER

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Mineral Kings

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Atomic Numbers

Willie's comments: The Mineral Kings are the sort of band you could call "master craftsmen." This three-piece rock outfit from California doesn't really do anything new in their music, nor do they attempt to. There's no need for quirks or production tricks or smarty-pants pretension when you can bash out melodic, straightforward guitar songs as confident and sturdy as these guys do. Unfortunately, without the quirks or production tricks or smarty-pants pretension, this critic has a hard time thinking of things to say about this style of music, but I want to emphasize (before I plow on with this muddled review) that this is indicative only of a lack of creativity on my part, not the band's. There is no end to the wiggle room the Kings find within their basic song structures: guitarist-and-bassist Art Forte expertly layers his parts (generally three or four) atop one another for maximum thrust, while vocalist Carv Tefft belts out his lines with a Mack truck of a singing voice. (Not so reedy that he sounds like Michael Stipe, but not so beefy that he sounds like a Barenaked Lady, either.) The overall effect of great songs like the shimmering "Cabo" or the rollicking "October" is akin to the Tragically Hip with less of a chip on their collective shoulder. The Kings have a knack for nailing hooks together with the assured nonchalance of a carpenter putting together an entertainment unit, and coming up with jangly, sincere songs that simply feel like the breezy freedom of careening down a highway with no clear destination in mind. Grade: A-

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Metropolis

Willie's comments: With a new drummer-slash-lead guitarist (Tony Morosini, whose guitar stylings I actually prefer to those of Slash... dumb joke, sorry) replacing previous drummer Steve Juliano, the Kings sound even more sure of themselves on Metropolis than on their debut. I wouldn't have thought it possible, but Tefft's vocals have actually gained in power and presence, and they're no longer hidden behind a "Benny and the Jets"-style echo, meaning his melodies hit you full-force on infectious songs like "Scared to Death" and the Midnight Oil-esque anthem "Jack O'Lantern." Buoyed by the shared guitar duties of Forte and Morosini, the band pulls off the impressive feat of giving each song a creative identity without straying from their undisputed territory of no-frills rock gems. "Sweet," for instance, kicks off with a stunningly pretty guitar line and then organically builds a head of steam that could power a bullet train, while "North Beach Drifter" makes my shortlist of truly perfect choruses, and the brilliant religious inquiry "A Lot Like You" is aptly described in the liner notes as having "a preacher-like urgency." (I like it when bands review their own tunes- saves me the trouble, and I can devote more time to looking for fan sites of Amy Wynn from Trading Spaces.) I refuse to spend another hour struggling for a proper concluding statement to this review, so let me just go the blunt route and say Metropolis is very good! If you are at all into rock of the sort for which the term was coined- no modifiers like "indie," "hard," "punk," or "folk" necessary- I urge you to visit the Mineral Kings' site and check them out. Grade: A

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Moby

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Everything is Wrong

Willie's comments: This electronica curiosity opens with the lovely “Hymn,” an awe-inspiring instrumental built around a simple piano line. From there, it jump-cuts to aerobics class dance music (“Everytime You Touch Me”), video game hardcore (“All That I Need is to be Loved”), creepy blues-based metal that would scare the crap out of Limp Bizkit (“What Love”), and everything in between. The last half of the album is less schizophrenic, however, focusing on slow, funky dub experiments and wonderful spiritual soundscapes. “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” is the perfect soundtrack to watching a lava lamp. Grade: A

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Play

Ginny's comments: What a GREAT album! I procrastinated buying this album for awhile because of its popularity on sitcom promos, but after I heard a few of them featured on X-Files, I just had to have this CD. And what an album it is- Play is Moby in all of his God-fearing, animal-loving glory. Sampling everything from old blues and jazz singers to gospel, Moby creates an artfully amazing piece of work that's in a class all its own. While a lot of albums tend to fizzle out toward the end, Play only gets better- its shining moments being the final three glorious tracks. If you make a mix tape considering putting "My Weakness" at the end. It's a powerful song that will leave you in tears and you'll have no idea why. GRADE: A+

Willie's comments: The order of the day on Play is low-key techno tracks that sample liberally from old-time blues records, and work them into a modern groove that maintains the original songs' sense of weariness and pain, but updates them for the dancefloor (in the same vein as the Primitive Radio Gods' "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand"). "Natural Blues," "Honey," and "Run On" best exemplify this motif, and they're all strangely personal, affecting songs, even when they sound like they're being beamed to you from a 70-year-old radio. However, never one to stick to only one musical genre, Moby spreads things around with tracks like "If Things Were Perfect," a rocker on which he quietly recites a confessional poem in a Harold Budd-ish voice. And, of course, no X-Phile should be without the ethereal closer, "My Weakness"; this ghostly (and heart-rendingly pretty) whisper of a song was the music playing when Mulder finally found out what happened to his sister! Grade: A+

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18

Willie's comments: Upon hearing 18, Moby's hugely-hyped follow-up to Play, my friend Kris had the following reaction: "It's basically just Play all over again. Which is okay, since I like Play a lot, but if he does it again, I'm gonna be pissed." Kris pretty much summed it all up right there, but since this is supposed to be my review, I'll expound upon it a little. All the hallmarks of Moby's previous album are here in abundance: blues samples, relaxed breakbeats driving the songs, and tons of his instantly recognizable, synthesized, minor key piano/string arrangements. Frankly, it's this last part that makes songs like "In My Heart," "Look Back In," and "18" sound like retreads of his older material; Moby has fallen back on these majestically sad chords so many times that they now sound about as original and effective as the Mark Snow rip-offs that serve as incidental music on CSI. (In the liner notes to this album, Moby states that he's written about 3,000 songs, and it's easy to imagine what most of them sound like, from the evidence here.) Where 18 differs from truly redundant albums like Mercury Rev's All is Dream, though, is that there are enough subtle upgrades to Play's sound to make this one worth your while. "Another Woman" backs a Barbara Lynn sample with an antsy trance bassline more efficient-sounding than anything we've heard from this guy before, and the guest singers are of a markedly higher caliber, both in name recognition (Sinead O'Connor brogues her way through "Harbour") and vocal style (Freedom Bremner's crushingly lonely singing on the consolation/apology "At Least We Tried"). Oddly enough, the best songs here are the ones that are muttered by Moby's own charmingly plain monotone. "We Are All Made of Stars" is an homage to Bowie's "Heroes" that happens to be infinitely more interesting, catchy, and inspiring than its predecessor, and "Sleep Alone" drifts morosely along on a brilliantly tragic bed of backwards synths and a ghostly echo effect on our hero's voice. Moby should really take a cue from Stephin Merritt and start monkeying around with his production a little more, but if you dug Play, the new discoveries to be had in 18 should redeem the overriding sense that we've visited this place before. Grade: B+

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: SCHOOLHOUSE ROCK ROCKS!

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: AZURE RAY

READER COMMENTS:

Wade Means writes: Maybe I'm the only person on the planet who feels this way, but I've just got to say it: For the love of God, it's time for everyone to get over Moby!

Every time that I listen to Play, I can't help but feel that I'm trapped in the sad, strange world of a group of pretentious Muzak purveyors who, inexplicably, decided to create some technopop tunes. Sure, it's innocuous enough, it's great stuff to which you can take a nap, but is it great art? My answer is a resounding no.

dark.arkive@gmail.com writes: I'm continually conflicted about this dude.

On one hand, he's the highest-selling avatar of the Big Beat boom, a movement I can't stand. Generally speaking, that wave was unsubtle, talentless, personified the emptiness and greed of Y2K, and soured most of America on straight-up electronic music. Only the presence of Limp Bizkit and Blink-182 in the same horrendous era kept Prodigy from being the worst thing on the charts.

On the other hand, Moby's not Prodigy. He's just as attention seeking in his own way, but I prefer yuppie pride and vegetarianism to headache-worthy rave insanity. His stuff is mellow, a wonderful word. Don't mean to sound like an octogenarian, but my favorite electronic music has always been the comparatively quiet stuff--Boards of Canada, Portishead, both Selected Ambient Works albums.

Unfortunately, he's inconsistent, sonically schizophrenic, and can't decide whether to seek the chart or the cult. And then again, he undeniably has some awesome tracks--"Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?", "Hymn", and "Porcelain" remain undeniable. The emotional ambiguity that allowed him to paste these songs onto any commercial or show--thus becoming one of indie's most important trend setters--enhances the songs immeasurably. Rarely has it been easier to pretend songs are about you.

So, I hold Moby up with the Smashing Pumpkins and AC/DC as fairly enjoyable reps of generally unlistenable genres. He's nice enough, but I can't sever his tie to one of my least favorite scenes.

Praise the Lord, the millennium arrived with a whimper, 'cause the bang would've sucked.

Now, where'd I leave my Interpol CD?

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Mocean Worker

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Home Movies from the Brainforest

Willie's comments: Since I am, for all intents and purposes, jobless at the moment (for tax purposes, I consider working at the bookstore a "hobby," for which I receive weekly monetary "gifts"... plus it's less depressing to think of things that way), I've actually been considering driving commercial trucks for a living. Granted, I have neither the physique nor dietary habits of your typical trucker, but something really appeals to me about the notion of getting paid to engage in one of the greatest, simplest pleasures America has to offer: driving alone at night, listening to CDs. At no other time, for me anyway, is it as easy to feel simultaneously contemplative about my own existence (looking at the stars), utterly free (barrelling down the highway), and nice and cozy (safely within the confines of my car), and as with all things, the proper soundtrack still manages to make a perfect experience better. Now, this being an electronica album, its intended audience is probably more likely to be rolling on E than popping No-Doze trucker pills, but the debut disc from DJ Mocean Worker may just be the ultimate late-night driving record.

Mocean Worker's real name is Adam Dorn, and his father Joel is apparently a big-shot record producer, who gave Adam access to any number of nifty old albums he could use to spruce up his addictive, jungly beats. Sometimes the samples are barely noticeable, as in the brief dialogue snippets that are stitched through the dizzy opener "What's Wrong?" and sometimes they make up a bigger portion of the tunes, as with a beautifully lightheaded remix of Gershwin's "Summertime." Either way, though, the sounds of old, organic songs make for welcome, identifiably human sounds when they're shuffled in with the speedy rattling drums, beveled-edge keyboards, and humming bass noises that make up the base of songs like "American Tabloid" and "Son of Slam." Best of all, Dorn is a skilled enough performer to be able to slalom back and forth between techno genres, so Home Movies never gets stuck in a headachey creative cul-de-sac. There is an overriding "jungle" influence to the proceedings, but the Worker tosses in trancey bits, drum-and-bassy bits, and some big, juicy turntable casseroles (most notably "The Mission," a jazzy spy theme that the Beastie Boys would wolf down) to keep things lively. If you've never had the Volkswagen-commercial sensation of pure exhilaration that comes from your music merging with the night as you put miles between yourself and your point of origin, the Brainforest will help take you there. That's right. I've crossed over from writing music criticism into sycophantic ad copy. Grade: A

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Mixed Emotional Features

Willie's comments: The beats are more up-front and rather more aggressive on Dorn's second record, and although his sensibility is far too whimsical for things to get oppressive or dark, he occasionally stakes too much on the effectiveness of his pounding rhythms. The record starts strong, with "Rene M," an eight-minute epic that features a beautiful keyboard section that would do Plaid proud, and picks up speed through the next two tracks, "Detonator" and "Jello Dart," which are welcome returns to the fusion of jazzy samples and drum-and-bass that made Brainforest so addictive. ("Jello Dart" fills the mix with flailing, squishy bass noises that would be irritating if they weren't so entertainingly goofy, and the Latin-tinged rhythm so tasty.) Mixed Emotional Features is somewhat less interesting thereafter, though. Still lots of fun, but although tracks like "Mycroft" should fit the bill for anyone with a jones for huge jungle beats, Dorn's precocious personality seems absent. He's awfully stingy with the clever winks at the dance music of the past here, instead wearing out whatever synth it is that makes those whomping bass sweeps. Can't imagine any electronica fanatics would complain, though, since even a detached-sounding Mocean Worker is the sort of turntable virtuoso that comes along only once out of maybe a billion DJs. (Recent UN estimates show that one out of every six human beings considers himself a "DJ" at this point.) Grade: B+

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Aural & Hearty

Willie's comments: Ha! Well, apparently, Dorn has macheted his way out of the jungle, only to wander into the middle of a huge, swingin' bonfire get-together, because this is nothing like the previous two records. It's a big, funny, beer-commercial party album! The techno tracks here (comprising maybe half the record) are awesome house music flare-ups, with tracks like "Intothinair" and "Astroglide" forsaking subtlety in favor of BOOM-chik-BOOM-chik beats and cartoonish basslines, but in ways that provoke assured hip-shakin'. The rest of the songs, though, are practically novelty tunes, albeit hooky ones. "Hey Baby" features Dorn flirting with the ladies in a hilariously slimy lothario voice, "Tres Tres Chic" grooves along a lounge-pop highway complete with borrowed French vocals, and "Air Suspension" is built around a bunch of whispered vocal grunts that are barely noticeable... until you read the liner notes and discover that they're delivered by Bono, of all random people! I imagine this album probably enraged fans of the Worker's painterly jungle records, because Aural & Hearty is about as deep as a Terrance & Phillip routine, but those people need to learn how to have fun. Not something you could listen to all the time, but I hate parties, and I laughed and danced my way through this entire album, so you are now obliged to do the same. That's how it works. Grade: A-

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: U2

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Modest Mouse

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The Fruit That Ate Itself EP

Willie's comments: This is kind of a waste of time. Modest Mouse are sloppy indie-rockers from Seattle who (for their first couple releases, at least) take the Pixies' bass-driven sound and basically unwind their tightly-coiled rhythms until the songs are as bent and wobbly as a popped spring in a cuckoo clock. Unfortunately, frontman/rapist Isaac Brock exhibits none of Black Francis's charisma, rock instincts, or creativity on this early EP, instead trying to get by on shouted vocal rhythms and lyrics that are just this side of pretentious. ("Sunspots in the House of the Late Scapegoat"? Come on.) "The Waydown" and "Karma's Payment" are serviceable if unremarkable, but Brock's screaming on "Dirty Fingernails" (particularly abrasive amid the undernourished production here) and three pointless backwards tracks should be enough to deter you from bothering to pull this one out of your CD rack more than once, and permanently. Grade: C

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The Lonesome Crowded West

Willie's comments: There is one truly essential song on this, the band's second LP: "Heart Cooks Brain" is a ludicrously bouncy song which is simply one of the most infectious tunes I've ever heard, due in no small part to great, nonsensical lyrics like "My brain's the cliff and my heart's the bitter buffalo". You must hear it. (Evidently, Modest Mouse themselves also thought that it was one of the best songs ever, because seven tracks after "Heart Cooks Brain" appears on this album, you get "Out of Gas," which is basically the same exact song.) The rest of The Lonesome Crowded West is kind of a grab bag. Sometimes they manage to churn out taut, catchy songs like "Convenient Parking" and "Bankrupt on Selling," but more often they fall into an abrasive formula of breathlessly spoken/screamed vocals, jolting tempo changes, shifts in dynamics, and random-sounding noodling. Moreover, many of the songs are just too long- "Truckers Atlas" goes on for over ten minutes, though the last five just consist of the same bassline over and over. In small doses, this stuff is fine, but trying to listen to The Lonesome Crowded West all at once becomes as numbing as working on an assembly line. Grade: B-

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Building Nothing Out of Something

Willie's comments: Alright, just so everyone knows, this is probably the one and only review I will ever write where I am totally and utterly drunk. I smell like cigarettes and I'm terrified of what my coworkers will say to me tomorrow, but I just went out to TGI Friday's with all my Barnes & Noble friends, and my friend Jeff ordered me a "traffic light," which has left me feeling like I'm sitting in my own backseat, watching myself crash into telephone poles. I embarrassed myself by telling the entire table that I am an ugly, ugly man (I saw myself in the bathroom mirror and felt a need to share my revelation with everyone) and by practically breaking into tears when the Talking Heads' "(Nothing But) Flowers" came on the PA system because I was so pathetically sad that the Talking Heads are broken up. And then I told everyone how "I want to put a bullet in my fucking brain," which I thought would strike everyone as hilarious for some reason, but probably upset them. Jen drove me home, and I feel bad for dragging her along with me, since she knew no one at the restaurant and probably felt really uncomfortable there, but I'm so glad she came because I love her a lot and because she tried to stop me from saying stupid things. I'm a happy drunk, but not a very smart one.

Okay, now that I've adequately disclaimered this review, let's get on with it. Building Nothing Out of Something is a compilation from our buddies in Modest Mouse, apparently comprising tracks from various EPs, but it could've easily fooled me into thinking it was a studio album, cohesive as it is. Though there's still a generosity of aimless repetition on this album ("Medication" being the worst offender), breathtakingly moving songs like the poppy "Never Ending Math Equation" and the jittery "Workin' on Leavin' the Livin'" are the missing link between the juvenility of The Lonesome Crowded West and the musical bar mitzvah that is The Moon and Antarctica. There's still nothing particularly original about Modest Mouse's bisque of crooked guitars, monotonous vocal lines, and occasionally off-putting irony ("Sleepwalking," though apparently a cover, sounds like a stupid Gen X version of Richie Valens's "Donna"), but Brock's songwriting is nevertheless making Neil Armstrong-ian leaps toward maturity- in the multi-part firecracker "All Night Diner" or the foreshadowing of "A Life of Arctic Sounds," especially. The debt to Pavement on this record is nearly as insurmountable as the apologies I owe to my coworkers after tonight, but you know what? Building Nothing Out of Something might be a little derivative, but the laid-back indie-rock on display here is mostly magnificent. Find it cheap, if you can. Grade: B+

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The Moon & Antarctica

Ginny's comments: HELLO FRIEND. Gueth what? Modetht Mouthe writh great thongth!! Don't get me wrong, and this is a very ridiculous and superficial thing, I know, but lead singer Isack Brock's lisp drives me nuts while listening to this album. I mean, can you imagine John Lennon singing with a lisp? Or James Earl Jones with a lisp? Or the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES WITH A LISP? Anyway, it tends to undercut the prestige of something quite a bit. In relation to this album, sweeping, beautiful songs begin to sound like they are sung by the dorky kid that sat in the back of the room in school and ate his dandruff, or made rubber cement balls and threw them at you.

Modest Mouse writes a catchy tune. Hmm. "Catchy" almost damns them with faint praise. They write DAMN catchy tunes! "Gravity Rides Everything" is as fun as anything They Might Be Giants ever did, with the whimsy and tunefulness of Weezer or Presidents of The United States of America's whimsical side whimsied in there. Whimsy! "Paper Thin Walls" is Built to Spill-o-rific. "The Cold Part" could almost be a Pink Floyd song, except with a sense of humor about itself. I'm sucking at describing them right now, because I'm just too exicited about my love for Modest Mouse. They aren't your average 10 year olds! So anyway, stop reading this sucky review and go listen to Modest Mouse, already! GRADE: A-

Willie's comments: Ever since Radiohead's OK Computer came out, the term "concept album" has been bandied about much too frequently. The term was coined to denote an album on which every song is concerned with one particular, usually high-minded issue, or there is an artistic conceit that runs throughout the album. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is usually pointed to as the first concept album, with Frank Zappa's We're Only in It for the Money a close second. You could also lump in more recent albums like Salako's Musicality or Grandaddy's The Sophtware Slump because of the unifying thematic links between the songs. However, when you're labeling albums like Yo La Tengo's And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out as a concept album about marriage, or Lambchop's Nixon as a concept album about our infamous ex-president (for Pete's sake!), it's a sign that you've gone a little bit concept-happy. All of this is a rather roundabout way of getting to Modest Mouse's album- often incorrectly cited as some sort of concept album about the titular locations- but I suppose this is as good a place as any to spout off about that.

Anyhoo, Modest Mouse have not created a concept album with The Moon & Antarctica. What they have done is created a very moving, often haunting indie-rock album, and they should be very proud, but not so proud that they don't keep trying to hone their skills. With a few exceptions ("Gravity Rides Everything"), the songs don't have hooks so much as they do patterns of sound. Brock repeats riffs on his guitar in a hypnotic, pendular fashion until the riff- and song- becomes something else entirely, but always in a moody, melodic fashion. "The Cold Part" floats around the eerie lyric "So long to this cold, cold part of the world" until you feel as detached as the song's president of Antarctica. "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes," on the other hand, churns and gallops like a beefed-up song from the Talking Heads' Remain in Light, and the epic "The Stars are Projectors" proves that Modest Mouse are as technically skilled at morphing song structures as the Beta Band (or a calmer Mr. Bungle). I wish Brock's lyrics were better- he obviously wants us to puzzle over them for hours, but they're frankly not that interesting- and I wish his voice didn't sound like he was attempting to emulate Kurt Cobain (who was always attempting to emulate Curt Kirkwood), but these are minor problems with an album as strangely gratifying as this one. They're still a young band; these problems can be corrected in time. Grade: A-

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Sad Sappy Sucker

Willie's comments: Recorded in 1994 but not released until 2001, Sad Sappy Sucker was apparently supposed to be Modest Mouse's debut album, but it was scrapped- most likely for reasons that had as much to do with taste as with the sort of inexplicable red tape that always seems to hold things up. Much like Beck's Stereopathic Soulmanure or most of Daniel Johnston's recordings (two artists that Brock goes to great lengths to imitate here, often uncannily), this album suffers from a terminal case of release-every-second-of-music-we-record-itis, and it should be of interest only to esoteric indie-rock types who willfully mistake tunelessness and lo-fi noise for innovation and quality. The rhythms plod, the guitars wander around in a dazed fashion, and Brock is as far from profound as he's ever been ("Every Penny Fed Car" is a random rumination about cars that continually break down), with nary a decent hook to be found. The whole rotten exercise is then capped with eight musical pebbles (ranging from 27 seconds to 1:19) that Brock recorded for his answering machine, all of which are enjoyable only in that they surely confounded telemarketers. If Modest Mouse was a band of Nirvana-esque importance, Pixies-esque originality, or R.E.M.-esque longevity, perhaps this early artifact would be interesting on some academic level, but they're a band who has only recently proven that they can cut the crap and record a consistently enjoyable album. Thus, this sort of vault-plundering is nothing more than a messy waste of time. Grade: F

READER COMMENTS:

kennyandacurrantbun@yahoo.com writes: isaac is NOT a rapist.

and how can u give the moon & antarctica an A-, but say the lyrics aren't interesting? the lyrics are brilliant! listen to the new one and review that. it rules!

jasbord@hotmail.com writes: I would contend that Isaac is, in fact, a rapist. In particular, his rape of  radiohead and their songs, "true love waits," "Karma POLICE," and "paranoid android," just to name a few; has been brutal. Not to mention their amateurish imitations of radiohead's stage performance. With complete immodesty, theyve assumed the ranks of plagarists such as vanilla ice and milli vanilli. modest manilli, douche-bags royale.Isnt it obvious that these low grade, talentless wannabes simply couldnt hack the whole originality thing and they couldnt be Nirvana, so they settled for ripping off reputable bands and fencing the stolen goods to armies of teenyboppers that know the pixies as 'that one band that had a song in Fight Club?'

Rick Atbert writes: It takes a while to get used to...true, most of the Lonesome Crowded West album goes on too long, but that's exactly the appeal. I found that I really do like most of the songs here, and I can see why Modest Mouse fans look on it so highly. "Doin' the Cockroach" is brilliant, and I actually think "Truckers Atlas" is fantastic, even if it doesn't go anywhere, I still like every minute.

jonathan40@htva.net writes: I must make a comment! How can you all be so critical of their music? It's so funny, Their a great band who do whatever they want! It's their originality that makes them stand out you morons!

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Mogwai

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Rock Action

Willie's comments: I've really gotta stop buying these dense, droney, slow albums that contain few vocals and fewer hooks. Not that I don't love this kind of downer music, but I'm running out of things to say about it. Functioning best as a make-out album for pretentious art students or a burbling catharsis when you're in the midst of a crippling depression (though it's neither as cleansing as Sigur Ros's Agaetis Byrjun nor as hopelessly bleak as a Godspeed You Black Emperor album), Rock Action is basically an ornate musical treadmill. Overworked producer Dave Fridmann gets to cram the songs full of the bells and whistles (literally and figuratively) that he loves so much, and the band's sound-happy arrangements go a long way toward disguising the fact that there's really not much to the album. That's not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. If minor-key hypnosis is what you want, then you really don't need much more than a few endless guitar chords that gradually transform into slightly different chords by the song's end, bolstered by some cameos from numerous other instruments to hold your attention, which is exactly what you get on lengthy numbers like "You Don't Know Jesus" and "Sine Wave" (which careens along to the sound of a drum kit that's distorted to the point of white noise). However, when "2 Rights Make 1 Wrong" illustrates how truly moving Mogwai's sound can be when they integrate their Escher-like repetition into the space of a more fully-formed song, with ethereal vocals and a vaguely uplifting banjo coda, it becomes clear that the remainder of Rock Action is basically a musical pole-vaulter that just failed to clear the bar. Grade: B+

SEE ALSO: THE REINDEER SECTION

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: MERCURY REV, SUPER FURRY ANIMALS; DAVID BYRNE

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Mojave 3

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Out of Tune

Willie's comments: In the late '90s, Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell disbanded their wonderful dreampop band Slowdive to form Mojave 3, an equally wonderful folk-rock group. Their pretty, acoustic sound owes an obvious debt to Nick Drake, though their vocal melodies resemble the mellower facets of the Velvet Underground and Pink Floyd, which makes for tunes that are as distinctive as possible within the genre's constraints. Out of Tune contains nine superb songs, and it is a testament to Halstead's songwriting talents (Goswell gets no writing credits here) that his tunes sound equally at home among pedal steel guitars and pianos as they did among layers of floating, distorted noise in his previous band. "Give What You Take" is a maudlin treat, while "Some Kinda Angel" is uplifting, but each attains the same soft grandeur. Between Mojave 3 and the Trembling Blue Stars, it looks like the Brits have gained the upper hand in modern folk-rock. Blimey! Grade: A

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Excuses for Travellers

Willie's comments: This album is basically more of Out of Tune, except the arrangements are perhaps a bit more cozy and subtle, with touches you might not even notice without paying full attention, like the Slowdive-esque bit of feedback buried in the otherwise placid "In Love with a View." The band manages a surprising amount of wiggle room within the generic constraints of New Acoustic Front rock- "Return to Sender" is fine saloon music, "My Life in Art" is a minimalist gem, "When You're Drifting" is alt-country that out-Pernices the Pernice Brothers, etc. I'm not alone in saying that it would be nice if the angel-voiced Goswell got to sing more than one song per album ("Bringin' Me Home" here), but if Halstead is going to continue setting the benchmark for quality songwriting in modern folk-rock, I won't complain if the melodies are floating from his throat. Grade: A+

SEE ALSO: SLOWDIVE

SEE ALSO: NEIL HALSTEAD

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Moloko

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Do You Like My Tight Sweater?

Willie's comments: Would you like to know why the debut album from trip-hop/dance duo Moloko has such a weird, vaguely stupid title? Because singer/lyricist Roisin Murphy met composer/arranger Mark Brydon when she tried to pick him up at a party using that phrase. Personally, I think that's the second-worst pickup line I've ever heard, but it worked because the two got together both romantically and professionally, and Moloko was the result. (The worst, you ask? "Hey, I bet you've got a nice set of golf clubs!" Doesn't look too bad on paper, but imagine it uttered with the maximum amount of sleazy innuendo by a drunk, middle-aged woman in a bowling alley bar, as you're trying vainly to order a Sprite. Yeah. That was a low point.) I mention this not only because I think it's a strange story, but also because it gives you some idea of the rabidly immature mindset that is on display in Murphy's lyrics. Take, for instance, this verse from the slick opener "Fun for Me": "I dreamt that the bogeyman went down on Mr. Spock/Sugar was a-flowin', sock it to 'em sock/I dreamt I saw a moo cow jump across the moon/Just a flight of fantasy, zoom zoom zoom." That sort of lazy nursery-rhyme babbling might play if it were paired with a similarly whimsical pop melody, but Murphy just sort of raps these lyrics in a clipped, quasi-sexy R&B tone of voice. The tune itself, like most of theirs, is composed of a playfully funky bassline and some smirky synths and busy beats- and acquits itself nicely, I should add- but the vocals are so inappropriately dopey that I feel impelled to apologetically explain that I'm just listening to the music if someone else catches this on my stereo. Seriously- it's that bad throughout much of the album; not effectively "cute" or "twee," just childish in a way that undercuts the more sophisticated, urban pleasures the duo's music has to offer.

Although there's no one truly great, slinky dance number on here like Pink's "Get the Party Started" or Aaliyah's "Try Again," there are more than a few party-worthy hooks to be found here. In numbers like the fizzy "Day for Night" or the whirling tranciness of "Butterfly 747," these guys subordinate their goofier instincts to songwriting smarts, and the mixture is both reasonably original and undeniably satisfying. Also, even with the distraction of her cheek-pinching lyrics, Murphy's voice can slide impressively from purring coquettishness to powerful sloganeering and high-pitched techno singing, and all those styles are frequently multi-tracked atop one another, to interesting effect. Like I said, though, the lyrics are a much bigger obstacle than they should be, and the record is bloated to boot: with filler tracks ("Ho Humm"), pointless interludes ("Dirty Monkey"), and songs that are just too long to begin with (the otherwise fine "Party Weirdo" clocks in at seven minutes, for example), Do You Like My Tight Sweater? feels punishing at over an hour. If you find it for a dollar like I did, go ahead and pick it up, but you might be better off peppering some mix CDs with these songs, rather than trying to take it all in at once. Grade: C+

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Monkey Power Trio

Future Past Present 45"

Willie's comments: Alright, here's the gimmick, copied verbatim from the band's website and the promotional material they sent me: "The Monkey Power Trio only plays one day a year. On that day, they only work for a few hours. In that time, they somehow always manage to create works of inspired genius." The first two prongs of that trident should be evident to anyone who plops the eight-minute Future Past Present on their turntable; the four songs contained therein don't sound "properly assembled" so much as "taken out of the box and then immediately propped up against a wall while the band goes out for a beer." As for that elusive third prong listed above, well, nuh-uh. After having spent the past month listening to albums by the Fall and Mark Prindle over and over, the MPT's lo-fi, "we don't need no stinkin' melodic development" approach to music feels lacking because the band doesn't really do anything to compensate for their thrown-together shoddiness, funny though they are. "Black Fulton" sounds like an early Ween demo, with Mark Maynard (I think) howling the phrase "100 miles an hour!" over and over in a good-naturedly idiotic voice before a saxaphone shows up to basically make a lot of noise. "Save Time and Money" is the EP's high point, with a catchy/sloppy guitar figure splaying about while Maynard shouts lyrics calculated to get the song picked up by an advertising agency ("When I save time with this product, I save money/Lots of money!"). "The Land of MPT," on the other hand, is a rather aimless attempt to meld the aesthetics of William Shatner, Spinal Tap, and The Blair Witch Project; it succeeds, but so what? The brief "Hey Matt" then wraps everything up with the line "Hey Matt, whatcha doin' Matt?" spoken over and over as two chords play over and over and over. I guess it's an amusing way to fill an amount of time equal to your average sitcom's commercial breaks, but not much moreso than, say, a particularly clever Geico ad. Oh, and by the way: taking a page from Ben Folds' book, the Trio has five members. Grade: C+

READER COMMENTS:

Mark Maynard writes: Thank you very much for the review, Will. I agree with almost every word. I have low self-esteem.

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Monks of Doom

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Forgery

Willie's comments: I can’t imagine anybody thinking that Camper Van Beethoven’s later albums were too emotional and not intellectual enough. However, apparently all the members of CVB except for David Lowery thought so, because they split to form the Monks of Doom, who trade in cold, detached Southwestern rock. The best I can describe their sound is to call it a Refreshments/Pixies hybrid, only without enough hooks. To give you some idea of the depth of feeling on Forgery, consider the pseudo-introspective song title “What Does a Man Require?” Most of the album is as oddly ineffective as that title- too clinical to evoke any feelings or even attempt to. “Flint Jack” and “Flow” are as catchy as anything CVB ever did, but, like Oasis’s Be Here Now, the album is too calculated to really get into. Grade: C+

SEE ALSO: CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN

SEE ALSO: VICTOR KRUMMENACHER

WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT MONKS OF DOOM


Mono Puff

Hello CD Club CD- March 1995

Willie's comments: Over a year before the release of Unsupervised, Hello CD Club subscribers were treated to this 6-song EP which contains five songs that would eventually turn up (in substantially different- or, in the case of "Nixon's the One," identical- form) on that album and one unremarkable song called "Tryptophan." While this demo version of "Unsupervised, I Hit My Head" pales in comparison to the Unsupervised version, "Dr. Kildare" and "So Long Mockingbird" are vastly superior to their later incarnations- each is tuneful, unpretentious, and sparsely arranged. Highly recommended, if you can find it. Grade: A-

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Unsupervised

Willie's comments: This one has "side project" written all over it in big neon letters. To keep himself busy between They Might Be Giants albums, John Flansburgh formed himself a band and apparently just noodled around with the tape recorder on. There are four or five songs that are up to TMBG standards- "Unsupervised, I Hit My Head" has the ultra-catchy music and stream-of-consciousness lyrics that we’ve come to expect from Flans, and "Hello Hello" covers the Gary Glitter song with calm vocals and a bass guitar floating atop a feverish bed of "Wipeout" drumming. There are far too many failed experiments, however, like the irritating drone "To Serve Mankind," the whiplash-inducing genre-hopping exercise "Dr. Kildare," and the tuneless, sedate luau twang of "So Long Mockingbird." It’s a mixed bag, but greater things would follow. Grade: C+

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It's Fun to Steal

Ginny's comments: Hidden tracks are always fun, and this has the coolest I've heard so far. Computer voices are fun in themselves, and Flansburgh obviously had a ball. Anyway, the rest of the album explodes with horns, backup singers, and all-around crazy Flans-ness that makes it as flashy as a New York swing bar. "Extra Krispy" is typical They Might Be Giants plug New York style. "Backstabbing Liar" makes one wonder if a bit of tension existed between Flans and his fellow Johnmate, Linnell. ("backstabbing liar/and everyone's wrong/backstabbing liar/has learned to write songs") It sort of peters out near the end, and 14 Flans songs in a row is a bit much, but it puts you in a fun, quirky mood anyway. Grade: B

Willie's comments: By now, Flans has decided upon a niche for Mono Puff- revitalizing the musical world of funk! It’s Fun to Steal is packed with lush, funky songs that could have conceivably crawled over from an Isaac Hayes album or the Jackie Brown soundtrack. "Creepy," "Mr. Hughes Says," and the crazysexycool "Extra Krispy" are stuffed with enough hooks, horns, and wah-wah pedals to give George Clinton a run for his money, while songs like "Poison Flowers" fizz with an energy Flans hasn’t exhibited in years. There are a few clunkers toward the end, but stick around for the bizarre alt-country of "Night Security," sung by Rockapella’s Barry Carl. Grade: B+

SEE ALSO: THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS

WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT MONO PUFF


Mark Mothersbaugh

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Muzik for Insomniacs, Vol. 1

Willie's comments: Even if it doesn't live up to its title for light sleepers such as myself- the rather ominous tone of "XP25" always jolts me awake- Muzik for Insomniaks is more relaxing than that fireplace videotape loop they always show on Christmas day on cable, and twice as tuneful. DEVO frontman Mothersbaugh recorded Muzik for Insomniaks on a digital 2-track, entirely on boingy, inoffensive, some might say beautiful synthesizers, so it's a very spare-sounding album. And, unusually enough for an ambient album, many of the songs are actually memorable. Even after you turn off the album, you will remember the tune (if not the name) of songs like the powerful "Osoy," the narcotic "Chechi," and the triumphant-sounding "XP39," which is so soothing and beautiful that you barely notice that it's almost ten minutes long. Mothersbaugh's tunes themselves are composed of tight, bouncy keyboard hooks that repeat themselves a few times, then slowly evolve into something else and then devolve (DEVO would have it no other way) back. It's wonderful background music to your life. Grade: A

SEE ALSO: DEVO

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: RUSHMORE SOUNDTRACK

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Bob Mould

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Workbook

Willie's comments: After breaking up Husker Du, guitarist Bob Mould went the singer/songwriter route for a few albums before forming the inimitably great Sugar. The folk-based songs of alienation on Workbook will probably come as a shock to fans of his previous (and subsequent) output of scarring noise, but Richard Thompson fans will be pleased. Mould’s songwriting is uneven, but “Poison Years” and the disarmingly optimistic “See a Little Light” are great, and for every embarassingly trite line like “Used to be that a handshake was a man’s word/ Now we settle arguments in court,” there’s a personal, honest admission that no other songwriter would dare make, like “I guess I’ll have to stay inside/ Make peanut butter sandwiches and cry.” Grade: B-

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Bob Mould

Willie's comments: Following Sugar’s demise, Mould started cranking out the solo albums again, and, while this self-titled one-man project (“Bob Mould is Bob Mould,” read the liner notes) isn’t as consistently likeable as any of Sugar’s work, it still contains plenty of Mould classics. The unspeakably sorrowful “Anymore Time Between” benefits from the private atmosphere of the album, while “Egoverride” is just like any catchy pop song you could name, only 100 times louder, and “Art Crisis” and “I Hate Alternative Rock” bemoan the creatively empty genre that Mould helped spawn. Still, there are a couple too many misfires to keep you from waxing nostalgaic for Sugar. Grade: B

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The Last Dog and Pony Show

Willie's comments: Mould insists that this album will be his last “rock” album, and he’ll be devoting the remainder of his career to more introspective, folk-based music, as well as (sigh) scripting WCW matches. It’s just as well- his exhaustion with rock music is evident on Pony Show. Apart from the brilliantly moody opener, “New #1,” which can stand with his best work (it gives me chills when he hits that high-ish note as he sings, “Are you listening to meeeeeeeeeee?”), there’s nothing inspired here. Just a lot of power-pop-by-numbers that, while listenable in a secondhand kind of way, is a big disappointment coming from the former king of searing, poignant rock. Grade: C

SEE ALSO: HUSKER DU

SEE ALSO: SUGAR

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: NEVER MIND THE MAINSTREAM... THE BEST OF MTV'S 120 MINUTES, VOL. 1; RICHARD THOMPSON TRIBUTE ALBUM; NO ALTERNATIVE

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: GOLDEN PALOMINOS; THE 6THS

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Mountain Goats

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Nine Black Poppies

Willie's comments: A teensy little album that marks the Mountain Goats' first foray into the realm of compact discs (following a series of cassette-only releases on Shrimper), Nine Black Poppies feels ironically more like a career sampler than a proper release. John Darnielle, the man who basically is the Mountain Goats (along with supporting players when he feels that his acoustic guitar alone isn't going to cut it, arrangement-wise; on this album, bassist "Rachel" is the other occasional band member), has a reputation for songs that are intentionally heavy with tape hiss and other lo-fi-isms, since he records lots of songs on a single-mike boombox. And though a few of these nine songs fall into that category, none of them sounds especially murky in a Daniel Johnston way or anything, because Darnielle is obviously too proud of his songs to let them get drowned. Considering that some of the other tracks are recorded at or near studio quality, I assume that he just pulls out the ol' boombox when he thinks a somewhat more strident tone would suit his compositions better, and it's not as big a deal as it's often made out to be, despite the fact that I've wasted about a paragraph on it, so let's move on.

Though the varying fidelity of the songs doesn't mess with the mood of the disc much, Nine Black Poppies isn't wholly satisfying just because Darnielle includes two willful obscurities too many in too short a playing time. A live cover of Refrigerator's "Lonesome Surprise" (apparently a thinly-veiled rewrite of the Velvet Underground's "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'"), with literally phoned-in vocals by that band's Allen Callaci, is cute but insubstantial, and the Casio-based "Pure Money" is pure filler. That said, the enjoyment to be had from the rest of the disc makes it worth checking out, if you dig ferocious acoustic strumming and cartoonishly nasal vocals. (I do.) The title track, "I Know You've Come to Take My Toys Away," and "Chanson du Bon Chase" all feature indelible melodies, while "Cubs in Five" showcases the songwriter's penchant for playfully caustic humor. The song runs through a series of hilariously unlikely prognostications like "the Chicago Cubs will beat every team in the league" and "the Phillips corporation will admit that they made an awful mistake," before the kicker comes and Darnielle announces, "And I will love you again... like I used to." It always makes me happy when bands decide that lyrics should be interesting, as opposed to just being something they can do with their mouths to hold your attention while they play *cough Oasis cough cough*. Not the best place to start, but if you become a Mountain Goats fan and are looking for a CD you can put into your Discman while you go for a quick run, Nine Black Poppies should work. Grade: B+

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Tallahassee

Willie's comments: I really should stop buying the most recent album in an artist's discography and then working my way backwards, or at least reviewing them that way. Re-writing and restructuring the reviews to accomodate earlier releases is so dreadfully inconvenient... You people better appreciate all I do for you (and everybody chipping in to buy me a David Barnes portrait would be a good way to show your appreciation). Anyway, this is the Goats' tenth-or-so album, and perhaps Darnielle realized that Tallahassee is such a powerful piece of work that any of his previous lo-fi distractions would ill-serve his compositions here, so he got audiophiles Dave Fridmann and the Flaming Lips' Michael Ivins to help out with the recording. Written with pickled wit and still performed in an idiosyncratic, nasal acoustic-rock format that suggests John Flansburgh fronting Neutral Milk Hotel, Tallahassee is the story of an unhappily married couple who buys a house in Florida, sight unseen. Once they get down there, they spend their days imprisoned in the house, drinking "store-brand gin with fresh lime juice out of plastic cups or straight from the bottle," slowly destroying themselves for spite and each other for fun. Sounds unpleasant, I know, but just like how life is never that cut-and-dried, neither is this album. Darnielle has a wonderful time eloquently detailing these characters' fights ("Oceanographer's Choice"), freak-outs ("See America Right"), moments of drunken tenderness ("Game Shows Touch Our Lives"), and everything in-between with a black humor that's as horrifying as it is funny. For instance, the album's centerpiece, "No Children," finds the male character proclaiming his intentions to devote his life to passive-aggressive hostility, before cheerfully concluding, "I hope you die! I hope we both die!" Musically, Darnielle (and multi-instrumentalist Peter Hughes, his cohort this time around) is equally comfortable with simmering creepiness like "The House That Dripped Blood" as he is with momentary peacefulness, and it's all well done, but the lyrics really are the main draw here. Chilling, sad, and hilarious, and hummable all throughout, Tallahassee is as close as you'd ever want to get to the self-destructive whirlpool of two disenchanted lovers playing chicken to see who'll call things off first. Grade: A

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: THE FLAMING LIPS; MERCURY REV

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Mouse on Mars

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Vulvaland

Willie's comments: The debut album from electronic giggle-dance duo Mouse on Mars (Andi Toma and Jan St. Werner) is a happy little affair, no doubt about it. Drum machines take a backseat to caffeinated clicks and clangs, organic instruments pop wheelies alongside synthscapes that can be simultaneously placid and effervescent, and the kaleidoscopic mixtures are inventive without being pretentious for a second. For instance, "Elli Im Wunderland" and "Die Seele von Brian Wilson" have a nifty, bubbly dub feel, like the Popemobile rolling through a cave in which disembodied vocal samples and guitar squall bounce harmlessly off its bulletproof shield of rhythm. For another instance, a less imaginative artist would turn "Uah"'s frenetic sequencers into a lame-ass industrial tune that would fit on a splattery videogame soundtrack, but here they're integrated into a breezier, Kraftwerk-style atmosphere that's efficient without being overly aggressive (and they toss in some didgeridoo noises for good measure). Vulvaland is fairly unclassifiable throughout, stirring together as it does elements of any electronic subgenre you'd care to name. Groovy but never inappropriately repetitive (except maybe on the lengthy closer "Katang"), silly without crushing its occasionally delicate ambiance, and always hooky enough to ground its whirling layers of sound, Vulvaland is a great, creative start to one of the most distinctive, superlative, and addictive careers in electronic music to date. Grade: A-

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Iaora Tahiti

Willie's comments: By their second album, Mouse on Mars had figured out how to synthesize their antsy electronic gene-splicing into a sound that was all their own. Iaora Tahiti retains Vulvaland's lightheaded danciness while stuffing the mixes full of more complicated IDM rhythms, subtle interpolation of buzzes and feedback, and attention-grabbing synth melodies than one can easily keep track of, while focusing their structural efforts largely on the bass-driven coziness of dub (or even reggae). On tracks such as "Gocard" and "Papa, Antoine," the friendly blurps and snuzzles make for simply wonderful, relaxing summertime music without skimping on the vivacious, tricky programmed percussion. [This is the third-to-last Mouse on Mars review I'm going to have to write until I'm caught up, by the way, so forgive me if my descriptions are just a ridiculous mess of adjectives at this point.] Even when they stray from the overriding dubbiness of the album, the results are still great fun. "Schunkel" sounds like a weird Middle Eastern funeral march or something, while "Bib" has a trance-style energy, but there are still so many interesting, counterintuitive noises and themes floating around that it's more than just typical dance fuel. Surprises, as always, abound, and even by this point in their discography, it should be clear that Mouse on Mars is totally the electronic band for people who ordinarily find electronic music too repetitive and soulless. (Nothing combats that two-headed hydra like the hysterically chipper descending synth hook on "Saturday Night Worldcup Fieber," just so you know.) And within their body of work, Iaora Tahiti makes a fine place to start, as it's laid-back, fun, and catchy without dipping as much into their can of Can influences as Niun Niggung later would. Grade: A

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Autoditacker

Willie's comments: Autoditacker is a further style refinement for the duo, honing in more closely on specific moods and more interesting song structures, while continuing to add uncountable layers of sound and noise snippets to the electronic stew and seasoning it all with their unique ear for non-sequitur absurdism. Take "Scat," for instance, which crumbles together noises that sound like doorbells, splattery cartoon sound effects, highly processed horns, and the woozy ravings of Homsar, among other things, and gets something truly weird and infectious. Or, for a calmer example, "X-Flies," which achieves both the vaguely spooky moodiness and the outright silliness suggested by its title, welding spacious, hollow melodies to ridiculous envelope filters and doofy bass noises. The complexity of it all is just as impressive as the way these songs manage to be so thoroughly enjoyable (and never overwhelming or top-heavy with experimentation or fussy perfectionism) while constantly juggling breezy synth melodies, chilled-out interludes, percussion breakdowns, and ubiquitous clouds of squelchy, buzzing, twittering, whomping sounds (which, at one point, extend to stealing robotic noises from bizarre kids' music composer Bruce Haack). Even as they take a more low-key approach on the second half of the disc, with tracks like "Sehnsud" aiming for more of an ambient dub quality than the ineffable busyness that precedes it, there's no end to the all-dessert-all-the-time bliss of the music. I suppose, technically if you want to get technical, there's not a whole lot that distinguishes Autoditacker from the similar Superball kineticism of Iaora Tahiti or their later Niun Niggung, but the slightly higher heights these songs reach make it Mouse on Mars's best album to date. Grade: A+

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Instrumentals

Willie's comments: As of this writing, Instrumentals is the only Mouse on Mars release that I can't wholeheartedly recommend, because it consists mainly of uncharacteristically dull and literally tuneless exercises in subdued sound painting, with one exception: the wonderful "Owai" has a melody that attains the chilled-out simplicity of Kraftwerk's recent stuff, but packs it with unintrusive percussive noises that sound like everything from a flipping Rolodex to those little snap 'n' pop firework things, and ultimately just drops the melody and breaks out into a happy little programmed-noise party that's loads of fun even without waking the neighbors. So enjoy that nine minutes, because it's the only time Instrumentals makes the leap from "nice enough" to "awesome," unfortunately. Although there are, naturally, interesting noises throughout, there's way too much formless soundscaping ("1001," "Auto Orchestra," and lengthy bits of the ten-minute "Pegel Gesetzi") of the sort that St. Werner usually reserves for his work with Markus Popp in his so-so side project, Microstoria, and he and Toma seem inexplicably enamored of the juxtaposition of skittery percussion and droning, E-Bowed guitar feedback, which gets old after awhile. Even when they attempt to toss us a hook, like the synth figure that runs throughout "Subnubus," it's really just kind of a lazy rehash of the sorts of melodic bits that were so exciting on Autoditacker and Iaora Tahiti, rendered futile because so little is going on. If you want Mouse on Mars to do ambient stuff, check out their solid, subsequent Glam instead, and if you want to be a total Mouse on Mars completist- which is an impulse that I can certainly understand, great as they are- just please get this one last, and cheaply. Grade: C+

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Glam

Willie's comments: On a discographical note that sounds simultaneously too good to be true and so hilarious that it perfectly suits the German duo's absurd sense of humor, Glam was apparently originally recorded as the soundtrack to a never-completed Tony Danza film. (This album apparently saw a small release in 1998, but then got a proper reissue on Thrill Jockey in 2003, which led me to believe at that point that it was a new record. That's why research is important, kids. And also because you don't want to wind up accidentally publishing yet another paper that Danut Marcu has plagiarized, and then having to print an editorial retraction. Yes, I am taking my work home with me.) However, the circumstances surrounding the album's creation are about all that brand it with Mouse on Mars's laughing-gas ethos, because Glam is a placid, atypical center of calm in a body of work that consists largely of spunky IDM practical jokes. Misty, Brian Eno-esque textures appear frequently on the album, and even though they're tentatively batted about by wobbly, subwoofer-pleasing bass noises and intricate-yet-subtle percussive stammering- as on the fantastic "Port Dusk" and "Tankpark"- this is still very much an ambient record. And while the Mice sometimes seem constricted by the need to serve the atmosphere by muting or dispensing with the tunefulness that usually separates them from the electronic pack (the stationary "Pool, Smooth and Hidder," for example, is something of an ambient cliche), they more often use this project as an exercise in making disciplined, engaging mood music. Sounds still scuttle about, and the layered treatments are expertly crafted, but it's all so ethereal that this is definitely not the place to start with Mouse on Mars. It's a grower, not a show-er.

I hate having to hyphenate that, but "shower" wouldn't make much sense.

Yes, I am still taking my work home with me. Grade: B+

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Niun Niggung

Willie's comments: If you let Cornelius or Daft Punk remix To Rococo Rot's entire discography, and then let Bugs Bunny remix those remixes, the result might come out sounding something like Niun Niggung, an album that gets off on Ween-esque aural juvenilia as much as it does mood, beats, and melody. This 1999 release bounces merrily from the jerky, mechanic dub of "Albion Rose" to the hyperkinetic "Yippie", and sprays both songs with a huge dollop of self-conscious irreverence: the former occasionally interjects a descending trumpet line that sounds like it should be signaling the death of a videogame character, while the latter sounds as though the band sampled the flatulence of a nearly empty ketchup bottle for the rhythm track. Even funnier is the song "Diskdusk," which attempts to be the disco song to end all disco songs by disassembling and then reconstructing what sound like actual disco songs. Niun Niggung isn't a "Weird Al" Yankovic-esque parody of an electronica album- it is an electronica album, and a great one at that. What sets it apart from your typical Krautrock techno is its playfulness; the band's obvious thrill in finding sounds that made them laugh and then using them to enliven their music. Mouse on Mars are talented enough to get your body movin' and make you laugh your fool head off at the same time. Grade: A

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Idiology

Willie's comments: Not to sound cranky beyond my 21 years, but I think the division and subdivision of techno music into genres roughly three albums wide has gotten a little out of hand. House, drum-n-bass, trip-hop, ambient- I know what these things mean. Just like rock has its descriptive subgenres (punk, indie rock, cock rock), so should techno. I'm all for it. But when you start throwing around terms like "tech step" and "happy hardcore," I'm afraid you've succumbed to the same sort of buzzword addiction that late-'90s corporate America did, where paradigms and synergys were tossed around like so many mittens in an elementary school game of keep-away. I will concede, however, that some sort of new term would be helpful in classifying Mouse on Mars, who have gotten even weirder since Niun Niggung. Snippets of static, heavily distorted (or reverbed) noises, and other sounds that are seemingly borne of recording studio snafus are arranged into intricately confusing beats, which occasionally get so strange you may have to pause and take a breather. ("First : Break" in particular starts off as one of those impossibly fast "gabba" tracks before a simple, catchy keyboard line comes in to point you in the right direction.) On the very best songs, though, such as "Subsequence," woodwinds, pianos, or fascinatingly treated vocals show up to sand down the racket with unique melodies to compliment the rhythms. True, Idiology doesn't quite achieve the optimal balance that the last album did. "Presence" is a little too on-the-nose in its debt to Stereolab, and "Unity Concepts" is just some spoken metaphysical/existential/crackpot blather that I didn't listen all that closely to. But like a pitcher who sacrifices a measure of control in order to throw the ball as hard as he possibly can, you'll forgive Mouse on Mars for occasionally ceding the easy kicks they're capable of to indulge their bizarre ambitions. Grade: B+

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Rost Pocks: The EP Collection

Willie's comments: My friend Jess told me a story last year about this hippie guy she hung out with one evening, who insisted on dragging her to, like, five different destinations in search of a milkshake, and then took her to Meijer because he wanted to "play with the music." (Jess didn't know what that meant either.) She said it was one of the most baffling nights of her life. Well, that's pretty much what you get here too, only with less yoga. Continuing their trend of just being puzzling, this compilation brings together five EPs that MOM released between 1994 and 1997 A.D., and even though most of these songs are fantastic individually, stirring them all together results in yet another huh? experience. This stuff doesn't sound especially like any of their albums, nor do most of the songs sound like one another, so Rost Pocks is basically a drunken dune buggy ride with two electronic pranksters. It's great fun if you're already familiar with the band, and are attuned to their peculiar brand of smartypants dance music, but this is not at all the place to start. The disc really never feels anchored, leaping from the twinkly IDM playfulness of "Twift" to the beautiful "Cache Coeur Naif" (one of three cool collaborations with Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier on here, featuring backing vocals from the late Mary Hansen, which result in the song sounding like a marvelously squelchy outtake from that band's Dots and Loops) to the useless noise track "Rototon" to the squirrely industrial dub of "Schnee Bud." And so forth. Even non-fans will get a kick out of the first bits of the disc, with accessible greats like "Bib" and "Maus Mobil," but once the techno hooks get sparser and goofball programmed percussion takes over on tracks like "Schlecktron," I suspect Rost Pocks will be a treat only for those who get a kick out of watching director commentaries on their DVDs. Those who like it will be rewarded, but there's no shame in taking a pass. Grade: B+

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Radical Connector

Willie's comments: Radical Connector reels the flailing weirdness back in toward shore a ways, resulting in probably the most accessible disc of the duo's career thus far. Guest vocalists Dodo Nkishi and Niobe show up on all nine tracks, and although their melodies are generally smashed to bits and glued together in the same amazing fashion as on Idiology's "Actionist Respoke," these are nonetheless basically SONG songs, with an impressive faux-crackle finish. The only song that comes close to the slippery electronic monkeyshines we're used to is the groovy splice-and-dice of "Spaceship," which bounces about to a number of interlocking percussion tracks and, eventually, a fuzzycool bassline. Despite the comparative ordinaryness of this album (which is still strange enough to make, say, Paul Oakenfold soil himself), though, these are mostly fine, soulful songs. In fact, Radical Connector has been compared to the rubbery house of Basement Jaxx, but Nkishi's songs in particular (the best of which is the slurpy disco of "Wipe That Sound") have pleasingly minimal vocal themes that are surrounded by nice, slow-building chaos that more closely resembles TV on the Radio whirling about on a Sit-and-Spin. Niobe's stuff doesn't slouch either; even if it's not necessarily what you want out of Mouse on Mars, her R&B-styled melodies do stand out amid the hulking production of "The End" or that of the subtle, delay-effect-smeared "Evoke an Object." I don't travel in "raver" circles or eat "extasy," so I don't know what the average MOM fan thinks of this album, but in my objectively correct opinion, bowing to popular appeal proves to be a good thing in this case, because Radical Connector is an album that only the truly pretentious couldn't love. Grade: A

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Live 04

Willie's comments: Live albums, as a phenomenon, can go wrong in a lot of ways, which I think is why so many fans are hesitant to purchase them. Even if the artist sidesteps common pitfalls like poor recording fidelity, lazy musicianship, or overreliance on songs from the most recent studio album, it takes a very particular sort of showmanship to be able to capture the spontaneous magic of a great show on the decidedly impersonal medium of a compact disc. Even if the audience unanimously feels they've been a part of something special, it's very easy for the recorded evidence to read as a retread of already-released material unless something truly dramatic comes through. (It doesn't matter whether the hook is the freewheeling musicianship of a Phish show or the movingly intimate presence of a Mike Doughty show: you need something.) And that's what sinks Mouse on Mars's first live disc, culled from their Radical Connector tour. It's listenable, but I can think of no reason for its existence shy of, like, a German IRS audit demanding proof of live performance if the band wants to claim their touring gear as a deduction. That's about as interesting an artistic statement as it makes. The songs themselves are uniformly great, but with the exception of firecracker renditions of "Actionist Respoke" and "Gogonal," the performances lack the detail-oriented dementia of the studio versions. Since Radical Connector and Niun Niggung, stellar albums both, each contribute a full third of the material here, it's not even as if Live 04 makes a particularly inspired career-spanning compilation. There's no denying the energy of the band, who clearly want to put on an entertaining show for those in attendance (in particular Dodo Nkishi, whose vocal contributions are full of unmistakable joy), but it's that specific concert energy that doesn't translate well to disc- or at least not enough to make up for the layers of fussed-over minutiae that are missing from these tracks. I suppose Live 04 might make a nice souvenir for anyone who was actually present at one of these stops, but it's redundant and cold for those of us who can't supplement the audio with pleasant experiential memories. Grade: B-

SEE ALSO: LITHOPS

SEE ALSO: MICROSTORIA

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: STEREOLAB

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Ms. John Soda

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No P. or D.

Willie's comments: The name might make Ms. John Soda sound like one of those Japanese punk bands who just string random English words together because they like the way it looks (like King Fucker Chicken did), but they're actually a side project of the fine German band The Notwist, with the addition of Stefanie Bohm on vocals. And their debut album, No P. or D., is among the most magical and addictive things I've heard all year. With Bohm's unemotional, Laetitia Sadier-style singing and the band's affinity for droning keyboard basslines, Ms. John Soda shares a certain superficial similarity with Stereolab, but a closer inspection reveals they have just as much in common with the lively/sinister antics of someone like Clinic. Of course, none of this means anything to you if you don't know Stereolab or Clinic (or Snowpony or Laika or Dntel, for that matter, who also come to mind here), so let me try to explain for the layperson. That is, "The person who has better things to do with his or her time than inhale indie-pop record after indie-pop record."

When you first pop No P. or D. into your stereo, you're going to hear what sounds like an electronic pop album. But it's not! It took me four or five listens to realize this, but apart from the programmed drum tracks- which are generally assisted by another layer of real, live percussion- and the occasional digital tweaking (such as the computerized vocal stutters on the magnificently twitchy "Hiding/Fading"), Ms. John Soda has a fairly traditional rock setup of guitars, bass, and keyboards. It's simply all presented in such a tight, mechanical fashion that it all seems too blessedly efficient, too plug-and-play to be organic. It's a neat trick, definitely, but one that wouldn't matter much if the songs weren't so memorable or clever in their two-chord moodiness. Whether they're barrelling through a steely robo-surf anthem ("Go Check") or settling into a delicate weaving of piano and electronic bleeps ("Solid Ground"), the band pulls plenty of great, minimal hooks from their hat, all presented with that same detached, clean mood that I so adore. You know that immensely satisfying feeling you get from playing Tetris? Not just when you make a bunch of rows disappear at once, but just the inherent aesthetic appeal of seeing all those boxes and shapes stacked neatly in a row? That's the same feeling Ms. John Soda gives me, and I love it. Grade: A

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Mutton Birds

The Mutton Birds

Willie's comments: The song which kicks off this album, "Dominion Road," is a triumph of jangle-rock- a touchingly funny (and infectious) song about a man whose mental health suffers when his lover leaves him, sung in the affectionate voice of Don McGlashan. It's the best song on the debut album from these New Zealanders, but there are more than a few great psychedelic pop songs here, most notably "Your Window" and "Nature." Occasionally, the Mutton Birds set their sights on dull drone rock, to the unfortunate exclusion of melodies, but this album is a pleasant, organic diversion from the mainstream. Grade: B

Salty

Willie's comments: Salty contains an appreciable rise in the number of hooky songs compared to the Mutton Birds' debut, but it also finds the song lengths stretching to consume unreasonable amounts of time. The songs penned by bassist Alan Gregg are fine: "Welington," "Esther," and the pretty "There's a Limit" are charmingly Beatlesy. But McGlashan strings out his wanky rock songs to the breaking point. "Queen's English" drags on for seven minutes without introducing any musical ideas that weren't present from the start, while even catchy fare like "The Heater" and "Don't Fight It, Marsha. It's Bigger Than Both of Us" outstay their welcome. "You Will Return" shows how great McGlashan is when he reins himself in, with its understated arrangement of an autoharp and an ominous-sounding banjo, but ultimately, Salty is more enervating than anything. Grade: C+

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Envy of Angels

Willie's comments: This one gets it right. There are 14 songs on Envy of Angels, and by rough estimate, I'd say 10 of them are great. "Straight to Your Head" and "April" are more anthemic than any Mutton Birds song since "Dominion Road," and the arrangements of the songs are more interesting than any to come before. The title track, for example, benefits from the subtle presence of a trombone in the background, while "Inside My Skin" features hilariously weird guitar interplay between the left and right channel. Yes, with most of their psychedelic tendencies having been excised, it's now easy to pigeonhole the band as a sort of secondhand R.E.M. outfit (a criticism aided by the band's inclusion of an exceedingly R.E.M.-ish- which is not to say bad- cover of "Don't Fear the Reaper"), but what Envy of Angels lacks in originality it makes up for in listenability. Grade: B+

Too Hard Basket

Willie's comments: Like Toad the Wet Sprocket's In Light Syrup, this collection of so-called "B-sides and bastards" has the distinction of improving on some of the Mutton Birds' previous records because it showcases a playfulness that they rarely let shine through on their studio recordings. "So Long" is one of the band's most accessible songs ever, while an ecstatic cover of the Raybeats' "It Happened One Night" is as catchy as an instrumental can be. There's an alternate mix of "The Queen's English" that the band was apparently unsatisfied with, but I think it vastly improves on the dull original version, and there's also a more muscular version of "Don't Fear the Reaper" than appeared on Envy of Angels. Too Hard Basket is far from great- as with most rarity compilations, too many of the songs are throwaways- but Envy of Angels fans won't be disappointed, and die-hard fans should be thrilled. Grade: B

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Rain, Steam & Speed

Willie's comments: I don't know what possessed the Mutton Birds to transform themselves into a stultifying country outfit, but that's what they did. While not exactly a "screw you" to fans of their previous style in the way that Cracker's Gentlemen's Blues apparently was, Rain, Steam & Speed will probably (deservedly) alienate fans of Envy of Angels or "Dominion Road." Dishearteningly twangy songs "The Falls," "Goodbye Drug," and "Green Lantern" are seemingly endless, while "Ascloseasthis" recalls the cringe-inducing country-rock of fellow Aussie Paul Kelly. It's horrible. Just one of those things that leaves a bad taste in your mouth from beginning to end. Grade: D+

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µ-Ziq (AKA Mu-Ziq)

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Lunatic Harness

Willie's comments: Not to be confused with R&B guy Musiq the way I frequently do, µ-Ziq is the nom de electronique of techno guy Mike Paradinas (who I guess also goes by "Mu-Ziq" in specific instances that are a mystery to me), and Lunatic Harness is routinely named among the best electronic albums ever recorded. But is it really worth your time, you ask? Is anything, really? Well, this is. Like Aphex Twin, µ-Ziq constructs soundscapes that are hypnotic and rhythmic without being exactly steady or danceable, instead just letting his drum machine flutter and buzz all over the place like a jar full of fireflies. The difference, however, is that Aphex Twin's Richard D. James tends to use his compositions to indulge his sizeable misanthropic streak, confusing and punishing his listeners just for the hell of it, whereas Paradinas integrates his complicated percussive mischief into songs infinitely more approachable and friendly. Unless he's going for an atmosphere of malevolence (as in the violent and aptly titled "Approaching Menace"), the drums are mixed well below layers of warm, spacey synths that would fit right in with the ambient excursions of someone like, say, To Rococo Rot, so melodic and soothing are the sounds. The opening trilogy "Brace Yourself Jason," "Hasty Boom Alert," and "Mushroom Compost" are masterpieces of the genre: neither languid nor overpowering, µ-Ziq finds an invigorating middle ground. Even with such a flabbergasting start, Paradinas's originality only blossoms for the remainder of the album, finding enough variations on this style to keep things interesting (the title track, for example, is a smile-generating mixture of a frantic human beatbox and old-school Atari music), generally without going over the edge into annoyance. The exceptions, "Wannabe" and "London," pile on the excruciating, slow-moving textures a little thick, but Lunatic Harness is long enough to easily dismiss those missteps, when the rest is so gripping. This is really something you need to hear to understand what I'm saying- and you should- but suffice it to say that if you like pretty, futuristic synth melodies and stutter-stepping pippity-pop drum machines, you'll like this. That might sound like a rather broad generalization, but Lunatic Harness is so assured and consistently solid that it really will appeal to nearly anyone who likes electronica even the least little bit. Grade: A-

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: YO LA TENGO

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My Bloody Valentine

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Loveless

Willie's comments: Bizarre, dense, and simultaneously harsh and soothing, My Bloody Valentine’s undisputed masterpiece Loveless makes you feel like you’re floating in the middle of a raincloud. Bilinda Butcher’s spookily beautiful voice murmurs gentle lullabies as Kevin Shields’s guitars slowly bounce, scratch, and nosedive, and synthesizers materialize and disintegrate, often so subtly you might not notice. “When You Sleep” and “I Only Said” are the most memorable of the lot, but, as is befitting of the best dreampop ever made, the point isn’t the music’s ability to stay with you when it’s over, but rather the way it gently diffuses into every part of your mind while it’s playing. Grade: A+

READER COMMENTS:

jes25689@aol.com writes: what? no review for "isn't anything" ?shame on you! It is superior to the mighty "Loveless". Listen to "Lose My Breath" and then the Smashing Pumpkins' "Daydream". The Pumpkins have some explaining to do. I love "When you wake you're still in a dream", "soft as snow", and "nothing much to lose".

jmerenivitch@aol.com writes: The thing about this album (and any album based purely on soundscaping) is that it's boring. Hold on...put down that knife you indie rock fanatic, this album is boring. It's one really good opener based off of Lou Reed's The Ocean followed by 10 or 12 songs that are indistinguishable from each other. A pretty melody awash in cotton candy based feedback and unintelligible vocals is the basic pattern for every song. It's excellent for maybe the first few songs but it becomes good music to fall asleep to more than anything. It probably deserves an A+ based on the revolutionary guitar playing. But this being revolutionary guitar music but doesn't dispute the fact that Kevin Shields took one really good idea and milked it until it's teets were dry as the Sahara. B+

Joe Friesen writes: I've never been the biggest fan of "Loveless"... I mean, I respect it and all, but I'm not about to throw an "A+" rating on it. But the last sentence in your review is one of the most insightful things I've ever read about this album, so kudos for that. Probably one of the best arguments in favor of the record I've ever read, too.

dark.arkive@gmail.com writes: In agreement with Joe Friesen--your last sentence here encapsulates not only the beauty of this album, but of all shoegazer. Good work!

Noting that you 'missed dreampop' in your review of Souvlaki, have you checked out M83? They're one of the few 21st century bands who are genuinely adding something to the sound--namely, by using synths instead of layered guitar. Dreampop is back, if only for an hour. Look for Dead Souls, Red Cities, Lost Ghosts, it's hard to imagine you wouldn't enjoy it.

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