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Neutral Milk Hotel


On Avery Island

Willie's comments: Although Neutral Milk Hotel is a member of the Elephant 6 collective, along with the Apples in Stereo and Olivia Tremor Control, they don't fit those groups' peculiar dedication to the psychedelic pop sounds of the '60s. In fact, the band is pretty hard to pin down on this, their debut album. Frontman Jeff Magnum seems to be wandering blindfolded through the songs, whether they're bouncy, fuzzy pop ditties ("Song Against Sex"), trippy dirges ("Three Peaches"), or scattered experimental noises ("Pree-Sisters Swallowing a Donkey's Eye"). Thankfully, the songs are generally well-constructed, but Magnum's lyrics on this album don't approach the level of perverse beauty they would on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and although the bizarre rock smarts on display here are astounding, little here is as affecting as NMH's next album, either. Nevertheless, by unscientific measure, I'd say seven of these twelve songs are magnificent. Grade: B+


In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

Willie's comments: Jenny has twice made me turn this album off halfway through the first song. So I should warn you that Neutral Milk Hotel can evidently really irritate some people (possibly because of Jeff Magnum's voice. Like Freedy Johnston, Magnum's enthusiasm and passion for his singing often overreaches his skill at it). I really enjoy this album, however. Much of In the Aeroplane is very stripped-down, with nothing more than Magnum singing his gorgeous melodies over an expertly-recorded acoustic guitar (it's the loudest-sounding acoustic guitar I've ever heard), which is a boon to songs like "Two-Headed Boy" and "The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One." Even when the arrangments expand to include bagpipes, keyboards, and horns (put to best use on "The Fool"), there's a glorious, organic sense of beauty to the album that carries you over rough patches like "Ghost." It's unpretentious folk-rock, but off-kilter enough to make Neutral Milk Hotel seem an entirely original band, especially when the lyrics get as twisted as they do on "Oh Comely." Grade: A


Jeff Magnum Live at Jittery Joe's

Willie's comments: Not really a Neutral Milk Hotel release, but I didn't feel like creating a separate Jeff Magnum section. This acceptably-recorded live album was released on Magnum's Orange Twin label as a means of throwing a bone to fans who have been clamoring for new NMH material since Aeroplane's 1997 release (and to dissuade people from forking over cash to bootleggers of live shows). No date is given for the recording, but Magnum's solo acoustic performance seems to have been captured while in the middle of the Aeroplane recording sessions, judging from his comments about some of the songs (he seems curiously dissatisfied with "Two-Headed Boy, Pt. 2"), but the crowd doesn't seem to realize- or care- that they're watching a pilot performance of one of the best albums of the '90s. Frankly, the songs from that album don't offer any new revelations to those of us who've memorized Jeff's every vocal tremble on "Oh Comely," but it is a treat to hear him take passionate runs at two songs from On Avery Island ("A Baby for Pree," and "Garden Head-Leave Me Alone"). The four otherwise unreleased tracks are good as well, but the only moment that reaches the insane heights of beauty that fans might hope for is a brief, glistening rendition of the Paris Sisters' "I Love How You Love Me" (from which Jeff stole the guitar line- and improved the melody- for Aeroplane's title track). If you truly feel as though you might burst if you're forced to wait much longer for Magnum to release something new, this might keep you going for a little while longer, but if you're looking for a live snapshot on the mind-blowing level of, say, Mike Doughty's Smofe + Smang, this won't quite live up to your expectations. Grade: B



New Bomb Turks


At Rope's End

Willie's comments: If there were any justice, the champions of the new garage rock movement would be lifting the New Bomb Turks aloft, adorning their collective head with garland, and feeding them grapes. Again, I quite like the Strokes, but they really seem to be a one-trick pony, whereas the New Bomb Turks- churning out high-caliber garage albums since 1993- are infinitely more fun, and seem to put a lot more of themselves into their music. At Rope's End, their fifth album, is full of short, sweaty rock songs that can be galloping along at Ramones velocity one minute and taking a sharp turn into squeaky saxaphone madness the next. (True, this only happens once, on "Defiled," but it's nevertheless indicative of the Turks' multifaceted musical approach.) I could do without the Soul Asylum parody "Bolan's Crash," but that's the only bad move on an album that bounces around so merrily from punky rants (the infectious, Buzzcocks-esque "Veronica Lake") to Rolling Stones posturing ("Raw Law").

Eric Davidson, the Turks' lead singer and lyricist, rules. His breathless, on-key shouting is suffused with such a hilarious sense of joy that it never comes across as aggro, and his lyrics are more clever and detailed than you might expect. Check out "Scapegoat Soup," for example, which is an articulate, on-target denunciation of the collegiate bar scene ("'Whatcha drinkin'?'/'What's your major?'/Man, I don't even care!"). If the Strokes had any decency, they'd abdicate their throne. Grade: A


Martin Newell


The Greatest Living Englishman (with Andy Partridge)

Willie's comments: The original cover of this solo album from Newell (formerly of the Brotherhood of Lizards and the Cleaners from Venus) boasted, "featuring the new improved ANDY PARTRIDGE" in huge letters. At first, this seems like a joke, since Partridge is credited only with production and percussion- not with songwriting. However, after listening to The Greatest Living Englishman, it becomes apparent that Andy's prominent mention is a tacit admission that these songs are basically ambitious XTC rip-offs. Unlike the Crash Test Dummies, however, that isn't a criticism in Newell's case. Songs like "Goodbye Dreaming Fields," "The Jangling Man," and "A Street Called Prospect" thrive on the Beach Boys-derived style of harmony that Partridge has perfected, while "The Green-Gold Girl of the Summer" wouldn't sound out of place on the Dukes of Stratosphear albums. While the lyrics are sometimes a bit overwrought and lacking in Andy's distinctive cynicism (Newell is a published poet), the music is poppy, infectious, and would do any XTC fan proud. Grade: A-


Jorg writes: You say: "it becomes apparent that Andy's prominent mention is a tacit admission that these songs are basically ambitious XTC rip-offs" Hm, this is not really the case, considering that Martin has been writing this sort of stuff since the late 1970s--long before Andy started doing such things. It owes more to Ray Davies and even Lennon/McCartney than XTC--of course, Andy's later oeuvre springs from the same sources, which explains the (apparent) similarity.



A.C. Newman


The Slow Wonder

Willie's comments: The frontman of the New Pornographers (and Zumpano and Superconductor, but I don't know anything by either of those guys, so I'm going to pretend they don't exist) goes solo for a moment, releasing this casual little album that maintains most of the spry tunefulness of the Pornos, while relaxing that band's pleasure-overload power-pop angularity a bit. Not that this is a mopey singer-songwriter album or anything; it's just that even the rockers here aren't interested in putting on an entire rock circus in your living room so much as hanging out and having a beer with you. Rip-roaringly catchy opener "Miracle Drug" is about as intense as it gets on The Slow Wonder, with smaller peaks of energy coming in the form of the Guided by Voices-esque "The Battle for Straight Time" and the twisty "Secretarial," but you also get tinier gems like the square-jawed "The Town Halo" (which marches along to a cello loop) and "Better Than Most" (a weirdly brilliant duel of time signatures, bolstered with "Benny and the Jets"-style reverb). Newman plays most of the instruments himself except for the percussion and a few horns and strings, so the song structures are a little less canted than we're used to, but he still finds room for plenty of great keyboard lines and stacks of guitar overdubs. Even with mostly negligible lyrics and a few blah tracks ("Most of Us Prizefighters" sounds like a parody of his fellow Pornographer Dan Bejar; "The Cloud Prayer" and "35 in the Shade" sound like Shins outtakes), The Slow Wonder is a fine, gimmick-free indie-rock album that manages both instant accessibility and lots o' creatively sculpted melodies. Grade: B+



New Pornographers


Mass Romantic

Willie's comments: There are innovative bands and there are great bands. The two are obviously not mutually exclusive, but more importantly, it is possible to have one without the other. Sure, lots of top-tier bands- Radiohead, Yo La Tengo, Soul Coughing- manage to do both, but there's nothing wrong with taking an established musical genre and distinguishing yourself within it merely by writing great songs. That's what the New Pornographers do. Their debut album, Mass Romantic, is simply a terrific slice of post-Pavement power-pop (PPPP) that scoots along on barrages of crunchy guitars, uplifting melodies, and ingratiating sprinkles of outdated keyboards. Memorable boogies like the title track and "The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism" are great, but Mass Romantic is that rare power-pop album that actually gets more interesting the further you get into it. Later numbers "The Centre for Holy Wars" and "The Mary Martin Show" showcase the band's knack for spinning textbook riffs into something that sounds fresh and new. Alt-country darling Neko Case shows up to sing on a few tracks, and she gives her songs such an ecstatic kick of Barbara Manning-esque intelligence that the other songs can't help but suffer a little by comparison. However, the New Pornographers are such excellent songsmiths that you won't mind the singing voices of Carl Newman and Dan Bejar being a little wan on the other tracks. Oh- and I don't say things like this lightly (ha!), but the gloriously catchy "Letter From an Occupant" is one of the best songs ever. If you want a taste of what this band is capable of, and by extension what great music in general is capable of, you will seek out this song right now. Grade: A


Electric Version

Willie's comments: Electric Version is basically more Mass Romantic (plus a subtle increase in the number of new-wavey keyboard lines, I suppose), but because the band manages to retain every bit of joy, spontaneity, and 50-hooks-at-once songwriting brilliance that made their debut such a mindblowing treat, this album doesn't feel like a retread at all. If anything, it's more consistent. With nary a moment of downtime, the Pornos crank out summery, infectious rock song after summery, infectious rock song, filling your ears with so many ecstatic vocal lines, charmingly angular guitar parts, firecracker harmonies, and other aural delicacies that it practically makes Beulah sound as tuneless as Sonic Youth covering Shoenberg by comparison. They make Built to Spill sound like the Swans! They make Fountains of Wayne sound like those teenage heroin addicts that used to hang out in my friend's basement and play one chord over and over on a guitar for hours on end! They make the entire Nuggets box sound like a four-CD set of famous Congressional filibusters! Alright, I'm exaggerating a bit, but not much, as you will see on giddy songs like "Chump Change" (which glides on a magic carpet of "Hoo! Hoo!" backing vocals while reclusive sometime-vocalist Bejar snarks about "fly[ing] into a lesbian rage") or "From Blown Speakers" (a midtempo treasure that showcases frontman Newman's newly confident singing style). And once again, Neko Case proves that she is to the New Pornographers what Fred Willard is to a Christopher Guest film: a secret weapon who can show up for a couple minutes, spin your head around with glee, and then vanish for minutes at a time while still leaving the glow of her presence behind. Here, she steals every song on which she appears, whether she's singing solo on "All for Spinning You Around" or managing to shove the already-fantastic "The Laws Have Changed" into the realm of "classic" by lending her powerful pipes to the chorus after Newman's agreeable verse singing. Seriously, does anyone have more fun making music than these guys do? And is it possible to have more fun listening to a band than Electric Version provides? If so, I don't know if I could take it. Grade: A


Twin Cinema

Willie's comments: Once again, the New Pornographers release an indie-rock/power-pop record so irresistibly joyous and pleasurable that I find myself not just thinking, "Wow, that's a great song," but genuinely smiling so wide I probably look like some sort of drawing on an old-timey circus wagon. The guitar interplay is particularly tight and inventive in its way, the vocals are never handed to a single singer when the arrangement could support two or three simultaneously, and Kurt Dahle's playful, ebullient drumming keeps the Pornos' feet from ever touching the ground. "The Bleeding Heart Show" is one of those songs that will pause your life for four and a half minutes as it plays out, building from a few chords and an ambivalent melody into a rapturous, Case-led communal anthem that will have you dancing and shaking your hair around as though you're far more carefree than you actually are. Improbably enough, album-closer "Stacked Crooked" manages the same feat on a smaller scale, this time throwing in mariachi synths for good measure (and then a few seconds of an actual trumpet muttering for no reason other than the humor of it). Fine, Twin Cinema isn't quite perfect: "Falling Through Your Clothes" is the rare throwaway that sounds like a Shins B-side, but as such is still completely unobjectionable, and although Bejar's zigzagging contributions ("Jackie, Dressed in Cobras," "Broken Breads," and "Streets of Fire") teeter on the line separating catchiness from obnoxiousness, they remain on the right side for now. Minor quibbles aside, it's no surprise that Newman's hooks once again bombard you like shrapnel, lodging themselves in your brain so deeply that you'll find yourself humming the verse of "Use It" or assorted bits of "Sing Me Spanish Techno" even when it's been weeks since you took Twin Cinema off the shelf. I can't think of an album that has it beat for sheer compressed quantity of uptempo goodness since Elvis Costello's This Year's Model. The surprise this time around is that that songs are assembled in a slightly more linear fashion, with the band members seemingly listening to one another more closely, the result being a more focused compositional style. That might sound like an overly analytical description of minor tweaking, but when you hear it, it's nothing shy of bliss surrounded by more bliss from a band that's somehow managed to top its seemingly untoppable earlier work. Grade: A



Joanna Newsom


The Milk-Eyed Mender

Willie's comments: Armed with a harp (to quote Joe Jack Talcum, "not a harp harmonica, but a harp the thing with strings that Harpo Marx played") and a strange, piercing voice that's difficult to get used to (she sounds like Lisa Simpson impersonating Bjork), unique folkie Joanna Newsom is about the last person you'd expect to be getting the sort of widespread buzz and accolades she's been getting, but you know what? It's all totally deserved. Like Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Magnum, her fanciful point of view and enthusiasm for music are endearing enough to overcome her lack of technical vocal skill, while she is so skilled at her chosen instrument that her songs totally soar. Newsom's harp plucking varies amazingly with each song, from the Cat Power/Bonnie 'Prince' Billy-style simplicity of "Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie" to the nimble virtuosity of album highlight "The Book of Right-On" (which she not only grounds with a great "bassline" but colors with some amazingly complex and pretty flourishes throughout). It's nice when she mixes up her style, as on the piano rag "Inflammatory Writ," and it would be nicer still if she employed more production weirdness like the spooky army-of-Joannas vocal multitracking she plunks down in the middle of the wonderful harpsichord song "Peach, Plum, Pear." But then, I'm always in favor of *more* weirdness, and truth be told, the melodies of songs like "Three Little Babes" are so well-thought-out that they truly can stand on their own. Her lyrics are every bit as carefully constructed and ornate as the music, full of lines like "'Catenaries and dirigibles brace and buoy the living room'" and "All these ghost towns wreathed in old loam/Assateague knee-deep in seafoam," which present her as a kindred spirit of the Decemberists' Scrabble champ Colin Meloy, only with a pagan-esque nature obsession in place of Meloy's black humor. If Newsom had excised maybe two of the more irksome songs, The Milk-Eyed Mender could be some kind of classic, but I suppose that's what the fast-forward button on your CD player is for. (Employ it on the tedious "En Gallop" for sure, and possibly on "Sadie," which is pretty but gratingly overlong.) As it stands, this is a charming debut that doesn't sound like anyone else, with songs so beautiful, personal, and baffling that you'll forgive the occasional stumble. Grade: A-





Willie's comments: Forget about all the snotty kids who wore “Sliver” T-shirts when you were in high school. Forget about the fact that just about every music magazine in the world has named this as the best album of the 90s (which it’s not by a long shot). Try to put everything you’ve ever heard about Nevermind out of your mind and just give it an open listen again. It’s pretty good. There’s nothing original about Nirvana’s sound, but at least they admitted it up front. What was original at the time was Kurt’s naked displays of emotion (even when they were leavened with humor, as in “Lithium”) and Butch Vig’s searing production. The second side has a few losers (“Stay Away” and “On a Plain” play like filler), but you’d be hard-pressed to find another grunge-rock album with a depth of hooks ranging this far beyond the singles. It’s hard to believe that “Breed” and “Lounge Act” never were singles, really... Grade: A


In Utero

Willie's comments: Depending on who you listen to, Nirvana's final studio album was either a "screw you" to their record company, a nasty joke on their fans, the chaotic sounds of a band that didn't know how to react to their newfound prominence in the musical world, or a risky artistic statement about the perils of alt-rock fame. No matter which theory you believe, however (I tend to subscribe to the second), In Utero is a big mess if you actually want to listen to it. In place of the well-crafted rock gems that Cobain proffered on Nevermind, the band thrashes around aimlessly and noisily on most of the tracks, occasionally cannibalizing themselves ("Rape Me" blatantly rewrites "Smells Like Teen Sprit"), and occasionally abandoning song structure entirely (the unlistenable "Tourette's"). I'd generously estimate that there are five worthwhile tracks on the album. Of those, the three best, "Dumb," "All Apologies," and "Pennyroyal Tea," appear in nearly identical form on Unplugged in New York. "Heart-Shaped Box" is presentable but becomes grating midway through. That leaves "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter," which manages to shoehorn In Utero's ragged noise into something approximating a good song, though not one that's worth purchasing this crap for. Grade: C-


Unplugged in New York

Willie's comments: This album underscores the tunefulness that Kurt Cobain built into his songs but buried beneath a protective shell of secondhand Pixies noise. “About a Girl” and “All Apologies” are more effective in the acoustic format than they were on the studio albums, and “Something in the Way” (featuring cello work from Lori Goldstein) is downright haunting. There are no new Nirvana songs in the set, but there are plenty of superlative covers, including a trio of songs from Meat Puppets II and the only good David Bowie cover in recorded history: “The Man who Sold the World.” Grade: A


Nick Karn writes: I like these guys and all, but it's really really hard to believe they're often considered the best band of the 90s by critics and Nevermind often occupies the #1 spot as far as greatest album of the decade. Kurt Cobain could really pen memorable riffs, his lyrics were often clever, the melodies were good and the rhythm section was talented, but Nirvana's career in my opinion is as inconsistent as any band I have ever heard - a lot of truly great pop songs are balanced out by horrible, tuneless filler like, for example, "Aero Zeppelin" or "Sifting". For a couple classic grunge albums that are somewhat superior to anything this band put out, I would suggest Alice In Chains' debut Facelift (which came out a whole year earlier and has a stunning opening five song sequence, and "Man In The Box" is a much better angst anthem than "Teen Spirit") and Pearl Jam's Vs., and they both deserve grades of at least an A in my opinion, but the 'grunge' status of those records are even debatable.

My Nirvana grades would be: Bleach: C (the band still finding their sound), Nevermind: B- (some great songs, but way too much weaker material), Incesticide: B- (the first side is the best stretch of songs they ever did, but the second is the worst), In Utero: B+ (the closest they came to a classic), Unplugged In NY: B- (a mixed bag of acoustic renditions), From The Muddy Banks Of Wishkah: B (a better, although not very substantial, live offering)

An Anonymous Reader writes: When you reviewed In Utero you said it was a "screw you" to the record company or a joke to the fans but it was the complete opposite. Cobain expressed a million times that this is his album and the closest thing he has ever come to when trying to produce the sound is wanted. He hated nevermind because of the fact that is was so smooth and well produced. He wanted the sloppiness and fuzz he got out of in Utero. Not to Mention, the lyrics are some of the best he's done in my opinion. A+, their best album.

jes25689@aol.com writes: The great sound on Nevermind can be attributed more to Andy Wallace, the mixer of the album, than Butch Vig. Listen to "dive" if you want to hear what Nevermind may have sounded like w.out Wallace.

Zophael979@aol.com writes: Nirvana was not a particularly innovative band and not a particularly great band, but they still managed to deliver the rock and roll, especially on Nevermind. Sure, that album had it's share of weaker tracks and I can't listen to "Teen Spirit" anymore without cringing a lot, but stuff like "In Bloom", "Lithium" and "Come As You Are" certainly deserve their status as mainstream rock radio staples and stuff like "Polly" and "Something In The Way" shows off a crude but still pointed folky side to the band that somewhat reminds me of the Violent Femmes. The Unplugged is probably runner up as far as the title of best Nirvana records go. The sound may be a little dull and monotonous and the covers may not be anywhere near as good as the originals (though the Nirvana version of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" is a fine one), but the song selection is mostly good and the performances have a charming sort of sloppiness to them.

The rest of their stuff hardly qualifies as classic if you ask me (and, yes, I realize no one did). Bleach is decent, but too derivative of The Melvins and Mudhoney and not nearly as good as either band. In Utero is crap for the most part: precursor to the whiney, generically dark, angst-ridden, mainstream "grunge" rock that came to dominate the radio in the years to come and pretty much just as dull as those records. Had Kurt not died and people had not begun viewing it in the light of suicide, I don't think it would be a highly ranked as it is now. Good to see someone else recognizes it's crappiness, though for perhaps different reasons.

Jim Callahan writes: Nirvana was the worst band ever!! and grunge was the worst ever!! Pixies were way better and so was sonic youth and my bloody valentine, but these fools made it onto mtv oh yay!!





No Alternative (CD version)

Willie's comments: This AIDS research charity compilation has an impressive roster of 1993-era alt-rock heroes: The Breeders (apparently channeling Porno for Pyros on “Iris”), Goo Goo Dolls, Soundgarden, the ever-socially conscious Beastie Boys, etc. What’s remarkable, though, is how homogenous the album is despite the variety of bands involved. Matthew Sweet’s “Superdeformed” is chunky guitar rock without any of his usual uplifting melodies, while Pavement seems to have abandoned their lo-fi aesthetic in favor of generic- though tuneful- “alternative” bombast on “Unseen Power of the Picket Fence.” Straitjacket Fits turn in an amusing Elvis Costello rip-off called “Brittle,” however, and bad for name recognition but good for the album are inclusions by Bob Mould and Barbara Manning. Also, No Alternative does have two mandatory listens from popular bands: Soul Asylum’s straightfaced cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” and Nirvana’s unlisted “Verse Chorus Verse,” which is Kurt Cobain’s admonishment of women who refuse to stick up for themselves in relationships (“He’ll keep you in a jar and you’ll make him happy/ He’ll give you breathing holes and you’ll make him happy”). It’s for a good cause, too, though I bought it used... Grade: B-


Northern State


Dying in Stereo

Willie's comments: Not long ago, Jen- who now works for an exotic bird rescue organization- was telling me about the reasons why cockatoos sometimes start violently biting their owners out of nowhere, and she summarized the birds' mindset thusly: "A cockatoo basically has three moods: happy, happier, and so-overwhelmed-with-happiness-that-I-have-to-break-your-finger." That last one is how I feel about the debut album from Northern State, three female rappers from New York; I'm so stoked to tell you about this album and the treasure trove of hip-hop brilliance contained therein that I'm feeling a bit flustered, not knowing where to start, and wanting to break your finger. So let's start by introducing the group: you've got smoky-sounding Guinea Love, enchantingly nasal Hesta Prynn, and normal-voiced DJ Sprout, and their collective, easygoing delivery is so joyful and unpretentious that you'll totally wish you were friends with all of them. The State's tight, three-way rapping style instantly recalls the Beastie Boys, but in a way that retains all of the Boys' recent positive messages (pet topics: individuality, feminism, and all-around happiness) and pop-cultural humor (references here to Nigella Lawson, Michael Chabon, and Family Ties) without their preachiness or tiresome brattiness. That is, the lyrics hit a precise balance between focused maturity and a self-aware refusal to take themselves too seriously. Lines like "Hesta Prynn on the roof with a chocolate torte/Me, I'll be chilling, wearing my skort" and "Talk to the fist 'cause the hand is pissed" exemplify the casual silliness that expertly contrasts the social concern on tracks like "All the Same." 

Their rhymes are set to flawlessly catchy, old-school arrangements that range from the spare "Trinity" (little more than the insistent thumping of an 808 machine) to the funky title track (all breakbeats and jazzy flourishes, complete with a sympathetic guest DJ named M.O.P.). On the entire album, the only part that strikes me as less than perfect is the song "Vicious Cycle," and that's only because I'm a pissy little whiner with an English degree, and the term is actually "vicious circle," so hearing the girls chant "It's a vicious cycle!" over and over is as annoying to me as if they'd been talking about "noo-kyoo-lur weapons" like our president does. However, it's otherwise a great song and I realize I've got problems, so I'm not even going to dock them points for that. Or for anything else; I haven't had this much fun listening to an album over and over since Ween's The Mollusk. I realize this review really doesn't get across the brain-busting pleasure that the Northern State provides, but even if you don't like hip-hop, I implore you to give Dying in Stereo a chance. It's so cheerful and effervescent that I can't imagine anyone not liking it unless your standard of "quality hip-hop" is somehow set by lazy-ass corporate tools like 50 Cent and Jay-Z. Grade: A+


All City

Willie's comments: I should've mentioned above that Dying in Stereo was evidently recorded as a demo that was received so positively that it was released as the State's debut. Well, as their actual factual first album, All City loses some of the personal charm of their last disc, as the State hooks up with hotshots like Har Mar Superstar and Muggs (of Cypress Hill and... [exasperated sigh] producer of House of Pain's "Jump Around") for a more professional sound. And... it's alright. At its best, All City pumps up the arrangements to match the girls' rapping smarts: "Girl for All Seasons" is an aggressive, guitar-based screecher that's buoyed by great lyrics about having a healthy body image ("If I could turn back the hands of time and have a dime for all the hateful thoughts in my mind/Like I can't do this and I can't wear that/Are my hips too big? Does my ass look fat?"), and the rhythmically addictive "Last Night" is a killer sequel to Dying in Stereo's "At the Party." However, the production focus has largely squashed the State's sense of humor, and tracks like the whimpery "Siren Song" sound like the product of a high school poetry class. Nearly every song has a hook or two to offer, but when All City winds down with the blissfully tight R&B/hip-hop gem "Summer Never Ends," you'll wonder why Sprout, Spiro (nee Guinea Love), and Hesta's irresistible potential hasn't been put to such enchanting use on some of the draggier bits. Grade: B


Can I Keep This Pen?

Willie's comments Grade: A-


Heather Nova



Willie's comments: If I described Heather Nova as a female singer-songwriter who performs wispy folk-rock, your mind would probably immediately begin to conjure up images of Jewel, Sarah McLachlan, Natalie Merchant, and 100 other such interchangeable Lilith Fair acts. And that's precisely why I'm not going to describe Nova in that way; because even though she basically belongs to the same musical genre as the aforementioned ovaried musicians, Nova transcends the limitations of that description by writing melodies that are gorgeous though never predictable (except for the single "Walk This World," which unfortunately sounds like a Melissa Etheridge B-side). "Verona" finds Nova harmonizing with herself- and she really has a beautiful voice- before speak-singing in the sexy, fake-vulnerable fashion of the Golden Palominos' Lori Carson. Lyrically, Nova explores the darker issues of romance and relationships, which can be a little unsettling (particularly on the otherwise-hypnotic "Island," a tale of domestic abuse), but it's all done in a very intelligent way and all throughout, the music is a pop watershed. Grade: A-




Peek-A-Boo! The Best of NRBQ (2-CD set)

Willie's comments: It’s no coincidence that Diedrich Bader sometimes sports an NRBQ T-shirt on The Drew Carey Show. The Q are the perfect musical analog to Carey: unpretentious, infinitely likeable, but somewhat uneven. This 2-CD set offers a glimpse of the Q’s many projects and styles, from the generic bar band rock of "12-Bar Blues," to the wonderful almost-reggae of "It Was a Accident" [sic], to the good-natured "Captain Lou" (featuring wrestler Lou Albino on vocals). It’s almost always catchy, but even when the album falters, the band’s affable charm is enough to make up for the somewhat dubious quality of some songs. Grade: B


Cole Bozman writes: I haven't watched the show in a couple years, mostly because it took a nosedive in quality after the first few seasons. I thought it was a lot better than most of the crap they call "sitcoms", but I'd hardly call it unpretentious -- ye gods, how many musical numbers have we had to sit through over the years? not to mention Drew's delusions of rock-star-ness. whatever. (why can't I ever comment on your actual reviews, Willie?)



Number One Cup


Possum Trot Plan

Willie's comments: This enjoyable indie rock trio from Chicago has obviously been raised on a steady diet of Pavement and Guided by Voices. Their 1995 debut album, Possum Trot Plan, doesn't quite manage to transcend those influences, but it does showcase Number One Cup's own peculiar inventiveness. For one thing, though the album is dominated with askew guitar lines and tape hiss, the songs are more straightforward than Pavement's (and without the intellectual snobbery), and the album does not include the meandering chaff that has plagued nearly every GBV album. The songs "'Til Tuesday" and "& Nico" betray the band's rock geek tendencies, but it's never annoying because the songs are so good. Of the aforementioned two, the former is a Tobin Sprout-esque ballad that manages a complete beginning, middle, and end in the space of 51 seconds, while the latter is a sweet, gorgeous guitar-and-accordion theme. However, the rest of the album rocks out much more than those two- "Just Let Go," "She Plays the Numbers," and "Divebomb" are all great indie rock songs, but more importantly, they're great regular rock songs, too. An honorable mention goes to the lo-fi treasure "Ohio Arts." Grade: A-