CD QuickTakes Archive

CD QuickTakes Archive

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10 Years: The Autumn Effect
Label: Universal

For their major label debut, Knoxville band 10 Years enlisted producer Josh Abraham (Staind, Velvet Revolver) and the result is a crisp and clean approach that lets the songs shine through. 10 Years relies lyrically on human emotion, and musically on the guitar assault and dark melodies that defines the active rock format. That may not be a glowing statement in a flooded market of cookie cutter bands, but the songs on The Autumn Effect are a “cut” above, and that’s what will give 10 Years a little more staying power. Pay special attention to the first single, “Wasteland,” as well as the powerful “Prey” and the creepy title track. ~Mike Farley (07/14/05)

+44: When Your Heart Stops Beating
Label: Interscope 2006
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You can’t keep musicians from making music for very long. While punk band Blink 182 is on a widely publicized hiatus, singer Mark Hoppus and drummer Travis Barker decided to form a side project, curiously with numbers in the band name again: +44. The debut from +44, When Your Heart Stops Beating, shows the ability of Hoppus and Barker to stay just far enough ahead of the “cool” curve to not be lumped in with their annoying punk pop brethren, and that’s because these guys simply go out and make good rock music without trying to follow any trends. But +44 still can’t help but come off like a more grown-up Blink 182. The band uses slick guitar work, layers of sweet harmonies and of course Barker’s monstrous yet tasteful drumming to create something more akin to Foo Fighters than Fall Out Boy. “Lycanthrope” and the title track are balls-out rockers but this band is at its best when it effectively uses dynamics, like on “Little Death” and “No It Isn’t.”
~Mike Farley (12/14/06)

45 Grave: Only the Good Die Young
Label: Restless / Rykodisc

To a certain degree, Los Angeles’s 45 Grave were as influential as the Misfits when it came to kick-starting the Goth-punk movement of the early ‘80s; they were not, however, anywhere near as good, which is probably why their profile has never been terribly substantial outside of Southern California. Only the Good Die Young is a live album that was actually recorded three years after the band broke up, capturing the group performing at one of their occasional reunion gigs. The group – which included members Dinah Cancer (ho, ho) and Paul B. Cutler, who went on to serve as part of the Dream Syndicate – certainly sounds to be having a good time here, and God (or his counterpart) knows they’re energetic, particularly on songs like “Fucked Up by the Devil,” “My Type,” and “Sheila.” First, however, listeners have to get past “Take Five,” which is eight minutes that may or may not be inspired by the Dave Brubeck song of the same name...but, if it is, surely he can sue them for what they’ve done to it. Also feel free to skip over closer “Akira Raideen,” which is another eight-minute track that feels much longer. These guys – and, lest we forget, gal – are historically important, but that doesn’t mean they always make for good listening. ~Will Harris (12/29/05)

46bliss: 46bliss
Label: Pistachio

The link to 46bliss’s website states that the band “combines elements of 80s music with modern trance/electronica,” but a simpler summary of many of their tunes can be performed with but one word: trip-hop. You remember the genre, surely: Portishead, the Sneaker Pimps, Massive Attack, that sort of thing. It certainly doesn’t cover every track, but the group clearly draws some inspiration from those folks (and freely admits it on their MySpace page. For an indie band, 46bliss have managed to get their songs placed pretty high up in the entertainment food chain; “The Way You Are,” a highlight of this album, managed to get played on the season premiere of “CSI: New York” and, perhaps more crucially, is on the soundtrack to “Veronica Mars.” Much of the disc tends toward the mellower end of dance music, but with songs like “Love in Vision” and “Inner Sensation” (well, part of it, anyway) scattered about, there’s enough variety that listeners won’t get bored. ~Will Harris (01/26/06)

54 Seconds: 54 Seconds
Label: Rock Ridge 2007
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The music is interesting, the melodies are pleasant and the musicians seem to have formed a connection, a groove… then you hear the vocalist and he sounds like a depressed warbling goat. That might be an overstatement, but Spencer Gibb has limited range, sounds way too depressed and when he stretches his vocal range, it hurts to listen. That is really sad because the subtleties of the musicians behind him – including the horns, mandolins and some very good harmony vocals that try to save him – are intriguing. In the end, his lack of range overshadows everything else. This is kind of like Switchfoot or Incubus without the punch. There is a laid-back California vibe to the album, which is pleasant, but the vocals are too distracting. I bet in person, Gibb is an impassioned vocalist, giving it everything he has on every note. That doesn’t mean I want to hear him sing. Maybe they should let the bassist, Rachel Loy, have a crack at the lead – her harmonies almost save Gibb from himself. ~R. David Smola (09/14/07)

707: Greatest Hits Live
Label: GB Music 2005
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Completely non-descript cult arena rockers recorded in concert back in the ‘80s. The band’s only real claim to fame was that member Tod Howarth went on to play with Ace Frehley. The songs are barely second-level rippers that didn’t carry nearly enough appeal to carry over to the mainstream. The band seemed to have the chops, though, as evidenced on the various extended song breaks. The production is a bit thin, too, which in the end does nothing to make you want to listen to these songs more than once. ~Kurt Torster (08/03/07)

Karling Abbeygate: Karling Abbeygate
Label: Dionysus 2006
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If James Hunter’s 2006 album, People Gonna Talk, was like discovering a long-lost blue-eyed soul album from the early ‘60s, then Karling Abbeygate’s self-titled debut is the country equivalent. Surprisingly, the two have something else in common as well: they’re both from the UK. Abbeygate, however, has a Kansas-born father…and therein lies the most plausible explanation as to how she can sound so damned authentic when singing country music. It also seems too easy to suggest that she’s channeling the spirit of Patsy Cline, but no critic alive will be able to avoid the temptation to do so; the songs as well as the production are clearly designed to emphasize the resemblance. There’s also a considerable degree of similarity to Dolly Parton’s earlier work, courtesy of Abbeygate’s little-girl-sounding voice. The majority of the tracks are covers, like Hank Snow’s “Who Left the Door to Heaven Open,” but Abbeygate’s originals – the best of which are “Tonight Is Gonna Last” and “Someone Else’s Man” – are so solidly rooted in the grand old country tradition that it’s clear this won’t be a one-off album. Whatever you do, though, don’t let Abbeygate within a hundred miles of Nashville; her sound is nothing like the country music of today, and it’ll be nothing short of a sin if it gets tainted. ~Will Harris (01/04/07)

Paula Abdul: Greatest Hits: Straight Up!
Label: EMI/Virgin 2007
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You want straight up? Here you go: this new Paula Abdul greatest-hits collection is just a mostly-unnecessary re-visitation of the one that came out back in 2000, with just a slight tweak to the track listing and no newly recorded material. There, how’s that for straight up? Gone from the previous version are the then-new track, “Crazy Love,” and the so-called “Megamix Medley.” Now in the house: “Will You Marry Me?” from 1991’s Spellbound (a notable omission from the original disc, given that it was a Top 20 hit), two additional tracks from 1995’s Head Over Heels, and, for no discernable reason, “One or the Other,” the closing track from her debut album, 1988’s Forever Your Girl. Few would claim that Paula Abdul made a truly lasting impression on pop music with her three studio albums, but that first record was about as good as mainstream dance-pop got during the late ‘80s, and the singles from the other two albums were all pretty enjoyable as well. Paula hasn’t been bothered to return to the studio since that “American Idol” gig took off for her, so, in short, this is probably the only Paula Abdul album you’ll ever need to own...but if you don’t care anything about the aforementioned additions, don’t waste your money. ~Will Harris (05/04/07)

Absentstar: Absentstar
Label: Canvasback/Columbia 2007
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With influences that range from Radiohead and Coldplay to Snow Patrol and Muse, there is a lot to like about Chicago-based five-piece band Absentstar. And the best part is that they really don’t sound derivative on their self-titled EP (a full length will be released in the spring of 2008), but rather, this is a band that simply fits right into the upper crust of the pack. Their songs are bright, catchy and smartly arranged. That, and they score points for their good musicianship. Produced by songwriter/studio rat Dan Wilson (Semisonic), the best tracks are the up-tempo, driving “For God’s Sakes,” and the balls-out rocker “If You Like It.” Keep your eye on these guys—with songs like this they’re sure to make a bit of industry noise. ~Mike Farley (11/16/07)

Ryan Adams & the Cardinals: Follow the Lights
Label: Lost Highway 2007
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Author Stephen King gushed of Ryan Adams recently, “I won’t say Adams is the best North American singer-songwriter since Neil Young, but I won’t say he isn’t, either.” Of course, it’s been nearly four months since the fab Easy Tiger dropped, so we’re due for something new, right? I mean, this is the guy who dumped four new albums (if you count Cold Roses as two) of original material in the marketplace during one calendar year in 2005. Even as Follow the Lights is but a seven-song EP, it delivers as much earthy, twangy, good-for-your-soul faux country bliss as most any current artist could hope for in a full album. Six Adams’ originals here (though a couple that have seen different versions on past works) plus a gritty, no-frills take on Alice In Chains’ “Down in a Hole,” a clever choice for a cover that falls well within his range. A new Cardinals version of “This is It” (from Rock N’ Roll), as well as the shimmering acoustic piano title track, makes Follow the Lights a must-have for freaks and casual Adams fans alike. Lord knows, you don’t want to turn your back on a legend in his prime. Not even for a few months. ~Red Rocker (11/02/07)

Aerosmith: Chronicles: Permanent Vacation / Pump / Get A Grip
Label: Geffen

Record companies are evil, and if you don’t think packaging five different greatest hit packages by an artist is proof, Geffen has re-released the three albums that re-vitalized Aerosmith’s career (Permanent Vacation from 1987, Pump from 1989 and Get a Grip from 1993) with no new material included and the exact same liner notes from the original releases. If you have these albums, and based on the numbers they sold you probably do, there is no need to go and grab them again. Permanent Vacation, Pump and Get a Grip, are four and five star records but with no demos, no outtakes and no narrative going into the making of these records, this is an unnecessary purchase.

The material, production, arrangements and execution is stellar on each of these albums. The “package” is full of hits including “Rag Doll”, “Dude (Looks Like A Lady)”, “Angel”, “Love in an Elevator”, “Janie’s Got a Gun”, and “Crazy”. The other songs are not throwaways. These are excellent, complete records. If you don’t have them, here they are, in one convenient place, but if you do, there is no reason to pick this up. The rating was compiled with the following computation: Five stars for the material plus a negative three for the unimaginative presentation of this so-called “box”. ~R. David Smola (08/11/05)

The Afters: I Wish We All Could Win
Label: Ino/Epic

These Christian power poppers have a sound like Phantom Planet’s debut album, albeit with a bit of a Jesus Jones thrown into the mix. Your mileage on the disc, however, depends on whether you can appreciate an incredibly catchy CD that espouses religious beliefs which may not match your own. The first three tracks are as good as power pop gets, with any lyrical references to the band’s faith remaining general, but heathen should beware the fifth song, where the Afters harmonize, “Jesus, I’ll love you with all of my mind / Jesus, I’ll love you with all of my soul / Jesus, I’ll love you with all that I am.” The problem with the song, however, isn’t its lyrics – though, if played at the office, co-workers may raise their eyebrows – but, rather, that it’s a sweeping, string-laden ballad which is utterly unlike anything preceding it. (It is, unfortunately, similar to the ninth song, “Wait.”) For the most part, however, this stands as the best album from the Christian power pop scene since the Elms’ debut in 2002. ~Will Harris (08/25/05)

Jason Aldean: Relentless
Label: Broken Bow Records 2007
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Like Keith Urban and Dierks Bentley, Macon, Georgia native Jason Aldean is on the fast track and quickly becoming Nashville’s one of newest hitmakers. One year after earning an ACM award for Top New Male Vocalist, Aldean follows up his certified gold debut album with Relentless, a straight-up contemporary country offering which owes equal debts to his home state-based Southern rock and traditional honky tonk. Touring non-stop since 2005’s debut, currently with industry goliaths Rascal Flatts, he doubles his arsenal with slow burner “Back in This Cigarette,” high school yearbook ode “Laughed Until We Cried,” and the most overplayed video single of the summer, “Johnny Cash.” Somehow the lil’ feller can’t bark “quit my job, flipped off the boss, took my name off the payroll” with near the conviction of Kristofferson or Haggard, yet his stock continues to rise on expected future earnings. The album highlight is an all-skate ballad with fellow up-and-comer Miranda Lambert called “Grown Woman,” which boasts, “I ain’t no old lipstick you use up and throw away, when you’re ready for another shade.” You go, girl! ~Red Rocker (08/10/07)

America: Struttin’ Our Stuff
Label: Inakustik 2006
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It’s a testament to America’s lack of concern about looking, acting, or seemingly even remotely cool that they should use such a woefully un-hip phrase as the title of their live album. Fortunately, the songs contained on Struttin’ Our Stuff handily demonstrate why, despite that lack of concern, the public has embraced them – both on record and in concert – since their self-titled debut in 1972. Given that longtime America fans Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne) and James Iha (Smashing Pumpkins) are producing the band’s next studio album – due October 17th and featuring guest appearances from Ryan Adams, Ben Kweller, Stephen Bishop, and members of Nada Surf and My Morning Jacket – this acoustic performance is a perfect way to get a glimpse of what the band is all about. In addition to all seven of the band’s top 10 hits, singers Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell explore a few lesser singles, like “Daisy Jane” and the band’s theme song for the 1982 animated film, “The Last Unicorn.” It won’t replace either the band’s box set or even their single-disc anthology (both released by Rhino) as a definitive America collection, but it certainly makes for a nice, intimate introduction to the group. ~Will Harris (08/24/07)

American Hi-Fi: Hearts on Parade
Label: Maverick

After three albums, it is painfully clear that American Hi-Fi frontman and primary songwriter Stacy Jones likes a lot of different bands. After a sophomore release (2003’s The Art of Losing) that found the band paying tribute to their punk rock and new wave roots (the title track was the best thing Adam and the Ants never did), the band’s new album, Hearts on Parade, finds them writing Cheap Trick tributes, with a not-so-subtle nod to Blur in the mix as well. The problem, of course, is that there is a major difference between imitating your idols and transcending them. Sure, the power poppy “Hell Yeah!” is cute and fun, and “Separation Anxiety” has that Police vibe going for it. But the overall effort feels unfocused and unconfident, as if the style parodies alone were supposed to be enough to make a good song (hint: They’re not). In the end, American Hi-Fi seem so eager to impress their idols that they have forgotten the age-old rule that the song comes first. ~David Medsker (04/22/05)

American Minor: American Minor
Label: Jive/Red Ink

American Minor is a throwback to ‘70s arena rock. Or for those of you that weren’t born yet, this West Virginia based rock band can be classified in the riff-driven, throaty vocal vein of Lenny Kravitz or the Black Crowes. But while there are plenty of bands out there that have tried to emulate the aforementioned, American Minor rises above the pack because they write good songs and have the chops and the balls to deliver them. Tracks like “Walk On” and “Buffalo Creek” can stand the test of time if this band gets a fair shot, and “One Last Supper” is a powerful, haunting song about an inmate awaiting death row. ~Mike Farley (12/15/05)

American Princes: Little Spaces
Label: Yep Roc

Crash. Boom. Bam. The latest and arguably loudest indie rock band of the year is getting another chance to make their first impression. Yep Roc has picked up and dusted off American Princes, four pissed-off teens from Little Rock by way of Brooklyn, who are currently calling Chapel Hill and Richmond home while finishing their next album. Confused yet? Take one cup Pixies, one cup Strokes, a teaspoon of Bowie, and a dash of Dave Pirner vocals, blend for two minutes on high, and you begin to taste the recipe that is the American Princes. Full-throttle romps “Rock n’ Roll Singer” and the title track share space with punk ballads like “Providence, RI”, all exposing adolescent lyrics (“I’ll grab a bottle with my feelings inside it”) and incongruent themes of the pursuit of fame, fortune and eternal bliss...eternal being at least until next week. ~Red Rocker (07/21/05)

American Speedway: Ship of Fools
Label: Prophase Music 2008
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It’s about time someone got the old formula of fast, loud metal right. Sure, bands like Mastadon and the Sword are great, but all that stuff about whales and mythical beasts can get old after a while. Sometimes you just want to listen to songs about screwing, fighting, and drinking – and that’s when you should listen to American Speedway. Offering nonstop, balls-out thrash with some punk thrown in for good measure, this Philly band delivers the goods on their debut album, Ship of Fools. This is music to listen to while you downing a bottle of whiskey and punching a hippie in the face. Song about sex? Check. Songs about fast cars? Check. Songs about illicit drugs and alcohol? Double check, via the one-two punch of “Drinkin’ and Drivin’” and “Cocaine.” This is not a record you let your kids listen to if you’re trying to instill in them a sense of responsible drinking and a “Just Say No” drug policy. However, if you’re a drunken mess who sees hardcore drugs as a perfect cure to a hangover, then congratulations – you just found the soundtrack to your life. Ten songs, 30 minutes, no bullshit. Someone call Lemmy, we just found the opening act for Motorhead’s next tour. ~James Eldred (04/04/08)

Jose Gonzalez: In Our Nature
Label: Mute 2007
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Swedish folk singer/songwriter Jose Gonzalez may be considered a new age type of artist, because calling his latest album folk music is probably a stretch. Since Gonzalez might be best known for being the voice behind electro-pop outfit Zero 7, he automatically earns cool points with the hipsters. But really, Gonzalez can let his velvet voice speak for itself, and he does that with a simplistic beauty on this album, which is mainly acoustic guitar and vocals with a few harmonies, percussion hits and synth parts thrown in for embellishment. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more compelling guy-with-guitar release, but that’s also the one little drawback to In Our Nature – it kind of all sounds the same after a while. Still, while listening to the best tracks here (“Killing for Love” and “Cycling Trivialities”), you’ll find yourself marveling at the power of songs in their most basic form. ~Mike Farley (10/19/07)

Angel/Devil: 7
Label: S3 2007
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The debut album from rock trio Angel/Devil (called 7 because there are, cleverly, seven songs) is a throwback to ‘70s guitar rock, with elements of prog, fusion and arena rock. You’ll find a tight band playing testosterone-laden songs that are driven by guitar wizard and lead vocalist Gooding, and at times resemble acts like Rush, Power Station and even Cream. You might even draw the conclusion that the members of Angel/Devil were born a generation or two late, but if you’re a fan of this kind of music and long for the days when album rock ruled the airwaves, Angel/Devil should and will be your new flavor of the month. The angry “Damn You’re Mean” and the Zeppelin-esque “Weed My Garden” are standouts among a pretty solid first set. ~Mike Farley (11/02/07)

Nathan Angelo: Through Playing Me
Label: NA Music 2006
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Rhetorical question of the day: why isn’t Nathan Angelo huge? I’ve listened to this album several times, and although the cynic in me originally wanted to write him off as Teddy Geiger without the major-label backing, I’m first and foremost a sucker for a nicely-produced pop hook…as a result, the charms of Through Playing Me won me over within a few songs. Producer Stephen Gause has re-teamed with mix-master Jimmy Jernigan – the two have worked together on projects by Micah Dalton (who’s co-written several songs on this album), Derek Webb, and Kathy Mattea, among others – to produce a slick, shiny wall of sound that’s appropriate to match Angelo’s soaring choruses. And Nathan’s not just a pretty boy with a nice set of lungs, either; his piano playing is outstanding, driving every song and sounding variously reminiscent of everyone from Ben Folds to Marc Cohn, Bruce Hornsby to Elton John. It’s inexplicable that Through Playing Me is flying so far under the radar. From propulsive pop like “Love Sucks” to high-flying ballads like “Leigh,” this is the sort of album that mainstream audiences would absolutely devour, if they were only given the opportunity. ~Will Harris (01/25/07)

Annie: Anniemal
Label: Big Beat/Atlantic

Norwegian blonde bombshell Annie’s debut album Anniemal gets three and a half stars alone for the irresistible “Chewing Gum,” a “Genius of Love”-riffing jeep beat jam that ranks as one of the best pop singles of the decade. The fact that the album also includes a killer St. Etienne impression (“Heartbeat,” which was produced by her neighbors Royksopp), and samples both Shakatak and Madonna, is gravy. It may be airy, lightweight electro pop, but it’s insanely catchy airy, lightweight electro pop. We surrender. ~David Medsker (06/24/05)

The Animators: How We Fight
Label: Angelhouse 0000
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This is only the second studio album for the Animators, but the core duo of the band – Devon Copely and Alex Wong – have both been around the block a few times; Copely used to be in the Pasties, and Wong was a member of the Din Pedals, who put out a pretty decent album on Epic in the late ‘90s. If Wong learned anything about what kind of commercial sound the major labels are looking for, he seems to be ignoring it in his work with the Animators... and God bless him for that. How We Fight is a great piece of harmony-laden pop, with Wong and Copely harmonizing as sweetly as Simon and Garfunkel (it’s surely no coincidence the way they sing the name Cecilia on the appropriately-titled opener, “Good to Be Here”) on every track. The piano and oompah-pah of “The Senator Goes to Hell” is a particular musical highlight, and the pair’s harmonies on the title track are amongst the best on the album... and, trust me, that’s a tight race if there ever was one. The Animators bounce from peppy (“I Won’t Tell”) to gloomy (“Ordinary Moment”) from song to song, variously resembling everyone from the Old ‘97s to Postal Service to Evan and Jaron; there’s even some definite Beach Boys channeling at the beginning of “Die in L.A.” If you prefer some musical variety in your catchy pop goodness, How We Fight is just what you’ve been waiting for. ~Will Harris (04/27/06)

Annie Minogue Band: Tripping the Velvet
Label: Liberty

Before most of you start envisioning pop queen Kylie Minogue, there is no relation between the Aussie cheesecake and rocker Annie Minogue. The Annie Minogue Band has released a few albums on its own, but with their latest, Tripping the Velvet, there is sure to be mounting industry attention. Minogue and her band deliver chick rock grown-up style, along the lines of Melissa Etheridge and the Wilson sisters. A keen sense of melody and guitar-driven production rival most anything a female-fronted band has ever released, especially on edgy tracks like “Black and Blue” and “Love Goes Down.” Then there is the powerful “Down,” a song with crossover potential that should help Minogue continue the success she has enjoyed with film and TV placements. ~Mike Farley (02/16/06)

Marc Antoine: Hi-Lo Split
Label: Peak/Concord 2007
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With his eighth album and first on the Peak/Concord label, jazz guitarist Marc Antoine doesn’t really have anything to prove -- everyone who has heard him play knows the guy has mad skills. So the latest effort from the Frenchman, Hi-Lo Split, is just a continuation in a fine if under-the-radar career. What does distinguish Antoine from his peers is the fact that he mostly plays a nylon string acoustic guitar, giving a Latin flair to standard smooth jazz fare. He also writes most of his own material, and it’s as hooky as anything else that’s tailor made for “Wave” radio. But the one curveball on this album is a cover of the Classics IV’s sixties smash, “Spooky.” You may think you’ve heard this track covered a million times, and you probably have, but Antoine still makes it sound fresh. Hi-Lo Split should be the next CD you add to your Sunday morning collection. ~Mike Farley (08/10/07)

Apollo Up: Light the End and Burn It Through
Label: Theory 8

There is a lot of good that can come from a pull distribution system in the record business. Via the internet, bands can easily market and distribute their music, while it’s easier for fans to find music that matches their taste. This is great for bands that are ready – Clap Your Hands Say Yeah comes to mind – but on Light the End and Burn It Through, Apollo Up (out of Nashville) sounds like a band that should have spent more time crafting their sound. On their MySpace page they describe their music as “the New Wave of British Angry Young Men,” and on the one song that works – “Ticonderoga” – that description rings true, but the rest of the disc varies from mediocre (“Jagged Eisenhower”) to maddening (“Like That!”). The songcraft is pretty tight, and while the drumming and guitars keep up with the album’s frenetic pace, the vocals aren’t impressive, which may be why they are so far back in the mix. Let’s hope the band takes a step forward on their next album, Chariots of Fire, which drops in June. ~John Paulsen (04/20/06)

The April Skies: Flood
Label: WIAB

The April Skies hail from Hershey, PA, home of the Ocean Blue (fondly remembered by those who worshipped at the altar of Sire Records during the early ‘90s), but their hometown isn’t the only thing they have in common with those guys; for one, they’ve been around almost as long, having been founded in 1988, but they also love their British artists and aren’t afraid to borrow from them, often liberally. Where the Blue favored the melancholy pop of the Smiths and the glistening production of the Bunnymen, however, the Skies sound at times like Elvis Costello circa the mid-‘80s. There’s something about the piano on “Still” that makes it sound a little too much like Soul Asylum’s “Runaway Train,” but with Jake Crawford’s vocals on songs like “Long Way Down,” “Something To Shine About,” and “A Game,” there are ample reasons to recommend this to those who want to check out something besides the latest “new” synth-pop band. ~Will Harris (09/08/05)

Aqualung: Strange and Beautiful
Label: Red Ink/Columbia

The next in a seemingly endless line of sensitive English minstrels, Matthew Hale, who for all intents and purposes is Aqualung, assembles an album of dreamy pop that is mostly pleasant and occasionally stunning. The influences are clear: Radiohead here (“Extra Ordinary Thing”), Travis there (“Easier to Lie,” “Left Behind”), Coldplay and Keane everywhere else, with a dash of Grandaddy for good measure. The best moments are when Hale ventures into virgin territory and leaves his influences behind, like the magnificent “Brighter Than Sunshine,” and the gorgeous closer “Another Little Hole,” which recalls Fumbling Towards Ecstasy-era Sarah McLachlan. The most impressive part of Strange and Beautiful may be the fact that these songs were culled from two UK releases, yet there’s a cohesiveness here that belies the time between the recordings. It will be curious to see where he goes from here. A different direction than Coldplay, hopefully. ~David Medsker (04/22/05)

Army of Me: Citizen
Label: Doghouse 2007
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When Army of Me teased the world at large with the release of their Rise EP at the tail end of 2006, it was just enough to keep people’s ears open for the inevitable full-length to follow; it’s nice, therefore, that Citizen – the full-length in question – successfully lives up to the promise of its predecessor. The band’s frontman, Vince Scheuerman, and bassist John Hutchins spent their childhoods as members of a religious cult (they’ve referred to their respective upbringings as “repressive and damaging”), but that seems to have in no way affected Army of Me’s ability to whip up a soaring chorus at a moment’s notice. If it wasn’t for the lack of a British accent, you’d think the band was from the UK, so much does their music feel inspired by artists like Richard Ashcroft, Oasis, and any number of melodically rockin’ Britpoppers from the past several years. Opener “Perfect” and “Saved Your Life” are particularly memorable, as is the piano-led “Walking On,” but it’s “How Long” that grabs you and won’t let go. The only song that doesn’t particularly work is the too-grungy “Meet You at the Mouth,” but it’s an exception. Army of Me might not have a truly unique sound, but they still manage to stand out from the pack with their profoundly catchy material. ~Will Harris (05/25/07)

Army of Me: Rise EP
Label: Doghouse 2006
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This is a very nice EP that Army of Me has released, and I don’t mean that in an Eddie Haskell kind of way. Dennis Manuel’s drums lead off “Going Through Changes” with the kind of bombast usually reserved for a Bob Clearmountain production (or, failing that, the beginning of Frida’s “I Know There’s Something Going On”), and they’re immediately followed by some scorching guitar work by Brad Tursi and a harmony-laden chorus, making for a hell of an opening salvo. “Rise,” which follows, is a nice ballad, but it’s so much more mellow than its predecessor that it should’ve switched places with the power-poppy third track, “Come Out.” The two demos used to fill out the EP, “Saved Your Life” and “Watch for Snakes,” are okay (the former’s melody makes it the better of the pair), but it’s those first three songs that make the band’s forthcoming full-length debut – scheduled for release in April 2007 – something to keep an ear out for. ~Will Harris (01/25/07)

ASG: Feeling Good is Good Enough
Label: Volcom

Don’t be scared by the fact that these guys from Wrightsville Beach, NC, share a label with the funny-but-not-ha-ha-funny Valient Thorr; ASG take their musical cues not from Spinal Tap but, rather, from Metallica and Black Sabbath, with occasional vocal similarities to newer kids on the block (comparatively speaking) like Foo Fighters and the Offspring. Call it an amalgam of rock, metal, and punk, but the overall emphasis still tends to be on the metal; in particular, you can hear the James Hetfield vocal resemblance shine through on “Dusty Roads” and “Horse Whipper.” The title track and “Killers for Hire” are particularly solid, but “Thirsting for More” and “Cracks in the Sky,” the pair of songs which close the album, might be the best tracks on the disc, mixing the heaviness of ASG’s head-banging heritage with melodies that linger after the album is over. ASG may not be the next Queens of the Stone Age quite yet, but they’re certainly well on their way. ~Will Harris (01/19/06)

Asia: Gold
Label: Geffen

A two-disc set consisting of their three Geffen albums, plus a couple choice B-sides and four tracks composed for 1990’s Then and Now collection, Gold rather effectively displays the creative descent that Asia suffered after their million-selling debut. Disc one is easily the better of the two since it contains Asia and the majority of 1983’s Alpha, with songs like “Sole Survivor” and “Without You” aging surprisingly well. Disc two starts out strong, with b-sides “Daylight” and “Lyin’ to Yourself” holding their own against the band’s best stuff. But by the time they get to the material from 1985’s Astra, Asia sounds more like Animotion, all synth rock with none of the progressive playfulness that made their debut such a hit. The Then and Now material fares even worse, sounding like late ‘80s Toto. Interesting side note: someone at THX must have been an Asia fan, because they lifted the intro to “Countdown to Zero” for their spots. ~David Medsker (07/21/05)

John Ashfield: Distance to Empty
Label: Poppop

When not releasing solo albums, John Ashfield serves as a member of power poppers the Bobbleheads... and, when he’s not doing that, he’s a teacher who, if his bio can be believed, spends his time teaching his students to play Blondie’s “Atomic” and "Light and Day,” by the Polyphonic Spree. (The latter is definitely more evident in his material than the former.) It’s a pleasant surprise, given the hand-drawn, almost childish art that graces the cover (no offense, John, if you drew it!) to find that this material isn’t paint-by-numbers power pop. More often than not, it’s slightly melancholy singer/songwriter fare. If the proceedings begin with the light-hearted bounce of “The Watermelon Song” and the light crunch of “Come Along,” by the time things are winding up, piano-led songs like “OK” and “(You Are) Everything to Me” find Ashfield’s voice sounding unexpectedly reminiscent of Martin Rossiter of Gene. Kudos, John, for taking a risk and painting outside the lines. ~Will Harris (09/08/05)

The Ataris: Welcome the Night
Label: Sanctuary Records 2007
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Barely a shell of the former Ataris remains from 2003’s So Long, Astoria record, and even less of that band’s sound, as singer Kris Roe and guitarist John Collura march on. Clearly it’s taken all four years away to re-establish themselves as a band and decide which sound to continue creating. Gone is the ear candy power-pop bliss of “Takeoffs and Landings” or “In This Diary,” replaced instead with dreary, almost gothic themes of isolation and regret. The new sound retreats to late-'80s Depeche Mode and the Cure, though it isn’t nearly as good. The industrial opener, “Not Capable of Love,” swipes from Sisters of Mercy, “Cardiff-by-the-Sea” is as close as they get to revisiting Astoria, and “A Soundtrack for This Rainy Morning” would’ve worked on Dark Side of the Moon. The deeper you get into Welcome the Night, the more obvious it is how hard these remaining members are searching for an identity. Long, awkward song titles, dramatic over-production, and a completely random musical template all add up to what Simon Cowell would deem “rubbish.” Want one redeeming song? Go download “The Cheyenne Line” and be done with it. ~Red Rocker (03/22/07)

Avenged Sevenfold: City Of Evil
Label: Warner Brothers

“One of the year’s most anticipated releases!” screams the sticker on the front of Avenged Sevenfold’s (that’s A7X to you kiddies) new big label disc. Well, I don’t know who was anticipating it, because it sounds like the same old power-chord-with-double-bass-drums-shred-fest wank I’ve heard by a million other bands. Supposedly vocalist M. Shadows doesn’t scream anymore, thanks to some throat surgery. Is it too evil of me to wish he couldn’t make any sound at all? Oh, well. Andy Wallace turns in the usual pop perfection production he’s renowned for, and the band alternates between shred theatrics and cheeseball Top 40 pomp. Queen used to do a similar thing with hard rock, with the exception being that they were good at it. The 1 ½ star rating is for the hilariously awesome CD booklet artwork, which features a nude woman with horns lying placidly under a big red demon, a big ass pile of skulls in some kind of gothic room, and of course the classic flying skull with wings. The song “Bat Country” has to be the worst tribute to the late great Hunter S. Thompson ever written. These guys are all Fisher-Price; neutered, with plastic stone replacements. ~Jason Thompson (07/28/05)

Back Door Slam: Roll Away
Label: Blix Street Records 2007
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The U.K. is not historically a breeding ground for the blues, unless 20-year-old Robert Cray wannabe Davy Knowles and his band Back Door Slam are at the beginning of a new movement. Swiping their name from a Cray classic and pirating his style, then rubbing it down with equal parts ZZ Top, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and even some Allman Brothers Band, Back Door Slam staked their claim to U.S. listeners with a fiery performance at Austin’s South by Southwest last spring. Influences abound on Roll Away, from the Hendrix-fused “Heavy on My Mind” to the somber acoustics of “Stay,” which recall a younger, not-so-silvery Bob Seger. It’s impossible to categorize a band whose every song employs a different element – “Too Good for Me,” for instance, is a mandolin-soaked lost-love song that sounds like David Coverdale doing country. It’s this randomness of sound and style that keeps the album fresh -- though it also holds these guys hostage, in a way, never really establishing them consistently. ~Red Rocker (09/07/07)

Ian Ball: Who Goes There
Label: Dispensary 2007
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When you take someone out of a great band, there are times when you realize that said person IS the band. In the case of Ian Ball, one of the principal songwriters and frontmen of critically acclaimed British rock band Gomez, that’s not quite the case. But while Ball’s first solo effort, Who Goes There, does not measure up to his band’s best material, it’s still adequate and has some really great moments. Ball, who moved to Los Angeles a few years back, began making friends with the likes of LA scenesters Will Golden (Gary Jules) and Phil Krohnengold (Duncan Sheik, Ween), and with the help of alcohol, the trio collaborated to make some music. While touring with Gomez, Ball found the time to piece some recordings together, and Who Goes There is the result. A few of the tracks kind of drone on, but the ones that stand out really stand out, in particular the stunning lead track, “Sweet Sweet Sleep,” the pulsing romp “Failure,” and the acoustic ballad “Enzymes.” Who Goes There is not going to break any records or shoot up any charts, but it will make some Gomez fans happy, and it’s obviously a fun diversion for a quality songwriter. ~Mike Farley (11/16/07)

Band of Horses: Everything All the Time
Label: Sub Pop

Not to be confused with Horse the Band, these guys keep it on the mellow side but not in the way that makes you stare holes through your shoes. With definite leanings towards My Morning Jacket, Band of Horses supplies the kind of accessible fare for an evening of drinking wine in the country next to a fire or a lake or some other peaceful setting. One can only hope that Band of Horses and label mates Rouge Wave tour together soon. If you're in an unstable relationship, buy this record for your significant other, and it will at least afford you an extra week or two. ~Josh Preston (04/06/06)

Barcelona: Absolutes
Label: NBD 2007
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This review’s RIYL might be baffling for fans of Washington DC’s Barcelona, the pop band known for recording geek-wave songs such as “The Downside of Computer Camp” and “I Have the Password to Your Shell Account”; rest assured, this is not that Barcelona, but a new pop combo with the same name and an altogether less interesting sound. This album, like its cover, is all soft focuses and wintry landscapes – each song comes equipped with all the reverb-laden vocals and sadly majestic piano you can shake a fist at, or fall asleep to, whichever happens first. It’s hard to begrudge songwriter Brian Fennell his constant heart-clutching – who among us didn’t think in snicker-inducing lines like “she makes my heart scream color” when we were in our early 20s – but when he sings “this thing between my lungs is making me so tired,” it’s hard not to agree with him. Based on your tolerance for weepy melodrama, your mileage will vary. ~Jeff Giles (10/05/07)

Barfly: MySpace Sessions
Label: self-released

If Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis fronted the Delays, they’d sound an awful lot like this Manchester quartet. (In fact, singer Greg Matthews even looks like Hollis.) The songs are dreamier than dreamy, with bubbly synthesizers doing a playful give and take with the jangly guitar bits. Its biggest flaw, besides being too short (only five proper songs are available) is that the recordings were clearly a low budget affair, and sparkling pop like this should have the shimmery production goodness that it deserves. But that will be taken care of when these boys land a record deal, which is only a matter of time after making an EP of this caliber. Now here’s the best part: THE EP IS FREE, kids. Go to www.myspace.com/barfly and follow the instructions. You don’t have to register, give any personal information, none of that. Just click download, and enjoy. They even give you links to .jpg files for a front and back cover. Sweeeeet. ~David Medsker (11/03/05)

Bargain Music: American Born
Label: Cornerstone RAS 2006
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It’s easy to sit here and knock anyone with an acoustic guitar that decides to release an album. But what not all of you realize is the pain that is sometimes inflicted on our ears when we have to endure crap like Bargain Music’s American Born. Bargain Music is basically singer/songwriter Josh Fischel, and this is an acoustic collection of stuff he’s been writing over the course of the last nine years that the band has existed. Somehow, miraculously, Cornerstone Records heard this music and decided it was worth releasing. Fischel doesn’t have a bad voice; it’s just that it grates on you after about 30 seconds. The songs have the kind of melodies that you’d expect from a 16-year-old who just learned to play guitar. In summary, this is music that might be good if you’re really high, if you smell, or both. And even then, it’s questionable. ~Mike Farley (08/24/07)

Dave Barnes: Chasing Mississippi
Label: Ripley

Dave Barnes is a throwback to a carefree era in music, with a soulful voice and songs akin to pop icons Hall & Oates or Michael McDonald, or even relative newcomer Josh Rouse. Barnes’ latest, Chasing Mississippi, is sure to put him on the map as an artist and as a songwriter – even though he hails from the songwriter-rich city of Nashville – because the tracks on here are not just really good, but the kind that you never tire of. From the groove of “Everybody but You” to the bluesy and ultra-addictive “All That Noise” to the tender “I Have and I Always Will,” Chasing Mississippi is a roller coaster ride you won’t want to get off of. But the best track on here is “Someday, Sarah,” with a timeless charm and just enough swirling guitars and retro keys to make anyone feel good. ~Mike Farley (03/09/06)

Barzin: Just More Drugs
Label: Monotreme Records 2007
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The first thing you will probably think when you hear Barzin’s song “Just More Drugs” is “Gee, these guys sound an awful lot like Galaxie 500 without Dean Wareham’s nasally vocals.” Indeed, this trio trips out on a bit of basement shoegaze without all the My Bloody Valentine blur. That title track is also the best thing here. The rest of this EP shows Barzin in a moodier, folkier light that doesn’t really find its footing. “Let’s Go Driving” and “Mistakes” both sound stoned and melancholy, and the non-album tune “Queen Jane” falls in line in a similar fashion. It’s hard to imagine this group being a very lively bunch, with the live take of “Mistakes” as featured on CFRU FM proving the point entirely. The EP closes with the “Glass Shrimp Session on Resonance FM” version of “Just More Drugs” which isn’t as spacey as the studio take. It is sleepier, however. Luckily this EP is only five tracks long; you might fall asleep if it went on any longer. ~Jason Thompson (10/26/07)

The Basement: Illicit Hugs and Playground Thugs
Label: Velour Recordings 2007
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Bands in the UK get so much hype from the British music weeklies, it’s usually turned into verbal wallpaper by the time said band reaches these shores. Rarely do the hapless musicians live up to the propaganda. Hey, it’s tough to fill the pages of a magazine or newspaper; can you imagine if Rolling Stone or Spin published every week? Egads…we’d be reading about Meg White’s bra size and what Jeff Tweedy had for dinner last Tuesday inside of a month (thankfully we have blogs for that). The originally-from-Ireland-now-from-Liverpool bar-rock troubadours the Basement have been compared to everyone from Van Morrison to Dylan to the Flying Burrito Brothers. What? Okay, the name’s a nod to Dylan (copped from the lyric ”Johnny’s in the basement,” referring to both lead singer John Mullin's former dwelling and the band's former rehearsal space). But the other comparisons? Not on your life. On such gritty fare as “Medicine Day” and the lilting “It Won’t Be Long,” these purveyors of an interesting British take on Americana aren’t country enough to be pure alt-country, but the overall feel is the same. With plenty of finger-picking evident in the not-overly romantic arrangements, it’s modern-day folk-rock, plain and simple. And it’s still refreshing to hear a current band whose musical inspiration pre-dates Blur (or some such), and who sidesteps the tired quiet-loud-quiet dynamic to focus on melody, harmony and rhythm in an unsentimental way. ~Una Persson (07/06/07)

The Bastard Fairies: Memento Mori
Label: Bastard Fairy Records 2007
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Note to the Bastard Fairies: the part of “Ween” has already been successfully created and filled. Seems like no one relayed this info to Robin Davey and Yellow Thunder Woman, the duo responsible for these 17 tracks that come off as lopsided psychedelicraptastic faux-surreal ripoffs of the boys from New Hope. They’re not half as entertaining as Ween, either. So yeah, songs with titles like “Ode to the Prostitute,” “Habitual Inmate,” and “Exoskeleton” sound exactly what you’d expect from a project such as this where Yellow Thunder Woman’s boobs are shoved into your face before one note is even digested. Suffice it to say they neither are impressive enough to warrant anyone’s attention beyond a “What’s the crap you’re playing?” inquiry. Don’t even bother buying it; the original damn thing’s available on the band’s site for nada. Of course, five more tracks and a useless DVD have been added to the retail package if you want to actually give money to these people. Chances are you really don’t.~Jason Thompson (04/26/07)

Bedsit Poets: The Summer That Changed
Label: Bongo Beat

The Bedsit Poets are a NYC-based duo comprised of Edward Rogers and Amanda Thorpe; Rogers, former member of the Green Rooftops, released a solo album (Sunday Fables) on Not Lame a year or two ago, and Thorpe, co-founder of the Wirebirds, put out a solo disc herself back in 2001 (Mass). Together, however, they’ve produced a low-key, melancholy collection of harmony-laden pop songs: 10 originals and one cover (“Don’t Ask Me To Be Friends,” a Gerry Goffin / Jack Keller composition best known for having been recorded by the Everly Brothers). Maybe it’s the weather talking, but this is the perfect soundtrack for a rainy day...and not just because the album closes with a song called “Let It Rain.” No, it’s because the majority of the tracks are rather languid; if you’re sitting around and not of a mind to do much of anything, let these songs wash over you. If that description concerns you, fret not; the chorus of “Far From You” – “You drive me crazy, all the things that you do / And it drives me insane when I’m far from you” – is a head-bobber, and the Rickenbacker-powered jangle of “Reach For The Sky” is a particularly upbeat highlight. ~Will Harris (12/01/05)

Andy Bell: Electric Blue
Label: Sanctuary

It seems odd that Andy Bell, frontman for Erasure, would choose to venture into the treacherous waters of a solo career in the same year that his band (okay, so they’re less a band than a duo) released a new album, Nightbird, that’s the best they’ve put out in the better part of a decade, but there are several great dancefloor fillers here, including first single “Crazy,” “Shaking My Soul,” and the title track. The song that will have the gay community – well, at least, the portion of it that has rhythm, anyway – really shaking their collective asses, however, is “I Thought It Was You,” a duet with Scissor Sisters frontman Jake Shears. The biggest difference between Electric Blue and Nightbird is that Bell’s album sounds more...sterile. Vince Clarke, Bell’s partner in Erasure, has honed his ability to compose keyboard-based songs that have considerable texture, whereas Bell’s solo endeavor is less complex and sounds as though it was designed for the discothèque rather than for casual listening. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. ~Will Harris (11/03/05)

Beneath the Sky: What Demons Do to Saints
Label: Victory Records 2007
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“Goodfellas,” the first song off of Cincinnati-based Beneath the Sky’s debut album, What Demons Do to Saints, begins with the line “Every day is a nightmare” – and if I was stuck in a band as aggressively untalented as this one, I’d feel the same way. Yet another horrible mediocre metalcore band to come out of the sinking ship that is Victory Records, Beneath the Sky symbolizes everything that is wrong with the genre today; each song is filled with repetitive and instantly forgettable music that accompanies some of the worst “singing” attempted by a metalcore band. Lead singer Joey Nelson can’t even crib the basic Cookie Monster vocal style that most singers of the genre seem to be attempting, his jarring raspy scream instead sounds more like Elmo…while he’s being anally violated by Snuffleupagus’ trunk. Painful mental picture? Not as painful as having to listen to this worthless piece of trash. This is the worst thing to come out of Cincinnati since that ‘90s revival of “WKRP.” ~James B Eldred (02/22/07)

Paris Bennett: Princess P
Label: 306 Music/TVT 2007
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When Paris Bennett was a contestant on “American Idol” last year, she was easily one of the most likeable and talented singers. She had an old-school charm that made her a throwback to the days of Gladys Knight and Patti Labelle. So why she went and made a contemporary R&B/pop album raises a great question, especially when Bennett’s debut isn’t the least bit catchy. The songs on Princess P are formulaic and border on annoying — scratch that, they ARE annoying. In fact, this is even below the crap bar set by fellow Idol contestant Katharine McPhee. “Dreamin’” is about the only decent track, but the rest of the album is so grating you may just want to go and punch someone. We’ll give Princess half a star though just for including lispy Idol contestant Kevin Covais in a rap duet, “Let Me Rap,” but the song is more comic relief than good. Bennett adds a frenetic cover of “My Boyfriend’s Back,” and it does nothing but offer mild props to a classic. Here’s hoping Princess P goes back and records something less contemporary next time, because this thing is bound to flop. ~Mike Farley (06/29/07)

Brendan Benson: The Alternative to Love
Label: V2

His bio claims that this is not a singer/songwriter, but that Brendan Benson is really a band. And that’s definitely the case, as this is fleshed out pop/rock that has melodic sparks and enough energy to power an airplane. There are flavors of artists like the Beatles and the Finn Brothers. The follow-up to 2002’s critically acclaimed Lapalco, Alternative to Love has more ultra-cool songs on it, especially “Cold Hands Warm Heart,” the synthesizer-infused “I Feel Like Myself Again,” and the dark yet poppy “Between Us.” ~Mike Farley (04/22/05)

George Benson & Al Jarreau: Givin’ It Up
Label: Concord 2006
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What do you get when you pair one of the greatest jazz guitar players ever with one of the greatest jazz vocalists ever? Throw in guest appearances by the likes of Paul McCartney, Patti Austin and Jill Scott, and you get something that is can’t-miss. And that’s basically what living legends and label mates George Benson and Al Jarreau are offering up with Givin’ It Up. Yes, it isn’t anything you wouldn’t expect, but this album is still nothing short of stunning. There is play off of each others’ music, such as Jarreau adding vocals to Benson’s “Breezin’” and Benson playing the vocal line to Jarreau’s smash hit, “Mornin’.” But there’s so much more. Smooth jazz programmers are going to salivate over the cover of Seals & Croft’s “Summer Breeze” as well as a Jarreau/Patti Austin duet on “Let It Rain.” The funky “Don’t Start No Schtuff” and gospel-infused McCartney guesting on “Bring It on Home to Me” are just icing on a very tasty cake. ~Mike Farley (11/02/06)

Sarah Bettens: Scream
Label: Hybrid

Former K’s Choice singer Sarah Bettens steps out on her own and delivers an impressive set of pop rock that seems tailor made for mass consumption. Leadoff rocker, and title track, is actually the verse and chorus of two different songs expertly mashed together, while “Not Insane” has “TV soundtrack” written all over it. Unfortunately, that’s part of the problem with Scream. As good as these songs are, and as lovely as her voice is (think Sarah McLachlan crossed with Amy Ray), there’s a whiff of corporate synergizing behind it all, as if she wrote these songs not for the music world but rather for TV producers and the people who pick songs for movie trailers. It’s catchy, and pretty, but a little contrived as well. Don’t be surprised if you hear these songs every time you change the channel, and don’t be surprised if you find yourself singing along. That may seem like an okay fate for an artist, but Toni Childs will likely tell you otherwise. ~David Medsker (09/01/05)

Big 10-4: Testing the Atmosphere
Label: Republic 2006
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Well, hey, good buddy, that’s not the greatest name in the world, but at least your music’s pretty good. Hailing from Orlando, Florida, Big 10-4 have one foot in the present and the other squarely in world of late-‘90s rock radio regulars like Third Eye Blind and Vertical Horizon. It might not be the hippest place to stake your claim nowadays, but the combination of ear-catching material and the studio gloss of producer Matt Wallace (Train, Maroon 5, Sugarcult) makes Testing the Atmosphere work pretty well. Like so many bands with this sound, suggesting that the entire album is phenomenal would be stretching the truth a bit, but taken song by song, almost any track could pick up airplay. “Walking Disaster,” the opening track, has a pounding verse than leads into a soaring chorus with almost as much punch to it, while “Irony Is Thick” begins with the light tinkle of a piano before heading into a powerhouse of a pop/rock song. “Deadman” might be the best song on the album with its melodic guitar line, but for every compliment, there should be a criticism…and, guys, it has to be said that “Undertow” is absolutely a Third Eye Blind song…like, to the point where radio listeners would, in fact, call in requesting that the DJ “play that new Third Eye Blind song” again. Stick with developing that Big 10-4 sonic identity rather than cloning that of others. And in closing, to keep with the CB theme, may I just say, keep the whites on your nose and the reds on your tail. And we gone…. ~Will Harris (08/24/07)

Big Blue Hearts: Here Come Those Dreams Again
Label: Eagle Eye

This is the sort of album that starts musical debates where, after a few beers, things can easily descend into the hurling not only of obscenities but, indeed, large objects. Rock fans will swear that if you take Chris Isaak, make his voice a little higher, and add a bit more twang, you’ll have the Big Blue Hearts; your friendly neighborhood cowpokes may or may not know who Chris Isaak is, but they’ll gladly assure that what you hear on Here Come Those Dreams Again ain’t nothin’ but a li’l bit of country music, plain and simple. Somewhere in-between falls the alt-country fan, who will try to solve the argument by declaring that this is clearly Americana. (For the record, it’s this last musical subset to which the band is pitching the first single, “Lovin’ You.”) If students of any of these three genres have an open mind, they’ll throw their arguments aside and just admit that this is a catchy, fun album of pop songs, with or without the twang. Fans of Foster & Lloyd, the Jayhawks, and, yes, Chris Isaak will be easily captivated. ~Will Harris (07/21/05)

Big Dume: Inside My Head
Label: Chartless

This Malibu, California-based band is going to get most of its recognition from the fact that its members include singer/songwriter Brandon Jenner (son of Olympic athlete Bruce) and keyboardist/vocalist Leah Felder (daughter of Eagles guitarist Don), and because Jenner co-wrote the TV pilot “Princes of Malibu.” But Big Dume’s debut album, Inside My Head, boasts solid musicianship and some really good songs. There are different styles at work here in Jenner’s writing, from the anthemic title track, to the blues-infused “Mexico,” to the angry “Perfect World.” Felder shines on “Vanity,” which sounds like a cross between Jewel and Fiona Apple. ~Mike Farley (07/14/05)

Ryan Bingham: Mescalito
Label: Lost Highway 2007
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Fans of John Prine and Billy Joe Shaver will want to make sure they get their ears around Mescalito, the major-label debut from this onetime itinerant rodeo worker. Bingham’s only 25, but he sounds at least twice that on these 14 tracks – and occasionally, he even sounds like something special. Ex-Black Crowe guitarist Marc Ford produced, and he brings an appropriate level of grit to the proceedings; when a kid who’s barely old enough to buy a beer from a 7-11 can sing “with my pillow lies my gun” and not make you bust out laughing, it’s safe to assume that everyone involved knew what they were doing. There really aren’t any bad songs here, but most of the record’s 65 minutes are taken up with mid-tempo sawdust ballads, and it all starts to drag after awhile – especially when compared to the set’s more rocking moments, like the rollicking, Sonny Landreth-esque “Bread and Water.” With a more balanced album, Bingham could find himself the toast of the AAA set. ~Jeff Giles (11/09/07)

The Birthday Massacre:: Walking with Strangers
Label: Metropolis 2007
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Toronto sextet the Birthday Massacre are a band out of time, still waving the Goth flag a good five years past the sell-by date – one guy is even unlucky enough to bear a striking resemblance to Marilyn Manson – yet the band’s new album, Walking with Strangers, sounds remarkably refreshing. Singer Chibi wisely stays away from the kind of vocalizing that would draw a comparison to Amy Lee, and while the band does bring out some Evanescence-like power chords, they’re much more interested in the kind of syncopated melodies that the Pet Shop Boys must hear in their darkest dreams. Where the band’s ‘80s-cribbing contemporaries are doing superficial imitations of synth pop, the Birthday Massacre gets to the essence of what made those early Goth records so great. About damn time. ~David Medsker (09/07/07)

Gus Black: Autumn Days
Label: Cheap Lullaby

The artist formerly known as Gus – it was he who forced a certain Boston trio to change its name to Guster – circles the wagons after a brief stint in the majors to make Autumn Days, a lo-fi sister of sorts to 1999’s impeccably produced Word of Mouth Parade. Black’s just doing what he always does, churning out dark acoustic ditties that are like Grant Lee Buffalo without the history lessons, with one song (“Trillion Things”) getting a little friendly with “Maggie May.” And while you’re sure to get a song or two stuck in your craw (“Long Beach (It’s a Miracle),” for example), even the most high energy stuff here has a cloud of foreboding hanging over it. Black’s songs have always been like this, of course, but this time out, things seem a little gloomier than usual. If any of his albums could use a song like “Laugh I Could Learn to Love,” it’s this one. Lighten up, Gus: remember, laugh and the world laughs with you. ~Mike Farley (03/16/06)

Black Label Society: Mafia
Label: Artemis

Zakk Wylde’s latest Black Label Society release, Mafia, is a good metal record, period. It contains the required distinctive axe work from one of the best in the business, apocalyptic and dark lyrical content, a couple of fairly elegant and sad ballads, and plenty of memorable, ass-kicking riffs. From the opening talk box on “Fire It Up” to the fading guitar of “I Never Dreamed” which concludes the record, Mafia is a 54-minute, 15-track joy ride of hard rock as it is intended to be. ~R. David Smola (07/21/05)

Blackmore’s Night: Winter Carols
Label: Locomotive Record 2006
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Christmas records are not necessarily my bag. I like them to be a bit different so I can break them out anytime of the year. The Reverend Horton Heat blasted out We Three Kins last year, and that is good for at least one listen before St. Nick visits. The Brian Setzer Orchestra’s Boogie Woogie Christmas features that virtuoso having a blast, so that is good for even a non-Christmas spin. And although this disc does contain some very cool guitar work by the legendary Richie Blackmore, Winter Carols is a Christmas-only record. And as far as Christmas-only records go, this is a very pleasant one. Candice Night’s voice sounds perfect for this collection of mostly traditional carols and the Renaissance-influenced arrangements and instrumentations are quirky but fun in this context. The album opener “Hark the Herald Angels Sing/Come All Ye Faithful” features some fabulous and restrained acoustic guitar by Blackmore and the instrumental “Winter (Basse Dance)” is quite pretty. This collection would provide an excellent soundtrack to the kids opening their presents on Ye Ole Christmas Morn. ~R. David Smola (12/20/06)

Black Tie Dynasty: Black Tie Dynasty
Label: Idol 2006
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Turn back the clock, folks. For the past couple of years, bands like Black Tie Dynasty have tapped into the aging market that grew up in the ‘80s, trying to emulate great acts like Depeche Mode, the Cure and Joy Division. While all of those bands mentioned continue to make music 20 years later (well, except for the Joy Division, who were sidetracked by that whole suicide thing), fans of that style have the option to turn away from their heroes of yesteryear and focus on fresh acts that look younger and don’t have to work out every day to stay in shape. That said, the latest effort from Black Tie Dynasty, Movements, sounds harshly derivative. I mean, they hail from Dallas, of all places. But even if you stripped everything down to what’s important, the songs, Black Tie Dynasty delivers an average batch of them that wouldn’t measure up to those powerhouse Brit pop bands back in the day. The best tracks are the speedy “Bells” and hooky “Tender,” but other than that, this album will induce more than a few yawns. So when you want to drum up visions of Molly Ringwald and Ally Sheedy, do yourself a favor and listen to the pioneers, instead of their kids. ~Mike Farley (01/11/07)

The Blakes: The Blakes
Label: Light in the Attic 2007
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Seattle rock trio the Blakes already have one thing going for them – they look like rock stars. On the cover of their debut full-length, self-titled LP for Light in the Attic Records, these guys look like they are gonna rock your socks off. Then they do. Keep this band’s name in your back pocket, because you’re likely to hear a lot about them in the coming little while. Comparisons in their bio are made to the Kinks, the Stooges, and the Strokes. Maybe it’s the whole “the” thing, but here is a more accurate comparison: the Plimsouls. If you remember and love the Plimsouls’ Everywhere at Once album, you are going to love the Blakes, guaranteed. It leaves you wondering why more bands haven’t tried this no-frills but balls-to-the-wall approach, but the Blakes sure do have it down. This is unpretentious, melodic rock at its best, but it takes a strong vocalist to make it work – and guitarist/singer Garnet Keim does, with a growl and swagger that tie everything together nicely. Standout tracks are the raw and crunchy “Two Times” and “Lie Next to Me,” and the ‘80s-influenced tracks “Don’t Bother Me” and “Run.” ~Mike Farley (10/19/07)

Blankety Blank: Is This Your Pill?
Label: Self-released

While Atlanta-based Blankety Blank starts out their album with a witty pop/punk track, “5 Minutes Ago,” they soon show that they’re not one-dimensional. These guys are influenced by melodic pop/rock genius Butch Walker (and even recorded at Walker’s studio) and the ballad “Flow” as well as the dark “You Come Through” are the kind of tracks Butch would be proud of. It’s not like these guys are lacking an identity; they’re just well rounded and write good songs. ~Mike Farley (05/20/05)

Scott Blasey: Travelin’ On
Label: King Mouse Music 2007
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Scott Blasey has been a travelin’ fool over the past few years, and now has an entire album to document it. The Clarks’ lead singer and primary songwriter for an under-appreciated 20 years, Blasey turns in his third solo record, Travelin’ On, and first in almost eight years. In between constant touring with the Clarks, uprooting his life and family and moving from Pittsburgh to Dallas, and becoming a father, the oh-so-soulful crooner with Tom Cruise good looks has just kept writing and writing. “Time to Go,” a woozy slide guitar number, gets things started with Blasey journaling “I’m leaving town, I’m southern bound, where the skies are always blue” like he’s jotting notes in a diary. But from the farewell lament of “See You Around” to a forgettable clap-happy “Be Your Man,” this chapter of the diary, unfortunately, wouldn’t make much of a movie. Even a quick run through Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me” doesn’t work when Blasey opts for creative layering of multiple vocal tracks instead of just singing the damned song. As a longtime fan of the Clarks, I was disappointed to see such talent go to waste this time around. ~Red Rocker (04/13/07)

Porter Block: Suburban Sprawl
Label: Engine Room 2007
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Beware the press release that’s dripping with hyperbole: Take the sheet that came with Suburban Sprawl, the debut from New York quartet Porter Block. XTC and Bread are dropped in the first paragraph, with Fountains of Wayne, Crowded House, Badfinger and the Beatles appearing later. Those are lofty, oxygen-deficient heights, to be sure, and it should surprise no one that Porter Block does not reach them. However, that is less an indictment of their songwriting ability – though it is indeed that – than it is the fact that the frequent use of mandolin and slide guitar means that they sound absolutely nothing like the bands to which they have allegedly drawn comparison. Then there is the matter of the band’s vocals: David Gates, Neil Finn and Adam Schlesinger have pretty voices to go with their pretty songs. Peter Block, on the other hand, does not. His voice is a notch prettier than, say, Dave Lowery’s, and Lord knows there’s nothing pretty about Dave Lowery. If Porter Block truly wants to be mentioned in the same breath as the Beatles and Crowded House, they should ask themselves: Would Neil Finn write a song like “Blackberry Girl”? If not, then throw it out and start over. ~David Medsker (02/22/07)

Blue James Band: That’s That
Label: Self-released

This band is fronted by Cliff Williams, and not a guy named James. But that’s not really an issue here, because this is some pretty cool stuff. Floating back and forth between jam bandy reggae/pop and bluesy rock, Blue James features the catchy songs and smooth rock voice of Williams, all the while accompanied by some really great musicianship. The best comparison I can offer is a cross between Paul Simon and Sting, and the best tracks are “Remember Me” and “Going Home.” ~Mike Farley (05/06/05)

Blue Merle: Burning in the Sun
Label: Island

Listening to Blue Merle’s debut album will make one wonder if lead singer Luke Reynolds and Chris Martin have ever been spotted together, since one could argue that Reynolds and the Coldplay singer are one and the same. The comparisons don’t end there, either: “If I Could” oozes heartache the same way Coldplay’s “Warning Sign” does, though Beau Stapleton’s mandolin gives Blue Merle a distinctly Americana flavor. The album is ultimately undone by the sameness of the songs; it’s okay to write a good mid-tempo song here or there, but an entire album of them gets old in a hurry. Still, there is tremendous potential here. If they ever get around to shaking things up a little, we could be in for something special. ~David Medsker (05/13/05)

Blue October: Foiled
Label: Universal

If you like Peter Gabriel, or if you remember ‘80s prog rock band Marillion, you will find something to like about Texas-based band Blue October. Lead singer Justin Furstenfeld has a voice that is a dead ringer for Gabriel or Marillion’s Fish, and the music is quirky and dark enough to be labeled alternative. But while Blue October distinguishes itself from almost any band in today’s rock genre, the songwriting on their latest, Foiled, is no more than a B-minus. “Sound of Pulling Heaven Down” and “Into the Ocean” (does anyone remember Howard Jones?) are solid tunes, and “Drilled A Wire Through My Cheek” is a kickass title and equally impactful song. But for the most part Foiled wears thin after a couple of listens, losing its luster like the vanilla ice cream underneath a mountain of hot fudge. ~Mike Farley (04/12/06)

Blues Traveler: Bastardos!
Label: Vanguard

There are bands that have long lives, and there are those that are destined for the equivalent of a retirement community: obscurity. With their third consecutive indie label release and first on Vanguard, John Popper and company are well on their way to that retirement community. After the somewhat hooky first two tracks, “You Can’t Stop Thinking About Me” and “Amber Awaits,” Bastardos! manages to take us all on a stroll through a field of boredom. Just how much can we take of that whiney harmonica and Popper’s vocal, which are beginning to sound like one and the same? ~Mike Farley (09/08/05)

Bob Marley & the Wailers: Africa Unite: The Singles Collection
Label: Island

The compilations featuring the work of Bob Marley far exceed the number of studio records he released in his all-too-short life. Africa Unite: The Singles Collection contains 20 tracks, 17 classics, two remixes and a new track constructed from a rough demo by two of his children (Stephen and David). “Slogans” features guitar work by Eric Clapton and background vocals by singer/songwriter Marcia Ball, and is a pleasant surprise. The two remixes are fair, but it is the core material that makes the collection desirable. 1984’s Legend has always been a great introduction to Marley, and this collection is as good, sharing almost all of the material. If you have worn out your old copy of Legend and need to replace it (maybe you still have vinyl?) or you don’t have any Bob lying around, go out and grab it, mon. ~R. David Smola (01/04/06)

Bodyrockers: Bodyrockers
Label: Universal 2005

It’s rather fitting that dance duo the Bodyrockers consist of an Australian and a European (okay, a Brit; I’m stretching the truth to make my point), because their melding of fat dance beats with scorching guitars is precisely what one would expect if Daft Punk ever hooked up with AC/DC. The songs could fill a dance floor faster than you can say “Free Ecstasy,” but they also provide enough punch to keep the girls’ boyfriends entertained while they drink at the bar. The problem is that the songs are unbelievably dumb, with the deepest thought being “Hanging with such a losing crowd / Wanna talk about it, sort the whole thing out?” on “Stuck in a Rut,” the album’s lone ballad. Still, as bad as the lyrics are – and they are shockingly bad – it’s difficult to resist either shaking your booty or whipping out the air guitar to “I Like the Way,” “You Got Me Singing,” “Dirty,” and especially “Round and Round,” which is “Sharp Dressed Man” on steroids. ~David Medsker (01/04/06)

Michael Bolton: Bolton Swings Sinatra
Label: Passion / Concord 2006
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I know, you’re looking for jokes, but, c’mon, Michael Bolton’s one of those targets that’s past its prime, and you hate to kick a man when he’s down; quite frankly, he hasn’t had a hit in a while now. Bolton Swings Sinatra, however, could change that for him. Not because it’s so spectacular (though it’s certainly listenable enough), but because…and don’t think he hasn’t already thought of this…he can totally pick up some of the same audience who went apeshit over the schmaltz-ridden piece of crap that was Barry Manilow’s The Greatest Songs of the Fifties. Seriously, if Bolton mounts a promotional campaign that includes TV spots and full-page ads in AARP Magazine, this thing could blow wide open and give Bolton his first Top Ten record in quite some time. Now, as to the content of the album itself, well, as the title suggests, it’s all Sinatra covers; they’re all done in a pretty straightforward, easy listening way, but Bolton’s still got that powerhouse voice that made millions of women with poor taste in music swoon. He doesn’t take it over the top as often as everyone knows he can, and the result is a surprisingly well-delivered collection of tracks. Of course, it goes without saying that Michael Bolton is no Frank Sinatra, but, hell, even Bolton himself would admit that. ~Will Harris (05/18/06)

Boomtown Rats: 20th Century Masters, the Millennium Collection
Label: Mercury/Universal

The Boomtown Rats are one of the most criminally overlooked bands to come out of the late ‘70s. They could rock, they could pop, they could sing, and Bob Geldof was a gifted lyricist with a biting wit and vivid imagination. This compilation, the cheapest of three Rats collections currently on the market, wisely focuses more on the first three, Robert John Lange-produced albums in the band’s catalog, unearthing classics like “Diamond Smiles,” “Someone’s Looking at You” and “Mary of the 4th Form.” However, we’re tempted to pull out a pair of pliers and a blow torch on the person who decided that “Up All Night” and “House on Fire” did not need to be included (curiously, none of the current compilations have “Up All Night,” the band’s best known song after “I Don’t Like Mondays”). Also, it is just us, or are “Rat Trap” and “Joey’s on the Street Again” running just a little bit faster than the original versions? (The version of “Joey” here is unedited, yet 30 seconds shorter than the “Tonic for the Troops” version.) One last thing: why use radio edits? There’s 40 minutes of extra space on the disc; surely it wouldn’t have killed anyone to use the full length version of “Banana Republic,” would it? Okay, we’ll get off the soapbox now; all gripes aside, for anyone looking to get some cheap Rats, this is a great place to start. ~David Medsker (11/17/05)

Juewett Bostick: It’s Not So Easy
Label: Self-released

Being a guitarist, songwriter and producer for more than 25 years, Juewett Bostick has worked with a “who’s who” of popular soul artists. But his new release, It’s Not So Easy, is all his own doing, including the marriage of a CD-ROM with the traditional CD to deepen the musical experience. There are some great songs on here, and solid production, especially on “You Need Love,” featuring the lead vocals of ex-Temptations member Ali Woodson. ~Mike Farley (05/13/05)

Chris Botti: December
Label: Columbia
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If you’re looking for that romantic Christmas album to surprise your lady with, look no further than Chris Botti’s December. A mesmerizing trumpet player, Botti has spent the past ten-plus years adding his touch to recordings by Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and Thomas Dolby. And all of his training and experience as a session player have primed him for this jazzy take on Christmas standards. You can almost see snowflakes falling outside your window and taste the alcohol in your eggnog as you get cozy to December. There isn’t really a bad track, but some highlights are “The Christmas Song,” “Winter Wonderland,” and a somewhat funky version of “The Little Drummer Boy.” Now what are you waiting for? Your shopping days are dwindling! ~Mike Farley (11/30/06)

David Bowie: The Best of 1980-1987
Label: Virgin 2007
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The ‘80s may have been the decade where David Bowie became a superstar, but let’s be honest: the vast majority of his output from that time did not deserve the adulation that he received. After beginning the decade with a critical smash (Scary Monsters) and a commercial blockbuster (Let’s Dance), he spent the next few years wandering aimlessly between deliberately jarring post-punk (his cover of “Alabama Song” – yes, the Doors’ “whiskey bar” song, has to be heard to be believed), and the not-quite-rock rock of Tonight and Never Let Me Down. Wisely, Virgin fleshes out the set with a flurry of soundtrack contributions, from “This Is Not America,” his duet with Pat Matheny, to “Underground,” from the “Labyrinth” soundtrack, and the title tracks to “Absolute Beginners” and “When the Wind Blows.” It may not exactly flow, but there is no question that it is indeed the best that Bowie did during that time period. As for you video collectors, get ready to pony up: the DVD contains three vids (“Under Pressure,” “The Drowned Girl,” “When the Wind Blows”) that do not appear on the two-DVD “Best of Bowie” set. On the plus side, they had the good sense to leave Bowie and Mick’s cover of “Dancing in the Streets” off both the CD and the DVD. Whew. ~David Medsker (06/22/07)

David Bowie: Young Americans Special Edition
Label: Virgin 2007
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David Bowie’s career-long penchant for reinvention was never more evident than on this 1975 outing, where the former glam rock messiah immersed himself in R&B and Philly soul and became the Thin White Duke. An often-overlooked or only glancingly recognized addition to Bowie’s canon, Young Americans also boasts two of Bowie’s most enduring and still kick-ass songs, namely the title track and “Fame” (which was co-written, co-sung and featured some guitar work by John Lennon). Sure, he did this kind of Philly R&B material better a couple years later on Station to Station, but this is the album that really broke him in the US. So why am I giving it only two stars? Because we already got a reissue of Young Americans, by Rykodisc in 1991. Other than a new surround sound mix (by Tony Visconti…whatever), it’s an almost identical release. The only previously unreleased track here is a syrupy version of “It’s Gonna Be Me” (complete with strings, sigh). Oh, a bonus DVD is included as part of this “special edition” – footage of Bowie on The Dick Cavett Show in 1974, performing “Young Americans” and “1984” and making a coke-addled ass of himself during Cavett’s interview – but it’s hardly worth it, and probably better suited to a DVD video retrospective of Bowie’s career than tacked onto Young Americans as an obvious money-grubbing gambit.
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Bowling for Soup: The Great Burrito Extortion Case
Label: Jive/Zomba 2006
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When artist/producer Butch Walker coined the “pickle-in-mouth” vocal technique made famous by the likes of Eddie Vedder and Scott Stapp, we all thought he was equally cool and brilliant. And while Walker is still a great producer and knows how to help artists churn out catchy pop/rock that makes millions in royalty dollars, he’s part of a nationwide problem – that of endorsing the “clothespin-on-nose” vocal technique that all the kids have been subscribing to. With The Great Burrito Extortion Case, pop/rock/whiny punk band Bowling for Soup has delivered an album of solid hooks, but lead singer Jaret Reddick is the latest to pretend he’s singing on Sesame Street. Do you remember that Herbie kid on the clay-mation “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” show? The kid who wants to be a dentist? That’s what Reddick sounds like when he sings on this record, and it’s time we put an end to it, here and now. Dude, you used to sing with your real voice. To get it back, go take vocal lessons from Dee Snider or Sammy Hagar, because otherwise your band is going to get flushed away along with every other shitty band in this genre. Come on, we all know you’re better than that, and so do you. ~Mike Farley (12/07/06)

Brakes: Give Blood
Label: Rough Trade

A supergroup of sorts, containing members of British Sea Power and Electric Soft Parade, the Brakes debut of rough, and we mean rough, rock-outs and song fragments was recorded over eight days, though it’s hard to believe they needed half that many. Only two songs dare to pass the three minute mark, and one of the songs is a mere six seconds (“Comma Comma Comma Full Stop”). If the members sought to make a record that sounded nothing like their respective bands, they definitely achieved their goal, with singer Eamon Hamilton putting his best Gordon Gano impression to songs that recall everything from the Thrills and CCR to punk rock. The problem is that unlike mini-song gods Guided by Voices, these songs tend to come and go without leaving much of a mark, even the raucous ones. There are some decent moments here and there, but not much to keep it in power rotation. ~David Medsker (09/22/05)

Breaking Laces: Lemonade
Label: Meeka Salise

If Breaking Laces had come around in the post-grunge mid-‘90s, they would have enjoyed the same success as modern rock radio stalwarts such as Toad the Wet Sprocket, Better than Ezra and Counting Crows. But in 2006, bands like this are forced to use a grass roots marketing approach to spread the word and get their songs heard. Luckily for Brooklyn-based Breaking Laces, their latest, Lemonade, is bursting with melodic flavor and sweetness just like the drink, making it a much easier sell to the masses. And like a fruity drink laced with alcohol, there is enough dark alternative edge (“Garbanzo Beans” and “Get Up Today”) to balance the breezy tracks (“Call You Home” and “Shack Up SOS”). But Breaking Laces really shines when they tone things down a bit, as on “I Do I Don’t” and “The Ocean,” the kind of songs that shows like “The O.C.” use to launch bands to greatness. ~Mike Farley (03/16/06)

The Brightwings: Stay
Label: self-released 2006
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Former power pop band Missing Joe out of New England was one of those groups that had incredible songs but could never seem to get a label to agree. But frontman Matt Rafal and former MJ members Dave Dombroski and Dan Holden are back with their latest project, the Brightwings. The slightly-more-than-an EP, Stay, has eight songs that have different members taking the lead vocal. There are breezy melodies and harmonies, and though it’s got a bit more pop and less alternative grit than Missing Joe, there is a peanut butter to the roof of your mouth element going on here. Simply put, this is ear candy at its finest. Anyone who has ever liked bands like the Eagles or CSNY is going to find something they like about the Brightwings. Every song is catchy, but the standouts are “All I Need,” “I Want You to Stay,” and “Mallory.” There’s even a super cool cover of Dave Loggins’ seventies hit, “Please Come to Boston.” Those of you who live in the Northeast and dig this kind of stuff will want to do just that when you hear the Brightwings. ~Mike Farley (08/24/07)

British Sea Power: Open Season
Label: Rough Trade

Could it be that bands are finally starting to mean it again? If British Sea Power’s sophomore album Open Season is any indication, it certainly appears that way. Of course, Coldplay and the Doves mean it too, but Open Season means it the way that U2 used to mean it, or even a band like Cactus World News or the Wedding Present meant it. There is a touch of the anthemic here that recalls the start of the modern rock revolution in the mid ‘80s (Echo, U2, Psychedelic Furs, even the Alarm, in spirit if not in execution). But this is no retro throwback album ala Killers/Bravery/VHS or Beta. It’s very much in the now, with guitars aplenty and the occasional string accompaniment. The only catch is lead singer Yan, whose frail tenor isn’t strong enough to reach the rafters these songs strive for. But if you can get past that, rewards await. ~David Medsker (04/29/05)

Jonatha Brooke: Careful What You Wish For
Label: Bad Dog 2007
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Singer/songwriter Jonatha Brooke is back with her first album in three years, and with each passing release she seems to develop more of an edge. Careful What You Wish For has a lot of the same elements that made Brooke such a stunning acoustic artist in the '90s – the pretty chord progressions and catchy-yet-unique melodies – but this one experiments just a bit more, and collaborations with Eric Bazilian (of the Hooters) and popsters Nick Lachey (98 Degrees) and J.C. Chasez (N’Sync) give the tone of this effort more of a universal pop flavor, with hooks coming from every which way. Brooke starts right out of the gate with a sexy growl on the title track, and songs like “I’ll Leave the Light On” and “Baby Wait” have a Sheryl Crow-meets-Norah Jones feel – just breezy, sunny, and uplifting. She even manages to give darker offerings like “Hearsay” a lift of sorts. And “Never Too Late for Love” is a throwback to Brooke’s days co-fronting the Story – it’s possible that no female singer/songwriter has ever made alternate tunings sound so engaging. ~Mike Farley (07/13/07)

David Brookings: Chorus Verses the Bridge
Label: Byar 2005
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Well, at the very least, you have to give David Brookings credit for one thing: he’s in no way afraid of a pun. His last album was called End of an Error, and this one’s entitled Chorus Verses the Bridge. Sure, they’re groan-worthy, but the titles stick with you... and so, as it happens, do the tunes. Fans of modern day power poppers like Cherry Twister and Linus of Hollywood will certainly dig this disc, particularly since – unlike others within the genre, it must be said – the songs demonstrate enough stylistic variety that they stand out rather than simply blend into one other. Brookings... who hails from Richmond, VA, but now calls Memphis, TN, home... can write a gloriously soaring chorus one minute, as he proves on “Another World,” or channel Jim Ellison from Material Issue the next (“It’s All Good”), then move to the gentle strum of a song like “Hawaii.” Music journalists everywhere, however, are well within their rights to call Brookings on the carpet for a glaring typo in his liner notes; c’mon, now, David, if they influenced you that much, you really should know that Mark Knopfler’s former band is “Dire Straits,” not “Dire Straights.” ~Will Harris (04/27/06)

Brooks & Dunn: Hillbilly Deluxe
Label: Arista Nashville

Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn have had a ball writing tongue-in-cheek modern country anthems for a decade longer than most of today’s country fans have even been listening. Kick-ass brushstrokes like “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” “You Can’t Take the Honky Tonk Out of the Girl,” and “Rock My World (Little Country Girl)” will undoubtedly stand the test of time no matter who is occupying this genre’s charts. Unfortunately, they’ve widely missed their mark on Hillbilly Deluxe, a predictable, cliché-ridden pile of schlock that is bound for the bargain bin. Aside from the current CMT staple “Play Something Country” (a must-see video!) and “Whiskey Do My Talkin’”, a barroom burner that sounds like early Eddie Money, these songs are lackluster. Not altogether bad for a first outing by Nashville unknowns, but when you’ve logged the miles Brooks & Dunn have, a rookie effort ain’t gonna cut it. ~Red Rocker (09/08/05)

Norman Brown: Stay with Me
Label: Peak/Concord 2007
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You can just about throw the whole smooth jazz genre in a blender and spit out the same product – smooth, breezy, easy-on-the-ears fare that features stellar musicianship. Whether led by guitars or saxophones, or even a guest vocalist or two, the artists that make this stuff can probably do so in their sleep. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t talented and don’t have to work at their craft. Guitarist Norman Brown is a Grammy Award winner who has just released his first album on the Peak Records label, Stay with Me. It’s a stellar set full of tasty guitar work (duh), but the one of the best songs is the title track, written and sung by R&B icon Brian McKnight. There are also collaborations, as on a lot of smooth jazz albums, with Rick Braun (trumpet) and Kirk Whalum (saxophone), who along with Brown once formed the group BWB. The trio makes for a melodic wank-fest on “It Ain’t Over.” All in all, Brown doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but no one is telling anyone in this genre that they have to. ~Mike Farley (08/10/07)

Paul Brown: White Sand
Label: Peak 2007
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Paul Brown could be crowned the King of Smooth Jazz if such a title existed. The producer, guitarist and songwriter has had 50 Number One hits in his genre as an artist and a producer, and he isn’t showing any signs of coming to a halt. With his latest collection and first album on the Peak label, White Sand, Brown delivers what is sure to be ten tracks that will traverse his genre’s airwaves like friends who just keep bumping into each other. As with a lot of these smooth jazz sets, there is an all-star cast of guest musicians such as Boney James, Bobby Caldwell, Al Jarreau and David Benoit. The title track is apt, because it will induce relaxation to the point where you feel you’re lying on the beach of some tropical island. Along with several other sweet instrumental nuggets, there are a few covers such as the Dionne Warwick smash, “I Say a Little Prayer,” which features stunning guest vocalist Lina. You don’t have to listen to smooth jazz all the time to appreciate the work of a fine artist like Paul Brown. In fact, even if your Sundays begin in the afternoon, you can still appreciate the Sunday morning feel and beauty of this guy’s music. ~Mike Farley (02/22/07)

Art Brut: It’s a Bit Complicated
Label: Downtown 2007
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Art Brut owes a large part of its modest success to the sardonic, spoken-word lyrics of frontman Eddie Argos, but his unique delivery probably limits his band at the same time. The group’s debut, Bang Bang Rock & Roll, was a collection of Argos’ witty poems backed by some very good music. It’s a Bit Complicated sounds more confident (if less inspired), but one has to wonder if the market for Argos’ thickly accented poetry slams has already dried up. Things start off pretty well with “Pump Up the Volume” and “Direct Hit,” two tracks that pick up where Bang Bang left off. Musically, they’re fresh and catchy, and Argos’ lyrics are as addictive as ever. But like any addiction, at some point, things just get old – and somewhere in the middle of It’s a Bit Complicated, that’s exactly what happens. Argos’ act wears a little thin and the focus is shifted to the music. There are some interesting riffs throughout (especially on “Post Soothing Out,” “People in Love” and “Late Sunday Evening”), but as the back half arrives, there’s this undeniable urge to listen to something else. With Argos’ delivery leading the way, the band will always be viewed as kind of a joke. As musical craftsmen, they are just as talented as Franz Ferdinand or the Arctic Monkeys, but they are better consumed as part of a mix so that Argos’ vocals can be sampled in small doses instead of force-fed all at once. ~John Paulsen (07/27/07

Buckethead & Friends: Enter The Chicken
Label: Serjical Strike Records

Buckethead is not your average nearly seven-foot guitar virtuoso (with KFC bucket on his head) who just also happens to wear a Michael Myers mask. No, with the guidance of System of a Down’s Serj Tankian (who produced the record), Buckethead creates one of the more interesting and entertaining releases of the year. Like Steve Vai’s Archives Volume IV, Enter the Chicken demonstrates the wide range of the guitarist’s abilities. Rapid-fire, SOAD-influenced “We Are One,” with Tankian singing lead, joins “Botnus,” featuring Death by Stereo’s Efrem Schulz, on the heavier end of the spectrum, while “Coma” is atmospheric and seductive. “Three Fingers” is a rap track featuring Saul Williams. Buckethead and Tankian spray effectively to all fields on this effort. ~R. David Smola (12/29/05)

Kate Bush: Aerial
Label: Sony

It’s been 12 years since Kate Bush has graced us with an album of new material, and 16 years since she’s graced us with a good album of new material. Such a lengthy hiatus might lead some to think that her well had simply run dry, but those people would be wrong. Aerial, about 80 minutes of music split into a two-disc set, feels like the unofficial follow-up to The Sensual World; indeed, first single “King of the Mountain” sounds like a sister to The Sensual World’s title track. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Kate Bush album without a little arty silliness. “Pi” is a gorgeous meditation on, yep, 22 divided by 7, and half its lyrics are the number drawn out to 114 decimal places. But the winner for the truly silliest moment has to be “Mrs. Bartoluzzi,” where Kate sings about cleaning the house and her brand new washing machine. Aerial won’t make anyone burn their copy of <Hounds of Love>, but at least the long wait between albums was not a fruitless one. ~David Medsker (11/17/05)

Isobel Campbell: Milkwhite Sheets
Label: Interscope 2006
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Millkwhite Sheets is redundant and irritating. It is comprised of ten indistinguishable songs that feature Campbell’s voice singing indecipherable lyrics over cellos, acoustic guitars and banjos. There are three instrumentals which are more interesting and two of them, “James” and “Milkwhite Sheets,” are kind of pretty. The third instrumental, “Over the Wheat and Barley” is an angry cello song in which some notes sound like mating whales. I absolutely loved Ballad of the Broken Seas, her 2006 album with Mark Lanagen, because her voice was a fascinating contrast to his whiskey-soaked phrasing. On this release, her vocals either exist at a ridiculously high octave or a breathy kind of whisper. Thank God for the instrumentals. I like the fact that she is exploring a different side of music, but I can’t see any reason to ever listen to this again. This is the kind of record that critics love because it is very arty and different. That doesn’t make it good. ~R. David Smola (03/01/07)

Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan: Ballad of the Broken Seas
Label: V2 Records

Their background couldn’t be more different. Campbell cut her teeth in the art experiment-turned indie darling chamber pop of Belle & Sebastian, while Lanegan’s desert dry, whiskey-soaked vocals were utilized by Josh Homme in the Queens of the Stone Age, and were front and center in the underappreciated Screaming Trees. Their duet album, Ballad of the Broken Seas, sports some beautiful arrangements featuring strings, acoustic guitars and piano mixed so that every sound is crystal clear. The contrast of their voices is absolutely breathtaking on the title track, which is two minutes and forty two seconds of the most interesting music released this year. You aren’t going to hear better cello work on any other 2006 record, either. Make no mistake, this is Campbell’s baby as she produced it, was involved in the mixing, wrote eight of the 11 tracks and co-wrote another. There is a somber beauty to this recording that sounds like nothing else you have heard, from the simplicity of piano and two voices on “(Do You Wanna) Come and Walk With Me” to the mellow poppy sound of “Honey Child What Can I Do.” This is a great record, and jumps to my top ten for the year. ~R. David Smola (04/06/06)

Vivian Campbell: Two Sides of If
Label: Sanctuary Records

Sounding a bit like a raspier Jon Bon Jovi, axeman Vivian Campbell (of Dio, Whitesnake and Def Leppard fame) lets loose with open love letter to the blues. For the most part, this is an enjoyable project of some blues standards that you probably have whistled once or twice in your lifetime. The standout cut of “Spoonful” features the outstanding vocal work of Joan Osborne, who lends her soulful voice to complement the bluesy guitar work of Campbell. This is very different from the projects he has contributed to in the past, but a very pleasant surprise and worth a spin if you enjoy the blues. ~R. David Smola (10/27/05)

Cantona: A Sort of Smile
Label: Saucy

When your EP is recorded, mixed, and mastered by a member of the Posies (Jon Auer), it’s inevitable that, even if no-one else does, the power pop community is going to sit up and take notice. Cantona, a Seattle-based four piece, offer pleasantly melodic songs but nothing even remotely resembling a consistent style. But, then, their motto – “smile and expect great things” – makes no specific promises, so it’s hard to be too disappointed by that lack of consistency. The first three tracks, “Run Boy Run,” “So Sad (So Fine),” and “Girl Show!,” are definitely the highlights of the EP; things start to get a little languid after that, resulting in a collection that ends not with a bang but with a whisper. (The last song provides an unfortunately accurate opinion: “It’s Too Bad.”) There’s definitely potential here; Leslie’s lead vocals are perky, and the boys in the band provide admirable backing, so there’s still sufficient reason to keep an ear out for their full-length debut, scheduled for sometime in 2006. ~Will Harris (09/29/05)

Caribou: Andorra
Label: Merge 2007
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For a long time, the Canadian band Caribou was made up of one person (Dan Snaith) and a bunch of electronics and DJ equipment, but there is a new live band to go along with Snaith for Caribou’s latest effort, Andorra, paving the way for a tour in support of the release. As for the release itself, Andorra (on the super cool Merge label) is being touted as Caribou’s best effort yet, and it’s hard to argue with that. With a distinct Northwest flavor that brings to mind the indie pop charm of artists like Rogue Wave, or the lo-fi beauty of Zero 7, Andorra is a roller coaster ride of sonic textures -- all the while being held together with simple yet interesting melodies. The opening track, “Melody Day,” sounds like an indie rock version of the Beach Boys, as does the catchiest track of all, “Desiree.” But Caribou really shows his (or their) electronic chops on “Irene.” ~Mike Farley (09/14/07)

Eric Carmen: Boats Against the Current / Change of Heart
Label: American Beat 2007
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Once he was a Raspberry…and then, suddenly, he really, really wasn’t. It’s no wonder people who remember Eric Carmen for songs like “All by Myself” or “Hungry Eyes” find it impossible to believe that, in the early ‘70s, the man was nothing short of a power pop god. This American Beat two-fer reissue of his albums from the late ‘70s – Boats Against the Current (1977) and Change of Heart (1978) – shows Carmen delving into his more sensitive side, particularly on the former. Unfortunately, Boats Against the Current has a tendency to fall so far into a slow, melancholy vibe that you just want to give the guy a playful punch on the shoulder and say, “Cheer up, skipper, things’ll get better.” Fortunately, the excellent title track leads off the album, before you’ve gotten too depressed to appreciate it, while the uplifting “I Think I Found Myself” succeeds in raising spirits before the record reaches its conclusion; somewhere in between lies “Marathon Man,” which is cheesy as hell but still fist-pumpingly rousing. Change of Heart, meanwhile, has a shiny easy-listening production and plays – I swear, I mean this as a compliment – like a really good Barry Manilow album. It’s full of the kind of grade-A radio pop that used to be all over the dial in the late ‘70s, and, on the whole, it provides a far more consistently enjoyable listening experience than Boats Against the Current. Plus, it has the advantage of containing “Hey Deanie,” which you may remember from when Shaun Cassidy made it a Top Ten hit. ~Will Harris (10/12/07)

Rodney Carrington: King of the Mountains
Label: Capitol Nashville 2007
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Comedian Rodney Carrington had a hit TV show, “Rodney,” on ABC for two years. While the show may not be on the air anymore, it sure did spawn a whole new fan base for him. Carrington’s first CD in four years is full of accumulated material from his standup act over that time, and as usual there is a healthy dose of funny songs as well as regular comedy bits. On this collection, Carrington reflects on how he went from humble Tulsa family man to Hollywood star and back again — in particular his bit about shopping in Beverly Hills is hilarious. Carrington pokes fun at the everyday things in life, making his material something that just about everyone can relate to. No subject is taboo either, as he touches on homemade porn movies and hot yoga instructors. Musically, Carrington hits a home run with “Show Them to Me,” the single that provides a reason for women in his audience to show their breasts. Other great songs are “Rhymes With Truck” and “Baby Back,” the latter of which is a goof on Carrington dreading that his wife will eventually look like his mother-in-law. Finally, there is a tribute to comedian Barry Martin, Carrington’s best friend who passed away a few years ago, and whose character was portrayed on the TV show. If you are a fan of good comedy, go grab this one — and be prepared to laugh really hard. ~Mike Farley (04/20/07)

Neil Carswell: Good Man’s Journey
Label: East Winds 2006
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If we’re to be realistic, it’s highly probable that the world at large has not been clamoring for the lead singer of ‘90s Southern rockers Copperhead to release his solo debut – the band’s success was largely regional – but listening to Neil Carswell’s Good Man’s Journey, one finds the ghost of Lynyrd Skynyd looming large -- and for Southern rock fans, that ain’t a bad thing at all. Carswell’s voice, however, comes closer to that of Chris Cornell than the Van Zandt boys, making things often sound just as modern as they do retro. It’s clear from the liner notes that this is a very personal album for Carswell, with songs inspired by the death of friends, lost loves, and other emotionally tumultuous events, which would explain the bluesy feel to many of the tracks. By the way, speaking of friends – in this case, those still with us – Carswell brings in his pal Barry Goudreau from Boston to play lead guitar on the opener, “The Cain Preacher.” While it isn’t necessarily a groundbreaking musical trip, fans of the Southern rock sound will definitely dig this Good Man’s Journey. ~Will Harris (05/25/07)

Charlemagne: Detour Allure
Label: SideCho

Charlemagne is the <nom de plume> that Carl Johns adopts when he’s not running NoahJohn, the Golden Palominos of alt-country. Originally slated to be a solo project, Charlemagne has since grown to a sextet, and their sophomore effort, Detour Allure, is filled with pretty but slight first-sip-of-coffee-on-a-Sunday acoustic folk/pop. Some songs do stand out, like “Your Scars,” which recalls Lilac Time’s Looking For a Day in the Night, and “In the Fuselage” is a catchy tune as well. It’s songs like “Pink and Silver” that spoil the fun with silly lyrics like “Chocolate covered cherries / Scary, scary berries, that’s where we’re at.” ”Nematode,” meanwhile, is a slightly less fey Belle & Sebastian. Detour Allure isn’t bad, per se; it’s just sort of there. ~David Medsker (10/11/05)

Kenny Chesney: The Road and the Radio
Label: BNA Entertainment

Somewhere between the adolescent tales of Bon Jovi and the Americana themes of John Mellencamp lies the most un-Nashville guy in country music. Kenny Chesney seemed hell-bent on relieving Jimmy Buffett of his Parrothead throne with last year’s stripped-down storybook Be As You Are, but his latest basket of tunes gets more back to the titanic radio bravado of When the Sun Goes Down. Over-the-top rockers like “Living in Fast Forward” (“I’m a hillbilly rock star out of control”) and the schlock-heavy sonnet “Beer in Mexico”, the only one Chesney wrote himself, give The Road and the Radio enough mass appeal to garner a couple more CMAs and at least another year of sold-out arena shows. “Who You’d Be Today”, a gut-wrenching tribute to a friend who fell before his time, might land the firmest spot on country radio, but the insanely addictive sing-a-long “Summertime” is a hoot. Not just anyone can pull off a line like “cheap shades and a tattoo and a Yoo-Hoo”. Okay, maybe they can. ~Red Rocker (12/01/05)

Chicago: XXX
Label: Rhino Records

No, the XXX doesn’t stand for a hardcore pornographic film, but if you count all the official releases by Chicago, this would be the 30th (live and greatest hits packages included). This is the first set of new material released by the band since 1991’s Twenty 1, and the wait was worth it. The production by Rascal Flatts’ Jay Demarcus is peppy and full of sound, accenting the trademark Chicago horns when necessary and pumping up the keyboards borrowed from the early ‘80s David Foster-produced catalogue. The harmonies, which the band never struggled with, continue to be strong some 40 years into their history. Ballads like “King of Might Have Been” and “Love Will Come Back” are contrasted with up-tempo tracks like “Caroline” and “All Ready Gone.” There is still really good pop music being made; unfortunately, it takes a band who has been around for 40 years and is ignored by radio to actually put it out. ~R. David Smola (04/06/06)

Chris & Thomas: Land of Sea
Label: Collective 2007
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On their debut release Land of Sea, Chris & Thomas succinctly deliver subtle and gentle compositions that sit up nicely in the often too-dusty foreground of Americana. Their harmonies weave around each other without sounding forced and their instrumentation is sparse but filling. Luckily, they borrow musical influences from the other side of the pond, which lends their sound a breath of British folk credibility. At the end of the day, though, that sound is their own, and it’s not marred by attempts at being overtly commercially viable. Fans of Lambchop and Fairport Convention should certainly take note of this release. The track “Take These Thoughts” is the standout on Land of Sea, and was given a rotational nod by the super cool KCRW DJ Nic Harcourt. It’s no stretch to imagine that the folks on BBC 4 ate this record up too. To summarize the entire vibe from this record: If you’re looking to bang an environmentally conscience English major at your local community college, then by all means keep this record in tow. ~Josh Preston (08/31/07)

The Cinematics: A Strange Education
Label: TVT 2007
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You almost have to feel a little bad for the Cinematics as you listen to their full-length debut, A Strange Education. As you give it a spin, you quickly realize that what you’ve got on your hands is easily as solid an approximation of the early ‘80s post-punk/new wave sound as anything that’s emerged from Interpol, Editors, Longwave, or any of the other high-profile members of the New New Wave camp. Unfortunately, it looks like it might turn into a case of a fine band missing out on their 15-minute window – we’re already hearing less and less of that kind of stuff these days – and you can’t help but wonder if maybe the blame shouldn’t fall to the band’s label, TVT. After all, the Cinematics released an excellent EP last year, but we were left waiting way too long for a full-length…and though we may be wrong, it certainly seemed like TVT was simply sitting on it while trying to build a buzz about the band. With bass-thrumming songs like “Maybe Someday,” “Race to the City,” and “Keep Forgetting,” there’s plenty of material here that deserves a wider audience. If the cover of Beck’s “Sunday Sun” – the only non-original – sounds in concept like a desperate attempt for airplay, worry not; it plays just like one of the band’s own songs. Don’t miss out on what could be a contender for Debut of the Year. ~Will Harris (05/25/07)

Circus Diablo: Circus Diablo
Label: Koch Records 2007
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In the category “nobody ever got rich on potential alone,” I give you L.A.’s latest hard rock outfit, Circus Diablo, a Velvet Revolver-like supergroup consisting of key members from, among others, Fuel and the Cult. Frontman Billy Morrison (formerly of the unknown Hollywood cover band Camp Freddy) boasts, “Rock exists below the belt and we intend to deliver rock the way it was meant to be: hard, fast, and dirty.” Diablo succeeds on the opener and first single, “Loaded,” which explodes to life with a full-on dose of Stone Temple Pilots fervor. Guitars galore and Marshall amps cranked to the rafters, these guys sweat through 11 original compositions that drip with sex. “Restless” is a hard-charging melodic thrasher that reeks of bassist Brett Scallions’ Fuel, while “Shine” slows it down momentarily, sounding more like an old Ozzy Osbourne power ballad. Speaking of Ozzy, these guys are well aboard 2007’s Ozzfest, where they belong, with no lofty predictions of longevity or future goals. “Recording shit was an afterthought, if anything,” says Morrison. “We are being pulled to another location every day that will not be found on Google Maps!” Ain’t that the way it should be, damn it?
~Red Rocker (07/27/07

Eric Clapton: Back Home
Label: Reprise

16-time Grammy winner Eric Clapton must have gotten his fill of rock and roll this past summer when he re-upped with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker for the legendary Cream reunion. None (and I mean none!) of that throw-back Slowhand bravado spills over to Back Home, Clapton’s first solo album of (mostly) original material in nearly five years. Not even an all-star cast, including John Mayer and Steve Winwood, can salvage the soft rock drab (“One Day”), Broadway show tunes (“I’m Going Left”) or trials in reggae (“Revolution”). Fatherhood is front and center these days, as he affirms, “The baby’s only feeding, one of them is teething, and I’m so tired,” on the groovy “So Tired”, the lone track that so much as sniffs Behind the Sun-era quality. “Tears in Heaven” is sounding pretty good these days. ~Red Rocker (10/13//05)

Clare Quilty: Face the Strange
Label: DCide

Clare Quilty would have been the perfect house band for the Bronze in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Fronted by blonde bombshell Jenn Rhubright, the band’s blend of spooky minor key pop and bubbling percussion is both entrancing and a little sinister. However, that seems to be the only trick this pony knows, as they ride that spooky/bubbly/98 BPM thing throughout the album, even on a cover of David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel.” Until the band learns how to change gears once in a while, it is unclear whether Clare Quilty will become the next My Scarlet Life, or the next Sneaker Pimps. ~David Medsker (05/20/05)

The Clarks: Between Now and Then
Label: King Mouse Music

It’s amazing these days for any band to be around for twenty years, but Pittsburgh heroes the Clarks are doing just that, and it’s even more amazing that they’ve done it without the nationwide exposure that they deserve. The Clarks are about as straight ahead as any band, writing hooky pop/rock that can fit on just about any radio format, but at this point in time seems to only be AAA material outside of their hometown. The band has managed to tour on its own, and continues to churn out inspired power pop. Between Now and Then features recent hits like “Shimmy Low” and “Better Off Without You,” the latter of which was placed on the “Anna Nicole Show,” as well as fan favorites like “Cigarette” and “Penny On the Floor.” There are also a few new songs, and every track is equally infectious. ~Mike Farley (09/01/05)

Kelly Clarkson: My December
Label: RCA 2007
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Kelly Clarkson fired her manager and cancelled a tour just before the release of her new album, My December. There were also rumblings that Clive Davis had warned Clarkson that there weren’t enough “hits” on the new record, because she had instead chosen to write or co-write most of the material. Well, it appears Mr. Davis is no dummy. Not that an industry icon like Davis is always right, but his track record isn’t too shabby. So we’re left with an inferior product that features Clarkson shouting for most of the 13 tracks – and it’s not cool screaming, but rather overcompensation for songs that are just not very good. The opening track, “Never Again,” is catchy enough, but the shouting is just too much after awhile. It only goes downhill from there. On songs like “Hole” and “Judas,” Clarkson sounds like she’s attempting to add more alt-rock edge, but the result is something akin to Evanescence Lite. Even slow songs like “Sober” and “Be Still” are horribly lacking a substantial melody. The haunting “Irvine” is decent mainly because Clarkson brings down the volume on her own vocal take, but for the most part My December is one of the bigger clunkers of the year. ~Mike Farley (07/20/07)

Classic Case: Dress To Depress
Label: Fiddler Records

Along comes another kickass rock band with a strong sense of songwriting. Classic Case is part cookie-cutter alternative rock band (think Puddle of Mudd) but with dark undertones (think Incubus) and with soaring guitar-crunching choruses (think Something Corporate or SR-71). There, the obligatory comparisons are out of the way. Now, just enjoy the music, and with songs like the driving “Hospitalized,” the introspective “Sub Rosa,” and the beautifully powerful “Down and Out,” there is plenty to enjoy. ~Mike Farley (10/27/05)

Clearlake: Amber
Label: Domino

From the buzzing guitar that opens “No Kind of Life,” the leadoff track to Amber, Clearlake’s third album, you would expect the goings to be rough and tumble. Yet almost instantly, the album reveals itself to be a slightly dirtier take on the grand, ‘60s-drenched alt-rock that England is known for. Similarities to Doves, the Stone Roses and British Sea Power abound, especially on “Good Clean Fun” and “Far Away.” But while the album is enjoyable enough, it only occasionally rises to the level of its peers, like on the touching ballad “You Can’t Have Me” and the stunning closer “Widescreen.” The rest of it is quite good, but it generally lacks that sense of the epic, or the earnest, or even the danceable, that makes the bands they clearly admire so great. In the end, Amber is a worthy addition to any music library that contains Lost Souls or Open Season, though you won’t likely be removing those records in order to make room for it. Still, they’re getting better; they may have a Last Broadcast in them yet. ~David Medsker (01/26/06)

The Click Five: Greetings from Imrie House
Label: Lava

This album contains, quite simply, eleven of the greatest compositions in human history, and if you don’t agree, I...will...fight you. Okay, perhaps that’s slightly hyperbolic, but mark my words: this will be remembered as one of the catchiest albums released in 2005. Sugary sweet though it may be – and we’re talking the potential to deliver a mouthful of cavities with every track – it nonetheless has some of the strongest hooks in recent memory. Two of these are delivered courtesy of the Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger, including the ubiquitous first single, “Just the Girl,” and “I’ll Take My Chances,” which was originally written for Swirl 360. (They might’ve done it better, but it’s a tough call.) The Click Five also blow a cover of the Thompsons Twins’ “Lies” completely out of the park. Elliot Easton of the Cars guests on a few songs, including “Angel to You (Devil to Me),” which has keyboards to die for, but for maximum pleasure in the least amount of time, “Catch Your Wave” is the way to go. Throw your caution and indie cred to the wind; guilty pleasures don’t come any better than this. ~Will Harris (09/22/05)

Client: Heartland
Label: Metropolis 2007
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It was with great pleasure that this writer discovered that former Dubstar singer Sarah Blackwood, whom he had thought was out of the biz entirely, is still gracing the world with her beautifully detached alto. Then he heard her new band, Client, and quickly realized that they, sir, are no Dubstar. Client’s third album, Heartland, certainly has timing and talent on its side, with electro-pop being all the rage and top-shelf producers Stephen Hague and Youth manning the boards. Timing and production talent, however, can only take you so far without a decent tune to sing. Indeed, the songs on Heartland crib so much from New Order and the Pet Shop Boys that Red Flag might have grounds to sue them for plagiarism. As for the obligatory cover song, they offer…”Zerox Machine,” by Adam & the Ants. Um, hmm. If you must get your electro on, skip Heartland, and go track down Dubstar’s Disgraceful instead.~David Medsker (04/26/07)

The Clientele: God Save the Clientele
Label: Merge 2007
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That ‘booiiiiiiiiiiiiing’ sound you just heard was the coffee shop crowd getting, um, excited about God Save the Clientele, the dreamy new album by London quartet the Clientele. Put it this way: if Mark “E” Everett had been obsessed with Galaxie 500 or Love instead of the Beatles, his pre-Eels solo records would have sounded a lot like this, with gentle pedal steel weaving in between tasteful string arrangements. Indeed, singer Alasdair MacLean is a perfect blend of E and Robert Harrison, late of Cotton Mather, though MacLean is admittedly slighter than either. Slight, unfortunately, slips its way into some of the tunes as well, rendering some of these otherwise lovely songs a tad more forgettable than they should be. The band certainly knows how to change gears, if “Bookshop Casanova” is any indication; the problem is they don’t do it often enough to keep the listener continuously engaged. When God Save the Clientele works, you can practically hear the Pernice Brothers seething with jealousy, but one wonder if the band is even aware of the potential they possess. ~David Medsker (05/04/07)

The Clientele: God Save the Clientele
Label: Merge 2007
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That ‘booiiiiiiiiiiiiing’ sound you just heard was the coffee shop crowd getting, um, excited about God Save the Clientele, the dreamy new album by London quartet the Clientele. Put it this way: if Mark “E” Everett had been obsessed with Galaxie 500 or Love instead of the Beatles, his pre-Eels solo records would have sounded a lot like this, with gentle pedal steel weaving in between tasteful string arrangements. Indeed, singer Alasdair MacLean is a perfect blend of E and Robert Harrison, late of Cotton Mather, though MacLean is admittedly slighter than either. Slight, unfortunately, slips its way into some of the tunes as well, rendering some of these otherwise lovely songs a tad more forgettable than they should be. The band certainly knows how to change gears, if “Bookshop Casanova” is any indication; the problem is they don’t do it often enough to keep the listener continuously engaged. When God Save the Clientele works, you can practically hear the Pernice Brothers seething with jealousy, but one wonders if the band is even aware of the potential they possess.
~David Medsker (05/04/07)

The Cloud Room: The Cloud Room
Label: Gigantic

The Cloud Room opens with a fantastic first track, “Hey Now Now,” and unfortunately is unable to reach that level again. While none of the remaining tracks are astounding, they are solid, which makes the disc a good first effort. The group successfully puts Postal Service vocals against Interpol beats, placing themselves in the moodier alcove of the recent New New Wave movement. “Blackout!” is probably the second best song on the disc, and it features some energetic vocals from the group’s lead singer (known simply as “J”). Just about every other track contains something interesting, whether it’s a catchy chorus or a great riff. For any fans of the aforementioned bands (or their original influences, like Joy Division and New Order), The Cloud Room is worth a few listens. ~John Paulsen (01/19/06)

Tammy Cochran: Where I Am
Label: Shanachie 2007
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Artists coming out of Nashville keep getting younger and younger, in particular the female variety of singer/songwriters like Taylor Swift and Miranda Lambert. Tammy Cochran is not one of those types, as she’s been around the block a few times – having had mild success with her 2001 single, “Angels in Waiting,” and touring with George Strait. Now Cochran is back with Where I Am, an autobiography of sorts that showcases her powerful, slightly raspy vocals, as well as a knack for storytelling that’s as good as anything coming out of Nashville right now. Cochran really shines on heart-wrenching tracks like “So Long” and “Nobody’s Home.” And while there are quite a few breakup songs on here, “As Soon As I’m Over You” has an upbeat feel and tempo, while “Long Way Down” features some slick guitar work. Any fan of country music should find something to like about Tammy Cochran – she’s got the voice, the looks and the songs. In Nashvillle, what more is there? ~Mike Farley (08/03/07)

CocoRosie: The Adventures of Ghosthorse and Stillborn
Label: Touch and Go Records 2007
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Hey kids, do you like your music all esoteric-like and weird enough that you’ll instantly belong to a niche group of listeners and fans if you only believe? Then CocoRosie is the pretentious and annoying little group for you. If the title of the album isn’t enough to make you want to run the other way, then maybe the sounds inside will. This is truly one of those albums that has everything and the kitchen sink thrown in. Hip-hop beats laced with vocals that sound like a little old lady intertwined with pre-rock arrangements and instrumentation. It would be okay if it wasn’t doomed to fail. This is exactly the kind of album someone you can’t stand would listen to just to be different. You’d bump into them in public and they’d recommend it to you, but you’d know better because it doesn’t say “Boston” on the cover. It’s okay, though, as the experience of actually having to drag yourself through the album is one of those patience testers that doesn’t end quietly. You will be begging to hit the skip button. The songs…so many…not too long, but…excrutiatingly pompous. This band would market their farts as perfume if it was possible.~Jason Thompson (04/26/07)

Joe Cocker: Heart and Soul
Label: New Door/Universal

Joe Cocker has one of those instantly recognizable voices, and though you would never think of him as a crooner, he’s practically reached the status of vocal legends like Sinatra. Cocker’s gravelly rock voice is as strong as ever, and on his latest album, Heart & Soul, he has taken songs that are his favorites and spins his own take on them. Though U2’s “One” and R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” are not songs I would choose to hear Cocker sing, he manages to gut them out. But his voice sounds best on Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools.” And other notable songs are Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed,” Robert Palmer’s “Every Kind of People,” and a shuffling blues take on Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgetting.” ~Mike Farley (04/15/05)

Cold: A Different Kind of Pain
Label: Lava/Atlantic

A lot of personal problems, infighting and a change of label could not break up the band Cold, at least not for more than a year or two. Apparently energized, A Different Kind of Pain shows that Cold stand apart from its screaming peers. Singer Scooter Ward simply allows his voice to sing and not scream, and it doesn’t hurt that these guys write some really good music. There is a nice balance between the walls of guitars, soaring vocal harmonies and thundering rhythm section. Yes, there are a few clunkers, but songs like “Anatomy of a Tidal Wave,” “Happens All the Time,” and the anthemic title track give hope to a dying breed of alternative rock bands. ~Mike Farley (09/08/05)

Bootsy Collins: Christmas is 4 Ever
Label: Shout Factory
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Funk legend Bootsy Collins takes a big swing at making his first Christmas album, and while there are a few memorable moments, that big swing results mostly in a foul tip into the catcher’s glove. Collins injects a few of his own holiday tunes, including a song co-written with Snoop Dogg, “Happy Holidaze.” The problem is that the song tries to come off Christmas-y but is more of a straight rap song – not a bad one, but not fit for the holidays. He also has help from another legend, fiddle player and southern rocker Charlie Daniels, on a pretty cool version of “Sleigh Ride.” Collins also funkifies classic Christmas tunes like “Winter Wonderland” and “Silent Night,” but you can’t help but feel like there’s just something missing from the overall package, like he’s trying a bit too hard. The one really bright spot is “Santa’s Coming,” an R&B take on “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” with really nice work by guest lead vocalist Candis Cheatham. ~Mike Farley (11/30/06)

Jessi Colter: Out of the Ashes
Label: Shout! Factory

In the Country Music section of the S.A.T. – it’s a portion that’s heavily weighted on one side of the Mason-Dixon line, but I’ll let you figure out which side – a recurring question is: June Carter Cash was to Johnny Cash as Jessi Colter is to _______. The answer, of course, is Waylon Jennings...though we also would’ve accepted Duane Eddy. (Colter and Eddy were married in the ‘60s, but they divorced in ’68, and she and Waylon married in ’70.) Since Jennings’ passing in 2002, she’d been pretty quiet, but Capitol released a best-of collection the following year; now, we have Colter’s first proper country album since 1981’s Ridin’ Shotgun...and to suggest it’s been worth the wait is to damn it with faint praise. The title is certainly apropos, coming as it does from the track “The Phoenix Rises.” The story behind the album is that Colter sent Don Was a few tracks and asked his opinion, and his reply was that if she came up with at least ten songs, he’d produce her record. So she did...and he did. The result is a mixture of traditional country, gospel, folk, and blues, including covers of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” and Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” a duet with son Shooter on the closing track, “Please Carry Me Home,” and a poignant “duet” with her late husband – courtesy of a heretofore-unreleased recording – and Tony Joe White on “Out of the Rain.” (Hearing Waylon’s familiar rumble again will give you chills.) Jessi Colter was just as much of as outlaw as her late husband and his compadres; if you’re a fan of the so-called “alt-country,” here’s one of the originators of the genre, and she’s still got the stuff. ~Will Harris (03/23/06)

The Constantines: Tournament of Hearts
Label: Sub Pop

The Toronto indie rockers’ third album, Tournament of Hearts, is like a cross-country trip that stops a few too many times to smell the roses – at some point, you just want to get there. The album is filled with slow rockers with long guitar notes filling every available nook and cranny. Prog or mood-rock devotees may find something other than the two standout tracks. “Hotline Operator” has a good tempo and features some great vocals, along with a blistering breakdown past the halfway point. “Soon Enough” is easily the most accessible track on the album; with its comparably catchy chorus and melodic underpinnings, it sounds a bit like something Buffalo Tom or Big Head Todd might release. Proceed with caution, however, as the rest of the album might make you a bit snoozy. Close your eyes for a second, and the next thing you know, you wake up in Albuquerque. ~John Paulsen (03/30/06)

Tommy Conwell & the Young Rumblers: Rumble/Guitar Trouble 2-On-1
Label: American Beat 2007
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A fixture of the Jersey Shore scene of the early to mid ‘80s, Tommy and his crew were often referred to as a poor man’s Hooters. More accurately, they were a poor man’s George Thorogood, spitting out bluesy bar rock that at times is infectious but mostly forgettable. Tommy is a capable guitar player whose playing shines on songs like “I’m Not Your Man” and “Let Me Love You Too.” The Jules Shear-penned “If We Never Meet Again” is the hit that never was, and showed that with the right material the band had the potential to throw down with their contemporaries. This twofer is 22 songs in length, which is about 15 too many.
~Kurt Torster (06/15/07)

Dane Cook: Retaliation
Label: Comedy Central

He said it best himself: Dane Cook is a silly bitch. This three-disc set (two CD’s, one DVD) covers the full spectrum of Cook’s comic oeuvre, from the insane (the bit about being in a heist and owning an evil monkey is gold) to the lowbrow (lots and lots of poopy jokes), along with lyrics to the car alarm sound that you will never forget, try as you might. His stories tend to get long-winded here and there -- the Walgreens bit could have been cut in half, though starting the story at the ending, with the line, “I’ll fucking kill you!” was a smart move -- but his sheer unbridled enthusiasm is difficult to resist. The DVD is worth it solely for the “Shorties Watching Shorties” section, which plays like the Off Mikes clips on ESPN.com, putting Cook’s standup material to hilarious, spot-on animation. ~David Medsker (07/28/05)

Amy Cooper: Mirrors
Label: Retone/Leftwing 2007
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Given that Amy Cooper’s bio trumpets how she was “equally inspired by the films of Rainer Werner Fassbiner and the artwork of Egon Schiele as she was with the music of Arto Lindsay and Blonde Redhead,” it seems like nothing short of a minor miracle that her new EP, Mirrors (let alone her debut album, 2005’s Water/Fire), is so immediately accessible. Nonetheless, Mirrors continues to find Cooper’s musical sensibilities residing in the heretofore-undiscovered realm that lies squarely between Sheryl Crow and Courtney Love. There’s definitely a whole lotta Love in Cooper’s vocals on “Back Together” and “Undertow,” while the chorus of “Tonight We Fly” is tailor-made for the Adult Alternative radio format; there are also occasional hints of Chrissie Hynde in some of these songs. The production touch of Frank Linz (Starflyer 69, The Lassie Foundation) keeps things suitably indie, but the hooks of the songs are sufficient to grab most any fan of quality rock and roll, be it sung by a woman or not.
~Will Harris (09/14/07)

Bill Cosby: Inside the Mind of Bill Cosby
Label: Geffen

Inside the Mind of Bill Cosby was originally released in 1972, in a time when Cosby was as popular as he’d ever been. He had conquered television and film, but still set aside time to perform stand-up, which is how he first made a name for himself. Inside the Mind contains ten vignettes inspired by his childhood, fatherhood and his love of sports. The disc opens with his theory of how Dr. James Naismith invented basketball, with the help of a gruff janitor named “Willie.” In another story, he talks about how he and his wife weren’t sure what to do at their hotel on their wedding night, going on to say, “Finally, we got in the car and went to the drive-in. Then we knew what to do.” Later, he describes his feelings when people want to serve him animal brains (yes, animal brains) – “I can’t bite on nothing that someone’s been thinking with!” Cosby always worked clean, and his stand-up act opened the door for countless black comedians that came later. Since it was recorded in the ‘70s, Inside the Mind is a little dated, but most of the vignettes are timeless and the recording captures Cosby at the height of his popularity. ~John Pauslen (01/26/06)

Robert Cray: Twenty
Label: Sanctuary

Anyone who sings like Marvin Gaye and plays guitar like Eric Clapton has to earn cool points automatically. Therefore, Robert Cray is cool. His latest, Twenty, is a collection of soulful blues/rock that at times is tinged with jazz (“My Last Regret”) and even reggae (“Poor Johnny”). But this artist, who throughout a stellar career has been associated with the likes of Clapton, Bob Dylan, Tina Turner, Muddy Waters and B.B. King, really shines as a blues dude, especially on “I’m Walkin’.” ~Mike Farley (06/03/05)

Cream: Live at the Royal Albert Hall
Label: Reprise

The entire rock world was abuzz when Slowhand, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker announced they would reunite for a couple of shows in England (and later New York) thirty-some years after they broke up. Known as a mercurial trio, the music that Cream put together during their three years as a band was absolutely awe inspiring, before big egos blew the band up. Sadly, like hoping to get laid and ending up with a hand job, this collection doesn’t nearly live up to what could have been. Now, a hand job isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just that you were hoping for more. The energy level doesn’t match the reputation, and there are significantly better versions of several songs (like “Badge” and “White Room”) on Clapton’s live disc from 1991, 24 Nights. Likewise, the Ginger Baker-sung (or spoken) track “Pressed Rat & Warthog” is two minutes and fifty-one seconds of torture. Grab their greatest hits instead of this, unless you are an absolute diehard. ~R. David Smola (02/16/05)

Marshall Crenshaw: The Definitive Pop Collection
Label: Rhino 2006
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It literally pains us to not assign five stars to this two-disc collection of songs from guitar pop genius Marshall Crenshaw, an artist whose body of work is more than capable of producing a set worthy of our top rating. But deduct a half star we must, on the grounds that the project supervisor’s efforts to make a comprehensive collection prevented them from making a truly definitive one. “Not for Me,” from Crenshaw’s bulletproof debut, is nice and all, but it’s no “Soldier of Love” or “She Can’t Dance.” Likewise, how does Field Day track “One Day with You” make the cut over “All I Know Right Now” or the Steve Lillywhite echo-fest “Hold It”? The inclusion of his cover of Buddy Holly’s “Crying, Waiting, Hoping,” from the soundtrack to “La Bamba,” is a nice addition, but we’d gladly sacrifice the four tracks from #447 and What’s in the Bag? for extra doses of Mary Jean & 9 Others and Downtown. As fantastic as The Definitive Pop Collection is – and it is – we still recommend that you start with his bulletproof 2000 single-disc best-of, This Is Easy. Then, if you’re anything like us, you’ll go out and buy the rest of Crenshaw’s catalog minutes after “Starless Summer Sky” finishes spinning. ~David Medsker (11/09/06)

Culture Club: Greatest Hits
Label: Virgin/EMI

It’s easy to make fun of Culture Club now -- Alexis Arquette’s character in “The Wedding Singer” effectively killed them the same way Kurt Cobain killed hair metal -- but there was a reason these guys were so successful in the early ‘80s; the singles from their first two albums were damn good. “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me,” “Time (Clock of the Heart”) and “Church of the Poison Mind,” in particular, have held up remarkably well. It’s the latter material, like the dreadful “War Song” (which even Boy George despises) and the neo-soul comeback attempt “Move Away,” that marked the end of the line. Still, as compilations go, this is the most complete Culture Club singles collection on the market, for what that’s worth. ~David Medsker (06/30/05)

Billy Currington: Doin’ Something Right
Label: Mercury Nashville

Billy Currington moved to Nashville a few years back with the intention of becoming a songwriter, but after singer Mark Wills put one of his songs on hold, it was Currington the artist who captured the attention of producer Carson Chamberlain which led to a deal with Mercury Nashville. Now with his second effort, Doin’ Something Right, Currington is climbing the Billboard charts and making waves in a genre that only lets a select few newcomers in each year. Not only can Currington sing, but unlike most country superstars, he writes a lot of his own material. The quirky “I Wanna Be a Hillbilly” and title track are really good songs, but the best track is “She’s Got a Way with Me,” a riveting collaboration with pop icon Michael McDonald. ~Mike Farley (12/01/05)

The Damned: Damned Damned Damned
30th Anniversary Expanded Edition

Label: Castle Music 2007
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Eagles of Death Metal frontman Jesse Hughes is surely jacked about this three-disc reissue of what he considers to be the best punk album that no one talks about. Produced by one Nick Lowe, Damned Damned Damned eschews the myth that punk rockers can’t also be musicians; unlike the Sex Pistols, the Damned can play, and you can still be raw without necessarily being dumb. Along with exhaustive liner notes featuring interviews with Rat Scabies, Captain Sensible and Brian James, Disc Two features a score of demos, John Peel sessions (including a cover of the Beatles’ “Help” that has to be heard to be believed) and live versions of those same songs from 1977. Disc Three is the true fan mother lode: a recording of their very first concert in July 1976. No owner of Never Mind the Bollocks or The Clash should go another minute without this album in their collection. ~David Medsker (06/01/07)

Daphne Loves Derby: Good Night, Witness Light
Label: Outlook Music 2007
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Seattle based indie pop/punk band Daphne Loves Derby is no stranger to the road, having logged many miles over the past few years and sharing the stage with some of its genre buddies like Copeland, Paulson, and Sherwood. But while the press notes claim that Daphne Loves Derby listened to stuff like Frank Sinatra, The Eagles, Janis Ian and The Cardigans among others in helping to shape their own songwriting for this sophomore effort on Outlook Music, Good Night, Witness Light sounds like a continuation of the band’s debut. You can’t fault these kids for wanting to expand their songwriting influences, but the effect was akin to eating a bran muffin and drinking a gallon of coffee—that is, the influences went out as fast as they went in. Still, Daphne Loves Derby remains one of the best pop/punk bands of today. They are not offensive, they know how to craft catchy songs, and they deliver those songs with relative ease. But while tunes like the driving “That’s Our Hero Shot” and the pretty acoustic ballad “Cue the Sun!” are really good, most of this album just sounds like one really long song. ~Mike Farley (03/22/07)

Daphne Loves Derby: On the Strength of All Convinced
Label: Outlook Music
Three and a half stars
Daphne Loves Derby is one band that has figured out how to use the Internet to create a buzz. The Kent, Washington trio, while still in school (the band started three years ago when drummer Stu Clay was still in junior high), became such a downloaded favorite on MySpace and Pure Volume that they found themselves touring on the weekends and drawing 300-500 peeps at clubs, before heading back every Monday morning to attend classes. All of that for an unsigned band with no radio play. With melodic sensibility, lo-fi charm, and a road warrior mindset that have brought comparisons to major-by-way-of-indie heroes Jimmy Eat World and Death Cab for Cutie, Daphne Loves Derby signed with Denver Bronco Trevor Pryce’s Outlook Music. Their debut, On the Strength of All Convinced, is full of super-catchy, breezy emo guitar pop, especially on tracks like “Hammers and Hearts” and “Birthday Gallery.” ~Mike Farley (03/09/06)

Miles Davis: Cool & Collected
Label: Columbia/Legacy 2006
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No one would argue Miles Davis’ importance in the world of jazz music. Although some may claim that his album Kind of Blue isn’t one of the greatest albums ever recorded (I’m not one of them), there’s no denying the impact the man had in single-handedly both shaping and evolving the genre over the years. Cool & Collected is a 13-track compilation of some of Davis’ best known work, with such classics as “So What,” “’Round Midnight,” and “E.S.P.” included. The collections claims to be “the most essential music” from Davis, but compiling such an artist down to a single disc is nearly impossible. Yes, Miles is the kind of guy best heard through his original albums. There’s also nothing too great about the “remix” of “It’s About That Time” featuring Carlos Santana that closes the album. If you need an introduction to Miles Davis, Cool & Collected will suffice, but it hardly scratches the surface of this classic artist. ~Jason Thompson (11/09/06)

Doctor Who: Original Television Soundtrack
Label: Silva Screen Music 2007
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Having the person who gave both Season One and Season Two of the new “Doctor Who” series five stars do a review of the show’s soundtrack…well, giving it a good review’s like shooting fish in a barrel, isn’t it? Yes and no. Certainly, there’s much here to enjoy if you’re a fan of the show, since one can associate certain segments of music with particular scenes or episodes. On the whole, however, Murray Gold’s score, while unquestionably dark, dramatic, and – when appropriate – sweeping and heroic, isn’t really something you’d slap in the player for casual listening. There are occasional exceptions, however; in particular, the track “Westminster Bridge” is a brilliant, jet-propelled instrumental, with surf guitar straight from the Dick Dale catalog, which could be released as a single. Gold’s themes for the Daleks and the Cyberman are enjoyably menacing, and the way “Doomsday” builds to its epic conclusion makes for an extremely solid listening experience. And, of course, you can never go wrong with the show’s theme song, which opens and closes the disc in short and long form, respectively. Lastly, it will prove a pleasant surprise for fans of the Divine Comedy, however, that Neil Hannon’s two solo contributions to the show’s soundtrack (and, in fact, the only two tracks on the disc which include proper vocals) have been included. ~Will Harris (03/01/07)

Elizabeth & the Catapult: Elizabeth & the Catapult
Label: iTunes-only 2006
full starfull starfull starfull starno star Taking the easy way out would be to call Elizabeth & the Catapult a cross between Sarah McLachlan and Tom Waits. But that would be like saying a pizza with extra cheese tastes “pretty good.” There are just so many more ways to say it. Without citing 100 different reference points, let’s just say that this eclectic mix of pop, jazz, and alternative is as catchy as it is sophisticated. Elizabeth Ziman has a soft, soothing, sexy voice that is balanced by some creative instrumental arrangements involving strings and electronic beats. And the songs are cool enough for the critics and yet accessible for true music lovers (I thought the critics were the true music lovers – Ed.). “Waiting for the Kill” is a blues-infused, smoky barroom of a song, but Elizabeth is at her singer/songwriter best on ballads like “Right Next to You” and “My Goodbye.” ~Mike Farley (01/04/07)

Eric Darius: Just Getting Started
Label: Narada Jazz 2006
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When you’re dealing in the smooth jazz genre, it can tend to seem like one long song. The difference, however, is in the ability of the lead instrument, and in the case of 23-year old saxophone prodigy Eric Darius, that ability drives his second album. The record is aptly titled Just Getting Started, because there is no reason to believe Darius won’t be making music like this for decades. The dude can play the shit out of his instrument, and this album is tailor made for smooth jazz radio. It’s also the perfect soundtrack for Sunday morning breakfast, especially when you guys are trying to impress a new girlfriend who just slept over for the first time (another note to dudes like you: a spare toothbrush will earn bonus points). Just Getting Started is mostly laid back, but when Darius and his band kick it up a notch, as they do on “Groove On,” the musicianship is at a completely different level. ~Mike Farley (04/27/06)

Ray Davies: The Storyteller
Label: Koch

Ah, but if he only tells part of the story, is he truly a storyteller? Taken from Ray Davies’ 1997 spoken-word tour, which combined Kinks songs with excerpts from his book “X-Ray,” Davies weaves an amusing and heartfelt tale of how he and little brother Dave formed a band, how one of their financial backers came up with the name the Kinks (which Davies hated at first), and how, if you listen closely, you can hear Dave scream “Fuck off!” right before he rips into the solo on “You Really Got Me.” The problem with Storyteller is that the album ends with the recording of “You Really Got Me,” which is only the beginning of the story; heck, it doesn’t come within a decade of the fascinating sequence where Davies details the band’s troubles during the ‘70s, where they were practically barred from touring in the US. The Storyteller (a reissue of the 1998 album) is great, great stuff, but since it covers so little of the overall story, you can’t help but be a little angry with Davies for telling such a small part of such an amazing tale. ~David Medsker (02/09/06)

Deepfield: Archetypes and Repetition
Label: Fontana 2007
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The state of modern rock is depressing. If it isn’t pseudo punk/emo bullshit being shoved down the throats of unsuspecting emotionally unstable teenagers, then it’s ultra-generic derivative “post-grunge” bullshit. Since they all sound exactly the same, they should get together and form an anti-supergroup. I suggest the name 12HinderNickelPuddle of FingerCreed SourCherry SeetherShine SalivaStank Lifehouse, Featuring Daughtry. They could all do that, and Deepfield could be their opening act, because their debut record Archetypes and Repetition, shows that even on the low-ass curved grading scale applied to the power-less pop bands of their ilk, they don’t even register. When they aren’t attempting to be edgy (strictly in a Top 40 fashion) with droning numbers like “Innocence” and “Into the Flood,” they’re watering down their already diluted sound even more with pussy (“please have sex with us, we’re really emotional”) power ballads like “Dreams” and “Fall Apart”. There are wine coolers that pack more of a punch than this. And their cover of En Vogue’s “Don’t Let Go” is stupid. Not stupid in a funny/ironic kind of way, but stupid in a that-kid-needs-to-wear-a-helmet kind of way. ~James Eldred (07/27/07

Brett Dennen: So Much More
Label: Dualtone 2006
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Folk-rock singer/songwriter Brett Dennen garnered some attention when “There Is So Much More” appeared on an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy,” and the rest of his second album, So Much More, is quite consistent. “Darlin’ Do Not Fear” is reminiscent of Paul Simon’s exploration into African music, while “Ain’t No Reason” has the easygoing feel of Jack Johnson even though Dennen takes a larger worldview (some of his lyrics have a political bent). Dennen’s vocals are both a bit raspy and a bit feminine, but they complement his simple accompaniment perfectly. “I Asked When” is beautiful in its frustration; Dennen runs through a laundry list of the world’s atrocities, wondering, “when is a revolution?” Singer/songwriters have a tendency to veer to the side of depression, but Dennen keeps things fairly light, and “She’s Mine” is a good example. It’s clear that, for Dennen, melody and content are equally important, which makes So Much More a great listen for the folk-rock set. ~John Paulsen (08/03/07)

De Novo Dahl: Cats & Kittens
Label: Theory 8

The “Dahl” in the band’s name is indeed a reference to author Roald Dahl (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”), while “de novo” is Latin for “anew,” but those are about the only things easily explained about this band. Cats & Kittens, De Novo Dahl’s debut album, is actually a 2-disc set; the second disc is described as “remixes” of the first disc, but we’ll get back to that in a moment. The first disc – “Cats” – is full of lots of catchy, quirky pop material, veering wildly from genre to genre. “The Funk” is what Daft Punk would sound like if they weren’t trying so hard to not be human, “Cowboy and the Frenchman” is somewhere between the Wonder Stuff and the Pogues, “Be Your Man” is precisely two minutes of new wave power pop perfection, the bass line on “Piggy’s Adventure” is straight out of Elvis Costello’s “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea,” and...well, you can see, the only thing consistent is that it’s all pretty enjoyable. That second disc, however, gives each song a new title and turns much of the material on its ear; it’s all interesting, but none of the recreations top the songs in their original form. This is a rare occasion where you’ll find yourself preferring Cats to Kittens. ~Will Harris (02/02/06)

John Denver: The Essential John Denver
Label: RCA/Legacy Records 2007
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Hard to believe it’s been an entire decade since John Denver’s self-piloted plane disappeared off the coast of California. With it disappeared an American folk icon who rose unexpectedly from the rubble of '70s disco and punk to author an unparalleled catalog of old-fashioned, optimistic anthems about, primarily, love and the human spirit. The Essential John Denver trumps any previous greatest hits package, and there are many.How could anything short of five stars be granted this all-encompassing collection of hits (“Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “Rocky Mountain High” and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy”), duets (“Fly Away” with Olivia-Newton John and the stellar “Wild Montana Skies” with Emmylou Harris), and deeper album tracks (“Matthew” and “Is It Love?” from 1995’s The Wildlife Concert)? Somewhere far, far beyond the 14 gold and platinum albums (in essentially a dozen years) sat a peaceful, good-hearted man with big, bushy sideburns and a love of country and life that soared like the eagle and the hawk of which he sang. ~Red Rocker (04/06/07)

Destroyer: Destroyer’s Rubies
Label: Merge

Dan Bejar, who is also a member of the New Pornographers, started Destroyer in 1995. Eleven years later, Destroyer’s Rubies is the group’s fifth full-length effort. The album is full of literate, indie rock tracks, but it doesn’t come close to measuring up to the work of the Pornographers, though I doubt that was the intention. “European Oils” is a swaying number, which combines piano, strings and guitar with decent results. Bejar’s vocals sound like the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy (or vice versa) and it’s his crooning that carries “Painter in Your Pocket,” which is the closest thing to a pop song on the album. The best riff on the Rubies belongs, not coincidently, to the disc’s best song, “3000 Flowers.” The track leans heavily on the crunchy guitar that is backed by quick beat. However, the song doesn’t represent the album very well as the remaining tracks are merely meandering, moody and mediocre. ~John Paulsen (03/02/06)

Devics: Push the Heart
Label: Filter

Three songs into Push the Heart, the third album from Los Angeles’s Devics, you may theorize that the reason the fourth track is called “Song for a Sleeping Girl” is because the female in question has been lulled into slumber by the trio of tracks that preceded it. If that sounds like an insult, well, actually, it’s more of a left-handed compliment; the music is delicately charming, but to get a feel for it, one needs only imagine a blending of the slower, more melancholy tracks from the back catalogs of the Cardigans, the Sundays, and Sixpence None the Richer. (No surprise, really, that the band’s label in Europe is Bella Union, which is owned by Simon Raymonde of the Cocteau Twins.) As you would guess from those points of comparison, the lead singer on most of the Devics’ tracks is female – her name is Sara Lov – but her partner, Dustin O’Hallaran, pops up occasionally, such as on “If You Cannot See.” Push the Heart is lovely, but it may cause drowsiness, so, for God’s sake, do not drive or operate heavy machinery while listening. ~Will Harris (02/09/06)

D:Fuse & Hiratzka: Skyline Lounge
Label: Skyline Lounge 2007
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With a name like Skyline Lounge, you probably already know where this one’s heading. Yep, electronic groovers D:Fuse and Hiratzka take you on a mellow, mellow journey through semi-ambient textures that float by languidly. A touch of electric guitar lines here, a smidge of vocals there. “Breathe In” is one of those tunes that tries to sound orgasmic and/or New Agey, but it sounds just as corny as when Enigma first did it way back when. “Overkill” is generic dance floor material featuring vocals by Kristy Thirsk. MC Flint shows up to speak the title of “Love It, Live It,” and…oh what’s this? It seems this promo CD has crapped out my system and doesn’t want to be played any further. That’s OK. This sort of album is made to be put on and forgotten while you have a fashionable wine and cheese tasting party. You wouldn’t even notice if the thing just suddenly stopped. ~Jason Thompson (09/07/07)

Digby: What’s Not Plastic?
Label: Universal/Toucan Cove 2007
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Louisville rock band Digby released their last album, Falling Up, in 2004, and have been enduring some weighty personal issues in the interim. Thankfully, they took those personal setbacks and channeled them into their music, and as a result, Digby is back with a five-song EP, What’s Not Plastic? What’s great about Digby is that they have a style that’s about as unique as any band out there. It’s not just the raspy, ultra-compelling vocals of Paul Moeller (imagine a cross between Steve Forbert and Squeeze’s Glenn Tilbrook), but the four dudes in this band create music that oozes alt-rock cool while maintaining a strong pop sensibility. Still, What’s Not Plastic? is a diversion for Digby, be it the dark influences of life getting in the way or whatnot – but it’s still a collection of five really good songs that are going to leave you wanting more. The best tracks are the angry opener, “New America,” and the piano-driven mid-tempo beauty, “How Long.” ~Mike Farley (11/30/07)

The Dissociatives: The Dissociatives
Label: Astralwerks

The fact that Silverchair singer/guitarist Daniel Johns has made an electronic-based pop record is not nearly as much of a stretch as it may appear. In fact, the signs were there for all to see as early as Silverchair’s third album, Neon Ballroom (1999). Despite the Vedder-esque caterwauling of his youth, Johns, at heart, is a pop boy, and nothing in his catalog showcases that better than The Dissociatives. Teaming up with Australian remixer Paul Mac, the album wears its influences like silk shirts, from Kid A-era Radiohead (leadoff track “We’re Much Preferred Customers”), to the Beach Boys by way of Guster (instrumental “Lifting the Veil from the Braille”) and even 10cc (“Somewhere Down the Barrel”). After starting off his career in a rather undistinguished fashion, The Dissociatives is Johns’ sweet redemption. ~David Medsker (05/06/05)

DJ Axel: Breakin’ the Law
Label: Holden Records 2007
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It’s one thing to make a bootleg record – and there is none more bootleg than Breakin’ the Law, DJ Axel’s mash-up extravaganza – but in this age of affordable recording equipment, there is no excuse for making a bootleg record that sounds like a bootleg record. Still, the mash-ups he assembles here are well chosen. T.I. sounds right at home rapping over Van Halen’s “Drop Dead Legs,” and it was only a matter of time before someone paired Jay-Z up with Guns ‘n Roses (insert your own “One in a Million” joke here). Axel even gets adventurous, putting Ludacris together with Peggy Lee and 50 Cent with Lena Horne. The problem is that it sounds, well, terrible. “Snooperstition,” the duet of sorts between Snoop Dogg and Stevie Wonder, sounds like it was mastered from a mangled cassette, while several other tracks sound like they were made with Acid and turned straight into mp3’s. Five stars for the concept, minus one star for poor execution, and minus half a star for the inclusion of Khia’s “My Neck, My Back,” which is one of the filthiest songs ever recorded. The newly religious Prince is surely not amused that Axel put those words to his music. ~David Medsker (10/26/07)

Domeshots: Domeshots
Label: Rock Ridge

The self-titled debut from Northern California hard rock band Domeshots is full of screams and has enough walls of guitars to build a village. Sometimes when a band like this comes along, the focus is on the heaviness and not on the songs, but the Domeshots seem to get that part right. I can feel myself in the pit at one of their live shows, yet I still want to pay attention to what makes them tick, and that puts them a step ahead of their genre mates. The raw, dark power of “Reign” and the pure speed of “Portland” are most memorable. ~Mike Farley (04/29/05)

The Doors: The Soft Parade
Label: Elektra / Rhino 1969 / 2007
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There’s a reason why The Soft Parade is widely considered to be the weakest of the albums released by the Doors while Jim Morrison still remained within their ranks, and that’s because it’s a decidedly schizophrenic listening experience. The record begins with two Robby Krieger songs – “Tell All the People” and “Touch Me” – which find the band experimenting with horns, and while they’re among the upbeat and cheery tracks in the Doors’ catalog, that’s not exactly what their fans come to their records looking for, y’know? Later, you’ve got “Runnin’ Blue,” a fiddle-powered number that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Charlie Daniels Band album, which is followed by the string-drenched “Wishful Sinful,” and...say, both these songs are Krieger compositions as well! Coincidence? Not so much. If you’re looking for the traditional “Doors sound” in abundance, you’ll find that on the Morrison-composed tracks, the best of which are “Wild Child” and “Shaman’s Blues.” The album’s title cut is, at over nine minutes in length, an overlong sonic voyage which finds moments of brilliance surrounded by Morrison’s often rambling lyrics...but, then, that sums up rather a lot of the band’s catalog, doesn’t it? (This 40th anniversary reissue contains a few previously-unreleased tracks and an alternate take of “Touch Me.”) ~Will Harris (05/04/07)

Dr. Hook: Greatest Hooks
Label: Capitol 2007
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While reading “Feel,” Chris Heath’s fly-on-the-wall look at the life of Robbie Williams over the course of 2003, one might be surprised to find that one of the artists which Williams can regularly be found listening and singing along to is Dr. Hook. Somehow, you just don’t imagine that anyone listens to Dr. Hook, do you? You remember the name, you know they did the song about being on the cover of “Rolling Stone,” and you know they had a couple of other hits, too, but, honestly, when was the last time someone actually took a step forward and said, “Why, yes, I am a big Dr. Hook fan”? Let’s hope those guys sent Williams a nice thank-you note. And as long as we’re talking about the band, Greatest Hooks – which is far from the first best-of collection for the band and almost certainly not the last – does, at least, have the best track listing of any single-disc compilation of the band’s work to date. It covers the biggest hits of the band’s days as Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show (“Sylvia’s Mother,” “The Cover of ‘Rolling Stone,’” and a few other lesser successes), but the majority of its focus is on the later, more mainstream years…not that there’s anything wrong with that. We suggest that you find your inner Robbie Williams, stop feeling guilty about the pleasure you get from “Sharing the Night Together,” “When You’re in Love with a Beautiful Woman,” “Better Love Next Time,” and “Sexy Eyes,” and embrace these Greatest Hooks for all they’re worth – and if the album makes your pants wanna get up and dance, even better. ~Will Harris (10/12/07)

Dr. Hook: Makin ‘ Love and Music / Pleasure & Pain
Label: American Beat 2007
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You probably remember Dr. Hook as much for their Medicine Show days (“The Cover of Rolling Stone”) as for this later material, but this was definitely the beginning of a transition for the group. One wonders what the band meetings must’ve been like between the releases of 1977’s Makin’ Love and Music and 1978’s Pleasure & Pain, given how different the two records sound. Presumably, a representative from Capitol Records – their label at the time – must’ve taken the floor at some point and said, “Guys, the fun-loving boogie schtick isn’t shifting the units anymore; how do you boys feel about taking a stab at a lite-FM sound?” If that’s how it went down, you can’t say it didn’t work. “Walk Right In,” the lone single from Makin’ Love and Music, couldn’t even scrape its way into the Top 40, stalling at #46, and much of the album felt like Dr. Hook was just treading water. With the follow-up, however, the band certainly sounded invigorated, providing catchy radio fare with “Sharing the Night Together” and “When You’re in Love with a Beautiful Woman” that the listeners ate right up. Of course, the title of the album showed that Dr. Hook was fully aware of the two disparate sensations to be felt by the band’s longtime fans upon hearing the new direction, but at least they threw the old-timers a bone by closing with a funky number called “You Make My Pants Want to Get Up and Dance.” ~Will Harris (06/29/07)

Linda Draper: Keepsake
Label: Planting Seeds 2007
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With so many kids like Kelly Clarkson and Avril Lavigne shouting at us, it’s a welcome haven to our ears when singer/songwriters like Linda Draper come along. And it’s a lot more difficult to sing softly and in perfect tune than it is to rock out, the former being something Draper does with what appears to be a graceful ease. On Keepsake, Draper’s fifth album, she co-produced and had a lot of say in a product that lets her beautiful voice dance side by side with simple yet eclectic melodies. You can say Draper is like a female Nick Drake, or you can say she’s an even softer Suzanne Vega, but those comparisons would be unfair because they still don’t tell the whole story. Linda Draper still is her own artist, as evidenced by the classic crooner feel of “Shine” or “Traces Of.” At times, tracks like “Cell Phone” may lull you to sleep, but it’s a sweet sleep and not one laced with bad dreams. In all, this is a solid effort from an artist who deserves the props that are sure to follow this record. ~Mike Farley (06/08/07)

Drive-By Truckers: A Blessing and a Curse
Label: New West Records

Alabama’s double-wide rube rockers continue to evolve and separate themselves from a 1998 debut called Gangstabilly which touted such literary gems as “Wife Beater,” “18 Wheels of Love,” and “Buttholeville.” Some would argue the Drive-By Truckers only had one direction to go at that point, but their latest, A Blessing and a Curse, further legitimizes even their best work from the past few years. Cranking it up with a modern rock sensibility that recalls Foo Fighters and Dinosaur Jr., “Feb 14” and “Wednesday” are the kind of stuff that gets a relatively unknown band noticed. “Tey say every man’s house should be his palace, but his castle stank of cat shit and alone,” is the kind of lyric that maybe only DBT’s could execute without coming off as schlocky or totally immature. Their true calling, however, remains the slow burning roadside jams like “Goodbye” and “A World of Hurt.” And with three of the Truckers sharing lead vocal duties, all 11 tracks are able to maintain their shelf life and keep this record from growing moldy or bland. ~Red Rocker (04/20/06)

Dropkick Murphys: The Meanest of Times
Label: Born & Bred 2007
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Yo, all you Boston Irish, pick your faces up out of your schooners of Harpoon lager and listen up: the Dropkicks got a new CD out. The punkers rage on about this mean old world, dishing up deliciously moshable folk ditties about dead people (including Bruins players) and extolling family values in their backhanded way as in "The State Of Massachusetts," a breakneck ballad in which the kids get a new set of guardians because mommy\'s not behaving well. In 2004, this band became wildly popular in Beantown, as they were as closely associated with the first Red Sox World Series win in 86 years as Curt Schilling\'s bloody sock. How did they accomplish such a trick? By recording "Tessie," an obscure Red Sox fan anthem of the early 1900s sung by the Royal Rooters, a seminal group of chowdaheads who followed the Sox by train down to New York and perhaps invented the "Yankees Suck" chant. After the Dropkicks recorded a punk version of that melody at the beginning of the season "to break the curse"...lo and behold, the blessed Sox won it all. They could have widened the Dropkicks audience greatly by amping up the Irish sentimentality and downplaying the punk guitar, but lest anyone fear they went soft, this CD sets the record straight. The Dropkick Murphys remember which fans butter their bread – the punks and boors and missing-teeth tattooed goons of Southie. And we like it that way.
~Mojo Flucke, Ph.D. (10/26/07)

Eagles of Death Metal: Death by Sexy
Label: Downtown

Here’s the thing about Eagles of Death Metal: with these song titles, and that awesome band name of theirs, they seem to put more effort into the concept of their music than the execution of it. That’s not to say that Death by Sexy, the latest from Queens of the Stone Age leader Joshua Homme’s side project (he plays drums here), is without its charms. Between lead singer Jesse Hughes’ playful falsetto and outrageous mustache, his performances on booty-shaking bar songs like “Cherry Cola” and “I Gotta Feeling (Just Nineteen)” ooze fun out the wazoo. The problem is that the joke gets old rather quickly, despite the songs’ short running time. Still, imperfections aside, that is easily the best band name since Deathray Davies. ~David Medsker (04/12/06)

Earth, Wind & Fire: Illumination
Label: Sanctuary

When the press notes mention things like “one of the most influential pop artists of the 20th Century,” it’s impossible to look back at the career of Earth, Wind & Fire and disagree. Earth, Wind & Fire has persevered through the transitions of the R&B genre, mainly because they know the formula to write hit music and stay true to their originality. Illumination is the band’s twenty-third release (yes, you read that correctly), and it’s a star-studded celebration that marries the roots of what made EWF great with some of today’s prominent R&B stars and producers. The opening track and first single, “Lovely People,” is a collaboration with Black Eyed Peas front man Will I Am and is an infectious tone-setter for what is to come. The tender ballads “Show Me The Way” and the Brian McKnight-penned “To You” harkens back to classic EWF. Other prominent guests are Kelly Rowland of Destiny’s Child, Big Boi from Outkast, and Kenny G., who guests on a hip cover of Outkast’s “The Way You Move.” ~Mike Farley (09/29/05)

Easily Amused: Simple Stuff
Label: MAPL / Factor

Despite having earned an award for Best College Duo in the USA from CampusAwards.com, Easily Amused – Keith Macpherson and Renee Lamoureux – maintain a relatively low profile in the United States. In Canada, however, they’ve been doing decidedly better; their sophomore album, Simple Stuff, has already been nominated for Outstanding Pop Album at the Western Canada Music Awards. With alternating male and female vocals, Easily Amused have a very radio-friendly sound, not entirely unlike some of the stuff Avril Lavigne has been putting out as of late, though perhaps a bit folkier, with lyrical echoes of No Doubt on “Only A Girl,” where Lamoureux sings, “I am only a girl who suffers like you / I have just the amount of patience that you do.” The pair harmonizes well together, but, oddly, they don’t really offer up much in the way of proper duets; generally, one leads a song and the other provides back-up. Still, it’s all pleasant and relatively catchy, if not necessarily groundbreaking. ~Will Harris (11/03/05)

Editors: The Back Room
Label: Fade

The influences are clear: the scratch guitar and rapid-fire drumming of early U2, the melodic phrasings of Echo & the Bunnymen, and, lest we forget, Tom Smith’s uncanny vocal resemblance to Ian Curtis, which, sadly, will bring unwarranted comparisons to Interpol. But this is no Futureheads-style ‘80s tribute band. The Back Room, Editors’ debut, is positively epic in scope, and while Smith isn’t the chattiest guy in England – the supercharged “Bullets” rivals Teenage Fanclub’s “What You Do to Me” for Fewest Lyrics in a Pop Song – the band propels his brooding meditations into the stratosphere. Rare is the album that can take sentiments like “All sparks will burn out in the end,” “You’ll speak when you’re spoken to,” and “Blood runs through your veins, that’s where our similarity ends” and elevate them to anthem status. Such is the power of Editors. These guys have the ability to be huge. ~David Medsker (03/30/06)

Eisley: Combinations
Label: Reprise 2007
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When a group of siblings (plus one cousin) between the ages of 17 and 25 assembles a record that recalls Throwing Muses on a particularly happy—if mellow – day, you can’t help but think there might yet be hope for the future of music. The voices of sisters Sherri and Stacy Dupree swirl around each other with an effortlessness that few bands will ever know, and it’s the same whether they’re singing a lullaby like “If You’re Wondering” or a moody rocker like “Invasion.” The singing isn’t the only effortless aspect of the album, either; “Taking Control” has an instant familiarity to it, and the band is smart enough to get straight to the point and move on, with nary a song over four minutes in length. The art of songwriting has never been as overlooked as it is now – it’s not about the song, but about the hit – which makes an album like Combinations such a pleasant surprise. The kids, it appears, are all right after all. ~David Medsker (08/24/07)

Electric Light Orchestra: A New World Record
Label: Epic/Legacy 2006
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Here’s something that happens a lot of the time when a label reissues a band’s back catalog in waves: you get the latest one in, then you suddenly realize that, oh, crap, you never wrote up the last one that was reissued. Such is the case with Electric Light Orchestra’s A New World Record. Don’t, however, get the idea that our review being so belated is in any way an indication of the album’s quality; if you had to pick one album from Jeff Lynne and company to serve as the single best representative from their discography, A New World Record is the only way to go. In addition to the classic singles “Telephone Line” and “Livin’ Thing” (not to mention the remake of the Move’s “Do Ya” that’s all but eclipsed the original version), “Tightrope” is one of the most dramatic opening salvos in 1970s rock, “Rockaria!” revisits the same version of the ‘50s that was found in their cover of “Roll Over Beethoven,” and “So Fine” has one the weirdest middle bits you’ve ever heard in a disco-inspired pop song. There’s also the Beach-Boys-inspired “Above the Clouds” and the epic grand finale of “Shangri La,” which is followed by six bonus tracks, but of that half-dozen, the only one that’s a must-hear is the previously-unreleased “Surrender,” which is two-and-a-half minutes of bouncy pop perfection. Lynne was on such a creative high during the sessions for A New World Record that he could afford not to release it; if that doesn’t tell you how good the album is, nothing will. ~Will Harris (04/13/07)

Kurt Elling: Nightmoves
Label: Concord 2007
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Jazzy crooner types are becoming more commonplace these days, but that doesn’t mean that the genre can’t keep producing good ones. Kurt Elling is a talented singer who dabbles a bit in songwriting, but mostly sings other people’s songs. The title track is a Michael Franks/Michael Small number and it sets the tone for a really smooth, somewhat romantic collection of tunes that can make anyone appreciate this type of jazz. There is a stunning version of Randy Bachman’s “Undun,” originally recorded by Bachman’s band the Guess Who, and an even more stunning musical version of a Theodore Roethke poem, “The Waking,” on which it’s just Elling’s vocal and Rob Amster’s bass. One of the few misses on this album is “Leaving Again/Wee Small Hours,” which just sounds sort of whiny. Elling is compared to Sinatra in his bio, and the influence is in plain view on “A New Body and Soul.” Then he closes things out with Duke Ellington’s “I Like the Sunrise.” This is Elling’s sixth studio release, and if you haven’t heard of him until now, he’s one you should check out, especially if a jazz and standard mix constitutes your iPod play list of choice. ~Mike Farley (05/04/07)

EndeverafteR: Kiss or Kill
Label: Razor & Tie 2007
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Los Angeles hard-rock quartet EndeverafteR appears to be suffering a severe crisis of conscience. They clearly want to rock your socks off, as evidenced by the devastating one-two punch of “I Wanna Be Your Man” and “Baby Baby Baby” that opens Kiss or Kill, their debut. The former is a kissing cousin to Motley Crue’s “Live Wire,” right down to singer/guitarist Michael Grant’s Vince Neil-like “c-c-c-c-c-c-c-caaaaaaaaan” in the chorus; the latter is simple balls-to-the-wall hard rock with the kind of guitar shredding that Kurt Cobain tried to kill 16 years ago. The problem lies in the moments that feel like sellout grabs for radio airplay. “Gotta Get Out” is one of those songs (and just try not singing disco classic “If I Can’t Have You” when the pre-chorus hits), and as cash grabs go, it’s a damned good one. It’s just that it, and particularly “Next Best Thing,” do not have any place on an album with a song like “Poison” and its Malmsteen-ish guitar play (and just try not singing disco classic “I Will Survive” during the guitar solo). Unwritten Law had this same dilemma on their album Elva. They were soon dropped by their label. Forget everyone else, fellas: just do what you love, and the money will follow.
~David Medsker 11/24/07

Eugene Edwards: My Favorite Revolution
Label: Tallboy

The comparisons young singer/songwriter/rocker Eugene Edwards and his debut record are drawing read like a who’s who of rock. Elvis Costello, Squeeze, Tom Petty, Foo Fighters, the Beatles....should I go on? I don’t think that’s necessary because that already places Edwards in lofty company, but suffice it to say My Favorite Revolution is just a really good rock album. Yes, Edwards sounds exactly like Costello – in the lead vocal, crunchy Fender guitars and sugary harmonies – but the songs are what really matters here, and Edwards writes addictive pop that is going to raise eyebrows everywhere. Some of My Favorite Revolution sounds repetitive, but that will hopefully change as Edwards continues to grow as an artist and releases more albums. “It Doesn’t Get Better Than This” and “All About You” are super catchy, but the real gem on here is “I’ll Be True (Someday),” which brings to mind Paul McCartney or Buddy Holly. Lofty company, indeed. ~Mike Farley (11/10/05)

Lauren Ellis: Feels Like Family
Label: Silverline

With heartfelt, at times raspy, vocals drifting from Shelby Lynne to Melissa Etheridge and a steel guitar that Stevie Ray Vaughn wouldn’t have kicked out of bed, California native Lauren Ellis strikes hot on Feels Like Family. Just her second outing in six years (though she’s been cutting her teeth in bigger circles for much longer), Ellis juggles her goods from waxing poetic (“Afraid to Love”) to smoky poolroom (“End of Our Line”) and downright rocking (“Setting Son”). Nashville is home these days, but with 11 sprawling no-boundaries tracks here, it doesn’t begin to contain her. Here’s one shot glass raised hoping Feels Like Family is nearer the beginning of Ellis’ long road traveled than the end. ~Red Rocker (09/08/05)

Emma: Free Me
Label: 19 Records/Universal

Most people will remember this artist as Baby Spice, but the comparison to the Spice Girls ends there. While Free Me, Emma’s solo debut, is nothing like the pop of Britney Spears or the pop/rock of Avril Lavigne, it’s a bit of a throwback to the days of ABBA and Olivia Newton John. These are really good songs, and my manhood has no problem admitting that. They’re poppy and melodic, with a bit of a lounge feel at times. Of course, the fact that Emma is really hot and has a sexy voice does not detract from her appeal in the least. ~Mike Farley (04/22/05)

Enigma: Love Sensuality Devotion: The Remix Collection
Label: Virgin 2006
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File under: albums that were released about ten years past their sell-by date. That isn’t just snarky music critic talk, either: the greatest-hits album to which this is meant to serve as a companion (also titled Love Sensuality Devotion) was released in October...of 2001. Why on earth is this coming out now? The band’s contributions to dance music (that would be the melding of chanting monks and Soul II Soul beats) had been obliterated by the late ‘90s, and half of the remixes contained here further illustrate that point, particularly the ten-minute opening remix of “Turn Around.” If there is one must-have remix in this collection, it is for, surprise, “Sadeness (Part I),” which gives the track an industrial makeover and even throws in a Frankie Goes to Hollywood sample for kicks. The album brings to mind the line in the Pet Shop Boys song “Yesterday, When I Was Mad”: “Someone said, ‘It’s fabulous you’re still around today / You’ve both made such a little go a very long way.” That sentiment fits Michael Cretu a lot better than it fits Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. ~David Medsker (01/18/07)

Mike Errico: All In
Label: Tallboy 7 2007
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Singer/songwriter Mike Errico has been on a major label before, but for his last three albums has embraced his independence, letting creative juices spill out everywhere. Errico’s latest, All In, is not typical singer/songwriter fare. Rather, it is alterna-tinged rock that sounds fresh, and rife with creative melodies and arrangements that bring his songwriting to life. Errico has no doubt been jilted by a woman, something that’s obvious from the song titles alone (“How It Ends,” “Girlfriend Weather,” “Packing My Bags”). But somewhere in a sound that marries (bear with me here) Jeff Buckley, Level 42, Jimmy Eat World, and even the Beatles, there is a dude who has a gift for writing songs. This is not your slow-burn, like-it-and-leave-it pop/rock, but rather an album of compelling songs that grow on you like the ivy at Wrigley Field. The crunching, guitar-driven “How It Ends” is the album’s best track, but others worth the price of admission are the dreamy “Sweet Anesthesia” and the harmony-drenched rocker, “Whatever You Say.” ~Mike Farley (07/06/07)

Melissa Etheridge: Greatest Hits - The Road Less Traveled
Label: Universal

Melissa Etheridge is one of the most underrated singers in rock music today, and she proves it time and again. Even after surviving a bout with cancer, she continues to inspire and rock at the same time. Etheridge’s latest, Greatest Hits - The Road Less Traveled, is a collection of powerful tunes, some that made her famous (“I’m the Only One,” “Come To My Window”), some that were fringe hits (“Like The Way I Do”) and a few great songs that for some reason never climbed the pop charts like they deserved to (“Angels Will Fall”). There are also some previously unreleased tracks such as the chilling ballad “This is Not Goodbye,” and the uplifting “I Run For Life,” both of which are obviously about Melissa’s battle with cancer. As if this album didn’t already have a lot of great music, there are two covers: Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart,” which she definitely does justice to, and the first single, a surprisingly awesome version of Tom Petty’s “Refugee.” ~Mike Farley (09/29/05)

Sara Evans: Real Fine Place
Label: RCA Records

Nashville-by-way-of-Missouri knockout Sara Evans gets back to work following maternity leave and her 2003 breakthrough Restless with a gallant new effort, Real Fine Place. High octane, feel-good scamps like “New Home Town” and “Momma’s Night Out” showcase her chart prowess, while the tear-in-my-beer weeper “Cheatin’” validates her Nashville address with the wound licking, “You’ve done your sowing now you can do the reaping.” Sheryl Crow hands over a sugary sweet number (“Roll Me Back in Time”) that Evans conquers with more pop than country pipes, but nothing comes close to the first single “A Real Fine Place to Start”, which Evans herself recently deemed “one of the best songs I’ve ever heard.” A current supporting role on Brad Paisley’s nationwide tour should be short lived for this budding country rose, as Real Fine Place is poised to graduate her to the next rank. ~Red Rocker (12/09/05)

Ever We Fall: We Are But Human
Label: Hopeless

Ever We Fall has figured out how to combine flavors of emo, indie rock and pop/punk in a way that’s cool enough for fans of any of these genres to like them. As comparisons to flavor-of-the-month bands like Fall Out Boy and Hawthorne Heights have been following this Oregon-based three-piece around, they can’t help but feel that they are in good company. The band’s debut on indie label Hopeless Records, We Are But Human, has hooky songs sure to earn them lots of downloads and spins in college dorms. Some of the best tracks are the Blink 182-ish “Schoolyard Crush,” the blazing “No Sleep For Dreaming,” and the chilly “No Words To Describe,” the latter of which is the perfect backdrop for a rainy day in the Pacific Northwest. ~Mike Farley (03/02/06)

Faber Drive: Seven Second Surgery
Label: Republic / Universal 2007
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As the debut album from British Columbia’s Faber Drive kicks off, the first thought most listeners will have is, “How in God’s name am I going to tell these guys apart from every other pop-rock band out there?” “24 Story Love Affair” is a catchy song, but it offers nothing to help distinguish Faber Drive from their peers; worse, the album’s second track, “Tongue Tied,” does little to change the status quo. But, then, there’s that third song. “Second Chance” begins with a riff that sounds like it was lifted straight out of Def Leppard’s playbook, and the song quickly offers up the harmonies to match; this general sound then proceeds to pop up again two songs later, with “Sleepless Nights (Never Let Her Go).” Unfortunately, in between, we’re handed “Sex and Love,” which is one of the most unabashed Killers sound-alike songs ever. And, thus, the problem with Seven Second Surgery truly begins to reveal itself: Faber Drive doesn’t seem to have any idea what they want to sound like…or maybe the issue is that Universal doesn’t know what they want Faber Drive to sound like. Given that the album’s most enjoyable moments occur when they’re channeling harmony-laden ‘80s pop-metal (“When I’m With You” are “Time Bomb” are particularly awesome), maybe the band should just stick to embracing that side of its music; they sound a lot more enthusiastic doing that than when they’re busy trying to sound just like everybody else. ~Will Harris (08/24/07)

Fair to Midland: Fables from a Midfly:
What I Tell You Three Times Is True

Label: Universal Republic 2007
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It’s a safe bet that any band willing to give their album a title as pretentious as Fables from a Midfly: What I Tell You Three Times Is True clearly doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks about them, and it gets even safer when said album is filled with songs bearing titles like “Dance of the Manatee” and “A Wolf Descends Upon the Spanish Sahara.” Nonetheless, let it still be said, for the record, that Fair to Midland have indeed successfully fulfilled the promise of last year’s Drawn and Quartered EP. Of course, if you’re familiar with the progressive metal genre, you already know that it requires its listeners to be able to accept a certain amount of pretentiousness…and, of course, by “a certain amount,” we mean “a fucking truckload.” (We’re specifically thinking of Spock’s Beard here.) Fair to Midland, however, can take a song called “Tall Tales Taste Like Sour Grapes” and, before you realize what’s happened, you’re swept up in the melodic, harmony-laden rock majesty of it all. Our advice: ignore the song titles completely and just embrace the music. If you used to be a long-haired, denim-wearing metal head in the ‘80s but your tastes ran toward the likes of Dream Theater, King’s X, or Savatage, Fables from a Midfly will bring your past rushing back to you in a big, big way. ~Will Harris (10/12/07)

Bernard Fanning: Tea & Sympathy
Label: Lost Highway 2006
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Powderfinger lead vocalist Bernard Fanning steps out on his own with a solo debut on Lost Highway that shows a keen sense of songwriting along the lines of Neil Young, label mate Ryan Adams, or even fellow Aussie Neil Finn. Tea & Sympathy is one of those albums that grows on you like a fungus and has the stamina to hang around your CD player for longer than most new releases. Fanning has the kind of voice you think you’ve heard before but may not have, and his melodies are a nice complement to a twangy yet definitively alt-pop sound. Some of the tracks border on average, but most of them are stellar, in particular the super-addictive “Wish You Well,” the attitude-y “Which Way Home” and the heartfelt acoustic bliss of “Wash Me Clean.” You could come up with all kinds of goofy clichés about his name (you’ll be spared here) but if you’re looking for a singer/songwriter who is a bit left of center yet very listenable, give Tea & Sympathy a spin. ~Mike Farley (10/19/06)

Far From Finished: Living in the Fallout
Label: Think Fast! Records 2007
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Maybe I’m getting to old for this shit. One critic claimed Far From Finished “have proven to be today’s torch bearers of Boston punk rock.” Yet spinning the band’s debut, Living in the Fallout, confirms that Boston punk rock has officially died with the hiatus of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Give ‘em credit, I guess, for surviving a death-defying van crash two years back and touring their brains out on the Vans Warped Tour ever since, but the style points just ain’t here. In fact, with the same four chords turned over in similar three-minute fashion, even 13 originals sound stale. (When in doubt, scream “fuck” a few more times for the kids in the pit.) But it doesn’t rescue a discriminating ear from schlock-rich boredom. “Roses & Razor Blades” has a juicy enough hook to make it download-worthy, and “Broken” sounds like the Smithereens on steroids (I guess that’s good), but 15% is still an “F” on any scale. ~Red Rocker (08/31/07)

The Feeling: Four Stops and Home
Label: Interscope 2006
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If you can’t wait to hear Twelve Stops and Home, the awesome, awesome album by London quintet the Feeling, but don’t want to pay for an overpriced import (it was criminally bumped from a September ‘06 release to March ’07), this four-song EP should keep the shakes away. Distilling all of the best qualities of such ‘70s rock stalwarts as Supertramp and 10cc and packing it with some modern-day punch, the Feeling can write and sing circles around lauded pop rockers like the Click Five without breaking a sweat. They can rock when they feel like it too, as evidenced in the Soundgarden-esque finale of “Helicopter.” And don’t forget to check out the amusing video for somber lead track “Sewn,” where the band gets, um, tied up. A strong contender to steal the New Pornographers’ title of best pop band in the world.
~David Medsker (01/11/07)

The Fiery Furnaces: Rehearsing My Choir
Label: Rough Trade

The Fiery Furnaces are headed in the wrong direction. After a terrific, hook-filled debut, Gallowsbird’s Bark, they put out a less accessible sophomore effort, Blueberry Boat. Now comes Rehearsing My Choir, an arduous concept album where the Friedberger siblings provide music and vocals while their grandmother – that’s right, their grandmother – tells stories about her life growing up and living in Chicago. Some of the music is pretty, like the opening of “The Garfield El” or the piano in “We Wrote Letters Everyday,” but it’s generally ruined by their grandmother’s annoying musings. Die-hards might appreciate the quirkiness of the Brooklyn band – if nothing else, they are true to themselves – but anyone expecting solid hooks or melodious background music should stay far, far away. ~John Pauslen (11/24/05)

The Figgs: Follow Jean Through the Sea
Label: Gern Bladstern 2006
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The Figgs have been cranking out albums for a long time now, reappearing every now and then to let loose with their own brand of tasty pop. On their newest release things haven’t changed a whole lot. The chords still rock and the rhythms continue to swing steadily as on nifty songs like “Regional Hits” and the title track. Unfortunately, like other Figgs albums, the songs all start sounding a bit the same after a few tracks. Slower tunes like “City Loft Home” and “I Won’t Go to Miami” don’t offer much of a change-up, either. Yet when The Figgs are doing their thing well, like on “Let Me Hold You,” it’s hard not to get caught up in their little groove. And hell, they must be doing something right after all these years if they’re still finding the time to release an album when necessary. Definitely worth a listen even if it’s not anywhere near a classic. ~Jason Thompson (12/14/06)

The Films: The Films EP
Label: Filter US Recordings

The Films are currently in the studio putting together their debut full-length record, but group’s three-song, self-titled EP serves as a delicious taste of what’s to come. They have obvious new wave, Brit pop and classic rock influences, but the music doesn’t consistently sound like anyone specific. There’s a little Marc Bolan in “That Kind of Day,” a little Supergrass in “Black Shoes,” and a little Elvis Costello in “Come On.” Based on these three tracks (along with the demos on their MySpace profile, these guys are good, capable songwriters, and are definitely a band to watch. ~John Paulsen (02/23/06)

Fisher: The Lovely Years
Label: Iris

Fisher’s latest is aptly titled because this album is full of nice, “lovely” tunes. The duo of Kathy Fisher and Ron Wasserman writes undeniably catchy music that is hard not to like. This is Fisher’s second indie release since parting with Interscope, and their first on Iris Records, the label co-founded by Ben Taylor (yep, James’s son). Fisher has had its share of film and TV success, landing a song on the soundtrack for 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow movie “Great Expectations.” And The Lovely Years starts out with “Beautiful Life,” a song that can be heard on the newest Toyota commercials. Fans of Sarah MacLachlan will love this record, especially tracks like “All I Ask” and “Turn Around.” There is also the uplifting pop of “Biggest Fan” and “Be Here.” ~Mike Farley (12/01/05)

Scott Fisher & 1 A.M. Approach: Step into the Future
Label: self-released 2007
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The press notes for Scott Fisher compare him to “Jack Johnson fronting Ben Folds Five.” Not too far off, but if you’ve heard Bob Schneider, Fisher is more of a dead ringer for him – or going back a couple of decades, Canadian singer/songwriter Corey Hart.

Comparisons aside, Fisher and his piano rock are engaging enough to showcase some really bright talent. This is his second national release without a label, and that’s no surprise, as the fickle music industry seems to keep missing out on artists like this. But no matter, Fisher caught the ears of producers Jesus “Chuy” Flores (Ricky Martin, Intocable) and Dave Way (Fiona Apple, Sheryl Crow). At times the songs run into each other, but for the most part this collection is pretty damn good. The syncopated title track, the dreamy “See the Day,” as well as the reggae flavored “Shades of Blue” or “State of Mind” display the strength of Fisher’s material.~Will Harris (04/26/07)

Five O’clock Heroes: Bend to the Breaks
Label: Glaze Records 2007
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More ‘80s-referencing post-punk-power-pop pabulum from a team of two Brits and two Americans who arrived a few years to late to the new wave/dance punk revival. Not that that’s entirely a bad thing, mind you. The Five O’clock Heroes certainly aren’t going to be cashing in on any overhyped bandwagon now that the Strokes and their ilk have proven to be the one-hit wonders the bands they took their musical cues from were in the first place. And hell, I loved Joe Jackson’s Look Sharp album, too (and learned to play bass by parroting that album’s jerk-pop grooves). Ditto My Aim Is True. And these guys are a tight unit, with catchy enough tunes and musicality galore to get your head jerking and your body twitching. And any fans of Interpol, Franz Ferdinand, Bravery, et.al., will certainly find enough here to enjoy. Will the Five O’clock Heroes make it to midnight (to stretch the metaphor)? It’s pop music…who cares? ~Una Persson (08/17/07)

Five Star Iris: Five Star Iris
Label: Hooptyville 2006
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There are so many independent artists out there today that are releasing music on their own. Few of them are good enough to be recognized by the masses as something new and exciting because, frankly, the numbers game has allowed the market to become flooded. But bands like Atlanta’s Five Star Iris remind us all that there is a key element missing in most of the rock landscape: good songs. At the risk of sounding like a broken, er, CD, good songs are what separate the mediocre bands from the great ones. Five Star Iris, with its self-titled debut, is not great yet but has the potential to be. With a guitar-driven, melodic, slightly alternative collection of songs that bring to mind fellow Atlanta products Butch Walker or Collective Soul, as well as a more modern sounding Tonic, this is a band to keep your eyes on because they could break out in a big way. “Follow You Down” and “Starry Eyed” kick things off nicely, but the best tracks on this album are buried a little deeper. Witness the semi-ballad “Luckiest Man” or the positively spine-tingling “Weathered.” ~Mike Farley (11/09/06)

Flickerstick: Live From Atlanta
Label: Degy 2007
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Flickerstick will forever be known as “that band” that won VH-1’s “Bands on the Run” back in 2000, so it should be no surprise that they are a stellar live act. In fact, Live from Atlanta is the band’s second live album to go along with two studio efforts. Flickerstick is such a great live band, and has such a loyal following, they decided to put mostly new tunes on this album. Three tracks, “Chloroform,” “Coke,” and “Sorry” are all from the band’s debut, Welcoming Home the Astronauts. “Whatever Gets You Off” is a curious opening track, as it feels kind of sluggish, but after launching into “Chloroform” it’s easy for the crowd to get into it. There are also some “ballads” of a sort, such as the pretty “Smile,” and these guys rock out nicely on “Do You See The World…,” while “Blue” is a brooding, rainy-day song that these guys should record ASAP and get into a movie soundtrack, and there is even one studio track thrown on for good measure – the blazing “Helicopter,” which is as good as some of the band’s best early material.
~Mike Farley (06/22/07)

Floratone: Floratone
Label: Blue Note 2007
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Unless you’re a jazz musician, jazz buff, gear head or music snob, chances are you’re not going to find anything to like on experimental jazz quartet Floratone’s self-titled debut. Dubbed by their label as “futuristic roots music,” it’s clear that the future has no sense of direction or urgency to find a hook. This is all-instrumental noodling, and while no songs are over seven minutes long, there is no structure or no base of anything for the average listener to grasp onto. That’s not to say you can’t respect musicians like this, it’s jusuch standout tracks as the title tune, “Blacktop River,” and “Lyrical Freedom Riders,” the introduction of which is narrated by Rep. John Lewis, one of the original thirteen Freedom Riders in May 1961. For those looking for some tasty acoustic music with some good messages (as well as a good cause; proceeds from the CD’s sale go to both The Presbyterian Hunger Program and the We Shall Overcome Fund), you can’t go wrong with this 12-song collection, pristinely produced in Nashville with a stunning array of other talents like Troy Eagle, Todd Sholar, Shawn Conley, Dale Hardiman, and Geno Weatherbee.
~Jason Thompson (09/28/07)

The Flight Orchestra: The Military of Fatima
Label: Breathing Room Records 2007
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The whole “these guys sound like [random band] meets [another random band]” cliché of describing new music acts is old, tired and worn out. That being said, the Flight Orchestra sound like Radiohead meets Aphex Twin…with some Grandaddy thrown in. On The Military of Fatima, the Flight Orchestra (which is really just a man by the name of David Wilson) challenges the conventions of the experimental and glitch genres, although saying that either genre has conventions is a little bit of a stretch. Still, by singing over near-random assaults of feedback, freaky bleeps and a wacky assortment of miscellaneous sounds, Wilson takes the notoriously noncommercial subgenre and almost-but-not-quite makes it commercial. His singing voice isn’t all that great, but his near-whisper vocals and limited range fit well on great tracks like “Daylight” and the hideously titled “Win One for the Endless Empire and the Neverending Day.” Unfortunately, many of the tunes that do not feature vocals are annoying pop-and-crackle messes that are either downright boring or migraine-inducing. There’s potential on The Military of Fatima, but Wilson’s going to have to either improve his singing voice, hire a professional singer, or refine those instrumental tracks just a bit more. Still, there’s something to be said for an album that almost undoubtedly took at least some of its samples from old Nintendo cartridges. ~James Eldred (04/04/08)

Fluid Ounces: The Whole Shebang
Label: Vacant Cage

Piano pop wunderkind Seth Timbs and his criminally underappreciated band Fluid Ounces get a second lease on life, thanks to a brand spanking new distribution deal. Their newest, The Whole Shebang, runs the gamut from the Madness-tinged “Paperweight Machine” to the Elliott Smith-like “Destined to be Forgotten,” with more trademark, whip smart classic pop along the way (“Tokyo Expressway,” in particular, is one of Timbs’ finest). The biggest surprise, though, has to be the guitar drenched “Fool Around,” a hilariously rockin’ booty call that is without a doubt his “Sledgehammer.” Let the lazy comparisons to fellow ivory tickler Ben Folds end here. Timbs and the Ounces are a different, much more versatile kind of animal. ~David Medsker (05/06/05)

Foo Fighters: Skin and Bones
Label: RCA 2006
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If you’ve ever seen the Foo Fighters in concert, you know they’re one of the loudest, rowdiest live bands around. Dave Grohl and his mates definitely know how to rawk, but on this live acoustic set, Skin and Bones, we see the softer side of Foo. Recorded in Hollywood’s Pantages Theater in August of 2006, Skin and Bones highlights some of the band’s prettiest work, including sing-along hits like “Everlong” and “Times Like These,” and deeper cuts like “Next Year” and “Cold Day in the Sun.” Of course, calling this an acoustic set isn’t entirely accurate, since this ‘stripped-down’ show features pianos, organs, accordions, violins, mandolins and even a touch of electric guitar. In fact, with its rich sound and ambitious intentions, Skin and Bones may remind some of Nirvana’s classic Unplugged album, coincidentally or not. That’s not to say this album is as good as that Unplugged disc – few live albums are – but there’s plenty here for Foo fans to sink their teeth into, including a version of “Big Me” that stands as one of the set’s runaway highlights thanks to Petra Haden’s beautiful backing vocals. ~Jamey Codding (01/04/07)

Foo Fighters: The Colour and the Shape (10th Anniversary Edition)
Label: Legacy/RCA Records 2007
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When the reissue of The Colour and the Shape arrived a few weeks ago, the first thing I thought was, “Holy crap, has it really been ten years?” Then I tried to imagine the last decade of music without the Foo Fighters in it. It’s impossible, and this landmark endeavor, less than two years after the debut and the first Foos album to be recorded as a full band, stands as one of the great unlikely sophomore releases ever. Anyone who shared space with Kurt Cobain for several years would’ve stored up some songs and been able to follow through with that one first album. It was called Foo Fighters, but everyone knew it was a Dave Grohl solo outing. The real bitch was building momentum from there and delivering a better second album, thus launching an entirely new career that, to this day, is among the brightest in hard rock. “My Hero,” “Everlong,” and of course, “Monkey Wrench” will forever dominate “best alt-rock songs” lists for the ‘90s. As a package, the reissue is plenty worthy, too, featuring the elusive Gerry Rafferty cover “Baker Street,” as well as three single B-sides and a couple more obscure covers, Killing Joke’s “Requiem” and Gary Numan’s “Down in the Park.” It’s really no wonder Taylor Hawkins bolted Alanis Morissette for greener pastures after hearing this record. ~Red Rocker (08/31/07)

Foreverinmotion: The Beautiful Unknown
Label: One Eleven 2007
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You might think you’re hearing several different influences when you listen to Foreverinmotion, the one-word moniker for singer and songwriter Brendon Matthew Thomas. Naturally there are comparisons to other moniker-types like Dashboard Confessional or Bright Eyes, but there is also the alternative beauty of his music that brings to mind the likes of Jeff Buckley or Damien Rice; it’s also got that emo feel, akin to Jimmy Eat World or Daphne Loves Derby. With The Beautiful Unknown, Thomas sounds like he could be equally comfortable on the Vans Warped Tour or supporting any of the above. And while it’s all very listenable (particularly “Hot Air Balloon”), there's something missing that is hard to pinpoint. The music is full of feeling, and Thomas has an adequate voice, but there’s nothing here that will grab your attention and keep it for long periods of time. Still, the dude is only 23, so it’s reasonable to expect bigger things from him down the road.
~Mike Farley (05/11/07)

Peter Frampton: Fingerprints
Label: A&M/Universal 2006
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Rock legend Peter Frampton is best known for his songwriting, with ‘70s hits such as “Show Me the Way” and “Do You Feel Like We Do?” forever etched on the rock landscape of a generation. But what people tend to forget is that Frampton is one hell of a kickass guitar player. His latest album, Fingerprints, reminds us all of just that, showing a diversity of styles and precision delivery through and through. Fingerprints is mostly an album of Frampton’s own compositions, but there is a well-placed cover of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” on which Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron and Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready make guest appearances, as do the Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman on other tracks. Standouts are the opening track, “Boot It Up,” the blissful minor-key blues track “Float,” and the arena rocker “Cornerstone,” the latter of which effectively combines Frampton’s precision lead guitar with that familiar voice box riffing during the verses. Yes, Peter Frampton can still play, and it shows. ~Mike Farley (10/26/06)

Brian Franklin: Desert Farmer
Label: Noeta Music

Who is Brian Franklin, you say? He’s a singer/songwriter from South Florida who has also enjoyed some success as a backup singer and lead guitarist for the likes of Matthew Sabetella and Diane Ward. He even had a major label release, Stir-Fried World, in 1996 that flopped in a landscape of boy bands and chick singer/songwriters. Franklin’s political sentiments balance nicely with his rootsy approach to songwriting and raspy vocal. The problem is that while these songs are obviously well crafted, they aren’t all that catchy musically, and may just lull you to sleep. The Matthew Ryan-esque “When I Fall Open” is an exception to that rule, but that’s about it. ~Mike Farley (10/13/05)

Freezepop: Future Future Future Perfect
Label: Cordless Recordings 2007
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A few years ago, I reviewed Freezepop’s first CD. I wasn’t that impressed by it, but remixes of some of the band’s songs as heard on such video games as “Frequency” and “Amplitude” made me think maybe I just hadn’t heard things right. But then again, remixes can often make a so-so song a much better one. On Future Future Future Perfect, Freezepop continue doing their thing, and I remain nonplussed. Liz Enthusiasm’s robot-like vocal delivery is still annoying, making the semi-exciting opening riff of “Less Talk More Rokk” completely moot. The band attempts silly irony in “Pop Music is Not a Crime,” and the message about dancing to a song about dancing just isn’t that amusing. It’s been done before. “Do You Like Boys?” is a nifty pop tune, however, and shows this band can actually be more than just a goofy act. “Thought Balloon” is also a nice little number. It’s just a shame the rest of the disc is mired in fluff like “Brainpower” and the truly terrible “Do You Like My Wang?” Ah well. ~Jason Thompson (09/21/07)

Robbie Fulks: Revenge!
Label: Yep Roc Records 2007
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Leave it to alt-country maverick Robbie Fulks to turn the idea of a live CD on its ear. He’s been doing the same thing with his music for 15 years, defying easy categorization, searing his brand of Americana with a deft wit and often-sarcastic humor, but never without passion and enthusiasm. Revenge! is a two-disc set offering two very different sides of Fulks: The first disc, recorded in Champaign, IL and subtitled “Standing,” features a full band rollicking through an upbeat, roots-rocking 11-tune set including such Fulks classics as "The Buck Stops Here," "Let's Kill Saturday Night" and "The Cigarette State." The second disc, recorded in Chicago and subtitled “Sitting,” is a solo-acoustic set, a little more low-key but just as passionate, with covers of the bluegrass standard "Bluebirds are Singing for Me" and the Carter Family favorite "Away Out on the Old Saint Sabbath," with guest Kelly Hogan. Fulks, always known to drop offbeat, cheesy or obscure cover tunes into his live shows, rocks out a wholehearted, non-ironic take on Cher's "Believe”...and it works! Of particular note, half of the songs on Revenge! are brand-new affairs, never recorded in the studio. Standouts on the newer cuts include “I Like Being Left Alone,” “We’re on the Road,” “Fixin’ to Fall” and “Busy Not Cryin’.” The only flaw on the entire 23-track outing is the lack of stage banter and crowd interaction, which is a prime ingredient in Fulks’ live mix. Still, this is a great introduction to Fulks’ unique brand of country, and a must-have for any real fan. ~Una Persson (06/08/07)

Funky Nashville: : Hitch a Ride
Label: 215 2006
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Contrary to Funky Nashville’s name, this three-piece band hails from Denmark, not Tennessee. Their music is labeled as “highway groove,” and if you listen to Hitch a Ride, the band’s latest, it’s easy to see how they came up with that term. There is a throwback vibe that somehow combines elements of ‘60s and ‘70s rock with modern day Americana, and it’s the kind of album you can put on and groove to while you’re, um, rolling down the highway. The title track is reminiscent of Texas rock band Fastball (what in the hell ever happened to them?) and “Gone Away” has an alternative twang thing going on, as if David Byrne was fronting an alt-country outfit. For those of you keeping score, lead vocalist Sverre Stein Nielsen is a dead ringer at times for Byrne. And while the bulk of this album is ultra-melodic and fun, some of the tracks (“California Mansion Girl” and “The Witch of New Orleans”) are so catchy that they’ll have your tapping foot wearing a hole through the floor. ~Mike Farley (11/16/06)

Oscar G.: Nervous Nightlife: Space Miami
Label: Nervous Records 2007
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Live albums by DJs are always dicey propositions. It’s understandable that the guys behind the tables put them out occasionally, because it then spotlights them in a truly live setting and the listener can then gauge how talented the DJ actually is. On the other hand, it always seems weird to hear a crowd cheering a DJ like they were cheering a live band. Nevertheless, Oscar G. gives it the old college try on this mix, and the crowd seems to be digging his style. It takes a few tracks to really get things going (Popof’s “Alcoolic” and Sebestian Leger’s “Mars” are still pretty good, though), but when Guy J’s “Agent Blue” arrives, things get kicked in the ass in the right way. Even so, Oscar G. seems to favor more moderately paced tracks, and the whole set is a bit tedious, especially when it gets to the middle. Yet the man does have talent behind the decks, and tracks like DJ Bruno’s “Strange (Dub Mix)” are well worth hearing. ~Jason Thompson (10/19/07)

Giant Drag: Hearts and Unicorns
Label: Kickball Records

Wasn’t it just ten years ago when alternative rock was dominating the FM dial and angry, pale-faced girls were staking a major claim in that territory? Then the Breeders disbanded, Liz Phair took the jagged little pill and went pop, and, well, Courtney Love lost her mind (the debate still rages as to whether she ever had much to lose). Enter Giant Drag, a two-piece alt punk throwback band fresh off the O.C. club circuit perhaps a decade too late, as they check in with Hearts and Unicorns. The angry pale-faced girl (Annie Hardy) is still here. Together with drummer Micah Calabrese (kind of a White Stripes gender swap, if you will) she manages to create full-band fuzz rock sound, ala My Bloody Valentine, on a couple respectable tracks like “This Isn’t It” and “YFLMD” (your guess is as good as mine on what that stands for, since the lyrics are generally undecipherable). The larger part of this debut, however, is crap, plain and simple. “High Friends in Places”, title aside, is about as inspired as a central Ohio weather forecast in November. And what’s with the giant hunting knife on the album covers? ~Red Rocker (12/09/05)

Teddy Geiger: Step Ladder
Label: Cred/Sony

The same way that world-class gymnasts and figure skaters seem to get younger and younger every year, the same appears to be happening with singer/songwriters. With a little help from an appearance on VH-1’s “In Search of the New Partridge Family,” 16-year-old Teddy Geiger was discovered and signed by Cred/Sony. The young and ridiculously talented Geiger is also being featured as a rising young star on the new CBS television series, “Love Monkey.” All of these opportunities for mega success aside, Geiger’s EP, Step Ladder, is a collection of six songs that are heartfelt, soulful and masterfully arranged. And while Geiger’s voice is mostly compared to the airy yet raspy John Mayer, that doesn’t tell the whole story of the texture and power behind those 16-year-old pipes. The jangly “Try Too Hard” and “Confidence,” as well as the piano ballad “Look Where We Are Now” are the best tracks, though there really isn’t a bad song on here. Watch out for this kid, because he certainly has world-class potential. ~Mike Farley (01/04/06)

David Gilmour: On an Island
Label: Columbia 2006

David Gilmour solo albums arrive about as often as Pink Floyd albums do these days (his last solo effort was 1984’s About Face), but when he finally decides to make one, you can’t help but feel a little sorry for the guy. If it sounds like Pink Floyd, he’s accused of not breaking any new ground. If it doesn’t sound like Pink Floyd, then he’s accused to going all “corporate” on us. This time around, he commits the not-breaking-new-ground “sin,” making a solo equivalent to A Momentary Lapse of Reason (which is arguably a Gilmour solo album to begin with), full of atmospheric mood pieces. “Castellorizon” is this album’s “Signs of Life,” while “This Heaven” is its “Dogs of War.” He displays his lighter side on the acoustic ballad “Smile,” and even shows off his saxophone chops on “Red Sky at Night.” Plus, take a look at the musicians who lines up to help him out: Phil Manzanera, Chris Thomas, Andy Newmark, Guy Pratt, Jools Holland, David Crosby, Graham Nash...yowza. On an Island is good, but with that kind of talent behind it, it should have been better. ~David Medsker (03/30/06)

Goldfrapp: We Are Glitter
Label: Mute 2006
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Remix albums are always a dicey proposition, even for artists whose songs can pack a club before a remixer has even had a chance to lay his grubby little mitts on their songs. Now imagine that the band being remixed is Goldfrapp, whose songs have as much of an eye on the dance floor as they do the stage. Suddenly, the criterion for what makes a good remix album becomes debatable. Is the Flaming Lips’ remix of “Satin Chic” a failure because it doesn’t contain a hint of percussion? Not exactly, but it does leave the listener longing for someone to lay the hammer down, like T. Raumschmiere does on “Lovely 2 C U.” Remix scholars will definitely enjoy the tributes to “I Feel Love” (Carl Craig’s mix of “Fly Me Away”) and the slow down-speed up bit from Louie Vega’s “French Kiss” in “Number 1,” though someone should pass a DJ law that mandates that remixes will run no more than eight minutes in length. DFA, and your 13-minute mix of “Slide In,” I’m looking in your direction. ~David Medsker (10/19/06)

The Go-Betweens: Oceans Apart
Label: Yep Roc

The band whose songwriting duo was just lovingly name-checked in “24,” Grant McLennan, Robert Forster & co. have assembled yet another dazzling album of literate pop songs. Reuniting with producer Mark Wallis, who helmed their watershed 1988 album 16 Lovers Lane, Oceans Apart is easily their strongest post-breakup album yet (the band split in 1989, reuniting in 2000). Where their 2000 album The Friends of Rachel Worth was a stripped-down affair, the Go-B’s go for a much fuller sound this time around, incorporating more keyboards and even a horn section on the nostalgic “Darlinghurst Nights.” Cheers in particular to bassist Adele Pickvance, whose harmony vocals elevate the songs to heights not seen since 16 Lovers Lane. One wonders how we ever got on for 12 years without these guys. ~David Medsker (05/27/05)

The Go-Betweens: That Striped Sunlight Sound
Label: Yep Roc

Forget the audio and video performance of their show at the Tivoli in Brisbane recorded last August. The real selling point to That Striped Sunlight Sound is the “Acoustic Stories” part of the DVD, which features Grant McLennan and Robert Forster (major, major props to the producers of “24” for naming last season’s evil defense contractor after them) strumming their acoustics in someone’s living room while talking about the genesis of the band and their early songs. They pull some big time dusties out for this set, including “Cattle and Cane,” “Bachelor Kisses,” and “Head Full of Steam.” The Tivoli set – which features a completely different set list than the Acoustic Stories bit – is fine, technically competent but not terribly exciting. It’s not that the Go-Betweens are a bad live act – they’re not, by a long shot. Consider them the opposite of that old saying about children: they’re simply better heard, and not seen. ~David Medsker (02/16/06)

Godhead: The Shadow Line
Label: Cement Shoes Records 2006
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Godhead returns with its fifth release, The Shadow Line, and they’re bound to find some new fans. Almost entirely industrial in the past, they exhibit a more reachable sound here with guitar-driven tracks embellished by synths and samples. The first single, “Trapped in Your Lies,” has enough killer hooks for an album’s worth of material on its own, but it only gets better from there. Vocalist/guitarist Jason C. Miller carries the album virtually by himself, with gorgeous work on tracks such as “Inside Your World” and “Once Before.” This new material is certainly accessible to a wider audience, but you have to wonder if their name will keep them from truly breaking out. The package includes an additional DVD of music videos, interviews, and behind-the-scenes material. ~Bill Clark (05/11/07)

Golden Republic: Golden Republic
Label: Astralwerks

The latest entry in the ‘Middle America Is Cool, Too’ sweepstakes (see Flaming Lips and the Faint), Kansas City’s Golden Republic can do a decent Franz Ferdinand impression if they feel like it (the middle break of “You Almost Had It,” for example), but it appears the band they most admire is Spoon. Songs like “Robots” and “You’ll Get Old” are like perfect hybrids of early, rougher Spoon and the angular pop Spoon of the present. Along the way are songs that recall Lenny Kravitz (“She’s So Cold,” which is not a Stones cover) and Interpol (“NYC,” no doubt thanks to mutual producer Peter Katis). It’s not the most unique album in the world, but it’s a hell of a first step. ~David Medsker (05/20/05)

Gomez: How We Operate
Label: ATO 2006
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Sometimes, a change of scenery is a good thing. While with Virgin Records, British rock band Gomez was a critics’ darling early on, but by the time they released Split the Difference in 2004, their relationship with Virgin couldn’t survive slumping sales. How We Operate, the band’s first album on Dave Matthews’ imprint, ATO Records, is a collection of stellar songs that is easily Gomez’ best effort to date. It kind of makes you wonder what would happen if more bands were given the creative freedom that an indie label provides. Gomez is David Gray without the attitude, Live minus the raging guitars, and quite simply are just a band that has learned how to write and deliver some really good, timeless songs. “See the World” and “Girlshapedlovedrug” are catchy without being over the top, and the melancholy “Notice” and dark but hypnotic title track border on brilliant. ~Mike Farley (04/27/06)

Gooding: Angel/Devil
Label: S3

This young band from Wichita, Kansas has so many influences, and therefore so many different aspects to their music, it’s nearly impossible to categorize. Gooding is more or less alternative rock, but with elements of funk, blues and world music, and musicianship that rivals any three- piece band out there today, and their sophomore effort, Angel/Devil, is nothing less than a super cool rock album. The album’s title draws its inspiration from life’s everyday contrasts, and the best tracks are “Free,” “Everything or Nothing Again,” and “Judas.” Think Robert Palmer meets Rusted Root meets the Goo Goo Dolls meets Radiohead, and that’s only the short list. ~Mike Farley (06/24/05)

Lesley Gore: Ever Since
Label: Engine Company

You remember her, right? She’s the one whose party it is...and she’ll cry if she wants to. Given that many of her peers are performing hits medleys in Atlantic City and Branson, Gore deserves major points for producing an album consisting almost entirely of new material...even if she loses one or two of those points for unnecessarily re-recording “You Don’t Own Me” as a torch song. One has to imagine that she heard Nancy Sinatra’s 2004 “comeback” album and said, “Well, hell, I can do that!” Unlike Nancy, however, Gore’s assistance comes not from alt-rock superstars but, rather, from singer/songwriter Blake Morgan, who produced and arranged the album in addition to writing a few tracks. The songs are predominantly melancholy from the get-go, with the lead-off number, “Ever Since,” setting the mood; even the most upbeat track, “Not the First,” features the cynical line, “You’re not the first to think you’ll be the last.” Lesley Gore was “all grown up” quite some time ago, so consider this her return to music as a mature songstress. ~Will Harris (11/10/05)

The Go! Team: Thunder, Lightning, Strike
Label: Columbia

Cross the Propellerheads and the Avalanches with the Ronettes and the cast of “Bring It On,” and you’d wind up with something pretty close to the Go! Team, a group of adventurous Brits whose tastes run wide and deep. There’s ‘60s girl pop vocals, double dutch playground rhymes, and soulful horn sections, all anchored by two thunderous drummers that the deaf could hear. Heck, “Get It Together” and “Everyone’s a V.I.P. to Someone” (which owes a large debt to Air’s “Ce Matin La”) sport banjo melodies. It’s fun, it’s catchy, and it gleefully flips a big middle finger to anyone who thinks that those golden-age hip hop records that sampled everything under the sun cannot be made today. They can, and are. Every aspiring hip hop producer should take a long listen to Thunder, Lightning, Strike. It is the sound of the future. ~David Medsker (10/27/05)

Grand National: Kicking the National Habit
Label: Recall

That Anglophile friend of yours, the one that’s already over the Arctic Monkeys because they are soooo played out, man, is going to go gaga over Kicking the National Habit
, the debut from UK duo Grand National. Like all good bands, it sounds like bands you know at yet doesn’t sound at all like them. The vocals are Difford & Tilbrook after a three-day bender, and the music varies from Police-style reggae – fitting, since Lawrence “La” Rudd played in a Police cover band as a teenager – to New Order-ish keyboard sequencing, all filtered with a sophisticated coolness that elevates the songs from mere copycat status. The US release of the album even comes with a few remixes and four extra tracks, one of which, “Rabbit Facts,” takes the first two piano chords of Steely Dan’s “FM” into an altogether different place. It’s Brit rock for grownups. Isn’t that a wonderful thing. ~David Medsker (03/09/06)

Green Day: Bullet in a Bible
Label: Reprise

Recorded in front of what looks and sounds like the entire city of Milton Keynes, “Bullet in a Bible” is the sound of a band at the height of its powers. Fleshing the trio out to a seven piece band, Green Day delivers a ferocious set, bookended with songs from American Idiot and filled with hit after hit after hit in the middle. “Jesus of Suburbia,” arguably Green Day’s finest moment, just explodes live, and the blending of “King for a Day” with the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” (along with a bit that will make Monty Python fans happy) shows that while the band may take their music more seriously these days, they certainly have not forgotten how to have fun. Sam Mayer’s direction of the DVD, however, is maddening; he’s constantly cutting from color to black & white, and is rarely focused on the action that’s taking place in the song. The backstage interaction and interview footage is a treat, but for God’s sake, man, hold the camera still, already. ~David Medsker (11/24/05)

The Greenhornes: East Grand Blues
Label: V2

It’s good. But it sucks. Which is to say that, while the contents of the EP are strong and enjoyable listening, it’s also precisely the same sound that’s been peddled by much of the roster of Rainbow Quartz Records for half a dozen years: a little bit of Kinks and a whole lot of garage rock inspired by the contents of the various Nuggets discs. The problem isn’t with the Greenhornes, per se, who have been around since 1996 and working their butts off. No, it’s more about their label, V2, very possibly having signed them just because they have a connection to the White Stripes. (They’re touring with the Stripes and have been produced by Jack’s buddy, Brendan Benson.) If they become successful just because of the Stripes connection, then most of the artists in regular airplay on Little Steven’s Underground Garage are gonna rise up en masse and go kick the Greenhornes’ asses. If that happens, one can only hope that V2 will be able to live with themselves...or at least pay the hospital bills. ~Will Harris (09/08/05)

The Greenhornes: Sewed Souls
Label: V2

On their fourth release, the Greenhornes continue to explore their influences – mainly ‘60s blues-rock and British Invasion – and transform them into their own version of garage rock. Sewed Souls contains twenty tracks, and the group’s repetitive style can get a little tedious at times. That’s not to say that this Jack White-approved Cincinnati quintet doesn’t have some very good moments. They seem to do better with the slow-blues (particularly “I’ve Been Down,” “Too Much Sorrow” and “Don’t Come Running to Me”) than they do with the up-tempo stuff, though “Satisfy My Mind” and “The End of the Night” are faster numbers that work pretty well. Holly Golightly (last heard on the White Stripes “It’s True That We Love One Another”) appears on the haunting “There Is an End,” which was also used in the Jim Jarmusch film, “Broken Flowers.” Although they would have been better off leaving off a few of the lesser tracks or splitting the disc into two releases, frugal music lovers will appreciate the bang for the buck offered by Sewed Souls. ~John Paulsen (01/12/06)

Groove Coverage: 21st Century Digital Girl
Label: Toucan Cove/Universal 2007
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Holy crap, this stuff is the stink. Groove Coverage have been big in Germany and have had some hits with some remix work, but this album…yikes. The title track alone is enough to make you run for the hills. “Holy Virgin” is as dopey as you might expect, and “On the Radio” sounds like a failed attempt at updating ABBA, but no one would ever accuse lead singer Mell of having a great voice, let alone one comparable to either Agnetha’s or Frida’s. This stuff definitely belongs on the dance floor, where it can be fully appreciated by people only wanting a good beat. Groove Coverage has the beats. The rest is just excess. It’s bad enough when you look at the group’s photo and instantly want to hit DJ Novus for his bad hair and “Hit me, I like it” facial expression. Blah. ~Jason Thompson (09/07/07)

Groove Coverage: Greatest Hits
Label: Suprime/Renegade Records

Euro-dance music stars Groove Coverage are attempting to conquer America with this collection of their work, which collectively (singles, etc) has sold approximately 800,000 units world wide. This collection is well done, considering they stick to established formulas, and lead singer Mell’s voice is decent but limited. “Poison,” the deliciously disco version of the 1986 Alice Cooper song, is among the album’s highlights. Ballads like “Remember” and “Lullaby for Love” stand out as the best tracks on Greatest Hits. If you need to put some tap in your toe or desire a bit of harmless, background dance music, go ahead and give it a spin. ~R. David Smola (08/18/05)

Dustin O’Halloran: Piano Solos Vol. 2
Label: Filter 2006
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Dustin O’Halloran is one half of the alt/pop duo the Devics, but this fine collection of piano solos shows how versatile a multi-instrumentalist he can be. Piano Solos Vol. 2 was recorded on a grand piano in Italy by O’Halloran and no one else, and brilliantly conveys a feeling of solitude while effectively combining his classical training with his alternative rock roots. In short, this is dark and brooding piano music that is fit for a rainy day, for quiet evenings at home, or as movie soundtrack material. It’s also the perfect way for someone who is too cool for classical music to take the plunge and introduce themselves to it. And while O’Halloran might be a master behind the piano, he chooses mood over chops on this collection – you know the chops are there, but the beauty of this album lies in its simplicity. ~Mike Farley (10/12/06)

Hard-Fi: Cash Machine EP
Label: Necessary

This Middlesex quartet is getting absurd heaps of praise thrust upon them across the pond, and it’s easy to see why. The spirit of the Clash looms large on this EP, both in singer Richard Archer’s vocals and the band’s dub-fueled spook rock (think “Guns of Brixton” crossed with “The Magnificent Seven”). The title track is a gem, the kind of groovy sing-along that Oasis would write provided they could dance or had a sense of humor. “Tied Up Too Tight” is darker and meaner, yet still sports a Velcro coated chorus of na-na-na’s. But the track that will have tongues wagging is the cover of “Seven Nation Army” at the end, which is the White Stripes by way of the Specials’ “Ghost Town.” This is fab stuff. Can’t wait for the full-length. ~David Medsker (07/21/05)

Jesse Harris: Feel
Label: Velour 2007
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Most people think of Jesse Harris as he relates to Norah Jones. That is, Harris wrote or co-wrote some of the songs on Norah’s debut, including the breakout hit, “Don’t Know Why.” But the dude has carved out a nice solo career, one that he already had in place before Jones came along. Feel is his latest effort, and it’s a set that’s organic, neatly arranged, and quite compelling all at the same time. Really, the soft tenor and ease with which Harris delivers his songs make it not so much of a stretch to put him alongside names like Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. Yes, it’s still too early to crown Jesse Harris with that sort of brilliance, but there should be no question that he has that kind of potential. One small issue here that is that many of the songs on Feel tend to sound similar, but there are also some real beauties – among them the twangy “You and Me” and melancholy “The Wind.” Any aspiring songwriter should study Harris, not because of his actual song structures but for the way he makes every song feel like you’ve been hearing it your whole life. ~Mike Farley (07/06/07)

Emerson Hart: Cigarettes and Gasoline
Label: Manhattan/EMI 2007
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If you were a fan of the alt-rock band Tonic in the '90s and early part of this decade, and have wondered what happened to them, you’ll be pleased to know that Tonic frontman and chief songwriter Emerson Hart is still making music. Cigarettes and Gasoline is Hart’s first solo record, but what it really sounds like is a continuation of his former band. For all of the alternative rock edge that gave Tonic its signature sound back in the day, Hart was always prolific at writing pop hooks — and the solo stuff is more of a reflection of that than anything. But don’t let that scare you, because even in his new hometown of Nashville, Hart still has a bit of a rock star thing going on. Working with three different producers, he has delivered a solid album of heartfelt tracks that vary in tone and tempo. “Run To” and the first single, “If You’re Gonna Leave,” are as catchy as anything the man has ever written, and “I Know” has remnants of that modern rock sound flavor Tonic was known for. But the best songs are the Train-esque “Flyin’” and the positively riveting ballad, “Friend to a Stranger.
~Mike Farley (07/13/07)

Kate Havnevik: Melankton
Label: Continetica, 2006; Universal Republic 2007
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The sticker on the front of Melankton says that seven of (London-based/Norwegian-born) Kate Havnevik’s songs have appeared on “Grey’s Anatomy.” As anyone who has seen the show might expect, Havnevik’s music is emotive and melodious, but it doesn’t get in the way, making it a perfect soundtrack for the trials and tribulations of Meredith Grey and Co. “Unlike Me” opens and anchors Melankton, and it’s impossible to ignore the song’s haunting notes. Fans of Sia (“Breathe Me,” or her guest spot on Zero 7’s “In the Waiting Line”) will enjoy Havnevik’s smooth, throaty vocals even if her music is more string-oriented than Sia’s trip-hop. “Not Fair” sounds like early Garbage (that’s a compliment) and Havnevik channels Bjork on “Serpentine,” so it’s clear that she isn’t afraid to pay homage to her late ‘90s influences. The disc tails off a bit in the second half, but the bonus track, “So:Lo,” is worth seeking out. All in all, Melankton is a good listen for fans of downbeat electronica. Meredith Grey would be proud. ~John Paulsen (10/19/07)

Heath Haynes: Big As Day
Label: Grown Up

Heath Haynes is the recording artist Ryan Adams would be if he wasn’t such a moody bastard. Adams and Haynes come from similar backgrounds, with both having done time in alt-country bands – Haynes fronted the Richmond-area band Haymaker – but to describe Haynes’ sound is to imagine what Teenage Fanclub would sound like if they’d been raised in the Raleigh/Durham area. (Actually, Haynes is from Danville, Virginia, but that still puts him close enough to the Triangle to have come by his twang honestly.) The stomping “Daddy Was a Shriner” is reminiscent of Southern Culture on the Skids, while the hook of “Carry You Home” isn’t terribly far from the Drive-By Truckers’ “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac,” but it’s jangly rockers like “Anne’s Got A Plan,” “Can’t Stop It,” and “Complicated Girl” (not the Bangles song) which catch the ear and stick to the ribs with pop goodness. There’s ‘60s-styled organ and kick-ass guitar on “Heart Don’t Break,” as well as a gentle ballad to be found in “Bounds Green.” Power pop fans will appreciate the appearance of Millard Powers – late of the Semantics, where he worked alongside Will Owsley – on backing vocals, and music geeks in general will have a laugh at the album’s mixing, which is credited to one “Jack Joseph Tom-Lord Clearmountain.” Heath Haynes knows his way around a guitar and a catchy hook; grab his album now, before he truly is as big as day. ~Will Harris (04/12/06)

The Heavenly States: Black Comet
Label: Baria

Sometimes, a violin is just a violin, but, other times, it’s a fiddle...and to that, let us add, “Yee-haw!” The Heavenly States are perhaps best known for being the only US band to date to tour Libya (and possibly for Chris Martin saying that the three best bands in the world are, in order, the Heavenly States, Electric Six, and Coldplay), but they also put out some swell pop music as well. “Look and Listen,” which opens their sophomore effort, Black Comet, is one of those 3-minute fiddle-driven songs that the Wonder Stuff used to do so well...though, to momentarily digress, a commodity in which something the Stuffies’ recent “reunion” album was sadly lacking. Unfortunately, lead singer Ted Nesseth has an unfortunate tendency to descend into screaming, which makes for particularly difficult listening on “Racetrack.” Still, songs like “Elastic Days,” the X-like “Vacant,” and “Song in F,” with its melancholy piano, make this a more than acceptable second album. ~Will Harris (06/17/05)

Heavy Trash: Heavy Trash
Label: Yep Roc

Heavy Trash, the side project of Jon Spencer (of Blues Explosion fame) and Matt Verta-Ray (of Speedball Baby), is a combination of the blues/punk flavors that each have become known for, as well as a healthy dose of shit-kicking punk-a-billy. Some of this self-titled album is borrowed straight from the era of Elvissuch as the track “Lover Street,” which is Spencer-ized with the lyrics “Your mama’s a ho.” Among the burning rockers on here (others include “The Loveless” and “The Hump”) is the beer-soaked ballad “Fix These Blues” and the hilarious parody, “Gatorade.” Put this one in at your next party, but don’t be surprised when your guests get drunk and rowdy. ~Mike Farley (07/14/05)

Hickey Necklace: Got Used To Lonely
Label: Shanty Town

Subscribers to the Smuckers theory of buying music – i.e. with a name like this, they’ve got to be good – will feel as though they’ve gotten their money’s worth when they invest in the new CD by Hickey Necklace. Though they’ve been around since the early ‘90s, the band’s fanbase had remained almost exclusively on the East Coast until MySpace.com brought them to a new, larger audience. Got Used to Lonely is the second Hickey Necklace album to embrace a more mature – and more melancholy – acoustic sound (the first being Until She Read Spoon River), with songs about lost friends (“Our Last Year”) and, more often than not, lost love (“In Different Buildings,” “When Billy Joel Sings,” “Was Once A Happy Boy”). The line-up is more streamlined than in years past, with frontman Donnie Sadler providing lyrics and vocals while multi-instrumentalist Chris Commander takes care of most of the music (minus a few guests), but Sadler’s voice is more confident than ever, and the melodies range from haunting to hummable. Fans of the jangly Americana sound would do well to pick up a copy and make these boys feel a little less lonely, even if they are used to it. ~Will Harris (09/22/05)

Bill Hicks: Salvation: Oxford, November 11, 1992
Label: Ryko

If you own 2003’s Live at the Oxford Playhouse 11.11.1992, this 2-disc set, which features that Oxford gig in its entirety, may seem redundant. The rest of the Hicks faithful, even the ones who own Relentless and Arizona Bay (the Oxford gig is from the same period), will find lots to enjoy on Salvation. It’s fascinating to listen to the audience – a British audience, no less, and Hicks makes sure to use his Brit slang – ebb and flow with his caustic routine, which can veer from vulgarity to mind-bending philosophy in a New York minute, and is often both at once. Perhaps the strangest part of the album is the fact that it contains several jokes about war in Iraq and George Bush, so for a 13 year-old recording, the material is oddly timely. For the uninitiated, this set, priced as a single CD, is a good place to start, since you get a good sampling of material that stretches over a couple of his original albums. And trust us: after you hear this, you’ll soon be buying those original albums, too. ~David Medsker (12/15/05)

The Hideaways: The Whiskey Tango Sessions
Label: Dren Records/Big Bender Records 2006
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In a nutshell, The Whiskey Tango Sessions is a fair-to-middlin’ alt country record. The San Diego-based Hideaways boast some impressive résumés – separately working with such artists as Lucinda Williams, Rosie Flores and the Beat Farmers, among others. Collectively, they won a San Diego Music Award for Best Alt Country Band in 2005 and picked up a SDMA nomination for Best Americana Record for this release. And while they certainly have the requisite country rock musical chops – with effortless harmonies, tight musicianship and elegant pedal steel work highlighting much of this CD – the songwriting is featureless at its best, and uninspired at its worst. With the accolades and fans they’ve picked up along the way, it’s an almost sure bet the Hideaways have a blistering live show. Unfortunately, they haven’t captured enough of that energy on CD to stand out from the alt country crowd. ~Una Persson (05/18/07)

The Highway Beautiful: The Things That Lights Can Hide
Label: self-released

They’re called the Highway Beautiful, but, in truth, “they” are actually a “he,” and the “he” in question is one Jason Jurewicz, who wrote all the words and music in addition to performing, producing, and recording everything to be found on The Things That Lights Can Hide. It’s not entirely surprising to find that Jurewicz graduated Summa Cum Laude from SUNY Fredonia with a degree in Business Administration and a concentration in marketing; just as with his music, he’s a one-man P.R. machine, out to spread the word of the tunes he’s created. Hey, if it can work for the Arctic Monkeys, there’s no reason it can’t work for the Highway Beautiful. The lyrics on The Things... bounce between emotions; for every “On Your Own” (“And if you don’t mind me, I think I’ll say / ‘Don’t try and do this on your own’”) or “Reassurance” (“And like the old clichés / I can tell you that everything will be OK”), there are songs like “Midnight Comes” and “Another Day,” which are about the daily struggle of just making it until tomorrow comes, then having to start all over again. Fortunately, the music is equal parts jangly guitar and soaring choruses, the latter best demonstrated on “Superman.” Minus the ambient instrumental, “Landscape,” the material is decidedly mainstream in sound, but that’s no crime; better someone like Jurewicz should infiltrate the world of popular music while bypassing all that major-label bureaucracy. Here’s hoping his quest proves successful. ~Will Harris (03/30/06)

Hillstomp: After Two but Before Five
Label: Fuzzmonster Records 2007
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Singer/guitarist Henry Kammerer and drummer John Johnson come on like a couple of punks raised on a strict diet of country blues, all stomp and swagger, a slide guitar and a trap kit the only things they need to get their (and your!) mojo workin’, channeling Appalachia (and North Mississippi) through Portland, OR, After Two but Before Five is a live set, probably the best setting to catch Hillstomp’s sweaty, beer-drenched and boogie-filled romps through Americana. Cover tunes (RL Burnside’s “Going Down South” and “Poor Black Mattie,” natch), originals (“Stewball” and “Mr. Charlie III” are standouts), grunts, groans, mean slide guitar, badass slop-drumming…it’s like the Black Keys, another guitar ‘n’ drums garage blues duo, without the proximity to electrified Chicagoland. ~Una Persson (08/10/07)

Peter Himmelman: Imperfect World
Label: Majestic

Peter Himmelman is one of those singer-songwriters who, despite having released several albums for the majors (including Island and Columbia), has never really scored much in the way of mainstream popularity, leaving him trapped in that most dreaded of niches: “cult hero.” If Imperfect World is a harder, more bluesy album that most have come to expect from Himmelman (B.B. King needs to record “Consumed” sooner than later), well, he’s got a reason to sing the blues; his younger sister died in a car crash not long ago, and this album was undoubtedly a cathartic one, given the lyrics of such songs as “Kneel Down” (“We don’t run in the house of God / We only crawl”) and the reggae-inspired “Take It Easy On Me.” Himmelman’s faith – Judaism – is one he’s never been afraid to wear on his sleeve and, with that to rely on, Imperfect World isn’t nearly as melancholy as one might expect; this is an album about, as Himmelman himself has said, his “changing perceptions” in the wake of his sister’s death. Lyrically, he’s at the top of his game and, creatively, he shows no signs of flagging anytime soon. ~Will Harris (05/27/05)

Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3:
Sex, Food, Death...and Tarantulas

Label: Yep Roc 2007
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While this new, mostly-live EP from Robyn Hitchcock is clearly intended as a companion piece to his debut outing with the Venus 3 (2006’s Ole! Tarantula), there’s surprisingly little crossover with its track selection. In fact, only one song can be said to appear on both releases: “(A Man’s Got To Know His Limitations) Briggs,” Hitchcock’s apparently-straightforward tribute to Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” flicks. Otherwise, we get a nice selection of Soft Boys re-visitations (“Queen of Eyes,” “Give It to the Soft Boys”), a Minus 5 cover (“Cigarettes, Coffee & Booze”) sung by Scott McCaughey himself, and tracks from Hitchcock’s own Spooked (“Sometimes a Blonde”) and Jewels for Sophia (“Sally Was a Legend”). There’s also a live version of “The Afterlife,” which has featured in Hitchcock’s sets for awhile now but has never before appeared on CD, therefore making it one of the three reasons fans will want to seek out this EP. The other two reasons, inevitably, are the two new studio tracks, “Luckiness” and “Copper Kettle”; the former is a sparse but upbeat folk-styled number, while the latter once again finds Hitchcock in the melancholy but lovely I Often Dream of Trains mode. Of course, as with most EPs, Sex, Food, Death...and Tarantulas is predominantly a stop-gap measure to keep new product on the ranks (or on iTunes), but on that front, it scores an undeniable win. ~Will Harris (06/01/07)

Gary Hoey: Monster Surf
Label: Surfdog

This isn’t surf music in the true sense of the word. To the contrary, Gary Hoey is one of those guitar shredders ala Joe Satriani who got their start in early metal and have managed to make a nice career for themselves. On Monster Surf, Hoey takes classic pop songs and spins (or shreds) his own take on them. It’s almost humorous that he includes Beach Boys hits like “Fun, Fun, Fun” and “Surfin’ USA” as well as “California Dreamin’” among instrumentals that were hits in their own right, such as “Hawaii Five-O,” “Peter Gunn,” and “Walk Don’t Run.” But through any humor is the fact that this record is really well done. Maybe it’s because of the familiar melodies, or maybe it’s because Hoey is a brilliant guitar player, but the truth is that Monster Surf just rocks. ~Mike Farley (06/30/05)

Steve Hofstetter: Cure for the Cable Guy
Label: Razor & Tie

Sporting one of the best album covers of the year – second only to We Are Scientists’ With Love and Squalor – the head writer for collegehumor.com makes a stand against the anti-intellectualism of a certain Blue Collar comedian, and while his heart is in the right place, his album, Cure for the Cable Guy, comes up a bit short. There’s some great stuff here, no question – “In the last election, I chose Gore over Bush, but when I rent movies, it’s the other way around” – but he tends to go through his routine so quickly that he runs over his own punch lines. He also uses a lot of bits, like the Supreme Court’s definition of pornography and God saying, “Oh, my me,” that were done before, and better, by Bill Hicks. If Hofstetter got a better feel for rhythm and timing, there would be little stopping him. In the end, we love the message more than the messenger. ~David Medsker (04/06/06)

The Ike Reilly Assassination: Sparkle in the Finish
Label: Rock Ridge

Ike Reilly is an artist with an attitude, and Sparkle in the Finish is one part guitar assault, two parts ass kicking. There’s a little bit of everything on here, from bluesy rap/rock like “I Don’t Want What You Got” to the fuzzy and hip “Whatever Happened to the Girl in Me” to the garage-y “Garbage Day.” Then there’s my favorite, “The Boat Song,” which has guitar tones reminiscent of ‘80s icons Psychedelic Furs or OMD. The second half of the record is laced with more experimentation but with songs that aren’t as good as the rest of the album. ~Mike Farley (05/13/05)

The Ike Reilly Assassination: We Belong to the Staggering Evening
Label: Rock Ridge 2007
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If Ike Reilly has had a problem soliciting the adjective “Dylanesque” from music critics, he certainly won’t anymore. Reilly brings his raspy voice and heartland rock to a collection of American anthems with We Belong to the Staggering Evening, his fourth studio effort. On the rousing opener, “8 More Days Till the 4th of July,” Reilly invokes a tent revival, asking “well, Jesus made me/can Jesus save me?” before heading to the local dive bar on “When Irish Eyes Are Burning,” a rollicking, drunken fight song. Honky-tonk sing-a-longs “You’re So Plain” and “Charcoal Days and Sterling Nights” prove that Reilly truly has a gift for melody. On the whole, the album is appropriately titled; it feels like it was written and recorded with a few unapologetic bottles of whiskey in the room. It’s gritty, bluesy ‘60s garage rock with a political bent, and while Reilly’s rasp isn’t for everyone, fans of Bob Dylan (or even Tom Petty) will likely find Staggering Evening is worth their time. ~John Paulsen (08/31/07)

Illinois: So What the Hell Do I Know?
Label: Ace Fu 2007
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Despite its moniker, Illinois formed in Pennsylvania, which apparently proved to be too difficult a name (or maybe it was just too on the nose). Like any good musical act, the group incorporates elements of its numerous influences without sounding like anyone in particular for too long. This seven-song EP runs the gamut through Modest Mouse’s pensive, slow-tempo rock on “Alone Again,” Beck’s white boy funk (with banjo!) on “Nosebleed,” early Wilco on “Screendoor,” to the Flaming Lips’ wall of sound on “Headphones.” The disc’s third track, “What Can I Do for You,” is a wispy piano ballad that conjures images of Mercury Rev’s palatable stuff. All in all, it’s a gorgeous collection of songs and arguably the best debut from a band named after an American locale since Boston’s self-titled splash in 1976. ~John Paulsen (08/31/07)

Imperial Teen: The Hair the TV the Baby and the Band
Label: Mike Farley 2007
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Back with their first studio album in five years, Imperial Teen’s The Hair the TV the Baby and the Band is about as infectious as anything they have ever released, and more infectious than just about any new releases today. The two male/two female lineup may remind many of the B-52’s, and the fun this band seems to always be having will also help make that comparison. But Imperial Teen has more indie charm, as their melodies dance with the backdrop of bouncy rhythms and crunchy guitars. More than that, these are the type of melodies that will stick in your head just a bit more than you may want them to – they’re actually just a bit too catchy at times. The best tracks are the ear candy gems like “Do It Better” and “Fallen Idol,” as well as the unofficial title track, “Baby and the Band.” ~Mike Farley (09/21/07)

Information Society: Synthesizer
Label: Dancing Ferret Discs 2007
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Okay, so maybe the editing of their “Bands Reunited” episode was blatantly, grossly manipulated (you can read singer Kurt Harland’s account of the sordid affair here), but if it ultimately led to a new Information Society record, that can’t be a bad thing, right? Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The Minneapolis transplants, now armed with Harland soundalike Christopher Anton on lead vocals, were at their best when Scritti Politti drummer Fred Maher was at the boards, building monster drum track after monster drum track. The band’s latest, Synthesizer, is very much a kissing cousin of the band’s 1988 debut, at least in spirit. You have Miami sleaze beats in “I Like the Way You Werk It,” a big mash note to Kraftwerk in the title track, and movie samples in “I Love It When…” (though they’re docked for reusing the sample that opens DJ Rap’s “Bad Girl”). The problem is that Paul Robb did not come up with any songs to match high-water marks like “Think” or “What’s on Your Mind,” and Anton’s voice has none of the pop of Harland’s strained baritone, a point made all the more obvious when Harland sings on the album’s final track. Glad to have you back, guys, but next time, bring two hit singles, Harland, and a bigger recording budget with you. ~David Medsker (11/02/07)

Innaway: Innaway
Label: Some

Definitely not your typical SoCal rock band. Innaway’s influences are there for all to see: Some Zeppelin-esque boogie, atmospherics that recall both Pink Floyd (even the vocals on “Threat Hawk” are vintage David Gilmous) and Air. The good moments are really good, like the Stone Roses-ish “Stolen Days” and “The Strings of North Egg.” The middle of the album, however, meanders wildly, to the point of passing by unnoticed. There is a good band in here somewhere, but a little more structure in the songwriting would do them a world of good. ~David Medsker (07/07/05)

The Innocence Mission: We Walked In Song
Label: Badman 2007
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So here’s the thing about the Innocence Mission: the band’s lead singer, the wispy and willowy Karen Paris, has a lovely and distinctive voice, but, man, there’s a really unfortunate tendency for their albums to all sound the same. Thankfully, it’s at least a good kind of “the same,” kind of like, say, every Ramones album ever…except far more mellow. We Walked in Song is the ninth album from the Innocence Mission, but it’s the first collection of new songs since 2003’s Befriended. (2004, though, did produce the band’s exemplary children’s album, Now the Day Is Over, wherein they offered wonderful covers of “Moon River,” “Edelweiss,” and “Stay Awake.”) Unsurprisingly, the band’s absence in no way affected their sound; songs like “Since I Still Tell You My Every Day,” “Song for Tom,” and “My Sisters Return from Ireland” find Karen in typically beautiful voice. Particularly notable are the background harmonies on the latter track, as well as “Into Brooklyn, Early in the Morning,” both which serve to make the band sound like a present-day The Mamas & The Papas. (It’s an appropriate comparison, actually, given that Karen’s husband, Don, is one of her bandmates.) Yes, it’s mellow, but if you’re still mourning the departure of 10,000 Maniacs but find that Natalie Merchant’s solo work really just annoys the hell out of you, revisiting the work of the Innocence Mission may serve to fill that void.
~Will Harris (06/15/07)

Intangible: Elevate
Label: Larkio Music

Son of Gary Wright (of “Dream Weaver” and Spooky Tooth fame), Intangible frontman Justin Wright grew up surrounded by some of the greatest classic rock pioneers of our time – and he wears his influences on his sleeve. Wright spent three years writing and producing Intangible’s debut, Elevate, which is full of soaring, post-grunge arrangements that could be classified as “easy rock listening” in the same vein as Collective Soul and Creed. The first single, “Those Around You,” and the album opener, “Lean,” demonstrate Wright’s skills in arrangement. In fact, all of the tracks are produced at a level that, compared to the current under-produced trend, almost make them sound dated, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing for the nostalgic listener. Fans of the aforementioned bands – along with Bush and Live – might find something that they like. ~John Paulsen (05/20/05)

Iron & Wine: Boy with a Coin
Label: Sub Pop 2007
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Wistful hipsters, rejoice – the return of Sam Beam, A.K.A. Iron & Wine, is imminent, and this three-song EP is manna sent from Sub Pop to whet your whistle until the next I&W full-length, The Shepherd's Dog, reaches stores and clicky-downloady outlets in September. It's liable to do next to nothing to change the minds of those who have already soured on Beam's layered vocals and wispy arrangements, but for everyone else, these tracks should make for an intriguing preview. Of the three, the opener, “Carried Home,” is the most prototypically Iron & Wine, with its slow, lilting melody and dusty, bucolic vibe; from there, Beam gets to tinkering with his (admittedly rather stale) formula, and the results are endlessly pleasant. “Boy with a Coin” is a sprightly little folk number, built around a hypnotic, circular riff and galloping handclaps, but it's closer “Kingdom of the Animals,” with its barrelhouse piano and lazily spiraling pedal steel guitar, that really steals the show. Beam has shown signs of chafing under the Iron & Wine mantel recently – including In the Reins, his collaboration with Calexico – and if these tracks are any indication, that wanderlust has paid some noteworthy dividends. ~Jeff Giles (07/20/07)

Islands: Return to the Sea
Label: Equator

So reviews are meant to inform you, the reader, right? Help you decide whether or not you're going to spend your hard earned dollars on a record? Do yourself a favor and buy a Shins record instead. This record is painfully uninventive and shallow. Just because the high school football team banged your mom and you just happened to walk in on them while they were doing it, doesn't give you or any other wheat-grass swilling bands the right to make silly little introspective records. Stop it, already. ~Josh Preston (04/12/06)

Joseph Israel: Gone Are the Days
Label: New Door Records/Universal Music Enterprises 2007
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Dancehall has dominated reggae for the past couple of decades. It’s a close cousin to hip-hop, and with its similar emphasis on rapping (toasting) over danceable rhythms and backing tracks, it’s followed the same meteoric rise in worldwide popularity. But for anyone who’s missed the gentler, more meaningful soulfulness of roots reggae – think Bob Marley, Steel Pulse, Black Uhuru – deliverance comes in the unlikely guise of Joseph Israel. Born Joseph Montgomery Fennel, this 28-year-old, white, Christian-born American (Tulsa, Oklahoma-born, Arkansas-based) was weaned on a musical diet of reggae growing up, and frequent trips to Jamaica and his subsequent conversion to Rastafarianism sealed the deal. Gone Are the Days, his debut album, was recorded in Kingston at the fabled Tuff Gong studios (Bob Marley’s studio), among others, and it’s the real deal, full of real songs, original rhythms, passionate songwriting and, most importantly, live musicians (including such veterans as guitarist Earl "Chinna" Smith, bassist Chris Meredith, and Marley's mix engineer Errol Brown). Standout tracks include "Jah Souljahs" (and its dub counterpart, "A Tougher Battle Dub"), "Perfect Love," "Mankind," "Ruff Times" (a duet with Luciano, another recent reggae sensation), the title track, and the extended mix of "Jerusalem." And while it’s not all good news (the lead vocals get a bit tired after a while), Joseph Israel’s done more than just update a reggae style from the past; he’s breathed new life into a musical form that, we can only hope, points the way to the future for reggae.
~Una Persson (07/20/07)

Jack’s Mannequin: Everything in Transit
Label: Maverick

Something Corporate frontman and ivory tickler Andrew McMahon steps out onto his own under the nom de guerre Jack’s Mannequin and delivers a stunning collection of piano-driven power pop. Comparisons to Ben Folds are inevitable, due to their instrument of choice, but Folds hasn’t written anything this perky in eons, from the theremin-riffing “Miss Delaney” (“She’s the vinyl queen from a surfer’s dream / She likes the Beach Boys more than Radiohead”) to “I’m Ready,” which may or may not hold a mini-tribute to REM’s “Belong” in its spoken word soliloquies. Tying everything together is a story about coming back home after years on the road, and dealing with the relationships with those you left behind. It’s catchy, it’s bouncy, and it may single-handedly save power pop. ~David Medsker (08/18/05)

Boney James: Christmas Present
Label: Concord 2007
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Saxophonist and smooth jazz icon Boney James has followed up his chart-topping album, Shine, with Christmas Present, a solid collection of classic holiday tunes. When a player of James’ caliber decides to put a project like this together, it’s usually good and in some cases really good. Christmas Present falls somewhere in between – it’s all nicely arranged as smooth jazz goes, and has the help of Grammy nominees Anthony Hamilton and Angie Stone, but isn’t groundbreaking by any means. Still, if this genre is your cup of tea, you’re going to want to snap it off the shelf this holiday season. The best tracks, not surprisingly, are the R&B romp featuring Ms. Stone, “Merry Christmas Baby,” and the classic bluesy version of “Silent Night” featuring Hamilton. ~Mike Farley (11/16/07)

Rick James & Friends: Best of Volume 2: The Millennium Collection
Label: Motown

In addition to releasing some of the most memorable R & B from the late 70’s to the mid 80’s, Rick James also wrote and produced for a small stable of performers. This collection highlights his collaborations and productions with those artists. The Smokey Robinson duet of “Ebony Eyes” is the only song that appears on Rick James: Best of Millennium Collection I. Volume II features A 12” version of the Mary Jane Girls hit, “In My House” and another Temptations and Rick James joyride called “Standing On The Top.” This is an excellent companion of the first volume. Dance out and grab it. ~R. David Smola (08/25/05)

Jeremy: Find The Way To Be Happy
Label: Jam

You’ll find very few people in the music business willing to say a bad word about Jeremy Morris; in addition to running Jam Recordings, he’s also one of the most prolific musicians out there, dabbling in gospel, new age, and progressive rock, but he’s made his greatest name via his work in the power pop medium. Find the Way to be Happy is full of a seemingly never-ending stream of catchy, almost ceaselessly upbeat nuggets (the cover is plastered with smiley-faces for a reason), but that’s also somewhat of its curse as well. There are 22 songs here, spread out over 73 minutes. Even if you like power pop, that’s still a whooooooole lot of tracks for a genre of music where brevity is usually preferable; transforming it into two separate albums probably would’ve been a wiser course of action. But that’s really neither here nor there at this stage of the game, so enjoy it as it is: a solid collection of pop songs. “Turn This Around,” “Had to Get Away,” and the blatant Beatleisms on “Time for Action” are particularly strong, as are “Everyone Who Pretended,” the ‘70s bubblegum of “Good Love,” and the piano ballad “I Remember.” You might get a toothache from all the sugar, but you’ll be hard pressed to be in a bad mood. ~Will Harris (12/01/05)

Elton John: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, Deluxe Edition
Label: Universal

History shows that 1975’s Captain Fantastic was the beginning of the end of sorts for Elton John; though he continued to rack up hit after hit on the singles charts, it would be another eight years before he put a decent album together (Too Low For Zero). Captain Fantastic isn’t teeming with well known songs – “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” is the only song to chart – but it’s the last album he made with his legendary backing band of Murray, Olsson and Johnstone, and the songwriting is some of John’s best. To top things off, his cover of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is included, as well as “Philadelphia Freedom” and a second disc featuring Captain Fantastic recorded live in its entirety, along with “Pinball Wizard” and “Saturday Night’s All Right For Fighting.” Vintage stuff, across the board. ~David Medsker (10/13/05)

Elton John: Rocket Man: Number Ones
Label: Mercury Records 2007
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Elton John releasing an album of hit songs may be overkill at this stage, but it’s hard not to marvel at his success over the past 30-something years. If anything, albums like this serve to remind us of that success while giving us the treat of having all of John’s hits in the same place at the same time. Some of the classic number ones on this set are “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Daniel,” “Crocodile Rock,” and “Philadelphia Freedom.” Of course, there are some other number ones that were hits later in John’s career, such as “Sacrifice” and “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?” which are as sappy as anything this side of Celine Dion. But we’ll let that go, because that’s what the “skip” button is for. Other songs on here that weren’t number ones include the powerful title track, the timeless “Your Song,” and “Tiny Dancer,” which may be the best song in this man’s catalog. We know there’s no need to remind anyone of what a great singer and songwriter Elton John is, but there are reminders in the form of collections like this nonetheless. ~Mike Farley (04/20/07)

John Butler Trio: Sunrise Over Sea
Label: Lava

He might sport dreadlocks that would put a Marley to shame, but John Butler’s no rasta, mon; he comes from a land down under. Well, sort of. He’s originally from Torrance, California, but his family moved to Australia when he was 11, and he resides there to this day. Sunrise Over Sea is the Trio’s American major label debut, but the band – Butler on vocals and guitar, Shannon Birchall on bass and Michael Barker on drums – has been recording and releasing albums in Australia since 1998. With a voice that variously resembles Anthony Kiedis and Eddie Vedder, Butler’s music is best described as melodically bluesy, with a tendency to indulge in the occasional jam (making the song title “Bound to Ramble” chuckle-worthy), which means that, although he’s probably already tired of being referred to as the Australian Dave Matthews, he should probably suck it up and get used to it, because it won’t be stopping anytime soon. Sunrise Over Sea is the kind of album that college kids will go nuts over, and they could do a lot worse (the string-laden “What You Want” is tremendous, and the bluegrass-styled “Damned to Hell” is short but strong), but it’s an album that begs the question, “Will this still be as interesting when we run out of pot?” For much of it, that’d be a “no.” ~Will Harris (05/27/05)

Eric Johnson: Bloom
Label: Favored Nations

If you heard Eric Johnson’s Ah Via Musicom, which was released in 1990, then you’ve already heard the first portion of Bloom. The guitar tones and melodies are all pretty much clones of Johnson’s second release. It’s good stuff, and he can play the shit out of his guitar, but it’s not like we haven’t heard it before. Lucky for us, the “Prelude” is only part of three sections. The “Courante” section is more like smooth jazz, and songs like “Your Sweet Eyes” and “From My Heart” are really quite good. The “Allemande” has elements of both styles, but the tracks in the middle section are definitely strongest. Fans of Johnson will either love this or be angry at all the regurgitation. ~Mike Farley (06/17/05)

Howard Jones: Revolution of the Heart
Label: Koch Records

Howard Jones traded in the synth-pop sound of his most commercially successful material for an electronica/dance feel on his latest album entitled Revolution of the Heart. For the most part the disc is pleasant and well executed, but very pedestrian. The two tracks that stand out are “Respected,” which features the most aggressive guitar work on the keyboard and computer program dominated record, and “Stir It Up,” which involuntarily makes you want to rip up the dance floor. Other than that, Revolution is pleasant, but ordinary. ~R. David Smola (10/27/05)

Jonny Lives!: Get Steady EP
Label: 10th Street Entertainment

Jonny Lives! is essentially singer and songwriter Jonny Dubowsky with a backing band, and this New York City band rocks with the same East Village swagger that has helped to launch such bands as the Strokes, the Mooney Suzuki and Fountains of Wayne. Jonny Lives!’s Get Steady EP has a throwback vibe that is equal parts Brit rock ala early Stones and NYC old-school punk akin to the Ramones. There are guitars all over this five-song collection, and Dubowsky has a decent set of pipes too. Standouts are the riff-driven title track, the fuzz-box laced “Cliché,” and the super catchy “Love Conspiracy.” ~Mike Farley (02/23/06)

Junkie XL: Today
Label: Ultra 2006

Tom Holkenborg, a.k.a. Elvis’ remixer (he did that ubiquitous mix of “A Little Less Conversation”) wants to join the DJ/producer/performer/hyphenate set, and surprise, surprise, he holds more than his own. Today combines the moodiness of Chicane’s Behind the Sun with the nervous instrumentation of BT’s better work, but with less emphasis on house and more on rock, particularly New Order (“I Have Got a Xerox to Copy”). The chugging opening track “Youthful” is one of only a handful of songs that justifies its incredible length (ten and a half minutes), and “Honey” is like an electronic version of “Io (This Time Around)” from Helen Stellar, subsequently one of the few bright spots to the “Elizabethtown” soundtrack. It’s a club record that’s made to be listened to. Sound familiar? That’s right; it’s the kind of record that Seal used to make, before he got all mushy on us. ~David Medsker (04/27/06)

Junior: Are We Famous Yet?
Label: Toucan Cove 2007
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It’s always refreshing when bands know not to take themselves too seriously. So when a rock trio from Twangland U.S.A. (Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana, to be exact) cranks up their amplifiers and writes tongue-in-cheek lyrics, they are not just taking themselves less seriously, they are downright poking fun at their own band. In this case the band is Junior, whose debut, Are We Famous Yet?, is funny and at times hilarious, and is also as catchy as anything in the Warped Tour genre. And these are clearly lyrics geared toward pop/punk’s teen followers – in particular, “Burger King” sings about blasting “Free Bird” and mullets blowing in the wind, and “NASCAR Man” is a track that playfully pays homage to the band’s southern roots. “She’s So Amazing” will piss you off because the catchy yet annoying chorus will stick in your head for days, and Junior throws in a pretty lame cover of Poison’s “Talk Dirty to Me.” In all, this is a fun summer album, but not one that will stand the test of time once schools open again. There’s just too much new music out there to compete with, and too many pimply-faced girls to be chased by pimply-faced boys. ~Mike Farley (07/20/07)

Just One More: A Musical Tribute to Larry Brown
Label: Bloodshot Records 2007
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At best, most tribute albums are a mixed bag. At worst, they’re usually more fun for the participants and casual listeners than they are for real fans. Or, put another way, while tribute albums may hold any number of worthwhile gems, they’re the musical equivalent of MSG: they provide temporary fulfillment, but invariably send you back for something more fulfilling (usually the real thing, the source of whatever artist is being paid tribute to). Just One More: A Musical Tribute to Larry Brown mostly sidesteps the problem, mainly because it’s not a tribute to another musician or band, but to a writer – Larry Brown, author of two story collections, five novels (including 1990’s “Big Bad Love” and the posthumous “A Miracle of Catfish,” released earlier this year), two works of non-fiction, and the occasional piece for No Depression magazine (not surprising, given Brown’s lifelong love affair with music). Brown, often compared to other dark, literary writers (such as Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, Charles Frasier, Harry Crews, etc.) died of a fatal heart attack in 2004. This is a loving tribute by artists who were both friends and fans, as well as some fellow writers. Highlights include cuts by Alejandro Escovedo, Bo Ramsey, Greg Brown, author Madison Smartt Bell and poet Wyn Cooper, North Mississippi All Stars, T-Model Ford, Tim Lee and Susan Bauer Lee, Vic Chesnutt and Robert Earl Keen. Some of the disc’s 18 songs – 12 of which are previously unreleased – were written for project, songs about Brown, or about characters in his books. The CD closes with a song performed by Larry Brown himself, accompanied by Clyde Edgerton, another Southern novelist of some renown. It’s a roots-rock, Americana-tinged affair all-around, and its success comes from its mix-tape ambience and lack of pretension.
~Una Persson (06/15/07)

Kalli: While the City Sleeps
Label: One Little Indian 2007
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This might not be a selling point for a tremendous number of our readers in the United States, but for you music fans out there beyond the US borders, listen up: Kalli’s While the City Sleeps sounds like it was recorded by a-ha between 1990’s East of the Sun, West of the Moon and 1992’s Memorial Beach. Yes, the references are rather obscure to Americans, given that the points of comparison are albums that sold bupkis on these shores, but trust me, it’s accurate. Kalli, former lead singer of the Icelandic band Without Gravity, makes his solo debut with While the City Sleeps, and, seriously, his vocal similarity to Morten Harket is downright eerie. And if the a-ha reference is totally lost on you, try this: if you like the simpler, less epic songs by Coldplay and Keane, this album could be for you. Granted, with songs like “River of Darkness,” “It’s Over,” and “Fear,” the proceedings are decidedly melancholy…so much so that, by the end, you’ll either be a fan for life or on the verge of slitting your wrists…but Kalli’s lovely, shimmering voice shines out of the darkness. ~Will Harris (04/20/07)

Karmina: The Kiss
Label: KKR Records 2006
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The sisters that make up Southern California based pop/rock duo Karmina are cute as hell, and they have the formula for writing ridiculously hooky pop music down to a science. So why aren’t they huge yet? That’s a really good question, and one you’re going to be asking as well once you hear their sophomore effort, The Kiss. If you’ve had enough of the Michelle Branch/Kelly Clarkson/Vanessa Carlton clones out there, Karmina is going to feel just a bit refreshing because while their music may have the same vibe as those artists, it doesn’t feel forced. The only real drawback is that with seven songs, you’re left wanting more. All of the tracks are good, but the explosive title track as well as “Mason” are so potent that if they ever find an outlet on terrestrial radio, look out.
~Mike Farley (01/04/07)

Kasabian: Empire
Label: RCA 2006
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Brit rockers Kasabian were given a huge boost when their song, “Reason Is Treason,” was included on the hit Fox show “The O.C.” and landed on the fifth compilation of that show’s music. But make no mistake, Kasabian is a bit of a buzz band with or without that kind of help, because they write and perform engaging rock songs with an electronic flair a la the Chemical Brothers, and with a ballsy attitude that drags out influences such as Mick Jagger. The band’s sophomore effort, Empire, is a bit more bombastic than their self-titled debut, and Kasabian takes more chances, stretching their chops as songwriters and musicians. The title track, as well as “Shoot the Runner,” are so full of energy that they might force you to drive off the road or drink way too much, but the band is equally effective on the Depeche-flavored “By My Side,” the Beatlesque “British Legion,” or the gang-vocal driven “The Doberman.” This is a record to put in at a party if you want to show your friends how cool you are, or quite honestly, if you want to get laid. ~Mike Farley (10/26/06)

Kaura: Kaura EP
Label: Self-released

Kaura is a four-piece heavy rock band that is a little more worldly than most of those in its genre. What makes these guys stand out is that their travels to exotic places like Thailand and Bali convinced them to infuse hammered dulcimers, gamelan bells and tribal beats into their own melodic songs. Influenced by powerhouses like Tool and Queens of the Stone Age, Kaura already had a good foundation and is clearly a band to keep an eye on. ~Mike Farley (05/13/05)

Robert Earl Keen: What I Really Mean
Label: Koch

Robert Earl Keen comes from the breed of singer/songwriters that, if your average man on the street was played one of his CDs and asked to describe it, would find himself instantly labeled as country. With “For Love,” the opener on What I Really Mean (his ninth studio album), that perception remains intact. In truth, however, Keen is a Texas boy who emerged at approximately the same time as Nanci Griffith and has similar musical tendencies, leading him down the folk path more often than not. Keen definitely has a bizarre sense of humor; songs like “Mr. Wolf and Mamabear” and “The Great Hank” are truly surreal vignettes, the latter describing a dream about Hank Williams, where the legendary country singer is performing “onstage in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania / He was all dressed up in drag / From his rose red lips to his rhinestone hips, he belted out song after song as he drank from a brown paper bag.” Songs like “The Wild Ones” and the title track are more traditional in their approach, however. It’s not Keen’s best album, but it’s still a damned sight better than what you’ll hear on your local country station. ~Will Harris (08/11/05)

Toby Keith: Big Dog Daddy
Label: Show Dog Nashville Records 2007
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Toby Keith is officially in a slump. Let’s not sugarcoat it by talking about past accomplishments, his great catalog, all the award show statues, blah blah blah. Let’s not make excuses about how busy he’s been between releasing a new album every year since 2001 (one could say that substance has been depleted) and even the unexpected success of his film “Broken Bridges” and its accompanying soundtrack last year. The simple fact is that, musically speaking, he is three or four states away from the good ol’ core Country anthems that put him on the map. Gone are the really good, cleverly-written radio smashes like “How Do You Like Me Now?” and “Beer for My Horses,” sappy but meaningful ballads like “My List,” or even the over-the-top but cool patriotic stuff (“Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue”). Schlocky and juvenile is the name of the game these days, as “High Maintenance Woman” is his calling card (“If your washer and dryer need repair, you know the handyman’s waitin’ and he’ll be right there”). “Love Me If You Can” is a nice enough slow dance, exposing a convicted and spiritual side of the rugged Ford truck man, while “Pump Jack” flat rocks with the help of Nashville unknown Bobby Pinson. Spend a couple bucks downloading those last two songs and save the rest for the next George Strait album. ~Red Rocker (07/06/07)

The Killing Moon: A Message through Your Teeth
Label: Fearless Records

The Killing Moon, hailing from Portland, Maine, is easily one of the better rock bands that I have heard in recent months. Their debut EP, A Message through Your Teeth, serves as a taste of what to expect from their full-length record, due later this year. I, for one, can’t wait to hear it. Melding modern hard rock with a pinch of emo (and some interesting saxophone and trombone effects), it becomes clear very quickly that this band knows its talents and how to effectively put them to use. The Killing Moon, unlike so many of its genre’s brethren, lets their songs develop and truly build, then unleash with solid breakdowns. Vocalist/guitarist Ryan Hannan has a dynamic, often ferocious voice that is the linchpin of each song. All five offerings here are solid, with the true standout being “A Book of Love Stories,” and showcase a band that is just bursting at the seams with energy and talent. ~Bill Clark (03/02/06)

Kill The Alarm: Fire Away
Label: Gsmakr Music 2007
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New Jersey native Garen Gueyikian has been hovering around the music scene in the Northeast, previously under the moniker Granian. Now he’s back with a full-band project, Kill The Alarm that is like a plugged-in version of Garen’s former self. With the band’s debut, Fire Away, they’ve got a buzz going in the New York City clubs (a sold-out CD release show at Arlene’s Grocery) and also on the Internet, and it’s obvious why. The dude not only knows how to write songs, he’s got a huge rock voice that serves as the perfect medium for them. Kill The Alarm features some of Granian’s best material, like “Uncovered” and “Collide,” but as good as those songs are and were, there’s some even better material on here. Examples are the Live-ish title track and “Call on Me,” which is like the love child of some of the Goo Goo Dolls’ and Matchbox 20’s biggest hits. But those comparisons aren’t to say that Kill The Alarm sounds dated—they’re merely keeping good music alive. ~Mike Farley (03/22/07)

Carole King: Love Makes the World: Deluxe Edition
Label: Rockingale 2007
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Carole King is such an icon that it’s nearly impossible to say anything negative about what she releases. And so there’s nothing bad you can say about the re-release of her 2001 album, Love Makes the World, on her own Rockingale Records. The album itself is full of King’s incredible knack for melody with a contemporary bent on the pop music typically ruling light rock airwaves. In particular, “I Wasn’t Gonna Fall in Love” is amazing and practically a clinic in songwriting. King, after all, has not just put out her own music all these years, but she’s written hits for the likes of James Taylor and Dusty Springfield. But this is a re-issue, and even though Love Makes the World is a great album, this release is about the bonuses—a second CD with standards like “Birthday Song” and “Love For Christmas,” as well as a duet of King’s classic “Where You Lead” with her daughter, Louise Goffin. There are also two previously unreleased tracks – a duet with Alejandro Lerner (“Lo Que Tu Eres Para Mi”) and another with Graham Nash (“Two Hearts”) that are both as magical as you might expect. The second CD is enhanced and features videos on the making of the album and more. Casual King fans will love this collection, and rabid fans may be obsessed with it.
~Mike Farley (08/17/07)

King Elementary: Kudzu
Label: Sweettea

With a label named Sweettea and an album entitled Kudzu, you don’t exactly need to check King Elementary’s press kit to confirm that they’re from the South – specifically, they’re from Mississippi – but without looking at the photos of the band, you would need to be told that they were all still in their teens when they recorded this, their debut record. No boy band is this, however; these guys clearly have record collections that extend well beyond the mainstream. Lead singer Morgan Jones channels Kurt Cobain with some regularity, but the music, while admittedly partially inspired by the Seattle sound of the ‘90s, also resembles, variously, Sonic Youth, the MC5, and the Hives. The melodic guitars and pounding drums on opener “For the Birds” will drag most into the disc without argument, “Spur of the Moment” is a dark, bass-led pop nugget, and “Thief of Hearts,” with its “ba-da-ba-da-BOMP” refrain is undeniably fun, but things aren’t always quite as memorable throughout the 11 songs; there’s not much to “Satisfactory,” for instance, and “Kisses from the Stone” is rather plodding. Still, there’s a great deal of musical variety here, and given the ages of King Elementary, it’s a fair bet that things will only get better. ~Will Harris (11/24/05)

Kings Of Leon: Aha Shake Heartbreak
Label: RCA

So much hoopla and speculation preceded the second Kings Of Leon record, overshadowed by the stunning success of Youth and Young Manhood two years ago, that a month or so after its release, Aha Shake Heartbreak has become the silent killer of the year. Is it everything the first album was? Not exactly. But as is so often the case, if the follow-up had been released first, it would be every bit the hit, if not more. A riveting “Taper Jean Girl,” boasting the now-signature stutter step guitar parts of adolescent Matthew Followill, won’t take a backseat to anything on Manhood. “The Bucket” is the first single, and it’s arguably as playful and addictive as “Molly’s Chamber” or “Red Morning Light.”

It’s the less domineering moments within Aha that give it character and merit to spare. “Pistol of Fire” and “Soft” are the kind of tracks that might get overlooked the first spin, but eventually become cult favorites. The highlight here is tucked away near the end, as “Velvet Snow” just wails, “Death row smoking getting to your face, showing off your something shaved and lacy.” The Kings are one of the few bands out there who come across just as dynamic and urgent on record as they do in live performances. Aha is a treasure in a very young career. ~Red Rocker (04/15/05)

Kingsbury Manx: The Fast Rise and Fall of the South
Label: Yep Roc

It’s hard to believe these guys are from Chapel Hill, NC. The reference points on the back of Kingsbury Manx’s latest album – their first since expanding beyond Overcoat Recordings – are Pink Floyd circa the Syd Barrett era, the Kinks during the Village Green Preservation Society era, and Simon and Garfunkel, with more suspects as Elliot Smith, the Shins, and the Radar Brothers also purportedly in the mix. The vocals are actually more like early Roger Waters rather than his old friend Syd; musically, it’s easy to buy into the Kinks’ Village Green comparison... well, except one also has to imagine that, at the time, Ray Davies was taking some serious tranquilizers. “1000 8” and “Ruins” are the most upbeat songs on the album; elsewhere, the vocals remain consistently hushed, the guitars lightly strummed or gently plucked. It’s ironic that the word “fast” should be included in the album’s title; lovely though it may be - and this is a disc that possesses many subtle pleasures – longtime Kingsbury Manx fans will not be surprised to find that it’s not going to do anything to liven up your next party. ~Will Harris (09/08/05)

Earl Klugh: Naked Guitar
Label: Koch 2005

Though the title Naked Guitar will lead many folks to porn websites when searching the Internet, there is nothing perverse or obscene about jazz guitarist Earl Klugh’s first release in six years. Naked Guitar is just Klugh and a classical guitar - crisp, clean, and as an old friend of mine used to say about Klugh, “right on the money.” Klugh is an amazing player, and there are very cool takes on standards such as “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” and “Moon River.” This is one of those albums that is perfect for Sunday mornings, rainy days, and romantic dinners - definitely something to score points with your lady, whether scoring points is something you need to do or not. ~Mike Farley (08/25/05)

Kraftwerk: Minimum-Maximum
Label: Astralwerks/EMI

A two-disc set (priced as a single album) consisting of performances recorded during their 2004 world tour, Minimum-Maximum is not only the definitive hits compilation Kraftwerk fans have been waiting for, but a startlingly kick-ass live record. The arrangements are faithful to, but not carbon copies of, the reworked versions the band made for The Mix (1990), with lots of subtle but significant tech upgrades. The version of “Numbers” positively kills, and “Trans Europe Express” alone unveils the origins of Depeche Mode’s “Stripped” and “The Gap” from the Thompson Twins. Someone please tell us, again, exactly why Kraftwerk is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? ~David Medsker (06/17/05)

Diana Krall: Christmas Songs
Label: Verve

Jazz singer/pianist Diana Krall has broken through barriers, as her 1999 album When I Look In Your Eyes earned her a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocalist and a nomination for Album of the Year, which at the time was the first jazz record to earn that distinction in 25 years. Krall’s latest is a Christmas album, and it is aptly titled Christmas Songs because there is a simplistic beauty about the way she delivers these holiday favorites with equal parts grace and swing, such as “Let It Snow,” “Christmas Time is Here,” and “Sleigh Ride.” Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Krall’s sexy voice matches her modest hotness. You’ll definitely score points by putting Christmas Songs in your girl’s stocking this year. ~Mike Farley (12/22/05)

kd lang: Reintarnation
Label: Rhino

Wipe that smirk off your face right this second: kd lang rules, dude. This collection of her country work – just writing those words is amusing, since the country scene had no idea what to make of her – is a cowpunker’s dream come true. Leadoff track “Pay Dirt” is like June Carter Cash singing Johnny Cash’s “Cocaine Blues,” and “Angel with a Lariat” is Patsy Cline covering “Viva Las Vegas.” Still, you can see the seeds for her 1992 pop breakthrough Ingénue in songs like “Diet of Strange Places” and “Trail of Broken Hearts,” which sports a guitar riff that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on A Hard Day’s Night. A small request, though: we’d like to call a moratorium on ripping off the Elvis Presley/London Calling album cover. It’s been done. My, oh my, has it been done. ~David Medsker (04/20/06)

The Krinkles: The Mordorloff Collection
Label: Mordorlorff Music 2007
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If it’s true that you can tell more about a band by the songs they choose to cover than by their original material, then the fact that power poppers the Krinkles have opted to include a rendition of Rick Springfield’s “Love Is Alright Tonight” speaks volumes. Rather than go for the obvious, more kitschy pick of “Jessie’s Girl,” they’ve gone for an equally classic hit from the once and future Dr. Noah Drake’s catalog, which says, “No, seriously, we really do like Rick Springfield.” Yeah, it’s a bit of a sloppy version, but it’s sloppy in the way you’d expect from the Replacements circa their Twin\Tone era…which means it’s actually a two-pronged clarification of what to expect from the Krinkles. The band’s sense of humor is evident from the second you look at the album art (a spot-on parody of those 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection covers), but the music is a blend of ‘60s garage rock, ‘70s power pop, and a bit of today’s brand of punk-pop. Soaring pop choruses like “Gimme Gimme” veer into bluesy ballads like “Blinded by Love,” but even when there’s a slow, languid number like “Closer to Here than There,” there’s always something like the bounce of “I Want You” or “Friday Night” to bring the mood back up. Shame they didn’t opt to close with the perfect finale of “So…Goodbye,” though. ~Will Harris (11/09/07)

Larry the Cable Guy: Morning Constitutions
Label: WB Nashville/Jack Records 2007
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The opening lines set the stage, really: after uttering his inevitable catchphrase, “Git-r-done,” Larry the Cable Guy greets his audience by saying, “Minneapolis, thank you so much! I ain’t been this excited since I found a quarter in my poop!” And before he’s even finished his opening routine, we’ve also gotten a fart joke, a gag about his 97-year-old grandfather’s ball sac, and jokes about Mexicans, prostitutes, and the “retarded gal” he used to date. Basically, if you haven’t laughed in the first five minutes, you’re safe in bailing out early, because it doesn’t get any better. It’s low-brow comedy for the lowest common denominator…but, then, you don’t really even need to put the disc in the player to know that, given that the last track is entitled “Poop Lasagna.” It’s mildly ballsy for Larry go on a tirade against how stupid Wal-Mart employees are, given that he probably sells more copies of his albums through their stores than any other avenue, but that’s as close to edgy as this material gets; mostly, it’s just dumb to the nth degree. As ever, our advice remains the same: continue your Larry the Cable Guy embargo and go buy something by Ron White instead. ~Will Harris (04/20/07)

The Lashes: Get It
Label: Red Ink/Columbia

If Enuff Z’Nuff were the hair-metal band who weren’t afraid to admit that they liked power pop, then the Lashes must be the equivalent for the Strokes/Killers/Bravery/Interpol generation of bands. Actually, the hair-metal comparison comes full circle with the cover photo for Get It, which looks more like an outtake from the sessions for Motley Crue’s Too Fast for Love. Intentional tribute or piss-take? Tough call...but it’s a little disconcerting that the band has taken a pass on printing their lyrics, instead focusing on lots of photos of themselves. While these guys might have the same general look as every other band out there, they clearly know their way around a catchy hook; they also come with a producer – John Goodmanson – with considerable indie credibility. (He’s worked with Death Cab for Cutie, Sleater-Kinney, and Hot Hot Heat, among dozens of others.) The bouncy, piano-driven “Dear Hollywood” is the longest track, coming it at just over four minutes; the rest of the songs are catchy, harmony-filled nuggets, with “Sometimes the Sun” and “Please Please Please” being particular highlights. If you’ve gotta lay money on this year’s major-label pick to click, you could do a lot worse than the Lashes. ~Will Harris (03/02/06)

The Last Goodnight: Poison Kiss
Label: Virgin 2007
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Awwww, aren’t they cute? There’s the sensitive lead singer with the Mohawk, the guy with the long-ish emo cut, the shaggy one in the back, and hey, they even have a black dude in the band. It’s as if a Benetton ad came to life and became a rock group. A really bland, safe, inoffensive rock group. Their bio speaks of ‘80s references and classic rock influences, but the album, Poison Kiss, is all about the doe-eyed pop, like a lost collaboration between Maroon 5 and Swirl 360 but not as good as either. Songs like “Back Where We Belong” suggest that the band has a rough idea of what makes for a catchy pop tune – “Stay Beautiful,” meanwhile, just steals Maroon 5’s “This Love” and revises it a little – but they haven’t yet figured out how to make a pop song with a life, or personality, of its own. Record labels used to sign bands that made a statement about them. What, then, does the Last Goodnight say about Virgin? “No girl’s babysitting money is too good for us,” it appears. Lastly, a thousand lashes to lead singer Kurtis John for sporting a Mohawk but singing in a falsetto, which violates at least a dozen unwritten rules of rock. Also, the album cover’s pitifully bad. ~David Medsker (08/24/07)

Cyndi Lauper: The Body Acoustic
Label: Epic

With the help of guests like Ani DiFranco, Sarah McLachlan, Shaggy and Jeff Beck, Cyndi Lauper deconstructs 10 of her best known songs and builds acoustic, unplugged and otherwise different versions of them, while adding two new songs. “All Through the Night” becomes a semi-country ditty, with Shaggy throwing in his distinctive vocal style for good measure. When McLachlan and Lauper trade verses on “Time After Time,” their voices carry the song, not the slick production that was featured on the original (from 1984’s She’s So Unusual). The slowed down version of “She Bop” is creepy, considering the original was a celebration of masturbation, and makes you feel guilty for knowing the subject matter. This is not happy-go-lucky Cyndi, but an interesting Cyndi nonetheless. She is exploring her material as an artist, not as a pop star, and it works. ~R. David Smola (12/22/05)

Led Zeppelin: Mothership
Label: Swan Song/Atlantic 2007
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Writing about Led Zeppelin in this day and age is as pointless an endeavor as there is, so we’ll sum up their legacy thusly: they rule. Mothership, the two-disc/one-DVD collection of Zeppelin’s best-known work, will do the job for the casual Zeppelin fan – if there is such a thing – though even they will wonder why “Dancing Days” and “Fool in the Rain” didn’t make the cut. “Fool in the Rain,” really? The band had only six songs crack the Top 40 and they’re going to leave one of them out? Hmmm. Fortunately the DVD, a collection of excerpts from 2003’s “Led Zeppelin,” contains a few tracks missing from the CDs, notably “What Is and What Should Never Be,” “Misty Mountain Hop” and “Going to California.” Hard to think that there is anyone left on the planet that doesn’t own most of these songs already, but should there be one or two wandering aimlessly, this is where they should start.
~David Medsker (11/30/07)

Libby Lavella: Sometime in Morning
Label: Tall Poppy 2007
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Here, music lovers, is proof that a solo artist can be less than the sum of her parts. A gifted vocalist and multi-instrumentalist with an ear for soundscapes, Libby Lavella has scrabbled together an armload of half-hooks, spread them out over 11 seemingly interminable songs, and Sometime in Morning is the result. By the time she gets to wailing over the end of the fourth song, the drearily atmospheric “Heart as My Own,” you’re liable to be tapping on the mat; unfortunately, the album’s somnambulant parade marches on for another 14 hours. (Technically, it’s more like 20 minutes, but let’s not get overly technical here.) It’s a shame, because occasionally, glimmers of a decent record fight their way through the fog; “I Live in Hope,” for one, features a lovely, burnished vocal from Lavella to go with its tastefully layered production. Clearly, she’s a talented artist. At some point, she may graduate from soundtracks for candlelit bathtubs into something more compelling. In the meantime, avoid this snoozer. ~Jeff Giles (10/12/07)

LCD Soundsystem: Sound of Silver
Label: Capitol 2007
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The DFA, and everyone associated with them, is bulletproof in the eyes of the music press. But here’s the thing: the New York production duo may have done the world a favor by making dance-oriented rock sexy again, but whether they made dance-oriented rock better is up for serious debate. (Did you hear their mix of the Chemical Brothers’ “The Boxer”? Yawn.) LCD Soundsystem, the brain child of DFA’s James Murphy, has had hipsters eating out of their hands since they dropped “Daft Punk is Playing at My House,” and that adulation is not likely to change with Sound of Silver, their sophomore effort. “North American Scum” playfully cribs Peter Shelley’s “Homosapien,” “All My Friends” drones like early New Order, and Kraftwerk’s influence can be heard from leadoff track “Get Innocuous!” to the album’s title track. There are just two teensy, tiny problems with it all: the band never rises above their influences, and James Murphy can’t sing. In the end, though, none of that matters. All that matters is that LCD Soundsystem is cool, and if you like them, then you’re cool, too. ~David Medsker (05/25/07)

Sondre Lerche and the Faces Down Quartet: Duper Sessions
Label: Astralwerks

Astralwerks’ resident folkie Sondre Lerche unleashes his inner Cole Porter and makes a cabaret-style album that Rufus Wainwright would give his right arm – and Harry Connick Jr. his soul – to call his own. The songs on Lerche’s previous albums were at times too airy for their own good, but he proves to be a natural at the Tin Pan Alley stuff, the highlight of which is “The Curse of Being in Love.” “Dead End Mystery” boasts a tear-in-my-beer slide guitar, and Lerche even tackles Porter’s “Night and Day,” which is similar to Everything but the Girl’s version, only in key. Perhaps the most surprising moment comes when Lerche covers Prefab Sprout’s “Nightingales,” turning Paddy McAloon’s wistful ballad into a smoky torch song tailor-made for Astrud Gilberto. The only thing better would be if Gilberto, or her daughter Bebel, were singing these songs instead. ~David Medsker (03/16/06)

Level 42: Retroglide
Label: Universal 2006
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“Something About You” from the summer of 1985 is one of the most brilliant pop songs ever recorded. There is much more to Level 42 than that track, but most recognize them only from that single. Their fusion beginnings morphed into a very successful pop career (mostly in the UK). This is their first studio album in 12 years. Retroglide, which features the fabulous voice of Mark King and his wonderful funk styled bass, is a pleasant surprise. The material is solid, King’s voice is in fabulous shape and the production is excellent. This album does not approach the masterpiece level that World Machine is but “The Way Back Home” and “Just for You” are tunes you will be humming well after you put the disc away. I hope this isn’t the last we here from them, but if Retroglide is a swan song, it is a solid and respectable way to go out. ~R. David Smola (03/09/07)

Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins: Rabbit Fur Coat
Label: Team Love

Lewis takes a break from her day job in Rilo Kiley to make what is for all intents and purposes a gospel album. Well, that’s a tad misleading: it’s a very spiritual acoustic pop album, weaving tale after tale of sinners and saints, backed by two Kentucky sisters who sing circles around these Gothic folk tales. Lewis’s voice sounds like what Hope Sandoval must hear when she’s singing in the shower, and even when Lewis says, “I’m so happy,” you can’t help but want to cry. The irony is that the track that will get the most attention here is her cover of the Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle with Care,” featuring Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard (singing the Roy Orbison line, natch) and Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst on backing vocals. Come for the cover, but stay for the sermon. ~David Medsker (03/09/06)

The Like: Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking?
Label: Geffen

The daughters of Tony Berg (producer/A&R, Squeeze, Aimee Mann), Mitchell Froom (producer, Crowded House, formerly Mr. Suzanne Vega) and Pete Thomas (drummer, Elvis Costello, Squeeze) have formed a band, and forgive us if we slap you before you can say ‘Wilson Phillips.’ This is no schmaltzy elevator pop record. Z Berg’s tunes are sharp, the vocals are a Throwing Muses fan’s wet dream, and the girls can play, dammit. “June Gloom” has a great tempo-shifting chorus (fast to slow, as opposed to the usual slow-fast), and “Once Things Look Up” is 12-string acoustic jangly goodness. The kids, in appears, are indeed alright. ~David Medsker (10/13/05)

Devin Lima & the Cadbury Diesel: Mozart Popart
Label: One Eleven Records 2007
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Hey, Fiddy and Kanye weren’t the only guys to release new albums on September 11! There was also…Devin Lima & the Cadbury Diesel. And check this; you already know Devin Lima. How? Because he was in the group LFO, who scored huge with “Summer Girls!” That’s right, that godawful song with the lyrics “When I met you, I said ‘My name is Rich / You look like a girl that wears Abercrombie & Fitch.’” Well, now Devin’s all grown up (we guess) and is making a bid for the modern rawk fan acceptance. Can we forgive him for his past blockbusters? If only. Unfortunately, Mozart Popart sounds completely calculated, with just enough fuzz and compression in the mix to make it sound “edgy.” “Crafty Bitch” is bland radio rock and “Queensploitation” is a stab at sounding like Sublime with none of the fun. One thing’s for sure, though: Lima still over-emotes like a genuine wuss. The closing track, “Tea for Two,” will bring back all those horrific memories of LFO. Maybe you really can go back home after all.
~Jason Thompson (10/05/07)

Limbeck: Let Me Come Home
Label: Doghouse

Folks who love their Americana – or are they calling it alt-country these days? – are still in mourning for the temporary loss of their beloved Jayhawks but, until Gary Louris decides to get back into the studio with his bandmates, they can at least take comfort in the production work he’s doing. Limbeck, from Laguna Niguel, CA, are on their third album with Let Me Come Home, but they’ve been getting better and better with each release; this time, with Louris manning the boards, they’re come up with a disc that has almost as much twang as Wilco did when Jay Farrar was still in the band. “Everyone’s in the Parking Lot,” an ode to tailgate parties, is a particular highlight of the disc, with “Making the Rounds,” the rockin’ “Watchin’ the Moon Rise Over Town,” and the riffs of “’91 Honda” also of note. If you’ve enjoyed the past few Paul Westerberg releases, you’ll enjoy this; the lyrics are slyly amusing, the music’s upbeat more often than not, and it’s the work of a bunch of guys who’ve spent a lot of time on the road – there’s little fiction to be found in “Home (Is Where the Van Is)” – and have learned a few licks in the process. The more you spin Let Me Come Home, the more you’ll enjoy it. ~Will Harris (11/24/05)

Lisa Loeb: The Very Best of Lisa Loeb
Label: Geffen

Has there ever been a hotter geek chick than Lisa Loeb? Let’s face it; most guys secretly lusted after her when she burst onto the scene in the mid ‘90s with the awkward yet somehow hot video for “Stay (I Missed You).” Now those guys can legitimately have a shot at dating the singer/songwriter as she is set to star in a reality show called “#1 Single,” on the E! Network, where Loeb re-enters the dating world after being in a long-term relationship with Dweezil Zappa. One of the tracks from that show, “Single Me Out,” is a catchy pop/rock number that shows Loeb still has no shortage of hooks in her repertoire. She has always had a knack for that, and on this best of collection, her brand of sugary pop is evident on hits like “I Do” and “Let’s Forget about It.” But it’s in the more intricate acoustic-driven songs like “Furious Rose” and “Sandalwood” that Loeb’s cute but sexy voice comes through. And on “Stay,” she shows that she’s an equally accomplished guitar player. ~Mike Farley (01/26/06)

The Lodger: Grown-Ups
Label: Slumberland 2007
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Anglophiles, take note: if you’ve spent the last eight years wondering if there will ever be another Lightning Seeds album, this will tide you over until Ian Broudie answers that question once and for all. Grown-Ups, the debut from Leeds trio the Lodger, is the Lightning Seeds re-imagined as a jangly guitar pop band with a thing for the Smiths. Singer and principal songwriter Ben Siddall is a dead ringer for Broudie, and songs like “Kicking Sand” and “Simply Left Behind” have the same shimmer and bounce as the Seeds’ best work. The band’s biggest problem, from a commercial perspective, is that they’re too poppy, which is what people mean when they declare a band to be “too British.” So they’re poppy. Last we checked, pop was short for popular, and in a perfect world, the Lodger would be wildly popular. ~David Medsker 11/24/07

Loggins & Messina: Sitttin’ In Again at the Santa Barbara Bowl
Label: Rhino Records

Dusting off songs that are 30 years old, or older, is a risky proposition. Kenny Loggins and Jim Messina reunited after disbanding in 1975 to break out the music that made them a hugely successful duo in the early to mid 70’s and created a live record to document their tour. All the hits are here, including “Danny’s Song” and “Your Momma Don’t Dance” and the boys and their band sound as if they are having the time of their lives. The music sounds crisp, not at all dated, and the band is tight. This is solid country rock and pop and perfect background for a Sunday afternoon. ~R. David Smola (12/29/05)

Lolas: Something You Oughta Know
Label: Jam

Okay, so I’m a little late with this 2004 release, but since their 2001 album Silver Dollar Sunday is one of the most kickass power pop records you’re likely to hear, it is my honor – nay, my obligation – to tell the world, however belatedly, about the Alabama trio’s third album, Something You Oughta Know. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Tim Boykin explores his inner Byrd in more detail this time around, particularly on “Weird Daughter,” but thankfully this is no Rainbow Quartz-style band that just picks a ‘60s band and mimics their every move. Sure, the Lolas could do that Rickenbacker/harmony thing until the cows come home, but they also like to tear it up on the speedy “It’s You I Want” or go startlingly heavy on “Ingrid Has a Plan.” Where the album falters is in not knowing when to quit. At 15 tracks, the album is about three songs too long (power pop is all about brevity, as my boy Will Harris noted in his Jeremy review), with “Plenty of Dogs” nearly sinking the album before it’s even gotten started. Still, these guys are obscenely talented, and there is no shame whatsoever in making a record that’s only slightly less fantastic than Silver Dollar Sunday. Like the Beatles, Byrds, Cheap Trick and Sweet? Step right up, kids. Do I have a band for you. ~David Medsker (12/15/05)

Long-View: Mercury
Label: Columbia

First off, don’t get these guys confused with the US band Longwave, who have a similar name and some of the same influences (Echo and the Bunnymen, to name but one). Long-View are from the UK, and they offer further proof that there are more great bands coming out of Britain nowadays than there have been since the early ‘80s. Singer/lyricist Rob McVey will find himself compared to Rob Dickinson of Catherine Wheel, a similarity occasionally emphasized by the sounds his bandmates produce (it’s never more obvious than at the beginning of “When You Sleep”), but in their more mellow moments, Long-View comes closer to resembling a blend between Coldplay (“I Would”) and Travis (“Can’t Explain”). Still, these guys are prone to rocking out at least as much as they are mellowing out, making for a tasty combination. America might not need another dreamy Britpop band, but if they take the time to investigate Long-View, Mercury will make them swoon just as much as the competition. ~Will Harris (06/03/05)

Rene Lopez: One Man’s Year
Label: Liberation Label

If Rene Lopez released One Man’s Year in the ‘80s, or even the ‘90s, it would be a one-hit wonder. The lead track, “Vacation,” is such an infectious song, but you’re left to wonder why the rest of the album doesn’t even come close to measuring up. Because in the current decade, there is just too much music, independent or otherwise, for Lopez to compete with. Over the course of a career as a drummer and singer/songwriter, Lopez has been involved with or had ties to the likes of Joseph Arthur, Edie Brickell and Spacehog. There are times that the songs border on interesting, but aren’t quite melodic enough to hold that interest. Vocally, Lopez is a poor man’s Joseph Arthur, and at times resembles Ian McCulloch of Echo & the Bunnymen. At times, his voice soars, and at times it’s noticeably off-key. Lucky for all of you that in today’s digital world you can just download one song, and in this case “Vacation” is well worth the 99 cents. ~Mike Farley (11/03/05)

The Lovemakers: Times of Romance
Label: Cherrytree/Interscope

The spirit of Scotland’s Bis is alive and well in this Oakland trio (two-boys-and-a-girl lineup and everything), whose debut album Times of Romance is filled with the kind of ‘80s inspired electro-pop that Bis cornered the market on in the early ‘00s. In fact, leadoff track and first single “Prepare for the Fight” could have come straight from Bis’ Music for a Stranger World EP, while the falsetto-powered “Shake That Ass” will surely find its way into the Scissor Sisters’ set list before too long. The one part where the Lovemakers differ from Bis is their preference to late ‘80s electro-pop than the early ‘80s incarnation. The title track, with a blistering violin solo from singer Lisa Light, and “We Should Be Taking Our Clothes Off” sound like the stuff that poured out of modern rock clubs in 1989, and that is not at all a bad thing. Light and fellow vocalist Scott Blonde aren’t going to win “American Idol” anytime soon, and the songwriting is far from consistent. But when Times of Romance hits, it hits big. They just need to hit more often. ~David Medsker (11/10/05)

The Lovely Feathers: Hind Hind Legs
Label: Equator 2006
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Because every country needs to throw their hat into the ring for the race to have the best early ‘80s art-pop styled band in the world, Canada – Quebec, to be specific – has offered up the Lovely Feathers, who have a tendency to emulate early XTC and Gang of Four as much as they do the Talking Heads and the Pixies. Unfortunately, it comes off as an exercise in trying too hard to be eccentric and artsy...and you call can this just my theory, but the CD booklet, which contains nothing but various odd artistic renderings (i.e. no lyrics whatsoever), will be called as Exhibit A. To be fair, they know quite well what they are; their very own website concedes that they’re “a band which toots blossomy, extractive post-punk-infused eccentric pop.” It doesn’t make Hind Hind Legs any easier to absorb, however; it’s just too all over the place. There are a few really solid songs that stand out, like “Frantic,” “In the Valley,” and “Rod Stewart,” but more often than not, you’re liable to write the Lovely Feathers off as the post-punk revival’s version of Barenaked Ladies...and I don’t mean that as a compliment. ~Will Harris (10/19/06)

Los Straitjackets: Twist Party
Label: Yep Roc 2006
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Yes, yes, YES. They sounded gassed on their 2003 album Supersonic Guitars in 3D, but everyone’s favorite Mexican wrestler mask-wearing surf guitar instrumentalists recharged the batteries big time by teaming up with the World Famous Pontani Sisters (a longtime staple of their live show) and Kaiser George to make the delightful Twist Party. Just try not shaking your money maker to the title track or “Twistin’ Out in Space.” Even better, the bonus DVD features an instructional video of the World Famous Pontani Sisters doing the Kitty Kat (the album’s best song), which is one of the sexiest things you’ll see this year or any other. A most welcome return to form from one of the most underappreciated bands on the scene. ~David Medsker (11/02/06)

Lucidream: Choose the Madness
Label: MAPL Records

The promotional material reads as follows: LuciDream is addictive. “Hip-Hop and Folk vocals, Funk and Rock riffs – poetic lyrics to lead you to new heights backed by a soundtrack that welcomes the passenger...but suggests a seatbelt.” Wow. The music is inventive and interesting, featuring piano, acoustic, flamenco and some electric guitar, bass, drums and percussion and some cello here and there. The problem is the vocalist, Manuel, delivers them in a very preachy, sometimes-singing, sometimes-spoken word, sometimes-rapping, but never really engaging manner. He sounds a bit whiny, angry and self-important, and wants you to know on “Nothing and Everything”: “I am an artist, probably the most powerful position on earth / I know I possess the skills to change lives ‘cause I did it to my Mom’s at birth” Okay, dude, whatever. He should pick a vocal style and work on developing it. ~R. David Smola (04/12/06)

Lucky Boys Confusion: How to Get Out Alive
Label: Townstyle/Sony BMG 2006
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Combining flavors of rock, pop, alternative, and punk is something that might seem easier than it is. Chicago band Lucky Boys Confusion has been doing it for ten years now, and their latest release, an EP called How to Get Out Alive is polished and hits the gas with a fury for all five songs. And therein lies the problem – that the record is an EP, because it leaves you wanting more. But fans of this band are going to take what they’re given, especially when that includes blazing tracks like “The Struggle” and “When Bad News Gets Worse.” Rounding things off are the ska-influenced “Like Rats from a Sinking Ship” and a blazing cover of Dramarama’s “Anything, Anything (I’ll Give You).” Keep writing, guys, and next time, please give us a few more songs. ~Mike Farley (11/02/06)

Steve Lukather & Friends: SantaMental
Label: Favored Nations

Steve Lukather is the guitarist and sometimes vocalist of Toto, who also has contributed to hundreds of other artists’ records from Don Henley to Quincy Jones. On SantaMental, Lukather and an impressive collection of guests, including Edgar Winter, Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai and Gregg Bissonette, explore three different styles for the Christmas songs they tackle. These approaches include traditional songs arranged with a fusion feel so the guitar work can star, a couple of originals that show off the underrated crooning of Lukather, and some real big band type arrangements of Christmas songs. The standout track on the record is “Jingle Bells,” on which Lukather duets with a very dead Sammy Davis Jr., a la Natalie Cole swinging with her father on “Unforgettable.” ~R. David Smola (12/22/05)

Thomas Lunch: Diagrams without Instructions
Label: Hi Fi Alliance 2007
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The rock landscape is littered with kid punk bands and wussy singer/songwriters, so it’s always refreshing when a guy like Thomas Lunch comes along. This dude is a singer and a songwriter, but his music is electronic-infused alternative rock that blurs the lines of genres and could fit nicely into a lot of them. Lunch’s debut on Hi Fi Alliance, Diagrams without Instructions, is not going to blow your mind, but it will make a nice diversion and addition to everything else you’re listening to these days. If you can wrap this around your ears, it’s like Thomas Dolby fronting Depeche Mode, but with a nineties feel ala Bush or Offspring. And somehow, Lunch manages to make it relevant to today. For that, you can’t say dude isn’t original. The best tracks are the ones with funny titles, like “Tater Tots and Robots” and “I Love You When You Throw a Fit,” and you might here the catchy “You Are My Drug” in one of those hip New York City dance clubs. The problem is that as a whole this record is good, but nothing really special.
~Mike Farley (03/09/07)

Machine Go Boom: Music for Parents
Label: Collectable Escalators 2007
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On “Small,” the first track on Machine Go Boom’s latest CD, the band sounds like it’s bringing back the great spirit of Krautrockers Faust; specifically, “Flashback Caruso” from The Faust Tapes. After that, it’s anyone’s game. “All the Way to PA” continues the gleeful acoustic spaz-pop that the band grooved to on Captain Obvious, while “Niagara Falls” sounds like a mélange of any number of good college bands from the early ‘90s. “Gentleman’s Reply” playfully thumbs its nose at classic punk, and “Mummy (Oh My)” sounds like the sort of thing Daniel Johnston might be doing if he had a good rockin’ band playing behind him. All in all, Music for Parents is a good time and furthers Machine Go Boom’s oddball brand of pop just a little further down the line. Fans will certainly enjoy it; new recruits may scratch their heads, but there’s undoubtedly something here that will catch their ears instantly.
~Jason Thompson (09/07/07)

Madness: 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection
Label: Hip-O/Universal

It’s unclear why the powers that be think there aren’t enough Madness compilations on the market, but they clearly think there is room for one more. They would be wrong. This is not to say that 20th Century Masters is a bad album – after all, it’s Madness, one of the best singles bands of all time –it’s just an inferior one. Culling ten singles and two B-sides from the band’s heyday, the album’s problem is that it’s missing too many signature songs (“My Girl,” “Embarrassment,” “Night Boast To Cairo,” “Baggy Trousers,” “The Prince,” and “Shut Up,” to name but a few) to justify its existence. Spend an extra four bucks and get the far superior Ultimate Collection instead, or better yet, find a cheap copy of the import Divine Madness, the Holy Grail of Madness compilations. ~David Medsker (06/17/05)

Madness: The Dangermen Sessions, Volume I
Label: V2 2005

Camden’s finest returns with their first record in six years, and it appears that they’ve been so busy gigging that they didn’t have time to write any new tunes. So they pulled a UB40 and covered a bunch of other people’s songs. In fact, the UB40 comparisons go further; the album is more steeped in reggae than the ska pop that made Madness’ name. Most of the songs covered here are Jamaican standards, like “Girl Why Don’t You?” and “Israelites,” but there’s also a cover of “You Keep Me Hanging On,” and a remake of “Lola” that defies description (and not in a good way). The band sounds tight, and the album isn’t overproduced like those later UB40 records were, but after a couple obligatory spins, you’ll be reaching for One Step Beyond before going back to listen to The Dangermen Sessions again. ~David Medsker (08/25/05)

Magnet: The Simple Life
Label: Filter 2007
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Magnet, a.k.a. Norwegian alternative/electro-pop artist Evan Johansen, is back with his third studio album, The Simple Life. It’s a reflection of Magnet’s life as a husband and father living on a farm in Norway, and while it may lack some of the edge of previous albums, this is clearly an artist who knows how to bang out songs. In fact, the only thing you can find fault in is that Magnet may have Josh Rouse disease – that is, he’s too prolific for his own good, resulting in a somewhat watered-down batch of music. Still, The Simple Life finds the ever-experimental Magnet enjoying his career, particularly on the upbeat and horn-infused “Lonely No More.” There’s also the reggae-inspired “She’s Gone,” banjo-laced “A Little Happier,” and the crooner-ish title track. And “Slice of Heaven” might be Magnet’s best song yet. All of these are symbols of that simple life Magnet has come to know, as well as the fun he seems to be having making music for us all. ~Mike Farley (10/12/07)

Magnetos!: Menage a Faux Pas
Label: Self-released 2007
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Magnetos! Hail from Tennessee and play a competent brand of blues-based rock with a dash of whimsy thrown into the mix. “Day in the Sun” yanks its main riff from Lenny Kravitz’s “Are You Gonna Go My Way” and changes it just enough to sort of make it the band’s own. “Daughter of Paducah” features some weepy fiddle playing and trips over onto the twangy side of the street. “Don’t Let Go” sports a standard Bo Diddley rhythm that many a bar bands favors, while “Still in Love with You” makes a decent attempt at a slower groove that manages to be an effective change of pace for the band. It’s nothing terribly booty shaking or classic, but Menage a Faux Pas captures the essence of many a local Tennessee bar band doing its thang in a studio setting.
~Jason Thompson (09/28/07)

Mando Diao: Ode To Ochrasy
Label: Mute 2007
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Swedish rockers Mando Diao have hung around for a few albums, long enough to show us that they are not like country-mates the Hives. That’s because in addition to delivering brash and raw garage rock music with an old-school punk formula, the band manages to find its way around melodies, too. Ode To Ochrasy is a continuation for Mando Diao, their third effort full of solid tunes that make you want to jump up and down or maybe even beat the crap out of someone. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun. With titles like “Welcome Home, Luc Robitaille” and “Killer Kaczynski,” you know that these guys don’t take themselves too seriously, and that’s refreshing. But more than that, “Long Before Rock ‘n’ Roll” takes a page from the Fratellis’ school of songs that fit on iPod commercials, and “Tony Zoulias (Lustful Life)” is as infectious as the common cold. There are even tender moments like on “Josephine,” but if Mando Diao wanted to do us all a favor, they would stick to the loud stuff. ~Mike Farley (04/20/07)

Roger Joseph Manning, Jr.: The Land of Pure Imagination
Label: Cordless Recordings 2006
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Talk about love at first spin. Roger Joseph Manning Jr., who helped usher in a whole new wave of Beatlesque power pop as a member of the late, great Jellyfish, finally gets around to making his first proper solo album, and boy, is it a doozy. From key-shifting rockers like “The Loser” to piano-driven boppers like “Too Late for Us Now” (an impeccable blending of Jellyfish and Ben Folds Five), Manning seems to have finally come to terms with his past, after experiments in glam (Imperial Drag) and oddball electronica (Moog Cookbook). Banjos, harpsichords, wah-wah guitars and Beach Boys harmonies abound – he even does a bossa nova number, the Astrud Gilberto-ish “Dragonfly” – and while it will have Jellyfish fans thanking their lucky stars, it will also have them cursing under their breath that they had to wait a ridiculous 13 years for this moment to arrive. But at least it arrived; Lord knows we’ll all be pushing up daisies before Andy Sturmer gets around to releasing anything. . ~David Medsker (10/19/06)

Marc Bolan & T. Rex: Born To Boogie
Label: Sanctuary

Recorded at Wembley in 1972 at the height of the band’s power and popularity, Born To Boogie is a stunning example of why England was in the throes of T. Rexstasy a year after the Beatles broke up. Lead singer Marc Bolan was an unflappable front man, but half the fun of Boogie is in the oddball moments with Ringo Starr (who shot the concert for a feature length film, now available on DVD), the impromptu cover of “Tutti Frutti” with Ringo and Elton John, and Tony Visconti’s idea to record Bolan singing four of his biggest songs with a string quartet. A second disc contains the concert in its entirety, minus the extra footage recorded for the movie, and Bolan & Co. indeed get it on. ~David Medsker (06/10/05)

Catya Mare: Light Longing
Label: No Label 2007
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Is there a New Age “scene”? If so, who’s in it? Aside from Enya's, is there any New Age music really worth listening to? Enigma’s all right, in a Peter Gabriel album-filler kind of way, and the same goes for Deep Forest and countless other New Age artists that embrace various forms of world music. The only other New Age artists of note are Secret Garden and ambient keyboard douchebags like Yanni and John Tesh. When compared to artists like those, Catya Mare really isn’t bad at all. The violinist’s tunes have more in common with early ambient pioneers like Kitaro or Jean Michael Jarre than any of her contemporaries, or even the artists she would probably cite as influences. Mare’s violin playing is absolutely beautiful and even if your disdain for New Age music is as deep and long as Yanni’s mustache you still might find yourself getting lost in beautiful tracks like “New Sunshine” and the “Just For A Walk.” Still, this is New Age music, and unless you are really into that kind of thing, then the appeal of her beautiful-but-overly-sedate tunes runs dry after a few listens. If Mare was willing to take a few more chances and branch out into more experimental territory with her unique style then she might just have something here. Right now it’s just good music for yoga class or your girlfriend’s bubble bath. ~James B. Eldred (03/22/07)

Mars Arizona: All Over the Road
Label: Big Barn Records

When Mars Arizona picks up the tempo just a bit from their normal country flow, the results are excellent. “He Broke Your Heart” is a wonderful pop flavored track featuring a haunting electric guitar riff throughout the song over the sad vocals of Paul Knowles. The opening and title track, “All Over the Road” is a neat little honky tonk stomper featuring the drumming of former Mellencamp star and current studio stud Kenny Aronoff. When the record slows down, which it does too often, the material is not nearly as interesting, nor are the vocals of Nicole Storto (the other half of the Mars duo) all that inspiring. There is potential here, it just is not fully realized yet. ~R. David Smola (02/09/06)

The Mars Volta: Scab Dates (Live)
Label: Emergent/92e

Remember when your Dad busted into your room and screamed at you to turn off that horrible noise that you considered music because it was making him insane and he couldn’t stand it anymore? He actually would have been completely justified if he was referencing Scab Dates, a live record documenting the last couple of years of touring for the Mars Volta. On some level, mathematicians who study complicated equations might enjoy this album, but to the regular ear, there is nothing here but noise. The high-pitch, balls-in-a-vice vocals of Cedric Bixler-Zavala, combined with the seemingly unstructured guitar noodling, may make you want to kill yourself. Or at the very least, kill them. ~R. David Smola (01/05/06)

Justin Martin: Chaos Restored
Label: Buzzin’ Fly Records 2007
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Justin Martin picked the tracks and mixed ‘em all together on this compilation. It doesn’t sound like it was a very daunting task – in fact, most of the tunes in this mix sound like they were discarded back in 1994 and left for dead. Rote “house” beats and synths that go “bloop” in the night and nary a pair of feet to be found dancing. So Dan Drastic’s “Somebody’s Touching Me” sounds just like Justin Martin’s “Nightowl,” which doesn’t sound too different from Martin’s “Ghetto Train,” except the blooping synths are taken away and the Radio Shack keyboard beats are sped up slightly. And so goes the entire 15-track mix with its variations on an old theme. There’s not enough meat on any of these tunes to get excited about, especially in the likes of Tanner Ross & Kilowatts’ “Kruger Fingers” or Shlobi Aber’s ungodly annoying “Freakside.” This is dance music for people who can’t be bothered. Destined for future bargain bins everywhere. ~Jason Thompson (10/05/07)

The Mary Dream: Beautiful World
Label: SuperUniverse

Their CD Baby page suggests that “if you take the Sundays, Sixpence None the Richer, Sarah McLachlan, Dido and Aimee Mann, and then sprinkle it with a little Travis, you might come up with something that resembles The Mary Dream.” Lord knows you can’t always trust comparisons found in press releases, but, really, while listening to Beautiful World, almost all of them prove valid. (I’m not entirely sold on the Travis.) In particular, lead singer Elise Belew sounds remarkably like Dido, albeit without the British accent, with the music on “Both Sides” particularly emphasizing the vocal similarity. For an album with a title cut that proclaims, “Despite what you’ve heard / It’s a beautiful world,” many of the melodies, such as “Where We Are,” are decidedly melancholy. Still, the lyrics are often spiritual in nature – don’t panic, they’re not denominationally specific – and, when examined in detail on the band’s website (sadly, they’re not included with the disc) prove ultimately uplifting. You’ll sway to “Stay,” you might get a little misty during “Say My Name,” and, if you like your female vocalists to sing sweetly rather than snarl, you’ll enjoy chilling out to Beautiful World. ~Will Harris (02/02/06)

Timo Mass: Pictures
Label: Ultra/Warner Bros.

German trance wonderboy Timo Maas goes for a more conventional sound on Pictures, with mixed results. “4 Ur Ears,” featuring Kelis on lead vocals, seems like the kind of song that a heavily sedated BT would make, but the majority of the album – “Big Chevy” in particular – sounds like music that thinks it’s the edgy score to what is in fact a B-grade action movie. Maas’ attempt to broaden his horizons is commendable, but in a world of electronic pop hyphenates, the bar is much, much higher than it used to be. If Maas wants to survive, he needs to step up his game. ~David Medsker (09/08/05)

Massive Attack: Collected
Label: Virgin 2006
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There may be better bands, but there are fewer bands cooler than Bristol’s Massive Attack. The laid back percussion, the indifferent rapping, the sinister chord progressions, and their impeccable taste in picking vocal collaborators have made them one of the most admired, and unique, bands of their time... which makes it an even greater shame that they’ve probably only sold about 750 copies of their albums, mostly to Hollywood executives (“Angel” showed up in a hundred trailers, and “Teardrop” is the theme to the Fox drama “House”). This collection of their first four albums is damn near bulletproof, from the ork-Goth masterpiece “Unfinished Sympathy” (which someone once brilliantly described as Soul II Soul meets Joy Division) to the slinky “Protection,” featuring the sorely missed Tracey Thorn (come back, Everything but the Girl, we beg you). Like most compilations, though, there are a few songs that we wished had made the cut, notably “Man Next Door” (Horace Andy is God) and “Be Thankful for What You’ve Got.” But overall, Collected is as definitive a collection of one of music’s most underappreciated bands as you’re likely to find. ~David Medsker (04/27/06)

Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs: Under the Covers, Volume I
Label: Shout Factory

Bruce Brodeen surely wept tears of joy when he heard this album. (For those who don’t know, Brodeen runs NotLame Records, and is one of classic pop’s last men standing.) The sun-kissed voices of Matthew Sweet and everyone’s favorite Bangle Susanna Hoffs, covering a treasure trove of ‘60s tunes both famous and obscure? Get the insulin, I think the power pop community is going into shock. And rightly so: their cover of “Cinnamon Girl” makes one wish Sweet and Hoffs would sing every song Neil Young writes, their version of the Bee Gees’ “Run to Me” is staggering, and it’s fitting that they covered “Different Drum” (the original of which featured a young Linda Ronstadt) since it sounds just like a Bangles song. If the album is missing anything, it’s a dose of raunch to match their sweet, sweet vocals, ala Sweet’s Girlfriend. As it is, the album is just a little too pretty for its own good. But that doesn’t make us want an Under the Covers, Volume II any less. More, please. ~David Medsker (04/20/06)

Michael Mazzarella: Grey Over an Autumn Winter
Label: Angelica 2007
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As frontman for NYC’s the Rooks, Michael Mazzarrella is considered a minor pop deity by those well-versed in the indie power pop scene, having been responsible for one of the definitive albums of the genre with their self-titled 1994 debut. The Rooks, however, have not been what you’d call terribly prolific – they haven’t put put a proper album since 1999 – so it’s basically fallen to Mazzarella to go solo if he’s of a mind to release any new music, which is what he’s done. It more or less started with 1997’s Methods of a Mad Rook, a collection of solo demos of Rooks tracks, which was followed in 2004 by the surprising decision to release the live DVD, Only Hope for Winter, but now we’re finally privy to a proper solo debut…and, wow, it’s pretty depressing. (Not that the title doesn’t already show the album’s hand a bit.) Depressing doesn’t immediately equal bad, however. Mazzarrella’s gift for melody is still evident; it’s just placed in more sparse surroundings. “She Said” and “The Colder It Gets, the Deeper We Fall” are both rather sinister takes on piano pop, the blend of strings and harmonies on “Winter Over Me” make for a heartbreaking listen, and songs like “Here Alone,” “Dear Mariann,”and the epic “You Like Me” find Mazzarella treading very close to the territory explored by Robyn Hitchcock on I Often Dream of Trains. Listening to this record on a rainy day could have dangerous repercussions, but after several spins, one is likely to discover a minor-key masterpiece lurking in the shadows. ~Will Harris (03/31/07)

Megan McCauley: Better than Blood
Label: Wind-Up 2007
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Cleveland, Ohio native Megan McCauley is influenced by the likes of Janis Joplin, but her music has much more of a modern pop feel to it. McCauley’s debut album on Wind-Up, Better than Blood, is the kind of rock-edged pop that might just make Pink and Avril Lavigne jealous. In fact, at times this is more like a harder version of Alanis Morisette, but McCauley is who she is, and that is someone you should draw onto your rock radar. “Fragile” is pure radio magic if it’s given the opportunity; “Tap That” is a goofy, sexy, romp; and the soaring ballad, “Wonder” rivals any of Amy Lee’s hits. Now for the best part: McCauley is only 19 years old, which means her star potential is on the front side of its bell curve. So there it is. Look out for Miss McCauley, because not only will she stand out in a crowd, but her music will stand out in a crowded sea of cookie-cutter pop music. ~Mike Farley (11/09/07)

Neal McCoy: That’s Life
Label: 903 Music

With a string of hits and three platinum albums to his credit during the ‘90s, Neal McCoy has already had a lifetime of musical success. But as cold as the music industry is, the sinking sales of his last two records found McCoy on his own and in limbo for a few years before releasing That’s Life on his own 903 Music label. A solid collection of songs that include the pure pop country bliss of “Last of a Dying Breed,” to the beautiful ballad “Let Me Be the Hero,” to the Texas twang of “Tail on the Tailgate,” there’s something for every fan of country music here, and McCoy’s voice is stronger than ever. He even takes things a step further with the hilarious “Billy’s Got His Beer Goggles On” and a fresh take on Charlie Pride’s “You’re My America.” ~Mike Farley (08/25/05)

Kate & Anna McGarrigle: The McGarrigle Christmas Hour
Label: Nonesuch

This set from Kate and Anna McGarrigle (who happen to be Rufus Wainwright’s mother and aunt) is a somber affair – which is to be expected – but it’s also lovely. The whole family gets together to harmonize on “Old Waits Carol,” and Rufus’ “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” would fit right in with Wainwright’s Want One album. Flutes and violins abound, and Martha Wainwright (Rufus’ sister) and cousin Lily Lanken put a little country sass into “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.” The album loses its Christmas spirit a bit on “Counting Stars,” where Vinnie Dow tells this hard luck story about making a mess of his life – “Fairytale of New York” was no picnic, either, but at least it had some giddy-up – but Rufus steers the album back into more upbeat, if equally dark, territory with his song “Spotlight on Christmas,” which first appeared on 2003’s Maybe This Christmas Too. In the end, it’s a traditional Christmas album, with a dash of the McGarrigle/Wainwright sensibility. ~David Medsker (12/22/05)

James McMurtry: American Masters Series: Best of the Sugar Hill Years
Label: Sugar Hill 2007
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James McMurtry is one of those folk guys who never quite got his proper due during his major-label stint (he was on Columbia for three albums from the late ‘80s ‘til the mid-‘90s), and it’s a little inexplicable, given his associations with major-label names like John Mellencamp, Dwight Yoakam, John Prine, and Joe Ely. Fortunately for McMurtry, the critics always liked him – his vocal similarity to Lou Reed probably didn’t hurt him any on that front – so he was able to make a seamless transition to the highly-regarded Sugar Hill Records and begin life anew as an indie artist. Sugar Hill has recently taken to releasing anthologies of their performers’ best material, and it’s resulted in a nice sampling of McMurtry’s work for the label; the collection provides a solid look at the work of an artist who was doing the Americana thing before anyone tried to make it marketable. If you were wondering, yes, James is related to writer Larry McMurtry; James is Larry’s son, and it’s clear that some of Dad’s favorite topics have been passed on to his offspring. (See “No More Buffalo,” “Lobo Town,” and “Sixty Acres” for proof.) If you like what you hear here, don’t be afraid to go pick up these albums, as well as the others McMurtry’s recorded; they’re all worthy of investigation. ~Will Harris (06/22/07)

Me First and the Gimme Gimmes: Love Their Country
Label: Fat Wreck Chords 2006
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If you’re not familiar with this group, Me First is a pop/punk covers band comprised of members of other punk groups (such as Mike Burkett of NOFX and Spike Slawson of the $wingin’ Utter$). In the past, the group has covered Billy Joel, Neil Diamond, “The Rainbow Connection,” and everything in between. This is their first big foray into country and western music. They mainly stick to safe standards like Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” the Eagles’ “Desperado,” and “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky.” Like other albums by this group, the novelty wears off pretty fast, but the covers of “East Bound and Down” and “Lookin’ for Love” are pretty nifty. Plus the band goes into somewhat newer territory with “Goodbye Earl” by the Dixie Chicks that’s none too shabby. Apparently most any kind of musical genre can be reduced into a punk stew. Maybe someday these guys will tackle some techno for the hell of it. ~Jason Thompson (11/02/06)

David Mead: Wherever You Are
Label: Eleven Thirty

After serving time in RCA’s vaults for almost three years, six songs from David Mead’s intended follow-up to 2001’s splendid Mine and Yours finally, thankfully, see the light of day. It picks up right where Mine and Yours left off, with producer Stephen Hague (New Order, Pet Shop Boys) wisely leaving his drum machines at home and letting Mead do his thing. The title track is one of his best, an exquisitely crafted classic pop song highlighted by his flawless tenor, and “Hold On” is a gem as well. The man is one soundtrack contribution away from finding the audience he so richly deserves. ~David Medsker (06/24/05)

mellowdrone: Box
Label: 3 Entertainment / Red Ink / Columbia

And from our “truth in advertising” department comes the debut full-length album from Mellowdrone, who do indeed produce a mellow drone on the lead-off track, “C’mon Try a Little Bit.” Although it’s a song title that seems like it should appear on an album by a teenaged flirt of a girl, that’s a suspicion which is way off base. Mellowdrone is the brainchild of one Jonathan Bates – who’s released a few EP’s under this moniker over the past few years (a few of the tracks from which have been recycled here) – and the sound is a little bit old-school Cure (“And Repeat,” “Bone Marrow”), a fair amount of more-recent Depeche Mode (“Four Leaf Clover” and “Beautiful Day”), and some new-wave revival (“Orange Marmalade”). There’s even a hint of Pink Floyd in closing number “Limb to Limb.” Things really don’t tend to get very upbeat, excepting the single-worthy “Whatever the Deal,” and Bates’s voice has a definite “woe is me” quality to it; as a result, a fair amount of the material may prove a bit too melancholy to inspire repeat spins. If given the chance, however, regular airplay may result in many of the tracks, “Bone Marrow” being a perfect example, getting stuck in your head. ~Will Harris (04/04/06)

Mexico 70: Thirty-Five Whirlpools Below Sound
Label: Toucan Cove (available on iTunes only)

British rock band Mexico 70 has been around since the mid-‘90s, but most of you have probably never heard of them. Without hearing their previous material, it’s hard to tell if their first effort on the Toucan Cove label is an improvement over earlier records, but it’s certainly a better than average pop/rock offering. Tracks like “Hello Hello” and “In Everything” feature crunchy guitars and breezy harmonies, but upbeat alt-rockers like “End of the World” showcase this band’s versatility and songwriting prowess. Think Elvis Costello meets the Juliana Theory, add in a pinch of ‘80s rockers A.P.B., and you’ve got Mexico 70. Play this one in your car, and you’ll probably wind up with a speeding ticket. ~Mike Farley (03/23/06)

The Mexicolas: The Mexicolas
Label: In Exile

Mexicolas frontman Jamie Evans is only 24, but lord knows he’s packed enough into those years to make him the envy of musicians everywhere. As lead singer of UK rockers Lukan, he spent his late teens and early twenties opening for the likes of Alice Cooper, Def Leppard, and, uh, Wheatus. The touring lifestyle got the best of him, however, and he gave up the gig in favor of returning home to Birmingham and writing more songs. Now, he’s teamed up with percussionist Tim Trotter (late of the band Amersham) and bassist Ben Drummond, and the musical result is less about the Leppard and more about an unlikely cross between Catherine Wheel, the Queens of the Stone Age, and Paul Weller. These six songs were produced and mixed at DEP International Studios (home of UB40) by Danny Sprigg, one of the few in the music industry who can say he’s worked with both Napalm Death and the Ocean Colour Scene. Evans’ vocal resemblance to Rob Dickinson is remarkable, but its his swirling psychedelic guitar work on lead track, “Easy Smile,” that first catches the ear. The rock here isn’t as hard as what Evans may have done in the past, but the material is still decidedly propulsive and unquestionably melodic. With the BBC recently spotlighting the band online and Evans’s resume, look for the NME to be falling all over themselves to praise the band in the coming months. ~Will Harris (10/27/05)

Michael John & The Bottom Line: From the Roots
Label: Self-released

This Southern California band has all the elements of a great blues band -- solid musicianship, better than average songs, and the raw power of lead vocalist Michael John. At times this record seems to be a bit of a minor league release production-wise, but everything else makes up for it. I would love to see these guys live, because I’m quite sure that’s where they are best suited. The melancholy and soulful “Can’t Let Go” is worth the price of admission. ~Mike Farley (04/29/05)

Ingrid Michaelson: Girls and Boys
Label: Cabin 24 2007
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New York based singer and songwriter Ingrid Michaelson is one among a plethora of new artists that have used the magic of network television to help launch their careers, thanks to the lack of radio breaking new acts these days. Michaelson’s music has been featured on “Grey’s Anatomy,” but an appearance on “Good Morning America”didn’t hurt either. Why the fuss? Michaelson is about as compelling as they come. Girls and Boys, her self-released debut, displays an absolutely riveting vocal quality delivering songs that are as easy to listen to as they are interesting. You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone as good as Michaelson among the unsigned acts that aspire to be like Sarah McLachlan or Tori Amos. Among a collection of songs that are all well-written and smartly arranged, the best are the simple piano track, “Breakable,” the Feist-ish “The Way I Am,” and the slickly produced “Starting Now.” You’ll want to keep an eye on Michaelson – or perhaps an ear to your TV set, as it were. ~Mike Farley (09/21/07)

Michelangelo: Future Perfect
Label: Two Shoes

You’d think that a band calling themselves Michelangelo is really just setting itself up for trouble, wouldn’t you? Well, actually, the band’s frontman is named Michelangelo Sosnowitz, so they’re not bringing any artistic pretensions to the table...but they are bringing the funk. Some of it, anyway, like “Poison” and “Look,” the latter sounding like they borrowed whoever was playing bass for Stevie Wonder circa the late ‘70s. “Never Let You Know,” however, is decidedly Beatlesque, while the piano on “Crazy Girl” brings to mind Keane, and “Grace” has a Becker / Fagen vibe going on. As you can probably tell, things are, musically speaking, all over the place; at the very least, the listener never gets bored, but, on the other hand, it’s hard to really pin down anything that’s a proper “Michelangelo sound.” A pop/rock/jazz hybrid isn’t the easiest thing to recommend unreservedly, particularly when the band’s bio offers a ridiculously overblown quote about how Sosnowitz’s music has been described as “Keane flirting with Tori Amos at Coldplay’s house while Annie Lennox, in a David Bowie sort of mood, throws some Steely Dan on the stereo.” Future Perfect is good, and it portends a potentially bright future for Michelangelo if they can tighten up their sound a little bit...but it ain’t THAT good. ~Will Harris (02/02/06)

The Midway State: Met a Man On Top of the Hill
Label: Interscope 2007
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It’s hard to pin down which style of music Toronto-based band The Midway State should be classified under. It’s most aptly melodic alternative rock, with flavors of pop, emo, and punk. But mostly it’s good. Met a Man On top Of the Hill is the band’s major label release, with no plans that anyone knows of for a full-length, and all it does is whet your appetite for what might lie ahead. Fronted by piano-playing singer and songwriter Nathan Ferraro, the Midway State delivers four songs that range from mid-tempo anthems (title track) to the Ben Folds-ish (“Change for You”) to stunning ballad (“Nobody Understands”). In fact, Ferraro’s voice has an ‘80s quality to it, and “Nobody Understands” has the feel of Alphaville’s classic “Forever Young.” In all, these four songs are solid, well-produced, and likely the start of bigger things for this young band. ~Mike Farley (08/17/07)

Ministry: Rantology
Label: Sanctuary

While resident industrialist Al Jourgenson assembles the next Ministry record, he recharged his batteries by remixing some of his better known tracks from the last 15 years. It’s loud, fast and mean – the first four songs, including “No W Redux” and “The Great Satan,” are one giant “fuck you” to both George W. Bush and his father – but after a while they tend to cancel each other out. The most eye-opening moments are more atypical ones, like the live version of the tragic “The Fall” (if you’re looking for the song that gave birth to Linkin Park, it’s this) or the tempo-jumping “Thieves.” “Jesus Built My Hotrod,” one of the best singles of the ‘90s, is here, but Jourgenson, for whatever reason, seems afraid to do anything to it. Pity, really; we would have thought Jourgenson would attack a project like this with a little more tenacity. ~David Medsker (10/06/05)

Mink: Mink
Label: Grey Nurse 2007
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There are so many groups that become buzz bands due to media hype saying they should be buzz bands. Mink is not one of them. The New York based rock band is no-frills, and all about bringing the rock in a way that few bands seem to today. Mink draws from backgrounds in rock, punk, and even hardcore jazz—something that contributes to their stellar musicianship. But what makes Mink a band worth paying attention to is a set of songs that are really good without trying too hard to be. Most of the album is something worth turning the volume way up and driving really fast along with, such as on “Get It Right” and “Talk to Me.” But Mink is more than a good loud band, and they really shine on the more melodic “Madame Chung” and “Crazy World.” Without saying Mink is the next big thing, let’s just say it’s easy to draw comparisons to the Ramones or even the Rolling Stones. You’ve been warned – now go see if this buzz is real. ~Mike Farley (09/21/07)

Mobile: Tomorrow Starts Today
Label: The Militia Group 2007
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French Canadian band Mobile has played the hipster circuit with acts like Kasabian, Arctic Monkeys and Sigur Rós. This has instantly given them street cred, but make no mistake—Mobile is a pop/rock band wrapped in alternative clothing. The songs aren’t earth shattering, but they are catchy, driving and extremely listenable. In other words, Mobile knows how to craft a good song, and they deliver it with just enough edge to guarantee fans from different spectrums. Tomorrow Starts Today is an assault on the ears without being annoying, and a lot of the songs have an ‘80s bent that mirrors some of the modern rock acts of today (see above for references). The balls-to-the-wall title track, as well as the punchy, guitar-laden “How Can I Be Saved?,” are two of the best songs, but you won’t find many clunkers here. Mobile is definitely a band to keep an eye on—hip, yet with just enough pop sensibility to help them rise above the obscure. ~Mike Farley (07/20/07)

Monstrance: Monstrance
Label: Ape 2007
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Andy Partridge is a treasure. His work with XTC has produced some of the greatest pop songs of the last 30 years (well, that’s my take, anyway; your personal mileage may vary), and his work with others as a musician, songwriter, and producer has resulted in further moments of musical greatness. That’s why it’s such a shame that Monstrance, Partridge’s collaboration with Shriekback founder (and former XTC keyboardist) Barry Andrews and drummer Martyn Barker, is such a profound disappointment. The experience of recording this two-disc set was undoubtedly a thrill for the trio, given that it was completely improvised live in the studio, but the experience of actually listening to it is far from enthralling. Take this for what it is – the mindset of someone who isn’t a musician himself – but Monstrance sounds like a bunch of random, meandering jazz noodling; there’s nothing inherently awful about it, but it’s little more than aural wallpaper. There are occasional stretches that’ll catch your ear for a few seconds, but, disappointingly, it rarely rises above the level of not-very-interesting background music. No doubt, those with more discerning ears will declare Monstrance an avant-garde classic for the ages, but as an XTC fan with a preference for music that contains at least some semblance of a “hook,” just the one spin will do fine, thanks. ~Will Harris (03/31/07)

The Moog: Sold for Tomorrow
Label: Musick 2007
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Playing rockin', straightforward pop-punk with singalong hooks, this Budapest quintet adds fuzz to everything – even vocals – to make it sound a little like the best bands from the early 1980s post-Pistols garage-rock revival. Whatever it is this group is doing in the mix to make it sound cool, it's working. Standout cuts come back-to-back, batting second and third in Sold for Tomorrow's lineup: "Everybody Wants" and its fast-paced backbeat and British-invasion chorus, followed by "I Don't Want You Now," an addictive, crashy little number invoking yelling in the background as a rhythmic device á la the Hives. Not to take anything away from the band's songwriting, which is pretty good, but perhaps that unquantifiable something that makes this record a fun listen is the participation of Jack Endino – the Seattle engineer who helped hone Nirvana's sound, and whose Endino's Earthworm records define Seattle grunge more than Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, or even Cobain's boys. Back to the Moog: It's a tasty little disc that is, despite the name, mostly synth-free. ~Mojo Flucke, Ph.d. (04/06/07)

Monta: The Brilliant Masses
Label: Klein 2006
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Monta is one of those one-man-band dudes who go by a stage name, and his music is melodic indie electro-pop along the lines of another M-word person/band, Magnet. Monta, or Tobias Kuhn, is the former lead singer of Miles, and if you’ve never heard of them or him, it’s time you lent an ear. The Brilliant Masses is rife with powerful melodies and moods that swing from upbeat to dark, from sweltering to freezing, with an ease that could only be the result of a songwriting gift. There’s plenty of Death Cab wannabes out there, but Monta comes off as sincerely original, evoking all kinds of emotions but ultimately a cool, inner peace. The whole batch of songs is perfect rainy day or snowy day music, but standing out from the pack are the triumphant “Good Morning Stranger” and blissfully beautiful “Everything.” It’s a stretch to call The Brilliant Masses brilliant, but it’s really damn good.
~Mike Farley (01/11/07)

Van Morrison: Pay the Devil
Label: Lost Highway

Appropriately, Van “The Man” Morrison makes his recording debut with Americana label Lost Highway with a collection of songs that are, minus three originals, old-school country covers. And when we say “old school,” it’s no exaggeration; we’re talking songs recorded by Jimmy Dean (“There Stands the Glass”), Patsy Cline (“Half as Much”), Sonny Burgess (“My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It”), and Hank Williams (“Your Cheatin’ Heart”). He even offers high praise to a more recent artist – Rodney Crowell – by recording his song, “Till I Gain Control Again,” for the closing track. (To be fair, Crowell’s song has also been recorded by Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Emmylou Harris, so it’s been around the block a few times, even if it was only written in the late ‘70s.) Among such classics, it’s the highest of praise that, unless you’re connoisseur of the genre, you’ll never spot Morrison’s originals – “Playhouse,” the title cut, and “This Has Got to Stop” – amongst the covers. Of the trio, they’re all stellar, but it’s the last that’s probably the best; you can imagine it being covered by Nelson or George Jones. On the whole, though, Pay the Devil will likely be remembered as a rather a slight release for Van. Sure, his gravelly, bluesy growl is effective on the songs, and the fiddling around that serves as his musical backing is equal turns cheery and mournful. It serves as a tribute to his inspirations, but it ultimately leaves the listener ready and waiting for the next all-original album. ~Will Harris (03/23/06)

Morrissey: Live at Earls Court
Label: Sanctuary

Recorded last December in front of 17,000 faithful, this 18-track set is Moz-o-rama at its finest. Of course, it doesn’t have everything a die hard would want, eschewing the earlier solo material (nothing from Viva Hate, for example) in favor of the new stuff (You Are the Quarry is very well represented), a well chosen cover (the New York Dolls’ “Subway Train”) and even some Smiths classics (he opens with “How Soon is Now?” and closes with the heartbreaking “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me”). The band sounds fantastic, though there’s the sense that they’re holding back slightly, as if they’re afraid of stepping on each other’s toes. Moz’s between-song banter could also use some work – it sounds as if he’s constantly quoting Oscar Wilde, poorly – but his voice is in top form. Overall, this is a must-have for any fan of Morrissey, past or present. ~David Medsker (04/15/05)

Moth: Immune to Gravity
Label: Hey Domingo! 2006
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There’s nothing inherently wrong with Moth’s Immune to Gravity...and, yet, on first listen, I couldn’t help but recall when the band put out their Virgin Records debut-cum-swansong, Provisions, Fictions, and Gear, in 2002. It wasn’t a bad album – in fact, the single "I See Sound" was damned good – but it didn’t sound nearly as new-wavy as this, which made me tempted to accuse Moth of being scene-hoppers...and I hate scene-hoppers. Still, any band who freely admits to drawing influence from the Cars, Devo, Wire, and the Boomtown Rats while writing and recording their album deserves kudos; plus, the chorus of opener "Helpless" actually has an Adam Ant yodel to its chorus, and you just don’t hear many people attempting that these days. As Immune to Gravity progresses, it becomes less about the angular pop and more about the guitar-rock that the band had been doing before; the title cut and "Constantly On" particularly show off their ability in this field. "Perfect" stands out because it’s a gentle ballad...the only gentle thing on the disc, frankly...and "Supermodel" is reminiscent of Fountains of Wayne. Immune to Gravity won’t be immune to criticism, but give it a few spins and you might find yourself liking it better than you’d first expected. ~Will Harris (10/12/06)

The Mother Hips: Red Tandy EP
Label: Camera

When Greg Loiacono, one of the leaders of the Mother Hips, left the band in 2001, the future of the group was in doubt. But the group is back and in good form with the release of the Red Tandy EP. There are two versions of “Red Tandy,” which is a track that brings to mind David Bowie’s pop-oriented work. Its classic rock guitar and California harmonies are pretty addictive, making it one of the better songs of 2005. The other two tracks, “Blue Tomorrow” and “Colonized,” aren’t as notable, and the opening riff of the latter sounds like a rework of Tom Petty’s “Refugee.” Though a full-length release would have been better, the title track definitely makes the EP a worthwhile listen. ~John Paulsen (01/12/06)

Moonlight Towers: Like You Were Never There
Label: Spinster 2006
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When you’re on MySpace and you freely admit that your stock and trade is music journalism, you have to be prepared to be approached by many bands cheerily offering you a copy of their CD to review. The good news is, hey, free CD! The bad news, however, is that – to put it mildly – they ain’t all winners. Fortunately, the Moonlight Towers produce some enjoyable tunes. Hailing from Austin, Texas, home of more quality musical artists that you can readily shake a stick at, the Moonlight Towers blend the Americana sounds you’d expect from their neck of the woods with an obvious love of British pop/rock. Producer Mike Napolitano (Andrew Bird, the Twilight Singers) took the Towers to New Orleans to record their sophomore effort, Like You Were Never There, and the result is a rollicking good time, full of songs that even on first listen you can sense will make for a kick-ass concert experience. Yeah, okay, the songs sometimes drift into a mainstream rock sound that makes you suspect the Towers might be more about scoring a hit than really following their artistic muse. There are worse sins one can commit. Plus, the packaging on this album – a fold-out album cover with a string-tie flap holding in the disc itself – is pretty awesome. ~Will Harris (10/12/06)

Motion Picture Soundtrack: Saw III
Label: Warcon Records 2006
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That Jigsaw might be a ruthless killer, but at least he has a pretty good taste in music. The “Saw III” soundtrack is more or less a mishmash of various degrees of hard rock and metal. There’s the mainstream (Disturbed, Avenged Sevenfold, Drowning Pool), the extreme (Lamb of God, Ministry, Mastodon), the in-between (All That Remains, Slayer, The Smashup, Ghost Machine), the semi-friendly (Blue October, Hourcast, Helmet), and the flat-out awful (Static X, Meshuggah). Shawnee Smith, co-star of the film, contributes some backup vocals to a pretty nifty track called “Killer Inside” by Hydrovibe. Also included is the blood-pumping “S*!thole Theme” by Charlie Clouser that is a “Saw” series essential. All in all this is a pretty solid collection for fans of the genre. ~Bill Clark (10/26/06)

Motion Picture Soundtrack: Running with Scissors
Label: EMI 2006
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Having not yet seen the film to which this soundtrack belongs, it’s impossible for me to gauge it in its proper context, but from the perspective of whether or not the set is worth spinning, that’d be a big, fat “absolutely.” The opener – Average White Band’s “Pick Up the Pieces” – remains a funky track, though surely everyone already has it in their collection through one compilation or other. It’s followed by two of the ‘70s greatest radio hits, Manfred Mann’s “Blinded by the Light” and 10cc’s “The Things We Do for Love,” after which we get the only brand-new song on the disc: Catherine Feeny’s “Mr. Blue.” (Feeny’s debut album, Hurricane Glass, features the track as well.) It’s an original, but it fits comfortably beside the material which surrounds it, like the 5th Dimension’s “One Less Bell to Answer” and Phoebe Snow’s “Poetry Man.” There’s other good stuff here, too, like Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets,” Al Stewart’s “Year of the Cat” and Vince Guaraldi’s jazzy version of “O Tannenbaum,” but it’s more like a jumbled mix tape than a cohesive entity. ~Will Harris (10/26/06)

Alison Moyet: Voice
Label: Sanctuary

The soulful voice of Yaz pulls a Rod Stewart and makes an album of standards, traditionals and the assorted Costello or Bacharach track, with Anne Dudley running the orchestra. Moyet’s lovely voice, however, cannot save the material, which is obscure to say the least. “The Wraggle Taggle Gypsies-O!”? “Dido’s Lament: When I am Laid in Earth”? Kudos to Moyet for choosing some decidedly out of the ordinary material, but outside of Moyet’s family (many of the selections are her mother’s favorite song, her sister’s favorite song, etc.), there are probably six other people in the world that will find this collection entertaining. For the rest of us, unfortunately, it’s rather dull, like some family in-joke that no one else is in on. ~David Medsker (09/29/05)

Mr. North: Lifesize Plus 3
Label: Rock Ridge

Mr. North has been a young up and coming band from Dublin, Ireland for the past few years, though it seems to be taking the rest of the world a bit longer to catch on. Their debut, Lifesize, was released in 2004 and re-released in late 2005 as Lifesize Plus 3 on the Rock Ridge label. This is a rock band that is going to, fairly or unfairly, be compared to their powerhouse country mates, U2. And certainly with front man Colin Smith’s enormous vocal range, there is an obvious Bono influence – though the band’s bio accurately compares Smith to Freddy Mercury and Thom Yorke as well. More accurately than trying to pigeonhole Mr. North, this is simply a really good rock band – with songs that are emotive, driving and just waiting to be cranked up. There are some clunkers on here, but for the most part Lifesize Plus 3 is a solid effort that should continue to garner accolades in alternative rock circles on both sides of the pond. ~Mike Farley (01/12/06)

Music & Lyrics: Music from the Motion Picture
Label: Atlantic/WEA 2007
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Don’t get up on your formulaic-romantic-comedy high horse around me, Sunny Jim; the soundtrack to “Music and Lyrics” is the most unabashedly fun collection of fake hits since Tom Hanks introduced us to a little soundtrack called That Thing You Do! -- and possibly not coincidentally, both of these albums included the compositions of Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne). If you’ve seen the film, you already know the premise: Hugh Grant is a member of a band who was, as they say, big in the ‘80s, and he’s presented with the opportunity to write a new song for a current pop diva. The problem? He writes crap lyrics. Enter Drew Barrymore as his new collaborator. So, basically, we get a blend of faux-‘80s songs and modern-day dance-pop. The former are sung by Grant himself and provide the most fun, with the Martin Fry sound of “Pop! Goes My Heart” only narrowly beating out Schlesinger’s fab riff on Wham!’s “Careless Whisper” (entitled “Meaningless Kiss”) as the best moment. The latter, sung by Haley Bennett, feature goofy titles like “Buddha’s Delight” and “Entering Bootytown,” but that doesn’t make them any less infectious. There’s also an enjoyable track from the Sounds (“Tony the Beat”) and a rather boring song from Teddybears (“Different Sound”), but neither mater much; the original material is what you want to hear, anyway. Well, except maybe for Drew Barrymore’s contribution on “Way Back into Love.” There’s a reason Woody Allen didn’t let her sing in “Everyone Says I Love You,” you know. ~Will Harris (06/08/07)

Music from the Motion Picture Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Label: Warner Bros.

Potterphiles have likely snatched this up already, where composer Patrick Doyle makes his “Potter” debut and creates a score that is equal parts John Williams and Danny Elfman. But rockers may be interested in the final three tracks, which are performed by the Hogwarts Yule Ball house band the Weird Sisters, featuring Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker and a couple members of Radiohead. The stomper “Do the Hippogriff” sounds like a track from the Potter universe’s equivalent of Billy Idol, but the best bit is the album’s closing ballad, “Magic Works,” which is vintage Pulp pomp complete with the London Symphony Orchestra. Still, the album is 95% score, 5% rock, so proceed accordingly. ~David Medsker (12/15/05)

Music from the Motion Picture Monster-in-Law
Label: New Line

As the soundtrack to a cross-generational slapstick chick-flick (and might I also add, “Hix Nix Stix Pix”), there was never any reason to suspect that the music from the Jane Fonda – Jennifer Lopez vehicle, “Monster-in-Law,” would be anything less predictable than the film to which it belongs. Whoops. Turns out that it’s a collection of some of the best female singers working in the biz (with a token male voice, courtesy of Magnet) and a great way to introduce the mainstream to their work. Nellie McKay and Joss Stone have been scoring press for a few years, but Dar Williams, who gets all the plaudits but few of the sales, wins big with the closing track, “The Beauty of the Rain.” It’s nice to see Ivy, and Tegan and Sara here as well, but the real discovery is Esthero’s “Everyday Is A Holiday (With You)”; co-written with Sean Lennon, it’s a lovely pop confection that’s sweet as sugar and goes down smooth no matter how many times you hear it. ~Will Harris (06/24/05)

Music Video: Fireproof Your TV
Label: Music Video Music

When BE music despot Jason Thompson gutted the Audio Bullys like a cockney techno fish, he said that he had heard kids in their bedrooms make more exciting songs with mixing software than this. Music Video – once a duo, now reduced to a one-man band since this album’s release – is one of those bedroom kids. The debut, Fireproof Your TV, is the kind of album Kid A meant to be, before it just went all batshit crazy. Leadoff track “Watercolors” is like “Everything in its Right Place” getting a workover from Aphex Twin, with a rat-tat-tat drum track, maudlin keys and a disconnected vocal that’s hacked to bits, and “Another Borderline Emergency” is the kind of song that the Blue Nile would kill for. Paul Jenkins’ vocals are a tad too airy at times – the soaring “Somewhere between Blue and Gray” could have greatly benefited from a stronger performance – but the keys to good electronic pop are all here, with unforgettable rhythm tracks and top notch songwriting. Once again, thank heaven for MySpace, or this gem of a record would have eluded us. ~David Medsker (02/16/06)

National Product: Luna
Label: R&M 2007
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National Product drops their debut album, Luna, smack in the middle of summer, just in time for the Warped Tour and X-Games to be in full swing. And there are elements of that skate-punk type of music, but for the most part there is more of a rock swagger to this band with roots in the Hawaiian island of Oahu. With aggressive guitars, solid vocals and really nice harmonies, this band comes off as less of a Fall Out Boy or Sum 41 and more like a Butch Walker or Breaking Benjamin. In fact, there are even moments here when you might be reminded of ‘80s heroes Night Ranger. The opening two tracks, “By All Means” and “Collision,” have the most MTV potential, but National Product, and in particular lead singer Danny Casler, really show their versatility with a nice acoustic-tinged power ballad called “Love Me.” Even fans of heavier stuff will dig on the likes of “Valentine,” which takes off at warped (no pun, really) speed. Sometimes it’s easy to pick on bands like this, but not when they know how to write hooky songs as this band does. ~Mike Farley (08/17/07)

Needtobreathe: Daylight
Label: Atlantic

South Carolina-based rock band Needtobreathe might still be unknown on most fronts, but look out. Vocally and sonically, these guys are at times like a clone of powerhouse band Lifehouse, but with songs that rock a bit harder and faster. On Daylight, their major label debut, the songs are catchy and even more memorable. With driving guitars and backbeat, as well as the occasional piano, Needtobreathe is going to find that corner of the world where (in radio terms) active rock meets AAA, meaning that they have the potential for mass appeal. This is also one of those bands, like Lifehouse and Switchfoot, that might have Christian values, but don’t flaunt it and aren’t marketed that way. Songs like “Shine On” and “You Are Here,” are really nice pop rockers, but on the 90-mile-an-hour “Knew It All,” Needtobreathe is able to stretch out its chops and take its listeners on a wild ride. ~Mike Farley (04/04/06)

The Nein: Luxury
Label: Sonic Unyon 2007
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The Nein might consist of members of the White Octave, Piedmont Charisma, and Steel Pole Bath Tub, but if you didn’t know their musical résumé while listening to Luxury, you’d think, “Ugh, do these guys own anything but latter-day Radiohead and Wilco albums?” The promo copy of the album describes Luxury as “more experimental in nature” than its predecessor, and says the quartet is “unafraid of change and willing to push the boundaries of the typical rock band formation.” That’s all fine and well with a lovely instrumental like “Ennio” (clearly a tribute to Mr. Morricone), but the band has an unfortunate tendency to take songs with potential – most notably “Achilles Last Tape Solo” – and throw in random guitar squelches or some other bizarre instrumentation. It’s even more disheartening on songs like “Journalist 2,” “Décollage,” or “Wreck We Um Dub,” where the band seems more interested in being experimental than actually producing something that one might actually enjoy listening to. All told, if you’re thinking about spending your cash on Luxury, you might wanna just say “nein.” ~Will Harris (03/09/07)

Willie Nelson: Texas in My Soul
Label: American Beat 1967/2007
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Willie Nelson completists will no doubt be ecstatic to find that American Beat Records has secured the rights to release Nelson’s 1967 album, Texas in My Soul, on CD for the very first time. This 11-song set is no thinly-veiled love letter; it’s a full-fledged tribute to the state where Nelson was born and raised, allowing him to tackle a cowboy classic like “Streets of Laredo” alongside Ernest Tubb tracks such as “Waltz across Texas,” “There’s A Little Bit of Everything in Texas,” and the title song. Disappointingly, however, this tribute doesn’t include a single Nelson-composed song; Willie’s always been a great interpreter of other people’s material, but he’s such a great songwriter that you can’t help but wonder what the record would’ve been like if he’d actually taken pen to paper and written his own homage. Still, the material here is mostly enjoyable, with “Who Put All My Ex’s in Texas” and the aforementioned title track being particular highlights. (Just skip over the melodramatic spoken-word piece, “Travis Letter.”) With no Nelson originals, it’s not really what you’d call an essential part of his catalog, but if you’re a fan of the man’s work, it’s certainly worth hearing. ~Will Harris (06/29/07)

New England: Greatest Hits Live
Label: GB Music 2003
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Misleading title aside, this is old school, keyboard-dominated AOR, recorded live in concert well over twenty years ago. Dated beyond measure, yet some songs still retain a certain infectious feeling that captures the time period in all its synth-soaked glories (for better or worse). Regional hit “Don’t Ever Wanna Lose Ya” is the highlight here, but “Alone Tonight” and “Encore” also hold up well. Fans of like-minded bands (especially Styx or Journey) will eat this up, while others will scratch their heads wondering how this stuff ever sold in the first place. ~Kurt Torster (08/03/07)

Nickel Creek: Why Should the Fire Die?
Label: Sugar Hill

Around since 1989, and on the Sugar Hill label for the past five, Nickel Creek just keeps getting better as a unit. Why Should the Fire Die? is the band’s third label release, and while the familiar flavors and arrangements with fiddles and mandolins are all present, there is also an underlying pop sensibility about this record. There are dark textures on tracks like “Somebody More Like You,” “Jealous of the Moon,” and “Can’t Complain.” Of course, there are some great instrumental songs such as “Scotch and Chocolate” and “Stumptown.” Working with Toad the Wet Sprocket’s Glen Phillips has apparently rubbed off on Nickel Creek, as “Doubting Thomas” sounds like it walked off a Toad album, and is positively riveting. Another piece of candy on here is a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time.” ~Mike Farley (08/04/05)

Nine Black Alps: Everything Is
Label: Interscope

It’s about time Britain produced a new band that wasn’t directly inspired by the Beatles, Gang of Four, the Human League, or Duran Duran; unfortunately, Nine Black Alps draw rather a lot of inspiration from Nirvana. This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself; it’s just that anyone over the age of 30 is going to find themselves mightily depressed at the realization that Bleach and Nevermind have been out long enough to have actually begun to influence a generation of musicians. It’s true, though; Everything Is is all about the grunge sound, which means that for the handful of good songs (“Just Friends,” “Shot Down,” and “Unsatisfied” are the picks to click), there are more tracks that blur into each other in a mass of feedback and distortion. There’s melody to be had, but too often it’s buried in the mix. Where Nine Black Alps stand out is on “Intermission,” which shows their softer, more acoustic side. If they mix it up a bit more next time ‘round instead of trying to show off how loud they can be, they might well be on to something. ~Will Harris (02/23/06)

Nirvana: Sliver: The Best of the Box
Label: DGC/Universal

Tease Barenaked Ladies all you want (after all, it is both easy and fun to do so), but their song “Box Set” is a brilliant commentary on the lengths an artist – or his estate – will go to make a buck from material that isn’t worth the plastic it’s pressed on. Nirvana’s Sliver: The Best of the Box is, to quote Stephen Page, “Disc Four, never released before, and you can tell why.” The demos contained here are rougher than rough, with Kurt Cobain only occasionally bothering to sing in tune. There are some fascinating moments where you can see the pieces coming together, like the pre-Dave Grohl “Mrs. Butterworth,” and their cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” at a house party is good fun. Most of the demos here, though, offer very little additional insight, other than the fact that Cobain clearly saved lyrics for last; the version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is almost identical structurally to the final version, but Cobain mainly sings “la la la” for the melody. As sad as we all are that Cobain is gone, a lot of songs don’t make it past the demo stage for a reason. Unearthing Cobain’s basement tapes and releasing them is a far cry from getting another Nirvana album. ~David Medsker (11/17/05)

No Address: Time Doesn’t Notice
Label: Atlantic

Time Doesn’t Notice, the debut from No Address, is a decent but undistinguishable record. Their sound is an amalgamation of the straight-ahead approach of Tom Petty combined with the edgier side of the Black Crowes, with a raspier version of Gavin Rossdale on vocals. The mix and production of the record is focused on drums, guitar, bass and vocals, with no extra additives or nonsense, and that is the appropriate direction for the material here. The problem lies in the lack of variety within the record from track to track. The strongest cut, “Mother Sunday” is actually the mellowest of the bunch. The rest of the album tends to build to a loud solo decent guitar work or a harmony-laden refrain. When they record their second album, they would be wise to tweak their formula and diversify. ~R. David Smola (06/30/05)

Northern State: Can I Keep This Pen?
Label: Ipecac 2007
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One wonders what exactly it was that Northern State expected Sony to do for them when they signed to the behemoth earlier in the decade. After all, they were three well-educated girls from Long Island (one of them has the stage name of Hesta Prynn, yukyuk) with a love of old school rap. No matter how good they may be – and the general consensus was that they were good but not great – they were never going to be the next Beastie Boys. If they were lucky, they would be the next Luscious Jackson, but sadly, that didn’t happen, either. Now they’re back in the indie circuit and as cliché as it sounds, the change has done them a world of good. Their new album, Can I Keep This Pen?, is a fun mish-mash of beats and rhymes of all shapes and sizes, including, as the band notes in the press materials, an unprecedented amount of singing. Leadoff track “Mic Tester” should be shipped straight to modern rock radio, while “Sucka Mofo” is a hilarious send-up of suburban gangster wannabes. Some of the lyrics are well beneath their educational level (“Things I’ll Do,” please step forward), but there is enough here to lure any fans of their Sony material back for more. ~David Medsker (08/24/07)

Noisettes: What’s the Time Mr. Wolf?
Label: Universal Motown 2007
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What sets this London trio apart from the oodles of garage-influenced indie rock acts making music these days is singer/bassist Shingai Shoniwa, who provides both an impressive range and a spunky personality in one energetic package. With her vocal chops, she could have gone the singer/songwriter route (like Corinne Bailey Rae or Amy Winehouse), but clearly, the girl wants to rock. The group’s debut gets off to a furious start with “Don’t Give Up” and “Scratch Your Name,” two tracks that showcase guitarist Dan Smith’s considerable talents and drummer Jamie Morrison’s manic approach (which proves to be a nice match for Shoniwa’s intensity). The infectious “Sister Rosetta (Capure the Sprint)” is Shoniwa’s homage to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, an early 20th century gospel singer who wasn’t afraid to cross over (not unlike Shoniwa) and play her inspirational music with a big band in nightclubs and concert halls. About halfway through, the album loses some steam, but at this point, we’re already hooked. The Noisettes are a little rock, a little punk, a little soul and a little blues. But mostly, they’re a hell of a lot of fun. ~John Paulsen (08/24/07)

Gary Numan: Jagged
Label: Metropolis

Gary Numan is absolutely better than he’s ever been given credit for being. After all, not just any flash-in-the-pan can inspire an entire genre of music (darkwave), never mind wave after wave of bands. On Numan’s latest, Jagged, it looks as though the student has become the teacher, with Numan getting his Goth on big time, like sleep-in-a-coffin Goth. Sure, Numan has always explored this territory, but his best songs (“Cars,” “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?,” “Metal,” “I Die: You Die”) contained more light than darkness, and Jagged is at its best when Numan lightens up, relatively speaking. “Halo” (not the Depeche Mode song) and “In a Dark Place” are vintage Numan, while the morbid “Blind” will surely wind up in Linkin Park’s live set. The bands that cite Numan as an influence can groove to the dark stuff all they want, but Numan himself would be wise to include a dash of Buffy to counter every dose of Angel. ~David Medsker (03/30/06)

Paul Oakenfold: Greatest Hits & Remixes
Label: Perfecto/Ultra 2007
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A terrific idea on a paper, botched in execution. It makes sense that any collection of Paul Oakenfold’s work, both as a recording artist and remixer, would be assembled as a beat mix compilation, but they did him a tremendous disservice by limiting Greatest Hits & Remixes to a single disc. Twenty songs in 80 minutes may average out to four minutes per song, but in reality seven of the album’s 20 tracks don’t cross the three-minute mark, making this more of a speed mix than a beat mix. To make matters worse, some of the songs have jarring shifts in tempo inflicted upon them in order to bridge between tracks – Happy Mondays’ “Step On” and Oakenfold’s own “Faster Kill Pussycat” are so sped up, they sound like they’re being tortured – and while we love the idea of putting an exclusive Radiohead mix between Madonna and Brittany Murphy, is “Everything in its Right Place” really going to send anyone running to a dance floor over, say, “Idioteque”? This is a wonderful collection of songs, but it screams for a two-disc release, either as a beat mix or, better yet, as a standard compilation, with each track appearing in its full-length form. ~David Medsker (11/02/07)

Rick Ocasek: Nexterday
Label: Sanctuary/Inverse

It’s been eight years since Rick Ocasek released his last solo album, Troublizing, on which he went for a majestic sound, by enlisting the help of such alt-rock luminaries as Billy Corgan and Hole’s former bassist, Melissa Auf der Maur. For this go around, Nexterday, Ocasek plays just about every instrument himself, and the result is a more intimate, yet underwhelming album. Many of the songs sound like unfinished Cars’ B-sides, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. While there aren’t any clunkers on the disc, the biggest standout is “I’m Thinking,” which is just catchy enough to fit right in with the material on the Cars’ last good album, Heartbeat City. The next to last track, “Please Don’t Let Me Down,” is a beautiful pseudo-ballad that uses a surprisingly crunchy guitar. While his fan base has certainly gotten smaller since the Cars’ heyday in the ‘80s, those still looking for new music from Ocasek shouldn’t be disappointed with this scaled-back effort. ~John Paulsen (12/09/05)

Office: A Night at the Ritz
Label: New Line/Scratchie 2007
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Office leader Scott Masson envisions A Night at the Ritz as something of a statement on the “completely surreal times” we’re living in, and on those terms, it succeeds; for those of us who lived through the skinny-tie plague of the early-to-mid ‘80s, it’s nothing short of surreal to hear bits and pieces of long-derided New Wave records bobbing to the surface on new albums from painfully hip baby bands like this one. Thankfully, Masson’s got the songs to back up the pose – A Night at the Ritz is a delightfully fizzy, fast-paced string of catchy pop anthems that would be virtually guaranteed to move asses no matter which clothes he decided to dress them up in. Which is sort of the problem, really – the songs are fun, but taken as a whole, they represent a solid block of sound every bit as relentlessly bright and monochromatic as the album’s artwork. By the time the band gets around to the comparatively gentle and wide-open closer, “Suburban Perfume,” it comes as more of a much-needed relief than a parting splash of tonic. If Masson – who has a background in conceptual art – can learn to color outside the lines as a songwriter a bit more, future Office parties will be much more enjoyable. ~Jeff Giles (10/19/07)

Benjamin Olson: White Window
Label: Benjamusic

The acoustically driven debut release from Benjamin Olson, White Window, offers its fair share of enjoyable folk-rock and pop tunes, but you’re not going to find anything all that inspiring in this 14-track lineup. “The Sky is Falling” and “3D Rocket Ride” both showcase Olson’s promising songwriting skills, “Run Away” has a strong Edwin McCain flavor, and “Get the Lead Out” represents one of White Window’s few up-tempo moments. There’s certainly enough here to suggest that Olson has some potential as a singer/songwriter, but if he intends on sticking around for a few more albums, he’ll need to avoid the scattered stretches of mediocrity found on White Window. ~Jamey Codding  (06/30/05)

Oranger: New Comes and Goes
Label: Eenie Meenie

While Oranger is not a band that would be classified as “indie rock,” this Bay area based rock quintet has a raw, guitar-driven sound on their latest, New Comes and Goes, that hints at the noise of indie but with a pop sensibility that makes them both accessible and difficult to classify. Members of Oranger have dabbled in punk music before, and that tongue-in-cheek lyrical mentality is evident on the catchy opener, “Crooked in the Weird of the Catacombs.” There are so many elements at work here - dark, raw, emotive, loud - but it all comes together nicely, and there are some really good songs. Other standout tracks are the Ramones-ish “Sukiyaki” and the extremely hooky “Whacha Holden.” ~Mike Farley (09/29/05)

Original Motion Picture Soundtrack: Mr. and Mrs. Smith
Label: Lakeshore

You have to offer respect, however begrudgingly, to a soundtrack that has the sheer balls to include both Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together” and Air Supply’s “Making Love out Of Nothing At All.” Unfortunately, Mr. and Mrs. Smith is all over the place. There’s clearly a concept at work, given that the proceedings start with the J. Geils Band’s “Love Stinks” and end with the aforementioned Captain and Tennille song, but it doesn’t really hold together. Still, there are some nice covers here, including Magnet’s “Lay Lady Lay,” Nouvelle Vague’s lounge take on Modern English (strangely re-titled “I’ll Melt With You”) and the slight-but-fun ska version of Guns ‘N’ Roses’ “Used To Love Her (But I Had To Kill Her),” by the Voodoo Glow Skulls. Alana D’s cover of Amy Grant’s “Baby Baby,” however, serves no purpose except to leave the listener wondering, “If she was going to record such an exact duplicate of the original version, why not just use the original version?” ~Will Harris (07/07/05)

Joan Osborne: Breakfast in Bed
Label: Time Life 2007
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It’s been over a decade since Joan Osborne released her career-defining hit song, “One of Us.” And she’s been riding a wave far under the radar ever since, mainly because she is, well, a one-hit wonder. This time, Osborne has put out an album of mostly pop/R&B covers, and it comes nowhere near putting her back on anyone’s radar screen. Osborne herself was never really a great songwriter (“One of Us” was written by Eric Bazilian from the Hooters), and she makes that painfully obvious with a few original tracks on here, such as “Baby is a Butterfly” and “Cream Dream.” Her takes on classic songs like “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Sara Smile,” and “Break Up to Make Up,” are nothing more than glorified karaoke. Sometimes covers are unique takes on previously recorded classics, but Osborne doesn’t do anything special here with them. Her voice is okay, but not nearly good enough based on the magnitude of the songs she’s chosen to record.
~Mike Farley (05/18/07)

Ozma: Pasadena
Label: About a Girl/Sony 2007
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The newest effort from California pop/punk band Ozma, Pasadena, is not horrible, but at times the regurgitated melodies are about as bland as unsalted pretzels. The band has been around for over a decade, but their staying power is probably more of a testament to the Warped Tour genre’s success and not to any kind of songwriting props. The opening track, “No One Needs to Know,” is a riff-driven, somewhat hooky romp. But after that it’s all kind of downhill — especially the emo-whiner “I Wonder.” And “Straight Flush” is so droning it might be the perfect soundtrack for when you’re hung over and still vomiting on your shoes, but that’s about it. Ozma does try to come across as more indie than pop, but somewhere along the way they forgot how to write songs with any substance. ~Mike Farley (06/29/07)

David Pack: The Secret of Movin’ On
Label: Concord/Peak

Nestled somewhere in the cozy landscape of 70’s breezy pop among artists such as Bread, America, and Seals & Crofts is singer/songwriter David Pack. Pack was the front man for Ambrosia, which came along after those other bands but made an impact with guilty pleasure hits like “Biggest Part of Me” and “You’re the Only Woman.” Those two tracks are present as remakes on here, as well as nine other new tunes that include guest appearances by the likes of Ann Wilson (Heart), Steve Perry (Journey) and Timothy B. Schmidt (Eagles). Though most of Pack’s music is dentist office light rock, he has a unique voice and a songwriting prowess that borders on exceptional, especially on the title track. ~Mike Farley (08/11/05)

Robert Palmer: The Very Best of the Island Years
Label: Island/Universal

Universal’s doing a massive rollout of their back catalog, between the three-disc Chronicles sets (see the above Aerosmith review), the two-disc Gold sets, and the re-imagined best-of sets. That said, this collection of Palmer’s years with Island Records is damn good, and a handy complement to the compilation that Vanguard released in 1997. Prior to the 1985 mega-smash Riptide, Palmer’s hit singles were few and far between, but he clearly had grander designs than mere fame, tackling anything from white boy soul to reggae to arena rock to synth pop, along with covering artists like Harry Belafonte, the Beatles, Todd Rundgren, and even tackling “Some Guys Have All the Luck” before Rod Stewart took a whack at it. There was far more to Palmer than the Power Station and chicks in white face pretending to play guitar. It’s not brilliant, but it shows that Palmer was more of an artist than songs like “Addicted to Love” would lead you to believe. ~David Medsker (08/11/05)

Graham Parker: Don’t Tell Columbus
Label: Bloodshot 2007
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Sometimes aging punk rockers fade into oblivion, sometimes they keep rocking whether or not we want them to or not, and sometimes they mellow out gracefully. The latter is the category that you’ll find former punk rocker Graham Parker in, and his latest for Bloodshot is full of twangy, hooky anthems that boast lots of the witty lyrics Parker has become known for. Not to say he couldn’t write before, but this Americana style suits him nicely, to the point where you can draw comparisons, at least stylistically, to Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and John Hiatt. And while Parker may not be the household name some of those other guys are, he can hold his own and then some. On the unofficial title track, “I Discovered America,” Parker is as much of a wiseass as he’s ever been, and it’s a beautiful thing. Other standouts are the classic-sounding “Ambiguous” and “Stick to the Plan,” but the best track by far is the painfully melancholy “The Other Side of the Reservoir.” ~Mike Farley (11/02/07)

Paulson: All at Once
Label: Doghouse 2007
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In the last six years, Paulson has released two albums five times on three different labels. What? Let’s move on. The latest is a re-release of All at Once, which was originally released in 2005. Paulson is definitely emo, with lots of angst-filled songs about lost love. The album is well produced, and Logan LaFlotte’s capable, run-filled vocals are complemented by Mike Smeen’s keys and Jesse Burton’s subtle guitar. (Smeen has since left the band to get a real job.) The first three tracks – “Voids,” “Under Crowns” and “Calling on You” – are a good way to tip your toe in the proverbial water. If those first three tracks grab you, All at Once is probably worth a few listens. If you don’t like what you hear (or aren’t a fan of emo), you’ll probably be underwhelmed by the rest of the album. Besides, everyone knows you spell “Paulsen” with an “e.” ~John Paulsen (03/01/07)

Michael Penn: Mr. Hollywood, Jr. – 1947
Label: Mimeogram / SpinArt

It’s curious that Michael Penn and his wife, Aimee Mann, would each release concept albums in the same year. The catch is, Mann’s album, The Forgotten Arm, represents its time (the early ‘70s) far better than Mr. Hollywood Jr. –1947 does, which is his trademark Penn-on/McCartney. Penn has undoubtedly proven himself to be a consistently engaging songwriter, but the material here sounds too familiar to his last album, MP4: Days Since a Lost Time Accident (Penn definitely has a thing for awkward album titles), to stand on its own. Sonically, it sounds better than MP4, suggesting that Penn learned a thing or two when recording “Lucky One” with Brendan O’Brien. If only he had stepped outside of his comfort zone musically as well as lyrically, we might have had something here. ~David Medsker (08/04/05)

People Press Play: Hanging On
Label: Marr Music 2007
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Three out of the foursome known as People Press Play will be very familiar to fans of ambient house, trip-hop and IDM: Thomas Knak, Jesper Skaaning and Andres Remmer all previously worked together as Future 3, a mid-‘90s ambient-house outfit. In addition, they have all worked together or as solo artists in some capacity under various names including System, James Bong, Opiate and Dub Tractor (to name a few). These records have run the gamut from classic ambient-house and trip-hop, to hardcore dub and glitch-heavy IDM – so you’ll never know what you’ll expect when these guys get together. In the case of People Press Play, you get more pop-friendly ambient music featuring vocals from one Sara Savery. PPP is not just Future 3 with a chick singer, though; Savery is a member of the group, writing music with the rest of the band and the lyrics all on her own. The result is a new band that takes many of the ingredients of ambient music (soothing melodies, relaxed tempos) and makes them slightly more user-friendly with the help of Savery’s beautiful voice and lyrics. When she shows up, that is – she only appears on roughly half of the album. When she’s not around, expect the standard soundscapes you might expect from a band that labels itself as “ambient ~James B. Eldred

Jana Peri: Catching Flies with Vinegar
Label: Hot Jupiter

Even if Jana Peri’s album didn’t open with the pounding “City Beat” and end with a song which clarifies her unabashed desire to rock, there’d still be little question about it. She’s got...the look. And by “the look,” I mean she just screams “rock chick,” a term I use as high praise. Adding to her rock cred is the fact that her debut full-length release, Catching Flies with Vinegar, was produced by and features instrumental assistance from Daniel Rey, one of Peri’s “neighbors” in the East Village. Peri’s inspirations are clearly rockers like Joan Jett and Pat Benatar, and if the melodies aren’t always stick-in-your-craw catchy, she’s a fountain of unbridled enthusiasm that keeps the proceedings consistently entertaining. The Beatlesque title cut is a particular highlight, with its “And Your Bird Can Sing”-inspired harmonies, as is the sexy, slinky sax on “All Your Fault.” It’s that last track, however, that sums up Peri’s philosophy in just under three minutes: “I don’t care what’s on the charts / I only know what’s in my heart / And all I really wanna do is rock.” Fortunately, she does it rather well. ~Will Harris (01/19/06)

The Perishers: Let There Be Morning
Label: Nettwerk

Fans of Keane’s 2004 debut are sure to listen to the Perishers’ Let There Be Morning and cry, “Haven’t you rip-off artists got any original ideas in your bag of tricks?” The thing is, this is actually the Perishers’ sophomore effort – following up 2002’s From Nothing To One – so, really, it’s less that they’re ripping off Keane as it is that they’re ripping off, say, Travis. And given that this album is better than Travis’s last release, Fran Healey and his bandmates might want to check this disc out before heading back into the studio. Hailing from Sweden, the Perishers do melancholy piano ballads as well as anyone...and, yes, that includes Coldplay. If some of the melodies take a few listens to sink in properly, so be it. Set this disc on “repeat” and let it lull you into slumber (a suggestion that should be taken in the best possible way). In fact, on Friday afternoon at 5 PM, start with “Weekends,” relax, and float downstream; you won’t find a better soundtrack to last you ‘til Monday morning rolls around again. ~Will Harris (08/11/05)

Glen Phillips: Winter Pays for Summer
Label: Lost Highway

The former singer of Toad the Wet Sprocket will insist that you not call it a comeback, but Winter Pays for Summer is easily the best album to Glen Phillips’ name since Toad’s Dulcinea (1994). He’s recruited a who’s who of witty, literate popsters to back him up (Ben Folds, Jon Brion, Dan Wilson, Andy Sturmer) and the heavenly ears of Bob Clearmountain to mix it down, and the proof is in the pudding. “Thankful” and “Falling” are vintage Toad with an added kick (courtesy of Sturmer’s backing vocals), while “Released,” co-written by erstwhile Semisonic frontman Wilson, captures the spiritual essence to Phillips’ best work. Producer John Fields worked similar miracles on Mandy Moore’s covers album from 2003 (don’t laugh, it’s better than you think), but this traveling music show he’s assembled -- Sturmer and Wilson helped out Moore, too -- is clearly picking up steam. Our suggestion: get this group in a studio with Glenn Tilbrook at once. ~David Medsker (05/06/05)

Philpot: Hate Writes Better Than Love
Label: Toucan Cove 2007
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You almost have to feel sorry for a band like Philpot. They are more than proficient technically, and are pleasant enough as modern rock bands go. However there is absolutely nothing about them, from the bland vocals of their lead singer to their tired guitar solos and generic songwriting, that makes them stand out as either a particularly good or bad band. They’re just kind of there. Philpot is one of those bands that cover for their lack of innovation by claiming to be returning rock to its “roots.” It’s a safe bet that the members of Philpot don’t like punk rock, industrial, synth-pop, goth, thrash metal or any sub-genre of rock that came out after 1979. Unfortunately Philpot can’t even crib the fairly successful classic-rock retro scene that bands like Wolfmother have ridden to success. With songs like the tepid “Sugar Thumb” and “Etc. Etc” (a song as boring as its title) they don’t sound like they're trying to pay tribute to bands like AC/DC or Led Zeppelin; instead, they sound like the band you’d see playing at the biker bar in one of those '80s movies where an upper-class guy wearing an ascot walks in asking for directions and suddenly finds himself on a zany adventure. This is “hard rock” for moms – and not cool moms who threw their panties on stage at Journey concerts, but moms who threw their panties on stage at Winger concerts. ~James B. Eldred (03/22/07)

Pilot: Anthology
Label: Renaissance 2007
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Although American radio listeners generally only know Pilot for their lone Top 5 single, “Magic,” it’s a bit lazy to just write them off as one-hit wonders. Well, yes, you’re right, that is just the sort of thing a music critic would say, but consider this: two of the band’s founding members – lead singer / bassist David Paton and keyboardist Billy Lyall – were originally members of the Bay City Rollers. Okay, actually, that probably doesn’t help my case any – although, for the record, I know several people it would impress – so how about this? Alan Parsons produced the band’s first two albums, and he was so taken with the group’s talent that three of the four members of Pilot ended up as members of the Alan Parsons Project. No? Nothing? Well, nonetheless, this anthology of Pilot’s four-album career proves to be a surprisingly solid listen, full of strong, catchy pop tunes heavily inspired by the Beatles. If Badfinger had stuck more to the sort of material that Paul McCartney had written for them with “Come and Get It,” they might’ve produced a best-of that sounded like this one. Songs like “Penny in My Pocket,” “Ten Feet Tall,” “You’re My No. 1,” and “January” (which was, believe it or not, a bigger hit in the UK than “Magic”) are all damned catchy and will inspire plenty of repeat spins, if you’ll only give them a chance.
~Will Harris (06/15/07)

Bobby Pinson: Man Like Me
Label: RCA

Having had his songs recorded by LeAnn Rimes and Blake Shelton, Nashville’s latest hard-knock story, Bobby Pinson, is no overnight success. A native of panhandle Texas, Pinson sites Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle and children’s author Shel Silverstein as his sources of creation, writing or co-writing all 11 tracks on the debut Man Like Me. While he can surely let the Fender rip on “I’m Fine Either Way,” Pinson realizes his strength is storytelling. His real-life tales and personal mantras are evoked in gut-wrenches like “Shadows of the Heartland,” but it’s the advice-rich “Don’t Ask Me How I Know” that has the country charts and radio a blaze. “Forget your pride buy the roses, if you’re sorry tell her so,” will strike a chord with fans of many genres. Almost 13 years into his career yet just now getting heard, Pinson might need to tear a page from Sheryl Crow’s “How To” guide. ~Red Rocker (05/20/05)

Pipettes: We Are the Pipettes
Label: Interscope 2007
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On paper, the Pipettes are untouchable. The band consists of three gorgeous British lasses in polka dotted dresses, singing amped-up Phil Spector tributes with more than a dash of lyrical cheek. When they’re on, they’re irresistible: “Your Kisses Are Wasted on Me,” “Pull Shapes” and “ABC” possess more wit and independent thought than anything American pop has produced in years. The problem with We Are the Pipettes, the band’s debut album, is that a little bit goes a long, long way, and by the time one gets halfway through the album’s 16 tracks, it starts to get tiresome, even with a running time of only 38 minutes. There is too much potential here to write the band off – one wonders why “Really That Bad,” one of the standout moments of an EP the band released earlier this year, was left off the album – but they will need more than their good looks to survive. ~David Medsker (10/26/07)

The Pipettes: Your Kisses are Wasted on Me EP
Label: Interscope/Cherrytree 2007
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Wow, talk about déjà vu…and not just because We Are The Pipettes – the album from which this song originates – was a brilliantly British blend of ‘60s girl group sounds and ‘80s new wave fun that made my Best of 2006. (It’s been available in the UK since August of last year.) No, what’s even more depressingly familiar is the way the album’s belated physical release is being handled here in the States: by wasting time with a teaser EP instead of just getting the damned album out there. You may recall that Interscope Records is also the American home of the Feeling, a band who experienced a similarly-delayed Stateside premiere. Sorry to get up on a soap box in the middle of a quick take, but record labels really need to hurry up and realize that, in today’s high-speed digital world, we need simultaneous world-wide releases for albums; the buzz on new bands spreads way too fast nowadays, and, at this rate, the one surrounding the Pipettes will be over a year old by the time their album gets a U.S. release. Oh, but you were probably wondering about the contents of this EP. Well, you get two songs from the album (the other one being “I Love You”), plus two songs that’ve been rescued from earlier UK B-sides; of the latter pair, the best of the bunch is “Guess Who Ran Off With the Milkman,” which might actually be better than the EP’s title track. ~Will Harris (06/08/07)

P.O.D.: The Warriors LP Volume II
Label: Atlantic

P.O.D. decided to drop a nugget to their fans who have waited since 2003’s Payable on Death for a new studio album. Later this month, P.O.D. will release the Glen Ballard-produced Testify, so in November they put this little EP out as a snack. The straight out reggae track “Why Wait?” features horns with a No Doubt vibe, and a cover of the Payolas “Eyes of a Stranger” is true to the original with a (slightly) heavier guitar arrangement. These two tracks are worth the purchase alone. Their sense of adventure (in these tracks) is complimented by the hammer of live versions of “Boom,” from 2001’s Satellite, and “Wildfire,” from Payable. Both live tracks make you feel the energy of the mosh-pit. This EP is a 27+ minute justification of why P.O.D. is one of the more interesting metal bands making records today. They make music uncompromising in the message they want to communicate and borrow influences from wherever they come from even if it is not supposed to fit within a 'metal’ template. ~R. David Smola (01/12/06)

Frank Popp Ensemble: Touch and Go
Label: Unique 2006
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Hailing from Germany, Popp is a former graphics designer turned songwriter, and in his native land, he’s had considerable success, thanks to the songs "High Voltage" and "Hip Teens Don’t Wear Blue Jeans." (The latter track spent 19 weeks in the German top 20.) If you were one of the many music fans who discovered that they dug Shirley Bassey when they were introduced to her courtesy of the Propellerheads’ "History Repeating," you really ought to investigate the Frank Popp Ensemble. They’re a little bit jazzy and whole lot poppy, with a fair amount of Northern soul thrown into the mix, but they’re pretty much ‘60s-influenced across the board, and vocalist Sam Leigh-Brown has some slick pipes. "Just Say Goodbye" could be a lost Dionne Warwick tune from her Bacharach-David era, while "Force Dans Le Coeur" is straight from the Serge Gainsbourg/Jane Birkin songbook, but the song that best summarizes their sound is "The World Is Waiting," which is about as smooth as female-sung pop gets. Many of the songs are such perfect recreations of the aforementioned era, particularly the way they’re sprinkled with just the right touch of Hammond organ, that you’ll be tempted to suspect the release date is a typo. Touch and Go would be the perfect soundtrack for your next party if you could only guarantee that your friends were all hip enough to appreciate it...but, then again, if they’re not, perhaps you should consider new friends. ~Will Harris (10/12/06)

Porcupine Tree: Deadwing
Label: Lava/Atlantic

There was a time when the words “progressive rock” brought to mind names like Yes, Genesis, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Although examples of the genre have never been updated in the minds of the general public, prog rock is still around and is currently best defined by artists such as Spock’s Beard, Dream Theatre, and these guys: Porcupine Tree. Led by singer/songwriter Steven Wilson, the Tree (as probably nobody but me calls them) are strong on melody and harmonies, prone to delicacy more often than bombast. The band limits themselves to only a pair of 10+ minute epics on Deadwing, but one of those, “Arriving Somewhere (But Not Here),” is a highlight of the disc. Of the more radio-friendly tracks (i.e. less than, say, seven minutes in duration), piano ballad “Lazarus” and the dreamy “Mellotron Scratch” seem the most likely to score airplay. “Shallow,” however, is the song being pushed by the label as the “emphasis track,” probably because it sounds vaguely metallic. Don’t worry, fans; it’s unrepresentative of the album as a whole. ~Will Harris (06/10/05)

Mike Post and Pete Carpenter: The A-Team: Music from the Original Television Score
Label: Silva Screen 2007
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Certainly, there must be a perfectly good explanation for this 1984 collection of music from the classic action series suddenly being released CD in 2007…but we’ll be damned if we can figure out what it is. It can’t be anything to do with the show coming to DVD, since that happened ages ago (the final season just emerged a few months ago), and the long-discussed movie doesn’t appear to be any closer to fruition than it has been for the past decade, so, really, why is this now showing up on disc? Oh, well, perhaps we should just sit back and enjoy it…except that once you’ve enjoyed the admittedly awesome theme song, the rest of the soundtrack doesn’t exactly inspire repeat spins. In fact, it sounds as though Post and Carpenter shot their creative wad on the theme; the musical motif recurs so often throughout the score that you’ll be shouting “enough already” long before the halfway point of the disc. We’re also docking the disc half a star because neither of the versions of the theme song include the famous narration that’s as famous as the tune itself. Come on, recite it with me: “Ten years ago, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn't commit…” ~Will Harris (03/01/07)

Charley Pride: The Essential Charley Pride
Label: RCA Nashville/Legacy 2006
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What the hell...? Charley Pride is black?!? Nah, I’m just kidding. It’s probably a bit surprising to some, though, that country music – a genre often pigeonholed by outsiders as being full of nothing but stupid rednecks – would allow a black man into their club. To be fair, RCA were skeptical themselves at first; when they released his debut single, “The Snakes Crawl at Night,” in 1966, they pointedly avoided including a publicity photo of Pride when they sent it out. Despite their initial concerns, however, Pride went on to be RCA’s biggest selling artist since Elvis Presley; he’s racked up 12 gold albums in the US, 30 gold and four platinum internationally, and from 1966 to 1984, 51 of his 54 singles were top-10 country hits. This set only contains 40 tracks, so, as ever, the word “essential” is arguable, since it means that it’s already missing 11 of those Top 10 hits from the get-go. (In fact, it’s missing a few more than that; some of these songs, like “Down on the Farm,” didn’t actually make it into the top 10.) Still, as Charley Pride collections go…and there are plenty of them to choose from…this is a damned fine one. It is, however, docked a star for having the exact same track listing as the anthology that came out in 2003; c’mon, RCA Nashville, you couldn’t have switched things up at least a little? If the goal is to sell more copies, all it would’ve taken was to replace a few lesser-charting tracks with a few of those missing top-10 entries, and the fans would’ve snapped it…but as it is, if they’ve got that 2003 release, there’s absolutely no incentive to get this set. ~Will Harris (08/24/07)

Quasi: When the Going Gets Dark
Label: Touch and Go 2006
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If there’s one thing that can be said for the Portland, Oregon duo Quasi – which consists of Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss, a former married couple who now settle for just being bandmates – it’s that they’ve got a unique sound. Unfortunately, the thing that defines the Quasi sound also happens to be the thing that causes many listeners to keep the band at arm’s length: their unerring tendency to mess up a perfectly good song by getting all...discordant. In some cases – as on the opener, "Alice the Goon" – they actually begin with the discord and end in sweet, sweet normalcy. "The Rhino," which follows, is reminiscent of "Julianne," from Ben Folds Five’s self-titled debut...except, of course, that they get so caught up in the pounding of the piano that they seem to forget the song they were playing in the first place. Some people eat this stuff up and call it artsy; me, I just think that, more often than not, When the Going Gets Dark is eleven missed opportunities to write a great tune. ~Will Harris (10/12/06)

Queens of the Stone Age: Era Vulgaris
Label: Interscope Records 2007
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When asked of the ever-evolving Queens of the Stone Age lineup recently, founder Josh Homme joked, “That’s not a healthy question. You’ll ruin the surprise. We’ve gotta keep our cool.” Cool they are, but there’s little surprise in recipe on the Queens’ fifth release Era Vulgaris (Latin for “common era”). Homme calls the new record “dark, hard, and electrical, sort of like a construction worker.” “Misfit Love” burns like a Nine Inch Nails song, harmony vocals aside. Fast, furious, psychedelic riffs ignite tracks like “Sick, Sick, Sick” and “Battery Acid,” which are basically experiments in noise, but the best of this batch is “Into the Hollow” and “3’s & 7’s,” each with a more listenable, melodic style. Unfortunately, the bulk of Era Vulgaris is hysterical and disjointed, so much so the album just doesn’t hold up. “Run, Pig, Run” is a migraine headache waiting to happen and should’ve been sold off to Flotsam and Jetsam for a reunion tour. Here’s hoping Homme’s next lineup delivers a better result. ~Red Rocker (07/06/07)

Quiet Riot: Rehab
Label: Chavis Records 2006
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Wow, a new Quiet Riot album in 2006. Yes, just 23 short years removed from Metal Health, Kevin DuBrow and Frankie Banali take one (hopefully last) stab at a bankroll on Rehab, 11 original tracks about faith, sin, and the supposed death of old habits. Yeah, right. With legendary journeyman bassist Tony Franklin in tow, DuBrow and the boys let ‘er rip on the opener “Free,” which, at least initially, recalls modern day icons Foo Fighters. While “Black Reign” does all it can to get a Led Zeppelin groove on, the bulk of Rehab succumbs to the inevitable weakness of DuBrow’s trashed voice, as well as piss-poor songwriting two decades beyond its shelf life. “I don’t hear you, please shut up! / I don’t see you, ‘cuz you’re bad luck,” DuBrow snarls, and while it might well invoke memories of the ‘80s, unfortunately, it won’t be any good ones. “In Harms Way” is a decent mid-tempo rocker and “It Sucks to Be You” packs enough catchy riffs to hold interest. Just don’t expect “Slick Black Cadillac” to roll out at this point. ~Red Rocker (11/16/06)

Ra: Duality
Label: Republic

Ever get the feeling that the people who send in reviews over at Amazon.com are either mad freaks who have no ‘off’ button for the five-star rating, or just revenge raters wanting to knock down those ratings? Well, Ra and their new album Duality could use a few of those obnoxious revenge ratings. Otherwise, this is apparently the “Best Album Ever!!!”, “Simply Amazing,” and “They’ve done it again!!!” Exclamation point hell!!! Truth be told, this is pretty much a dull modern rock affair. Beware of any albums that start off with a corny spoken word intro (“Fear”), and then repeat the crime mid-album (“Love”). Pretentious bullshit never got anyone anywhere...for long. Well, except for perhaps Der Stingle, and even his classic “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” is covered here with all the boredom one would expect from a band with a baldie, a mohawk, and a gothic wannabe. There’s a normal looking dude in the bunch, too, and he has a confused look as if to ask, “What am I doing in this band?” What is this band doing existing is a better question. Kids who aren’t old enough to know better will enjoy this stinker for five minutes, then realize no one ever takes bands with phony Egyptian ties seriously. Ra himself would have offed these goofballs with much glee. ~Jason Thompson (08/04/05)

Randy and the Bloody Lovelies: Lift
Label: Cheap Lullaby

Not to be confused with Reggie and the Full Effect, which is what this writer did when he first requested to review this CD; fortunately, however, this turned out to be a brilliant mistake. Randy Wooten and his band, the Bloody Lovelies, have scored decidedly favorable comparisons to such big names as Lennon & McCartney, Brian Wilson, Todd Rundgren, and young upstart Rufus Wainwright...what a shock, then, that there’s a song on here that’s simply called “Pop” – but, baby, opening track “Red Carpets” is all about the Jellyfish. Elton John and Ben Folds might well find mention in reviews of Lift as well, due to the fact that most of the tracks are powered by piano – furiously so in the case of “Why Ya ‘Spose” – but Wooten’s vocals have a gravely uniqueness that gives the songs their own identity despite all of these comparisons. Pay particular attention to the violin and other string arrangements on the disc, as they come courtesy of Lisa Germano; she’s played for everyone from John Mellencamp to Simple Minds, but now she’s a Bloody Lovely. Coming off a year where the aforementioned Folds turned in a slightly disappointing new disc, Randy might well be the new piano man to beat. ~Will Harris (01/26/06)

Marion Raven: Heads Will Roll EP
Label: Eleven-Seven 2006
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“Heads Will Roll” is a competent but not overwhelming first release. Marion Raven has a major league voice (as demonstrated on her performance on the new Meat Loaf CD), but the somewhat weak lyrics do her no service. If any of these songs are going to elicit comparisons to Susanna Hoffs, it’ll be “All I Want to Do Is You.” But Raven projects a harder image than the average woman guitarist/vocalist, so if you need a reference, pick Lita Ford. The title track is the leadoff single, accompanied by a sexy video, but it takes second place to “Spit You Out.” That one is the best this EP has to offer, mainly because it doesn’t have the forced moon-spoon-June rhyme pattern prevalent in the rest of the tracks. The EP features appearances by Nikki Sixx and Keith Nelson. ~Mike Connolly

Raveonettes: Pretty in Black
Label: Sony

On Pretty in Black, the Raveonettes (a.k.a Danish duo Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo) combine the rough garage-rock sound, kitschy ‘60s surf-rock and country riffs with moderate success. With their previous efforts labeled as repetitive, the duo decided to mix it up a bit on Black, and the result is an album with more contrast and diversity. Often compared to another man-woman duo, the White Stripes, this record feels more nostalgic than any of the Stripes’ work and isn’t nearly as catchy. “Love in a Trashcan” is the first single and is probably destined more for college radio than for commercial success. That’s not to say that the album isn’t interesting – it is in its own dreamy, psychedelic way – it just doesn’t demand that you listen. ~John Paulsen (04/29/05)

The Red Button: She’s About to Cross My Mind
Label: Grimble 2007
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The logic in the album’s title – if you’re aware that she’s about to cross your mind, then she’s already crossed your mind – is about the only flaw in this collection of sparkling Beatlesque pop tunes by the Red Button’s Seth Swirsky and Mike Ruekberg. (Swirsky, for the record, also penned “Instant Pleasure,” which Rufus Wainwright covered on the soundtrack to “Big Daddy.”) This is power pop of the highest order, the kind of album you’d find in the late ‘90s before the scene collapsed on itself. Byrdsy guitars abound on the title track and “Hopes Up,” “Free” is the Red Buttons’ tribute to the Beatles’ “Rain,” and “Floating By” is a direct descendant of Owsley’s “Sonny Boy” and Ben Folds Five’s “Don’t Change Your Plans.” It’s a tricky thing to make a ‘60s pop record that doesn’t wallow in derivation, but the Red Button have done just that. Prepare for these songs to cross your mind again and again. ~David Medsker (07/13/07)

Rev. Horton Heat: We Three Kings
Label: Yep Roc Records

This is not your grandfather’s Christmas album; it is the Good Reverend’s, in which he gives Christmas the rockabilly-on-acid treatment. Although not quite as agitated as efforts like 1994’s Liquor in the Front, it is still a rollicking good examination of holiday music mixed with the Rev’s slick guitar work and beer influenced perspective. “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” is merged with the “Batman” theme, and you can taste the beer they were drinking in the studio while listening to “Santa Looked a Lot like Daddy”. The piano playing on this effort is outstanding but goes uncredited, and provides great swing to tracks like “Run Rudolph Run” and “Frosty the Snowman.” This is a blast, and would even be fun to listen to in July. ~R. David Smola (12/22/05)

Steve Reynolds: Exile
Label: 429

Canadian born singer/songwriter Steve Reynolds moved to Los Angeles in 1997 and is starting to show up on radar screens because of a gritty yet soulful voice, stellar guitar work and heartfelt songs that are all evident on his 429 Records debut, Exile. Reynolds at times resembles Nick Drake (“Happy”) and at other times is a dead ringer for British wonder David Gray (“Market Fool”). The soft-yet-gritty tenor vocal is going to earn points with the rock world, while Reynolds’ guitar work will keep the folkies happy as well. Either way, this is one emerging artist to keep an eye on. ~Mike Farley (12/29/05)

Rockosaurus Rex: The Big Bang!
Label: Huge Wonder 2006
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Be honest: don’t you think that there’s no age too young for your son or daughter to start getting their asses kicked by the sheer awesomeness of rock and roll? Then you’re clearly on the same wavelength as Rockosaurus Rex. We’re led to understand that the band consists of four actual dinosaurs – Rex on lead guitar and vocals, Screech on rhythm guitar, Bones on bass, and Sara Tops on drums – and they’re performing hard rock versions of classic kiddie tunes like “This Old Man,” “Hush Little Baby,” “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt,” and “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” It sounds laughable, but Rockosaurus Rex are taking their task seriously, offering some sweet, melodic guitar licks; their version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” may well replace Wings’ version as the definitive rock take on the song. But if you need a proper testimonial from the demographic at which the album is aimed, here’s one for you: I put on the disc, and as God is my witness, within two seconds of the first track (“Six Little Ducks”) beginning, my daughter was dancing her 18-month-old butt off, doing something between Michael Flatley’s Riverdance and that punk rock perennial known as the pogo. Your kids will enjoy the enthusiasm of the performances, and while you find yourself giggling at the concept once in awhile, you still won’t hesitate to rock out right along with them. ~Will Harris (02/22/07)

Johnathan Rice: Trouble Is Real
Label: Warner Brothers

The advance of Trouble Is Real bears the statement, “In the past eighteen months, songwriter Johnathan Rice has recorded an album, toured halfway around the world, filmed a movie (“Walk The Line”) and turned 21 years of age.” That’s all very impressive, but everything but the album is just gravy, really, as Trouble Is Real is solid enough for the other accomplishments to hardly matter. If you can still remember how much you enjoyed John Mayer’s Room For Squares before you heard “No Such Thing” and “Your Body Is A Wonderland” so many times that you wanted to throttle someone, this disc is your salvation. The mandolin-powered “Kiss Me Goodbye” is radio-ready, “Lady Memphis” and “Put Me In Your Holy War” are both nice and bluesy, and, with its electronic drums, “Leave the Light On” has an almost new-wave feel for a moment before soaring into a gorgeous chorus. “City on Fire” might be the strongest ballad of the bunch, but “My Mother’s Son,” while perhaps a bit over the top – wait, the strings just kicked in; better make that very over the top – is lovely in its quieter moments. Fans of Mayer and Pete Yorn shouldn’t miss Trouble Is Real for the world. ~Will Harris (06/10/05)

Jag Star: Best Impression Of Sanity
Label: (self-released) 2007
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Look out Saving Jane, look out Avril Lavigne, and look out female fronted rock bands everywhere. Jag Star, a power pop group from Knoxville, is here with a debut that’s full of energy, hooks and intrigue, Best Impression of Sanity. Lead vocalist Sarah Lewis is the face of the band and has a more than adequate voice to carry a group of songs that are as slickly produced as any self-released effort you’ll hear. This band has been all over the female-skewed media, as well as being the featured artist on iTunes, and for good reason – they flat out rock. Witness the soaring “Missed Out” and “Disguise” as well as the pure pop of “The Last Time” (imagine a female version of teen pop punk), and even a compelling mid-tempo track like “Are We Gonna Run Away,” and you’ve got the formula for a mighty impressive debut. Jag Star may or may not be your new favorite band, but either way they deserve to be in the conversation. ~Mike Farley (08/03/07)

Rick James & Friends: Best of Volume 2: The Millennium Collection
Label: Motown

In addition to releasing some of the most memorable R & B from the late 70’s to the mid 80’s, Rick James also wrote and produced for a small stable of performers. This collection highlights his collaborations and productions with those artists. The Smokey Robinson duet of “Ebony Eyes” is the only song that appears on Rick James: Best of Millennium Collection I. Volume II features A 12” version of the Mary Jane Girls hit, “In My House” and another Temptations and Rick James joyride called “Standing On The Top.” This is an excellent companion of the first volume. Dance out and grab it. ~R. David Smola (08/25/05)

Ringside: Ringside
Label: Geffen

The duo of songwriter Scott Thomas and his roommate, who happens to be actor Balthazar Getty, Ringside sounds like Rob Thomas (no relation) trying to make a Postal Service record. The songs (Thomas’) try to be classic while the drum tracks (Getty’s) try to be edgy, and while the end result is neither classic nor edgy, it is perfectly enjoyable, if utterly disposable. “Tired of Being Sorry” and “Struggle” are the kinds of songs Sugar Ray would have made if Mark McGrath pulled a Ric Ocasek and sacked his drummer midway through recording. As disposable pop records go, it’s not bad. But would it have been so hard to try to raise the bar just a tiny bit? ~David Medsker (05/13/05)

Johnny Rivers: Secret Agent Man: The Ultimate Johnny Rivers Anthology
Label: Shout! Factory 2006
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Johnny Rivers is a guy whose name may be forgotten altogether in a few years time, and that’s a damned shame. His biggest claim to fame – recording the theme song to the TV show “Secret Agent” – is certainly not one he’s ashamed of, given that it’s the title of this new two-disc collection of his best work, but there’s so much more to the guy. Rivers, a staple at the Whiskey A Go Go, was a fantastic interpreter of other artists’ material, be it Chuck Berry (“Maybelline”), Smokey Robinson (“The Tracks of My Tears”), Bob Dylan (“Positively 4th Street”), or the Beach Boys (“Help Me, Rhonda”). Even as the Beatles and the rest of their British invasion forces took over the charts, Rivers managed to keep himself afloat on good old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll. You might also be surprised to discover that he was responsible for the 1977 soft pop hit, “Slow Dancing (Swaying to the Music).” (I was, anyway.) Although Johnny Rivers is destined to be more of a historical footnote than a legitimate rock and roll hero, Secret Agent Man shows that his work is worth remembering nonetheless. ~Will Harris (12/14/06)

The Road Hammers: The Road Hammers
Label: Airstrip Music

The Road Hammers are a country-fried rock band from Canada, and their debut album is a representation of what they are about - a tribute to the trucking community. Singer Jason McCoy came up with the concept for the band, and he already has a nice resume after being awarded the 2004 Canadian Country Music Association’s Vocalist of the Year award. Full of shit-kicking songs about the road, the Road Hammers have gone where no band has gone before and targeted a very select but large demographic. CMT even ran a series earlier this year chronicling the recording of the project. Blues-infused tracks like “Keep on Truckin’” balance with killer honky-tonk rockers like “Overdrive,” “Nashville Bound” and “East Bound and Down.” Any of these could easily find a home on country radio, but the ballad “Call It a Day,” which is a song about longing for home, is so good that it might just bring McCoy and company more awards. ~Mike Farley (11/10/05)

Robert Plant and the Strange Sensation: The Mighty Rearranger
Label: Sanctuary

He may be 56, but Robert Plant still has a little sass in him. While his peers “flirt with cabaret, some fake the ‘rebel yell’,” as he comically points out in “Tin Pan Alley,” Plant, backed by a five-piece band half his age, sounds positively rejuvenated, yet content, on his latest, The Mighty Rearranger. The influences are many and varied, from the Middle Eastern melodies of “Another Tribe” to the bluesy shuffle of “Let the Four Winds Blow.” The most pleasant aspect of Mighty Rearranger is how little effort Plant puts into staying in the game. This record isn’t made for radio or commercial licensing, but for Plant and whoever else is keen. It is no surprise, then, that the album also blows away anything his geezer peers have made in decades. ~David Medsker (06/03/05)

Rockfour: Memories of the Never Happened
Label: Anova Music 2007
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At the risk of sounding politically incorrect, it only takes two words to sum up Rockfour: Jewish Beatles. Undaunted despite the departure of their lead singer in 2004, Memories of the Never Happened, the band’s fourth English language album (they’re from Israel, by the by), is a step-by-step instruction manual on ‘60s rock, filled with three-part harmonies, Byrdsy guitars, and Fab Four tributes the likes of which Oasis hasn’t touched in ages. When they sing “Don’t worry baby” towards the end of “No Worries,” one pictures the Beach Boys singing at the funeral of the Raspberries, while the guitar work on “Dear Truth” will make any fan of “Eight Miles High” nod knowingly. The album’s biggest drawback is that is sounds, well, terrible. Are there no decent recording studios in Israel? ~David Medsker (10/05/07)

Rosavelt: The Story of Gasoline
Label: Gaff

This rust belt band has evolved over the years into what it is today -- an ultra cool rock band with Americana flavor that features the lead vocals and songwriting prowess of Chris Allen, who instantly draws comparison to Paul Westerberg. On The Story of Gasoline, there’s as much beer-soaked twang as there is ballsy indie rock, all the while maintaining a keen sense of melody. My pick for best song here is “The Last Heartache,” which if you close your eyes could BE the Replacements, and that’s high praise. ~Mike Farley (05/06/05)

Josh Rouse: Country Mouse, City House
Label: Nettwerk 2007
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If you write enough songs, you’re either going to get better at what you do, or you’ll reach a point where it all becomes watered down. Sadly, Josh Rouse has been so prolific that he’s gradually been falling into the latter category. Rouse’s latest, Country Mouse, City House, is good by anyone else’s standards, but not when following gems like 2003’s 1972. Nashville and Subtitulo were also strong, but there has been a progressive decline in the catchiness of Rouse’s songs. The elements of what makes Rouse great are still there – the precision vocals, breezy melodies and flowing rhythms – but the hooks are decidedly subpar. Exceptions are “Hollywood Bass Player” and “Nice to Fit In,” the latter of which hearkens back to Rouse’s Dressed Up Like Nebraska days. But on droning tracks like “God, Please Let Me Go Back” and “Domesticated Lovers,” Rouse just leaves way too much to be desired. Sometimes it’s great to be a fan of someone who releases as much music as Josh Rouse, but in this case, you’ll want him to take some time off for once to re-charge his batteries. ~Mike Farley (07/27/07

Röyksopp: The Understanding
Label: Astralwerks

The sophomore effort from Norway’s finest knob twiddlers finds them leaving their downbeat chill pad for more adventurous territory, with mixed results. Leadoff track “Triumphant” wants to be a modern day “Pimpf” (Depeche Mode fans all nod knowingly here), but “Only This Moment” and “Follow My Ruin” fare much better, capturing the giddiness of club music that the band had previously sought to counteract. The influence of Daft Punk’s Discovery is all over the place here, and “Dead to the World” sounds like an outtake from Air’s Talkie Walkie. And while neither of these is a bad thing, the smarter course for a group this talented would appear to be making a record that doesn’t sound anything like the gods of the genre. On the plus side, at least The Understanding is better than Human After All, Daft Punk’s new album. ~David Medsker (07/14/05)

Run DMC: Live at Montreux 2001
Label: Eagle 2007
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After having the not-bad solo debut of Rev. Run be followed by the not-nearly-as-good-as-it-should’ve-been solo debut of DMC, there’s really no better time to take a step backwards and remember just how good Run DMC used to be. Live at Montreux 2001 is the first live album ever to emerge from the trio, and while it wasn’t recorded at the height of the band’s career – this was the Crown Royal era, an album which was more concerned about its guest stars (among them Kid Rock, Method Man, Sugar Ray, and Stephan Jenkins from Third Eye Blind) than the quality of its songs – it’s still filled with a ton of the band’s classics. In fact, by this point, Run DMC had enough hits that they had to resort to doing a medley of “Rock Box,” “Sucker MC’s,” “Freestyle,” “Here We Go,” and “Beats to the Rhyme.” Fortunately, however, we get proper full-length versions of “It’s Like That,” “It’s Tricky,” “King of Rock,” “Mary Mary,” “Walk This Way,” and “Peter Piper.” Even Crown Royal’s beatbox-heavy “School of Old” sounds good…but that might just be because Kid Rock wasn’t in attendance to recreate his part from the studio version of the song. “Down with the King,” unfortunately, is a disappointing finale to the album; for one, it’s not that great a song, but for another, the performance fades out without any hint of a farewell. Yeah, that’d be because it was actually the next-to-last song of their 66-minute set, begging the review-closing question, “Why did Eagle drop ‘Got to Be Real’ when there was plenty of room for it?” ~Will Harris (03/31/07)

Woody Russell: Salt
Label: Cats Up the Street

Dubbed as “thinking man’s Americana,” Austin-based singer/songwriter Woody Russell is back with Salt, the follow-up to 2001’s Time To Go. Russell is eclectic yet accessible, and his music leans more toward the rootsy side of Americana than the twangy side. Vocally he sits somewhere between James Taylor and Tom Waits, smooth but with a well-placed growl when necessary. Exploring social consciousness and philosophy as well as hopeless romanticism, Russell’s songs are interesting and catchy at the same time ala Elvis Costello. His guitar playing is solid as well, putting him a notch above other troubadours. The quirky and offbeat “Parts and Labor” is smile-inducing but the best track by far on this collection is the breezy “We May Never Know.” ~Mike Farley (05/06/05)

Serena Ryder: If Your Memory Serves You Well
Label: EMI 2007
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She’s got a bluesy growl along the lines of another young female vocalist who has burst onto the scene recently, Brandi Carlile, but Canadian native Serena Ryder has just a bit more grit in her voice. Also, Ryder is a songwriter, but her latest offering, If Your Memory Serves You Well, is mostly cover tunes. She grew up idolizing the Beatles and Leonard Cohen, so it’s no surprise that Ryder covers Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy” right out of the gate, as well as Bob Dylan’s “This Wheel's on Fire,” the latter being one of the album's strongest tracks. She performs Percy Faith’s “My Heart Cries for You” soulfully and beautifully, and a subdued version of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Coconut Grove” really shows Ryder’s versatility. Her own songs are buried at the end of the record, but those three tracks show a rockier side, along the lines of fellow Canadian Joss Stone or a young Grace Slick — and they’re strong enough (in particular, the anthem “Just Another Day”) to show promise for a 23-year-old that can go nowhere but up from here. ~Mike Farley (06/01/07)

Emmanuel Santarrmomana: Fab 4 Ever
Label: Pschent 2006
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How strange that two very different kinds of Beatles covers albums hit the shelves at virtually the same time (look for our review of the metal tribute, Butchering the Beatles, next week). This electro-pop collection by DJ Emmanuel Santarromana, Fab 4 Ever, is an odd little bird. When he doesn’t sound bored ("Back in the USSR"), his singing is like a parody of a "Sprockets" sketch, itself a parody ("You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away," "Strawberry Fields Forever"). Luckily, he gets some friends to help out on vocals, but they fare only slightly better, with Zita Lotis-Faure doing a second-tier Macy Gray on "Come Together." The arrangements are certainly unique, but occasionally a bit too obtuse for their own good. "We Can Work It Out" as a minor-key dirge? Um, sure. We will give him points for his Massive Attack-style assault on "Sun King," but the majority of Fab 4 Ever is too rigid, or too cute, for its own good. ~David Medsker (10/12/06)

Scott & Aimee: Sitting in a Tree
Label: Side Tracked Records 2007
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Legend has it that Unwritten Law leader Scott Russo heard
Aimee Allen’s album I’d Start a Revolution (If I Could Get up
in the Morning)
and declared it a sister album to Unwritten Law’s Elva (or so the press release tells us). The only problem is that Elva wasn’t that great of a record, and now we have Sitting in a Tree, the debut from Scott & Aimee. Together, they sing cynical rock/reggae rave-ups that name-check ‘live fast, die young’ legends like Jimi and Janis, and go on – and on and on – about being strung out on drugs and having “issues.” That would all be well and good if Scott & Aimee actually meant a single word of it, but they don’t. Russo’s been playing music for over a decade, which means he’s far more concerned about a career than living fast, dying young and leaving a good looking corpse. And yet, despite the shameless play for the debauchery dollar, there is some solid songcraft here, most notably the single “Crazy” and the mid-tempo “This Must Be Love.” But honestly, how seriously are we supposed to take any record that has a couplet like “Scott and Aimee sitting in a tree / F_c_ing”? Before you answer, know that this wasn’t done to slip something past the censors. The album’s overflowing with profanity; this part, well, they apparently thought it was clever. ~David Medsker (05/18/07)

Ryan Shupe & the Rubberband: Dream Big
Label: Capitol Nashville

The debut from Ryan Shupe and his band is such a hodgepodge of different musical flavors, the biggest question and challenge for Capitol is going to be finding a market for it. There is rap-infused Jason Mraz-type pop (“Banjo Boy”), humorous pop/bluegrass (“Even Superman”), and straight bluegrass (“Ambush” and “Never Give Up”). It’s likely that the title track and “Would You Love Me” are going to be the songs pitched to country radio, and both showcase Shupe at his strongest as a songwriter. Regardless, while fans of Mraz and Nickel Creek are going to find something to like here, they just might not be able to listen to the whole album. ~Mike Farley (09/01/05)

Santana: All That I Am
Label: Arista

1999’s Supernatural was Clive Davis’ paint-by-numbers blueprint to reintroduce Carlos Santana to a younger generation by having him collaborate with hip young artists. Rob Thomas delivered “Smooth,” Everlast scored with “Keep Your Lights On” and the Product G & B nailed “Maria Maria”. No such luck reinventing the wheel on the empty All That I Am. He has scored a hit with Michele Branch on “I’m Feeling You,” but the rest of the record is forgettable. The collaborations are uninspired and the talents of Steven Tyler, Kirk Hammett and Mary J. Blige feel wasted. Only with the brothers Garza from Los Lonely Boys does Carlos hit a groove worth a repeat listen on “I Don’t Want to Feel Your Love.” I hope this experiment is over and Santana can go back to exploring the terrain that melds his signature spiritual guitar work with music that is heartfelt, not created to “become a hit.” ~R. David Smola (02/16/06)

Sascha and the Robot Swan: Sascha and the Robot Swan
Label: self-released

You can tell a lot about a group by the cover songs they choose to cover, and Syd Barrett covers are invariably a mark of quality. This theory remains solid with the self-titled debut of Sascha and the Robot Swan, which includes a lovely take on Barrett’s “Terrapin,” alongside seven originals. The Robot Swan is the brainchild of Sascha Ribinski, who claims as her influences “anyone who recorded their own album, and anyone who records at home,” so it will not surprise you to learn that these songs are somewhat lo-fi and have a demo feel about them. The sweeping melody of “Only In My Dreams” and the George Harrison-esque guitar work – okay, maybe George Harrison with a fuzz pedal, but the similarity is still there – on “Power Over” transcend the conditions under which they were recorded, however, and Ribinski’s vocals are, at times, reminiscent of Laura Nyro. Rumor has it that the Robot Swan...or maybe just Ribiniski; it’s hard to tell them apart...is being courted by Sony, so getting in on the ground floor would be advisable. ~Will Harris (10/13/05)

Scars of Tomorrow: The Failure in Drowning
Label: Victory Records 2006
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Scars of Tomorrow have always been a mediocre metalcore band, and The Failure in Drowning does very little to change that. This is the band’s third release in just over a year, and it’s clearly not because they have a surplus of great material. Each song seems written for the sole purpose of a killer breakdown, of which there are many, but none of the tracks are adventuresome or stray from the norm in the slightest. Worse yet is the mixing job by Eric Rachel, which turns the band’s sound to mush on numerous occasions. It should be noted that band broke up in mid-April, but appear to be starting a new project under a different name with all the current members. While The Failure in Drowning is instantly forgettable, the band has exhibited chops and may be worth keeping an eye on if they reappear in the scene. ~Bill Clark (05/11/07)

Bryan Scary & the Shredding Tears: Flight of the Knife
Label: Black and Greene 2008
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Scary’s debut earned raves from Pitchfork, Paste, Popmatters and, um, Perez Hilton, giving him the extra burst of chutzpah that must have been necessary to assemble the follow-up, a nutty dozen-song cycle inspired by Thomas Pynchon’s thousand-page doorstop “Against the Day.” The overall effect – at least if you don’t pay any attention to the lyrics – is akin to what Todd Rundgren getting high with Queen and the Electric Light Orchestra in the early ‘80s might have sounded like. If you do pay attention to the lyrics, on the other hand, you’re liable to waver between amused and irritated – and if you lived through the peak of prog rock’s popularity, you may end up suffering (and we do mean suffering) flashbacks. Try to boil Pynchon down to album length, and you’re bound to end up with an unwieldy mess – but whether Scary’s buckshot approach is the result of genius or attention deficit disorder is entirely an open question. The arrangements are tight and the hooks are plentiful, but you get the feeling you wouldn’t want to share an elevator with the guy. ~Jeff Giles (04/04/08)

Scientific Lifestyle: Modern Sounds for the New Era
Label: Mean Red

Y’know, it’s highly possible that Scientific Lifestyle’s debut album would’ve scored a higher rating if it hadn’t made such a lofty promise as that of claiming to contain “modern sounds for the new era.” The band describes their sound as “rocktronica,” which, you might be able to figure out for yourself, is supposed to be equal parts rock and electronica, with some pop and soul thrown in for good measure...but the end result is hardly groundbreaking. More often than not, Scientific Lifestyle’s sound isn’t so terribly far from what Gwen Stefani’s been doing for the past few years: modernizing the ‘80s new wave sound to fit the current music scene. Lead singer Nicole Porter even sounds kind of like Stefani...or, on the verses of the first track, “A Fraud,” like Alanis Morissette. The electronic bleeps and bloops of “La Rochefoucuald” are interesting, and “Shifting Scene” and “It Must Be Close (Safe and Sound)” have soaring choruses, but “World Upside Down” is probably the centerpiece of the album...and appropriately so, since it starts the second half of the disc. Ultimately, however, the band’s goals would appear to be far loftier than the creativity demonstrated in the music; it certainly has its moments, and the potential for future cross-genre musical exploration is tremendous, but when all is said and done, the few truly great parts just don’t add up to enough. ~Will Harris (04/27/06)

Seal: Live in Paris (CD & DVD)
Label: Warner Brothers

There’s more than a whiff of contractual obligation to Seal’s recent output, with Live in Paris arriving seven months after Best: 1991-2004, which was issued in two different versions. In fact, the performance of the songs is so steadfastly loyal to the originals that Live in Paris may actually be Best: 1991-2004 with audience applause dubbed in. Either way, it’s not going to make anyone throw out their copy of Live at Budokan. The bonus DVD only exaggerates the problem. Watching Seal and his four-piece band (such a sensitive minstrel, he gives them all hugs before they all go onstage) is dreadfully dull. The band’s “movement” suggests that they’re chained in place (think Tom Jones on “The Simpsons”). Thank goodness for the occasional flashes of the audience, which is teeming with French hotties. ~David Medsker (06/10/05)

Sexsmith & Kerr: Destination Unknown
Label: Emergent/92e

Canadian songwriter Ron Sexsmith collaborated with long time drummer Don Kerr on an extremely pleasant collection of songs rich in harmony and well-played acoustic guitars. Sexsmith and Kerr strum and harmonize about the innocence of lemonade stands and lost love. This is a lovely disc rich with cellos, mandolins and autoharps, wonderfully crafted and finely produced. Admitting you enjoy such an album may alienate you from the group of guys with whom you watch professional wrestling, but that is a risk worth taking. The combination of their voices is slightly reminiscent of the work the Finn Brothers have produced, but the sound and subject matter is much less introspective and dark. This is the perfect record to play on the first day of fall to provide the soundtrack to the falling leaves, Triple H be damned. ~R. David Smola (01/04/06)

Bob Seger: Smokin’ O.P.’s
Label: Capitol

With a career that spans nearly 40 years, and a voice that is as American as (insert your own cliché here), Bob Seger has about as much respect in the rock world as anyone. So when Capitol Records listened to Seger’s fan base and re-released his 1972 album of mostly cover songs, Smokin’ O.P.’s (O.P. stands for “other people’s”), it was a no-brainer. Garage rock bands of today should aspire to sound this cool. Seger’s signature rasp complements the raw guitar and rhythm section and is at its best on tracks like Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With” and Leon Russell’s “Hummin’ Bird.” But his own haunting piano ballad, “Someday,” is the best track on here. ~Mike Farley (06/24/05)

Duncan Sheik: White Limousine
Label: Zoe

Has singer/songwriter Duncan Sheik really been hanging around the music scene for 10 years now? Yes he has, but his music has evolved into what amounts to a far cry from his pop hit, “Barely Breathing,” of the mid ‘90s. Sheik’s first album on the Zoe label, White Limousine, is experimental even by the artist’s own recent standards. In addition to touching on celebrity life (title track) and the endless pursuit of love (“Hey Casanova”), Sheik even delves successfully into a topic not touched on by most musical artists: “Shopping.” Sheik manages to creatively balance pianos and crunching electric guitars with some string layers courtesy of the London Session Orchestra. White Limousine is not mainstream by any means, but that shouldn’t matter since it is seductive and hypnotic enough to make you want to keep listening. ~Mike Farley (02/02/06)

Shout Out Louds: Howl Howl Gaff Gaff
Label: Capitol

If the Thrills made an album consisting of nothing but New Order covers, it would sound a lot like the Shout Out Louds, Sweden’s latest indie pop export. Both bands’ influences are not necessarily present at the same time, but one can’t listen for long without being reminded of one or the other. “Oh, Sweetheart” is a bouncy, fiddle-blessed popper with a strong West coast pop bend, while “Shut Your Eyes” sounds like a mellow update of “Age of Consent.” It’s all pleasant enough, if not revolutionary. The kids could be listening to far worse things than this, that’s for sure. ~David Medsker (07/28/05)

Sierra Swan: Ladyland
Label: Interscope 2006
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Singer/songwriter/rocker Sierra Swan is pissed off, and it shows. Her first official release as a major label act, Ladyland, is the culmination of a lifetime of record deals gone bad, and Swan manages to channel her emotions into a collection of pretty good songs. Dark, piano-driven alternative rockers like “Copper Red” and the title track will remind you of Fiona Apple, but there is more to Swan than that. “Don’t Say” is uplifting and guaranteed to force even the laziest of us to get up off our asses and do something with our lives; her co-write and co-vocal with Aimee Mann, “Get Down To It,” is stellar; and “The Ladder” puts Swan’s vocal acrobatics on display, likening her to Brandi Carlisle or even one of her heroes, Patsy Cline. There are a few throwaways on here, in particular “Lucky Scar,” which drones on and must mention the title of the song at least 20 times. But for the most part, Ladyland, produced by Linda Perry, is a solid debut for an artist that has obviously paid her dues. ~Mike Farley (05/18/06)

The Sights: The Sights
Label: New Line

A trio that puts out the sound of a band twice their size, Detroit’s garage rock revivalists The Sights mine the same turf as The Coral, but would beat the snot out of them in a bar fight. “Scratch My Name in Sin” is an unofficial remake of Derek & the Dominos’ “Bell Bottom Blues,” and lead singer Eddie Baranek’s howl on “I’m Going to Live the Life I Sing About in My Song” – a Mahalia Jackson song, hallelujah - would make Eric Burdon proud. The album unfolds like a musical timeline, with the band trading their ‘60s influences for the ‘70s on the back half; “Baby’s Knocking Me Down” is dead-on, Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie, and “Waiting on a Friend” has that modern-yet-vintage feel that Supergrass does so well. Simply put, these guys kick ass. ~David Medsker (06/03/05)

Silversun Pickups: Carnavas
Label: Dangerbird 2006
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Though the Silversun Pickups have been labeled “indie rock” – a term used increasingly to describe all things rock – we should go ahead and drop that first word. The group’s use of heavy, distorted guitars sounds more like something from the late ‘90s than anything going on right now. That’s not to say that there aren’t any melodies, there are, but they just aren’t all that impressive, at least on the front half of the disc. The first track “Melatonin” features a nice building guitar behind frontman Brian Aubert’s haunting, raspy vocals. He even manages some unusual harmonizing, presumably with bassist Nikki Monninger, as no other females are credited. “Lazy Eye” starts off nicely, but several ten-second guitar notes threaten to ruin the song – it barely survives. As with a lot of distortion-heavy bands, the songs tend to run together, but Carnavas actually picks up some steam towards the end. The brooding “Three Seed” features some smooth guitar noodling under Aubert’s voice and “Common Reactor” has an infectious chorus and a compelling breakdown, but the song just goes on too long. Aubert’s voice isn’t traditionally pleasant to the ear, which will hamper the band’s marketability, but between Carnavas and the group’s debut EP Pikul, they seem to be finding their niche. ~John Paulsen (08/24/07)

Silversun Pickups: Pikul
Label: Dangerbird

Not understanding why most artists are so competitive, the Silversun Pickups are part of a collective of Los Angeles bands that call themselves The Ship – they go to each other’s shows, play on each other’s records and generally support one another. With the release of their debut EP Pikul, the group makes its mark nationally with a collection of moody rock songs that are a bit reminiscent of early Modest Mouse. The first track, “Kissing Families,” puts somewhat rough vocals over an intense bass line, and even features some strings. “Comeback Kid” meanders at its start, but eventually morphs into an angst-filled rocker. Not all of the tracks are up-tempo – “Creation Lake” and “...All the Go Inbetweens” are two grungy ballads. In fact, all of the tracks on the EP are pretty solid, and hearken back to the better stuff to come out of the late ‘90s. It’s worth a listen or three. ~John Paulsen (09/01/05)

Anya Singleton: Not Easy to Forget EP
Label: Hybrid Music 2006
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Not Easy to Forget, a six-song EP follow-up to 2002's Anya Singleton, combines sophistication and beauty rare in today's music scene, as the older generation of great jazz singers passes on and no one steps in to fill the void. Singleton's EP contains five original compositions and the Hoagy Carmichael standard "The Nearness of You," enough to show this Tunisian-born gal can sing, no doubt about it. Guys can't help thinking about one thing in particular when Singleton sings, especially when checking out the CD booklet – the mentality she deftly pegs (and scorns) in the cut "One Trick Pony." We all want to be the one she considers not easy to forget in the title tune, but I digress. If you're into jazzy-bluesy pop backed with a traditional acoustic jazz ensemble that at times isn't afraid to crank out a little gentle rockabilly, you'll enjoy this disc. In fact, if you're into female vocalists who can carry a tune and are tired of the overwrought so-called soul on the radio, or the breathy, half-in-tune pop divas la-la-la'ing their way to the top of the pop charts, Singleton's for you, too. Oh yeah, if you're a big Norah Jones fan, this record's a fastball right down the middle of the plate; buy it without hesitation.
~Mojo Flucke, Ph.D. (12/20/06)

The Sippy Cups: Electric Storyland
Label: Snacker Disc 2006
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Got young kids? Trying to find a happy median between introducing them to music and not selling their soul (or yours) to that damned purple dinosaur? The Sippy Cups are just what the doctor ordered. In a few short years, the San Francisco band -- yes, a guitar player, bassist, drummer, keyboardist, and even juggler for the live shows -- have cranked out three unique releases of ultra-catchy, upbeat kids rock. And it’s rock, not nursery rhyme pop! As is obvious from the latest title, Electric Storyland, the Cups are all about classic rock. They’ve covered Elton John, The Beatles, and the Ramones in past works, but Storyland is all original material. Giddiness abounds on “Little House of Jell-O” and the happy-go-funky beats within “Move Your Pants.” Some tracks are just brief one-minute warm-ups, but most are fully electric four-minute rock compositions. No doubt this stuff plays out very well in live performances (sure beats “Smurfs on Ice”), as is evidenced in their last release, 2005’s Kids Rock for Peas. There are a couple of bedtime ballads here, like “The Jellyfish,” but for the most part, the Sippy Cups are bound and determined to keep your kids and their parents rocking.
~Red Rocker (06/15/07)

Sixx: A.M.: The Heroin Diaries
Label: Eleven Seven Music 2007
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“There’s nothing like a trail of blood to find your way back home,” Nikki Sixx gargles in the opening of the new “Life Is Beautiful” video. With Mötley Crüe on a long-overdue (and hopefully permanent) hiatus, Sixx corrals a couple dope buddies, DJ Ashba and James Michael, to plod through 13 original tracks of death, drugs, and more drugs. “Everybody gets high, everybody gets low, everybody gets bruised, everybody gets sold,” the chorus proclaims within “Van Nuys.” If you’re looking for the jolly ol’ feel-good topics from the ‘80s like “Girls, Girls, Girls,” this probably ain’t your album. Remember, Sixx has almost died, like, 15 times, and if you believe these songs, he’s none too convinced that the string is finished. The new single, “Life Is Beautiful,” is a good enough return for Sixx, certainly better than anything the Crüe has delivered lately, even if it does sound too much like Filter. At least he’s creating new music, instead of rehashing and surviving solely on the 25-year-old playbook. As for the Diaries book and reported movie, can it possibly outshine The Dirt? ~Red Rocker (08/17/07)

The Smithereens: Christmas with the Smithereens
Label: KOCH 2007
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In 1775, Samuel Johnson famously declared that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, and if he’d lived long enough, he might have come to the conclusion that the Christmas album is the last refuge of the dried-up pop star: Holiday records, once reserved for truck stops and cheesy after-market compilations, have become evergreen titles for commercially adrift artists, and everyone from Kenny Loggins to Twisted Sister has gotten in on the fun. Now the Smithereens – who busted their novelty-record cherry with their track-by-track cover of Meet the Beatles, titled Meet the Smithereens, earlier this year – step into the breach with a dozen holiday recordings, infused with the familiar Smithereens blend of harmonies and jangly guitars that consumers have proudly ignored since 1990. It’s got more pep in its step than many holiday albums, and the band’s sound lends itself to seasonal fare better than, say, 38 Special, so if you’re a fan, you’re going to want this in your collection. It likely won’t fulfill Pat DiNizio’s wish for “an album you wouldn’t mind listening to the other 11 months of the year,” but given KOCH’s distribution clout, it should find its way onto endcaps in the shrinking music sections of Target et al. every fourth quarter, and that’s pretty much the goal, isn’t it? ~Jeff Giles (11/09/07)

Soft: Gone Faded
Label: Silver Sleeve 2007
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The debut album from Soft is breezy and full of, well, soft textures. There’s the smooth vocals of Johnny Reineck, and a distinct focus on swirling guitars and arrangements. You might hear elements of Coldplay, Keane or Snow Patrol in Soft’s music, as there is a decided Brit pop flavor. But beyond that, there is one small problem — the tracks simply aren’t all that good. There is some really solid guitar work, courtesy of Sam Wheeler and Vincent Perini, in particular on the title track and on “Great Spirit.” And “Droppin” is as catchy as this band gets. But otherwise, Gone Faded is overflowing with mediocre tunes, and Reineck’s voice may grate on you like those critical little jabs from your mother-in-law. ~Mike Farley (10/26/07)

Slow Runner: No Disassemble
Label: Red Ink

It’s time to give the members of Charleston’s Slow Runner a blood test to officially prove that they are not, in fact, Soulwax in disguise. Michael Flynn’s baritone – especially on “Everything Is Exactly What It Seems” – is a dead ringer for Soulwax ringleader Stephen Dewaele, though the music is a prettier version of the machine-tweaked dirty pop that Soulwax is, well, not at all known for, but they should be, damn it. Since Soulwax is currently sans a US record deal, No Disassemble, Slow Runner’s debut, will serve as an ample fix for anyone jonesing for more Soul. The songs are pretty, occasionally noisy, and employ a kitchen-sink approach to the instrumentation, though the overall affair is decidedly less extreme than their Belgian counterparts. “Streamlined” is a showstopper of a ballad, and “12-19-03” flips between Rhodes pianos to Casio synths, yet both pieces complement each other wonderfully. You can bet your ass that Ben Gibbard knows about these guys, and that he’s surely a big, big fan. ~David Medsker (03/09/06)

Mindy Smith: My Holiday
Label: Vanguard 2007
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In the same vein as stunning singer/songwriter Patty Griffin, Nashville-by-way-of-New York singer/songwriter Mindy Smith covers a wide ground spanning country, classic folk and pop. She does it so well, and with such an endearing vocal, you’ll be listening with a keen ear and warmth in your heart. Yes, Smith is that good. And on her newest effort, a holiday album simply titled My Holiday, Smith outdoes herself again. The 11-song collection contains a few well-done classics such as “The Christmas Song” and “Silver Bells,” and a nice Americana take on “Away in a Manger.” But she really shines on the original material. While the title track and “Santa Will Find You” are Smith’s own take on December songs, they will surely fit right into any holiday play list. But on “I Know the Reason,” a duet with Thad Cockrell, well, this is an artist who consistently delivers beautiful songs, and this is one of her best yet. If you’re going to buy one holiday album this season, let this one be it. ~Mike Farley (11/16/07)

Soledad Brothers: The Hardest Walk
Label: Alive

Not that they’re necessarily riding in on their coattails or anything, but the Soledad Brothers probably wouldn’t mind it if I mentioned that they’re from Detroit, home of the White Stripes; after all, these guys have been buds with Jack White since he produced their self-titled debut album back in 2000. The gradual musical evolution of the Soledad Brothers from that debut to The Hardest Walk may not seem that significant if you’ve followed them all along, but, in six years, they’ve come from being a gruff and gritty blues-rock band – wow, what a shock that their lead singer is named Johnny Walker – to a nicely-produced bunch of boys who aren’t afraid to do a bit of musical experimentation now and then. There’s still a definite resemblance to the Rolling Stones at times, as on the horn-powered opener, “Truth or Consequences,” but, then, Walker’s occasional similarity to Jagger doesn’t hurt that comparison any. (Wait ‘til you hear him Mick it up on “Crying Out Loud (Tears of Joy).”) The backwoods boogie of “Downtown Paranoia Blues” and “Crooked Crown” make for an instant party, but the head-bobbing “Good Feeling” is a pop song, plain and simple. Don’t listen to the purists who want to bitch about how “they haven’t been the same since they cleaned up their act”; it’s not like it happened overnight. If you skip over the 51 seconds of musical uselessness that is “White Jazz,” you’ve got another consistently fine album from the Soledad Brothers. ~Will Harris (04/28/06)

Jeff Solomon: Around the Square
Label: self-released

Jeff Solomon may describe his music on his MySpace page as “good old-fashioned ukulele pop,” but, while there’s certainly ukulele to be had among the six songs on his debut EP, Around the Square, it’s full of plenty of other instrumentation as well. The lead track, “Temporary Song,” is probably the closest any American is ever going to get to emulating early Belle & Sebastian, but the following song, while still finding Solomon’s voice a dead ringer for Stuart Murdoch, is more musically quirky; the verse is straightforward, but the trombone-driven chorus has more ups and downs than a rollercoaster. “Like Yesterday” begins as a Ben Folds-styled piano number, but, come the chorus, it’s ukulele-a-go-go; meanwhile, the alto sax solo on “Am I Still?” is as funky as the backing vocals are soulful, and closer “Gramercy” is a suitably epic finale. With production from Phil Ramone protégé Andrew Fellus (who can make the decidedly rare claim that he’s worked with both Paul Simon and Jay-Z), this is a stellar debut from Solomon which, one can only hope, will be followed in short order by a full-length release. ~Will Harris (04/20/06)

Sons of Bill: A Far Cry from Freedom
Label: self-released 2007
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It still seems a little ridiculous that the whole concept of country music got so lost amongst the commercialization of Nashville that someone had to create an all-new sub-genre – alt-country – to do little more than just get back to the basics of what made country great in the first place. Even so, it’s hard to complain when you get albums like A Far Cry from Freedom, which is eleven songs of solid Americana, filled with a great deal of twang – both in the guitars and the vocals – and plenty of tear-in-your-beer ballads (f a bottle of cheap red wine is more to your taste, opener “Back to the Time” still provides a perfect soundtrack). To create their sound, Charlottesville, Virginia’s Sons of Bill take a little bit of Gin Blossoms (particularly at the beginning of “Whispering”), a fair amount of Drive-By Truckers, and, well, you’d be remiss if you didn’t suggest that the Old ‘97s and Whiskeytown also serve as touchstones. “Ballad of Middle-Aged Heartache” provides a blow-by-blow description of what led one poor bastard from a honky-tonk Saturday night to the Tupelo County Jail, while the harmonica-laden “Roll on Jordan” offers references to a southbound train, the Bible Belt, and a Baptist choir. In other words, if you think this ain’t an authentic look at the South, you’re clearly a dagburn fool. Sons of Bill recorded the album last year, but it’s since been re-mastered by Chris Kress (Dave Matthews Band) and sounds great. Consider the guys a band to keep your eye on. ~Will Harris (05/25/07)

Soundtrack: Borat: Stereophonic Musical Listenings That Have Been Origin in Moving Film
Label: Atlantic 2006
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Just because a movie is good doesn’t necessarily mean that its soundtrack counterpart will follow suit, and while “Borat” may just be one of the funniest movies of the past decade, this sporadic collection of Euro-pop dance music and twangy, synthesized groove beats won’t likely appeal to many of the film’s diehard fans. Don’t get me wrong, the soundtrack (which was co-produced by star Sacha Baron Cohen’s brother, Erran) works great when operating strictly as an accompaniment to the film, but there aren’t many standalone tunes that you’ll actually want to listen to in your spare time. In fact, there are really only two tracks worth mentioning: the Spanish guitar-influenced “Chaje Shukarije” and Fanfare Ciocarlia’s rendition of “Born to be Wild,” which fuses the classic marching band sound with a funky, African beat. And while Cohen indulges us with two exclusive songs – “Throw the Jew down the Well” and “You Be My Wife” – neither one lives up to the countless comedic moments that appear throughout the film. This is niiiice… not! ~Jason Zingale (11/09/06)

Rod Stewart: Still the Same...
Great Rock Classics of Our Time

Label: J-Records 2006
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What’s happened to Rod Stewart? The sexy, brash, boozed-up hell raiser from the ‘70s who trashed stages and hotel rooms with sidekicks like Jeff Beck and Ron Wood would have wanted to kill himself while listening to this latest batch of warmed-over karaoke covers, Still the Same…Great Rock Classics of Our Time. The same legendary scratchy rock vocal that brought you “Stay with Me” and “Every Picture Tells a Story” is now guilty of career suicide on mushy ballads like “I’ll Stand by You” and Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love.” It’s not that “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” and “Still the Same” are bad songs, mind you, just that Stewart’s renditions are contrived and lackluster, void of emotion and any sort of classic rock bravado. The title of this project is a joke, as these covers are merely a tad jumpier than most of what Stewart’s done over the past several years in his Great American Songbook series. Since when does Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” constitute a “great rock classic”? ~Red Rocker (11/16/06)

Soundtrack: The U.S. vs. John Lennon
Label: Capitol/EMI 2006
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The documentary “The U. S. vs. John Lennon” chronicles John Lennon’s deportation battle against the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. The official charge was a four-year-old misdemeanor drug charge (from England), but as the film shows, it was really about the fear that Richard Nixon had for the political influence that Lennon and Yoko Ono wielded. The songs in the soundtrack showcase Lennon’s political views that instigated the INS case. With one exception, these are tracks Lennon recorded as a solo artist, and are political (rather than personal) in theme. You’ll not find “Mother,” or “Mind Games,” or anything from the Rock ‘n’ Roll release. The lone Beatle song is “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” recorded and first released as a single in 1969. This isn’t a Lennon greatest-hits set. It’s a collection of his political songs from the several years chronicled in the film, songs that drove The Man to try to discredit one of his most influential and charismatic opponents. ~Mike Connolly (11/09/06)

Some by Sea: On Fire! (Igloo)
Label: SideCho Records

The second album from Chris Du Bray’s baroque pop quintet is beautiful, sprawling, heartbreaking, and really, really long. With 12 tracks spanning 70 minutes, On Fire! (Igloo) may be the first chamber prog album ever made. Du Bray’s voice falls somewhere between Ben Gibbard and Michael Penn, and it serves the material well. The problem is that they don’t seem to know when to move on to the next thing. “Look What I Made without Your Heart Getting in the Way” and “Under the Cyclone” both have catchy choruses, but neither of them needs to be five and a half minutes long. There’s a good band in here; they just need to get to the point sooner than they do. ~David Medsker (03/16/06)

The Spinners: Love Trippin’
Label: American Beat 1980 / 2007
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It’d require a battle royale to determine if it was the Four Tops or the Temptations who were the definitive R&B vocal group of the 1960s, but when it comes to the most consistent artists of ‘70s soul, the Spinners pretty much have the title locked down. (Seriously, who’s their biggest competition? The O’Jays…? Get real. That those guys made it into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame before the Spinners is damned near a travesty.) Unfortunately, the ‘80s saw the band’s commercial decline begin in earnest. Things had already started getting iffy with 1979’s From Here to Eternally, but you know things aren’t looking good for a band when the biggest single from their latest album is actually a cover, and that was the case for Love Trippin’ and The Spinners’ take on Sam Cooke’s “Cupid.” Yes, it was blended with an original (“I’ve Loved You for a Long, Long Time”), but, ultimately, it was the cover that sold the track – and, alas, this was a trend that would continue for the remainder of the band’s chart history; they only had two more hits, and both were covers. How shameful. Love Trippin’ still provides plenty of the smooth soul sound that the Spinners were famous for. The “Cupid” medley is nice as a memory trigger for what you were doing in 1980, but it’s “Streetwise,” “Split Decision,” and “I’m Takin’ You Back” that really turn the beat around. The album’s a bit heavy on slow jams, but they still provide significant highlights, like the Chi-Lites soundalike “Heavy on the Sunshine.” Not their best work, but – you guessed it – still worth a spin. ~Will Harris (06/22/07)

Rick Springfield: The Day After Yesterday
Label: Gomer / DKE

Covers albums: the last refuge of the scoundrel. In fairness to Springfield, the songs he’s chosen to cover here are dandies – “I’m Not in Love,” “For No One,” “Under the Milky Way,” “Waiting for a Girl Like You” – the problem is that he fails to add anything of value to his interpretations. The cover of the Dream Academy’s “Life in a Northern Town,” in particular, sounds like a bad hotel bar band. It doesn’t help that Springfield’s voice is completely shot, a point made even more obvious when Mr. Mister’s Richard Page duets with him on “Broken Wings” and blows him out of the booth in the process. We’ll give him two stars for showing excellent taste in the songs he chooses to cover, but he loses the other three stars for not having the common sense to leave them alone. ~David Medsker (08/04/05)

Billy Squier: Emotions in Motion
Label: Emotions in Motion 1982/2007
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And American Beat takes another dip into the Billy Squier back catalog! This time around, the subject is 1982’s Emotions in Motion, best known for the immortal riff-fest that is “Everybody Wants You.” Although it proved to be one of Squier’s two most successful albums (it hit #5 on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums, a feat matched by its predecessor, 1981’s Don’t Say No), Emotions in Motion isn’t necessarily his best work – but it’s still pretty good, as ‘80s rock albums go. Beyond the aforementioned “Everybody Wants You,” other highlights include the power ballad “In Your Eyes,” the melodic guitar attack of “Learn How to Live,” the heavy metal harmonies of “One Good Woman,” and the keyboard pop of “She’s a Runner.” Even the bluesy “Keep Me Satisfied” has enough jet propellant in its chorus to keep things interesting. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t hold up as well as either of its predecessors, making it the first – but certainly not the last – of Squier’s releases that would later make fans just as happy owning stray cuts on a greatest-hits disc as the original album. ~Will Harris (09/14/07)

Billy Squier: The Tale of the Tape
Label: American Beat 1980/2007
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Once upon a time, Billy Squier had “The Big Beat,” and, by God, he wasn’t afraid to flaunt it. If you were around in the ‘70s, you were already familiar with Squier’s work with the band Piper before he got around to putting out his solo debut in 1980, but The Tape of the Tape heralded the arrival of a major name in melodic rock. The audiences clearly agreed, vaulting the record higher into the charts than anything Piper had ever managed. (Of course, it only hit #169 on the Billboard Top 200, but, still.) Weirdly, though, Squier’s best-known best-of, 16 Strokes, doesn’t include a single song from this record, which is pretty inexplicable, given how much strong material can be found here. First and foremost, one doesn’t have to venture very far out on a limb to declare “Calley Oh” one of the great lost pop-rock tracks of the early ‘80s, with Squier’s soaring vocal during the chorus surrounded by some fantastic layered harmonies;“You Should Be High, Love” might be faux Zeppelin, but it’s got a stomping chorus; “Who’s Your Boyfriend,” meanwhile, is catchy enough (and filled with more than enough handclaps) to pass for a tougher version of the Knack. The real Squier obsessives may choose to hunt down last year’s import reissue, which came out via UK label Rock Candy Records and included two bonus tracks, but for a less expensive and still more than acceptable alternative, stick with this American Beat version. ~Will Harris (06/08/07)

Matt Stamm: Where Do We Go
Label: Palindrome 2007
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Multi-instrumentalist and singer/songwriter Matt Stamm returns with his second release, a five-song EP called Where Do We Go that is so infectious, you might be singing along with it after just one listen. Stamm has a pleasant tenor vocal that delivers this collection of pop ditties with relative ease – songs that will bring to mind the likes of Daniel Powter or the Click Five. It’s the kind of pop that should be a hit with young girls, pop aficionados and also with film/TV music supervisors looking for that next soundtrack-worthy gem. In fact, ABC Family has already placed Stamm’s music in a show called “Switched.” While the title track and “Mr. Perfect” are pure ear candy, the best tracks on here are the tender falsetto based “I Don’t Want to Need You” and the piano-driven mid-tempo rocker, “Everybody Falls.” This is surely a case of getting through five songs and wanting more, so let’s hope Stamm’s sophomore effort is the second of more to come.
~Mike Farley (11/02/07)

Scott Stapp: The Great Divide
Label: Wind-Up

It’s a pity the band name Tool was already taken, because it would have served as a great name for former Creed singer Scott Stapp’s new endeavor. The Great Divide, his solo debut, is even worse than the last few Creed albums, if that is at all possible, filled with the same lumbering, tuneless riffs and chord progressions but this time featuring Stapp singing wildly (and badly) out of his clear vocal range. The lyrics are teenage prose at best, the highlight of which is “Justify,” where Stapp meets a man in New Orleans (gee whiz, wonder who that could be) who kicks his heels and winks at him (again, wish we were kidding about this) and says, “Hey, boy, have you seen the other side?” Heavens to Betsy. Even worse is the artwork, which shows Stapp in shirtless Christ pose. In fact, there is only one shot in the entire insert of Stapp with a shirt on, and in that shot he’s wearing a wife beater. In other words, Scott Stapp’s musical career may be faltering, but his status as a gay icon has only just begun. ~David Medsker (12/09/05)

Stars of Track and Field: Centuries before Love and War
Label: Sidecho 2007
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Don’t let their name fool you: if the members of the guitar/guitar/drums trio Stars of Track and Field were brought together by a mutual love for any album, ten bucks says it’s either A Rush of Blood to the Head or Loveless, rather than the Belle & Sebastian album that you might suspect. Singer Kevin Calabo has the kind of tenor that could pass for the sweet, misunderstood little brother of Rob Dickinson, but that voice is backed by an oftentimes crushing wall of…well, it’s not noise, but it’s not sound in the Phil Spector sense, either. It certainly has its moments, like the melancholy “Movies of Antarctica” and the driving “Say Hello,” but there’s something disturbing in the vocal harmonies that we can’t quite put our finger on. Wait, it just came to us: they’re vaguely reminiscent of Blue October, which is never a good thing. Fortunately for them (and us), they don’t seem capable of writing a song as irritating as “Hate Me,” but the next “Clocks” doesn’t appear to be coming from them, either. ~David Medsker (03/01/07)

A Static Lullaby: A Static Lullaby
Label: Fearless 2006
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What the hell does “post-hardcore” mean? Whatever the definition, that’s the term that’s bandied about when discussing A Static Lullaby, and based on what can be heard on this, their third album, it seems to be a genre worth putting on the “do not play” list. There are precious few moments on this self-titled release where lead singer Joe Brown isn’t shredding his vocal chords as he’s fronting the mike, resulting in an 11-song experience where – at least for the most part – you find yourself cringing and going, “Jesus CHRIST, would you stop yelling?” So why the clarification that it’s “for the most part”? Because if you can stop wishing your hands were around Brown’s neck long enough to concentrate on the music, you’ll discover some sweet-ass metal harmonies in the choruses of just about every song on the album, along with some nice production touches from Steve Evetts (Sepultura, Saves the Day). Unfortunately, Brown never fails to appear and put an end to your enjoyment of any given track, which means that only card-carrying headbangers will want to spin this more than once. ~Will Harris (11/16/06)

Stay Tuned: This Is Only a Test
Label: self-released

Described (by themselves) as “the ultimate television rock experience,” the guys in Stay Tuned are on a quest to punk up all of your favorite TV themes. Sure, it’s a gimmick, but it’s a fun one, even if it inevitably finds the band suffering from comparisons to punk’s premier cover band, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. Things start off appropriately with their take on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” then into “New Girl in Town,” a.k.a. the theme to “Alice.” From there, however, it’s into the theme to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and, unfortunately, Stay Tuned’s version is pallid compared to Husker Du’s take from some years ago. The band does, however, knock out solid renditions of “Mr. Belvedere” and “Silver Spoons,” but the schmaltzy stuff isn’t nearly as impressive as stuff like “Rawhide” (vocally reminiscent of Social Distortion) and the killer run through “S.W.A.T.” There’s also the not-entirely-successful but nonetheless inspired blending the theme from “G. I. Joe” with Kansas’s “Carry On, My Wayward Son.” Given the enjoyable novelty of This Is Only a Test and how many more albums worth of potential material there is out there, anticipate these guys turning into a staple on the Warped Tour. ~Will Harris (11/24//05)

Stellastarr*: Harmonies for the Haunted
Label: RCA / BMG

When “Lost in Time,” the opening track on Harmonies for the Haunted, wafts through the speakers, any mope rock fan worth their salt will note a similarity to the Cure’s “Pictures of You.” It’s not identical by any means, but there’s enough of a closeness that one suspects lead singer Shawn Christensen spent much of 1989 sleeping with a copy of Disintegration under his pillow...but why spend time criticizing the band for sounding like the Cure when it’s so much easier to bemoan how they’re ripping off Interpol, right? That’s the tactic a lot of reviewers are taking, but, to be honest, this is at least as enjoyable a slice of melancholy, Brit-inspired alternative rock as Interpol. Indeed, it’s arguably better, given the unique addition of female vocalist (and bassist) Amanda Tannen to the mix and the unabashed poppiness of tracks like “Born in a Flea Market” and “Damn This Foolish Heart.” It’s first single “Sweet Troubled Soul,” however, that the label is pinning their hopes on; and understandably so; if open-minded Killers fans hear it, they’ll fall in love with it...and, from there, they’ll find an entire album’s worth of solid retro stylings. Stellastarr* are still playing “guess the influences” with their songs, but at least they’re expanding their musical palate. ~Will Harris (10/06/05)

Stereophonics: Live from Dakota
Label: Nettwerk

As live albums go, you’ve got Wings Over America and Cheap Trick’s Live at Budokan, and then there is a huge drop-off. A good live album should have better performances than the studio versions, or should at least be able to capture a band’s live energy. For the U.K.’s Stereophonics, a band that has great songs and just oozes energy, one would expect their new album, Live from Dakota, to be a letdown, but it absolutely isn’t. It may not be one of the greatest live albums of all time, but Live from Dakota features some of Stereophonics’ best work, including recent hits “Superman,” “Devil,” and “Dakota” from 2005’s breakthrough Language, Sex, Violence, Other...?. They also do a good job of mixing up their catalog, including older songs like “The Bartender and the Thief” and “Vegas Two Times.” There’s also a stunning acoustic version of “Maybe Tomorrow,” with just lead singer Kelly Jones and a guitar, and a new song, “Jayne,” that seems to have picked up where Language, Sex, Violence, left off. The energy is there, the crowd is into it (although not screaming Japanese kids), and Stereophonics manage to deliver a rock solid live effort. ~Mike Farley (04/27/06)

Straight Outta Junior High: Mongoloid Monarchy
Label - Wunkrock

Beavis and Butthead would love this smartass punk band from Lincoln, Nebraska. Mongoloid Monarchy kicks off with the completely hilarious “University of Shitfaced,” sure to be an anthem at frat houses everywhere. While a lot of this kind of music sounds the same after a while, Straight Outta Junior High manages to keep things fresh with intelligently funny lyrics. “Target Has My Heart” is a take on why Target is cooler than Wal-Mart, and even that the chicks that work there are cuter than the ones at Hooter’s. “VLAH-day DEE-vats,” a parody about the basketball player, is another standout track. ~Mike Farley (06/17/05)

George Strait: Somewhere Down in Texas
Label: MCA Nashville

George Strait has not only had a long and prosperous career, he also has one of the few distinct voices in country music. His deep, rich vocal tones are as familiar as anything on the airwaves of the genre. While Strait is not a songwriter himself, he always manages to represent and express the spirit of the songs he chooses to record, which is music to the ears of those on Music Row who get to contribute cuts to Strait’s albums. Standout tracks are the opener “If the Whole World Was a Honky Tonk,” and bluegrassy “High Tone Woman,” but as always Strait really shines on ballads such as “Somewhere Down in Texas,” “Oh, What a Perfect Day” and the first single, “You’ll Be There.” ~Mike Farley (07/28/05)

Joss Stone: Introducing Joss Stone
Label: Virgin/EMI 2007
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Joss Stone is only 19, and yet on her third album, Introducing Joss Stone, there is talk about an artist expressing her true musical vision. That vision is evident from the get-go, and Stone manages to deliver her best effort to date. It’s a soul and blues-infested rhythmic romp that doesn’t let up in the least. Stone has already shared the stage with the likes of Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Patti Labelle, Donna Summer, the Rolling Stones and Smokey Robinson -- and there is the timeless flavor of all those artists and more in her music. You can have your young female stars like Christina Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson or Shakira. What makes Joss Stone different is that she combines the vocal and performance aspects of all of them, while adding a bluesy rock edge that makes her truly remarkable, even at this young age. The whole album will get even the worst dancers dancing, but pay special attention to the grooving “Tell Me What You’re Gonna Do Now” and “Music” (featuring Lauryn Hill), as well as the flowing “Bruised But Not Broken.” ~Mike Farley (04/13/07)

Joss Stone: Introducing Joss Stone
Label: Virgin/EMI 2007
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Joss Stone is only 19, and yet on her third album, Introducing Joss Stone, there is talk about an artist that is expressing her true musical vision. That vision is evident from the get-go, and Stone manages to deliver her best effort to date. It’s a soul and blues infested rhythmic romp that doesn’t let up in the least. Stone has already shared the stage with the likes of Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Patti Labelle, Donna Summer, the Rolling Stones and Smokey Robinson – and there is the timeless flavor of all those artists and more in her music. You can have your young female stars like Christina Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson or Shakira. What makes Joss Stone different is that she combines the vocal and performance aspects of all of them, while adding a bluesy rock edge that make her truly remarkable, even at this young age. The whole album will get even the worst dancers dancing, but pay special attention to the grooving “Tell Me What You’re Gonna Do Now” and “Music” (featuring Lauryn Hill), as well as the flowing “Bruised But Not Broken.” ~Mike Farley (05/04/07)

The Subways: Young for Eternity
Label: Sire

Ah, yes, they’re all the Next Big Thing when they come out of Britain, aren’t they? To be fair, the Subways have a bit more going for them than the average up-and-comer, owing to the fact that their debut album is produced by Ian Broudie, of the Lightning Seeds. Still, his magic didn’t cause the Zutons to shift mass units over here (despite “Pressure Point” scoring play on the late, great VH-1 Mega Hits), and there’s no reason to expect that it will do any better for the Subways. Still, this is a nice enough piece of Britpop, if not necessarily anything groundbreaking. Blending male and female vocals, such as on “Oh, Yeah,” causes the band to stand out a bit, but just enough for fans of the genre to say, “Hey, that sounds kinda like Ash!” Indeed, the Subways do sound like Ash at times, with the primary difference being that the Subways still have an American record deal. (Ouch.) The bouncy “No Goodbyes” truly stands out as a great pop single, but, overall, there’s nothing to suggest that Young for Eternity will be anything but just another blip on the radar. ~Will Harris (03/02/06)

Sunshine: Moonshower and Razorblades
Label: Custard

Formed in the Czech Republic, Sunshine combines punk and new wave stylings with techno beats on their fourth studio release, Moonshower and Razorblades. Influenced by the Cure, Joy Division and the Birthday Party, Moonshower – conceived and recorded in L.A. – is actually a sunnier album than the band’s previous works. The best song is “Lower Than Low,” in which frontman Kay (pronounced “K-eye” according to the label’s website) successfully lays his enjoyably harsh vocals against an echoing guitar. Another highlight is “Victoria’s Secret Blackmail,” which features a haunting guitar and provocative lyrics. Two up-tempo tracks, “Let’s Have Hips Talk” and “Victim is Another Name for Lover,” might be the best of the faster numbers, but the rest of the disc sort of runs together, which isn’t always a bad thing, depending on your taste. ~John Paulsen (05/27/05)

Swati: Small Gods
Label: Blu Hammock 2007
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Born to parents who emigrated from India and landed in New York, singer/songwriter Swati (Sharma) uses just enough of her roots to make her stand out from a crowded pack. She can play the guitar like a madwoman, sings with a brooding, Courtney Love-ish darkness, and even has a hint of pop sensibility that might be a cross between Love and Sheryl Crow. More than anything, this is just some really cool shit. There is even a self-description in her bio that says “acoustic metal,” what with some of the open tunings and forceful strums — and believe it or not, that’s not too far off. If you like the kind of music that helps depressed people revel in their own sadness, or if you like your alt-rock with dark tones that don’t come close to sounding pretentious, you’re gonna love this chick. She’s cute too, but cute doesn’t sell this kind of music — it’s all about the songs, and Swati has them, in particular the title track, the noisy and guitar-heavy “Money,” and the stunning cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire.” ~Mike Farley (06/01/07)

Taproot: Blue-Sky Research
Label: Velvet Hammer/Atlantic

One of the most difficult jobs in the world these days has got to be taking a band in the alternative/nu-metal/Ozzfest/scream-rock vein and making it sound different and unique. Trying desperately to stay ahead of the curve, Taproot enlisted the help of ex-Smashing Pumpkins front man Billy Corgan to pen some of the songs on their latest, Blue-Sky Research. Fear not, nu-metalists, the elements of the genre and of Taproot are still there, though there are sprinklings of melody throughout, especially on “Violent Seas,” “Calling,” and the best track on here, “Birthday.” Still, most of Blue-Sky Research is a little too familiar and has large gaps between the good songs. ~Mike Farley (09/08/05)

Tahiti 80: Fosbury
Label: Militia 2006
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Tahiti 80 sound like a weird mix of Jack Johnson and Har Mar Superstar. They’re laid back, dig doing that falsetto thing, and like a good dance beat. It’s pretty groovy on the call and response style of “Here Comes…” but doesn’t quite work so well on “All Over Again” where the method starts turning the listener to madness, These guys could definitely use a bit of variety in their mix. Yet it’s hard to argue with the good groove of a song such as “Your Love Shines” that sounds straight out of some long lost ‘70s good time flick. Then there’s “Matter of Time” that swings between bouncy Beatle-like pop and a ‘60s soul groover. Overall, though, Tahiti 80 are too mired in the ‘70s and the fun runs out fast. There’s a reason times change and sounds evolve. Maybe in another 30 years, Tahiti 80 will be accidentally compiled on some ‘70s A.M. radio hits collection and no one will know the difference.
~Jason Thompson (12/14/06)

Tarantula A.D.: Book of Sand
Label: Kemado Records

Take some hard rock, some angry violin and strings, a bit of Goth and a pinch of progressive, mix it up and you have Tarantula A.D.’s Book of Sand. This record defies classification, as some elements of metal battle it out with a classical influence to create a record of odd splendor. The combination of instruments creates a surrealist effect – elements not meant to be together but when combined have an odd artistry. “The Century Trilogy II: Empire” starts with some messy feedback, cracks into a heavy guitar riff, then drifts into some acoustic mellow passage; along the way a bit of operatic humming can be heard against a heavenly string section and that covers about half the song. If you want to challenge your ear a bit, this is worth a listen. ~R. David Smola (01/12/06)

Ben Taylor: Another Run Around the Sun
Label: Iris

Ben Taylor is probably tired of hearing the inevitable comparisons to his dad, the legendary James Taylor. That might be because if you put a blind man in front of both of them and let them sing, there is really no way to tell them apart. The one difference though, is that Ben’s mom is Carly Simon, and he has clearly inherited the melodic songwriting genius of both parents. Another Run Around the Sun is Ben’s third album and second on Iris Records, the label he co-founded in 2001. This is a solid collection of really good songs, particularly the breezy “Always,” the blues-infused “You Must’ve Fallen,” and the triumphant “I’ll Be Fine.” But the young Taylor really shines on the one track where he has a voice of his own, “Digest,” which puts him comfortably alongside modern singer/songwriters such as John Mayer or Jason Mraz. ~Mike Farley (11/17/05)

Teddybears: Soft Machine
Label: Big Beat/Atlantic 2006
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It’s tempting to flip the bird to the three bear mask-wearing Swedes and write them off as Daft Punk knockoffs, but the fact is Soft Machine, the band’s debut, is a better Daft Punk record than Daft Punk made themselves the last time around. “Different Sound” and “Automatic Lover” are robo-disco at its finest, but that isn’t solely what the Teddybears are about. Iggy Pop guests on “Punkrocker” (which is more synth than punk), and just try getting away from “Cobrastyle,” the Shaggy-riffing, Kid Rock-nicking rocker that’s the current soundtrack song of choice (both “Employee of the Month” and “Man of the Year” used it). Versatile, peppy, and based more in the world of pop than dance, Soft Machine is oodles o’ fun. ~David Medsker (11/16/06)

William Tell: You Can Hold Me Down
Label: New Door/Universal 2007
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William Tell is the former rhythm guitarist for Something Corporate, which is sort of the 21st-century equivalent of being the former bassist for Men Without Hats – not to insult anyone who ever played bass for Men Without Hats, but neither gig is something you'd expect to lead to a long and fruitful solo career, and judging from “You Can Hold Me Down,” neither gig ever will. Nothing about this album is offensively awful, but after making it through all 10 of its blandly, oppressively competent songs in a single sitting, “offensively awful” might be what you wish for; it would at least increase the likelihood of the album being the slightest bit memorable. Music supervisors for television shows and/or movies starring the likes of Jennifer Garner and Kristen Bell would do well to seek out a few of these tracks for montages featuring lots of slow fades and meaningful looks. Other listeners need not apply. ~Jeff Giles (04/06/07)

Luke Temple: Snowbeast
Label: Mill Pond 2007
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Whenever singer/songwriters try to be too artsy, they can be adored and loved even more by critics and fans alike – or their music can become really difficult to understand. You certainly can’t fault Seattle-based Luke Temple for trying to perfect his craft, but on his latest, Snowbeast, it’s all just a bit too much. On Temple’s previous effort, Hold a Match for a Gasoline World, there’s some nice instrumentation, and a lower-register vocal that is painfully pretty. But that album had what Snowbeast lacks – namely, songs with melody. Snowbeast is primarily lo-fi and acoustic with nice electronic elements, but aside from the hum-along tracks “Saturday People” and “People Do,” the dude is going to lull you to sleep with an annoying and unnecessary falsetto, and too many songs that just don’t go anywhere. Fans of Jeff Buckley and Radiohead will probably love Snowbeast, so if you fall into that category, feel free to ignore this review. Everyone else, proceed at your own risk. ~Mike Farley (10/26/07)

The Temptations: Reflections
Label: Universal

The Temptations are one of the greatest musical acts of the last 50 years, and founding member Otis Williams continues to keep the group going. On their latest, Reflections, the Temptations tackle 15 of the greatest songs ever from the Motown catalog, including “How Sweet It Is,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and “I’ll Be There.” The problem, though, is that Williams and company are not doing the songs justice, because they are no better than they were in the first place. Paying tribute to classics like this is better left to the Alicia Keys’ of the world, as aging acts like the Temptations wind up sounding like a glorified wedding band doing covers. No disrespect meant to the artist or the material here, it’s just that we’d all much rather stick to a compilation of the original recordings. ~Mike Farley (03/09/06)

They Walk in Line: Medical Necessities
Label: Rock Ridge

Their press notes compare this Los Angeles-based band to Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine, and while this collaborative writing project formerly known as Gravity was a side project initially, the magic they created prompted the start of something new and exciting. Medical Necessities, especially the noisy title track, is indie rock bliss and the follow up to the All Mine EP, which was a college and specialty radio staple. ~Mike Farley (05/27/05)

Richard Thompson: 1000 Years of Popular Music
Label: Cooking Vinyl 2006
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How do you summarize 1,000 years of popular music and only use two CDs? Well, for one thing, you do a hell of a lot of editing…and if you’re Richard Thompson, you have as much fun as possible by taking a pass on just about every obvious choice for inclusion. Back in 2000, Playboy Magazine asked many luminaries to select their favorite songs of the previous millennium, and Thompson enjoyed the task so much that he decided to do a concert series spotlighting his selections. Culled from those performances, this collection naturally requires that, upon pressing “play,” you turn off the part of your mind that automatically makes alternate picks. Show’s over, folks, and he ain’t takin’ no more requests. The majority of Disc One might not catch the interest of non-folk fans, since he takes the title quite literally and performs songs from way before the 20th century, such as “Summer Is Icumen In” (estimated to have been written in 1260) and “O Sleep Fond Fancy” (the late 1500s). Disc Two, however, begins with Cole Porter’s “Night and Day,” from there, things get interesting, with Thompson taking on the Kinks’ “See My Friends,” Squeeze’s “Tempted,” and…Britney Spears’ “Oops!...I Did It Again”? Yep. And like Fountains of Wayne did with “Baby One More Time,” he turns it into a rollicking good time. As you’d guess, Disc Two has more repeat-listening potential, but the whole thing’s an interesting and fun listening experience. ~Will Harris (12/20/06)

Christopher Titus: The 5th Annual End of the World Tour
Label: Comedy Central 2007
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Christopher Titus has been doing stand-up since he was in his late teens, and he also spent a portion of the ‘80s and ‘90s as a dramatic actor, as but he picked up his biggest break in 2000, when Fox gave him a sitcom – “Titus” – that was more or less based on his one-man show, “Norman Rockwell is Bleeding.” The series ended in 2002, and now, Titus is back with a new show, one which has been recorded for his first-ever comedy album: The 5th Annual End of the World Tour. If you only know Titus from his sitcom, now’s the time to get onboard with his stand-up, because it’s hilarious…and, unlike so many people rockin’ the mike at the improv these days, he successfully blends topics (family, politics, religion, the war in Iraq) without relying on the crutch of the almighty f-bomb. It’s not that Titus doesn’t curse, but he does it in selective fashion; he isn’t spewing obscenities as a way to fill dead air, mostly because he’s got more than enough material to keep the show going. Case and point: this is a 2-disc set, and it never flags. You may not agree with his opinions or stances, but Titus’s delivery will having you laughing, anyway. If you’re skeptical, then at least check out the last third of the first disc, where he discusses how he sucks as a parent, then reveals that he spent a year and half throwing his daughter in the air before she finally learned to scream, “NOT LIKE THAT!” That’ll make anyone laugh, no matter what their beliefs. ~Will Harris (04/06/07)

The Tom Collins: Daylight Tonight
Label: Terminus Records

Everything you could hope for in discovering a new disc from a complete unknown. Fran Capitanelli’s 3-piece from Atlanta, the Tom Collins, puts their best trampled-under foot forward on the improbable debut Daylight Tonight. Led Zeppelin comparisons aside, classic guitar romps like “That Town You Love” and “In the Morning” stack up mightily, as do the more restrained acoustic pauses (“Why Don’t You Leave”). Further influences abound when the opening and immediately catchy “Back of Your Mind” pairs Cake-like vocals with Velvet Revolver bluster. These guys are a blast, and the time-tested period rock n’ roll onboard Daylight Tonight provides, if nothing else, a reflection of the sincere swagger that once came standard on everything hallowed, from The Song Remains the Same to Dark Side of the Moon. ~Red Rocker (10/06/05)

Daniel Tosh: True Stories I Made Up
Label: Comedy Central

Recorded live at the Irvine Improv, Daniel Tosh doesn’t pull any punches with True Stories. He opens the show by saying, “Ah, the O.C., where everyone is rich and white, just like God intended.” Tosh has a quirky sense of humor and doesn’t use segue ways like most comedians do, so his delivery is sort of a cross between Steven Wright and Dane Cook. Throughout the 50-minute set, Tosh discusses plastic surgery (“Put me on Extreme Makeover. I want a vagina under my arm.”), medical advancements (“I hope we find a cure for every major disease. I’m tired of walking 5K.”), and his ideas for a restaurant (“People can win $750 dollars, if I come by and put my balls in your drink.”) The CD comes with a bonus DVD that contains his appearance on “Comedy Central Presents.” All in all, True Stories a nice set for comedy fans with a quirky sense of humor. ~John Paulsen (01/19/06)

Touriste: What Are We
Label: Self-released

Touriste is an unsigned band from the U.K., but if their new EP, What Are We EP, is any indication, they won’t be unsigned for long. This is a solid collection of pop/rock and musicianship that brings to mind the Cure and U2, but comparisons are only for reference because this band has a unique and refreshing take on a sound that is both modern and timeless. The title track and “Too Far” are sure-fire radio hits with their huge choruses, but the best song on here is “Shocks,” which is haunting and soothing at the same time. The only drawback here is that you’re going to be left wanting more. ~Mike Farley (09/01/05)

Towers of London: How Rude She Was
Label: TVT Records

I’ve never understood the whole 3-song EP thing. It’s kind of like suiting up, smearing the black stuff under your eyes, and going to work all day just to pinch run in the 9th inning. It’s a waste of time, right? Well, in the case of Towers of London, the UK’s newest renegade five-piece who seem hell bent on reincarnating ‘80s hair metal, it’s merely a shot glass of what’s to come. With a full-length debut (Blood, Sweat & Towers) scheduled to detonate in April, this is but an expanded single for the first track “How Rude She Was”. Their sound is somewhere between (the obvious) Sex Pistols and early Motley Crue. The live shows boast destructive antics of the Who, and they’re priding themselves on getting busted more than Guns N’ Roses. “How Rude She Was” and “Novello’s Bordello” each have potential, with guitars stacked like Legos and an overloaded rhythm section that would’ve sold millions stateside in 1988. An acoustic version of the barroom singalong “Fuck It Up” seems out of place but no less fun, recalling Generation X with a banjo. The question is: will these drunken lads survive until spring? ~Red Rocker (02/02/06)

Transplants: Haunted Cities
Label: La Salle/Atlantic

The most surprising aspect of Haunted Cities, the sophomore side project from Rancid’s Tim Armstrong, Blink 182’s Travis Barker and their buddy Rob Aston, is its variety. From the murder-core of “Apocalypse Now” to the soulful “What I Can’t Describe,” there is nary a trace of the band’s day jobs, which is rather impressive. “Doomsday” is a Cookie Monster version of “Hit The Road Jack,” while “American Guns” is the best impression of Social Distortion, vocals and all, that you’ll ever find. The jewel of the bunch is “Gangsters and Thugs,” a bouncy, super catchy drum & bass pop/rap track with the best lyrics of the year: “Some of my friends sell records / Some of my friends sell drugs.” ~David Medsker (07/07/05)

Trust Company: True Parallels
Label: Geffen

When a so-called “nu-metal” band cites influences like Smashing Pumpkins, Deftones and Pantera, their music is bound to be better than ordinary. Alabama rock band Trust Company is proof of that, and their sophomore effort, True Parallels, rocks hard and yet maintains both a dark edge and a melodic flair that should bring them plenty of recognition inside and outside of their genre’s circle. Kevin Palmer has a powerful voice that is as its best on the single and first track, “Stronger,” a rock anthem if there ever was one. ~Mike Farley (06/03/05)

Jethro Tull: The Best of Acoustic Jethro Tull
Label: Capitol / EMI 2007
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The picture of Jethro Tull that’s been painted by classic rock radio leans pretty heavily on the hard-rocking Aqualung album, but the band’s fans know that Ian Anderson, Tull’s flautist frontman, has always had a pastoral side. Give EMI their due: although they’re technically recycling old material with The Best of Acoustic Jethro Tull, the reality is that they’ve gone through the band’s massive back catalog and created a collection that feels incredibly fresh. That’s because most of these 24 songs haven’t been previously anthologized before, at least not on the best-of sets that are supposedly “definitive.” Of course, it’s only inevitable that familiar favorites like “Fat Man,” “Life Is a Long Song,” “Skating Away (On the Thin Ice of a New Day),” and the “Thick as a Brick” edit make the cut, but there’s no obvious fudging of the definition of “acoustic” to fit in more recognizable material. No, sir, we’re provided with a track listing that dares to include songs from Too Old to Rock and Roll, Too Young to Die (“Salamander”), Heavy Horses (“Weathercock,” as well as a new re-recording of “One Brown Mouse”), Stormwatch (“Dun Ringill”), and even the often maligned (and accurately so) Under Wraps (“Under Wraps 2”). It feels a little bit like cheating that the album is filled out with several songs from Anderson’s solo career, but, all told, The Best of Acoustic holds together so well and makes for such a fine listening experience that few are likely to complain. ~Will Harris (06/08/07)

Two Cow Garage: III
Label: Shelterhouse Records 2007
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Unabashed alt-country permeates III, the third CD from Columbus, OH-based trio Two Cow Garage. Comparisons abound: Uncle Tupelo, early Wilco, early Son Volt, of course. Is it possible even to talk about modern-day country rock, insurgent country, roots rock – whatever you want to call it – without mentioning the holy trinity of alt-country? No. The Bottle Rockets, Slobberbone, Blue Mountain, even a little Drive-By Truckers. You get the picture. Two Cow Garage boast high-energy rhythm, heavy guitars, catchy tracks, rough-hewn vocals and very melodic tunes, with a dash of humor to boot (“You set shit on fire back when we were kids / In the park back in the woods near the house where I used to live,” reports Schnabel in “Arson”). After five years and about 1,200 live shows, these van-touring machines are rash, loud, and downright likeable. So-called hipsters may think this sound has gone out of style, that this musical vein was mined to death in the early to mid-‘90s, but damn! It still resonates when the musicians really believe it, when it’s done right, and Two Cow Garage definitely does it right. ~Una Persson (07/06/07)

22-20s: 22-20s
Label: Astralwerks

“I’ve been so good but it doesn’t do me no good, I’ve been so good but it doesn’t pay like it should,” 22-20s front man Martin Trimble pleads on the opening stanza of “Baby Brings Bad News”, a slow burn, slide-guitar doused brooder of a hard luck ballad that justly represents all that is good and bad with the UK’s newest hit makers. Glaring Stones comparisons aside, the 22-20s have built enough speed with these 11 songs over the past couple years to concoct a decent debut. Balls out rockers like “22 Days” and the ultra-catchy “Devil In Me” borrow equally from Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and the White Stripes. Laying all-too-common distorted, low-fi vocals over predictable Bo Diddley beats and Beggar’s Banquet-like riffs, however, they flirt with top shelf recipes but never manage to really deliver the goods.

Scattered dates this summer with Oasis, as well as a slew of festivals, could go a long way toward getting the 22-20s noticed. Most of the 3 ½-minute cuts here seem well-suited for live performance, allowing sweaty juveniles everywhere ample moshing opportunity. The jumpy, almost giddy “Why Don’t You Do It For Me?” is a dead ringer for Jet, while Starsailor is easily recalled on a more orchestral “Shoot Your Gun”. “I’m The One” is the project’s highlight, thick with Yardbirds bravado and scorching percussion. Few can argue their formula: four young Brits bashing away on guitars, drums, and a recurring piano. But somewhere between the ringing guitar chords and muffled rhythm section rests the songs that too often fail to go above or beyond their influences. For the most part, the 22-20s’ debut is fine, just not exceptional. Hopefully a sophomore endeavor will be more revealing. ~Red Rocker (07/07/05)

White Whale: WWI
Label: Merge 2006
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One has to wonder if it’s intentional that the promo text on the back of the advance copy of White Whale’s debut album is as dense as the Melville novel that inspired the band’s name; at the very least, though, it’s probably not coincidental that the group’s music is equally hard to wrap one’s head around. Led by Matt Suggs (Butterglory) and including former members of the Get-Up Kids and Higher Burning Fire, White Whale create sounds that are all over the place, flirting with psychedelic pop, acid rock, and jangle pop at various times. The overall effect isn’t bad – “Nine Good Fingers,” “What’s an Ocean For?” and “We’re Just Temporary Ma’am” are particularly strong – but too often Suggs and company slide into classic rock noodling, which leads to boredom more often than it does genius. ~Will Harris (12/20/06)

UB40: Who You Fighting For
Label: Rhino

Surprise, surprise. Fifteen years after becoming a plug & play karaoke machine of a band, releasing cover version after cover version after cover version, Birmingham’s once-jobless sons put together Who You Fighting For, their strongest album in ages. Sure, it has its share of covers as well (five of them, including “Kiss and Say Goodbye” and a super-obscure Beatles track), but it’s the originals that stand the tallest, like the bouncy “Bling Bling,” the rapid-fire “Reasons Why,” and “Plenty More,” a scathing attack of a certain resident of the Oval Office. There are quite a few politically charged moments here, from “Sins of the Fathers” to the title track, but thanks to their trademark sunny delivery, even the bitterest medicine goes down sweetly. With any luck, Who You Fighting For will be known for the band’s own compositions, not the Manhattans cover. ~David Medsker (02/09/06)

Unwritten Law: Here’s to the Mourning
Label: Lava/Atlantic

It’s not easy getting your arms around SoCal’s Unwritten Law. They’ve been around quite some time but never managed to make a name for themselves, probably because accounting for their sound is like trying to stab a housefly with a toothpick! On their fifth attempt, Here’s to the Mourning, UL bounces from super-charged chaos (“Get Up”) to a bouncy, teeny bopper pin-up pop that reeks of Sugar Ray (“Because of You”), back to an instant moshpit classic (“Lost Control”) that could have made Everclear’s first record.

Along the way there are undeniably strong flashes, mostly in the opening six tracks. The corporate greed mongers apparently had their way in hiring Christina Aguilera’s producer (Linda Perry) to splash “Save Me” with enough radio charm to get it heard. I hate to admit that the result is damned good, as “Save Me” is one of the best songs of the year. The second half of the album fades into noisy oblivion, however, with the low point coming on a speed metal cheerleading routine (“Walrus”). Ugh. Try not to get too caught up in the lyrics either, because...well...they’re bad. “I got a cyclone woman and she’s cookin’ up a pound of thrills, another night she’s away couldn’t take ‘cause you know it kills.” Are you frigging kidding me? ~Red Rocker (04/29/05)

The Vacation: The Vacation
Label: Warner Bros.

Straight-up sleaze!! Their single "Destitute Prostitute" could be left on repeat while you read any of Bret Easton Ellis' novels and at no point would it feel out of place. This record could make any young man quit his job, punch his boss in the face, have sex with his former boss' wife on said boss's desk and then buy a guitar and join a band with his other loser friends. The only thing that’s missing on this record is some really balls-out guitar solos, but these guys aren't that talented. Oh, well. The Sex Pistols weren't musically apt, and Dylan only knows like four chords, so fuck it. Keep on not showering and having sex with models, gentlemen. ~Josh Preston (04/20/05)

Valley Lodge: Valley Lodge
Label: D-Text

Occasionally, a power pop album lands in your lap when you least expect it and totally blows your mind. Actually, the word “occasionally” isn’t doing it justice; as a genre, power pop doesn’t lend itself to being particularly mindblowing, because its practitioners try to pay tribute to the best ‘60s and ‘70s pop groups and often just end up sounding derivative. In the case of Valley Lodge, their brilliance is the result of combining a member of Walt Mink (John Kimbrough) with a fellow who’s done time in both Uptown Sinclair and Sons of Elvis (Dave Hill) and pooling their respective influences, which clearly extend beyond the usual suspects. The opening track, “Every Little Thing,” channels Sweden’s the Wannadies, the use of falsetto on “All My Lovin’” has a bit of a Better Than Ezra feel, and “Hey” is very Fountains of Wayne-y, but with a guitar solo that sounds like it was flown in from a Matthew Sweet album. There’s also the stomp of “Naked City,” and the jangling, chiming, can’t-get-out-of-your-skull-no-matter-how-hard-you-thump-it choruses of “Hangin’ On” and “Cruel.” (You may initially write the former off as silly, but it worms its way into your consciousness surprisingly quickly.) Even diehard cynics who have grown weary of power pop will find Valley Lodge’s debut to be an undeniably fun romp. More, please. ~Will Harris (03/23/06)

Van Morrison: Magic Time
Label: Geffen

As we all continue to age, so do our musical icons. Van Morrison is one of those artists that usually has something fresh to deliver, but his latest, Magic Time, is so laid back that it’s almost like he’s starting to show that age. Granted, it’s difficult to tire of Morrison’s trademark tenor, because it’s a fixture on the soundtrack to the life of anyone born before 1985. The bluesy, soulful swagger is all there, especially on “Gypsy in My Soul” and “Evening Train.” But for just plain chilling out, the title track and “Stranded” are perfect for lowering the blood pressure of anyone at any age. ~Mike Farley (06/10/05)

Vanilla: Vanilla
Label: Charlatan 2006
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If digging a good pop album is a crime, then put the cuffs on me and drag my ass away…and as long as you’re doing that, you’d better stick to procedure by bagging and tagging Vanilla’s debut album as evidence. (I’d like it back after the trial, please.) It’s hard to comfortably describe Vanilla as a semi-supergroup when most people wouldn’t know either of the bands unless they’re obsessively familiar with the underground pop community, but suffice it to say that Jayson Jarmon and Scott McPherson both used to be in Liar’s Club, while McPherson has since gone on to form Tiny Volcano. Nothing but pops and buzzes…? Well, once you’re done spinning Vanilla’s debut, you’ll be wanting to check ‘em out, but that might be a while. Opening track “Bangalore” borrows liberally from the Bay City Rollers’ “Saturday Night” in its arrangement, “Valentine” sounds like it could’ve been an Archies song, except it actually feels like it has some substance to it., and “Cabernet” is full-on power pop. The biggest crime committed by most underground pop bands is falling into a rut, and all of their songs end up blending together, but Vanilla’s pedigree all but ensures that doesn’t happen here. There’s a little psychedelia to “Black Saturday,” a surf flair to “Don’t Turn Away,” and even a vaudeville/music hall sound to “Johnny Walker.” Lastly, any concern about it being all fluff and no substance is washed clean by closing with a bluesy shuffle about divorce called “Fuck It All.”
~Will Harris (12/20/06)

Various Artists: Another Lost Decade: The ‘80s: Hard to Find Hits
Label: Time/Life

While not exactly a testament to truth in advertising – classifying ABC, Thompson Twins and Daryl Hall & John Oates as ‘hard to find’ is not dubious as much as it is lazy – Hard to Find Hits may share a few songs with the popular Living in Oblivion series (Hipsway, Oxo, the Models), but they do indeed unearth lost tracks like Wa Wa Nee’s “Sugar Free,” One 2 Many’s “Downtown,” and a rare remix edit of Arcadia’s “The Flame.” Major, major props for seeking out Deon Estus’ excellent “Heaven Help Me” (featuring George Michael on backing vocals) and resident BE “Lost Band” Face to Face on “10-9-8,” but we’re a little baffled about why Big Pig’s “Breakaway” is now titled “I Can’t Break Away,” and why they ever thought Times Two’s “Strange but True” needed to be found. We’re also willing to bet that there isn’t a soul alive who misses Hall & Oates’ “Method of Modern Love.” ~David Medsker (02/23/06)

Various Artists: Rocky Balboa: The Best of Rocky
Label: Capitol 2006
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There aren’t many songs quite as instantly inspirational as Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now,” a.k.a. the theme from “Rocky.” Every time I hear it, I’m instantly transported to the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with a desire to raise my arms above my head and yell, “Adriannnnnnn!” The fact that many of Conti’s compositions appear on this collection of the best moments from the “Rocky” soundtracks means you’ve got the perfect CD to slap into the Discman when you’re working out, especially when they sit alongside Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and “Burning Heart,” James Brown’s “Living in America,” and, uh, Robert Tepper’s “No Easy Way Out.” If you think Tepper’s contribution is the most dated track on here, you clearly haven’t heard John Cafferty’s “Heart’s On Fire” yet. Nonetheless, all these songs stand way above the two brand-new inclusions on this set: a nobody-asked-for-it remix of “Gonna Fly Now” by John X and Natalie Wilde, and “It’s a Fight,” by Three 6 Mafia. A sample lyric from the latter: “Hit ‘em from the left / Hit ‘em from the right / It’s a fight, it’s a fight.” Thanks, I’ll stick with “Eye of the Tiger.” ~Will Harris (12/14/06)

Various Artists: The History Boys Soundtrack
Label: The History Boys Soundtrack 2006
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Eighties Anglophiles, take note: the soundtrack to the film adaptation of the Tony-winning stage production “The History Boys” is not just a who’s-who of British pop, but one-stop shopping for those looking for those hard-to-find 12” mixes. The Clash’s “Mustapha Dance” (a dub mix of “Rock the Casbah”) is here; so is the “discotheque” version of Echo & the Bunnymen’s “Never Stop,” along with the only extended mix that the Smiths ever commissioned, “This Charming Man” (Morrissey, of course, hates it), with classics from New Order, the Cure, Aztec Camera and the English Beat (“Can’t Get Used to Losing You,” yes) added for good measure. And, just to keep the listener on his toes, there are two versions of “Bewitched,” one by Samuel Barnett and Richard Sisson and one by…Rufus Wainwright. Okay, so the British pop streak ends there, but the Pretenders were in the wings anyway (“2000 Miles”). We also dare any Disney fan to hear Barnett and Sisson perform “L’Accordéoniste” and not replace the words with “Les Poissons,” from “The Little Mermaid.”
~David Medsker (12/14/06)

Various Artists: Nancy Drew: Music from the Motion Picture
Label: Bulletproof/Warner Bros. 2007
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Brace yourselves: the soundtrack for “Nancy Drew” is absolutely better than you would expect from a movie aimed at young girls aged 11 to 11 ½. Far from being some Petri dish for the latest Ashlee or Lindsay drivel, “Nancy Drew” opens with the one-two-three punch of Matthew Sweet’s “Come to California” (re-recorded with Susannah Hoffs), Liz Phair’s “Perfect Misfit,” and the Donnas covering Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America.” The covers don’t stop there, either: Katie Melua’s version of Robert Palmer’s “Looking for Clues” has a touch of Jill Sobule, while Flunk’s version of “Blue Monday” sounds like Bjork playing the Bronze after someone spiked her herbal tea (that’s a good thing, if you weren’t sure). Sure, there are some teeny boppers here, like Joanna’s “Pretty Much Amazing” and Price’s “Hey Nancy Drew,” but as teeny bopper music goes, it’s pretty damn good. The hip hop mini-concert that closes the album, save J-Kwon’s “We Came to Party,” doesn’t work so well, but everything sounds second-rate after Persephone’s Bees. Man, those guys rule. Also, no one needs to hear that Corinne Bailey Rae song again. Everything else, though, is gold. ~David Medsker (06/22/07)

Various Artists: The Nanny Diaries Soundtrack
Label: Artists’ Addiction 2007
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The soundtrack to the new Scarlett Johansson movie, “The Nanny Diaries,” is eclectic, fun and well put together. It’s a compilation that combines classics like War’s “Why Can’t We Be Friends,” The Main Ingredient’s “Just Don’t Want to Be Lonely” and Tommy James & the Shondell’s “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” But it’s also got a healthy dose of current stuff, like Lily Allen’s “LDN” and The Hold Steady’s “Stuck Between Stations.” Throw in the ‘90s pop of Lisa Stansfield (“All Around the World”) and Simply Red’s best track in years, “Stay,” the title track from their most recent album, and you’ve got yourself quite a collection. Let’s face it, though – you could easily generate a playlist like this for your iPod. But the fact remains that it always seems to sound better when someone else does the legwork. ~Mike Farley (10/12/07)

Various Artists: This American Life: Stories of Hope and Fear
Label: Shout! Factory 2006
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If you’re as much of a National Public Radio junkie as I am…and, personally, I rarely use the CD player in my car, so much do I prefer to hear what’s happening on NPR…you’re probably already well aware of “This American Life.” Hosted by Ira Glass, it’s a weekly series that has both regular contributors and average Joes telling tales from their lives. Sometimes mundane, sometimes exciting, the show invariably proves that anyone’s story can be fascinating if it’s told well. This collection ostensibly ties together 11 different tales that fall within the concept of hopes and fears, and while it’s hard to say it succeeds across the board, it doesn’t make the stories any less interesting. “Fears of Your Life” gets old quick, and “So a Chipmunk and a Squirrel Walk into a Bar” isn’t one of David Sedaris’s best works, but virtually everything else on here is absolutely enthralling…particularly Julie Snyder’s “On Hold No One Can Hear You Scream,” where Snyder tells of her ungodly experiences while trying to get false charges removed from her phone bill. “Is This Thing On?” is the humorous tale of two would-be comedians who attempt karaoke comedy, while “Thinking Inside the Box” is the depressing tale of a dying mother and her mentally-handicapped daughter…but it opens with a legitimately funny story of the worst mix-tape of all time. “This American Life” is, as ever, perfect listening to make a long road trip seem much shorter. ~Will Harris (11/02/06)

Various Artists: Best of the Boy Bands
Label: Time-Life

Don’t worry, we’re not going back on the claim on our CD Archives page that “we won't ever insult you by reviewing a Backstreet Boys or Britney Spears CD”; the Boys aren’t on here...which therefore means that the title of this compilation is a case of false advertising. N*Sync is here, however, for what that’s worth, as are Hanson, O-Town, 98 Degrees, and even the New Kids on the Block. Clearly, however, someone at Time-Life started working on this compilation, then started having some problems clearing the use of certain songs, then finally just said, “Yeah, well, they’re a band, they’re boys, slap ‘em on here.” How else to explain the inclusion of tracks by Wham!, EMF, and Blackstreet? In the case of “No Diggity,” it’s generally a safe bet that, if you’re badass enough to have Dr. Dre on your song, you’re not what one would define as a “boy band.” Still, this disc has two things going for it: it rescues Bros from American oblivion by including their UK smash, “When Will I Be Famous?,” but, more importantly, it provides the world with an opportunity to hear the excruciatingly awful rhymes in LFO’s “Summer Girls.” Come on, sing along with me: “Stayed all summer then went back home / Macaulay Culkin was in ‘Home Alone’ / Fell deep in love, but now we ain't speakin’ / Michael J. Fox was Alex P. Keaton.” Seriously. Go download it from iTunes right this second. It’s so bad that it needs to be heard to be believed. ~Will Harris (03/23/06)

Various Artists: The Best of Taste of Chaos
Label: Warcon Records

The Taste of Chaos Tour, founded by Vans Warped Tour magnate Kevin Lyman, has become the premiere festival for emo/hardcore music in just its one year of existence. Showcasing a wide variety of today’s top genre favorites as well as underground bands, it comes as no surprise that Warcon Records has seized the day and released a “best of” compilation. The thirty-six songs, spread over two discs, do a good job of covering all the bases that the tour has to offer, but seasoned fans will likely be disappointed in the lack of new music. Disc one contains the emo tunes, led by bands such as Underoath, Thrice, Thursday, and Matchbook Romance. Disc two is hardcore all the way, with offerings from Avenged Sevenfold, Killswitch Engage, Shadows Fall, and Every Time I Die. For newcomers, this is a solid collection (especially for the bargain list price), but longtime fans probably own most of this music already. ~Bill Clark (03/02/06)

Various Artists: Butchering the Beatles
Label: Restless 2006
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To call the guitar work on this heavy metal all-star tribute to the Beatles masturbatory would be an insult to teenage boys. But then, what do you expect from any project that has Yngwie Malmsteen shredding the ever living daylights out of “Magical Mystery Tour,” a song that had no real guitar part to begin with? The group of musicians that was assembled for this album is unparalleled, but no one, from Lemmy (“Back in the U.S.S.R.”) to Billy Idol and Steve Stevens (“Tomorrow Never Knows”) to Steve Vai and Duff McKagen (“Hey Bulldog,” with Alice Cooper on lead vocals), is thinking out of the box. Indeed, the arrangements are might-as-well-be-listening-to-Genesis boring, with talented bassists like Tony Franklin and Tony Levin and drummers like Aynsley Dunbar and Chris Slade appearing for the sole purpose of making room for Steve Lukather, C.C. Deville and George Lynch to wank, wank, wank. And under normal circumstances, that would be perfectly acceptable...but not on a tribute album to the Beatles, because the Fab Four simply didn’t play like that. In fact, not only did they not play like that, but the Beatles actually out-rocked several of the supergroups assembled here. The potential exists for a great metal tribute to the Beatles, but this isn’t it. ~David Medsker (10/19/06)

Various Artists: Crystaltop Music
Label: Crytstaltop 2007
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Eclectic Brooklyn, New York-based label Crystaltop Music has just released a collection of 11 tracks that are as diverse as they are extremely interesting, Crystaltop Music Presents. Hip, soulful, intelligent, and musically proficient are all terms that can be used to describe the album, and it’s sure to expand the audience of every artist included. To kick off the record, you’ve got the funky jazz-pop of Elizabeth & the Catapult (“Momma’s Boy”), the Album Leaf-ish indie pop of Blind (“Mega Bass”), and the crooning pop dude Ryan Scott (“Harmony”). And it’s all good. Oddlogik offers what they call “sweet organic soul” with “Let’s Make When Right Now,” a track that just screams New York City. There’s even alt-country by The Dang-It Bobbys (“Say Goodbye”), a band that gets an award for one of the best band names of all-time (you need to be familiar with Mike Judge’s “King of the Hill” show to understand) and one that fits their genre to a tee. There’s some Latin flavor too, especially on Luz Mob’s “Tabaco Y Ron” and the elegant beauty of Pyeng Threadgill’s “Can We Pretend.” All in all, this is a sampler with some really promising artists. It’s a good one to put on during a lazy Sunday activity (use your imagination) or for a party that you invite all your hipster friends to.~Mike Farley (04/26/07)

Various Artists: Disco: Gold
Label: Hip-O/Universal

Everyone makes fun of it. A group of angry Chicagoans tried to burn it at the stake. The subsequent backlash against it ruined R&B for a good five to ten years. But damn it, you just can’t kill disco. Disco: Gold assembles the large majority of the golden hits of the era (no Brothers Gibb by any name, though), along with some rare and heretofore unreleased 12” mixes. Disc Two is definitely the more hit heavy disc, with “I Will Survive,” “Car Wash,” “Funkytown,” “I Feel Love,” “Y.M.C.A.” and “Upside Down.” But they also make room for a porn star (Andrea True Connection’s “More More More”) and an opportunistic Smokey-less Miracles (“Love Machine”). In other words, there’s something here to entice both casual listeners and collectors alike. Buy it for your girlfriend, and pretend it’s actually for her. ~David Medsker (08/18/05)

Various Artists: Friday Night Lights Original Television Soundtrack
Label: Artists’ Addiction 2007
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The second season of the critically acclaimed TV series Friday Night Lights finds it attempting to become the next O.C or Grey’s Anatomy as it pairs eclectic music with the show’s drama. But the first soundtrack that arrives in advance of Season Two doesn’t exactly break new artists, like those other shows, but rather takes a few hyped ones and gives them more exposure. There’s a wide mix of artists that include Tony Lucca, Spoon, Whiskeytown, Outkast, Starsailor, Jibbs, Iron and Wine, and Explosions in the Sky. So while you’ve got styles that range from pop/rock to alternative rock to Americana to hip-hop to electronica, there is also one constant to this collection—the songs are all good. Among a pretty solid set, the best tracks are Whiskeytown’s “Everything I Do,” Jibbs’ “Big Big Kid,” the stunningly lo-fi “Dead Man’s Will” by Iron & Wine, and the hauntingly beautiful “Storm” by Zero 7 vocalist Jose Gonzalez. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you live, or what you’re listening to at the moment – the odds are good you’ll find something to like on this soundtrack. ~Mike Farley (08/10/07)

Various Artists: Funk: Gold
Label: Hip-O/Universal

Universal, wisely realizing that the previous generation actually values owning a physical copy of their favorite songs, is issuing its back catalog by the truckload, in sets of one disc (the 20th Century Masters series), three discs (the three-album Chronicles series), and these two-disc Gold collections, which are done by both artist and genre. In fairness to such moneygrubbing tactics, they put some effort into these genre compilations; Funk: Gold contains everything you would expect, like James Brown (his three most sampled songs, “Funky Drummer” excepted), Parliament, Ohio Players and Rick James, bitch. They also include some gems from Lyn Collins (the Female Preacher), the Meters, and the world-famous Roy Ayers Ubiquity. They even dared to include the Gap Band’s “Outstanding” instead of “You Dropped a Bomb on Me.” Imagine that, a label daring choosing the right decision over the popular one. ~David Medsker (08/18/05)

Various Artists: Furry Selection: Luxury Cuts of Trojan Chosen by a Super Furry Animal
Label: Sanctuary 2007
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As part of its ongoing celebration of its upcoming 40th anniversary, Trojan Records – a UK-based record label specializing in reggae, ska and dub since 1968 – has been quietly releasing a number of special packages in recent years. In addition to their excellent and popular genre-encompassing box sets of a few years ago, which usually feature about 50 songs on three discs in a simple cardboard package, this year has seen a handful of artist-selected reggae and dub compilation series come out. DJ Spooky did one. So did Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. This time out, Trojan Records threw the vault doors open for Super Furry Animal’s bassist Guto Pryce. SFA has always had a streak of reggae and dub influence running through their music, so Pryce’s curation isn’t without context. And, in his 16 Furry Selections, he displays excellent taste and an insightful ear for classic reggae, ska, dancehall, and dub. Mikey Dread, U-Roy, Lee Perry and Bob Marley are all included, as well as less obvious but just as stellar (and standout!) selections as Tenor Saw’s “Ring the Alarm,” Susan Cadogan’s “Do It Baby,” Linval Thompson’s “Jamaican Colley (Version)” and Cornell Campbell’s “Girl of My Dreams.” Trojan’s on to something with these guest collections, it’s a great way to get introduced to the label’s massive back catalogue, and it’s like having your very own celebrity mix tape to boot. ~Una Persson (07/13/07)

Various Artists: High School Reunion: A Tribute to Those Great ‘80s Films
Label: American Laundromat

High School Reunion sounds like an album made by a bunch of people who really, really hated high school. And what a shame, because the songs they chose to cover, culled from various ‘80s teen movies (John Hughes is very, very well represented) from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” to “Say Anything,” are gems across the board. The few major artists that appear here show exactly why they’re major artists and the others aren’t; Kristin Hersh’s take on “Wave of Mutilation” is faithful, though it loses the “UK Surf” aspect of the original, and Matthew Sweet’s take on “American Girl” at least sports some good vocals, which is more than one can say for the awful, awful version of “Weird Science” that the Bennies contribute. The Modifiers, meanwhile, manhandle “Love My Way” like they’re Linkin Park, and even the Dresden Dolls can’t get revved up for “Pretty in Pink.” The most interesting reinterpretation is Nova Social’s ska-less version of “Little Bitch.” Everyone else, meanwhile, plays it pretty straight, and in the process – Dipsomaniacs doing “A Million Miles Away,” I’m looking in your direction – show just how out of their league they are with the bands they’re trying to honor. ~David Medsker (02/16/06)

Various Artists: Kyle XY: The Soundtrack
Label: MySpace Records 2007
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Taking a page from the success of groundbreaking compilations like “The O.C.” series, the soundtrack for new ABC show “Kyle XY” is full of edgy musical artists that are either established, or are likely to become household names very shortly. The new-ish MySpace Records label has put together a collection of songs that are as varied as they are tailor-made for the show's teen demographic. Some of the talented emerging artists on the MySpace label are present here (Sherwood and Kate Voegele), as well as the 88 (a band that broke with the first O.C. compilation), and college rock heroes O.A.R. And if you’re sick of U2 and Coldplay clones, In-Flight Safety’s “Surround” will do nothing more than get under your skin. But there are some great standout tracks on here, in particular the pulsing alt-rock song “Bug Bear” by Climber, and the wonderfully lo-fi “Born on the Cusp” by American Analog Set. In all, a solid soundtrack that should have legs whether the actual show does or not. ~Mike Farley (07/13/07)

Various Artists: Laguna Beach: Summer Can Last Forever
Label: Interscope 2006
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With MTV not really playing videos anymore, artists found they could get a lot of exposure by having their songs appear on the soundtrack to a show like “Buffy” or “Charmed.” So it’s almost ironic that MTV would release a soundtrack to one of their own shows, “Laguna Beach,” which combines the known (overplayed hits from Hillary Duff, All-American Rejects or Lifehouse) and the unknown (Soulkid#1’s bouncy ear candy “More Bounce…” or Vaughan Penn’s “I Can’t Help Myself”) with the odd bit of excruciating dialogue. While this may seem like heaven for a ‘tween girl, it’s mostly an exercise in listener endurance for just about anyone else. It’s a decent enough collection with no real bad songs but I’d imagine that those most interested in this set have already downloaded the songs they wanted, which leaves me wondering who exactly would buy this. ~Kurt Torster (06/29/07)

Various Artists: Music from the Motion Picture Happy Feet
Label: Warner Sunset/Atlantic 2006
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As much as we at Bullz-Eye are all about George Miller, penguins and cover versions, the soundtrack for his latest wacky adventure can’t close the deal. Indeed, the album’s two best tracks are the originals that open the album, Prince’s “The Song of the Heart” and Gia Farrell’s Gwen-meets- Beyonce “Hit Me Up.” Pink holds more than her own on “Tell Me Something Good,” but the production on the cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish” lets down the dream team trio of Patti LaBelle, Yolanda Adams and Fantasia Barrino. The mash-up of “The Joker” and “Everything I Own,” sung by Jason Mraz and Chrissie Hynde (!), respectively, makes sense in theory but is way too busy for its own good. kd lang’s version of “Golden Slumbers/The End” is morphed into a sleepy lullaby, and decorum prohibits us from saying how we feel about the cover of “Boogie Wonderland.” A good idea on paper, squandered in execution. ~David Medsker (11/16/06)

Various Artists: Sing Me a Hank Williams Song
Label: Time-Life 2006
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Generally, we wouldn’t relegate a five-star review to the Quick Takes section, but in some cases, you simply don’t need all that much information to know it’s worth the rating, so why mince words. Take this volume of Time-Life’s Classic Country series, for instance. It’s all songs written or made famous by Hank Williams, Sr., as performed by some of the greatest names in country music. Johnny Cash sings “Hey Good Lookin’,” Willie Nelson warbles “Cold, Cold Heart,” and George Jones tackles both “Why Don’t You Love Me” and “You Win Again.” You get Mel Tillis singing “Honky Tonkin’” and Conway Twitty’s take on “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” along with Charley Pride’s “Kaw-Liga” and “Honky Tonk Blues.” You even get Elvis’s version of “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” for God’s sake…and we haven’t even mentioned the contributions from Patsy Cline, Porter Wagoner, Marty Robbins, Ray Price, and Don Gibson. You see what we’re saying? Five stars, easily. ~Will Harris (10/26/06)

Various Artists: Merry Mixmas: Christmas Classics Remixed
Label: Capitol

Giving Dean Martin and Bing Crosby the remix treatment is a slippery slope, and in the wrong hands could create a substance so volatile that it could rip the very fabric of time and space. Luckily, those people, by and large, were kept out of reach of Merry Mixmas: Christmas Classics Remixed. The mix jobs – including one from Jellyfish alum Roger Manning Jr. – are generally quite subtle; a low-frequency percussion loop here, a stuttered vocal track there. The most out-of-place mix is Q-Burns Abstract Message’s mix of Johnny Mercer’s “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” which carries a heavy, and repetitive, hip hop thump. Some may also find the drum ‘n bass spin on June Christy’s “The Merriest” a bit challenging, but it sounded quite cool to us. In the end, any disc with Dino, Ella, Eartha, Lou Rawls, and Lena Horne, remixed or not, is going to be cool, and Merry Mixmas is cool. ~David Medsker (12/22/05)

Various Artists: The Motown Box
Label: Universal

You can’t not respect the magic of the Motown sound, and this four-disc collection is brimming with both hits and B-sides that will have you dancing on the roof of your house or your car (assuming you are alone). With artists like the Supremes, the Temptations, Four Tops, and the Spinners, as well as the incomparable Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, there is no shortage of heavyweights on here. Berry Gordy changed the landscape of popular music and the list of hits that came from his Motown label is too long to list, but some of the more known tracks in this set are “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” and “Heard It Through the Grapevine.” But the fourth disc here also boasts rare songs and B-sides, such as Wonder’s “Purple Raindrops” and Gaye’s “Pretty Little Baby.” ~Mike Farley (09/22/05)

Various Artists: Music from the Motion Picture Elizabethtown
Label: RCA

Cameron Crowe assembles yet another impeccable roster of boomers and alt.country gods to serve as the backdrop for his latest film, and while the songs he picked are good, a little variety – or at the very least an up-tempo number here or there – would have done a world of good. It’s clear that he’s trying to make a wistful road album, and songs like Patty Griffin’s “Long Ride Home” and Helen Stellar’s “io (This Time Around)” fit the bill perfectly. The problem with it is that even though the songs are perfectly fine (and occasionally lovely), the moroseness of it all gets old in a hurry, and not even a song like the Hombres’ “Let It Out (Let It All Hang Out),” which is Quentin Tarantino soundtrack material if ever there was such a thing, can save the day. It’s the kind of album to put on when the party’s over, and your friends need a subtle reminder to reach for their coats. ~David Medsker (10/06/05)

Various Artists: The OC: Mix 5
Label: Warner Brothers

There are elements of old school punk, 80’s new wave, and just a whole lot of “cool” in the latest mix of music from Fox’s hit TV show, “The O.C.” Mix 5 has the crunchy garage rock of the Subways’ “Rock & Roll Queen,” and the driving beat of Kasabian’s “Reason is Treason” and Kaiser Chiefs’ “Na Na Na Na Naa.” There is also the synth-flavored band Rogue Wave’s “Publish My Love,” which is eerily reminiscent of OMD. There is even a cover from that decade – “Forever Young” by Youth Group is a remake of Alphaville’s classic from the 80’s. Shout Out Loud’s “Wish I Was Dead Pt. 2” just oozes with hipness, and there is more of a modern bent with the Death Cab-ish “Your Ex-Lover is Dead” by Stars, and the dreamy “Hide and Seek” by Imogen Heap. Music Supervisor Alexandra Patsavas has a knack for picking not only the perfect music to match with scenes from “The O.C.,” but obviously has a keen ear for talent as well. ~Mike Farley (11/17/05)

Various Artists: Oh Santa! New & Used Christmas Classics
Label: Yep Roc 2007
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The Christmas album is a curious thing, really – a person is liable to get a curious glance (if not a punch in a sensitive body part) if he or she is heard playing holiday music anytime before Thanksgiving, and yet each year, new yuletide collections end up on the shelves alongside Christmas albums of yesteryear. And people buy them, listen to them once, and then let them collect dust for twelve months before picking up more next year. It’s a little ridiculous, really, but if you have a little extra room on your holiday music shelf this year, you could do a lot worse than Oh Santa! – here are a dozen tracks from Yep Roc’s stellar roster, including Los Straitjackets, Jason Ringenberg, Apples in Stereo, and a surprisingly subdued Reverend Horton Heat. If your taste in Christmas music runs toward the decidedly non-traditional end of the spectrum, you really can’t go wrong here – our only beef is the disappointing absence of Yep Roc artist Nick Lowe. Maybe next year. ~Jeff Giles 11/24/07

Various Artists: One Tree Hill Soundtrack Volume 2
Label: Maverick

Popular WB show “One Tree Hill” is all about connecting with its target audience – consisting mainly of young women – and that has helped to launch artists that have appeared on the show, such as Gavin DeGraw and Fall Out Boy. Of course, it helps when the show’s music supervisors are adept at picking great music for the show, and that is definitely the case on the new OTH Volume 2 soundtrack. This soundtrack boasts some really great stuff, including Feeder’s “Feeling a Moment,” Nada Surf’s “Always Love,” MoZella’s “Light Years Away” and Strays Don’t Sleep’s “For Blue Skies.” But it also gives the show’s characters a chance to shine, as Tyler Hilton (Chris Keller on the show) performs a stellar acoustic version of John Waite’s “Missing You;” and Bethany Joy Lenz uses her character name on the show, Haley James Scott, to deliver her song “Halo,” which is easily one of the best tracks on here. ~Mike Farley (02/23/06)

Various Artists: Power Ballads: Gold
Label: Hip-O/Universal

The rise of grunge may have made these songs look temporarily foolish, but the simple fact is, a lot of these songs were hits not just because they were the only hard rock songs radio would play at the time, but because they were damn good tunes. “Silent Lucidity”? Best song Pink Floyd never wrote. “Love Hurts”? Still being used in TV commercials today. Granted, there are some questionable inclusions here, as well as omissions -- we would argue that no one in the world ever needs to hear Stryper’s “Honestly” again, and Def Leppard’s absence is glaring, especially on a compilation from their own label -- but overall Power Ballads: Gold hits far, far more times than it misses. Still, we would be remiss if we didn’t salute those soldiers we lost in battle whose names did not make the monument: Dokken’s “Alone Again,” Enuff Z’Nuff’s “Fly High Michelle,” and Guns ‘n Roses’ “November Rain,” the mother of all power ballads. Come on, guys, they’re on your roster. You couldn’t bump Meat Loaf’s “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” in exchange for a little G’nR? ~David Medsker (08/18/05)

Various: Midnight Fire: A Body & Soul Collection
Label: Time Life/Sony 2007
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It’s not like you can’t make a sexy R&B mix to woo your lady, or any lady for that matter, in your love crib, but sometimes compilations like this do the work for you. The half-naked couple on the cover of the album is all the proof you need that the songs on here serve one purpose—seduction. But more than that, it’s a nice batch of tunes that could easily find a home on one of those smooth jazz stations as well. The likes of Santana, Toni Braxton, Dru Hill and R. Kelly are all over this thing, but for some reason they buried Alicia Keys’ “You Don’t Know My Name” way down at track #13. Regardless, it’s the best track among a pretty solid set. And if you can’t close the deal with this as your soundtrack, you only have yourself to blame. ~Mike Farley (05/11/07)

Various Artists: Ocean’s Thirteen: Music from the Motion Picture
Label: Warner Sunset 2007
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It is rare for a movie score to leap out and grab me by the throat these days, but that is exactly what David Holmes’ score for the better-than-you-think “Ocean’s Thirteen” did. It has a certain Thievery Corporation-like contemporary coolness, though it has an unmistakable ‘60s swing (“Dice Men,” “The Nose”) as well. Indeed, it is a testament to Holmes’ score that his first 11 bits flow so effortlessly into Puccio Roelens’ version of “Caravan,” which is from 1971. Things do lose significant steam when Debussy’s “Suite Bergamasque” arrives (though it is lovely), but the rest of Holmes’ score, not to mention big daddy Frank Sinatra’s “This Town,” brings the album home. Best of all, it will help you completely forget how awful “Ocean’s 12” was. Man, oh man, was that movie bad.
~David Medsker (06/15/07)

Various Artists: Six Feet Under: Everything Ends (Music from the HBO Original Series, Volume II)
Label: Astralwerks

One need not watch HBO’s soon-to-be-defunct “Six Feet Under” to appreciate this stunning compilation. A deft blend of old school torch song jazz and soul (Nina Simone and Irma Thomas, respectively) combined with album cuts from the monsters of modern rock (Radiohead’s “Lucky,” Coldplay’s “A Rush of Blood to the Head,” Death Cab For Cutie’s mesmerizing “Transatlanticism”), Six Feet Under: Everything Ends positively oozes cool. Thomas’ version of “Time Is On My Side” blows the Stones’ rendition out of the water, while Phoenix’ delightfully bouncy “Everything Is Everything” and Bebel Gilberto’s “Aganjú” balance out the doses of melancholy. The only misstep is the Caesars’ unremarkable cover of “Don’t Fear The Reaper,” which seems a heavy-handed choice in comparison to the other material (we would have preferred Jim Carroll Band’s “People Who Died”). Hiding Imogen Heap’s “I’m A Lonely Little Petunia (In An Onion Patch)” as a bonus track is a sweet thank-you to the show’s fans. ~David Medsker (06/30/05)

Various Artists: Stubbs the Zombie, the Soundtrack
Label: Shout Factory/Aspyr

Songs from the ‘50s, bands from the ‘00s. That’s the premise behind the soundtrack for the video game “Stubbs the Zombie.” (Hey, it beats getting yet another batch of shitty ‘80s covers.) Some of the remakes are gems, like Ben Kweller’s “Lollipop,” the Flaming Lips’ loopy take on “If I Only Had a Brain,” Rose Hill Drive’s Hendrix-meets-Manchester take on “Shakin’ All Over,” and “Earth Angel,” the song Death Cab for Cutie was born to cover. One wonders, though, how anyone thought that Cake covering “Strangers in the Night” was a good idea (it’s blasphemy), or that “Tears on My Pillow” should be stretched out into a 4/4 rock song. For the most part, these covers hit the mark, but when they miss, man, do they miss. ~David Medsker (11/03/05)

Various Artists: Underworld: Evolution- Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Label: Lakeside

Hey Depeche Mary, go get your black on and let’s go to a very dimly lit club and rave our asses off. The sequel to the very popular and $90 million-plus grossing (worldwide) “Underworld” comes with a very cool soundtrack, featuring remixes of metal & industrial acts like My Chemical Romance, Chester Bennington of Linkin Park and yet another vehicle for Tool/Perfect Circle’s vocalist, Maynard James Keenan in Puscifer. I think the soundtrack to a shadowy film about vampires should be filled with Nine Inch Nail-ish grooves, screams and beats. Standouts include “To the End” by My Chemical Romance, and Gosling’s bare bones, moody guitar attack on David Bowie’s “Cat People.” Even Cradle of Filth is a bit more listenable by putting away the whole Satan-screaming-through-Helium thing to deliver a Satan speaking vocal for a very likeable “HW2.” This is a lot of fun and well worth a few spins while fighting off vampires in a dimly lit dungeon. ~R. David Smola (02/23/06)

Stoll Vaughan: Hold On Thru Sleep & Dreams
Label: Shadowdog

The last few years have brought some talented Americana type artists, and this style of music has certainly enjoyed a revival of sorts. Kentucky-based singer/songwriter Stoll Vaughan is the latest to come along, and his debut, Hold On Thru Sleep & Dreams, could be a poster album for the genre. This acoustic-driven set is a bit twangy, but it’s Vaughan’s rich vocals, which are a combination of Dylan, Springsteen, Lou Reed, and John Hiatt, that make this new artist as compelling as he is. The upbeat “Comin’ To Me” and moody “Sounds of the City” are standout tracks. ~Mike Farley (07/14/05)

Laura Veirs: Year of Meteors
Label: Nonesuch

Seattle based singer/songwriter Laura Veirs is back with her second offering on the Nonesuch label, Year of Meteors, and it’s a solid collection of songs that are as haunting as they are introspective. Take the soothing, soft vocal delivery and intelligent lyrics of Suzanne Vega or a female Nick Drake, mix in the lush keys and crunching guitars that have a distinct Northwest flavor, add a dash of alternative grit, and you’ve got Miss Veirs. She sways effortlessly between full vocal and falsetto, and the record as a whole mirrors that as a rollercoaster ride between syncopated alt/pop (“Galaxies” and “Black Gold Blues”) and dreamy acoustic darkness (“Magnetized” and “Where Gravity Is Dead”). ~Mike Farley (12/15/05)

The Village Green: The Village Green
Label: Hidden Peak

All eyes on Portland, kids; there’s this four-piece way up in the northwest that is about to become your favorite band. This six-track EP screams dirty ‘60s garage rock, but these guys are not merely the Kinks fetishists that their moniker suggests. Leadoff track “Let It Go,” for example, sounds like the Raveonettes in a mud pit, while “Under the Covers” could be a lost supercharged Hollies track, with singer J. Nicholas Allard bearing uncanny resemblance to Allan Clarke. The lyrics may get a bit silly, like when Allard coos “Baby when I get near you, darling you know I feel so good inside, you know I can’t go on, you know I need you” to his baby on “Plastic Women,” but wisely, the lyric is sandwiched between an insanely catchy start-stop “Ahhhhhh” bit. All in all, a very promising first step. ~David Medsker (12/09/05)

Rocky Votolato: The Brag & Cuss
Label: Barsuk 2007
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Folkies and cool indie rockers alike will find something to like about Rocky Votolato’s latest offering, The Brag & Cuss. That’s because in addition to growing up listening to the likes of Steve Earle, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, Votolato went to high school in Seatttle and became enamored with the city’s punk scene. All of that helped to shape his songwriting, which really came into its own with 2006’s Makers. The Brag & Cuss doesn’t break new ground -- it’s more like a continuation of Makers. And judging by how quickly this album follows that one, it’s likely that Votolato drew from the same pile of songs for the new effort. Regardless, the same elements are still there—a cool, vibey, batch of songs that are all led by Rocky’s twangy, yet throaty vocals. The Brag & Cuss, in particular minor-chord twinged tracks like “Red Dragon Wishes” or vivid stories such as “Whiskey Straight,” make this the perfect soundtrack for driving across the plains at sunset, or simply for sitting quietly while comtemplating life. ~Mike Farley (06/29/07)

The Voyces: Kissing Like It’s Love
Label: Planting Seeds 2007
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The Voyces began as the brainchild of singer / songwriter Brian Wurschum, releasing their debut album, The Angels of Fun, in 2003; they scored a major coup when one of the record’s songs, “Relate to Me,” was included on the soundtrack to Jack Johnson’s surfin’ doc, Thicker Than Water, and found their profile raised considerably as a result. Since then, the band’s been through a bit of an overhaul in its ranks, but given how the subsequent album – Kissing Like It’s Love – has turned out, who can complain? Although Wurschum remains the album’s sole songwriter, he’s teamed with singer Jude Kastle, and the resulting harmonies are decidedly lovely; imagine Linus of Hollywood’s debut album (Your Favorite Record) with more of a ‘70s folk-pop bent, and you’ll have The Voyces’ sound mostly pegged. Tracks like the title song and “Humming” have a pleasant bounce, but much of the disc is pretty mellow; on the whole, the first two thirds of the record is where the strongest material hangs out (the last two songs are each over five minutes in length and prove too long for their own good), with particular highlights being “Hair Up High,” “Lovers in the Sky,” and “Top of My Lungs.” Given the amount of ink this year that’s been dedicated to the return of acoustic pop purveyors America, there’s really no better time for The Voyces to achieve a significant foothold on the music scene. ~Will Harris (04/20/07)

Peter Walker: Young Gravity
Label: Dangerbird

The sticker on Young Gravity’s jewel case likens Walker to Wilco and Neil Young, heady comparisons both, and both at least partially apt. Walker is less a singer than a vocalist, for one thing, and manages to tastefully match his ragged, lo-fi voice with ragged, lo-fi arrangements throughout Gravity’s eleven tracks; fans of idiosyncratic rock & roll voices (such as those wielded by Young and/or Jeff Tweedy) may indeed find a lot to like here. Also like Young and Tweedy, Walker is gifted (or burdened, depending on your point of view) with a wild and woolly muse, one with all the force and precision of a shotgun blast. In other words, when it hits – such as on “What Do I Know” or “39 Stars” – the results can be powerful enough to knock you flat. But on Young Gravity, Walker misses as often as he reaches his target. This is a record full of great moments that never add up to a cohesive whole. ~Jeff Giles (04/27/06)

Sean Watkins: Blinders On
Label: Sugar Hill

As vocalist/guitarist with Nickel Creek, Sean Watkins tends more toward the neo-bluegrass sound that’s the hallmark of the band, but, on his solo albums, he’s gradually explored more of a pop sound. His debut was almost entirely instrumental, save for the title cut, which was sung by ex-Toad the Wet Sprocket frontman Glen Phillips, and, by his sophomore effort, the All Music Guide was making comparisons to Grant Lee Phillips and Death Cab for Cutie. With Blinders On, let’s just say it’s absolutely no surprise when Jon Brion makes an appearance; the bigger shock is that Brion didn’t have a hand in writing a track like “Roses Never Red,” which could totally be an outtake from Meaningless. The lyrics on “Run Away Girl,” where Watkins searches desperately for a flaw in his ex-girlfriend so he can continue happily ever after without her, are sweetly sad, but when set to the delicately lovely combination of Benmonth Tench’s piano and Watkins’ guitar, it truly tugs at the heartstrings. This isn’t really what you’d call mainstream stuff; songs like “Happy New Year” and “Not That Bad / Blinders On” actually bring to mind Radiohead’s OK Computer album at times. There are a few tracks more like what he does with Nickel Creek, “No Lighted Windows” being the best example, but, overall, Blinders On shows a musician who, based on the different styles in which he dabbles, most certainly has his blinders off. ~Will Harris (04/12/06)

We Are the Fury: Infinite Jest
Label: Unborn Media Records

I must confess: “rock” bands who wear suits make me want to puke in my shoes. It’s just wrong, hence my immediate dread when I opened up the booklet for We Are the Fury’s debut EP, Infinite Jest, and was greeted with a snazzy photo of the band decked out in threads. But the fact of the matter is that this band is fearless and quite talented, even if they blend right in with the recent onslaught of preppy punks in more than one way. All five songs on this EP are serviceable, with “Anesthetic Parade” and “Parody at the Masquerade” really showing what this band can do. Vocalist Jeremy Lublin has the stereotypical nasal sound that goes with the genre down pat, but his range is impressive and he adds considerable emotion to all the tracks, particularly on “Nation, Forgive Us.” Ridiculously catchy and dance-worthy, We Are the Fury is a band to keep an eye out for, if you are into this sort of thing. ~Bill Clark (03/16/06)

We the Kings: We the Kings
Label: S-Curve 2007
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The pop/punk/alternative genre is full of cookie-cutter product, but when a band delivers some decent material and its lead vocalist doesn’t try to sing through his nose, you can’t necessarily dog them. Florida-based We the Kings most closely resembles its edgier brethren from this genre, such as Yellowcard, Jimmy Eat World, or Something Corporate, and with band members that range in age from 18 to 22, this band could be on our collective radar for a while. We the Kings’ self-titled debut is like a clinic on how to write songs that are tailor-made for today’s generation – smart melodies, nifty guitar work and a pop sensibility that isn’t over the top. Some of these tunes get lost in the pack, but the ones that stand out are really good, especially the hard-driving “Skyway Avenue,” “August Is Over,” and “All Again for You.” Then, for good measure, there’s a piano ballad, “This Is Our Town,” a really nice tribute to the band’s hometown of Bradenton. Keep an eye on We the Kings, because while there’s room for improvement, this is already a good young band with enormous potential. ~Mike Farley (10/26/07)

The Well Wishers: How I Won the War…Without Even Trying
Label: Self-released 2007
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Jeff Shelton returns! You may recall that, last year, we here at Bullz-Eye raved about the posthumously-released best-of from his former band, the Spinning Jennies; even before their official demise, however, Shelton had already begun work on his next musical enterprise, known as the Well Wishers. Now that the Jennies are formally defunct, Shelton’s been able to throw himself headlong into his work with the Well Wishers, and while the band’s third album, How I Won The War…Without Even Trying, doesn’t immediately indicate that he’s spent that extra time on evolving the band’s sound, he’s still come up with another solid collection of power pop tunes. Shelton’s new wave leanings pop up here and there, such as the keyboards which skulk in the background of “Hope is Fading,” or the vocal manipulation on “It’s True What They Say about Girls” and “The Optimist,” and only a real aficionado of post-punk would take the time to offer up a cover of the Chameleons’ “After Dark” (It’s a lovely take on the song, by the way.) For the most part, however, it’s much of the same ground that Shelton’s been treading on his previous two records. It’s not a bad thing at all – he’s still producing better Posies songs than the Posies themselves, as proven on “Resistance is Futile” – but, admittedly, it’d be nice to hear him stretch his musical wings a bit more. C’mon, Jeff, we know you’ve got it in you! ~Will Harris (06/22/07)

Paul Westerberg: Open Season
Label: Lost Highway Records 2006
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It’s safe to say original scores and movie soundtracks, especially for children’s films, have not historically been Paul Westerberg’s calling card. A long time punk-rock renegade and pioneer of the underground garage band movement in the early ‘80s, Westerberg led the Replacements to a cult status like none other. These days, however, he’s toned it down, playing more acoustic shows and writing about kinder, gentler subject matter. “Meet Me in the Meadow” and “Love You in the Fall” are typical of Westerberg’s more recent solo endeavors – upbeat and even playful, custom-made for toe-tapping or in-car sing-a-longs. Talking Heads’ “Wild Wild Life” gets tossed in for fun, as do a couple other “wild life” anthems from Cake offshoot Deathray, “I Wanna Lose Control” and “Wild as I Wanna Be”. Not sure why Westerberg chose to include the piano ballad “Good Day” from his 1996 solo album Eventually, considering it’s a somber ode to fallen Replacements mate Bob Stinson, who died young in the midst of a drug and alcohol addiction. As an ardent fan of the ‘Mats, the best part of this soundtrack is knowing Westerberg and Tommy Stinson occupied the same studio space to record a handful of the tracks, giving renewed hope (yet again!) for an overdue reunion. ~Red Rocker (11/09/06)

Ron White: You Can’t Fix Stupid
Label: Image Entertainment

In comparison to his Blue Collar mates, Ron White is Keith Richards, while the other three are, well, Charlie Watts. White is loose, profane, usually drunk, and the best and brightest of the bunch. His newest album, You Can’t Fix Stupid, is a coming-out party of sorts, recorded in front of a hometown Dallas crowd (White’s from nearby Arlington) and covering subjects as diverse as his landscaper, the inability to compete with a bachelorette party for people’s attention, and an amusement park metaphor that men the world over will use on their wives and girlfriends (with varying degrees of success, we’d wager). The spirit of Bill Hicks appears throughout Stupid, particularly in his conversational banter (“Oh, shit, I broke an antler!”), and Stupid is the kind of album that Hicks would surely have been proud to call his own. ~David Medsker (02/09/06)

Jason Whitton: Thriftstore Cowboy
Label: VAVV

Putting the word “cowboy” in your album title will get you thrown in the country music column every time. In the case of Jason Whitton, it’s a descriptive that’s not entirely off base, particularly given the big white Stetson he sports on the back cover...but Whitton is country in the same way Dwight Yoakam and Lyle Lovett are country; they’re cool enough that non-country people listen to them, too. There’s also a lot of the twang that Chris Isaak peppers his tunes with, so you’d probably be better off calling this New Country or something. Perhaps it’s inevitable that the closing track, a cover of Bill Withers’ “Use Me,” is the song that will get the most attention; radio has always believed that it’s easier to push something to people that they already know. The lead track, “Alibi,” has single potential as well, however, as do songs like “Dandelion Girl” and “Ruby.” In fact, most of the songs on here would play well on the radio. Even a song with a clichéd title like “I Still Believe in Love” has a nice lyrical turn of phrase, with its lines, “You been waiting on people all your life / Or at least that’s the way it seems / Men from every table offering you advice / So you don’t need another tip from me.” The competition in the field of country music is significant, but here’s hoping Whitton manages to weasel his way into some airplay. ~Will Harris (04/27/06)

What Made Milwaukee Famous: Trying To Never Catch Up
Label: Barsuk 2006
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What Made Milwaukee Famous is another in a long line of groovy Austin, Texas groups that prove that that city may possibly be the biggest and best center for great rock and pop in America. The opening song “Idecide” opens up with bursts of electronic arpeggios before blasting into full-on blaring rock. “Selling Yourself Short” features rhythm and ambiance that sounds not at all dissimilar to the best things Stereolab have created. “Sweet Lady” is good old bouncy power pop with its roots in ‘60s pop psychedelia, where “Hopelist” plays up the Elliot Smith influence pretty damn frighteningly. Basically there’s something for everyone here, and while not everything works wonders (both “Hellodrama” and “Curtains!” are rather bland in their modern rock qualities), Trying To Never Catch Up is a pretty swell album of diverse styles that sounds unique even through its own borrowing of classic A.M.-friendly grooves. ~Jason Thompson (11/02/06)

The Whigs: Give ‘Em All a Big Fat Lip
Label: ATO 2007
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If Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock met the Kings of Leon at a Nashville house party, and after a few beers they decided to drunk dial Spoon’s Britt Daniel and convince him to produce their collaboration (in under two weeks), it might sound something like the Whigs’ debut effort. At times, frontman Parker Gispert’s vocals can get a little rough, but when he pulls the reins in, they are a perfect compliment for the band’s mid-tempo sound, which leans on intricate guitar and keyboard interplay. Highlights include the Spoon-ish plucking in “Don’t Talk Anymore,” the terrific descending chord progression in “Violet Furs,” and the slow, sad melody of “All My Banks.” For a debut, the album is remarkably consistent; there really isn’t a bad track on the disc. No wonder Rolling Stone labeled the Georgia trio as one of the “Ten Artists to Watch” in 2006. We want more! ~John Paulsen (06/01/07)

Kathryn Williams: Leave to Remain
Label: Cheap Lullaby 2007
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Among female singer/songwriters, the best ones are those that make it seem effortless. Kathryn Williams is in that category, and she’s decidedly lo-fi – the way Eleni Mandell and Linda Draper are now, and the way Suzanne Vega was in the early days. Williams’ latest, Leave to Remain, is the British singer/songwriter’s first US release, and it’s full of tracks that are haunting and beautiful, the kind of songs that bring to mind that blissful moment between waking and sleeping. It’s not that Williams’ soft, melancholy vocals and introspective lyrics will lull you to sleep; it’s just that they will help you relax enough to get to that blissful state. There aren’t really any clunkers on here, but the songs that stand out the most are the riveting “Sustain Pedal” and the lush piano beauty, “Glass Bottom Boat.” ~Mike Farley (09/28/07)

Saul Williams: Saul Williams
Label: FaderLabel

Man, that Saul Williams is one weird cat. In the day when all the other MCs are throwin’ down the bling, hustlin’ ho’s, doing the braggadocio rope-a-dope and telling it like it is about the gangsta lean, Williams is trying to open some minds. More than that, he has the audacity to rock. This ain’t the same old urban plight with breakbeats, kiddies. For those of ye into Rage Against The Machine, step right in. For those who like the reggae color, this is your ride. For those who ever wondered what a black Nine Inch Nails might sound like, well, this might very well be the closest we get. Plus, the nice thing is Williams doesn’t whine like Trent Reznor, and making it all sound like unbelievable bullshit. Not everything’s a winner here, but the likes of “Grippo,” “Black Stacey,” “PG,” and “Act III Scene 2 (Shakespeare)” can certainly make you stand up and take notice. Whether Williams will be a ground-shaking force is anyone’s guess, but this isn’t a bad way to go about business at all. ~Jason Thompson (08/04/05)

Wolfmother: Dimension EP
Label: Interscope

Wolfmother's latest single “Dimensions,” from the EP of the same name, embodies the flair and balls of Black Sabbath's “Paranoid” while not coming off as contrived. I don't know what it is about Australia and the bands they export (Vines, Datsuns, etc.), but they are truly students of Zepplin and AC/DC while still bringing something new to the mix. All of these bands from down-under exude a self-confidence that allows them to bypass the current over-indulgence of synth-based who-ha and skip straight to rocking the fuck out. The full length is going to be the shit, but this will hold you over for a few months. ~Josh Preston (03/30/06)

The Wood Brothers: Ways Not To Lose
Label: Blue Note Records 2006
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Have you ever been punched in the face? If so, this album is the complete opposite of being punched in the face. It’s very soft and warm. Like cookies. I fucking love cookies. Some friends sent cookies to the office the other day. They were for the entire staff, but I ate most of them while I listened to this record. The Wood Brothers are made up of two dudes. That’s right!! You guessed it. They’re brothers. Chris Wood plays bass w/ Medeski, Martin & Wood. If you’ve been to college or have gone repeated days without bathing, I’m sure you’ve heard of MM&W. It’s okay. I have nothing at all against hippies. I fucking love hippies almost as much as I love cookies. Hippies are great. ~Josh Preston (04/27/06)

World Leader Pretend: Punches
Label: Warner Brothers

They hail from New Orleans, and their name is a song title from Athens’ finest, REM, but World Leader Pretend’s magnificent debut Punches is positively bursting with UK rock influences. Singer and main songwriter Keith Ferguson’s vocals bear a strong resemblance to Richard Ashcroft (with a dash of Thom Yorke, which seems to be law these days), and the music has the widescreen spirit of the Waterboys’ best work. The drum track on lead single “Bang Theory” is straight outta Simple Minds’ Sparkle in the Rain, a massive beat anchoring a rather delicate ork-pop gem. The title track is akin to Radiohead’s “Electioneering,” with sleigh bells and a mandolin. This is ambitious, adventurous stuff, and a welcome sign that music, after drifting aimlessly for what seems like ages, is finally starting to find its way again. ~David Medsker (07/28/05)

Chris Young: Chris Young
Label: RCA 2007
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The debut from “Nashville Star” winner Chris Young shouldn’t surprise anyone. Young is somewhat of a throwback, with a rich, deep, twangy vocal that conjures a comparison to George Strait or Clint Black, and a lot of the songs have the honky-tonk feel of country superstars like Montgomery Gentry. It’s even impressive that Young himself had a hand in the songwriting, in particular the first hit single, “Drinkin’ Me Lonely.” But the problem is that producer Buddy Cannon (Kenny Chesney, George Strait, Sara Evans) turns the whole set into something that’s radio-ready but lacks emotion. This isn’t a knock on Young by any means, but more on the state of what is driving country radio today. It’s like Music Row is funneling its best songs into a blender and pouring out a cocktail that just lacks flavor. Young is going to have some longevity because he’s likeable and can sing really well, but hopefully at some point he’s given the chance to show off his personality. The opening track, “Beer and Gasoline” is a shit-kicker that is also the album’s best track. ~Mike Farley (03/09/07)

Rob Zombie: 20th Century Masters – The Millennium Collection
Label: Geffen 2006
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Oh, those evil record companies. Just three years after the well-conceived, comprehensive (at the time) Past, Present & Future, Geffen/Chronicles/Universal releases Millennium. This collection has a concise essay about Mr. Zombie and contains 12 tracks from his career in chronological order, starting with four White Zombie tracks and ending with two from Educated Horses, which was released this year. Nine of the tracks on Millennium are also on Past. “House of 1000 Corpses,” from The Sinister Urge, and two tracks from Horses are the only difference. I suppose if you are curious about Zombie but don’t want to much, then this might be appropriate but Past, Present & Future contains tracks like “Blitzkrieg Bop,” his cover from the Ramones tribute record he co-produced, and “Brick House 2003,” his deliciously perverted remake of the Commodores song featuring Lionel Ritchie. Past, Present & Future is the album to get. Oh, those evil record companies... ~R. David Smola (12/20/06)

Rob Zombie: Hellbilly Deluxe – Deluxe Edition
Label: Universal

1998’s Hellbilly Deluxe is a four-star album on its own merits. The deluxe edition released late last year contains some new album art and videos for each song (and two remix videos) on a bonus DVD. Although he has proved himself as an excellent visual artist with “The Devil’s Rejects,” the video material included in this “deluxe” edition is awful. Jump cuts, jittery camera movements that could induce a seizure, and annoying, blinding splashes of bright colors make this punishment for the eyes. The budget for “The Ballad of The Resurrection Joe and Rosa Whore” probably doesn’t match the two bucks my nine-year-old gets a week. An Asian cowboy, a midget masked wrestler, a man in a duck suit and a man in a kitty cat suit dance while Zombie and his band – who are dressed like, um, zombies – execute the dreaded performance cut. The record is great; the re-release is dreadful. ~R. David Smola (01/19/06)

Malajube: Trompe-L’Oleil: Malajube: Trompe-L’Oleil
Label: Dare to Care Records 2006
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Not to be confused with the word that Chef used to describe an anal probe to the boys on “South Park,” this French-singing Montreal quartet is getting compared to Arcade Fire, and that makes sense in that both bands are riffing on Modest Mouse’s art rock strangeness. Indeed, “Montreal-40°C” is “Float On” sprinkled with some Beatle-esque psychedelics, and “Le Crabe” sports a hard-driving piano progression that could almost be called prog. Don’t be scared off by the language barrier, either; even if you can’t understand a word of the lyrics, the soaring melodies of “Ton Pat Favori” and “Fille a Plumes” possess a beauty that renders meaningless any inability to understand the lyrics. Strange and wonderful, Malajube is about to be your new favorite foreign band.
~David Medsker (01/18/07)

Mardo: The New Gun
Label: House of Restitution Records 2006
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Imagine a runaway freight train with enough dynamite on board to flatten Texas crashing headlong into a fireworks manufacturing plant. The resulting explosion might measure on the same seismic level as L.A.’s over-the-top crunch rockers Mardo. Opening cut “Lolita Live and Learn,” all riffed up and dripping with Zeppelin chutzpa, ushers in The New Gun. From there it’s an explosive ‘70s hard rock flashback, 11 ragged guitar anthems about all the predictable subjects. “I’ve carried the title of this record with me for years,” explains Aron. “Young Hollywood, no rules, drinking at 15. Every week there’s a new gun, without talent or skill, but plenty of dreams.” The catchiest of the bunch is “Killer on the Dancefloor,” with a repeatable axe line and bowel-shaking rhythm that would’ve sold out arenas 20 years ago, yet likely won’t sell 100,000 units now. Maybe the coolest thing about these guys is that they “get it” – they’re currently offering a complete download of this album on the band’s website for 99 cents. Yes, 99 cents for all eleven tracks! RIAA, are you listening? ~Red Rocker (02/15/07)

Sarah McLachlan: Wintersong
Label: Arista/Nettwerk
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How incredibly lucky are Sarah McLachlan’s children? Late at night, when they’re fussy and won’t fall asleep, they get serenaded by her and that sweet, sweet voice. That sweet voice is also tailor-made for Christmas songs as well, and Wintersong, her first foray into the genre, is exactly what you’d expect from a Sarah McLachlan Christmas album: it’s lovely if a tad melancholy, as if the people at Windham Hill made a pop album. Fortunately, it’s more lovely than melancholy (but only slightly), with McLachlan, like James Taylor, also performing a stunning version of Joni Mitchell’s “River,” and her version of “Silent Night” is good enough to make you forget about that braying version that Stevie Nicks did back in the day. Closing with a cover of Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmastime Is Here,” visions of sugar plums will surely dance in your heads. One request, however: we love Lennon, but we’d like to call for a moratorium on covers of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” Its hopeful message aside, the song simply wasn’t that good in the first place. ~David Medsker (11/30/06)

The Meeting Places: Numbered Days
Label: Words-On-Music 2006
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I love the term shoegazer. Wouldn’t it freak you out if you were playing for an audience and the entire crowd was simply looking at their feet – and that response was ultimately a compliment to the band? Jesus, I’d rather take the punk route and be spat on. At least then you know the crowd is alive. As a man of good conscience, I’d worry that the audience’s necks would get sore. Regardless, the Meeting Places, sore necks and all, is definitely a shoegazer band. While Numbered Days certainly has its moments, overall it kinda falls flat and is a bit too formulaic. A lot of these bands tend to miss the boat when it comes to recording, but they make up for it with their live performance; subsequently, if the Meeting Places came to town, I’d probably go check them out. Then I’d hire a crew of those people at the mall that beat the shit out of you for $10 in a massage chair to wait outside the show, and when it let out, I’d get rich from commissions. ~Josh Preston (02/15/07)

The Mooney Suzuki: The Maximum Black EP
Label: V2 2006
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The Maximum Black EP consists of the band’s 1999 self-released Black EP along with five previously unreleased tracks that were recorded around the same time. Oddly, the bonus material is consistently superior to the original material, which makes one wonder about the decision process behind the original track listing. Regardless, when listening to four of the bonus tracks – “Right on By,” “Tell Me Why,” “This Lonely Land” and “You’re Not There” – it sounds like band is influenced by the rougher garage rock of the Kinks, ‘60s Stones and maybe even the Yardbirds. Of the original material, only “My Dear Persephone” and “Half of My Heart” hold up. The remaining tracks are muddled in guitar feedback, with no discernable hooks or melody. Still, considering the quality of the bonus material, Maximum Black is worthwhile for the “Maximum,” if not for the “Black.” ~John Paulsen (01/11/07)

Permanent Me: After the Room Clears
Label: Stolen Transmission 2006
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Take the fingers on your right hand, and hold them together. Then place them perpendicular to your neck. You’ve had it up to there with pop/punk bands, especially when the lead singer pretends he is singing to an audience of Elmo and Grover. But while Long Island-based Permanent Me has elements of that genre, they’ve got a lot more going for them. The band’s latest effort, After the Room Clears, injects just enough songwriting ability and testosterone (read: walls of guitars and straightforward, strong vocals) to catapult them into the next class of pop/rock alongside acts like Fountains of Wayne, Butch Walker and Something Corporate. And while some of the songs tend to run into each other, see if you can’t get tracks like “Christine” and “Later On” out of your head. ~Mike Farley (12/07/06)

Russell Peters: Outsourced
Label: Warner Bros. 2007
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Listening to Outsourced, the new album from Indian-Canadian comedian Russell Peters (you read that right), you can’t help but think that he’s conflicted about which direction his material should go. There’s a part of him that wants to skewer any ethnic group in sight, a la Lisa Lampanelli, and while it’s good for a couple of laughs, he’s just too damn nice to take insult comedy to its proper lengths. When he’s not making fun of people, his material is mostly of the observational variety and mostly clean, which makes his use of obscenity stand out more than it otherwise would. He certainly has some good jokes up his sleeve – when the crowd shouts “Woo!” after he gives a shout-out to the Chinese, he says, “Look at them, yelling out their last name, so proud. That’s cool!” – but more often than not, he resorts to making fun of himself, which undermines the insult comedy part of his routine. Luckily for Peters, he’s still young, so he still has time to fine-tune his act. Call Outsourced a stepping stone, not a declaration. ~David Medsker (02/15/07)

Patti Scialfa: Play It as it Lays
Label: Sony Music 2007
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It’s difficult, if not impossible, to review a Patti Scialfa record completely on its own merits, i.e. independent of her hubby’s career or influence – so let’s just get it out in the open: the Springsteen home has been bubbling lately with creativity and output. The Boss is set to release the much-anticipated Magic next month, relatively close on the heels of his solo bombshell Devils & Dust and the surprisingly successful Pete Seeger tribute We Shall Overcome just last year. The latter had Scialfa’s sweat all over it, as did the resulting tour. Still, she’s managed to work up ten self-composed originals, rooted deep in soul, gospel, and blues, but done in essentially a classic rock manner. “Like Any Woman Would” exhibits a throwback Motown style complete with Supremes-like backing vocals that eventually erupts into an arms-in-the-air southern gospel hymn. Buddy Guy’s blues are at the forefront on “Town Called Heartbreak” and, as with much of Scialfa’s material, here and past, the most obvious vocal match is that of Bonnie Raitt. It’s a dead ringer in this case. The second half of the album doesn’t hold up nearly as well as the first, though the title track is a nice exercise in country, told in a near female Bob Dylan tone but soulful and right as the rain. Now your old man needs his background singer on the bus, Patti. Chop, chop! ~Red Rocker (09/21/07)

She’s Spanish, I’m American: She’s Spanish, I’m American
Label: Nettwerk/Bedroom Classics 2007
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It might appear as though singer/songwriter Josh Rouse spends every waking moment of his spare time writing songs; he releases new albums and side projects seemingly as often as we all brush our teeth. Rouse’s most recent full-length album, Subtitulo, had all the ingredients his fans have come to know and love – the breezy melodies and airy ‘70s pop flavors – along with the distinct influence of his new surroundings in Spain. Now, he’s back with a side project which finds him collaborating with Spanish artist Paz Suay. It’s a five-song EP that is, in a way, predictable; it’s basically Rouse songs recorded as duets with Paz. She backs him up on three of the songs, while taking lead vocal duties for the other two. But as predictable as it might be, all five tracks are easily as compelling as Rouse’s back catalog. Paz sounds at times like a female version of Rouse, and at times like a Spanish Lisa Loeb -- but either way, her voice is a nice counterpoint; in fact, the Paz-led “Jon Jon” is the catchiest track on this short set. ~Mike Farley (02/15/07)

Shim: In the Veins
Label: self-released 2007
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In the Veins is an apt title for Seattle rock band Shim’s new album. That’s because this music is so raw and full of energy that it may get your blood pumping. It also will get your feet stomping and your musical hunger fed. Shim takes rock back to its roots, with two guitars, bass, drums and the testosterone-driven lead vocals of Ragan Crowe. It’s not quite the grunge of Nirvana or Pearl Jam that defines the band’s hometown, but more like the arena rock of yesterday – think Led Zeppelin meets the Black Crowes with just a sprinkling of Alice in Chains. In the Veins is full of riff-driven rock music that will grow on you like a fungus, and if enough people hear about these guys, the (gray) sky is certainly the limit. The best tracks are the ballsy lead-off, “Satisfied,” and the hooky “Country Music,” the latter which is in fact not country, but all R-O-C-K. ~Mike Farley (02/22/07)

The Simpsons: A Whole Lot More Original Music
from the Television Series

Label: Shout! Factory/Fox Music 2007
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“Simpsons” fans have been crying foul about the show’s diminishing returns for the last ten years or so, but you sure can’t say the same for the work of “Simpsons” composer Alf Clausen, and the latest CD, Testify, is the proof. They still have their share of guest performers (the B-52’s singing “Glove Slap,” Ricky Gervais’ brilliant love song to Marge), but it is the original cast that shines the brightest, especially when they get their show tunes on. The parodies of “Evita,” “The Lion King,” “The Sound of Music” and “My Fair Lady” are all hilarious, but nothing compares to “A Star is Torn,” where Homer makes his wisest observation in the show’s history, when explaining a character’s downfall: “He’s about to learn the most important lesson in the music business: don’t trust people in the music business.” One small question, though: where are the N’Sync songs about joining the Navy and love at the spelling bee? Their omission is glaring, to say the least. ~David Medsker (09/14/07)

Anya Singleton: Not Easy to Forget EP
Label: Hybrid Music 2006
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Not Easy to Forget, a six-song EP follow-up to 2002's Anya Singleton, combines sophistication and beauty rare in today's music scene, as the older generation of great jazz singers passes on and no one steps in to fill the void. Singleton's EP contains five original compositions and the Hoagy Carmichael standard "The Nearness of You," enough to show this Tunisian-born gal can sing, no doubt about it. Guys can't help thinking about one thing in particular when Singleton sings, especially when checking out the CD booklet – the mentality she deftly pegs (and scorns) in the cut "One Trick Pony." We all want to be the one she considers not easy to forget in the title tune, but I digress. If you're into jazzy-bluesy pop backed with a traditional acoustic jazz ensemble that at times isn't afraid to crank out a little gentle rockabilly, you'll enjoy this disc. In fact, if you're into female vocalists who can carry a tune and are tired of the overwrought so-called soul on the radio, or the breathy, half-in-tune pop divas la-la-la'ing their way to the top of the pop charts, Singleton's for you, too. Oh yeah, if you're a big Norah Jones fan, this record's a fastball right down the middle of the plate; buy it without hesitation.
~Mojo Flucke, Ph.D. (12/20/06)

The Smithereens: Meet the Smithereens
Label: Koch 2007
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The Smithereens covering Meet the Beatles in its entirety certainly sounds like a good idea. Pat Dinizio has always worn his love for the Beatles on his sleeve (the band did a fab cover of Ringo’s “It Don’t Come Easy” back in 1991), but no one is going to mistake his singing for that of Paul McCartney or John Lennon, and that is the biggest problem with Meet the Smithereens: The band can play these songs while standing on their heads, of course, but Dinizio’s vocals can’t keep up. The Little Richard-style “whoooooooo!” in “I Saw Her Standing There”? They don’t even attempt it here. In fact, several two-part harmonies are either simplified or not done at all, and there is also the issue of these early-period songs simply lacking the timelessness of the Beatles’ later work. Perhaps Rubber Smithereens would have been a better choice.
~David Medsker (01/25/07)

Takota: The Ivory Tower
Label: Ares Records 2006
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How do you know when an album is off to a bad start?
When the very first line of the very first song cribs the melody from Fall Out Boy’s “Dance, Dance.” On their debut album The Ivory Tower, Takota seems to want to gain acceptance from the punk rock kids, metalcore slamdancers, emo fanboys, and even the hairspray-coated metalheads from the ‘80s. What’s that line about trying to please everyone all of the time? The Ivory Tower was produced by Atreyu’s Brandon Saller, and does it ever show; Takota sounds like a slightly more radio-friendly version of Saller’s hardcore outfit, complete with power ballads like “Diary” and “hey kids isn’t rock and roll totally awesome!” glam-friendly fist-pumping anthems like “Turn Up the Radio,” with the latter sounding like something that Quiet Riot should open with on their next tour. Thankfully, Takota doesn’t attempt the duel singing model that many metalcore-influenced bands seem to be doing nowadays, so there’s no one accompanying Grant Arnow’s fairly decent vocals with indecipherable grunts, groans and moans. Because of this, Takota probably has a decent chance of breaking through to the big time, and at least they seem to be having more fun than many of their contemporaries. But when a band sounds like so many other bands that are currently destroying modern-rock radio, do they really deserve the chance? ~James B. Eldred (01/11/07)

James Taylor: James Taylor at Christmas
Label: Columbia
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