Kristoffer Ragnstam, “Sweet Bills” (Bluhammock Records)
Admirers of Spoon and Sufjan alike may find common ground in this collection of alt-rock-ified sketches of violent genre collisions tabled by an artist with a suspicious amount of consonants in his name. The melting pot is so vast but quirkily accessible here that the easiest comparison that comes to mind is Electric Light Orchestra, doubly so being that Ragnstam’s voice possesses all the chromosomes of Jeff Lynne’s, case in point being the twinkly but punkish “Breakfast By the Mattress” although there isn’t anything here that radio would have kicked out of bed in the 70s. The riffs are only as ambitious as OK Go’s, but the layering is far denser, allowing for danceability as well as out-of-body drivetime experiences. The title track’s got an annoyingly kludgy appearance from an overenthusiastic chick singer, making it the blackest hole of the record, elsewise there’s plenty to like. With all this, conventional wisdom would assume it’s a one-man operation, but turns out Ragnstam enlisted help from members of Division Of Laura Lee and International Noise Conspiracy among others.
Better Left Unsaid, “Robbers & Cowards” (self-released)
Blunt nu-metal/screamo weaponry powered by guitar antics that aim for the rafters, held together by a production ethic that calls for an ironic sparseness despite the lofty harmonies, generic caterwauling and seemingly limitless Dimebag riffology. “Never Again,” the transparent attempt at a single, begins the album with boy-band calls and responses, a bit of nudge-wink false advertising crafted to lure in unwary hicks who somehow haven’t had Black Dahlia Murder and the like shoved down their gullets, because that’s what you get for the balance forward, guitarists Jason Jones and Rob Fernandez toying with some Iron Maiden and Yngwie Malmsteen ideas in between long runs of healthily hormonal histrionics. Bands like this (now numbering in the millions of billions) seriously need a collective vacation from Hit Parader and some zen-time spent with – oh jeez, anything, Turkish folk, Ethiopian tribal rhythms, anything to separate them from the pack. Punchline here is that the lack of overproduction that makes this a fairly collectable EP is guaranteed to be gone twelve seconds after they’re signed, and it’ll just be a better-engineered loaf of Wonder. That’s not to be too cynical, though, kiddies; you’re of course forever free to pray for a polka dotted sky and 10-cent gallons of non-polluting gasoline.
Sophe Lux, “Waking the Mystics” (Zarathustra Records)
I need to learn to stop myself from trusting albums that have bunnies on their covers. Sophe Lux is one of those leisure-class bands, obviously, a bunch of rich kids playing dress-up for the insert, fiddling while art burns, contributing zilch to Generation iPod. Like a Hollywood Squares of MTV, no half-hearted effort to delve into irregular, extinct styles goes wanting. Oh look, there’s Natalie Merchant (“President”). And Jewel ripping off “Building a Mystery” (“Lou Salome”). Keeping in mind that when the prefix “post” is used to describe a sound it means “leagues cruddier than,” “Little Soldier of Time” is a super-post-riot-grrrl non-anthem, but there’s even more (as in “even less”), with the 70s off-Broadway Supertramp ripoff “God Doesn’t Take American Express.” One look at the broad range of instruments listed as used by this 5-piece is a clue-in too – does anyone buy the fact that gongs, lap steels, glockenspiels and “loops” all belong on the same album? Anybody?
Craig Buhler, “Capistrano Sessions” (Discernment Music)
Billed as music for any occasion, Buhler’s jazz quintet is best suited for ballroom or chill. Richard Stekol’s impeccable production wraps these versions of sax player Buhler’s originals in soft focus but with enough detail to point to an overall leitmotif of the artist as casual espresso-gulper and determined melody-addict – were Buhler a guitar god he’d be more representative of the David Gilmour school of purposefulness, his sax stressing vocal-ready lines and deliberately squandering all the room that’s available for soloing (now there’s a nice break). As a reflection on the players, the songs convey sunny dispositions all around, as stated with little in the way of bumblebee workouts to be found, although bassist Joel Hamilton does put on a clinic during roll-out track “Lookear.”
Coldworker, “Contaminated Void” (Relapse Records)
Rousing hamster-wheel metal from one of the genre’s more respected labels. Very few deviations from what Mastodon would sound like if they dropped all lit-snob pretense – okay, not in the Anthrax-ish way they did in the confines of Blood Mountain – and went straight for 4/4 glory. The carefully engineered guitars here gratefully trend away from sounding budget-studio cheap, fitting into every corner of the mix, while the vocals are interchangeable with those heard on Leviathan. The songs are sweaty and busy, lyrics absolutely unintelligible, drums set to puree. It’s a backward step, then, but with the direction the math geeks of the world were taking things it’s a breath of fresh air.
Tack, “Porn” (Tarpit Music)
What do the soundtrackers of such films as Road to Perdition and Saw want to be when they grow up? Apparently Iggy Pop. Tack is one of those generally dreaded project bands, bringing together Colin Edwards (an accomplished bagpiper and the Founder of LA’s Bay of Pigs), soundtrack dudes Rick Cox and Academy Award winner Chas Smith, and Gary Ferguson, whose strange-bedfellow list of performing credits include stand-in stints with Etta James, Billy Bob Thornton and – you sitting? – Liberace. Grimy, fuzzy guitars run a Stooges gauntlet here, concentrating their energies mostly on what might come from Zodiac Mindwarp circa Rock Savage luring Iggy into a grimy, fuzzy studio. Little surprise that the songwriting’s bang-on for the most part, if a little too familiar now and then, vocoder static adding Gravity Kills-like depth to a woozy vibe that’s predominantly like a copy of Hustler magazine come to musical life.
Harlem Shakes, “Burning Birthdays" (self-released)
Between the Pretenders guitars, Hammond organ and Lexy Benaim’s vocals’ unpredictable switch-hitting, the mix gets very busy here, calling out Squeeze one minute and a high-on-life Shins the next, most of the songs ending in blurs of shoegaze. Put more parochially, it’s very New York indie of the here and now, which is only one of the things that earned these guys a tour partnership with Deerhoof beginning in February. Unlike most of their hit-and-run-and-disappear contemporaries who tend to put out records fifteen seconds after luring their first coed onto the dance floor, Harlem Shakes pulled a mini Dave Chappelle, bugging off for a couple of years to get their personal and professional act together, resulting in a great service done to the ears of the scenester swine masses whether they appreciate it or not (actually they will, in all fairness; the blogs couldn’t shut up about this band). Every melody seems to have a point, a rare enough thing nowadays, but the styles boogie all over the indie map without ever getting their legs tangled.
Daníel Ágúst, “Swallowed a Star" (One Little Indian US)
If this was what was seething in Ágúst’s psyche during his singing tenure with GusGus it’s a wonder how the poor thing ever tolerated making listenable music. Hearing this flow of dreary goop it’s as though the Icelandic trip-hop monolith never existed, like Massive Attack replaced by Low armed with sequencers stuck in first gear. One thing that explains all this is his recent day gig composing soundtracks for documentaries (unflinching exposé on the plight of homeless Icelandic meth addicts, anyone?) – actually, strike that; it’s the only explanation one could cull from this. It’s all draggy, mouth-breathing sad-pop, the jazz parts stolen from Spike Lee’s Katrina thing, the rest from super-bummer PBS examinations of innocent sea turtles dying from the effects of badly steered oil tankers. Whatever the point of this is (fifty quatloos says Ágúst is trying to instill within us knuckle-draggers a little, like, deep culture), the arrangements are clever enough, but Rachmaninoff won’t be clawing his way out of the grave to get some.
Clara Hill, “All I Can Provide" (Sonar Kollektiv Records)
The electro-soul underground has a near-unstoppable new player in the person of Berlin, Germany’s Clara Hill, backed up on her second album with some of the more prominent producers in the genre. Her biggest strength is an ability to find silver lining in melancholy, which ends up leaving every song on board colored in chick-flick pastels, much like Macy Gray fronting a less-glum Portishead in a final-draft demo for a soap opera scene where people engage in polite soft-focus hanky-panky after picking out engagement rings. On the whole it’s idyllic without being syrupy, never more so than when King Britt shows up with a stubbornly agreeable house polyrhythm for “Did I Do Wrong,” evoking the after-barbecue ambiance of Miguel Migs remixing someone like G-Pal. Hill’s own “Wake Up” comprises unplugged guitar and dazed, fluffy da-da-das. Her well-controlled but breathy voice may not jolt the world into instant renaissance, but with the depth of the house and chill-pop styles underneath it she’s put herself into a whole different producer-demand bracket. <
Markus Enochson, “Night Games" (Sonar Kollektiv Records)
With his debut original effort, Swedish DJ/remixer Enochson has made off with a hybrid genre that Jamie Lidell had in the palms of his hands, namely house-washed R&B/soul. The recipe is simple, really, requiring only rudimentary house sequences and people willing to sing like James Ingram over it, such as, well, James Ingram, who guests on “Day and Night,” a ditty boasting all the technical bells and whistles of Cabaret Voltaire. Hip-hopper Masayah summons up a nice Four Tops impression over “Keep On Getting By,” Enochson’s electro-chintz aiming higher but still sounding like a loop thrown to the wind by Hall and Oates circa “Maneater,” just when it was getting safe to forget those days. Quite often the retro cheapness threatens to do this record in, despite the yeoman effort of the innumerable cameo singers, leading one to conclude that Enochson was squeamish about alienating the dance-club fabulosi who represent his bread and butter. He easily could have damned the dance-chart torpedoes and gone for the Grammy straight up, but the night’s still young.
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