Jan 30, 2006

Recent Release Round-Up:
This is the first in a hopefully ongoing series in which I take a quick look at some of the more recent albums I've checked out lately - especially those that I might not have had a chance to review elsewhere.

Cat Power - The Greatest (Matador)
I have to admit that I've never had a Chan Marshall album completely "click" for me before. Sure I've liked a good handful of her tunes and been easily able to tell why so many people are able to be so rabid about her work, but I'd never fallen head over heels for one of her discs before. After my first listen to her latest I figured that wasn't about to change, it struck me as pretty solid but nothing special. But something kept (and still keeps) drawing me back to the album for another listen. I'm not sure if its the soulful backing provided by the Memphis session dudes down at Ardent Studios or the relative straightforwardness of Chan's lyrics this time around, but from the moment her own ghosts echo the confession of how she "wanted to be the greatest" this disc just will not let me go.
Recommended Tracks: "Lived In Bars", "Where Is My Love", "Love & Communication"

Jenny Lewis with The Watson Twins - Rabbit Fur Coat (Team Love)
If you hadn't been paying much attention to Ms. Lewis over the past several years, you could be forgiven for expecting this album to be a total disaster. Former child star breaks from rising indie rock band to record solo album that is loosely based on her rough childhood and features some gospel singing twin sisters - not exactly the type of stuff to inspire confidence. But those of us lucky enough to have been following Jenny's career with Rilo Kiley (among countless other successful guest appearances) knew that the woman has enough talent and drive to at least have kept it from becoming a total trainwreck. I don't think anybody, however, was expecting this thing to be so damn amazing. Rabbit Fur Coat manages to be nearly everything all at once - uplifting as it breaks your heart and hopeful as it wallows in pain. By the time the album ends you aren't quite sure if Jenny has found what she's been looking for, but you may just realize that you've found something you didn't even know you were missing. Not to mention a cover of the Traveling Wilburys' "Handle With Care" featuring Ben Gibbard, Conor Oberst, and M. Ward that actually manages to trump the original (all while annoying legions of Bright Eyes and Death Cab haters).
Recommended Tracks: "Handle With Care", "Happy", "Born Secular"

Test-Icicles - For Screening Purposes Only (Domino)
Stupid name aside, these guys have been taking a lot of undeserved flak in the past couple of months. Granted, much of this flak stems from the band getting heaps of praise thrown at them by the NME - which you know, happens to nearly every group of boys ever photographed anywhere near a guitar - but for at least breaking the recycled new wave Brit band mold Test-Icicles are deserving of at least a little press. Rather than emulating Gang of Four or Joy Division, these guys have spent more time listening to American hardcore bands. The easiest starting point I can think of is throwing Blood Brothers and Glassjaw into a blender, but I don't think that does justice to the Icicles' willingness to jump on an actual melody or hook from time to time. Granted this is absolutely nothing new, but if the more straightforward nu-Britpop bands like Editors and Arctic Monkeys bore you to tears (which, really, neither of them should) - Test-Icicles just may scream some life back into your eardrums.
Recommended Tracks: "Sharks", "Circle, Square, Triangle", "Boa vs. Python"

Jan 24, 2006

np: "Losing Generation" - Bad Religion

Last April Epitaph Records decided it was time to give a much needed update to the awesome Bad Religion back catalog by remastering and reissuing the band's early albums, which I personally appreciated for the new Suffer alone. However there was one album that somehow didn't make it into this round of remasters. In fact this particular album has been out of print since shortly after its initial pressing and there certainly don't seem to be any plans to rectify this situation any time soon. The album I'm speaking of is the "lost" (read: conveniently forgotten) early Bad Religion effort Into The Unknown, the follow-up to the landmark 1982 debut How Could Hell Be Any Worse. Why is such a pivotal part of Bad Religion's early development virtually unavailable and unknown to even many of their own fans? I'm guessing it has a lot to do with the synths. Rather than push the faster/harder/louder approach to punk rock that many of their Southern California hardcore peers were milking in those years, the band decided to take things in a different direction - into the unknown, if you will. And apparently in Brett Gurewitz and Greg Graffin's world the "unknown" is a place where punk rock not-so-magically collides with the world of synth-heavy corporate rock ala Journey and Van Halen. Sound pretty awful? It is, for the most part anyway. There are a couple of moments when the band actually sounds like they might be trying something new, but for the most part it sounds like they woke up one morning filed in the wrong genre and decided to give it a go anyway. Little surprise that the album was widely trashed and quickly "forgotten" by nearly everyone involved with the band. But don't just take my word for it - click on the link above and listen to "Losing Generation", a fairly representative track, for yourself (that file is a vinyl rip, so don't expect crystal clear sound). One could easily argue in favor of this album by saying that the band couldn't get much more punk rock than pissing off thousands of fans with half-hearted synth-pop, but I think that would be giving them a little too much credit. Now don't get me wrong, I'm a huge fan of the band and they rebounded very well from this mis-step and created some downright essential 80's punk rock, but I don't like it when any bands go to lengths to bury parts of their recorded pasts. Into the Unknown certainly isn't a great album by any means, but there are some worthwhile moments and I think it deserves to be heard by fans and other interested students of 80's punk rock - if only to get a peek at another side of the band or to get a taste of the way the decade could have gone. Hell, maybe a quality remastering job would reveal some new depths and layers to this album and pave the way to a widespread critical re-evaluation of it - but I'm not going to hold my breath on that one.

(Thanks to Strange Reaction for bringing this album back to my attention, without stumbling across that site I may have also forgotten about this one completely. Try here to get more tracks from Into The Unknown.)

Jan 20, 2006

np: "According To Plan" - I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness

A couple years ago a friend of mine hooked me up with a little EP that had been produced by Britt Daniel of Spoon fame and released on the Emperor Jones label. The name of the band, I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness, was awesome enough for the disc to warrant my full attention. The EP itself turned out to be a great discovery, five tracks of post-punk inspired pop that was never short on hooks. After spinning it countless times over the following months, the band kind of fell off my radar and I failed to really give them much attention at all. But as soon as I heard that they were about to (finally) drop the full-length debut on Secretly Canadian, I pulled the disc out and fell for it all over again. From what I've heard so far the new album isn't as hook-driven and immediately catchy as the EP was, but strikes a more consistent and atmospheric tone. It doesn't hit stores until March, in the midst of a quick national tour, but in the meantime click on the link below the awesome cover art above to download a preview track from the label. I'll definitely be posting more about this one when I've had time to properly digest it.

The reviews are slow to come at the start of this year, but my recent review of the pretty bland and unexciting Gabin disc is up at Static.

Jan 16, 2006

np: "Shower Your Love" - Kula Shaker

If you thought the return of Robyn was big news, you ain't heard nothin' yet. It seems that one Mr. Crispian Mills just wasn't making enough impact with his most recent band, The Jeevas, so he's decided to bring his old band off hiatus. That's right, the one and only Kula Shaker is reforming like Voltron to bring you more of that hippie-tinged Britpop that has been missing from your life for the past 6 or 7 years. If you aren't from Britain, you probably remember this band most either through their first U.S. hit, the middle-eastern flavored "Tattva", or through their cover of Deep Purple's "Hush" - included on the soundtrack to I Know What You Did Last Summer. If you still have no idea who I'm speaking of, Cripsian is the son of British actress Hayley Mills (original version of The Parent Trap) whom decided that there just wasn't enough mysticism and psychedelic influence in the Britpop boom of the mid-1990s. They had some decently performing singles in England and a debut album, K, that sold pretty well - but the bloated follow-up, Peasants, Pigs, and Astronauts fared much worse. Between harsh criticisms of the second album and the public's backlash to Crispian's pigheaded media presence, the band imploded and Mills retreated into near total oblivion before coming back several years later with The Jeevas. Details are scarce on what the band has planned, but a new website indicates that something is afoot. It's very unlikely that many people care about the band at this point, but maybe the dismally low expectations will result in a nice surprise when they release some new material. Thanks to my rabid obsession with any U.K. guitar bands back in the second half of the '90s - I was quick to gather as much as I could of bands hyped by the NME or Melody Maker, so I managed to fall for several of their singles. The link below the picture at the start of this entry includes a link to "Shower Your Love", one of my favorite songs the band released.

Jan 10, 2006

np: "Who's That Girl" - Robyn

I'm not sure how many of you remember your female pop singers from 1997, but the name "Robyn" might be floating around in the back of your minds somewhere. If not, let me jog your memories just a bit. Robyn was the blonde Swedish pixie that got quite a bit of exposure on pop radio and MTV nine years ago thanks to her back -to-back Top 10 singles "Do You Know (What It Takes)" and "Show Me Love", both from her debut album Robyn Is Here. After a third single failed to crack the same heights as the first two, she seemed to fade away into relative obscurity - relegated to the memories of pop chart geeks. As it turns out, she never completely went away. She's spent the years since her U.S. chart heyday cranking out several albums worth of decent, if not exactly earth-shattering, Europop. She also decided to strike out on her own by starting her own record label, Konichiwa, which put out her latest self-titled album in the latter part of 2005. Despite having relatively limited distribution, this album has burning up chatrooms and message boards all over the internet mostly due to the highly praised single "Konichiwa Bitches". This is high-energy Europop that fits well in with the recent material put out by Girls Aloud or the Sugababes, but with a little bit more of a twisted edge. Just check out the ego checking smackdowns she lays out on "Handle Me" and "Bum Like You" or the futuristic productions of "Robotboy" and "Crash and Burn Girl". While much of the attention has been focused on the aforementioned "Konichiwa Bitches", this album is a whole lot stronger than that one track. I'm not sure if, or when, this album will ever show up in American record shops, but for now click on the link under the picture and check out the excellent "Who's That Girl".

Jan 9, 2006

np: "Disorder (live @ The Factory 07/13/79)" - Joy Division

I've been immersing myself in plenty of Joy Division over the past couple of weeks, even more so than usual, mostly thanks to my wonderful girlfriend giving me the Heart and Soul box set for Christmas. I'd been drooling over that thing for years now, but for one reason or another I had always managed to talk myself out of dropping the cash for it. It took me about 30 seconds of perusing the amazing packaging and liner notes to see how amazing this set was, to say absolutely nothing of the music within. I'm still plowing my way through all the tracks that I hadn't already heard, but I'm completely enthralled by this band all over again. If you've ever even briefly considered picking up this set, by all means do so immediately - you won't regret it in the least. The only downside of all this great material comes when you realize how tragically short Ian Curtis' recording career was and you start to wonder what direction they would have gone had things turned out just a bit differently. But at least we have this wonderful document to console us.

I've also managed to find some spare time to give the new Strokes album a few spins, and I have to say I'm really liking what I've heard. First Impressions of Earth isn't as concise and hard-hitting as the previous two albums, it runs about 2-3 songs too long, but there really is some wonderful stuff going on throughout. I like Julian's decision to expose his natural vocals a little more, he actually sounds pretty damn good with all of the distortion peeled away. "You Only Live Once", "Ize of the World", "Razorblade", and "Heart In A Cage" are among my early favorites and all as stong as anything else in their catalog. I'm bummed that I missed the special show they played at Park West last week, but I'm really hoping to catch them when they hit Chicago for a full-fledged tour later this spring.

In other news, I've been cranking out a few more reviews over the past couple of weeks. My take on the interesting new Rasputina live album is up over at Static and I should have a several more coming up within the next couple of weeks.