Sunday, May 27, 2007

A Girl in Trouble
(Is a Temporary Thing)

Man in Gray, I Can't
Sleep Unless I Hear
You Breathing, Serious

Business [6/19/07]

"There's a time when every girl learns to use her head."
-- Deborah Iyall (Romeo Void)

With a name like Man in Gray, I pictured a male lead singer,
but front person duties are actually handled by the decidedly
un-masculine Tina DaCosta. The male members of this Brooklyn quintet provide the occasional backing vocal, but the microphone mostly belongs to DaCosta. I'm reminded of other mixed-gender groups with forceful female vocalists, like the Gossip, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Romeo Void (“A Girl in Trouble”), but Man
in Gray aren't dance-oriented. Their brand of post-punk indie rock is dark, yet driving stuff. DaCosta often yells, but the music
is just as loud, so she never sounds like she's barking out orders.

The Village Voice compares the five-piece to Sonic Youth,
Elliot Smith, the Pixies, and Pavement, while their biography
adds Mission of Burma, Sleater-Kinney, and Minus the Bear.
I can hear most of those acts—a little Blonde Redhead, too—
but none of Smith’s plaintiveness or Pavement's playfulness.
As with many Sonic Youth recordings, there are quiet moments even amidst some of the noisiest numbers. DaCosta's voice also varies from loud and low to gentle and pretty—almost Kim Deal-ish (hence, I suppose, the Pixies reference). Every once in awhile she lets out a series of controlled screams, like on closing track "Your Baby Is Dead."

Despite song titles like "Bad Mood" and the aforementioned
"Baby," there's nothing scary about MiG. Nonetheless, the band could probably compose a swell horror soundtrack, if they were so inclined, since most such movies have their quiet and gentle moments, too (although in Brian DePalma’s Carrie,
to name but one example, most of them turn out to be illusory).

Five years in the making, I Can't Sleep Unless I Hear You Breathing is the first full-length from Man in Gray. It's neither startlingly original nor astoundingly derivative. The 11 tracks don’t sound exactly the same nor do they sound completely different. This is just a good, solid record. Here's hoping the follow-up doesn't take another five years to materialize.

Endnote: For more information (including MP3s), please
see the official Man in Gray website or their MySpace Page.
Images from the latter (Jenny Piston and MPS credited).

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Neither Hot Nor Cold

Auto Interiors, Let's Agree to
Deceive Our Best Friends
, Rykodisc

Now everybody's breakin' up somebody else's home,
before somebody else starts breaking up their own.
-- Elvis Costello, "Sneaky Feelings"

Based on the title of their second album,
I was expecting something with more...edge. Or attitude. Or something.
It brings to mind Elvis Costello's anthem of frustration,
"Sneaky Feelings." In addition, the off-kilter ferris wheel
photos that decorate the disc raised my expectations
(I have a thing about spirals, mandalas, etc.).

This Boston quartet's approach to alt-rock/power pop isn't bad, but I don't hear much—or enough, at any rate—that sets them apart from the pack. Sometimes they sound shoegaze, sometimes mod—it's partly due to Eric Waxwood's Paul Weller-meets-Costello voice—but that just makes me want to listen to the Jam. Or Blur. Or Ted Leo & the Pharmacists. Maybe even the Kaiser Chiefs.

The press notes claim they once worshipped at the My Bloody Valentine altar. Now they've moved onto the Kinks. Guitarist Larry Mansdorf quips that they play "record collector rock." The notes add that their collections include T-Rex, Big Star, the Small Faces, the Brian Jonestown Massacre, the New Pornographers, and Sloan. I'll buy that. This tasteful foursome isn't imitating
any of those acts, but they're in the same basic ballpark.

Whenever a group is competent in all regards—singing, playing, writing, etc.—I feel I should give them an automatic thumbs-up, but if they don't do anything for me, that doesn't seem completely honest. I neither hate nor love Let's Agree to Deceive Our Best Friends. I'm lukewarm about it. Of course, the Good Book (Revelation 3:16) has that great line, "So because thou art lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spew thee out of
my mouth." I wouldn't go that far in the case of Auto Interiors,
but a little more "heat" would surely do them good.

Endnote: Images from the Auto Interiors MySpace Page and the AMG (the Jam). For the record, I am not, have never been, and never will be a Christian...but I can't deny the power of certain Biblical passages. Incidentally, I once tried to read The New Testament in Spanish, but had to give up. It's an interesting way to brush up on a language—and an important text (regardless as to your personal beliefs)—but alas, I do not have the patience of Job.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Six for the Road

Various Artists,
CrystalTop Music Presents,
CrystalTop Music

I'd never heard of CrystalTop Music or any of the artists on this compilation, but the entire package comes as a nice surprise. Most of the acts assay some form of electronica or jazz-oriented pop, which means plenty of stand-up bass and Fender Rhodes. I can imagine their music playing in small bistros and funky boutiques—and I don't mean that as a putdown. (I do, after all, like to eat, shop...and listen to music.)

Though the names may be new to me, several have notable collaborations in
their past. Trumpeter Dion Tucker of Oddlogik, for instance, has worked with Mos Def and Rhodes scholar Herbie Hancock, while Martín Perna of Ocote Soul Sounds founded Antibalas and is described as a "frequent collaborator with TV on the Radio."

As a bonus, the well designed gatefold incorporates the band names in multiple typefaces. It reminds
me of Bruce Licher's letterpress work (the Savage Republic co-founder has also provided art for Camper Van Beethoven and REM). Recommended to fans of Low, Feist, and the Eels.

Boys Like Girls, Boys Like Girls, Columbia

I can only assume I received this CD because I've reviewed a lot
of teenybopper fare lately, like Gym Class Heroes and Hellogoodbye (who show up in this Boston's band's list of thanks).

This quartet probably puts on a fun show, but their debut is the usual over-produced major label version of punk-pop. No doubt many of these groups grew up with Green Day, but few have as much to say, and by the time they emerge from the corporate wringer, they all sound alike. Boys Like Girls are no exception.

The Ghost Is Dancing, The Darkest Spark,
Sonic Unyon Recordings [6/19/07]

Just as I know I'm gonna dislike some records within the first few seconds, I take to others straight away. Then there are those I need to listen to a few times to determine what I think. The Darkest Spark doesn't fall into that category. I liked it immediately.

The press notes sum up the appeal succinctly, i.e. "trumpets collide with theremin and hundred-year old pump organs mingle with toys and bells..." On their first full-length, this Toronto collective comes on like a cross between the Polyphonic Spree
and Arcade Fire, but more earthy and less, um, self-important.

The Hanslick Rebellion, The Deli of Life, Eschatone Records

Musically, this New York four-piece occupies the middle
ground between classic rock and alternative. Lyrically, their
EP occupies the middle ground between punk and hard rock.

In "Pop," they lament, "You sold me out." In "You Are Boring the Shit Out of Me," they exclaim, "Jesus fucking Christ / fuck off." The Hanslick Rebellion may be angry, but they aren't punk. (Though anger has come to be seen
as the exclusive province of punk, it's always been just as symptomatic of strange bedfellows folk and metal.)

Sometimes they sound pub-glammy, like Mott the Hoople [above], sometimes pop-metallic, like Alice in Chains. I like Mott, I don't like Alice, and I feel the same about The Deli of Life: mixed.

Silver Daggers, New High & Ord, Load Records

Like their name, Los Angeles quintet Silver Daggers aim to assault...your eardrums. The shouting and bashing is fine for what it is, but it's the odd little post-punk touches that make New High & Ord work: the frequent blasts of brass, odd tempo changes, and moments of unexpected calm amidst the chaos.

Personally, I like more structure to my noise, but fans of saxophone player Jenna Thornhill's Mika Miko should give
this disc a listen. Featuring frenetic artwork by Gary Panter
(Pee-Wee's Playhouse), who has also designed album covers
for Yo La Tengo and first-wave LA punks the Screamers.

Adam Zwig, Cast Iron Letters, Conscious Records

On this third effort, this Dylan acolyte serves up folk-rock with country trimmings. Cast Iron Letters isn't without merit, but my tolerance for po-faced folk is pretty low. (My tolerance for fanciful folk, like Lavender Diamond, on the other hand, is pretty high.)

Like his forebears, the Portland singer/songwriter has a limited range, which works fine on songs like opening track "Castaways," but less so on protest numbers like "Who Killed Michael Vaughn," where he strains the entire time (ouch). Also, he uses Zimmy's famous phrase "Masters of War" not once—but twice.

Endnote: Images from CrystalTop Music, Sonic Unyon Recordings, Load Records, Psycho Daisies, and Creative Refuge (SavRep art). Incidentally, Silver Daggers take their moniker
from the folk song of the same name. And a heartfelt thanks to labels who make hi-res images available—everybody wins!

Sunday, May 06, 2007

N'exist pas

No Second Troy, Narcotic, self-released [5/8/07]

I knew I was in trouble right from the start. The press kit compares this DC combo to Coldplay, Snow Patrol, Aqualung, U2, the Fray, and Death Cab
for Cutie. I have a soft spot for U2, but I'm no fan of the rest of these bands (and those who sound like U2 usually suck).

After listening to Narcotic, I'm no fan of No Second Troy either. The quintet serves as a reminder that not all independent recording artists play "indie rock"—whether you see that as a good thing or not. Either way, the opposite is worse: corporate rock.

For many artists, independent labels are just a stepping stone to bigger things. NST's second sounds like a major label recording. The band would probably take that as a compliment. It isn't.

Though it's unlikely they spent millions on the production, it sounds like they did (and on "Brighten Up", they do boast, "We've got money to burn"). They know how to play, they know how to write, and Jeff Wharen has a radio-ready voice. Every song is crying out for commercial radio airplay.

Further, NST may well have put their hearts into this thing. I have no idea. They remind me of a million other bands, but unless they hit it big—which is clearly their goal—I'll forget all about them in the days to come. Listening to this album wasn't painful, but it left no impression, had no effect. It's as if it never even existed.

Endnote: U2 image from the archives, NST image from their official website. You can also visit them at their MySpace Page.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Maggie May

These are the reviews
and other assignments
I'm working on this month.

Amazon CDs:
Test Your Reflex - The Burning Hour.

Amazon DVDs: Big - The Director's Cut [special features] (Penny Marshall directs Tom Hanks), The Chocolate War (Keith Gordon's directorial debut), 638 Ways to Kill Castro, Driving Lessons
(Brit eccentricity with Rupert "Ron Weasley" Grint), Maxed Out
(debt doc), Vengeance Is Mine (Shohei Imamura crime drama!),
On the Riviera
(Walter Lang directs Danny Kaye), A Wedding
(Robert Altman alert!), Making Love (with Harry "Hot Lips" Ham-
lin), and Kitchen Confidential - The Complete Series [two-disc
set] (It's official: I'm a Darren Star expert; I've also reviewed
Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, and Grosse Pointe).

Amazon Theatricals: Once (Before Sunrise as an Irish music-
al), Avenue Montaigne (Altmanesque ensemble effort), Golden
(Charlotte Gainsbourg alert!), The Ex (office comedy with
Zach Braff & Jason Bateman), Waitress (Adrienne Shelley directs
Keri Russell), Rocket Science (narrative debut from the direc-
tor of Spellbound), and Paris, Je T'aime (shorts anthology).

The Stranger: I contributed to this year's SIFF Notes. Tit-
les include Eternal Summer, Grave Decisions, Life on the Ed-
, My Friend & His Wife, Running on Empty, Frozen City, Off-
, Paprika, The Bet Collector, Gypsy Caravan, and Amer-
ican Shopper
. Posts for Slog include a gush about Romain Dur-
, a preview of a punk duo, Nina Simone as soundtrack signi-
, a look at walkouts, and a celebration of faces.

Endnote: Image from the AMG (Leon Lecash credited). "Maggie
May," one of my least favorites from Rod the Mod, appears on the
otherwise excellent Every Picture Tells a Story. Incidentally, I
don't think the tune's a loser. It's just that, with rare exceptions,
I hate story songs. (I prefer the rollicking title track and boozy
sing-a-long "Reason to Believe.") Exceptions: Lou's "Take a Walk
on the Wild Side" and the Kinks' "Lola," after which I named my
tiny cat. Seriously, she may be small in stature, but Lola has all
the attitude of Ray Davies' hero/heroine (coincidentally, I'm
currently listening to the Gun Club's "She's Like Heroin to
Me," but that is, I suppose, a story for another day...).