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album review — Built to Spill - Ancient Melodies of the Future

We've all got an item or two of comfort clothing stuffed in a drawer or hanging in the closet. Maybe it's a comfy old sweater or a T-shirt that's been washed so many times it feels like it's a second skin. Slip it on, and the world is instantly a better place. Built to Spill's music is like that ĄZ warm and voluminous and easy to drown right into, and their latest offering is no exception. Ancient Melodies of the Future offers no major departures from the charming, poignant lyricism and dense loopy swirl of off-time tempos of their last two studio albums. There's a perhaps a greater emphasis on keyboard tones, rather than the axe-god supremacy that for a time threatened to topple the band into arena rock land, but the sense is mainly of a band that's furthering their exploration, rather than pushing new boundaries. And as this album proves, there's really nothing wrong with that. You don't always want new music from your favorite bandĄZsometimes you just want more, and from the very first listen, this record fits like a glove.

(originally published at FHMus.com)

album review — Air - 10,000Hz Legend

The French are a conflicted and complex people. On one hand, they'd like the rest of us to believe that it's all Marcel Proust, Gauloises and chic sophistication 24 hours du jour. Then again, they're also the folks responsible for a Serge Gainsbourg poo-fetish album and the enduring popularity of one Monsieur Jerry Lewis. Air's 10,000Hz Legend is an occasionally brilliant musical synthesis of this goofball/slick cultural split.

Seemingly born out of a steady childhood diet of Supertramp, Pink Floyd, Saturday morning cartoons and supervision by a robot babysitter, the album balances clever and often hilarious audio baubles against a chilly, ethereal electro-sound wall. Sometimes this works ĄZ elements like a flat, Mac-generated voice professing sentiments of care and longing on top of a fromage-laden Wings-esque chorus ("How Does It Make You Feel") or a stone-cold flute riff and harp flutter played against a low electro-throb ("Radian") are fresh and unexpected. Unfortunately, while much of the music is artfully layered, this is tempered by a few too many sore-thumb indulgences (most notably Beck's dreadful vocal contribution) and deadening electro-buzz spots for the record to cohere quite as well and warmly as their previous efforts.

Of course, one of the most crucial tests of any record is figuring out where and when it best fits into your life. Save this one for the night you get blotto on leftover party champagne and finally decide to tell your vacuum cleaner you have a crush on it. This stuff works like Barry White on household appliances.

(originally published at FHMus.com)

album review — The Carter Family - Can the Circle Be Unbroken

Recently, the FHMUS.com editorial department received a promo kit from a one-hit-wonder performer who shall remain nameless. The highlight of said package was a boast from the "artist" that he'd been making music since 1996, and "how many people can say that?" Ahem. Now, if you're the sort of person who is genuinely impressed by a track record like that, you might just be happier standing over in the corner adjusting your navel piercing while I talk to the grownup folks about how much The Carter Family kicks ass.

With the recent resurgence of interest in American roots and early country music (due largely in part to the success of the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack and Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music), it's about damn time they got their due. While their stripped down, intricately picked and sharply harmonized style stands starkly in contrast to the slick and overproduced pop of today, the sound of The Carter Family wasn't completely in synch with the popular orchestrations of the Depression era either. With their unique emphasis of vocals within a string band structure, Alvin Pleasant Carter, his wife Sara and her cousin Maybelle carved a unique niche for themselves in a musical territory previously inhabited by arrangements that were predominantly instrumental. Over the course of their 14-year career (1927-1943), which saw the divorce of Alvin and Sarah and the recording of over 250 songs, including defining renditions of popular gospel and folk standards as well as original compositions, The Carter Family planted many of the seeds for modern country music.

Make sure to treat yourself to a listen of the band's surprisingly forward-thinking "Single Girl, Married Girl." It's a sure-fire antidote to any boy-band poisoning you may have incurred today.

(originally published at FHMus.com)

album review — Beat Happening - Black Candy

Beat Happening should never have learned how to play their instruments. That's not to say that post-Black Candy releases aren't sublime and off-kilter pop confections in their own right. It's just that on this particular collection of songs, the awkward, knock-kneed instrumentation is the perfect accompaniment to lyrics about youth on the verge of coltish rebellion. The record lurches and howls, like a gawky, hormone-crazed teenager. Vocals jolt back and forth between Heather Lewis' charmingly askew romantic kid warbles and front man Calvin Johnson's trademark ocean deep baritone, and pounce within mere notes between handholding innocence to hard-core nookie in the backyard tree house. It's feral, sweet, raw music, and pretty damned scary upon first listen.

Johnson has never been one to worry about comforting the masses, founding his seminal indie label K-Records in the early 1980s specifically to prevent bands from having to pander to record company restrictions. Working in collaboration with artists like Beck, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Built to Spill, he's revealed a knack for assisting artists to screw the conventions and unleash their inner rock animal. He's at his own untamed best, however, with the pared down Beat Happening. The trioĄZ(now nearly on their 20th year together, albeit many of those years spent in a non-recording "hiatus") made Black Candy an album stripped to its most primal components. With drummer Bret Lunsford providing the raggedy backbeat and Lewis and Johnson swapping offkey lead singer and sloppy guitar duties, it's an aural exercise in barely-contained mania and the pure bliss of youth. While subsequent Beat Happening records provide their own more musically tutored joys, Black Candy is the one that stands as a snapshot of that spirit that sparked a DIY revolution.

(originally published at FHMus.com)

album review — Built to Spill - There's Nothing Wrong With Love

If you've ever wondered (and really, who hasn't?) if a record can simultaneously give you the warm fuzzies and rock your balls off, There's Nothing Wrong With Love answers that question with a definitive "HELL YEAH, my little bunny pants!" While latter-day Built to Spill occasionally veers uncomfortably close to jam band territory or arena-rock guitar wanks, this 1994 album is firmly entrenched in the sphere of pop and unflinchingly addresses a subject not often sung about by many artists todayĄZboring everyday life. Cradled in Built to Spill's trademark sonic swirl and turn-on-a-dime tempo changes, front man Doug Martsch's playful coming-of-age stories of stoned friends, masturbation and adolescent squabbles with Stepdad take on a goofy, poignant glow. While you might find yourself confused as to whether you ought to be shedding a tear or laughing your ass off, there's no danger of finding yourself at a loss for Rock. While Doug Martsch is certainly a master of non-cloying lyrical nostalgia, he's also an axe-wielding rock-ĄZn-roll god. For optimal listening pleasure, call your old best friend and knock back a couple of beers in the high school parking lot. You might find you still have a few things to talk about.

(originally published at FHMus.com)

album review — The Flatlanders - More a Legend Than a Band

It a crying shame to consider that if only the right people had paid attention to The Flatlanders back in 1972, they'd be country music royalty, and we'd have been spared the likes of Billy Ray and Garth. Sadly though, most of country music's influential ears were trained on the overproduced sounds of the Nashville mainstream, rather than this odd passel of Lubbock, Texas unknowns. And besides ĄZ they sounded kinda funny. A strange, eerily harmonic and absurdly lovely mixture of traditional acoustic folk instruments like fiddles, autoharp and musical saw set against modern, Zen cowboy lyrics, The Flatlander's music perpetually sits just a little bit outside of time. It didn't stand a ghost of a chance in the early 70's when Tammy Wynette ruled the country charts. The band ĄZ Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch HancockĄZopted to go their separate ways after releasing just one single, "Dallas, and recording an album which didn't see the light of day until success in their individual careers spurred enough public interest to garner a Flatlanders reunion show in the early 1990's.

More a Legend Than a Band stands as a country music road not taken, and it's curious to think what would have happened if The Flatlanders had caught on, rather than the aural sequins that have characterized popular country music for the past few decades. Would young up-and comers attempt to emulate Gilmore's heartbreaking high reedy vocals or boarding buses to Nashville armed with nothing but a musical saw and a dream? We'll never know, but if nothing else perhaps we can at least credit for being some of the godfathers of today's alt-country movement.

(originally published at FHMus.com)

album review — Johnny Cash - Love, God, Murder

If you don't mind me saying so, it sure looks like you could use a friend. What's on your mind, son? You shot a man in Reno just to watch him die? Perhaps you're in search of a little Sunday morning redemption or no, waitĄZyou've gone and fallen into love's fiery ring, now haven't you? Well, pull up a stool and set a spell. 'Cause no matter what's troubling you, Johnny Cash has lived it, learned from it, and he done wrote a song about it. Since first signing with Sun Records in 1955, Cash has remained a fierce, influential force in country music, and this three-disc collection goes a long way toward explaining just why that is. Love, God, Murder takes an interesting tack. Each 16-song disc allows for a wide variety of ruminations on a single subject and Cash's range is masterful. Sliding cozily from ballad to rockabilly to folk, his trademark barrel-chested bass and boom-chick-boom-chick backbeat wrap knowingly around the fire and sorrow of Love, desperation and peace of God and passion and penitence of Murder. Music like this comes from a life of hard won lessons, and we're damned lucky that The Man in Black has chosen to share them with us. Stick that in your terbaccy pouch and chaw it, Garth. Also worth the price of admission is an essay on the "Love" disc by wife June Carter Cash about the pain and ecstasy of her decades-long relationship with Johnny. Even the most hardened inmate at Folsom Prison would be hard pressed to keep from shedding a tear or two.

(originally published at FHMus.com)

album review — The Vaselines - The Way of the Vaselines: A Complete History

Wasn't Nirvana great? With songs like "Molly's Lips" and "Son of a Gun", Kurt Cobain & Co. deftly and sweetly created a bouncy, charming, childlike counterpoint to the battery acid nihilism of ditties like "Rape Me" and "Lithium". Pretty amazing that such a wide emotional and stylistic swath could be cut by the penstrokes of just one band, huh? Actually, as any indie kid worth his dorky bowl cut would be more than happy to tell you, Cobain didn't write them all, but he sure could pick 'em. Nirvana recorded no fewer than three covers of songs by the then defunct Scottish band The Vaselines, thus granting them a post-mortem reprieve from the depths of indie obscurity, as well as the 1992 Sub Pop anthology of all their recordings. The Vaselines managed in their short 80's-era career to create a delightful body of sloppy pop-punk, characterized by a uniquely Scottish knack for being simultaneously kiddy-cute and ineffably obscene. While not every cut from the 19 song collection is pure pop genius, the standouts are so appealing that you might even catch yer old mum humming "Monsterpussy" or "Rory Rides me Raw" as she putters around the house.

(originally published at FHMus.com)

album review — Groove - Soundtrack

Ready to get down, you funky party weasel? Even if you're the kind of guy who couldn't find your groove thing with both hands and a flashlight, this 14-song soundtrack will have you busting moves seldom seen outside the MTV Beach House. In a continuous mix by WishFM (a.k.a. Wade Randolph Hampton, the film's music supervisor), the tracks slide seamlessly between trance, techno, and drum-and-bass, with minimal downtime and a maximum of sheer boogie bliss. The album's liner notes bill Groove as "the ultimate time capsule of underground dance music," but does this matter to you? Nah. All you need to do is round up your peeps, clear out some dance space, and trash that tired old mix tape you've been hauling around since college. Your guests will thank you.

(originally published at Maxim)

album review — The Cure - Bloodflowers

Depressing teenagers generally proves to be about as challenging as convincing Robert Downey Jr. to have just one more for the road. Creating over 20 years' worth of continually fresh and increasingly elegant ways of saying "Love dies, and gosh, I'm really sad about it"ĄZnow that takes effort. Since 1979, the Cure has provided the soundtrack to dimly lit dorm rooms and suburban basements around the world.

However, with the release of their 13th studio album, Robert Smith and Co. have finally made a record that people well past their prime brooding years can listen to in their cubicles without fielding co-workers' gentle queries as to whether they've taken their Prozac yet that day. Not to say that the band has forsaken their dank and seratonin-challenged roots. "Bloodflowers" navigates the same dark waters as 1982's stunningly bleak "Pornography" and the frostbitten 1989 epic "Disintegration," but seems to have set its course toward somewhat warmer shoresĄZmore likely to conjure emotion from a conversational lyric and a dizzy piano riff than the easy chill of a ragged howl and a tide of icy synth.

The Cure's best efforts in this vein have been intoxicating mixes of simple, blissful vocals and starkly plucked melodies on top of layers of cloudy atmosphere, and the opening track is one of their most successful such syntheses. The crashingly gorgeous "Out of This World" tickles giddy piano scales and a gentle, lyrical lament against a lope of blurred guitars, providing some of the most sublime musical moments in the band's two-decade history. While the rest of the album takes a slight turn for the sonically murkier, it is (with one or two exceptions) quite frankly less embarrassingly depressing than previous efforts. Gone are the ghosts, gray cats and bleak metaphors of past work, in favor of lyrics rooted much more firmly in the everyday exchange.

The Cure have remained seemingly impervious to more than 20 years' worth of fad and fashion. Resolutely pale-faced and fright-wigged, they seem to live in a sphere somehow exempt from the pressures of commercial successes, recording marathon lost love paeans that will probably never see airplay outside college radio. Still, "Bloodflowers" will no doubt draw the usual loyal and cultish following and perhaps even attract a few new fansĄZwho will listen to them with the lights on.

(originally published at Citysearch)

album review — Trembling Blue Stars - Broken By Whispers

About a year ago, my boyfriend hosted a party. As the number of guests dwindled, the conversation turned, as it often does in the small, gin-soaked hours, to the topic of loveĄZor more precisely, the crushing loss thereof. At this point, a cheerless man I'd spotted skulking near the canapes sprang to life and, with a zeal than can be mustered only by the recently scorned, moaned eloquently, passionately, almost endlessly about the raw wounds on his heart. We eventually bundled him into a cab, I asked a mutual friend how many weeks it had been since the tragic event. "About three years," he replied. "He just really likes talking about it. It's just kind of his thing."

"Broken by Whispers" is pretty much the musical equivalentĄZthe outpouring of a man for whom the passion and details of grief have now superceded the actual relationship. As "Back to You" plainly states, "Though we've been apart/Longer than we were together/I'm still all adrift/Something still hasn't mended." This is not to say that the album isn't truly lovely and its primarily guitar-driven sound is a welcome turn from the noodling synth whirlpool of TBS' previous effort, "Lips That Taste of Tears." Lonely, tragically pretty and gently obsessive, it's the perfect accompaniment to some 3am staring at the ceiling, still habitually huddled over on your side of the bed in denial of the fact that you're not sharing it with anyone anymore. That's when it's so very comforting to know that you're not really alone. Trembling Blue Stars Robert Wratten is out there somewhereĄZand he's sadder than you.

(originally published at Citysearch)

album review — Creatures - Anima Animus

We've all got skeletons in our closets. It's just that some of us, much to the chagrin of our parents, painted them on the backs of our now-moldering leather jackets. But, seemingly not everyone has taken their capes and velvet corsets out of daily rotation quite yet. Yes, proving once again that old goths don't die (they just dress that way), the Creatures have joined the recent resurgence of pale and pasty aging goth stars refusing to go gently into that eternal goodnight. Thus, they have proffered forth "Anima Animus," their third full-length project since the release of their first single, "Wild Things," in 1981.

Reigning First Couple of Goth, Siouxsie Sioux and her husband, ex-Slits drummer Budgie, have long been making the world safe for angst-ridden teens in black-painted bedrooms everywhere. As members of the legendary Siouxsie and the Banshees, the duo (along with co-founder Steve Severin and a fluctuating cast of supporting musicians) released 15 albums and nearly twice that many singles. Naturally, with that volume of output, not every iota can be completely fraught with genius, but the Banshees created some works of truly dark and innovative brilliance, while never losing sight of the pop sensibility which garnered them their only U.S. Top 40 single, 1991's "Kiss Them for Me." Previous outings as the Creatures revisited this successful formula, amplified and enriched with the occasional warm overtones of steel drums and marimbas and the inclusion of a more playful and infinitely less dire lyricism (i.e., fewer mentions of decaying flesh, worms, drowning, etc.).

Unfortunately, precious little of this is evidenced in "Anima Animus." Couplets like "Hordes of locusts blot out your sun/Raining downĄZrain on everyone," and lyrical gems such as "Oh the pain of joy/Oh the joy of pain," atop uninspired electronica buzzes and drones may serve as a tasty chunk of black candy for baby goths who haven't done their homework. Most likely, though, it will just send any fan over the age of 18 or so moping back to her record collection to fondle her copy of "Nocturne" or "Boomerang," and sigh wistfully for the days of yore. There is, sadly, little to recommend this album, other than Budgie's uniquely expansive and layered percussion and the occasional trademark Siouxsie-on-Siouxsie one-woman choir stylings. Rather, cringe-inducing, cliched, and gracelessly morbid lyrics and now-formulaic backing music combine to give good reason to save your pennies and focus your attention on acquiring all that back catalog you'd been meaning to anyway.

But fear not, children of the nightĄZso long as there are depressed suburban teens sporting ankhs and Christian Death T-shirts, and Anne Rice novels remain high on the Times' bestseller lists, Siouxsie and Budgie will be there for you. Maybe next time they'll get it right: Light one of your candles and make a wish.

(originally published at Citysearch)

album review — Built to Spill - Keep It Like a Secret

Crowning Built to Spill "the Best Band to Ever Come out of Boise" may seem tantamount to bestowing honors for serving the best egg cream in Fargo, but BtS founder Doug Martsch would no doubt take great pride in this distinction. Since the 1993 release of "Ultimate Alternative Wavers," the former Treepeople frontman has remained steadfastly rooted in his native Idaho, crafting some of the most uniquely structured and lyrically resonant rock music of the decade.

Working with an oft-mutable rhythm lineup for Built to Spill's first three albums, Martsch has managed to keep the band in a state of graceful metamorphosis. The sprawling, overtly virtuous and occasionally indulgent guitar wanks of "Wavers" gave way to the bite-sized, utterly charming pop gems of 1994's "There's Nothing Wrong with Love" and the achingly elegant psychedelia of 1997's "Perfect from Now On," which has culminated in BtS' newest and most cohesive album, "Keep It Like a Secret." Playing for the first time with a fixed rosterĄZincluding former Spinanes drummer Scott Plouf and previous BtS collaborator, bassist Brett NelsonĄZMartsch has culled elements from all phases of this progression. The nasal vocals swirl in the band's trademark time signature shifts, on top of a dense foundation of guitar-churned fuzz, gently reverent lyrical references to several decades worth of AOR staple gods, frequent high-minded eschewing of traditional pop song structures, and an introspective yet optimistic take on everyday desire. It is in this meld of dissonant grace, humanity, and technical brilliance that the joy of "Keep It Like a Secret" is found. While ultimately eminently accessible, Martsch never goes for the obvious solution. The bouncing and intermittently staccato "Center of the Universe" leads into the sublimely looping "Carry the Zero," itself threatening momentarily to dissolve into a velvet crash of guitars, but then sturdily borne up in the driving resolve of "Sidewalk"ĄZwhich abruptly wilts into silence during the closing seconds of the song. Built to Spill seems to have by this point mastered the musical non-sequitur, constructing both songs and albums which are structurally diverse and challenging, but in the end deeply cohesive. Perhaps in counterpoint to the sophisticated randomness of the music, Built to Spill's lyrics tend to be grounded solidly in the quotidian. Snippets of conversation, subjective and often poignant chronicles of simple events, and repetitions of words and phrases create another point of access into the music, lending an untold amount of humanity to music which might otherwise seem a bit daunting at first.

Built to Spill has crafted a gorgeous, endearing iconoclast of an album. Now all that remains is the question: If you record an album in the middle of Idaho, will there be anyone around to hear it?

(originally published at Citysearch)

concert review — The Divine Comedy

If Neil Hannon becomes any more laconic during his live sets, he'll run the risk of actually nodding off on stage. Not that this langorous delivery is necessarily a bad thing at all-quite the opposite, in fact. The Divine Comedy have created a delicious wink and a cocktail sip of a stage act; a martini dream wherein a man with a smidge of style and a shelf of the right reading material can magically transform himself into a dashing Casanova. A enticing confection, to be sure, but one which had slightly soured as of late. The crowds still whistled along on cue with "Frog Princess", packed the clubs and gladly shared their cigarettes with Neil Hannon, desperately in need of an onstage drag, but lately, more often than not, the intelligent and charismatic songwriting had been swallowed up by overly acidic showmanship. Sweet and occasionally songs dissolved in cynical delivery and biting banter. Certainly cerebrally appealing, but somehow slightly soulless and only coldly charming.

This is perhaps why the Divine Comedy's April 18th show at Fez in New York City came a such a delicious surprise. With this engaging and captivating set, frontman Neil Hannon and pianist Joby Talbot seemed to have renewed their faith in the honest appeal of their songs. Stripped of their usual bitterly witty delivery and cynical banter, playing to a capacity crowd which included such music luminaries such as Setanta labelmates and dino-rocker Robert Plant, the Divine Comedy gave a refreshingly energetic and genuine performance. Songs ranging back to earlier albums such as "Liberation" and "Casanova" all the way up to their current release "A Short Album About Love" seemed to be transformed from cynical and clever ditties into melodic and tender gems.

It takes a uniquely gifted performer to deliver a line like "If you were a horse, I'd clean the crap out of your stable and never once complain" and not completely drench it in sarcasm. During Friday's show, Hannon was able to meld his intelligent and witty literacy with a touching vulnerability and absolutely mezmerize the audience.

Perhaps the most stunning moment came with Neil Hannon's rendition of a Stephin Merritt penned 6ths song which had been handed to him merely hours before the show. Merritt, the Magnetic Fields frontman, posesses a rare genius for crafting songs which emphasize other singers' strengths, and this one perfectly suited Hannon's brand of witty intellect tempered with gentle sentimentality. Without adequate rehearsal opportunity to sheath the song in a slick veneer, Hannon cameforth with a shyly charming and slightly trepidatious acapella rendition of this dour, sensitive song and with this flash of the more human Hannon, rather than the elegantly inaccessible creature he's devised, the audience was left breathless.

(originally published at Spin)

concert review — Spice Girls

Spice Haiku
Spice Girls are four now—
loss mourned mostly by Emma.
Has largest thighs now.

Pardon me for just one moment while I gloat, but...I saw the Spice Girls and you didn't!!! That is, of course, unless you were one of the Lilliputian throng of 9-year-old girls who packed Madison Square Garden to capacity last Wednesday, armed with nth-octave vocal cords and cash-slinging parents in tow. Ah, to be 9 again and have Mom and Dad fronting the dollars for your ticket to a full-on capital "C" Concert, not to mention the soon-to-be "vintage" Official Spiceworld Tour Program replete with Geri pix (friendship never ends, but contracts are apparently negotiable) as well as one of the hundreds of bootleg T-shirts with Geri's face X-ed out being hawked for blocks around. But, just in case you have not been frequenting Backstreet Boys and Hanson shows as of late, I must tell you that there is something incredibly refreshing about attending a concert largely populated by the pre-pubescent set. For one, you can actually SEE the show, but even more appealing is the utter lack of hipster posturing. One can shake one's 20- or 30-something booty about with wild abandon and pop rapture, and on that night, there was naught in the world but Spice to think about.

While I'm still bereft over the departure of my thick-thighed idol, Ginger, snaps are certainly due in the direction of Mel C. and the Mighty Three. The trimmed-down quartet of pop tarts sparkled their way through two electrifying sets of Spice standbys including: "Spice Up Your Life," "2 Become 1," and the ubiquitous "Wannabe" as well as a few quite deftly executed cover songs. Baby Emma was permitted to show that she indeed hadn't spent all of her singing lesson money at the sweet shop and delivered a not-overly-cloying solo rendition of "Where Did Our Love Go," whilst Mels C. and B. roused the crowd to a piercing din with their lusty arm-pumping version of "Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves" (the audience's enthusiam perhaps bolstered by Sporty's donning of a Knicks jersey). Miss Posh was encouraged to display her particular talents as well: it appeared that must be a clause in her contract which obligates her to wear the miniature and skirted edition of whatever outfit the other ladies happened to be sporting at the time. And--at an average--of one costume change per two songs, she was given plenty of opportunity. Our Geri may not have been there in buxom body, but she was remembered by her former bandmates in the touching inclusion of her name in the self-referential "Lady Is a Vamp" and her childhood photograph in the video montage for sugary "Mama," the closing number of the pre-encore set. Sexy Spice, I shall miss ye, but Sporty backflipped her way into my heart and pulled Scary, Baby, and Posh along with her. And I certainly cannot forget to mention the unveiling of the newest addition to the Spice rack. One Mr. William Shatner was credited as "Admiral Spice" on the MSG Jumbotron in the closing moments of the show, most likely for his voiceover intonations of "Spice: the final frontier" and "Where no woman has gone before." Strange new (Spice) worlds indeed...

(originally published at Citysearch)

album review — Marine Research - Sounds from the Gulf Stream & The Frank and Walters - Beauty Becomes More Than Life

Just as it seems as if the entire genre of indiepop music is poised and ready to drown a sickly death in a cloying sea of twee, along come scene veterans Marine Research and the Frank and Walters to toss out a life preserver. Now, for those of you who: a) don't spend at least 1/3 of your disposable income and an even greater percentage of your free time on your knees pawing through dusty bins in search of that elusive Boy Hairdressers 12", or b) have gotten laid at some point in recent memory, indiepop as defined by the indiepop Mailing List FAQ is, "independently produced pop music, the kind that tends to come out on small-run, seven-inch singles with handmade sleeves. They call it 'wimpy' and 'twee', but Pop Kids everywhere know that the true spirit of punk rock lives on...in the simple and pure efforts of kids banging out sweet delicious songs on cheap guitars." At its worst, it's pasty, stripey-shirted boys in their 30s mooing gluey, off-key ditties about being too shy to ask the cute red-headed girl with the Hello Kitty barrettes to share a milkshake at the soda shop. At its best, there have long been the charming, plaintive and luminous offerings of the Franks and the members of Marine Research. While, technically, this is their first outing as Marine Research, the band ranks high in indiepop hagiology, with three out of the five members boasting membership in late '80s girly-pop-punk group Tallulah Gosh, and four as former members of Sarah Records' flagship band Heavenly. On "Sounds from the Gulf Stream," the group's first recorded effort since the 1996 suicide of Heavenly drummer Matthew Fletcher, there is a mostly effective recreation of the Heavenly formula for infectious, deceptively sweet, and slyly brilliant pop songs, tempered this time around with notes of loss and hard-won optimism. The most fully realized evidence of this is in "Hopefulness to Hopelessness," Amelia Fletcher's elegiac pop song for her lost brother. Atop a muted candy-cloud of background ba-ba-ba's and doo-doo-doo's, Fletcher's strong soprano soars over the top, spinning out a litany of desires left unfulfilled in the wake of her brother's death: "I still want to hear you end your half-finished pop songs/I still want to be who I am, but be it with you." The effect is at once chilling, gorgeous and incredibly bittersweet. While the rest of the 10 tracks have varying degrees of success (though the only two really lackluster songs are the appropriately clumsy, but heavy-handed "Glamour Gap" and the sonically flat "Queen B"), the album contains enough surprises and smart charms to have fans curiously awaiting Marine Research's next move.

For the Frank and Walter's 1997 release "Grand Parade," the band had to face a particularly tough obstacleĄZtheir earlier incarnation. With their loopy, psychedelic lyrics, goofy Cork-accented stage banter, and predilection for lurid orange and purple get-ups, the lads scored a few U.K. chart hits in the early '90s, but also gained a nearly fatal reputation as a joke band. A five-year hiatus between records helped fade that impression, but it was really their shockingly confident, tight live performances during a six-month, Brooklyn-based U.S. tenure in 1997 that opened the ears of old fans to the Franks' new sound and garnered the band a legion of new listeners. "Grand Parade" was an astonishing combination of powerful guitar hooks, some of the strongest male pop vocals in recent memory and straightforward, deeply human lyrics. While their latest release, "Beauty Becomes More Than Life" doesn't make an equally impressive leap forward, it can certainly stand proudly beside its predecessor. "Time We Said Goodnight" is the inexorable, devastating end of a relationship: "It's time we said goodnight to all the love in sight...I'd hoped that I would always be in love with you." Stark bass dissolves in a building storm of guitar fuzz with singer Paul Linehan's driving, usually strongly controlled voice rasping into a near-howl, and then tightening back over the well-defined bass again. The effect is simply stunning. Several other tracks, including "Today" and "Until the End," make steps toward matching the impact of this song, but it remains the clear winner. There are also a few ill-advised steps toward a more electronic aesthetic on the album, but the Franks are clearly at their peak when they're playing good, old-fashioned power pop. Still, you can't blame a band for trying.

It's really reassuring to know that there are some bands you can always count on. And sure, there are always going to be some pale, angsty kids mooing and mooning. You can always just put on your Walkman and block them out with something better.

(originally published at Citysearch)

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