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josh rouse - 1972 [17 Aug 2004|11:39am]
On his debut, Josh Rouse was “Dressed up Like Nebraska” – earnest, dusty,
and a little raw in both senses of the word. It appears that Rouse has
since graduated to, arguably, the Chicago suburbs. The sleepy songs on
“1972,” Rouse’s 2003 release on Rykodisc, make me yearn for the stark
Midwestern tableaus he painted as recently as six years ago on albums like
“Home” and the aforementioned debut “Nebraska.” Back then, it seemed like
he would be the west-of-the-Mississippi answer to Freedy Johnson. But
“1972” seems to seal the levee shut on those hopes. Trite sentiments like
those expressed in “Love Vibration” (“step out into the world and love
someone”) and “Sunshine” (“come on lady…. you’re my steady”) make someone
who has heard Rouse’s bittersmart “Laughter” or “Directions” cringe. Rouse
may be happier and more successful than his Slow River Records days, but
it hasn’t made for better music. The lo-fi, loungey feel of the disc
coupled with the all-too-groovy album artwork – both hearkening back to
the less desirable musical era of the album’s title – just feels a bit
forced. Perhaps it would be fairer to judge “1972” on its own merits
rather than against its older siblings, but it can’t be helped. The
album’s limited successes come towards the end, with the plaintive “Flight
Attendant” and the sparse, haunting “Sparrows Over Birmingham.” On these
tracks, Rouse allows himself to ruminate on his roots – which, as they are
for most songwriters, are his strength. But on the whole, with little of
the energy or emotion that functions as Rouse’s most viable medium, “1972”
seems to slide by in a Technicolor dream, with little real traction and
few compelling reasons to hold on. As Rouse himself once put it, “Don't
like the direction you are going to / Seems to lack the attention that it
used to.”
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matt pond pa - emblems [17 Aug 2004|11:38am]
Matt Pond PA wears their geography on their sleeve. Not only does the
Philadelphia quintet’s band name advertise their home base, but a shifting
sense of place is the primary lyrical motif on their Altitude Records
debut “Emblems.” Matthew Pond’s lyrics are self-assured and self-aware,
but not painfully so. “There’s no way to the heart better than
awkwardly,” he sings in a gravelly, road-worn voice, boldly stating as
fact that which so many bands fumble to exclaim over multiple albums.
“Emblems” is an emotional road trip, humid with layers and intensity and,
with its driving melodies, easily likened to a 65 mile per hour highway
ride – or, in its quieter moments, a 25 mile per hour loop through a shady
suburb. Often haunting and complex, but always rich with accessible
meaning, “Emblems” leaves behind a lasting skidmark long after its last
notes have rolled away.
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The life I have made in song [07 Aug 2004|11:17pm]
When Jackson Browne wrote the song "These Days" for Nico to record on her album "Chelsea Girl," the legendary singer-songwriter of the '70s and beyond could not have conceived that an entire generation of musicians would follow in his wake and cling to that song as a plaintive explication of their own pessimism and despair -- or, really, that folks would realize it was just a hell of a great song to cover. He sure as heck probably didn't foresee a store like K-Mart lifting the opening notes for use in a commercial.

But "These Days" has stuck around for decades' worth of days, living on in various voices and versions. If you check out coversproject.com, they list 12 artists as having covered this song (though one wonders if they are really thinking of "These Are Days" when it comes to 10,000 Maniacs). And those are just the documented, or audio recorded, instances. Who knows how many other renditions have filled concert halls or basement dives?

I'm certainly not the first person to notice this phenomenon (the Philadelphia City Paper wrote a piece about the song's resurgence/longevity in December 2003), but I am struck nonetheless. Perhaps it is because, at this time in my life, I am going through "these days," feeling like I am losing out, lost in regret, sitting and thinking and not doing a whole heck of a lot. And lo, here is "These Days" in spades, ready to spell out exactly what I am feeling in 32 flavors of melancholy.

The first version I ever heard of this song was the cover by Fountains of Wayne. It appeared as a B-side to the single for "Troubled Times" off of "Utopia Parkway." Though it may diminish my standing in the eyes of the musical elite, I did not know for a long time that it was a cover. It was not until Gwyneth Paltrow strode toward Luke Wilson in a scene from one of my favorite movies of all time, "The Royal Tenenbaums," and Nico's fragile intensity echoed a song I had come to love, that I realized that the song's origin lie elsewhere.

When I purchased the soundtrack to "The Royal Tenenbaums," I added Nico's version to my small collection of "These Days" covers, a collection still more impressive than the three versions of "There She Goes" I had at one point (and played as a block on my old radio show). I cherished both versions in their own way. Nico's, by virtue of her startlingly unique voice and the accompanying string section was starker and more pervasive, yet more lilting all the same. Fountains of Wayne's was more of a folksy dirge, with Adam Schlesinger's power-pop croon and acoustic guitar at the helm. For a long time, this was my "These Days" dichotomy, and it served me well.

When I saw Mates of State live several months ago and heard them cover this song live, I was held rapt, though convinced I'd never be able to find a digital copy to call my own for posterity. Well, the Internet works in mysterious ways. The Mates of State version, with its quicker tempo, uplifting organ interludes and sweet boy-and-girl harmonies, is definitely one of the more inspiring (as opposed to depressing) versions. Yet it also brings the song's lyrical content into keen relief.

Also discovered online and not noted on coversproject.com is an all-too-appropriate 1999 live cover of the song by the late Elliott Smith. From him more than anyone else, the lyrics ring hauntingly true. And all of this is just a small sampling of how people have found this song and made it their own.

Of course, it belonged to someone else first. The version of this song as sung by its songwriter is one of the more fleshed-out versions you will find. A full band backs Jackson Browne's soulful rendition. There is no starkness or dangling plucks left to accentuate the song's desperation and hopelessness, but rather a guitar solo, occasional ribbons of piano, and layered vocals. Frankly, it sounds more truck stop than open mic. Gregg Allman's version is much the same.

Perhaps I am just more accustomed to the occasional band or singer-songwriter stripping down to a lone instrument and offering up this song as a sacrifice upon its frets or keys. And no offense to its creator, but... these full-band versions just don't do it for me. Give me Nico's sweeping strings or Elliott Smith's warbled choruses, or Mates of States's harmony on the line "I have not forgotten them." Perhaps, for me, this song paints itself best in small, quick strokes, and not sweeping, layered textures. The bareness it evokes is best matched and conveyed with a similar vocal and instrumental approached. I think Jackson Browne did best initially to hand this off to Nico. She set the bar, and hopefully future generations of musicians will continue to try to reach it.

Well I’ve been out walking
I don’t do that much talking these days
These days--
These days I seem to think a lot
About the things that I forgot to do
For you
And all the times I had the chance to

And I had a lover
It’s so hard to risk another these days
These days--
Now if I seem to be afraid
To live the life I have made in song
Well it’s just that I’ve been losing so long

I’ll keep on moving
Things are bound to be improving these days
These days--
These days I sit on corner stones
And count the time in quarter tones to ten, my friend
Don’t confront me with my failures
I have not forgotten them
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James - "Laid" [22 Mar 2004|01:23pm]
There are a few songs that stick in our minds not unlike peanut butter to the roofs of hungry mouths. These are the songs that are like old shoes -- that when they slip back into our lives, we are immediately flushed with comfort and relief. Upon hearing them, we are flung back into whatever moments of reverie they conjure within us. For me, and many others, one of these songs is "Laid" by James.

James is a band that was at the forefront of the revival of rock music in Britain in the early 1990s, but they met limited, though spirited success stateside. The album "Laid," released in 1993, was their most popular disc in the US. On an album drenched mostly in lush, haunting melodies, the title track stands out thanks to its melodic sensibilities, its frisky lyrics, and its peculiar ability to stick to our tongues like a sweet, dissolving hard candy.

The song, all two minutes and thirty-six seconds of it, is like a fast-acting pop capsule, dissolving the rock in our veins from the the guitar string's first pluck. From its intial uplifting strums, drum roll, and lead singer Tim Booth's impassioned opening line of "This bed is on fire with passionate love," we are thrown into a rousing anthem to, well, sex. Yes, Janet Jackson and the FCC be damned, this song -- which received and still does receive major market radio airplay -- is all about fucking. Yes, it's all about wanting it, being driven batty by it, having neighbors thwap the roof and stomp on their floors because of it, and about being twisted in knots by it. It is a melodic romp through the trials and tribulations surrounding a good fuck. As good a subject as any to write a pop song about, I say, if not one of the best ones.

And what's sex without coming? Everyone *loves* that line. You know the line -- "But she only comes when she's on top!" When else, among mixed company, co-workers, complete strangers, can you sing and shout about come with total disregard for social proprieties? Rarely, in this day and age. But when it's in a song, anything goes. We are absolved of responsibility for contriving the word, the phrase. Besides, it's just a fun, lilting line.

(Interesting to note, indeed, how it is followed again by the *ahem* climactic drum roll and cymbal crash-- one, that I might add, lends itself extremely well to amateur air drumming.)

By this point in the song, everyone is jumping around with ridiculous grins on their faces, guaranteed.

The close of the second verse is marked by Booth copping a falsetto on the word "pretty," lifting and stretching the "eee" sound into the song's improvised chorus. No one cares how off-key you are -- everyone is obliged to sing along and following the bouncing "eee." So we do, giddily.

Of course, everyone loves the gender-bending third verse. It bears mentioning, especially for the benefit of those whose knowledge of the song may be limited to the whims of modern rock radio, that the album cover features the band members wearing rather frumpy dresses. So when the song goes, "Dressed me up in women's clothes / Messed around with gender roles / Dye my eyes and call me pretty," it not only a lyrical frolic, it's also pretty damn funny. And, naturally, again with the extended, high-pitched "pretty." We can't get enough -- so don't worry, we get to do it again as the song ends.

But before that, we get a closer look at the frantic dysfunction of the relationship the song details -- a rapid-fire chess game of hide-and-seek, fuck-and-run, that despite the frustration is worth it in the end. The prevailing sentiment is aptly embodied in the song's last line: "You're driving me crazy / When are you coming home?"

After more than 20 years, the band James has undergone its fair share of successes and failures, arrivals and departures. And while one might consider relegation to the nethersphere of one-hit wonderdom a curse, it shouldn't be so coarsely dismissed. As James lapses into stateside obscurity, they leave behind a relic of pop perfection. This song and select others stand out, both in our memories in the vast sea of accumulated melody, as landmarks to times and places not always duly recalled.

How many songs are there that sit so prominently in our collective consciousness? "Laid," I argue, is one of the few. When the plants align and it comes on the radio, it's like a mini-Christmas. We will drop what we're doing to join in song with friends and strangers alike. For two minutes and thirty-six seconds, we all have the same taste in music, we're all friends at the same party. And in the end, we don't even really care what the song is about. We're just having fun, a lot of fun, and that's all that matters. Because for some reason, that 11-year-old song means something to us -- something silly or serious, random or rhapsodic. And we've been granted the gift of recollection for the duration of a pop song.

For me, "Laid" brings me back to college, walking down the street with my roommates and singing at the top of our lungs. It brings me back to high school, with my friends gathering at our appointed early morning spot or on the grass at lunch, joining in chorus. It reminds me of my husband, who shares the same love for the song as I do, but by virture of our relationship always sings it with a wicked twinkle in his eye.

So, where does it take you? Let's start singing, and we can go together.
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candy butchers - hang on mike [24 Feb 2004|09:14pm]
I picked up the Candy Butchers' CD "Falling Into Place" in 1999, persuaded in part by the undeniable catchiness of songs but also by the $2 price tag. When I look back now, with my collection of Boston native Mike Viola's library having expanded to include all of their albums and EPs save their Christmas (?) disc and with dozens of mp3s (including an early, unreleased indie album), I am confused by the blazing yellow tag stamped $2 by some unknowing record store employee. One loser's loss, a new fan's gain, you may say. But I can't seem to cease being perplexed and dismayed by the continuing failure of a music market glutted with trite crap to recognize and support unquestionable rock brilliance. I suppose I will remain nestled in my naivete forever.

Regardless, I recently acquired the Candy Butchers' most recent release, "Hang On Mike." The album is an intensely personal showdown with both Viola's demons and angels. A deceased wife, a new love, struggles with self-doubt, the biological clock, and mental illness -- these myriad themes all punch the clock on the aptly titled disc. One may, at first glance, think the concept somewhat self-indulgent. But Viola does not write these songs because he is an emotional exhibitionist. He writes them because they beg to be written. Don't hold it against Mike Viola that he has the courage to throw himself across the bridge and pluck himself bare.

Lest you fear being crushed by the gravity of the issues Viola grapples with, rest assured that "Hang On Mike" is essentially a brilliant rock album, combining the best elements of 60s pop, 70s cheeserock, and 90s alt-rock goodness. The album is peppered with rocksichord, lush harmonies, lilting keyboard melodies, and an unmatched pop sensibility. Viola just knows what a good song sounds like, and doesn't hesitate in providing numerous examples.

The opener "What To Do With Michael" is a modern-day "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant" with a better ending, a jaunt through the birth of a new relationship. The anthemic "Hang On Mike" is a hand-clapping romp of a self-esteem boost.

But few tracks written in modern rock nowadays come more haunting than "Painkillers," a tragically stark lament for Viola's former wife, Kim, who lost a battle with cancer. With the pained confession, "There are times all I can do is cry, well I hope that you understand," the listener is spellbound by Viola's vulnerable rasp. Viola also proves his worth at penning superb ballads with the sweet lullabye "Charlie" and the gorgeous "Unexpected Traffic."

With "Superkid," the ballad of a rock star prodigy, one can't help but wonder if Viola is alluding to himself. In his teens, his band The Mike Viola Alliance was touring with the likes of Todd Rundgren, Billy Idol and Quiet Riot. In the end, the song seems to dismiss the idealism of the child star as a pipe dream. "Nothing can fool you like a dream," sings Viola ruefully.

To balance the heaviness of some of the album's subject matter, "Let's Have A Baby" provides a light-hearted rationalization for having a kid, despite myriad arguments against going through with it. "Sadie, Chloe, Sammy, or Maximilian, chillin’ in a baby sac," speculates Viola in the insufferably catchy chorus that evokes Viola's pop contemporaries Jason Falkner and Brendan Benson.

The deceptively shiny "Sparkle" portrays someone's shallow encouragement to one who is mentally disturbed. The song almost sounds like a showtune, and if songs could be anthropomorphized, this one would surely have dimples. But the song is disarmingly saccharine, perfectly unsettling the listener just below the surface.

For an artist often hailed as a rock prodigy -- in his teens, his band The Mike Viola Alliance was touring with the likes of Todd Rundgren, Billy Idol and Quiet Riot -- Mike Viola has certainly not fallen prey to the Tenenbaum syndrome. Rather, he has only improved and honed his talents, acquiring key intangibles along the way -- an unflappable courage and a keen self-awareness -- that countless hours of rehearsal cannot afford. "Hang On Mike" succeeds in swinging flawlessly across the entire arc of the rock and roll pendulum, from straight-out rockers and heartwrenching ballads to hook-laden sonic contagions. Viola's versatility shines through on this album like none of his others before. While mass-market success remains elusive for this boy from Stoughton, his genius labors on. Hang on, Mike.
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toad the wet sprocket [19 Feb 2004|04:28pm]
this is a long time coming, but i hope you enjoy it. as always, please feel free to comment, critique, disagree, what have you...

All He Wants: The evolution of Glen Phillips and Toad the Wet SprocketCollapse )
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superdrag - sucked out [11 Feb 2004|06:40pm]
I went to a party on Saturday night that was attended by many members of the indie rock brotherhood. We had a sing-a-long to Weezer's "The Good Life," a Twilight Singers CD was borrowed, a Victory at Sea concert was discussed. What struck me, though, was a brief discussion about Superdrag's MTV hit "Sucked Out".

When reminiscing about the glory that was mid-90s rock, the song "Sucked Out" came up. We recalled it fondly, a blistering power pop anthem in much the same vein as Weezer's "Across the Sea" or Fountains of Wayne's "Radiation Vibe," also released in 1996 (don't let the Grammys' Best New Artist category fool you). Catchy as all fuck with a devil-may-care intensity, the song became a hit on MTV and rock radio. But, in that annoying twist of fate that seems to befall the best artists (my personal favorite case in point being Brendan Benson, but FoW also applies), their label, Elektra, dropped them after releasing just one album, 1996's "Regretfully Yours." "Sucked Out" dropped with a thud out of public consciousness and into the cutout-bin and the one-hit-wonder bucket.

A brief aside: 1996 should be noted as the year that Weezer was born and died, when Rivers Cuomo poured his broken soul into the epic known as "Pinkerton" and promptly shriveled into an emotionless cog, which though cold and lifeless was and remains remarkably efficient at churning out power pop songs. Coincidentally, this was also when the glory days of 90s alt-rock ended, when the Soul Asylums ("Let Your Dim Light Shine") and the Pearl Jams ("No Code," which I will defend to my death) and the Posies ("Amazing Disgrace") began to fade away, and the Sugars ("File Under: Easy Listening," late '94) and Matthew Sweets ("Girlfriend," "100% Fun") and Jeff Buckleys ("Grace", "Live at Sin-E") were beginning to be forgotten. The Glut was beginning to permeate mainstream radio (Can anyone say "Macarena?"), and the Rock lay dormant in sweaty basements of resistance, waiting.

So, in 1996, when "Sucked Out" hit the airwaves and the video rotation, it was like a punch in the gut. So insightful, so brazen, so absolutely just rock out. "Look around, could it bring somebody down / If I never made a sound again?"

Superdrag must have been acutely self-aware of the times they were living in. In 1996, as Rivers cried out "Why are you so far away for me?" the rock revolution was indeed faltering and falling away. With the first handful of negative reviews of "Pinkerton," Rivers seemed ready to call it quits, run off to a Virgin Megastore and never come back (apologies to N. Hornby). But John Davis and Superdrag begged the fucking question: "Who sucked out the feeling?"

Who indeed! Who killed the Sugars, sucked the living life out of the Pearl Jams, relegated the Matthew Sweets to CMJ charts and not top 40 charts which, if anyone had been in their right mind, would have been where they belonged.

Superdrag knew what everyone was doing -- "rocking to the next big thing," moving on and moving out. Still, they played, and John Davis tore his vocal cords on the word "feeling," imbuing it with actual, well, feeling. A battle cry to save the rock. And they wanted the rock. "This was my dream - played out rocking routine."

But they knew. "Look at me, I can write a melody, but I can't expect a soul to care."

The question remains: Who sucked out the feeling? Los Del Rio? Yes. No. The blame cannot be assigned to one or to few. It belongs to all and to none. Music as a general species did what music does; it evolves, for better or for worse. Fads start and stop. Tastes are relative, and they come and go. But still, something in me still mourns the end of that era. The rock that had awakened me was pushed into slumber so, it seemed to be, abruptly.

As an afterword, Superdrag has gone on to win critical acclaim and a loyal fanbase, though none of the widespread popularity they briefly enjoyed in the wake of "Sucked Out." Some would argue it is for the best, and some would differ, but that argument is neither here nor there.

Since "Regretfully Yours," Superdrag has released "Head Trip in Every Key," "In the Valley of Dying Stars," "Last Call for Vitriol." I have come across these CDs (for reasonably prices, even!) in used CD stores, and I always give them a look. I know they're a good, nay great band. I know the CDs have enjoyed positive reviews. I have two random (free and legal, mind you) Superdrag mp3s on my computer that I enjoy.

But still, I always put the CD down. In my mind, for some reason, "Sucked Out" is an anthem trapped in one-hit amber, and I can't move past the images of its video on MTV flipping through my mind. I always put the CD down, and the chorus rings in my head: "Who sucked out the feelin'?!" And as I put the CD down, I feel like it is me. I feel like I can't re-buy 1996 for $7.99, so I don't even try.
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crazy in love - beyonce / crazy in love - snow patrol [11 Feb 2004|06:06pm]
We've all seen Beyonce (last name dropped for iconic reasons) strutting around on MTV in dangerously short shorts and a tiny white camisole, on what was apparently dress-down day at the video shoot. No matter -- she is still the object of desire to legions of fans and observers, despite being so crazy in love with her partner-in-crime, collaborator, and boy toy, rap mastermind Jay-Z. The summer anthem, propelled by the horn loop sampled from the Chi-Lites' 1970s hit "Are You My Woman," has run through everyone's head at one point.

So replace the horns with some driving, fuzzy Scottish guitars. Replace Beyonce's sultry 'uh ohs' with male, accented ones. Muffled the already low, gruff vocals. Add a persistent drumbeat, a few riffs, and a few more 'uh ohs' for good measure and you've got Snow Patrol's cover of the smash hit R&B song.

Snow Patrol's "Crazy In Love" is like the successful inverse of Eminem's "Dream On" perversion, "Sing For The Moment." Keeping with the Eminem theme, the song builds like "Lose Yourself" does, carrying the listener with its relentless guitar. Beyonce's horns keep you groovin', but don't give the same lift, out of deference to her (admittedly hot) pipes.

Recorded for the BBC Radio show with Zane Lowe, Snow Patrol's cover rivals Fountains of Wayne's classic take on Britney Spears masochistic hit "Hit Me Baby One More Time" on the scale of genius alt-rock covers of pop songs. Clem Snide's cover of Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful" also ranks high up there.

Lest there be any more argument, the Snow Patrol cover succeeds on this alone: Gary Lightbody rapping the line, "I sling though, if anything I bling yo."

Believe it or not, I just discovered the Beyonce version of "Crazy In Love" about three days before I found the Snow Patrol version -- so that makes it about five days ago. That's what you get when you don't listen to the radio. Oh well. It makes me feel like I got two for the price of one -- kind of like a book and its made-for-TV movie, except in this case I think Snow Patrol wrote the book. We'll leave the movies to Beyonce. Yeah, baby!
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top CDs of 2003 [16 Dec 2003|02:09pm]
1. Cursive - The Ugly Organ

This is where Jeff gets to let out a big fat "I told you so." My first introduction to Cursive was the song "The Rhyme Scheme" off of "The Storms of Early Summer," back in 1998 or so. Unfortunately, the Saddle Creek bandwagon I jumped on was Bright Eyes' and not Cursive's, so I missed out on a lot -- including, at first, this gem. While some of the "oh, fame is so rough, art is so rough!" sentiment -- however genuine or jocular -- is tiring, the album succeeds in being a concept album without taking that onus too seriously. The instrumentation varies from sweeping, lush and haunting arrangements to a pummeling aural assault. The narrative songs, such as "Driftwood" and "Sierra," are the most successful with their sad, compelling tales. Plus, the Saddle Creek Chorus can sing me to nightmarish slumber anytime. Most solid, addictive disc of the year.

2. Steve Burns - Songs for Dustmites

Yes, yes, "Blue's Clues," etc. This guy is for real. Songs about science and love, nanotechnology and loneliness. What isn't lost in the wash of Lips-propelled buzz is the talent and depth that permates this solo debut.

3. Rufus Wainwright - Want One

Upon first listen, I rejected this disc outright for not being "Poses." Of course, I wasn't being fair. Nothing can be "Poses". But this, the first disc in a musical exploration of Wainwright sorting out his desires and needs, is pretty damn good in its own right, and features the same orchestral beauty and lyrical introspection that "Poses" fans fell for. But songs like "Vibrate" painfully illustrate that cellphones are not yet commonplace enough to be as acceptable songwriting material as, say, pens and paper.

4. Amy Rigby - Til The Wheels Fall Off

Don't know her yet? You will soon. Like Kathleen Edwards? Give this middle-aged, beer-guzzling, indie rocking wife and mother a spin. Her latest effort is just as deliciously blunt (see track five, "Are We Ever Gonna Have Sex Again?") and empathetically vulnerable (see track nine, "Even the Weak Survive") as her earlier efforts, but the production and songwriting is tighter.

5. The Postal Service - Give Up

omg! wtf. Ben Gibbard, the poet of a generation's worth of doubts and insecurities, puts the brakes on the Death Cab and, together with Jimmy Tamborello of Dntel, throws us for a loop - literally - with this sublime electronic indie pop effort.

6. Fountains of Wayne - Welcome Interstate Managers

As Adam said, yeah, it's not their best, but the good songs on it are REALLY good. 'Managers' suffers only from not knowing when to stop the album and relegate the extra tracks to B-sides, thus tremendous tracks like "Hackensack," the dark horse hit "Stacy's Mom," and the sweet ditty "Valley Winter Song" are diluted by the comparative drivel of "Peace and Love" and "Bought for a Song". Nonetheless, FoW not only solidly reclaimed their long-vacated throne of power pop prominent but also snagged a good chunk of mainstream audience, who are going "wow!" while we're like, "well, duh!"

7. Longwave - The Strangest Things

Yes, another band out of New York. But don't worry, it's not the latest Strokes clone. Longwave, threading strands of Idlewild and Interpol into their lush, accessible rock, released their sophomore album on a major label, and while they haven't broken out of the pack yet, they're due.

8. Loveless - Gift to the World

Finally, the antisocial rock band! These major label castoffs, including Dave Wanamaker and the darling-yet-bitter Jen Trynin, aren't trying to land a major label deal, or a nationwide tour, or much of anything really. Whatthey end up doing, however, is releasing a powerful, melodic album that will definitely rock you.

9. Belle and Sebastian - Dear Catastrophe Waitress

I still cling tenaciously to "Tigermilk," but this album is great, with the catchy opener "Step Into My Office, Baby," the sweet "If You Find Yourself Caught In Love," and other very memorable tracks. I think it's the best B&S album I've heard since "If You're Feeling Sinister."

10. Radiohead - Hail to the Thief

Yes, yes, hype machine, omg thom yorke!!! etc., but this album finally achieves what we were promised (and not delivered) on the haphazard "Amnesiac". I'd even venture to say it's my fave since "OK Computer," but legions of "Kid A" fans would probably pummel me to death with Casio keyboards or something.

Honorable Mentions

White Stripes - Elephant: I'm not going to spend anymore ink extolling this album to the high heavens, nor will I prostrate myself before the altar of Jack White. It's a great disc, enough said. Settle!

Guster - Keep It Together: The band branches out, and their experiments are successful for the most part. These songs have a way of crawling into your head and not leaving -- which is a good thing. Please see the entrancing harmonica solo in "Backyard," or Ryan's exposed choruses in "Come Downstairs and Say Hello."

Mates of State - Team Boo: The cutest duo in show biz 'twees along swimmingly, sticking to the formula, though you can hear them straining for more, which is encouraging. Nonetheless, this album is incredible fun.


Travis - 12 Memories: Most unmemorable, bland album I've heard in a while. I sold it a few weeks after buying it, knowing I'd never listen to it again. That's quite a step down from being everyone's darlings from across the pond. Tell me, why DOES it always rain on you?

Thorns - s/t: Pete Droge, Shawn Mullins, and Matthew Sweet collaborate, and this is all we get? Oh wait, I forgot, the project involves Pete Drog and Shawn Mullins.

Wheat - Per Second Per Second Per Second... Every Second: "Oh, we abandoned rewarding experimentation with electronic noise to produce the best pop rock album ever!" Come on, guys. I haven't accidentally seen you live three times to hear lines like "I met a girl I'd like to know better / But she's already with someone". "Raised Ranch"! "Raised Ranch"!

Barenaked Ladies - Everything to Everyone: The band everyone loves to love but hates to admit loving ambles down a lyrically vague and musically uninspiring path. Sigh.
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steve burns - songs for dustmites / live at the middle east 12.6.03 [08 Dec 2003|06:13pm]
As Domo Kun, the ubiquitous brown, furry icon of the indie subculture, was projected against the large white backdrop in mid-flight over a nondescript backyard, a jumpsuit-clad former children's show host crooned into the microphone, "Leaping without looking, baby I hope you're holding on."

The grey jumpsuit bearing another icon, a cartoon dustmite, has taken the place of the familiar green-striped rugby shirt that thousands of children identify with Steve (no last name needed) and his crafty dog, Blue. The hundreds of adults packed into the downstairs of the Middle East on the eve of a raging snowstorm were Steve Burns's new captive audience.

Since the release of his debut album, Songs for Dustmites, in August 2003, the former host of the wildly popular Nickelodeon kids' show "Blues Clues" has ridden a wave of well-deserved buzz, and not just by stretching the coattails of his TV stardom from the romper room to the college clubs, but by recording a true gem an album.

Sure, Flaming Lips members Steven Drozd and Michael Ivins pitched in, and their producer Dave Fridmann shined it up, but the genius in it is all Burns, a scruffy sprite of a man who makes no apologies for shattering his fans' illusions when they see him chugging a can of PBR, or stepping outside for a smoke. Yet he still exhibits the same wide-eyed curiosity and genuineness that made him so warmly appealing as a TV personality. Those qualities, one can safely assume, are the real deal for Burns.

Songs for Dustmites paints Burns against a range of backdrops, from solemn, acoustic indulgences to gorgeous, humming washes of synth and guitar. His songs reflect struggles with everyday problems, such as love, loss, self-image, and nanotechnology. Oh, Steve also appears to be a bit of a nerd, but we'll forgive his obsession with dustmites and microgears. You don't need a Ph.D. in physics to appreciate his odes to might and mites. The album, he declares on his website, features songs "about science and love," and Burns's careful lyrical math offers the proof that the two have greater overlap than one would think.

Joined in jumpsuits by multi-instrumentalist Derek Brown and effusive drummer Jason Gerken, Burns features quite a complex display for a half-hour set. It was a reminder that, though Burns is touring to support a debut indie release and is performing on the same stage that many van-sleeping, same-shirt-for-five-days-wearing rockers have ascended before him, he must be rolling in cash from his stint on "that kids' show". Yet, despite the iBook, the helmet-mounted camera, the custom, transparent blue drumset (there's that dustmite again), and giant projection screen that showed video to accompany each song throughout the night, Burns puts on no airs. He humbly states that he is here to get the crowd jived for the headlining band, local boys done good Wheat, and that he wants them to be prepared to rock. The crowd, which braved the impending snowstorm to get here, is ready to do just that.

"Mighty Little Man," the blistering, assertive rocker that starts the album, delivers just as hard a punch live. The desperate "A Sniveling Mess," pleads, "Would you love me if I'm a mess?" but we empathize, and do not hold Burns's vulnerability against him. The sweeping title track -- the one accompanied live by a film of a soaring Domo Kun -- is captivating, as Burns boils down romance to "nano you and nano me." The atmospheric "Troposphere" is surprisingly grounded in laments we all can relate to, as Burns asks, "Have you ever been so tired of yourself?" In "Henry Krinkle's Lament," Burns fantasizes about shunning a needy ex-lover as he revels in newfound confidence, but the tale is guised as a dream of being Superman.

Yes, Burns brings something called whimsy to the dimly lit world of indie rock. We can chalk that up in part to the strong influence the Flaming Lips have had on Burns -- not only in collaboration on producing the album, but also, by his own admission, artistically and personally. While sometimes on the album the Lips sound tends to envelop the elvish singer, on the stage he is, indeed, mighty, but not so little -- much like his new audience.
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mates of state - our constant concern [16 Feb 2003|01:19pm]
i downloaded "hoarding it for home" from epitonic.com because i'd heard a shimmer of buzz about the band, i couldn't stop playing the damn song. so, when i found "our constant concern" for $7, i had to pick it up. i have to say, i love the way that the voices of kori gardner and jason hammel collide into harmony. no, it isn't a sweet blend, it isn't charming synchronicity, it's a collision of emotion sometimes, though, it seems a bit over-the-top and self-gratifying. the toy piano-synth groundwork of the instrumentation is a pleasant indulgence into mature, mechanized whimsy, but combined with the intensity and clarity of the vocals, it helps completely muddle the lyrics. however, a quick scan of the handy dandy liner notes reveals ("I'm so duly impressed / Decisions for the whole / a reading and response / Parables that act out / Those books are thrown out / I doubt it") that I'm not really missing that much. now i understand why the words never stuck with me as much as the melodies or the repeated choruses, and i'm very much a "lyrics" person when it comes to music appreciation. so, if i'm so mixed, why do i keep playing the disc? because songs like "quit doin' it" are too freaking catchy for words. the whole CD is immensely dance/bounceable. it's impossible to turn down a good harmony. and so on. so, flawed as it is, it's effective. it's hooked me. and i'm kicking myself for missing them when they were in town two weeks back, because i know that this CD reflects but a shadow of the intensity they are capable of showcasing in a live setting.
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