July 1, 2002, by Bill Ribas
July 2002 CD Reviews:
Grey Cell Green, Train of Thought...
Ugly Casanova, Sharpen Your Teeth
Home Grown, Kings of Pop
The Color Red, Clear
Eric Nicolas, Amnesty
Jucifer, I Name You Destroyer
Anthony Joseph, Flying at the Speed of Emotion
Preston Clarke, Lane Change
Ingram Hill, Until Now
Soul Hooligan, Music Like Dirt
Cristina Williams Band, What Did I Do?
Nancy Magarill, Dancin' with the Ghosts
Sinnerstar, Craving Aches and Bitter Lemon Hearts
Automatic Slim, Daisy Cutter
The GC5, Never Bet the Devil Your Head
John Forte, I, John
Telepopmusik, Genetic World
Manifesto Jukebox, Remedy
Grey Cell Green, Train of Thought... (© 2001 Grey Cell Green)
This quartet from Connecticut shares a sound similar to hard-edged bands like Tool or Alice in Chains, without being too derivative. The music is fresh, and you get a sense of the drive that they possess, as it sounds like they're trying hard, and want to succeed. And for a quartet, they make a good amount of noise, given that singer Curtis Cassarino doesn't play an instrument. His vocals are more melodious than most, and he abstains from the gruff guttural screeching that would endear the band to the hardcore set. Yet the work of Steve Matthews (guitars), Rob Waldron (bass), Matt Glasser (drums) really shows the potential of the band. Together they create a powerful sound. Sure, the lyrics maintain a teenage philosophical bent, and the variety of songs project an image of a band still searching for an identity, but they seem to be finding their way.
Ugly Casanova, Sharpen Your Teeth (© 2002 Sub Pop)
From singer/songwriter Isaac Brock (ex-Modest Mouse) comes an indie release, if ever there were one. It's a disjointed, rambling, quirky disc, not big on melody or hooks, but as captivating as if you were on stage with a hypnotist (well, except you don't flap your arms like a chicken). The songs which can be dry and tend to drone on sound like the work of a madman locked up in a hotel for months, watching bad TV, eating spaghetti out of a can, and washing it all down with diet soda. Nevertheless, like a horrific car accident, you'll find you can't turn away no matter how hard you try. Though the songs possess a desolate and needful tone, there's something uplifting about this disc it brightened my day for reasons I can't quite understand.
Home Grown, Kings of Pop (© 2002 Drive-thru Records)
One listen to the latest release from California's Home Grown, and you'll say, "man, those guys sure are spunky." At least, I did. Though on this disc they play Orange County-style punk (still speed pop to me), they manage to inject a good deal of humor into their lyrics. Song titles like "Why Won't You Leave Me?" and "I Love You Not" tip you off that they're going to be joking around. The lyrics match up as well and should have you chuckling. Musically, they sound like a cross between Sum 41 and Weezer, which means up-tempo beats, and enough hooks to land a school of tuna. And unlike Blink 182, you don't get a sense of arrogance, or of being on the receiving end of a joke. Home Grown understand that pop songs should be fun for all. Amen.
Outerstar, Outerstar (© 2001 Jaggo Records)
Nat Schellin and Chris Martin are the band, and they deliver a sound that is somewhat difficult to classify. The music, to me anyway, is that of a futuristic lounge singer imagine if David Bowie had settled for clubs and dinner theaters. It's big in spots, with lots of keyboard bits and pieces, a wash of reverb and strings, and you'll notice a British tone as well. Maybe the lounge feel comes from the dominance of the piano and the downplaying of the guitar, but it's not a bad thing. Listen to a song like "Limousine" and you'll be both in the present and in the glory days of glam rock. This is a cool album for sure, and if the chugging, groovy beat of "In the Streets" doesn't grab you (or remind you of Bowie in some way), then alas, I might have steered you wrong. But would I do that? Nonsense.
Sinch, Sinch (© 2002 Roadunner Records)
You know, when I get a disc from Roadrunner Records, the first thing I do is put on the boxing headgear, just for extra protection. And sure enough, as the first song on the self-titled disc from the Pennsylvania-based quintet blares out, I'm ducking lefts and rights. Boom, a shot to the head, and the reviewer is down! But I'm back up, and enjoying the disc. Though the press kit describes them as "emotional rock" (is that redundant?), I suspect they're referring to the vocals, as Jamie Stem ranges from the soft and fuzzy to the angry and enraged throughout the 11 numbers. The music is heavy on guitar in spots, but the band has the ability to bring things down quietly, and appears to know that the proper use of dynamics makes music more interesting. You may be reminded of some of the dark and heavy bands out there, like the oft-mentioned Tool or NIN, but Sinch do quite well on their own.
The Color Red, Clear (© 2002 BMG Entertainment)
After the first two songs, it sounded like this was going to be another big-guitar, run-of-the-mill band to deal with. You know, the thick, multi-tracked, through-the-Marshalls sound, with songs not too fast, not too slow, and not too interesting. But with the third number, "Wrong Replacement," things got interesting. Yeah, the guitar wall is still there, but they also restrain themselves in the verses, and by the time the chorus comes along, you think, hey, this is okay. The vocals are emotional, and when the song pulls back to
the verse, you listen a little harder. Another song, "Season," again finds the band starting somewhat quietly, before venturing over to the heavier side of life. And strangely, they are more successful than when they play at 11, at least from a listener's standpoint. As the disc plays on, they seem to adhere to that mid-tempo approach, and it works, though the guitars could be rolled back a bit.
Eric Nicolas, Amnesty (© Eric Nicolas)
The title cut comes first, and as it plays I think of James Taylor. The reason? Well, there's a similarity in the vocals; Nicholas plays guitar, and who knows, maybe he's just a crazy girl song away from the big time. The tune also almost sounds like a Sheryl Crow number, in that when the chorus comes along, you just sit back, and go, oh yeah, as the harmony swells, and you close your eyes and drift to a happy place. Though the rest of the songs aren't as good as the first, they're still better than average. Nicholas invests time in writing lyrics, as they aren't just bad philosophy or tales of lost love. Rather, they're poetic stories that rarely repeat except in choruses. And there's a sparseness to the music that makes it appealing as well, as instruments come and go. His voice might get to you a bit, as it can be high and whiny, but not for long. A smart disc for the acoustically inclined.
Jucifer, I Name You Destroyer (© 2002 Velocette Records)
They have a retro/'70s look about them percussionist Ed Livengood may as well be the character from "Then Came Bronson," and vocalist Amber Valentine could be any super cool blonde chick from a late '60s biker-chick movie. But as a band, Jucifer (and big points for that name) rock all right, ranging from the dreamy, electronic opener "Little Fever" to the closer "Sea Blind," a wavy, sonic wall that sounds like a clash between the Breeders and Sonic Youth. In between, you'll find a variety of numbers.
Some are straight-ahead rockers (well, relatively straight ahead), like "When She Goes Out" or "Vulture Story," in which Valentine begins in a breathy, Marilyn Monroe happy birthday Mr. President voice, "I know you got a great big hammer," and she ain't talking about a Home Depot product. It's got a groovy, almost Cramps-like beat, though her vocals put a nifty spin on it. Did I just say nifty? Check these crazy kids out.
Anthony Joseph, Flying at the Speed of Emotion (© 2002 Malkin Records)
You know, when you're trying to make a go of it in the music business, there's a steep learning curve that the bulk of performers never get over. And Joseph's disc offers a few pointers on some of the things you should learn on the way up. For one, there are several spots where the music is clipping (distorting for the lay folk), and it shouldn't be. There's also an unevenness to the songs as they play out, indicating that they could have been arranged better. As far as the songwriting goes, it's not bad. The songs are poppy and hooky enough, and there's enough of a mix between the slow and the quick to make it interesting. But then there's the mix of the guitars, the vocals too far out front, a real heavy brightness in the upper midrange and high spectrum. Overall, it's a combination of little things that keep this from being a good disc. And the thing is, he's close. See for yourself.
Preston Clarke, Lane Change (© 2002 Biscuit Records)
You know, when Sting started showing his softer underbelly many moons ago, people scoffed, but now his "new" direction is pretty much taken for granted. Preston Clarke has a voice somewhat similar to Sting's, and his music, which is acoustic-guitar based, is not wholly dissimilar either. It's not folk, but neither is it jazz or rock, though elements of all three styles will rear their collective heads. And like the S-man, it may take a listen or two for the songs to get their hooks in, and when they do, it's a comfortable feeling. A countryfied ditty like "Pepper" may seem a bit out of place at first, but when heard again, it fits just fine. What is nice about the disc is the high quality of production; the songs shimmer as they come out the speakers. And while there isn't really a pop hit per se in the mix, it is still easy on the ears, and good summer fare.
Ingram Hill, Until Now (© 2002 Traveler Records)
The four lads out of Memphis present a decent rock-and-roll disc here. It's more blues-based southern rock than the hard-charging wall-of-guitar style that's so popular now. Of the eight tracks, five are produced by Tonic's Emerson Hart and Jeff Powell (Bob Dylan, SRV), while the last three are live "unplugged" cuts. An EP with filler? Perhaps, but the songs are good enough that you don't mind getting ripped off a bit (though "Your Smiling Face" features some sloppy guitar work). "The Day Your Luck Runs Out" sounds like an homage to the Spin Doctors or the Black Crowes, as either could have been the inspiration, while a song like "Will I Ever Make It Home?" shows the strong songwriting skills of the band, starting off slow and acoustic, until the guitars charge in. Hopefully, they'll take more time to produce the second disc (sans filler, with a better cover yeah, that counts too).
Soul Hooligan, Music Like Dirt (© 2002 Maverick)
For an interesting take on a kind of hip-hop, soul-sampled soundscape, Soul Hooligan are your ticket. There's a bleakness to the numbers, but also something cheerful, and again, it's one of those instances where it's hard to put your finger on just why it works. At times it sounds like a soundtrack to a bizarre French new-wave movie; other moments might make you think of some of the funky stuff done by Fatboy Slim. And while there may not be a song here that's earth shattering, or particularly memorable, it is engaging while you listen. Think of Gorillaz, add a lo-fi appeal, and you'll be in the ballpark as far as sound. "Stoop Kid" is the funkiest tune, with a bit of rap and a groovy back beat, though my pick is the opener, "Algebra," which begins with acoustic guitar and a harmonica with a ton of reverb. It's lazy good fun.
Cristina Williams Band, What Did I Do? (© 2002 Tylia Records)
To answer the question the title poses, you made a damn good disc, Cristina. Her style is pop, along the lines of Sheryl Crow, but happier and hippier, as first albums often can be. A song like "Make You Happy" does precisely that. It starts off in a surf-genre mood before bouncing off with a chorus featuring a Farfisa-organ sound, and a hooky nature that could have been culled from a '60s TV show. (I can picture the girls in white go-go boots and heavy black mascara.) She's not your typical guitar-strumming coffeehouse singer, mind you, as her voice has plenty of depth to it. Her lyrics show an investment of time as well, like on "I'll Let You Go," a bittersweet tale if there ever were one. Again, a really good disc.
Nancy Magarill, Dancin' with the Ghosts (© 2002 Useless Word Music)
As the tune "It All Comes Down to You" starts off, you recognize a slight similarity in Magarill's vocals to Alanis Morissette's. But wait a minute, she's not screaming or whining. Then she slides her voice in a sexy manner a la Marianne Faithful, and you realize there's something going on here. The bio mentions that she won an ASCAP emerging-songwriter award, and suddenly I'm pleased as punch that there are more songs to delve into. With an open feeling to the background music, which, though it sounds techno minimalist, is surprisingly dynamic, Magarill is free to sing, talk, or do whatever she pleases to get the lyrics across.
And like many artists this month, her attention to the lyrics provides the listener with an added bonus of poetic storytelling. She can even be humorous, with a line like "yeah, sometimes I love everyone, but this morning I hate you." In addition to singing, Magarill has started a website, www.labelfreeradio.com, and hopes to promote independent artists. With such an amount of talent and drive, good things should be in store for her.
Sinnerstar, Craving Aches and Bitter Lemon Hearts (© 2002 Sinnersville Records)
Hot diggity dog. This is a surprise. Sinnerstar play rock and roll along the lines of old Bowie, Ian Hunter, and Iggy Pop, with guitars bright and shiny, and a big glam-rock sound all over. By the third song I'm a fan, as there is nice melodic movement in the songs, enough lead-guitar bits to keep you interested, and the vocals, that is, Koozie Johns' vocals, are easy on the ears. He doesn't screech, he sings, and that makes all the difference. Johns is no stranger to rock and roll, and his history goes way back to 1981 with Deathbeat and many others. His rockabilly past also provides a basis for many of the songs, as on "My Life," where laid-back guitars seep from the speakers in a lazy fashion, not unlike Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game." If you're a fan of the golden age of rock, then you'd better add Sinnerstar's offering to your collection.
Automatic Slim, Daisy Cutter (© 2002 Daisy Cutter Music)
Though it might be foolish to name your debut CD after a 15-thousand-pound bomb (well, just think of the press if it fails), the trio of guitarist/singer Gelu Sulugiuc, bassist Richard Valdmanis, and drummer Walker Pettibone do an admirable job on the 10 songs found here. Their sound is classic rock mixed with a jam feel, with neither side dominating the tracks. And while the production may not be perfect (the vocals hit just shy of notes in spots, and some of the lead guitar is a bit sketchy), I find it hard to dis them. Some mediocre bands just need a nudge or a poor showing to realize they ain't gonna make it, but there is some quality on this disc that makes me think that, should they keep at it, they might be onto something. There's no real discernible influence or sound they steal, and maybe that's what gives me hope. Keep at it guys.
The GC5, Never Bet the Devil Your Head (© 2002 Sucker and Sage Publishing)
Nothing like good old British '70s punk, with racing chord changes, stadium-like vocal chants, and a big sweaty feeling as the songs charge by. So how do four guys from Cleveland, Ohio manage that kind of sound? Beats me, but they do, and if you're a fan of songs that rip by in about two minutes, you'll be as charmed as I am when listening to their latest disc. With a raunchy sound that reminds one of bands from the Clash to the Swinging Utters, it's all toe-tapping, er, mosh-pit-banging fun. And in the spirit of their brevity, I'll keep this review short too. Oy Oy Oy!
John Forte, I, John (© 2002 Transparent Music)
Forte is probably best known for his work with the Fugees or Wyclef Jean, though others may know him from the arrest that found him with 31 pounds of liquid cocaine. Whether he was guilty, I can't say, but the feds tossed him in the big house for 14 years. Prior to the trial, he assembled the 14 songs here, a mix of hip hop, jazz, rap, and soul that is as soothing as it is filled with anguish and emotion. If you knew you were going away for a long time, chances are you'd put out some emotionally charged work, and Forte has done just that. Surprisingly, it's not whiny at all. In fact, there is an element of ease, like an island breeze in the Caribbean, and that's what makes this disc a winner. Carly Simon makes a guest appearance, along with others, and if you want something cool in a hip-hop vein, this is the disc, since Forte won't be touring anytime soon.
Telepopmusik, Genetic World (© 2002 Capitol Records)
Well, readers should know by now that I'm not a big fan of electronica, and that a lot of that Euro dance stuff just drives me batty. And though Telepopmusik start off with a few strikes against them (uh, a French trio playing techno/electronic music), I am redeemed, at least for a short while, as their CD spins away on my player. It's not just random snippets, or multi-layered sampling going on here, there's a bit more intelligence behind it all. How do I know? Well, perhaps it's the arrangements of the songs, which filter in and out sans an inordinate amount of nonsense. Or the fact it reminds me of early Kraftwerk (and those were the days), in that there's always some little sound or glitch firing off at just the right moment. Anyway, if you want your living room to feel futuristic, pour a martini and toss on this disc. And pass the orb, please.
Manifesto Jukebox, Remedy (© 2002 BYO Records)
Closing out this month is a Finnish punk trio (heh heh, I just got that finish but I just pluck the discs at random, believe me). Though many might compare them to Husker DU, this band reminds me more of the Goo Goo Dolls before they got big. That is, heavy punk, with clashing chord changes, and a ton of energy (quite different from the Dolls' current styling). And Manifesto Jukebox replicate that type of sound. While they are punkish, they're also close to a rough-and-ready metal band. There's a good amount of melody in their songs, despite their punk billing, and in spots some of the tunes sound like early Replacements. Oh sure, the vocals are belted out with a punk sensibility, but my guess is these guys could really rock the world if they changed direction just a hair. Not that they don't rock now.
Check them out.
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