Tuesday, February 28, 2006

American Analog Set and White Magic's Songs of Hurt and Healing EP

For whatever reason, Tylenol felt it needed to up its presence in the indie hipster demographic (yep!) and released this split EP in a variety of magazines in 2004/2005, providing further proof to the world that the pharmaceutical companies want to increase their deathgrip stranglehold on you, me and everybody we know (kidding!). The 6 song EP features three songs by American Analog Set, three songs by White Magic. I've never heard of White Magic, always identified this EP with the AASet, and thus here we are in the tail end of the "A" reviews.

That said, I hadn't ever listened to this EP until this morning. I've avoided the American Analog Set over the years, associated it with the passive/passive melodramatics of the indie hipster cardigan set. I tried listening to Golden Band without much success, lumped the AASet with that bulk of fragile-pop that seems like it'll break with too much attention. I'm a fan of the bedroom recordings as much as the next guy, but this was stuff that needed a nightlight. To listen to an EP actually called "Songs of Hurting and Healing," then....

...It would've been funny if they could've stuck with the Tylenol joke, but the EP's pretty much what I've already described, and the three songs by the AASet are as light weight as expected, and, thus, forgettable. I had to go back and re-listen to it one song into the latter half of the album to try and remember the AASet's three songs...and that was only ten minutes past, give or take.

The White Magic songs are related, but more adventurous. The group turns in a psych-folk set reminiscent of a less melodic Animal Collective, nods to the Velvet Underground in check. What results is slightly more interesting, though the songs are ultimately too meandering and devoid of premise to be worthwhile of re-listening.

It's a good thing, then, that this EP came out for free. Still not sure as to what Tylenol was trying to accomplish, as I'm quite certain that the pill won't heal whatever pains fans of the AASet or White Magic may have - that shit can't be healed by acetaminophen. Unfortunately (and let's hope they figure this out soon), they probably can't be healed by the AASet or White Magic, either.

Friday, February 24, 2006

the Art Ensemble of Chicago's Les Stances a Sophie

The Art Ensemble is a heady topic to write about, and any one of their landmark albums, of which Les Stances is, makes it even more difficult. Here you have one of the foremost free jazz/experimental music outfits of the past four decades (probably of all time), a group that theses and books are written about. For a blog like this to pass judgment on Les Stances, then....

...Well, to some extent, it's kinda easy: Les Stances is certifiably a masterpiece. That's a no-brainer. The soundtrack (haven't seen the film - it's a French new wave flick, coinciding with the Art Ensemble's temporary relocation to Paris in the early 70s) is the Art Ensemble at their most accessible, but with the bubbling tension of experimentation, free jazz noise, and ethno-rhythms that dominate the rest of the Art Ensemble's catalog.

The focus of Les Stances is easily "Theme de Yo Yo," featuring Fontella Bass, who had a pop hit with "Rescue Me" in the 60s and who was married to Art Ensemble member Lester Bowie at the time. Bass belts it out on "Theme de Yo Yo," which is the quintessential funk-jazz hybrid of all time. Bass rumbles "Your love is like an orwhale," with Bowie, Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman following suit with free jazz blurts, shaping the song into the growliest of growls, the most gutteral of funk. The song, quite simply, can not be perfected further.

The rest of the album is more along the experimental vein, with the Art Ensemble tackling 17th century classical composition. "Variations Sur Un Theme de Monteverdi" is what the title implies, a performance of "Lasciatemi Morire" from Monteverdi's Lamento d'Arianna. The first version is more cut and dry, an almost gothic performance of a classical piece. The second version is a New Orleans funeral romp, still tinted with darkness, but with a boisterous party atmosphere, a constant theme in much of the Art Ensemble's work - the re-shaping of more 'classical' notions of jazz into modern experimentation.

Or at least I think it is - the Art Ensemble's too complex to summate in a few paragraphs. Couple what I just wrote with the Art Ensemble's involvement with the AACM, American race politics of the time, an arguable Afro-American renaissance of the time...this could go on for days, if not years. Les Stances is a good place to start with the Art Ensemble, if only because "Theme de Yo Yo" could easily be a pop hit on its own (if not for its incredible length), but to start unravelling the album further would require me getting an academic research grant. Until then, check this out: Joseph Jarman's opened a Karate dojo. From preeminent jazz experimentalist to Karate Kid...anything is possible with the Art Ensemble, I suppose.

Friday, February 17, 2006

A:xus' Soundtrack for Life

It's always surprising when an album as diverse as A:xus' Soundtrack For Life hails from Canada, land of gazillion-member-bands-that-could've-done-fine-with-two-people bands. Our country's not particularly known for musical diversity; even with its critical acclaim, the glut of new Canadian bands all pretty much sound the same. This was particularly so when Soundtrack for Life came out half a decade back.

While Soundtrack for Life comfortable sits within one genre (light electronica), A:xus (nee Austin Bascom of Toronto) explores the four corners of said genre, and delivers up a surprisingly mature debut the likes of which our country ain't seen in awhile. It's all here - dancefloor jazz, breaks, deep house, electro - served up in your quintessential coffee table lounge format. Soundtrack for Life can be pedestrian as electronic music, but taken as pop music, it's well-rounded and thought-out, much more so than usual rough-hewn debuts.

Bascom really hit the nail on the head with the lead single, "Callin' U," a cover of Jevetta Steele's track on the Baghdad Cafe soundtrack. Instead of the soul torcher that the original was, Bascom updates it to a subtle jazzy samba number, and Namoi N'Sembi supplies amongst the best vocals of this sort, within Canada and without. The other single, his deep house cover of "When I Fall in Love," was the huge hit, the UK crowd apparently never tiring of Esthero, who does a much better job on this track (and on her other guest appearances with Ian Pooley and DJ Krush) than on her own material.

The rest of the album is thoroughly pleasant, the only stinker being the cheesy "You Make Me Feel Like (Peace, Love and Happiness)," which plays out like a Hallmark card. This is thoughtful Sunday brunch stuff, undemanding yet deserving of attention. It still feels odd that our generally suburban country can produce something this uniquely urban, so maybe it's the context that makes Soundtrack for Life so enjoyable, but either way, it is.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Tsuji Ayano's Haru wa Touki Yume no Hate ni

I first heard Tsuji Ayano (NPR feature here) in Osaka, killing time before catching the train. Her first EP had just come out on Kitchen Records, which had been previously known for more famed Japanese garage rock releases from the likes of the 5,6,7,8's. I gave pretty much everything on the listening booths a shot (including a CD of some car or stereo commercial (couldn't distinguish) of Ryuchi Sakamoto's), most of it being innocuous J-pop. Ayano stood out of the pack immediately, a girl and her ukulele. I bought the EP, thought it was a charming postcard-souvenir from a horrible trip, didn't think I'd ever hear any other music from Ayano, and somehow lost the EP somewhere along the way.

It was a huge surprise for me, then, that Ayano blew up huge in Japan shortly after. In my first few weeks back in Asia following, Ayano was on the radio. Most of the time, this would've been a mistaken occurrence: Ayano's voice is that same little Japanese girl voice that is pretty typical of anything left of centre, particularly of the Shibuya stuff. But that ukulele is some of the most fucked up shit Asia's ever heard, and stuck out like a sore thumb immediately (it's perhaps telling that Ayano's rise to fame was due to soundtrack work for a Ghibli Studios cartoon).

It's odd that any music like that would make it to mainstream radio in North America, much less in Asia, where over-produced lite pop reigns supreme (somebody's got to feed new material to the karaoke bars). I headed over to the CD stores and sure enough, Ayano was huge, but in a kind of novel way akin to...well, akin to nothing. It's an oddity, to be sure.

I picked up this album (the translated title I swiped from an online CD store site; there's nary a word of English on the packaging), which is primarily a re-recording of the aforementioned EP on a major label. Most of the songs have been taken from their no-frills ukulele-only versions into more produced versions, complete with backing band, orchestra, etc. It's still charming, though not as charming: it approximates accessibility a little more, and thus the sheer eccentricity of the matter diminished. The better songs on the album, then, are those that repeat on the same: Ayano and her ukulele, sometimes backed up with a sole trumpet.

If Ayano can make it big in Asia, it's a topsy turvy world. Ayano's fame is a bit affirming, and should give every oddball in the world some hope. Will ukulele players make it big on American Idol? Probably not, but at the very least they'll be big in Japan.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Richard Ashcroft's Alone With Everybody

To get this out of the way: I never really listened to the Verve. I liked "Bittersweet Symphony," maybe listened to that album one afternoon while stuck at my sister's. That's the extent of my experience with the Verve, and thus I'm not going to give any insightful comparisons between Richard Ashcroft's solo output and that.

I can't really remember if I bought Alone With Everybody first or the first Unkle album, which Ashcroft appears on (and does a tremendous job on "Lonely Soul"), but the general theme of what I associate with the man runs constant: strings. The opening strings on "A Song For the Lovers" is a tremendous rush, and was enough to entice me into the rest of the album.

Luckily, said strings feature prominently throughout the rest of the album, and used to great effect (what is it with Brits and their love of anthems?). Apart from aforementioned single, Ashcroft delivers a great affectionate haze throughout the first 1/3 of Alone With Everybody, with it only succumbing to twangy slide guitar in the last 1/3 (thus making that portion a lot less enjoyable). The first 1/3 features solid, yet self-conscious, love songs, and though one could easily see Ashcroft giving into melodrama, it's well-balanced here, and more warming than cliched (the segue from "A Song for Lovers" into "I Get My Beat" is quite effective). The rest of the album's not bad, but doesn't quite live up to the peak that the album sets for itself, particularly on "New York."

For the most part, then, Alone With Everybody's perhaps a little too caustic, touches on perhaps a little bit of self-importance, and maybe a little inconsistent, but enjoyable nonetheless. I've no idea how it stands up next to the Verve, but the first two songs are enough to stand on their own.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Active Ingredients' Titration

I have no hesitation in saying that Chad Taylor is my favorite jazz drummer - nay, my favorite drummer period - around today, since hearing his work on the Chicago Underground albums, wherein he outshines Rob Mazurek at times by leaps and bounds, and his work on pop albums like Sam Prekop's solo material. Taylor's a versatile machine, subtle in approach but with surgical precision.

My curiosity piqued when I had heard Taylor finally pieced together his own outfit, Active Ingredients. The group features three Chicago players, three NYC players, and Taylor - a good overview of his work in the Windy City and his current work having relocated to New York. It's largely what one would expect, modern compositions heavily dependent on free atonal solos (and thus not strictly free jazz in the purist sense), but with Taylor leading the charge, instead of the usual frontman trumpet or sax.

Taylor's playing here is meticulous and aggressive, often working in differing time schemes, but still understated and minimalist when compared to more famous Chicago drummers like John Herndon (probably not the most fair of comparisons, but whatever...). His pieces are set up to provide healthy frameworks for the horn players to blast through, with David Boykin (tenor sax) giving the greatest of perforances here, particularly on "Slate" and "Modern Mythology," matching Taylor's balanced mix of technical and emotive (this was sometimes a problem with the Chicago Underground, as I've always found Mazurek to be more a technical player (though a great one at that), until they released the amazing Slon).

Titration's a worthy debut for Taylor, providing just enough time for Taylor to showcase his own playing without being overbearing. With less talented players surrounding him, Active Ingredients might not have worked, as Taylor's understated enough to require more push in the front line. Here, Taylor's found the perfect accompaniment and cohesion, making Active Ingredients one of the most exciting jazz outfits around today.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

the Angel's No Gravity

I've been procrastinating about reviewing No Gravity, and have oscillated between reviewing this album and the other album the Angel had produced under the name "60 Channels." I've listened to both a number of times now, with nothing grabbing me from either. Both are quite boring, with No Gravity perhaps being the more hip-hop of the two, with heavy inflections of dub throughout.

Neither album is particularly noteworthy, apart from context. The Angel remains one of few female producers in the world of both hip hop and electronica, and certainly one of few female producers that have been at it for over a decade (nothing of note, though, apart from working with Monday Michiru and a few soundtracks). Negating that minute point of interest, though, and what remains is dull. It's not that No Gravity or any of the other work is mediocre (in fact, her remix of Donald Byrd's "Kofi" on The New Groove: Blue Note Remixed was quite good), it's just that it's overly average, with nothing that sets it apart. I've been procrastinating about writing about either, because neither album provides anything noteworthy enough to discuss.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Animal On Wheels' Designs and Mistakes

Animals on Wheels' Designs and Mistakes is largely full of the latter, the largest mistake of which was to release the album in 1997, at the tail end of a glut of experimental electronic music. Whereas Ninja Tune had once been the forerunner of innovation in the genre, it was merely playing catch-up with Designs and Mistakes, what with Squarepusher et al already having dumped album after album in the two-three years preceeding. Simply put, Designs and Mistakes, at the time, just seemed like more of the same...boring.

Remove it from that context, however, and Designs and Mistakes isn't that bad. It's surely lifted from the blueprint of Squarepusher's Feed Me Weird Things, but perhaps done a little better. Instead of relying on fusion jazz, as Squarepusher does, often to detriment, Animals on Wheels has a broader sample. This is the most effective on "Loath" and "Eggshell," where the more erratic and frenetic beats of the genre are paired with the atonal jazz phrasings, hinting at the fact that, ahem, maybe free jazz would've made the most sensible (and rewarding) sample with this stuff.

That, then, surely makes Designs and Mistakes one of the first albums to prove one of the underlying assumptions of the Clutterer: music can not only be salvagable from its overlying context, but can also be improved. Now if only it weren't so generally boring as well....

Cannonball Adderley's Phenix

I bought Phenix while in Texas (TCM having been exhausted), having liked some of the funk jazz stuff that I had heard by Adderley and curious for more. I'd always found Cannonball Adderley's solo material hard to come by in local record stores, so I picked Phenix up when I saw it, estimating that 1975 would've been around the right period to check Adderley out.

Adderley's a hard guy to place. He's generally a bit too traditional jazz-ish to be amongst the more funky of the soul jazz guys, but he's quite obviously more concerned with composition over improvisation than the more straightahead jazz guys. That's not to say the man is a slouch in either way, but merely to say that Adderley rides the fence quite comfortably.

That said, Phenix isn't remotely heavy with the funk, and at times seems alot like lite jazz. Save for George Duke's organ playing and Airto Moreira, well, being Airto Moreira (ie. one of the best latin jazz percussionists in history)(check out Airto's "Samba de Flora"), there's not a lot of umph here, which is understandable as Phenix was supposed to serve as a career 're-visit,' a re-recording of older Adderley material recorded a little before his death. There's still a lot to appreciate here, but until they start making some of the other Adderley releases more readily available, this one will probably sit on the shelves for a few more years.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Afghan Whigs' 1965

People either really, really hate the Afghan Whigs, or they really, really love the Whigs - there's few people in between. I'm of this exclusive group - I have neither passion nor disdain for them - but this is a group that incited an entire 'zine devoted to their hatred of them (entitled "Fat Greg Dulli," excerpts of which you can find here), while prompting one music columnist tell me Dulli was the "best voice in rock and roll today" (I'm not even paraphrasing).

It's not hard to see why: Greg Dulli, frontman, struts around with more swagger than anyone since Mick Jagger (well, maybe Prince...). The man is cocksure, and even the generally neutral Allmusic describes him as "pretentious," but it's used, assumedly deliberately, to good effect. If the Whigs' schtick is to fuse soul music back with rock and roll, it's certainly James Brown, Ike Turner, et al they're channelling, chauvinism, soul, and all.

"It's a man's, man's, man's world, but it would be nothing without a woman...": Dulli knows this in certain spades and it's most evident on 1965. The album hits on Dulli's usual themes of angst and love, the contradictory mix of self-loathing and egoism, but is amongst the band's most successful attempts at their bar band soul. Instead of showing their chops on old soul/rnb covers (as on their great cover of Barry White's "Can't Get Enough of Your Love" on the Beautiful Girls soundtrack), the Afghan Whigs finally have enough of their own material to achieve same, making 1965 one of their most cohesive albums since Gentleman. If fans loved them before, they'll love them that much more afterwards.

That said, the album also perfects the exact reasons why people hate the Afghan Whigs. Even if Dulli hasn't been a self-absorbed asshole before, he's certainly one now. Whatever character Dulli is playing - and one hopes that he is - it's a frustrating one, worthy just as much of contempt as he is of salvation. On 1965, Dulli propounds all the reasons why one can't love him, and while it might be easy to empathasize, it's just as easy to agree.

A Guy Called Gerald's Essence

On that black futurism tip, one of the most consistently futurism and utopism obsessed genres has been so-called "intelligent" drum and bass (hitting a full tilt with 4 Hero's Two Pages, which features a friggin' outer-space manifesto). The genre's got an unhealthy obsession with all things outer-space, often in the most new age-y of sentiments. If it wasn't for the dance element of it, this would be music to hold crystals to, and if it wasn't for the frenetic beat, it would be all to easy to dismiss.

And so it's the same with A Guy Called Gerald's Essence. AGCG, who was really better known for acid house, came out with this drum and bass album after five years of working on it. The album opens with the spoken word track "the Universe," which features sentiments as "We would find that the body is made up of a massive resonating particles and is in itself a universe." That prepares one for the rest of the preponderent nonsense that fills out the rest of the lyrics on Essence - instead of the political subtext that might underlie Sun Ra's Saturn mysticism, Essence becomes more like a sub-par episode of Babylon 5.

But there's the saving grace: Louise Rhode (of Lamb)'s performance on "Humanity." In contrast to the naturalist sentiment of the rest of the album,the song's a wonderfully humanist moment (the title becomes obvious), where Rhodes sings of self-doubt and confusion, only to reassure herself that "it's just my humanity getting the better of me." Rhodes has just enough flaws in her voice to give the song great credit, but enough strength in her voice to make the song affirming.

That's a constant on Essence: as cheesy the album's lyrical content might be, AGCG's gone to great lengths at composing pieces that frame its excellent vocalists (including the unlikely return of Lady Miss Kier of Dee-Lite fame). There's the aforementioned Rhodes track, and vocalist Wendy Page does a stellar job throughout most of the rest of the album. The only real stinker is AGCG's brother, David Simpson, who's got a good technical voice, but lacks in the emoting.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Tony Allen's Black Voices

On the heels of that Antibalas review, here's another Afrobeat album. Tony Allen was Fela Kuti's drummer in Africa 70, making the man the most important Afrobeat drummer EVER, and was to Fela what Clyde "Funky Drummer" Stubblefield was to James Brown. Allen's been releasing his own solo material since leaving Fela's fold, disappeared for about a decade in the 80s, and resurfacing in the late 90s with Black Voices.

Black Voices really isn't an album in itself. It's comprised of only four original compositions, with remixes of each by Doctor L filling out the rest of the hour. Allen explores the outer realms of Afrobeat and tries to update the sound with dub inflections and electronic elements, to varying degrees of success.

The mixture of dub and afrobeat sounds good on paper but really works out as an oil/water mixture - afrobeat's much to energetic to be able to absorb the lackadaisical dub. What results, then, is a spaced-out version of Afrobeat that can't muster enough energy, which is disappointing, seeing as how Afrobeat's manic energy is really all that gets it through its typical 8 to 9 minute song lengths (I think Roy Ayers and Fela Kuti's "2000 Black" clocked in at 20 minutes).

It's the remixes, then, that saves Allen. The standout is the Psychejuju mix of "Ariya" takes the boring original, amps up the drums, throws in your typical Afrobeat chants, and keeps it entertaining throughout. Without such touches, there's just not enough elsewhere to keep one's attention. It was a noble attempt, and still more interesting than Antibalas, but Black Voices is an average product from a former master.

Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paraiso UFO's Electric Heavy Land

Now, I love Japanese psychedelic avant noise-rock as much as the next guy (read: not very much), but let me sum up the Acid Mothers' Electric Heavy Land for you:


Electric Heavy Land is a hard nut to listen to, and puts the old stamina to the test. I put it on and had to leave the room at least twice. It's like listening to 70's prog rock fronted by Yoko(which wouldn't technically be a bad thing), filtered through Doppler effect ad infinitum and processed through a tin can. It's extremely excrutiating, and I've only ever managed to listen to the whole thing through once (for this review, in fact).

I'm not opposed to Japanese noise-rock: the Boredoms got really Kraut-rock interesting with Super AE, and I'm at least respectful of Ghost. But apart from Acid Mothers' superficial hilarity (the group is really a "soul collective" which has been mistaken for a religious cult at times, and their website is pretty hee-larious shit too)(I'm especially curious as to who "Father Moo" is), this stuff just ain't for the masses, and while that in itself is a fine thing, this stuff just ain't for the rest of us, either.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Juan Atkins' Wax Trax! Mastermix Vol. 1

Few DJ mix cds are interesting, but Juan Atkins' first mix CD is for two reasons.

First, Wax Trax! marks Atkins' first mix CD in his 20-plus year career. Atkins is largely credited for being the forbearer of techno (yep - he's the one to blame/credit, depending on your view of the genre), having been in the band Cybotron, releasing amongst the first techno records (alongside Derrick May) under the guise Model 500, and starting the first Detroit techno label, Metroplex Records (which released the first Derrick May material). The setlist chosen by Atkins largely reflects this fact, and provides an overview of the genre through the 80s and 90s, siding with the more robotic, metallic choices than the more jazzy choices that fellow Detroit DJ Carl Craig might have chosen.

Second, and this is straight out of the comprehensive liner notes written by the Wire's Mike Shallcross, the origins of techno had a "political subtext": "On one level black music futurism describes a desire to enter a utopia where discrimination no longer exists." While this view might be reading more into the stuff than is actually there, Shallcross does make good by pointing out Atkins - and techno's - early preponderence with science fiction, futurism and utopism, making the music as much a descendant of Sun Ra as it is from Giorgio Moroder...well, at least thematically.

The initial space-age sounds of early Detroit techno (Atkins' own Model 500 hit is entitled "No UFOs") is a good mark of African American communities at a crossroads, where one segment of Afrika Bambaataa fans went with NYC and hip hop, and the other segment went with Berlin and techno. Techno might not have amassed into the cultural force that hip hop has, but it - and electronic music in general - has made large impact. Because of this disparity in effect, though, it's sometimes hard to remember that both forms have been around for about the same time.

Outside of its historic context, Atkins' Wax Trax! probably isn't very useful for anyone disinterested in the music, and probably isn't very useful for anyone passionate about it either. The selection is particularly heartless and cold (though sexy in places), and Atkins' own mixing is often inaccurate (this results in what might sound like purposeful polyrhythms, but it could easily be mistaken for not getting the next record on beat). Wax Trax! is great as artifact, but it's unsuccessful as much more.

Archers of Loaf's All the Nation's Airports

Let the mid-90's review continue: the Archers of Loaf provided necessary roughness to the early to mid-90's "college rock" genre, giving it a little more straightforwardness than Pavement, a little more professionalism than Guided By Voices, and a little more accessibility than Sonic Youth. The band was pretty ubiquitous on college radio for a good chunk of that decade, only to be replaced by Eric Bachman's Crooked Fingers project after the Archers called it quits.

All that said, I fully anticipated being bored by All the Nation's Airports, seeing as how alot of the music of that period hasn't stood against time. I expected no more than a nostalgic ride, and the Clutterer is all about dismantling nostalgia. It was to a great degree of surprise, then, that I actually still liked the album, would probably listen to it again, but (who am I kidding?) shelve it in the long run.

The Archers of Loaf do a worthy service to post-punk, angular music, years before people attached the prefix "emo" to it and ruined college rock forever. All the Nation's Airport flows between that and Harvest period Neil Young piano songs, transitioning without being jarring, conceptual without being pretentious, earnest without being naive. This is meat and potatoes stuff, devoid of dressing, and as such All the Nation's Airports is still appreciable and listenable.

It's a true surprise that I still enjoy the stuff, but an even bigger surprise that others have enjoyed it to the point of not letting go. As good as All the Nation's Airports may be, it's still dated material, and there's no sense of repeating it. Why hundreds of band still latch onto this sound ten years after the fact, then, is a mystery to me.

Monday, February 06, 2006

At17's Kiss Kiss Kiss

It's no big secret: the music of my people sucks. Cantopop, Mandarinpop, Whatever - it's a bland, overproduced mess, with about as much flavour as tofu, sterile and overly mechanical, with melodrama a replacement for passion...and that's on it's better days.

That said, a small current of alternative music has finally found its place in Hong Kong. Though Taiwan has had a long history of left-of-centre bands, Hong Kong had been mired for nearly a decade with the "Song Gods" (Leon Lai, Andy Lau, and Aaron Kwok), only to segue into faux pop-rock-rap shite, all comprised of actors turned singers turned actors. It's only been about a few years that other music has bubbled from the undercurrent, and only the recent past that it's been any good.

At17 are an odd duo: in a market more used to Debbie Gibson wannabes (Faye Wong being one of few exceptions), here you have HK's basic answer to Tegan and Sara (for better or worse). The two mainly do their acoustic pop thing, but with the right production, Kiss Kiss Kiss sees flourishes of Stereolab, shoegazing Brit-pop, speakeasy jazz, and better Kylie. The two have obvious talent, and it's a minor miracle that they haven't been overproduced and subjected to the cookiecutters.

Kiss Kiss Kiss is also a small breath of relief from HK's so-called indie pop, which has been run rampant by the lo-fi twee-pop of artists like Pancakes, whose earnestness quickly gets overtaken by shoddiness. Instead, At17 find a good balance between glossiness and quirkiness, and though there's the odd clunker, Kiss Kiss Kiss is generally light and fun fare.

Aerial M's As Performed By Aerial M

The David Pajo timeline is impossible to completely summarize, sprawling and branched as it is, but it's all rooted in the similar (except for maybe Zwan), and Aerial M provides a good summary.

Recorded in 97, Aerial M was Pajo's solo project after leaving Tortoise and before redubbing himself as Papa M. The seven song album is more reminiscent of the latter material, comprised of pastoral acoustic pieces, more akin to Bundy K Brown's Pullman (though less bluegrass-y) than with the tension (or noise) of Slint. It's still got the elements of all of these Pajo projects (all of it being keenly familiar of Slint in some sort of fashion), albeit a more sleepy version.

With that said, As Performed By... was shortlived, and for good reason. It's not quite as interesting as the former Pajo stuff (Slint and Millions Now Living... being pretty hard to beat), and it's not quite as immediate (that term being used loosely) as the later Papa M stuff. Aerial M hints at all of these other moments, provides a brief summary of them, but ultimately only points to them as being more worthy of attention, with the sole exception being "Always Farewell," which stands amongst Pajo's best.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Keren Ann's Not Going Anywhere

France has got a monopoly on fragile female voices and acoustic guitars, and Keren Ann's English debut, Not Going Anywhere adds to that pot.

Though Ann's voice shows a bit more strength than she'll let on, she's still of the Jane Birken whisper camp. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but there's not a lot to differentiate here, and Ann isn't quite charismatic enough to set herself apart from the rest. Her voice does hint at some range, but Ann chooses to underplay it, and instead of having the fragile-yet-powerful voice that Francoise Hardy perfected, she comes across as limp as Julie Doiron.

What saves Not Going Anywhere is typical of alot of similar albums: the production. Ann partners again with producer Benjamin Biolay, who packs the album with strings, horns, and choirs. It's all pastiche, but it's done effectively, and while it's not as picture-perfect as Coralie Clement's Salle des Pas Pardus, it's charming nonetheless. It makes the album pleasant, but Not Going Anywhere remains very aptly titled.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Air Miami's Me, Me, Me

In the mid-90s, Teen Beat seemed like a little brother to the bigger folks of Sub Pop and Matador, the type of little brother that's both oblivious as to his dorkiness and cocky about it at the same time. Indie rock crowds being what they are, Teen Beat grew larger in popularity as mob mentality took over (conformity apparently being of much larger appeal than thought), regardless of the vast amouts of shite they released. A large proponent of that, I suppose, was Mark Robinson.

Air Miami came on the heels of Robinson and Bridget Cross' other hip band, Unrest (Unrest drummer Phil Krauth going on to release inconsistent solo material...much like *spoiler!* Mark Robinson and Bridget Cross...). The differences are near-negligable, but they're there. Robinson seemed obsessed with 80's new wave and all that dance punk stuff 20 years before the most recent revival, and thus Air Miami's got a slight bit more of that sort of flair; Cross continued with her sad sack material to even it out. The results are hit and miss: at times it's infectious ("I Hate Milk," "World Cup Fever," and "You Sweet Little Heartbreaker"), at other times it's limp and boring ("Dolphin Expressway," "Seabird").

Robinson's still got a penchant for that in-your-face irony, the sort of which most folk hopefully outgrew in their teens. It's a little bit charming at first, not having listened to Me, Me, Me in seven or eight years. That charm doesn't last past the first listen, and becomes a numbing annoyance after the second.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The Association's Greatest Hits

Growing up listening to lite AM/FM, I've always been a secret fan of all that old AM gold (the Fifth Dimension, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Free Design, etc., though I become a bit more cautious with the Mamas and the Papas), but it wasn't until I picked up the Association's Greatest Hits a few years back that I appreciated them for much more than kitsch.

Though I can still listen to "Cherish" without cringing as much as some people (particularly when the Annie Potts prom flashback scene from Pretty in Pink comes to mind), the rest of Greatest Hits is what draws me. The Association does a good balancing act between psychedelic folk and post-Pet Sounds Beach Boys. With that, this is a heavy, heavy statement: the Association almost outdoes the Beach Boys, particularly on tracks like "Like Always" and the whacked out Gregorian intro on "Requiem for the Masses." The latter track almost approximates the mad genius of Brian Wilson stepping into the Smile era, with Wilson eeking out a tiny edge in that his arrangements are more fucked up (indeed, the Association released a song called "Broccoli" on their self-titled album in '69, analogous (ie just as ridiculous) to Brian Wilson's "Vegetables" on Smile).

There's also the quasi-garage tracks too, where the Association "rock out" as best they can (read: not much). "Along Comes Mary" is always fun to listen to, reminiscent of a lighter Left Banke. Extrapolate this even a little further and it isn't hard to hear precursors to Love and the Arthur Lee stuff.

Greatest Hits is a good start to the Association...one that I never really followed up on. As with many groups (for instance, aforementioned Love), the Association's never really seen a North American re-release, and Greatest Hits remains the sole CD offering that one could find easily. It heightens their mystery to me, and I'm almost reluctant to seek more of it out, lest I find myself back in kitsch territory. For now, the Association's fantastic in smaller doses.