Welcome to A&A. There are 14 full reviews in this issue. Click on an artist to jump to the review, or simply scroll through the list. If you want information on any particular release, check out the Label info page. All reviews are written by Jon Worley unless otherwise noted.

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A&A #288 reviews
August 2007
  • Drzhivegas Get Down (self-released)
  • Free Diamonds By the Sword (Deep Elm)
  • Gringo Star Gringo Star EP (self-released)
  • Margo Guryan 16 Words CD5 (Pure Mint)
  • Hawk Rock N Roll (self-released)
  • The Leftovers On the Move (Rally)
  • Marco Mahler Design in Quick Rotation (self-released)
  • Mass Shivers Ecstatic Eyes Grow Glossy (Sickroom)
  • The Minor Canon No Good Deed Goes Unpunished (Tenderness)
  • Ms Led Shake Yourself Awake (Fish the Cat)
  • Sadaharu Resist. Revolt. Reclaim. (CI)
  • Silver Sun Dad's Weird Dream (Invisible Hands)
  • Spanish for 100 Say What You Want to Say to Me (Fish the Cat)
  • Jason Spooner The Flame You Follow (self-released)
  • Also recommended: The best of the rest

    Get Down

    Drzhivegas is a Van Halen for this generation. Well, it could be. I doubt these guys are going to break like that (almost no one does), but it seems possible to me. Just like Van Halen took all the catchy bits of 70s arena rock and dolled them up with a wildman singer and (truly) revolutionary use of the guitar, Drzhivegas drops stellar riffage (from almost every side of rock) on top of unreconstructed disco beats, bouncy bass lines and, yes, vocals courtesy of a blonde-mopped wildman. To be sure, the similarity is one of attitude and not sound.

    Drzhivegas seems to really have hit upon something here. These are serious boogie workouts augmented by loud and crunchy guitars and plenty of soul. Many have tried to fuse all these crowd-pleasing sorts of music--the best, to my ear, was Bootsauce's 1990 effort, The Brown Album--but by the end of those albums there was a palpable feeling of exhaustion. It's hard work making ultra-catchy tuneage.

    This album sounds utterly effortless. It is a party record, pure and simple, though the lyrics are often slyly clever. The overall sound is sharp, but the bass is nice and round. And Frankie Muriel's vocals aren't the smoothest around, but he sells these songs with aplomb, not unlike a certain Diamond Dave did 30 years ago.

    I know I'm gonna regret the Van Halen reference, but it still makes sense to me. These guys have style. The band sounds as if it doesn't have a care, and so you get nine pop/rock/r&b/disco raveups imbued with pure pleasure. My teenage throbbing desire, indeed.

    www: www.drzhivegas.com

    Free Diamonds
    By the Sword
    (Deep Elm)

    Another dose of modern no wave pop from these freakazoids. I still can't get my head around everything these folks are trying to do, but I have to admit I like it a lot.

    Much of the allure resides in the ultra-tight rhythm section. While everything might (and often does) go to pot, the percussion, bass and (occasionally) rhythm guitar keep the songs locked in.

    Which is how you can sound tight and astoundingly loose at the same time. I think that might be the secret of why these folks appeal to dorks like me. Even the madness is calculated, I guess--and it works well enough to make me smile.

    Oh, hey, I just picked up on something of a Meat Puppets reference--1980s Meat Puppets, mind you. Free Diamonds make little pretense to sophistication. These folks merely make music of the most maddening sort.

    Deep Elm Records
    P.O. Box 5260
    Clover, SC 29710
    e-mail: info@deepelm.com
    www: www.deepelm.com

    Gringo Star
    Gringo Star EP

    The boys may hail from the Atlanta area, but this music is much more western in origin. The country and blues references have more of a California than red dirt feel, and the piano pop constructions (even if the songs themselves are driven by guitars) are tres-L.A.

    Every once in while, though, there's a bit of ragged harmony (or somesuch) that just screams Athens. The full production sound boosts these songs out of the speakers with strength and purpose. In other words, this stuff sounds great.

    Good songs, good playing, good production. Six songs are nice, a full-length would be nicer. Gringo Star bears watching.

    www: http://www.myspace.com/thegringostars

    Margo Guryan
    16 Words CD5
    (Pure Mint)

    The "16 Words" are: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Those are the lyrics of the song. There are also samples from the Prez himself, all thrown together into a vaguely martial existential pop song. As anti-war songs go, this is one of the most brutal in its power.

    Lying liars and all that, but Guryan doesn't really dwell on that aspect. She simply puts the song out and lets the listener figure out what's going on. It's not subtle, but neither is it obvious. Quite a fine tune.

    The other song is "Yes I Am," a 2001 song from a previous album. It's more of a Dusty Springfield-style chick rocker, dolled up very nicely. These two songs make me most interested in hearing what else Guryan is up to these days.

    www: http://www.pure-mint.com

    Rock N Roll

    Hawk sticks to mid-tempo rockers (so, um, 80s rock and roll). That does lend a certain sameness to some of these songs. On the other hand, if you ever wondered what Loverboy might have done if it hadn't discovered the power ballad, then this album might tell you.

    Probably not the reference these boys would like, but this reminds me a lot of that first Loverboy album. Lean, stripped down rock and roll that never gets out of line. Can that actually be rock and roll? Yeah, I think so.

    The production gives the guitars just enough oomph to carry the day. Otherwise, the mix is fairly spartan, letting the songs themselves do most of the work.

    And they do. The lyrics entice a few wry smiles, but the real pleasure here is the simple nature of the music. There's nothing complicated in the writing, and Hawk doesn't hide behind studio tricks. The boys just play rock and roll. Or rock n roll. Whatever.

    www: http://www.hawkmusic.net

    The Leftovers
    On the Move

    Blissed-out punk pop...just skip the first song, okay? It's not bad, but it just doesn't set the table properly. The second track, "Dance With Me," would be much more appropriate. But I don't need to get into a sequencing digression or anything...

    Ben Weasel had his hands all over this (including, specifically, the sequencing--ouch!), and this does fall into his territory. Ephemeral, perhaps, but when the chords are this muscular and the hooks this sweet, ephemeral can last a lifetime.

    There's just enough oomph in the production to kick these songs into pop heaven. Not Mass Giorgini style by any means (though his punk wall of sound would probably suit these songs as well), there's plenty of room to breathe here. Makes the songs sound like old friends.

    And if my enthusiasm doesn't flag, they might well be lifelong buds. The Leftovers don't do anything but play exceptional punk pop. The kinda stuff that makes one happy to be alive.

    Rally Records
    P.O. Box 447
    Mars, PA 16046
    www: www.rallyrecords.com

    Marco Mahler
    Design in Quick Rotation

    Exceedingly understated songs, most of them just Mahler and his guitar (with the occasional overdub and bass line). The style isn't really folk, either, but more pop along the lines of James Taylor or Paul Simon. Though significantly more minimalist than either of those guys.

    Indeed, the stark nature of this recording is its most arresting feature. It took me a while to really figure out the songs. That doesn't make much sense, as they're pretty much right in my face, but then, there's a reason my mom made sure my name had only three letters.

    Yes, I miss the obvious all the time. And while this album is anything but, Mahler's approach doesn't waver from the first note to the last. He travels through his songs, using each to change course ever so subtly.

    Not nearly so idiosyncratic as a Simon Joyner or Songs:Ohia or Wil Oldham or whatnot, Mahler has nonetheless managed to notch his own first-rate entry into the minimalist singer-songwriter ledger. Fine work.

    www: www.marcomahler.com

    Mass Shivers
    Ecstatic Eyes Grow Glossy

    Some fine wackiness from up Chicago way. Mass Shivers plays that rhythm-heavy, math-addled post-rockin' kinda stuff. As if the very nature of songs themselves don't matter much.

    How do I know? People don't title their songs "Womanizing Metal Studs" or "Quinine Peninsula" (parts one through three, not in sequence) if they're at all concerned with traditional song structure. Okay, so that's a bit of an overstatement. But I can say that these songs hang together by the barest scraps of rhythmic joy.

    And it is joy, my friends. These are the most kinetic of works, unbridled by any "normal" concept of melody or harmony or, for that matter, key. These things would be an unholy mess if the drums, and often the drums alone, didn't keep one toe in the pool of reality.

    Yet for all my petty whining, I must say this is one of the most exciting albums I've heard in ages. If you can break almost all the rules and still create an album this engaging and accessible, you just might be on the brink of genius. Play it loud and play it often.

    Sickroom Records
    P.O. Box 47830
    Chicago, IL 60647
    www: www.sickroomrecords.com

    The Minor Canon
    No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

    Elegiac pop that sometimes sounds downright majestic. The Minor Canon uses horns to a wonderful effect and kicks out its underplayed anthems with just enough slacker grace to convince you they aren't entirely serious about their pretentious nature.

    Got that? Me either. Still, the Minor Canon does an amazing job with the arrangements of its songs. There's plenty of space and very little clutter, even at the edges. It isn't hard to imagine this stuff being played in your living room--there is some drama, but these songs are mostly quiet affairs. With devastating consequences.

    Sometimes, when you want to sound really, really important, the best thing is to strip everything down to the barest essentials. These songs are fairly complex, but it's not hard to pick out the different ideas within each. If they didn't work, this album would be a mess. It's anything but.

    Each song sucks you in that much further. Quite an impressive album. The Minor Canon's quiet intensity is impossible to shake.

    Tenderness Records
    2350 1/2 Teviot St.
    Los Angeles, CA 90039
    www: www.sickroomrecords.com

    Ms Led
    Shake Yourself Awake
    (Fish the Cat)

    The third Ms Led album I've heard, and it's just as arresting as the first two. That said, the formula hasn't changed. Lesli Wood wails and provides the response to her own call, even when it sounds a wee bit forced. The band is heavy, but always in motion. The songs themselves are a bit crafty.

    Ms Led's energy has always overcome such minor complaints in the past, and it does here. In fact, I'd say the eccentricities are a bit more under control here, which makes the stuff a bit more accessible without draining the songs of their character.

    The production sound is full but clean. Space where there should be some, and a hint of fuzz where that is necessary. The mix is by Kramer, a man who knows something about that sort of thing.

    What else to say? Ms Led is still kicking out ballsy, thoughtful songs. Wood is in fine sneer, and the rest of the band (including Saeta mate Matt Menovcik) rips when ripping is in order. Smashing, as always.

    Fish the Cat
    2230 4th Ave. #221
    Seattle, WA 98121

    Resist. Revolt. Reclaim.
    (CI Records)

    Sadaharu has always reminded me of the Refused, except not so self-consciously arty. The power, the anger, the blistering guitar licks...there's an awful lot to like.

    Best of all, these boys don't know how to let up off the throttle. The songs themselves have somewhat sparse arrangements, but the rhythms pulsate ceaselessly. This album is constantly in motion.

    And while not arty, Sadaharu doesn't really stick to any conventional songwriting structure. The songs are all over the place, kinda like Rage Against the Machine at its best. And rather than get stuck in repetitive riffage (as Rage did more often than not), these guys are always changing things up.

    Never a dull moment. Never a quiet moment, either. Sadaharu doesn't go for introspection. This album is all about anger and action. I can get into that. In a big way.

    CI Records
    1224 Millersville Pike
    Lancaster, PA 17603
    www: http://www.cirecords.com

    Silver Sun
    Dad's Weird Dream
    (Invisible Hands)

    Brit popsters who sound positively Canadian--a la New Pornographers, of course. I suppose turnabout is fair play, and these guys play more than fair. Fairly. Whatever. Freakin' grammar, man.

    Thing is, Silver Sun pays attention to the little details like that. The songs turn on small ideas that you might miss the first time. Could be a wrinkle in the hook or the lyrics, but these guys are more than willing to shift on a dime. Muscular riffs take flight, manic harmonies disappear without warning...don't try this at home, folks.

    The production is pleasantly shiny--again, think New Pornographers or similarly bouncy complex pop fare. That serves these quirky songs quite well; the wacky ideas bound out with abandon.

    Summer might be ready to begin its slow fade, but Silver Sun is on the rise. Take the top down and drop the pedal. Your ticket to fun is here.

    Invisible Hands Music
    15 Chalk Farm Road
    London NW1 8AG
    United Kingdom
    www: http://www.invisiblehands.co.uk

    Spanish for 100
    Say What You Want to Say to Me
    (Fish the Cat)

    Back in the glorious '90s, there was something called modern rock. Not exactly "alternative," not really punk, not anything in particular. Most of the time, though, most "modern rock" bands sounded a lot like U2--pick whatever album you like.

    Spanish for 100 sounds nothing like U2, but it seems to me that this is what "modern rock" ought to be. Vaguely melodic songs played with vigor and intensity without a commitment to any particular sound.

    At times mathy, at others simply nice and stridently anthemic, Spanish for 100 merely plays good music. Stuff that is most definitely rock, not pop. Serious fare for folks who don't mind thinking about what they're hearing. Like I said, good music.

    I'm still not able to pick out anything particularly distinctive about these guys, but that should come with time. And I think I'll be spending plenty of time with this disc.

    Fish the Cat
    2230 4th Ave. #221
    Seattle, WA 98121

    Jason Spooner
    The Flame You Follow

    I put a note on this one after doing my first listens: "Keep listening. It gets better." So I didn't start writing this review until I hit the fourth song. It does get better, I think, but I also think that Spooner's well-polished version of latter-days Dylan-meets-mid 70's Paul Simon is a bit out of my comfort zone. I needed to meet him halfway.

    It's not that these songs are bad. They're cool, sophisticated and sublimely crafted. And I like Dylan and Simon (no matter the era). But something in his manner didn't sit well with me. I spent a long time thinking about it, and then I realized that I liked this stuff an awful lot. So I didn't worry about whatever reservations I had.

    Part of it is that the songs in the middle of the album are more complete and interesting than the ones on the edges. It's almost like the first three songs are warm-ups--good ones, but still. Then everything takes off before it fades a bit at the end. Ah, well. Those five songs in the middle are great, and that's better than most albums. Sometimes Spooner finds the groove, and sometimes it's obvious that he's working hard. If he can find that extra gear, that way of getting into the zone on all his songs, he's got a great future.

    www: http://www.jasonspooner.com

    Also recommended:

    The Action Painters Chubby Dancer (self-released)
    Fine minimalist strident emo, if that makes any sense. The Action Painters may play loudly, but they're also rather restrained. It's a dichotomy that works well. These songs kept me off balance, and I like that.
    www: http://www.actionpaintersband.com

    All Teeth and Knuckles Club Hits to Hit the Clubs With (Lujo)
    A couple guys from San Francisco who work dorky electronic hip hop about as hard as possible. These songs are improbable and the beats utterly juvenile, but this sounds like a parody of the Streets--which is why this is remotely interesting. I don't know how serious these guys are, but they're too wacky to ignore.
    www: http://www.arizonatheband.com

    Audible Stellar Hypnotic Situations Audible Stellar Hypnotic Situations (self-released)
    Six guys who space out on some of the wildest stuff imaginable. These songs have some serious grooves, but the final sound is definitely in orbit. Kinda like if Miles Davis hooked up with Hawkwind. An interesting idea that never got old for me.
    www: http://www.ashs.com

    Avagami Metagami (Lens/Pravda)
    Two guys who make some very bizarre (and even more bizarrely mannered) pop songs. Noisy, loopy and well beyond the pale. Frequently sense not made. Addictive as snorting smack from Lindsay Lohan's, um, thigh.

    Benzos Branches (Stinky)
    Modern rock like the scribes meant it back in the glorious '90s. Sounds a wee bit like Joshua Tree-era U2, though there are echoes of Aztec Camera and other 80s not-quite-famous bands. These songs may be a bit too subtle for their own good, but they do age well.

    Chris Boehk The Day I Realized I Might Not Make It (Has Anyone Ever Told You?)
    The liners read "Eleven songs written and performed by Chris Boehk." Indeed. These plainspoken tunes (which evoke such disparate influences as the Replacements, the Rocket Summer and Shipping News) never get outside of themselves and yet manage always to have something to say.

    Dear Tonight We're Not Men EP (Red Leader)
    Raucous and vivid punky stuff, replete with hoarsely-shouted vocals and guitars that sound strangely processed. There's an exceptional balance between the ragged and the tight, and it holds pretty well throughout this set.

    Donny Hue and the Colors Folkmote (The Kora Records)
    Any band that follows up a song titled with "For the Last Time, Beatrix, It's Toast!" with "Peter and His Puzzle" has been around way too many children's books. Or maybe I'm just projecting. Anyway, the band name, album title and those representative songs barely give a hint as to the decidedly wacky and complex stuff within. Sink in and let it all hang out.

    Encomiast Encomiast (Lens)
    Ross Hagen and Nick Paul recorded this stuff back in 1999, but just got around to editing it last year. This isn't so much navel-gazing ambient stuff as it is a modern soundtrack to The Fantastic Voyage. You know, that trippy 60s "you are inside somebody" movie that was way weirder than Innerspace. Anyway, these boys are guiding some sort of journey, though it ends more ambiguously than an Antonioni movie. Sorry, had to get that homage in there somewhere.

    500 Miles to Memphis Sunshine in a Shot Glass (Deep Elm)
    Some 20 years ago, there was this L.A. band called the Unforgiven. They wore cowboy hats, had three guitarists (way before Bad Religion made it cool) and sang songs about lyin, cheatin', rustlin' and roamin'. In the key of hard rock. These here boys add the accouterments of Americana to a thick, perky emo core. The lyrics are fairly representative of the genre, but the fiddle, lap steel and such do lend these songs a real distinctive sound. An interesting idea worth exploring further.

    Leiana No Going Back (Page)
    Leiana has a real Joan Jett fixation, though she's much more in tune with "modern" punk rock than the fabulous one. I like her sneer, her attitude and the way her songs never slow down. I'd like to hear a bit more substance behind the persona, but there's time. For now, I'll happily ride this buzzsaw.

    The Mabuses Mabused! (self-released)
    Every time I hear this disc, I like it better. If I gave it another month, it might become my favorite album of the moment. If that's the case, I might revisit it. For now, know that these folks play wildly eclectic tunes that don't fit neatly in a defined space (box, torus, whatever). The album starts a little slowly, but it quickly builds into something almost otherworldly. I have a feeling I might do a full review of this puppy next month. Stand by.
    www: http://www.mabuses.com

    Mr. Smolin The Crumbling Empire of White People (Nomanclature)
    Barry Smolin has a knack for writing earnest-sounding songs that, in fact, are small subversive masterpieces. Not unlike the work of his producer, Stew (got to give Stew props for the raves from his recent New York theater engagement), the words in these songs mean a lot more than what they say. Stew helps to keep a light feel to things, which makes the darker import of some of these songs that much more cutting. Cool stuff.

    Recoil subHuman (Mute)
    Alan Wilder has been doing this for almost 20 years, and he's still doing it well. If you ever wondered what a faithful rendition of the blues (as filtered through an electronic technosphere) might sound like, there's a fair amount here. The rest is just everyday life in said technosphere. Intriguing, as always.

    Rowan Schuitevoerder Rowan Schuitevoerder EP (Conscious)
    B.B. King likes to say there are many colors of the blues, and Schuitevoerder (what a blues name!) blasts through three in the three songs here. "San-Ho-Zay" is a fine Chicago bit with a bit of boogie. "Walkin' My Blues Away" is just that, a fine strolling finger-picking exercise. And "Blues Boys Tune" is heavy white boy blues at its finest. He's got the chops. A full-length ought to shed light on the condition of his soul.

    A Shoreline Dream Coastal EP (Latenight Weeknight)
    Four dreamlike pieces. Not nice dreams, and not quiet dreams, but dreams nonetheless. A Shoreline Dream works hard to alter consciousness, and most of the time, these four songs do exist in a parallel universe.

    Strings of Consciousness Our Moon Is Full (Central Control)
    Nine members, three countries and seven guest vocalists. The songs travel from dark to light (thus the title of the album), and the collection of sounds within those songs runs the gamut from electronic soundscape to grunge to avant garde classical music and beyond. I think you'll understand a bit better when you know that the guest singers are folks like J.G. Thirlwell, Scott McCloud, Eugene Robinson and Barry Adamson. Yeah, this stuff is cool.

    These Modern Socks These Modern Socks (Princess)
    Laptop jangle pop. This sounds like a one-man effort, but it's not. Five guys worked on this wonderment, and I think the easiest way to hear that is in the absence of extreme eccentricity. Still, there's a loopiness here that's positively endearing. Keeps sounding better and better.

    The Three 4 Tens Down the Way (Rainbow Quartz)
    A primer on the proper use of reverb. The Three 4 Tens doesn't stick to any particular style (rock and roll is about as specific as I can get), but the guitar sound here is most impressive. It modulates around as the band settles into different grooves, but it's always great and it's always at least a little but fuzzy. Fun stuff.

    Tuner Pole (Unsung)
    Once again, to live where math and prog intersect...except that Tuner is much more on the prog side of things. This is messy enough to sound somewhat normal, but the flourishes always remind me where these guys are coming from. The flourishes, though, are what I dig the most. If you've got the feathers, spread them out!

    Matt Weston Holler CD5 (7272 Music)
    Matt Weston does the percussion and electronics, and boy, does he. This is not for the timid or those who crave structure. Weston descends immediately into chaos and doesn't really return. Of course, when you've only got two songs, you don't need to. You just need to scare the hell out of people. This will do.

    Why Twist the Hair Healthy Skin (self-released)
    Keyboard-based wacko pop. The music is as inventive as the band name, if not more so. These songs sound innocuous enough until you start paying attention. Then you begin to understand the dementia within. I like that, myself.
    www: http://www.whytwistthehair.com

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