Welcome to A&A. There are 12 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 #308 reviews
June 2009
  • Christopher Bell I'll Be Home (Silent Home)
  • The Cubists Mechanical Advantage (Semi-Precious)
  • Ex Norwegian Standby (Dying Van Gogh)
  • Dodd Ferrelle Lonely Parades (Two Sheds)
  • Meredith Fierke The Procession (self-released)
  • Adam Hill Them Dirty Roads (self-released)
  • Jeffrey James & the Haul Ride the Wind Carnival EP (Makeshift)
  • Cary Judd Goodnight Human (China Mountain)
  • Movers & Shakers Larrabee (self-released)
  • New Roman Times On the Sleeve (New Granada)
  • Noertker's Moxie Sketches of Catalonia Vol. 3: Suite for Gaudi (Edgetone)
  • Royal City Royal City (Asthmatic Kitty)
  • Also recommended: The best of the rest

    Christopher Bell
    I'll Be Home
    (Silent Home)

    A word of warning at the start of all these reviews: There's a lot of alt country, americana or whatever you want to call such sounds. That kinda stuff filled my mailbox this month, and a lot of it was pretty damned good. Christopher Bell trafficks in the lean and mean version of this sound, and he is, indeed, pretty damned good.

    Heavy echoes of Uncle Tupelo's second album--the one that was a bit more refined but dark as all get out--combined with a some really fine arrangements. Bell plays most of the instruments and does most of the singing, but he makes sure each song is properly dressed.

    And these are some gorgeous songs. Think Gerald Collier in terms of lyrical content; maybe not quite so caustically witty, but just as bitter. The sparse sound simply brings out that much more emotion.

    Not a fun listen by any stretch of the imagination, but utterly compelling. Bell's songwriting is confident and assured, and he knows how to make his songs sing. Like I said up top, pretty damned good.

    Silent Home Records
    www: http://www.silenthomerecords.com

    The Cubists
    Mechanical Advantage

    There are eight Cubists mentioned in the liners, but the principals appear to be Noel Brown and Marcus Barfield, who wrote all the songs and seem to have played most of the music as well.

    That uncertain note is a feeling that never left me as I listened to this album. The songs veer from sound to sound, always retaining a passing resemblance to ethereal pop/rock. The press sticker references Swervedriver and the Flaming Lips, which seems vaguely appropriate to me. But the Cubists have a math-y, proggy sensibility that takes these songs in a slightly different direction. Kinda like ALL playing the Flaming Lips, maybe.

    Except that a fair number of these songs are languorous or simply vaporous. The Cubists shift gears so often I think they've burned out the clutch. Nonetheless, no matter how far afield the band ranges, these songs still retain a certain "Cubists" feel.

    That sense of self is one of those things that cannot be taught. A band either feels it or it doesn't. The Cubists (whoever they might be, in total) is feeling it. Which makes this sprawling album all the more impressive. This one will impress more and more as time goes on.

    www: http://www.thecubists.com

    Ex Norwegian
    (Dying Van Gogh)

    Power pop ought to be loud, crunchy and impossibly catchy. Ex Norwegian is loud, generally crunchy and catchier than it seems on first listen. These songs take a moment to work into the brain. I guess that sets the hook even faster.

    In many ways, this reminds me a lot of the Meadows, a band that's more on the rootsy AOR side of things. Both bands have a laid back feel that seems counterintuitive. And both bands are impossible to put away. The music is far too insistent to sit on the shelf.

    There's nothing particularly distinctive about the sound. That's part of the deception, I guess, as it might make some folks dismiss the band. But just as you might be ready to ask, "What's so special about this?," your brain won't allow you to switch out the disc. Turns out there's lots of special going on.

    I dunno. Sometimes the good stuff has a mundane window dressing. Ex Norwegian makes some fine music. And that's the bottom line for me.

    Dying Van Gogh
    304 Park Ave. South
    11th Floor
    New York, NY 10010
    www: http://www.dyingvangogh.com

    Dodd Ferrelle
    Lonely Parades
    (Two Sheds)

    Dodd Ferrelle sounds a bit like Steve Earle, but his music is much more eclectically raucous and tuned to a pop sense. Which is pretty good, too.

    Basically, we're talking about well-crafted songs bashed out with a bit of twang. Ferrelle rarely treads in unfamiliar territory, but his ear is so sure that these songs sound fresh nonetheless.

    There's simply too much energy to allow this album to drag. There are a few moments of stunning beauty and the occasional twinge of regret, but by and large these songs are all about movement.

    A fairly uncomplicated affair, but that's not a complaint. Ferrelle presents his music with style and passion, and that makes this album a real treat.

    Two Sheds Music
    P.O. Box 5455
    Atlanta, GA 31107-5455
    www: http://www.2sheds.com

    Meredith Fierke
    The Procession

    There's this huge section in the musical universe that's full of women who sing with a low alto and prefer to adorn their songs with as little accompaniment as possible. Patti Smith is the high priestess of this cult, even though she was smart enough to move on more than 30 years ago.

    Every once in a while, though, someone else comes along and catches my ear. Edith Frost comes to mind, as does Alice Despard. Meredith Fierke isn't quite up to those singers, but she's awfully close. Her pieces draw the listener in and proceed to shatter one bone after another.

    With the lyrics, that is. In general, I'm not much for lyrics, but this kind of music rises and falls with the expression of the singer. Fierke's eye is unsparing, and she ratchets up the intensity as the album progresses. Even an extraordinarily pretty piece like "Train's Song" crackles with emotional fire.

    I dunno. Maybe Fierke does match Despard and Frost. This album is a wrenching experience, and by the end it can be hard to imagine living through these songs again. And then your hand hits play once more...

    www: http://www.mfierke.com

    Adam Hill
    Them Dirty Roads

    There are a lot of folks out there playing music that goes by the extraordinarily vague label of "americana." This catch-all refers to music that incorporates country, blues, folk, bluegrass, rock and even a little jazz. Most people who play this are singer-songwriter types who find this style quite amenable to hanging out with a guitar and slinging a few songs.

    Adam Hill, however, seems to take this moniker most seriously. He trends closer to a classic folk line, but he's not afraid to throw in a little bluegrass or dixieland or, well, whatever into his songs. He seems to have the ability to figure out exactly what sort of feel a particular song feels--and then he's able to play that way.

    So there are a few songs with just him and his guitar. Some of these are ravers and some a bit more somber. A fair number of these songs rattle, rock and swing. I imagine that Hill is an exceptional performer. His adaptability is most impressive.

    An album that is a joy from beginning to end. Hill is a most impressive songwriter, but his performance skills are what sends this album soaring. Perfect for evenings spent savoring bourbon on the back porch.

    www: http://www.myspace.com/mradamhill

    Jeffrey James & the Haul
    Ride the Wind Carnival EP

    Six songs that roll through rock and roots and the whole shooting match. On the whole, like Dodd Ferrelle (reviewed above), Jeffrey James stays within the pop universe. Even if there's a bit of a southern breeze blowing through.

    Pleasingly dark at times and generally complex, these songs wend their way through a world that is colored in shades of gray. The sun does shine, but not all the time, even if James's voice is always a ringing joy.

    This sounds a lot to me like an indie rock version of the southern AOR that was modestly popular in the 80s--think bands as disparate as .38 Special and the Georgia Satellites. James and the Haul take anthemic riffs and turn them inside out in a most appealing way. This is really quite cool.

    Makeshift Music
    P.O. Box 40043
    Memphis, TN 38174-0043
    www: http://www.makeshiftmusic.com

    Cary Judd
    Goodnight Human
    (China Mountain)

    Absolutely gorgeous experimental pop fare. Experimental in that Judd doesn't stick to the basic pop song structure, but don't fear. The hooks are absolutely amazing.

    Really. Judd has an almost inhuman knack for spinning catchy threads and then weaving them together into an irresistible tapestry of shimmery pop. Every song progresses along slightly different lines, but they all end up in the land of bliss.

    Judd is equally at home in the electronic and analog worlds. Often enough, he includes copious servings of both within a single song. So you get snatches of laptop and emo blending together into something greater.

    A transcendent album. I don't like to use that term often, because very few come close. But Judd blows away just about everything I've heard this year. Impossibly wonderful.

    China Mountain Records
    2150 N. Hickory Way
    Meridia, ID 83646
    www: http://www.chinamountainrecords.com

    Movers and Shakers

    Raggedy roots-inflected punk songs--or is that raggedy punk-inflected rootsy stuff? Movers and Shakers don't seem to know the difference, so I won't worry about it, either.

    And that's okay. This is music best savored while drinking cheap beer or cheaper bourbon. It's loud, often fast and generally tuneful. There are a few moments where I think the boys might've cribbed a bit too much from early Uncle Tupelo, but at least their hearts are in the right place.

    The band has a fine take-no-prisoners attitude, and the production reflects this. The Wurlitzer (or, sometimes, unbranded organ) is a fine touch, but oftentimes the levels are just about pegged. That slight descent into distortion lends even more power to these pieces.

    Line up your quarters and play. Don't worry about tomorrow. Just drive it home tonight. Okay, then.

    49 Cottage St.
    Cambridge, MA 02139
    www: http://www.myspace.com/moversandshakers

    New Roman Times
    On the Sleeve
    (New Granada)

    A couple of the references on the press sticker are the Church and Arcade Fire. About three seconds into the disc I think, "Um, yeah. That's about it."

    So, you know, laconic pop with impeccable melodic sense. With plenty of reverb. It's a simple formula. What always shocks me is how often people screw it up.

    Not New Roman Times. This Austin outfit channels its influences nicely and proceeds to build on them. I do get the sense that these boys might wish they'd lived in New Zealand in, say, 1990, but hey, who wouldn't?

    I suppose this is the sort of album that appeals to geezers like me. I'll take that. But even without the nostalgia factor, this is stuff is worth a listen or few. Slip into the sea and see if you can fight the current.

    New Granada
    P.O. Box 360276
    Tampa, FL 33673-0276
    www: http://www.newgranada.com

    Noertker's Moxie
    Sketches of Catalonia Vol. 3: Suite for Gaudi

    Bill Noertker's Catalan series is easily the most accessible stuff ever put out by Edgetone. But that's okay. It's awfully, awfully good, too.

    These songs were recorded live between 2001 and 2008, but they fit together quite well. Bill Noertker is a fine writer, and his many associates have a solid feel for the work. The album flows by seamlessly, despite the many years of recording.

    Just as remarkable is the consistency of said recordings. Yes, they were all done at the same venue, but the recording and mastering are impressive. There are slight differences, but not enough to distract.

    Noertker plays the contrabass, but he's got a fine sense of melody. When these pieces get cooking, they really start to soar. I'm impressed by the beauty and inventiveness here. As I've been before. The three-disc Catalan suite (of which this is the third) is one solid set.

    Edgetone Records
    3020 El Cerrito Plaza, #320
    El Cerrito, CA 94530
    www: http://www.edgetonerecords.com

    Royal City
    Royal City
    (Asthmatic Kitty)

    This collection of mostly early songs from Royal City gives plenty of reason to check out the rest of the band's catalog.

    Minimalist alt country tinged with indie rock (a lot like Engine Kid, for those familiar with that band from the early 90s), songs that move or don't depending on the mood of the band.

    The attitude is almost entirely implied, which makes some of these songs something akin to passive-aggressive anthems. Maybe that's thinking a bit too much about this stuff, but sue me.

    The songs don't really fit together well, but I think they do provide a solid portrait of the band. A nice little bit of addenda for a band that most folks in the lower 48 haven't heard much. Well, now's your chance. Contact:
    Asthmatic Kitty
    P.O. Box 1282
    Lander, WY 82520
    www: http://www.asthmatickitty.com

    Also recommended:

    The Aurora Project Shadow Border (The Laser's Edge)
    A bit to the techno side of metallic prog, the Aurora Project wends its way through seven lengthy, intricate works. The vocals and structure remind me of Fates Warning, but the guitar work is decidedly edgier. Quite enjoyable.

    Rachel Taylor Brown Susan Storm's Ugly Sister and Other Saints and Superheroes (Cutthroat Pop)
    Exceedingly affected and dramatic pop songs that serve as biographies of characters real and imagined. Dreadfully ambitious, but ambition that is mostly realized. I like the way Brown heads straight for the edge.

    The Dark Knights of Camelot Hurrication EP (Olympic)
    Five songs from this Mississippi trio, pieces that are prone to throttling anything in their paths. Despite the noise and power, subtlety abounds. There's something interesting going on here.

    Linda Draper Bridge and Tunnel (Planting Seeds)
    The latest from this singer-songwriter might be her best yet. For the unfamiliar, Draper has a sure sense of melody, but what I like best is her solid rhythmic grounding. Often this comes out in her acoustic guitar, but she never forces a lyric into unwilling music. Another exceptional effort.

    15 Degrees Below Zero Resting on A (Edgetone)
    Improvisational, but in a most unusual way. This quartet builds its songs slowly, adding and subtracting sounds and ideas until the main theme has been established. I have no idea what the track titles mean ("3.4.1," "2.19.2," etc.), but that just doesn't worry me. I'm lost in the whirl.

    Future Future Future Future EP (self-released)
    Jordan and Jamie Lawlor take the deliberate style of laptop pop and doll it up with the pointed jauntiness of mid-80s pop. And then they grime up everything nicely. An acquired taste, surely, but one that quickly becomes addictive.
    www: http://www.myspace.com/futuretwice

    Hello Operator The Breaks EP (Ampia)
    Garage-y techno pop that doesn't always kick into overdrive. There's a bit too much distance between the songs and the performances. These boys need just the smallest bit of additional energy to really knock these songs out of the park. Nonetheless, I like a lot of what I hear.

    The Lonely H Concrete Class (The Control Group)
    Rock and roll on the range. These boys aren't so much hard-rockin' country as they are heavy western. I like the rollicking sound and the fact that almost no one sounds like this. Exactly what my old New Mexico high school mates would have loved.

    The Morakestra Witness to Connection (Stratking)
    Rambling, vaguely math-y songs that often spin in circles before they come together. That's a little strange, considering their traditional structure, but the Morakestra usually brings it all home. I'm not sure I quite got my head around this one, but it stuck with me. There's plenty to explore here.

    Only Thieves Greetings from Levy Park, T.L.H. EP (Tallahassee 88)
    Enjoyable thrash and pop. Just enough melody and plenty of muscle. These aren't complicated songs, and the playing is similarly unsophisticated. What's not to like?

    The Oranges Band Are Invisible (self-released)
    Another fine outing by this polished pop-rock band. The songs have loads of movement, and the hooks are subtly adhesive. I suppose this is fairly similar to previous releases, but I liked those, too. Bob along and smile broadly.
    www: http://www.theorangesband.com

    Ozric Tentacles The Yumyum Tree (Snapper)
    Spacey prog. Ozric Tentacles tends to jump right off the cliff and then see if it can build a parachute while in free fall. This technique isn't recommended for beginners, but these boys seem to have a fine handle on it. Wig out, man.

    Snew Snew You (self-released)
    Back in the late 80s, there were scads of bands that were putting a glam metal sheen on the whole AC/DC sound. Kix was the most successful (probably because it had been around forever), but there were plenty more that didn't quite make it. Snew continues that tradition, adding just a bit of punk attitude to the hard rockin' blues grooves. This isn't particularly original, but Snew sure is a lot of fun.
    www: http://www.snewworldorder.com

    Spaceships Are Cool Spaceships Are Cool EP (self-released)
    Tres laptop, but with infusions of acoustic guitar and the like. Rob Maddison knows what he wants his music to sound like, and he's executed well. I like the flow of this disc. You can hit repeat for, like forever.
    www: http://www.myspace.com/spaceshipsarecool2

    Sway Let It Roll (self-released)
    Gina Quartaro sounds a lot like Mary Chapin Carpenter, from the solid melodies all the way down to her gently feminist lyrics. Her bandmates knock out these folk-inflected country songs with style. Very easy on the ears.
    www: http://www.swaymusic.com

    What Time Is It, Mr. Fox? And Other Stories (self-released)
    It takes ambition to record a set of short story-style songs. WTIIMF then throws them into a modified 70s sound (think a twisted Elton John with modern brighteners) and sees what sticks. Generally, this plan worked. I wasn't expecting that at first, but as this disc rolled on I warmed to it more and more.
    www: http://www.whattimeisitmrfox.com

    Why I Must Be Careful AEpic (self-released)
    The A and E are actually fused together, but I haven't figured out that character in HTML. The album is a single 20-minute song (with the same name) and a 15-minute improvisation on that song. WIMBC is nominally a jazz band, but it really fits in better with the experimental/improv types of Edgetone and other west coast labels. I like the way this song progresses. There are plenty of solid ideas, and the band never lets boredom creep in. Swell.
    www: http://www.myspace.com/whyimustbecareful

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