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 #315 reviews
March 2010
  • Jonathan Badger Unsung Stories from Lilly's Days As a Solar Astronaut (MT6)
  • blld materia prima EP (Squatter Madras-Iapetus)
  • Hannis Brown oo ah ee (self-released)
  • The Burning Hotels Novels (self-released)
  • Matt Davignon Living Things (Edgetone)
  • Deru Say Goodbye to Useless (Mush)
  • Dirt Mall Pacifuego (Day Kamp)
  • The Dustbowl Revival You Can't Go Back to the Garden of Eden (self-released)
  • Marionette Facing You (self-released)
  • Paper the Operator Goodbye God (Night World)
  • Amber Rubarth Good Mystery (self-released)
  • Spottiswoode Piano 45 (Old Soul)
  • Also recommended: The best of the rest

    Jonathan Badger
    Unsung Stories from Lilly's Days As a Solar Astronaut

    As the title suggests, this is the work of a fairly obsessive guy. The pieces on this disc are a testament to many areas and levels of devotion--not to mention distortion. Badger crafts his songs in symphonic style, laying out a theme and then building on (or, as often as not, deconstructing) that theme.

    Which is to say that patience is required. My ears immediately picked up on the sophisticated composition style and unusual arrangements, but some folks might just hear electronic disturbance. I think this stuff is much more accessible than that, but I'm not the most objective judge in that area.

    What I can say is that Badger knows his music theory. And while the sounds here might be a bit estranged from the orchestra, some of the ideas behind them are in the finest traditions of modern composing.

    Some of the ideas, of course, come from verse-chorus-verse-chorus songwriting. And Badger is pretty good at that, too. Mostly, though, the greatness on this album comes from the synthesis of structures and sounds that Badger manages to achieve. This is an album sans genre, one that is good enough to stand alone from the mountaintop.

    MT6 Records
    3024 Fifth Ave.
    Baltimore, MD 21234
    www: http://www.mt6records.com

    materia prima EP
    (Squatter Madras-Iapetus)

    A British duo made up of Markus Reuter and 05ric (Ric Byer), blld does the whole soundscape thing. Far from the usual notions of dreamland, however, these boys create a kinetic world full of power, energy and grace.

    And they do sing, which might have had the unfortunate effect of turning this into a wonky prog project. But it doesn't. Somehow, Reuter and Byer retain enough of an otherworldly sense, using the vocals more as instruments than vessels of lyrical thought.

    They could be the bastard children of Syd Barrett, I suppose--if they were subsequently nursed at the breast of German techno and the orchestral new wave sound of bands like Tears for Fears. There's just enough accessibility to bring civilians into the fold. These guys aren't complete wonks; they want a bit of the ol' adulation as well. I'm all for that.

    www: http://www.myspace.com/blldproject

    Hannis Brown
    oh ah ee

    An excellent set of energetic electronic compositions. Hannis Brown uses just about whatever sounds he can find to create his songs, and then once in a while he decides to sing.

    His voice is so ordinary that it provides a striking counterpoint to the exceptionally wide-ranging sound of the music. There are more ideas rambling through ten seconds of any song here than most artists get onto an entire album.

    Brown's imagination is, indeed, impressive. But even more gripping is the way he brings together all of the ideas and sounds. This ought to be a collection of noise, with the occasional bit of structure sticking out of the rubble. But Brown has constructed a masterpiece.

    Yes, we are a few miles away from the mainstream here. Brown has no intention of challenging today's pop stars to a popularity contest. But his mastery of writing and arranging makes this one of the most exciting albums I've heard in quite some time. May his imagination never give out.

    www: http://www.hannisbrown.com

    The Burning Hotels

    There are all sorts of "modern" bands that one might reasonably compare to the Burning Hotels, but really, all you've got to do is listen to some early Smiths or Cure.

    Which are, to my mind, much better references than the Strokes or Franz Ferdinand. This is clean pop sung with just a hint of affection. The tempo gets pushed from time to time, and there are some fine keyboard and guitar licks. You know, new wave with a kick.

    And don't worry. The production is ultra sharp, which certainly does distinguish this from those days of 30 years gone by. Pretty stuff, the kind of songs that make me nod along with a smile on my face.

    One of the better albums of this type that I've heard recently. Jaunty songs, pretty melodies and just enough edge. Well done.

    www: http://www.myspace.com/theburninghotels

    Matt Davignon
    Living Things

    I suppose you might call this a concept album; every piece is named after something that is alive, be it mold, a snowshoe hare or a mesonychoteuthis. That last one, by the way, is the Colossal (not giant) Squid. It's big.

    And this album is big, too. Davignon processed it through a drum machine, but the sounds here are melodic as well as rhythmic. Suffice it to say, though, that the relation of the piece to its title can sometimes seem a bit abstract.

    But listen all the way through. Hear what Davignon does. I'd hesitate to call this experimental--the song structures aren't entirely obtuse--but it does reside comfortably in the avant garde. Nonetheless, these are not improvisations. Davignon obviously had a plan when he recorded each song, and I'd say he executed marvelously.

    Patience is necessary, of course, but it will be rewarded many times over. Let the pieces wash over you, ponder the titles if you wish and then see where your mind has wandered. You'll be most pleased with the result.

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

    Say Goodbye to Useless

    Deru starts this album somewhat elliptically, with something in (I think) French. And then things slowly begin to pick up. The skill involved in such an impressive slow rollout is almost impossible to fathom. Very few folks can pull it off. After a couple of listens, I can't imagine a better way for this album to kick off.

    There's a bit of the ol' electronic collage going on, but Deru seems to prefer the more organic DJ sound when putting together these pieces. Each song has a dominant beat and is accompanied by a wide array of sounds.

    The feel is cool, but not chilly. Ruminative, I suppose. The feel of a chill-down after-party, where folks are comfortable just hanging out. No pressure, but lots of pleasure.

    Every piece of sound has plenty of space to express itself. I like that; it gives my brain enough time to do some actual thinking. Of course, the slinky feel of these pieces often gives rise to other, less intellectual pursuits. C'est la vie.

    Mush Records
    1742 Laurel Canyon Blvd.
    Los Angeles, CA 90036
    www: http://www.mushrecords.com

    Dirt Mall

    Chunky riffage and rough-hewn vocals are generally enough to get me to listen a bit more closely. A real feel for down-and-dirty rock and roll played with style and energy makes me smile. My grin is ear-to-ear after listening to this album.

    There's a temptation when playing this sort of rugged melodic rock to speed things up. I generally applaud such impulses, as that tends to hold a listener's interest. Dirt Mall sticks more to the mid-tempo side of things, but that's even better if your songs can hold up. These songs do.

    I often get albums that I can't imagine being played live. This album sounds like it was recorded live to tape. Well, not exactly (recording folks separately does lend itself to a sharper mix, which this has), but these songs must sound great in a dive. Loud, kinda fuzzy and with plenty of kick.

    To go old school for my references, these boys sound like a fine mix of Drivin' n' Cryin', Soul Asylum (the middle years, before "Runaway Train") and the first Motley Crue album. I loved Dirt Mall's first album, and this one keeps the blooze'n'boogie train rolling on down the rails. Take a big bite.

    Daykamp Records
    www: http://www.daykamprecords.com

    The Dustbowl Revival
    You Can't Go Back to the Garden of Eden

    The actual name of this band may be Zach Lupetin and the Dustbowl Revival, but I opted for the short version. In any case, Lupetin is the undisputed leader of this eclectic troupe which mixes Dixieland, Django Reinhardt-style gypsy jazz, folk, bluegrass, western, swing, blues and tin pan alley pop into one big party.

    No, really. Each song incorporates most of those elements and then throws in a few more just for fun. And really, that's what this album is: One bag-ass ball of joy.

    Complicated? Yeah, if you parse it out. But the Dustbowl Revival swings so solidly that all the effort remains behind the curtain. All that can be heard is a large group of people playing and singing their hearts out. And having an awesome great time while they do it.

    Positively infectious. I defy anyone to get through this album without smiling, much less taking to the floor and grabbing the nearest partner. It doesn't matter if you know how to dance; there are so many styles on this disc even someone with three left feet could find something that worked. Absolutely fabulous.

    www: http://www.myspace.com/znlupetin

    Facing You

    Marionette's Kevin Cornell has those hoary, moany vocals that can get overwrought in a hurry. I really thought this disc was headed for the discard pile. But after a few songs, I started to get the idea. Sort of.

    Marionette isn't immediately arresting. The songs, individually, and the album, as a whole, tend to build slowly. The lines of construction are left out for any listener to hear. I think the idea is to conquer, one matchstick of sound at a time.

    That works. Marionette could've turned any number of these songs into anthems, but only a couple fit that category. Indeed, if you want a quick fix, a fast window into the workings of the band, try "Four Voices." It's a great song, if a bit simpler than most of the others on the album. In any case, it's accessible and solid.

    Those of you who like the long haul, however, will want to start at the beginning and see where the music wanders. The cumulative effect of these songs is simply staggering.

    www: http://www.marionettemusic.com

    Paper the Operator
    Goodbye God
    (Viper Bite)

    Twelve new songs. The same power pop formula, the same solid writing. What I like about these guys is that they manage to generate all sorts of whimsy, even while blistering the music and singing about any variety of downers.

    Oh, but are they being ironic? Lordy, lordy, I suppose. But that's what I mean by whimsy. These boys throw all sorts of noises (generally some sort of distorted electronic something) into the melodic riffola, and yet the songs remain criminally catchy.

    Indeed, the best pop is stuff that is much deeper than it sounds on first listen. Papers the Operator qualifies easily. The other important thing with pop is to know when to end songs. These aren't seven-minute symphonies. They're three-minute passing thoughts. Passing thoughts with much deeper meanings, of course.

    So now I've heard eighteen songs from these guys, and I have yet to feel let down. Quite the opposite, really. I'm beginning to think these boys are really onto something good.

    Viper Bite Records
    P.O. Box 17931
    Rochester, NY 14617
    www: http://www.viperbiterecords.com

    Amber Rubarth
    Good Mystery

    I get five to ten (or more) CDs a month from young women who are trying their hand at the whole folkie/singer-songwriter thingy. Most of them have the technical elements down (competent song construction, decent voice, etc.) but have nothing interesting to say.

    Amber Rubarth is a clever lyricist, and what I like best is that she makes sure that her lyrics fit her music. She doesn't force a thing, and that makes these songs sound completely effortless and free. Oh, she's got a fine voice and, in truth, a much better sense of music composition than most. But the best thing here is her delivery.

    Yeah, there's a bit of the ol' talk-singing, but Rubarth's voice always seems to want to take flight. She's got just enough alto in her range to keep her grounded, but she sounds great when she climbs the ladder, too.

    That said, she's still another one of those folkie/singer-songwriter types. There's no getting around that. It's just that she's one of the best I've heard in ages. This album is class, all the way around. Rubarth has all the tools.

    www: http://www.myspace.com/amberrubarth

    Piano 45
    (Old Soul)

    No enemies this time. Or, at least, most of the time. The vast majority of this album is Spottiswoode at his piano or with his guitar. Once again, the setting doesn't matter. The songs simply overwhelm.

    This may be Spottiswoode's first official solo album in a decade, but I don't think fans will find much changed. Yeah, the arrangements are sparser, but Spott and his "Enemies" have always been able to wring epochal grandiosity out of some of the quietest moments. It's all in the skill of the writing and the sincerity of the performance. Few have more of either than Spottiswoode.

    I keep wondering when someone will get the man to pen a Broadway show (Salvation, one of two albums he released last year, is almost perfect as is). I've given up on stardom for him, however. This is great music, but not the sort of thing that grooves the masses.

    Well, as long as an album or two comes down the pike every year or so, I won't worry. I think it's safe to say that no one has written as many good songs in the last decade. And with this album, he's got a head start on the next decade as well. All hail.

    www: http://www.spottiswoode.com

    Also recommended:

    Audio OK Good Men EP (Pussycat Kill Kill)
    Imagine Mark E. Smith fronting an acoustically-based GvsB and you're halfway home. Audio OK trips and (occasionally) blasts its way through these spoken/sung songs. It's cool, perhaps a bit too knowingly so. But not for me. I'll take my martini now, please.

    Balmorhea Constellations (Western Vinyl)
    Almost brutally meditative songs. Balmorhea sets the mood and then slowly slips through it. These pieces are slow, but intricately so. There's no trudging here, no dirges to endure. Merely a well thought out thought process slowly playing its way across a CD.

    Blind Pilot iTunes Sessions EP (Expunged)
    The first real recordings of the full six-piece version of the band. The first track is a Gillian Welch cover, the next three are re-recorded tracks (with, you know, the "complete" band) and it ends with a new track, "Get It Out." Fans won't be completely satisfied until a new album comes along, but this ought to tide them over. For a day or two. Oh, and as the title suggests, you can only get this on the iTunes. So go on, then.

    Bridges & Blinking Lights Heroes, Guns & Snakes (self-released)
    Off-handed and pleasantly loose rock and roll. Perhaps just a bit too untethered for my taste, but well-spun in any case. The jam band moments, which never really devolve into a full-blown ramble, but rather bound around for a moment or two, are what I'd clean up. Just a bit. But then, that's me.
    www: http://www.myspace.com/bridgesandblinkinglights

    Alan Charing Stitch (Lazy Bones)
    Gently driving singer-songwriter rock and roll. Charing has a fine yowl, and he puts together some nice songs. I'd like to hear a bit more personality, especially in the music, but the sophisticated bar band sound is a fine spot for a wallow now and again.

    Bill Dolan/JBe split 7" (Sixgunlover)
    Two solo acoustic guitar pieces for Dolan, and a couple of complimentary minimalist shuffles from the band JBe. There's a bit of the jazz, a bit of the old-timey and some very nice work. Most folks don't go all subtle with their 7" output. I'm glad these folks did.

    The Emergency String (X)tet Meridians (Setola di Maiale)
    These folks named themselves well. Five folks (two violins, two cello and a double bass) work their way through a seven-piece cycle. The Meridian in question seems to be the Meridian Gallery in SF where this was recorded. No matter. The pieces will transport you.

    Martin Hagfors Men and Flies (ME)
    Well-crafted and sumptuously-arranged pop music. Hagfors has quite a range, both lyrically and musically. Every stop on this disc has its own scenery, but the whole comes together almost effortlessly. Right in my sweet spot.

    Hotel St. George City Boy Lemon (self-released)
    Scrowly Britpop (or stuff that wants to be Britpop, anyway. Loud and not exceptionally cultured, these songs charm with their style and verve. It may not be pretty, but it sure does get the blood going. Quite a raucous mess, and a glorious one at that.
    www: http://www.myspace.com/hotelstgeorge

    Bob Marsh and Massimo Falascone Non Troppo Lontano (Eh?)
    Falascone plays the sax and Marsh (who is also a member of the Emergency String (X)tet reviewed above) puts everything together. The pieces are extremely processed, but just think of all the editing as another instrument. Okay, so this music has little to do with Planet Earth. All the more reason to go running into its arms.

    Meridiem A Pleasant Fiction (A Necessary Angel)
    Percy Howell is the man behind Meridiem, and he recruits quite the band. This incarnation includes Bill Laswell, Jarboe, Buckethead, Vernon Reid and many more. Jarboe and Howard take the vocal turns, Reid and Buckethead the guitars and Laswell the bass. As befits such disparate elements, the album ranges far and wide, though never quite leaving the lush atmosphere set in the first track. A well-orchestrated set.

    Norman Hay, Hay, Make a Wish and Turn Away (Timber Carnival)
    More of that Northwest americana. I'm not entirely sure what makes this region's take on the sound so distinctive, but it seems to me that most bands simply do more. So Norman is softer, louder, prettier, heavier and certainly more melodic than some of its eastern brethren. Works for me. Solid songs given a bright shine by the production.

    Oddisee Odd Winter (Oddisee Music)
    The latest seasonal Oddisee (following Odd Autumn and Odd Summer). And while I'm not entirely sure what these pieces have to do with winter, there's no doubting Oddisee's skills as a producer. I prefer the instrumentals to the tracks with a guest MC, but everything is up to snuff. Blister on.

    The Orange Peels 2020 (Minty Fresh)
    Highly-crafted pop songs that always threaten to simply float away. They don't largely due to the yeoman efforts of the band's rhythm section. There's always just enough punch to keep the songs tied down. When you craft hooks as sugary as these, you need a little depth somewhere. I'd prefer just a bit more bite, but the Orange Peels sure do know how to create some fine confections.

    Rooms Rooms (AMG)
    Loose, insistent pop rockers that have that late 70s British punk pop feel down solid. A bit more assured and crafted than much of that stuff, the exceedingly dull production sound (not muffled, but merely not shiny) suits these songs very well. The rhythm is the thing here, and these songs move very well.
    www: http://www.thebandrooms.com

    Luther Russell Luther Russell 10" EP (Wool)
    These rootsy songs sound like they're building to something, and then most often they don't. It's almost a teasing construction, but I got used to it. And then I liked it. Not what you might expect at first listen, perhaps, but more than worthwhile.

    Schooner Duck Kee Sessions EP (Cytunes.org)
    The label is where you buy this one, by the way. This short set from the Schooner folks (vets of the Chapel Hill scene) is just one of many on Cytunes whose sales will benefit brain cancer research. Good songs, good cause. Strike that. Great songs, great cause. One doesn't want to understate things.

    Static of the Gods Knowledge Machine (delVerano)
    Lay down in splendor, indeed. The folks have that fuzzy, intricate pop sound of the late 80s New Zealand craze. More Straitjacket Fits than the Chills. Add in Jen Johnson's sharp (but not shrill) vocals, and you've got something tasty, indeed. These songs don't move quickly, but they move just right.

    Thavius Beck Dialogue (Mush)
    As with most Mush artists, Thavius Beck pays a bit more attention to the beats than the rhymes. And while I'm usually right in line with that philosophy, I'd like to hear just a bit more craft in the lyrics. The songs sound great, and most often the rhymes measure up. Solidly entertaining, as usual.

    Venus Bogardus Spitting at the Glass (Five03)
    Goo-era Sonic Youth minus the coherence. This would be no wave, except that there are a few hints of melody from time to time. It's an unholy mess, but somehow that appeals to me. After a while, I started to get used to it, though I never quite figured out what was going on. That's a surefire way to keep me listening.

    Vinca Minor Isolation (Second Shimmy)
    Matt Menovcik is part of the whole Ms. Led/Saeta collective, and he's also half of Rope, Inc. (with Kramer). This is his solo ambient project. It's more dramatic electronic music than ambient, I guess, but there's nothing wrong with that. More specifically, this sounds like a score for a mildly depressing love story. I can get behind that.

    Jen Wood Finds You in Love (New Granada)
    Another Seattle survivor who finds herself singing lushly-arranged pop songs. The lushness does vary from song to song, but Wood's voice and the quality of the writing is top-notch throughout. Wood doesn't uncover anything new, but she has a sure hand on the sound she's using.

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