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 #317 reviews
May 20th-24th 2008 (One Percent Press)
Johnny Bertram & the Golden Bicycles
Days That Passed
Bertram writes laid-back songs steeped in 70s cool, but he arranges them in orchestral americana settings. So, y'know, if Gram Parsons had been in an acoustic version of Steely Dan or something.
I'm speaking of a general musical feel, of course. Bertram's vocals aren't as distinctive as Parsons's (whose are?), but they fit his songs perfectly. The organ, strings and occasional horns fill out the largely acoustic sound quite well.
And these songs do roll. I suppose that it's possible for someone to listen to a song from this album and yawn, but I can't imagine that happening. The off-handed delivery underlies some serious playing. Bertram isn't afraid to let his band get its licks in, and the results are generally combustible.
Thoroughly enjoyable. This album instantly grabbed on to my ears and did not let go. A real wowser. If folks don't know Bertram now, they will quite soon.
St. Vincent Decor
(The Militia Group)
Three guys who combine the power pop of the Posies with the crunchy hooks of pop punk. Not quite as aggressive as Amazing Disgrace, but certainly heavier than Dear 23
I kept waiting for the Posies influence to fade, but it never quite did. Which is cool, I guess. Blackmarket does throw more into the pot, as these songs are at once more straightforward and more arranged than what the Posies used to do. Which then takes the band more into an Elvis Costello orbit. Which, again, is not a bad place to be.
The use of mellotron and other keyboards works well. I like the lush feel these boys give their songs; indeed, that feel is what attracted me in the first place. The idea seems to have been to keep the writing simple and add things in the studio.
Good stuff. I'm not sure about the shelf life of these songs, but they sound great on the first few listens. Given the band's track record, I'm guessing I'll keep listening for quite some time. I'll just have to play them a few dozen more times and find out.
When You Dream
The orchestral pop sound has become more and more of a favorite for young female singer-songwriters of late. Honestly, I like this stuff a lot more than "chick-and-a-guitar" sound any day. This more-crafted stuff is more difficult to create and it puts a lot more emphasis on solid songwriting. All told, Sara Jackson-Holman shows an exceptional amount of range and talent on her first album.
And she's got the perfect high-alto voice for this sort of piano-based music. Holman-Jackson prefers simple arrangements (her usual instrumentation is piano, keys, bass, drums and maybe some guitar), and this means her songs had better stand up strong.
They do. There are a few vocal affectations and a bit of studio trickery (filters, echoes and such), but by and large this album is all about her songs and her voice. Both are more than up to the task.
A blissful experience. These songs are well-built and exceptionally arranged. Holman-Jackson's voice is impeccable. Class all the way.
Travis Magrane and Adam Hill come together to record a few of their own songs and a cover of "Statesboro Blues." The latter fits quite well within the styles of this Portland duo. Some partnerships may sound forced, but this one seems to create music that just might be greater than the sum of its parts.
Hill's music (I recently reviewed Them Dirty Roads) is more rough and tumble, in the style of Uncle Tupelo's third album. Travis Magrane holds more for finger picking and other fits of dizzying dexterity. It's very easy to tell who wrote what, but the styles are quite complimentary.
Indeed, Magrane's picking brightens up many of Hill's songs, and Hill's occasionally reckless playing keeps some of Magrane's songs from sounding like exercises. That's the nice thing about a duo; you can keep your own identity even as you broaden your palette.
Excellent songs for the back porch. Don't forget your bourbon with the iced tea chaser. Hey, if you're gonna go, you might as well go all the way. I'm headed out right now.
Just a gal and her guitar--or rather, a gal's guitar. Mendoza lets her fingers do the talking, and she picks and slashes her way around standards, country, the blues and whatever else she feels like taking a swipe at.
But this is no out-of-control, wild woman album. Mendoza plays these songs. She makes them sing. Her technique is impeccable, but her playing is astonishingly expressive. She doesn't just bend blue notes; she wads them up into a ball and throws them up against a wall.
Almost all instrumental guitar albums screw things up by adding a backing band. Some guitarists even think they can sing (ye gods!). Mendoza knows what she does well, which is tell stories with her guitar. Check that. Mendoza knows what she does better than almost anyone else on the planet, which is tell stories with her guitar.
From the first note, it's obvious that this album is the product of a master. Skill, taste and expression are all off the charts. If you don't weep while listening to this, then you have no soul.
The Naked Hearts
Oh, goodness. It's been a while since I've heard some honest-to-God indie rock. The Naked Hearts are Amy Cooper and Noah Wheeler (Cooper handles the guitar, Wheeler the bass and drums; both sing). Grungy, bouncy, lo-fi, sparkly, you name it. The Naked Hearts do it all in a minor key, and they make it snarl.
Pop songs for the truly disaffected, I suppose. These are brittle pieces of brilliance pasted to the ceiling of a disillusioned teenager. I think we've all been there. The Naked Hearts have moved on a bit, but not so much that they cannot tap that primal pit of pain.
The sound isn't quite as sparse as you might imagine. These songs grind along with plenty of weight on the bottom. The vocals don't quite balance things, which leaves the sound quite unsettled. That's one hell of a production job, really.
Okay, so it helps to have a love of the late 80s, back when it seemed the world was falling apart at the rifts. Since we seem to be right back there again, it's only appropriate that the Naked Hearts should appear to sour our smiles and brutalize our psyches. Stellar, indeed.
Borrowing from almost every effervescent pop sound since the 60s, the School floats its way toward a certain sort of heaven. The songs themselves do get a bit dark in terms of lyrics, but the music is pretty much pure spun candy.
And I'm not complaining, either. The key is to do it right, and these folks have a handle on something special. The songs are simply gorgeous. Better yet, they have a bit going on under the surface. You can bop, and then keep coming back for more.
The sound is very late 60s Beach Boys (though with largely female vocals) done up in a post-millennial shine. There are hints of Spector, some Bacharachian cheese and other additions, but largely these songs are bouncy and bright, with a few overdubbed harmonies to sweeten the mix.
Immediately arresting and continuously engaging. The School may seem to simply be a bit of fluff, but I think these songs will stay around for the long run. It's all so wonderful. (**sigh**)
I Found Myself Asleep
A fine Athens (Ohio) fivesome that favors the complex in pop music. This leads to a few anxious moments at the start of the album (at least for me), but after a listen or two I really started to get into the swing.
And sing these folks do. These songs move in unusual ways, but there's generally a solid groove somewhere. More importantly, She Bears always seem to want to say something IMPORTANT, if you know what I mean.
Musically, I mean. The lyrics are good, but I much prefer to wallow in the indulgently crunchy sounds of the songs. She Bears drops layer upon layer of musical thought into these songs, but it does so in a strikingly minimalist fashion. You might think the lines burbling around are simple. You ought to think a little bit more.
She Bears have obviously thought a lot, but these songs are anything but oppressive. Rather, they're often spontaneous raptures. I kinda dig that. Burrow into this and enlightenment just might follow.