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 2010
  • Johnny Bertram & the Golden Bicycles Days That Passed (Esperanza Plantation)
  • Blackmarket St. Vincent Decor (The Militia Group)
  • Sara Jackson-Holman When You Dream (Expunged)
  • Magrane Hill Public House (self-released)
  • Ava Mendoza Shadow Stories (Resipicent)
  • The Naked Hearts Mass Hysteria (self-released)
  • The School Loveless Unbeliever (Minty Fresh)
  • She Bears I Found Myself Asleep (Deep Elm)
  • Sodafrog Hang the Moon (self-released)
  • Spirit Kid Spirit Kid (RPL Audio)
  • Venice Is Sinking Sand & Lines: The Georgia Theatre Sessions
    May 20th-24th 2008
    (One Percent Press)
  • What Cheer? Brigade We Blow You Suck (self-released)
  • Also recommended: The best of the rest


    Johnny Bertram & the Golden Bicycles
    Days That Passed
    (Esperanza Plantation)

    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.

    Contact:
    Esperanza Plantation
    P.O. Box 55482
    Jackson, MS 39296
    www: http://www.esperanzaplantation.com


    Blackmarket
    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.

    Contact:
    The Militia Group
    P.O. Box 21976
    Long Beach, CA 90801-5976
    www: http://www.themilitiagroup.com


    Sara Jackson-Holman
    When You Dream
    (Expunged Records)

    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.

    Contact:
    Expunged Records
    920 SW Third
    Suite 200
    Portland, OR 97204
    www: http://www.expungedrecords.com


    Magrane Hill
    Public House
    (self-released)

    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.

    Contact:
    www: www.myspace.com/magranehill


    Ava Mendoza
    Shadow Stories
    (Resipiscent)

    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.

    Contact:
    Resipiscent
    723 Haight #5
    San Francisco, CA 94117
    www: http://www.resipiscent.com


    The Naked Hearts
    Mass Hysteria
    (self-released)

    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.

    Contact:
    www: http://www.thenakedhearts.com


    The School
    Loveless Unbeliever
    (Minty Fresh)

    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**)

    Contact:
    Minty Fresh
    P.O. Box 577400
    Chicago, IL 60657
    www: http://www.mintyfresh.com


    She Bears
    I Found Myself Asleep
    (Deep Elm)

    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.

    Contact:
    Deep Elm Records
    210 N. Church St. #2502
    Charlotte, NC 28202
    e-mail: info@deepelm.com
    www: www.deepelm.com


    Sodafrog
    Hang the Moon
    (self-released)

    Largely the efforts of Tom Janovitz, with the occasional contribution from a number of friends. Janovitz favors the jangly, sparse side of americana, and he's pretty happy to wallow in his roots when the mood strikes.

    What I'm trying to say is that this sounds like the quintessential singer-songwriter album. Janovitz doesn't vary much in his style, and that works very well for him. These are songs to sink your teeth into.

    The sound is somewhat fuller than you might imagine from my description. Janovitz generally doesn't get much more complicated than drums, guitar, bass and voice. The added elements tend to be some sort of piano (or piano substitute, like Moog or glockenspiel), which fills out the spaces without getting crowded.

    The sort of album that makes me kick back and smile. Slyly challenging, without making a big fuss out of it. Just really damned good, y'know?

    Contact:
    www: http://www.myspace.com/sodafrog


    Spirit Kid
    Spirit Kid
    (RPL Audio)

    Ah, just another affected, eclectic pop outfit. Spirit Kid isn't a collective, and it isn't Canadian, either. Rather, it is the solo effort of Emeen Zarookian, a Bostonian. Zarookian is hardly proper, however, and his quirks help make this album a delight.

    An obvious fan of late Beatles (this album is probably best described as a pastiche of Abbey Road and the White Album), Zarookian infuses his songs with lyrical and musical wit. It's hard to get through even a minute without a smile breaking out.

    I also like his flights of fancy. There are references to the Byrds, Big Star, the Posies and other pop gods. But Spirit Kid isn't overwhelmed by these ideas. This is the work of an assured pro.

    Don't believe me? Go to the website below and download the tracks for yourself. I think you'll be at least as knocked out as me. This one brims with pleasure.

    Contact:
    www: http://www.spiritkidmusic.com


    Venice Is Sinking
    Sand & Lines:
    The Georgia Theatre Sessions
    May 20th-24th 2008

    (One Percent Press)

    This album was recorded live to two-track tape. No overdubs. No nothing. Even the theatre itself burned (proceeds from this album will help with reconstruction). It's another solid Venice Is Sinking effort, even though it's safe to say that this album is quite a step away from previous albums.

    Part of that is the setting and primitive recording techniques. The theatre had a great sound, something that cannot be said for many venues. The band seems to have settled in and gotten comfortable quite quickly. At least, that's how it sounds to me.

    The songs here are more, well, song-oriented than the work on Azar. There's less experimentation and more embracing the core of the compositions. There are three covers, including a striking rendition of Dolly Parton's "Jolene." It's spooky without getting maudlin. Instead of striking out on flights of fancy, the band cuts right to the core of each song.

    Everything I've heard from this band is excellent, and this album is no exception. A couple more twists in the road, and Venice Is Sinking might approach legendary status. Hear them now.

    Contact:
    www: http://www.onepercentpress.com


    What Cheer? Brigade
    We Blow You Suck
    (self-released)

    Imagine a professional drum corps distilled down to a dozen or so members. With shows on stage rather than football fields. Okay, so only band geeks are likely to get the drum corps reference. The point is to imagine the coolest marching band ever and then let it play whatever the fuck it wants to play.

    I understand that the shows are marvels of kinetic energy. There's so much space between the sounds in the mix that this album sounds like it was recorded while the band itself was in full motion. In fact, that's true, as many tracks are live recordings. In any case, I wanted to start jumping as soon as this album popped through my speakers.

    The aforementioned sound certainly helps with that. This album is alive. It crackles with energy. The performances are boisterous and imperfect. In short, everything is utterly awesome.

    Okay, maybe it is just the inner band geek in me. But I would drop everything to see a show. And this album is about to go into heavy rotation. I am positively flying right now. Wheeeee!

    Contact:
    www: http://www.whatcheerbrigade.com


    Also recommended:

    Ancestors Of Sound Mind (Tee Pee)
    Epic doom rock, with plenty of prog thrown in. There are four "major" songs (each clocking in between 13 and 18 minutes in length), each with relatively short introductions that serve almost as a counterpoint. It'll take you an evening to get through this, and I doubt you'll mind a bit.

    Apteka Tour EP (self-released)
    A generous nine-song helping (which some would be tempted to call an album). Apteka's frenetic take on atmospheric pop is quite engaging. Let the fuzz seep into your veins and work its magic.
    Contact:
    www: http://www.aptekamusic.com

    Diego Bernal "Besides..." (Exponential)
    Not unlike the always entertaining RJD2, Diego Bernal uses extensive samples to create rockin' electronic brain blasters. These pieces are always in motion, and they all have wonderful grooves. Bernal is apparently an attorney, but he sure knows how to get down.

    The Dirty White Vs. Evil Circles (self-released)
    Think no wave with just a hint of accessibility. The Dirty White pays almost no attention to the vocals (which are shouted and often shrill), but the rhythm section is so tight that these songs rock out despite themselves. Something else, and that's a good thing.
    Contact:
    www: http://www.thedirtywhite.com

    Elk City House of Tongues (Friendly Fire)
    Elk City is its own band. It has a sound that feels remarkably solid and immutable. That the band wends its way through the whole pretentious rock cascades without drowning in self-indulgence is a remarkable achievement. Something of an acquired taste, I suppose, but extraordinarily assured.

    Fan-Tan Age of Discovery EP (self-released)
    Exquisite renditions of throb pop, complete with highly affected vocals. Fan-Tan makes little effort to wander into the modern era (this is new wave at its most eccentric), but I'm not gonna whine too loudly. More than weird enough to make me smile.
    Contact:
    www: http://www.myspace.com/fantanmusic

    Fjord Rowboat Under Cover of Brightness (Roxton)
    I like the band's slogan: "Healing the world with reverb since 2004." Yeah, that's about it. Some midtempo songs, some faster ones and just about everything drenched in reverb (and a bit of distortion; one must make the proper distinctions). Poppy, but not overly so. Rockin', but not like you'd mention it. Just kinda cool.

    The Forecast The Forecast (Eyeball Records)
    Basic rock and roll with just a hint of the roots poking through. Often anthemic and even vaguely emo, this album wanders through a love story. The arc of this tale may be somewhat predictable (there are, like, six plots in the entire history of love stories), but the songs are engaging and attractive. Basic can be good, and it sure is here.

    The Heligoats Goodness Gracious (Greyday)
    Chris Otepka took a bit more time with the first full-length Heligoats album, but the results are a lot like the EP. Meandering, occasionally loping songs that trip between folk, rock and something a bit deeper. The more I hear, the more I like.

    Rolf Julius Music for the Ears: Small Music No. 1 (Western Vinyl)
    Two extensive pieces that were recorded more than 30 years ago. Ambient before ambient was cool, to be sure, but there's a lot more going on than that. Julius takes his time, but the structure of these pieces is quite solid. Enjoy the silence.

    Librarians Present Passed (Postfact)
    Modestly experimental pop fare, kinda like the Shins run through an epileptic seizure. The hooks are pretty, but the underpinnings are anything but standard. These may be the burblings of disturbed minds, but it's a most attractive perturbation.

    Little Dragon Machine Dreams (Peacefrog-EMI)
    This Swedish electronic outfit has cut tracks with Gorillaz and others. This is its second album, and a third is on the way. The sound gets a bit chilly at times, but singer Yukimi Nagano is very good at warming up the coolest moments. I'm more intrigued the more I hear.

    Perhaps Contraption Sludge & Tripe (self-released)
    Three Brits (and a few guests) who bluster their way through a wide-ranging set of sounds. They want to compare themselves to Zappa and Beefheart, but these pieces don't have the same sort of technical rigor. There is structure, but it's not particularly formal. They reign in the anarchy, but only enough to capture it on tape. Fascinating stuff.
    Contact:
    www: http://www.myspace.com/perhapscontraption

    Picastro Become Secret (Monotreme)
    Modest songs that incorporate acoustic guitar, piano, strings and the like. The vocals are almost ethereal, but not nearly as effective at communication as the music is. I like where the lines lead. Fine introspective fare.

    The Prices The Awesomeness (3 T)
    Stylish rockers that purr and growl. Brit Price's voice has more range than yer average sex kitten mewlings, and she carries these songs well. Not the most original sound around, but done well. If you want to cheese out a bit, this is a solid choice.

    Reverse Monkey Mind (Curve of the Earth)
    Punk anthems that move nicely. Perhaps a bit too polished to really get me going, I can imagine those with a greater tolerance of sharp edges could really get behind this. The hooks soar, and the riffage is good and crunchy. The formula works.

    Stanley Schumacher and the Music Now Ensemble Jive at 5:05 (Musikmacher Productions)
    I've always liked the trombone as a jazz instrument. Stanley Schumacher doesn't stick strictly to jazz, as the name of his quartet might indicate. I'm not sure what's improvised and what is composed, but the collaborative nature of these songs tells me that there is a fair amount of the former. This album is billed as an attempt to fuse "art" music and jazz. At the edges, the line is very blurry--and this album tries to stick to those edges. Many ideas presented with style and grace.

    Six O'Clock Saints Exculpation (DRP)
    They may be central Pennsylvania boys, but Six O'Clock Saints are solidly in Sisters of Mercy/Cure country. Reminds me a bit of the first Warrior Soul album as well. The sound may be a bit of a throwback, but it's a welcome one to my ears. Excellent melodic work paired with some serious power. This package is well put together.

    The Slants Pageantry (self-released)
    The new album from this Portland (Ore.) outfit, and it's a bit disappointing. The greater emphasis on guitars isn't a problem. It's more the lessening of the groove factor. Too many of these songs sound like they could have been recorded by just about anyone. Nonetheless, I've been so impressed by their previous work that I have to keep the faith. Evolution can be a wonderful thing, even if the details are a bit messy.
    Contact:
    www: http://www.theslants.com

    Sugar Army The Parallels Amongst Ourselves (Shock)
    Bright, in-your-face rock and roll that emphasizes craft over emotion. The combination of high energy and ultra-tight playing and arrangements is intriguing. A bit chilly for my ears, but certainly compelling. Sugar Army is nothing if not assertive.

    This Drama San Diego XIII (Deep Elm)
    Blistering punk with just enough of a heavy edge to send the sound into overdrive. These songs blaze away at ephedrine-driven speeds, leaving little space for breathing. Enjoy only after getting clearance from your physician.

    Tribella Thirteen (self-released)
    Finely-spun songs that spin around the basic rock trio: guitar, bass and drums. These pieces have a cool ringing quality, and Sarah Glynn's voice is a monument to quiet desperation. I think there's a lot more to this than a first listen will hear.
    Contact:
    www: http://www.tribellatheband.com

    Walking Sleep Measures (self-released)
    Jaunty pop rock that relies as much on peppy rhythms as golden hooks. These songs move quickly, but gently. The perfect soundtrack to a glistening spring morning.
    Contact:
    www: http://www.walkingsleep.com


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