Band Name: Josh Caress
Album Name: Josh Caress Goes on an Adventure!
Best element: Brilliant, beautiful songwriting.
Genre: Acoustic singer/songwriter
Label name: n/a
Band e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Josh Caress went on tour in support of his previous album Letting Go of a Dream, and as he went on tour, he took notes about the places he visited. He then went all Sufjan on us and composed an album about his journey through America. I couldn’t be more pleased with the results.
I had the distinct privilege of listening to this album as it was intended- as a travelogue. I took a four-day trip, and pretty much all I listened to was this album on repeat, with occasional other bands when I got too entranced with Caress’s rich, full voice and sonorous guitar playing. When played on the road, this album becomes one amazing album- it has traveling woven in it, and when on the road this album reveals itself. Listening to it at home is still an amazing experience, don’t get me wrong- but it’s a traveling CD all the way.
Each song is peppered with city names, landmarks, people, and stories. “Dixie County” is about traveling through the South and realizing that “I know this is right, I just have to know for sure.” The story of reminiscing on college pasts is told in “The Tower of Babble/Carolina Stars”, while “Goodbye, Savannah!” tells the story of a man who is separated from his lover, but “I’ll see you again, when I come back to marry you!” Stories of carousels, thanksgiving, Omaha, and many more run around inside this album- it’s a very, very personal album, but it’s also very universal.
The poignancy of these tales lies not only in Caress’ lyrically plaintive way of relating the stories, but in the fact that the only instrument on the album is an acoustic guitar. Where Caress had loops and strings and beats all over the place in Letting Go of a Dream, Goes on an Adventure! is a much more organic experience. He does layer the guitars, playing second guitar parts as well as creating the effect of droning strings by playing vibrato on the higher strings of his guitar. But it never gets too cluttered- the free, open spaces that it was written in still reside in the framework of the song.
Caress’ lyrics have gotten much better- in picking up a new style of songwriting, the sometimes-clunky lyrics of previous releases have been cut. His delivery of these lyrics has improved as well- the over-the-top issues that seemed to come from too much studio tinkering have been eliminated in this much leaner album. Each time that Caress goes for a vocal line, he hits it, and more often than not, it’s shiver-inducing. The baritone is sure and steady on tunes like “The Happiest Place on Earth”, and it is simply amazing. It sounds as if Josh Caress were born to sing “The Happiest Place on Earth”- his voice and the guitar work together to make a perfectly comfortable song.
If you’re a fan of singer/songwriter fare, you need to do yourself a favor and listen to Josh Caress’ early works. He will be making waves in the bigger music scene, so it’s best to jump on the bandwagon early and get the most out of his beautiful, incredibly written music. Especially if you’re taking a trip through the Midwest.
Band Name: Josh James
Album Name: Painted in a Corner
Best Element: Songwriting Growth
Genre: Acoustic Singer/songwriter
Label Name: N/a
Band E-mail: myspace.com/joshjamesgtr
Having reviewed James’ acoustic-only debut Primitive Sketches, I was especially interested in seeing how his songwriting would grow and change with a full band backing him. While the added instruments provide some good changes, they also provides back alleys to travel that ultimately reach dead-ends and stop James from claiming a sound specifically his own.
That really is my biggest complaint here: James still sounds like he’s dabbling in a lot of different things rather than investing himself in one solid sound that he can hang his hat on. From the funk-lite of “Like a Bird” to the John Mayer-esque “Through to Me” to the serious “Don’t Remember” to the poignant “Home,” James is all over the map with Painted in a Corner. He and Aaron Sprinkle have something in common- they both take incorrect self-deprecating shots with their album titles.
The good thing is that there is improvement here. The vocals are slowly losing their annoying breathiness, especially on tracks like the rocking “Stuck in a Rut” and “Goodbye.” Unfortunately, we still have the heavy breathing of “Cold Cruel World” and “Like a Bird” to deal with.
I can forgive “Cold Cruel World,” because it holds the single best hook that James has ever written. That’s proof that the melodic ability of James is growing. Each of these songs has a pronounced hook, and that’s a great thing to have.
James’ best songs here are his slow ballads “Home” and “Comfort Coat.” It sounds as if he poured extra care and attention into them, as “Home” has a fantastic string accompaniment and “Comfort Coat” has a great horn line. This gives both these tunes double the amount of interesting melodies that the rest of the songs have.
There is a lot of growth and improvement on Painted in a Corner, but seeing as it is actually a first attempt at a full band setting, it’s pretty much a debut album. I look forward to seeing what James will do in the future as he grows in the understanding of the full band. The melodic gift he has will do very well if he can put it in the right setting.
Band Name: KKZCCH!
Album Name: S/T
Best Element: the feeling the album leaves you with
Genre: Spaz/ Grindcore
Label Name: Sassbologna records (http://sassbologna.com/news.htm)
Band E-mail: www.myspace.com/kkzcch
You will hate this album….if you hate The Locust. If you love The Locust like I do, you have just found the best new band of the year. These guys play brutal, kick-you-in-the-face-while-ripping-out-your-spleen grindcore. Each song is between 15 and 30 seconds long, making the entire 10 track tape last about 3 minutes. There are three different vocalists, I think- or maybe one vocalist using three different voices. Who the hell knows? The recording is very rough but it gives you the feeling of standing in the middle of a room as KKZCCH! has a seizure all around you.
After listening to the tape, I felt exhausted. The music is so powerful, it knocks the wind out of you as you sit idly by and listen. KKZCCH! is the definition of “ass-kicking hardcore.” Basically, I loved it but I want more. Three minutes of this is not enough; I want to hear a 20 minute album of the KKZCCH! destroying a room. Go buy this album, and then convince Sassbologna to re-release the tape. This tape is an experience. It kicks you in the balls, steps on your head and leaves you begging for more abuse.
Band: Look Mexico!
Album: The Crucial EP
Best Element: Great melodies and instrumental talent
I’ve listened to Look Mexico’s The Crucial EP several times now, and I can say with certainty that it is aptly named. It’s fun; It’s catchy, and it’s much too short. Seriously, that is my only complaint with this EP. Be forewarned, if you would prefer to avoid humming in public, don’t buy it- the melodies will haunt your dreams.
“He Bit Me” starts The Crucial EP off with a bang. Front man Matt Agrella and guitarist Dave Bumsted, who has since left the band to be replaced by Ryan Slate, lay down a rockin’ string of heavily distorted chords to begin the song, and drummer Joshua Mikel does more than just keep up. “He Bit Me” is indie rock at its best, and it feels like a live show. Look Mexico is excited about what it does, and it shows.
”I Can’t Today, I’m on Duty” is the first track to showcase Agrella’s vocal skills: “He Bit me” is instrumental. There is a definite punk feel to “I Can’t Today, I’m on Duty,” but in terms of energy and sheer listenability it equals if not surpasses “He Bit Me.”
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Look Mexico does it again with “Call Off Your Lapdog.” “Call Off Your Lapdog” is more melodious than the other two tracks, but gets a bit frenetic in places. Though “Call Off Your Lapdog” is dissonant in places, it is another solid track on a remarkable sophomore release.
“Guys I Need a Helicopter” is, like “He Bit Me,” instrumental. I know I sound like a broken record, but it’s excellent. Think Death Cab for Cutie on this one. In true Death Cab fashion, bassist Tyson Kuhlhoff has a more prominent role in this song, than he did in the others and rises to the occasion.
”Come On, We’re Talking About You Here” combines clever lyrics with the musical excellence of the rest of The Crucial EP. It is truly a great ending to a great album.
Do yourself a favor: buy this album.
Band: Oh No Ono
Album Name: Yes
Best Element: Anything-goes mentality
Label: Morningside Records
Band E-mail: email@example.com
Remember “Move Your Body”, Junior Senior’s disco/trash/dance extravaganza from a few years back? The full length debut from fellow Danes Oh No Ono sounds a bit like that track taken to extremes. Fronted (and practically defined) by the androgynous, helium-induced alien voice of Malthe Fischer, Yes is a record chock full of playful synthesizer, disco grooves and an overwhelming sense of weird.
The album opens with a dramatic symphonic piano instrumental which promises something epic to follow. And the band largely fulfills this promise. They play with such ferocity, such an intense desire to make you dance, that even when the songs don’t quite measure up the music is still fantastic. The delicious disco funk of “Victim of the Modern Age” and “Practical Money Skills for Life” exemplify this best.
But even when Oh No Ono is making you dance, they’re doing it in their own avant-garde alien way. Take the first single “Keeping Warm In Cold Country.” Between a landscape of chugging guitars and stabbing synths, the verses suddenly halt and reveal almost psychedelic harmonized vocals. They linger for perhaps a second and then the band has moved onto something else. It’s a kitchen sink kind of song but it’s still glossy and catchy as hell.
Fischer’s atypical vocals can be at times grating, most glaringly on album closer “Talking Lynddie England.” Similarly, “Sunshine and Rain at Once” is a stab at balladry that sounds strangely like the Muppets singing a rock show tune. This one works, though, as it conforms to the anything-goes aesthetic of the rest of the record.
Key Tracks: Keeping Warm In Cold Country, Victim Of The Modern Age, Practical Money Skills For Life
Band Name: Paradigm
Album: The Madhouse
Best Element: Dynamics, tempo/melody shifts
Genre: Progessive/Indie rock
Band Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Chicago’s Paradigm has been evolving since their conception in early months of 2001. From multiple line-up changes to the production of several demos, an
EP, and a full length album, Paradigm now adds one more full length to their resume of blood, sweat, tears, and musical productivity. The Madhouse, named aptly for the variety of sounds within, demonstrates not only the band’s growth since their previous release, but also the strength they’ve carried with them to be able to even release it.
The Madhouse kicks off with “Dead Man’s Horoscope,” a song that screams of discontent with the habitual, machine-like nature of everything that bogs people down in life. Jack Essenburg’s rolling drums set the tempo before Nate Leslie and Raul Cotaquispe tear into the song with a raging rhythm that entails crunchy palm-muting and the undeniable rock signature of pinch harmonics. Leslie comes in with mature vocals then, alternating between his natural voice and a high falsetto that will haunt many of the songs on the album.
“Peripeteia” starts with a smooth intro before sailing into a rocking toe-tapping beat. Leslie’s vocals come in with attitude and a rocking ending carries the album through into “Lost and Found,” easily one of the best songs on the album. A peaceful verse that allows for Allan Marcial’s thundering bass line to stand out adds to the fact that Leslie’s vocals actually carry with them some added feeling beyond the words he sings.
That same feeling is picked up by Cotaquispe’s guitar work in
“Captivate” and the CD’s lone instrumental track “…” The unnamed instrumental song picks up where “Captivate” ends and features fast tempos, spiraling solos, chaotic arrangements, and an insane trip straight into the album’s title track “The Madhouse.”
Haunting and mellow, Paradigm’s “The Madhouse” is given depth by the appearance of a cello, as well as the epic, emotional soloing of Contaquispe.
Leslie’s most powerful vocals are found in this song, and his songwriting ability is given credibility by lines from Shakespeare and references to a poem by Sir Edwin Alden Robinson.
The album ends with the seemingly peaceful “Riptide” that starts off slow but ends with intensity. Leslie sums the song up as having a ‘Bring it on!’ attitude and wrote the song to bring an end to the messages of madness throughout the album.
Despite having many positive things going on through the album, Paradigm’s latest effort comes off sounding much of the same. From intense rhythms to mellow verses and straight chord filled choruses, each song flows much the same and contains many of the same formulas. Leslie’s vocals, though mature and powerful at times, seem to be, like most of Paradigm’s songs, lacking a certain “x-factor.” The songs have everything going for them except for power. Call it a mixing problem or what you will, because the boys of Paradigm aren’t lacking in talent.
The Madhouse is a good album for the underground rock fan. Poetic lyrics and musical creativity allow for a great listen, but incomplete satisfaction.
Irregardless, Paradigm recently found themselves a new front man and, hopefully with new inspiration and creativity at hand, the “x-factor” missing from The
Madhouse will soon follow.
Band Name: Persephone’s Bees
Album Name: Notes from the Underworld
Best Element: Bizarre ideas…that work
Label Name: Sony
Band E-mail: n/a
Like all the very best pop bands, Persephone’s Bees presents a cocktail of many seemingly incongruous ingredients. Take “On the Earth,” which appears late in the album. The song is a mash-up of spiky new wave guitar, breathy nonsensical chants, hard glam-rock flourishes, and background vocals reminiscent of the Beach Boys. Then it all fades out for a few seconds and stumbles back in for a final attack. It’s such a mess that I’m not sure it could even really be qualified as a song, yet it’s still poppy and catchy. Somehow.
Although “On the Earth” is the most experimental song on the album, it sums up Underworld’s charm nicely. It’s the kind of record you can’t stop listening to because you don’t know what’s coming up next: “Fernando”-style Abba melodies (“Even Though I’m Fooling Around”), Russian new-wave/folk (“Muzika Dlya Fil’ma”), 60’s psychedelic pop (the heavenly chorus of lead single “Nice Day”).
The majority of the credit must go to Russian-born lead singer Angelina Moysov, who lends the songs an icy playfulness and American guitarist Tom Ayres, who supplies a healthy dose of rock pomp and pop smarts. On paper it shouldn’t work, but that’s precisely how great pop albums are born. B+
Key Tracks: Nice Day, On The Earth, Climbing
Band Name: Pontiak
Album Name: Valley of Cats
Best element: Cosmic leap in songwriting ability
Label name: FireProof Records
Band e-mail: email@example.com
There’s enough firepower in just the first five tracks of Pontiak’s Valley of Cats to make me want to rant and rave about it- and there are still 8 more songs to get me more excited than I already am.
Valley of Cats is such a cosmic leap in songwriting from their previous EP White Buffalo that it’s almost not even worth comparing the two. Valley of Cats focuses on intensity, either bursting forth or brooding below the surface- White Buffalo EP seemed content to plod. White Buffalo EP made me think about what genre it fell in- Valley of Cats makes it clear that Pontiak is here to rock you. If the Strokes came down from the Appalachians, the music that they would be blasting as they rode into town in their pick-ups would be the earthy yet rocking tones of Pontiak’s new album.
It’s tough to write about something this entirely good- it’s one of those albums that you turn on any song and put it at any place in the song and you’ve got a part that makes you think “oh yeah, this is a cool part!” Whether it’s the eerie minimalism of the end of “Hydrogen Fires”, the post-punk guitar and wailing choir of “Ask for Attention”, the revved up guitars of opener “Crows on the Move”, the wicked bass/drums intro to “Eyes”, or the stomping 70’s guitar and bass of the title track, every song here is awesome. If you think I’m exaggerating, I’m not- I literally used the technique I described earlier to pick the aforementioned cool sections. This album will blow your mind.
Whatever happened to Pontiak over the last year or so, it must have been significant, because it turned them into a rock machine. The astounding thing is that there are only three men in Pontiak, and they’ve completed a nearly flawless rock album- it’s innovative, it’s head-bobbing, it’s got something to yell along to, it’s got heavy songs (“Salt Flats”), it’s got light songs (“Made for the Luxury”), and it’s got to be in your collection. This is the best band I have heard about all year, and I thought I already knew about them. This is the release of the year so far, and there’s only two months left in the year. A monumental release.
What about the Producer?
Everyone always talks about the difference in the “sound” of a band from album to album. Things like “I can’t believe they would change their sound” or “Something sounds different, but I can’t put my finger on it” are the most common phrases I hear when a popular band with a recognizable sound puts out their second full length album or an album on a new label. This is commonly referred to as a “sophomore slump” (second major album) or “selling out” (move to a new label). Bands like Thursday, From Autumn to Ashes and Brand New get nailed by original fans for this change in “sound.” What a majority of fans don’t realize is that the change they are hearing is not (for the most part) a change in the band, but a change in the producer of the album. I had never realized this until I picked up He Is Legend’s Suck Out the Poison last week and heard the result of a new producer.
He Is Legend’s 2004 release I Am Hollywood was a huge success for the new hardcore band from North Carolina, so when their second full-length was announced, fans of the band got quite excited. We all expected an expansion of the last album, yet when it got popped into stereos across the country, fans heard something odd that seemed very out of place for HIL: the vocals were mixed higher than the instrumentals. This came as a huge surprise for HIL fans because the distinctive sound that had been established was one of an almost even mixing between instrumentals and vocals. The mixing in I Am Hollywood gave the band a very raw feel that attracted a lot of fans, particularly music snobs such as me. A lot of this came from the fact that the band mixed the album. This allowed them to make themselves sound the way they sound everyday. Suck Out the Poison was mixed by Steve Evetts instead of the band and his production is apparent in the sound.
This statement is in no way a shot at Evetts. Personally, while I find Suck Out the Poison less impressive than I Am Hollywood, HIL’s latest effort is in no way a bad album. The album has a few very good songs but it doesn’t pop out of the myriad of crap that is flowing out of the music industry like I Am Hollywood did. Basically, try paying attention to the producer. They may have more of an effect on your favorite bands’ sound than you would expect.
Band Name: Shiny Toy Guns
Album Name: We are Pilots
Best element: Umvd Labels
Label name: n/a
Band e-mail: www.myspace.com/shinytoyguns
Inside the liner notes for We Are Pilots, there are the words Version 3.0, alluding to the fact that this major label debut by Shiny Toy Guns is in fact the third incarnation of this album (two different demo versions being released previously). Given that this is the version released to CD shelves, it should be perfected, right? The band certainly photographs well, looking like charismatic sci-fi superheroes in their press photos. And the record sounds great- very stylish. The question then becomes: is this a case of style over substance?
Well… yes and no. The record has some amazing high points, and the songs appearing on earlier demo versions of the album have been polished until they…ahem…shine. This being said, We Are Pilots is not quite as consistent as it could (and should) be. Let’s get the clunkers out of the way first, since there are thankfully very few. Tracks like Starts With One and Chemistry Of A Car Crash are the kind of songs that you could throw against the wall a hundred times and they still wouldn’t stick; just not memorable enough.
Luckily, there is plenty to love on We Are Pilots. The album’s centerpiece is “When They Came for Us,” an astonishing cinematic science fiction story-song. It’s mysterious and hauntingly alien, just like those press photos. Surefire dance smashes “Le Disko” and “Don’t Cry Out” give the album some much needed showstopping power, though elegant opener “You Are the One” and gorgeous closer “We Are Pilots” shouldn’t be missed either.
While Shiny Toy Guns don’t particularly reinvent anything, they play their electro/rock/pop combination with verve and an earnestness that’s absolutely contagious. The album has its flaws, but you’ll need a break to get a drink between fits of dancing anyway. B+
Key Tracks: When They Came For Us, Le Disko, Don’t Cry Out