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Music Reviews

Unbunny

Unbunny

Snow Tires

Hidden Agenda

Unbunny’s press kit rightly pegs Elliott Smith and Grandaddy — two acts I’ve never been able to understand what the fuss was all about — as being the band’s primary influences. Smith’s sturdy acoustic strum and Lytle and Co.’s wandering electronics are pushed to the front of every track on this disc. The band, unfortunately, isn’t more than the sum of its archetypal forefathers, but they’re sure to please those fans searching for admirable derivations of their favorite sadcore artists.

For the rest of us, Unbunny’s downfall is songwriter Jarid del Deo’s tendency to write a couple good songs, then churn out two exact copycats with the same rhythm patterns or vocal melody. It’s kind of a case of the chicken and the egg when it comes to figuring out which song is the original and which the bastard offspring. But in any case, half of Snow Tires is decent downcast indie pop. The rest is a tedious rehashing.

Parasol: www.parasol.com

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Music Reviews

Nanook of the North

Nanook of the North

The Taby Tapes

Hidden Agenda

Leave it to the Swedes to come up with a concept album about Eskimos. Sharing their name with the infamous seal-clubbing film, Nanook of the North the band is decidedly more PETA friendly. The group’s back story goes like this: Alaskan expatriate Nanook traveled to Taby, a suburb of Stockholm, where he endeared himself to local musicians, who subsequently persuaded him to record his songs. Regardless of this tale’s validity, The Taby Tapes is a breathtaking album.

Beginning their songs with spare folk arrangements, Nanook and company construct delicate snowflake patterns with all manner of chilly analogue synths, ice shattering percussion and twee bric-a-brac. The order in which the band tracks the album groups the stellar songs in pairs and buffers them with the lesser ones. The mystical autumn séance of “Karin Boye’s Grave” and the rustic jazz framing on “Israel and Palestine — A Solution”; the drunken polar bear picnic of “Phonecall” and “St. George and the Dragon” (which features the most sweetly addictive keyboard riff since the theme from Looper’s Up a Tree); “The Explorer,” with its harsh electro ensconced in optimism, and the hazy, fading “Forget it Jenny, Love is Just a Privilege of the Rich.” All enjoy a status of conjoined brilliance. The rest, especially the inexplicable turn toward dungeon pop of the album’s final act, are somewhat disappointing in comparison.

Taking a page from The Delgados’ call-and-response handbook, Nanook enlists a cast of female singers to act as the voice of dissent in his attempts to resolve issues of homesickness and assorted internal turmoil. Carmela Leierth and Malin Olofsson offer the best performances, though they’re all unknown to me.

This is the ideal hopelessly romantic album to get you through the quickly approaching bleak mid-winter months. It finds warmth and happiness in the seemingly unending palette of frigid white. For anyone who’s lived in a climate where winter can conceivably span over six months, it’s a thankless task and a remarkable accomplishment.

Parasol: www.parasol.com

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Music Reviews

Unbunny

Unbunny

Snow Tires

Hidden Agenda

Jarid Del Deo’s abstruse wordplay (“You could say, you would say, I’m like all these decomposing leaves/Dark and heavy”) recalls the smug wryness of Clem Snide. His nasal warble, especially on “I Leave Stones Unturned,” has a subtle Neil Young feel. And then there’s the pervasive desperation of Snow Tires: “Don’t leave me with the shakes/Don’t hang me up to dry/If you knew what it takes, then you’d know I’m trying.”

Unbunny’s latest is a very timely offering. It is full of that gentle warmth that comes with a late-October afternoon in the Midwest, knowing full well that a long winter to come lurks somewhere on the other side of the amber-imbued dusk. Languorous guitars, spare piano lines and lugubrious lyrics are all delivered with a hushed whisper. Sepia images of things past are elicited throughout. While these things (mainly failed relationships) are not necessarily longed for, the present is pretty bleak, as the title track dolefully reiterates: “All the downtown windows are lit up for the holidays/Do they really think a string of colored lights is gonna rescue me?” This stuff is so damn palpable!

It’s getting darker earlier now, the landscape has become bare and the chill of a harsh, unrelenting winter is in the air. The only sensible thing to do is to curl up under the duvet and put on Snow Tires. It’ll be a while before you’re warm again — and I don’t just mean physically. But it’s nice to know that your pathos is in good company.

Unbunny: www.unbunny.com

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Music Reviews

Jeff Kelly

Jeff Kelly

For the Swan in the Hallway

Hidden Agenda

Jeff Kelly may be just a little too highfalutin for his own good. On his latest solo effort, the leader of the Seattle indie band Green Pajamas offers three songs inspired by opera, one inspired by a Helen Humphries novel and one inspired by, um, a lock of Emily Bronte’s hair. What keeps the record from becoming a pretentious cultural education class however are Kelly’s love of ’60’s psychedelia and slightly cheesy keyboard sounds and a plaintive voice that occasionally recalls John Lennon, Ray Davies and Robyn Hitchcock.

When Kelly salutes Debussy’s “Pelleas and Melisande” on the record’s opening track, it’s not with glass-shattering vocals but with jangly guitars and a nice pop hook. The closing track, “A Night At the Opera,” similarly pays homage to opera singer Natalie Dessay with buzzy guitars and bloopy, phasey keyboards. It sounds more like a Cars song with a T-Rex groove than the Queen album with which it shares a title.

Elsewhere, “Ever So Lightly” sounds like an update of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch.” The Humphries novel-inspired “Afterimage” has a bit of the lilt of Jon Brion’s work, but with a harder, spookier edge. A recent trip across the pond informs several songs here. Kelly sings about a night in a 300-year-old English pub on “The Swan on the Hill.” He nicely evokes the buzz of a London afternoon on “Oxford Street.” And “The Lock,” with its melancholy piano and strings and echo-y drum figure, is about that aforementioned lock of Emily Bronte’s hair in a Yorkshire museum.

Call it psychedelic pop for the Grey Poupon crowd if you will. For the Swan in the Hallway is worth wading through the sophistication to get to the good stuff.

Hidden Agenda: www.hidden-agenda.com

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Music Reviews

Poster Children

Poster Children

No More Songs About Sleep and Fire

Hidden Agenda

If Poster Children were a “full-time band,” they’d be huge. I don’t mean Yeah Yeah Yeahs huge, because I think they already have that. Ya know? But I think they’d be, I don’t know, like Creed huge. No kiddin’. Frat guy big.

For instance, bassist Rose Marshack has that indie rock grrl look that is fairly popular now, at least on the college campuses I stalk. And I’m not sure about this, but if she had a tattoo — only slightly visible — she’d be a covergirl type. Oh, kind of like Brody Armstrong of The Distillers but less bitchy, with fewer tattoos, I guess. Rick Valentin has that geek rock star thing going for him. I mean, he’s a computer scientist by day, Rock God by night. I wonder if he has secret identity hipster glasses, too. Oh, and you can’t forget his brother, Jim. Six-slinger indie cred. Can’t beat that shit.

What’s best about all this is that they got the musical chops to back it up — not like those other “post-wave revival” full time bands, The Rapture or Hot Hot Heat. For proof, all you have to do is listen to their ninth full-length record, No More Songs About Sleep and Fire. Marshack tugs along on her bass, providing the “heavy” to Rick’s melody, as new drummer Matt Friscia delivers a wonderful punkish tempo on “Sugafriend” and lays it all out on the politically charged “The Leader.”

On “The Floor,” the listener is greeted with a Pixies-inspired tune with its acoustic intro and demanding, aggressive vocals. The dual guitar of Jim and Rick Valentin turn the all-consuming angular guitar pop on its nose — who but the Children created this “jangling” to begin with?

So, you see, if Poster Children didn’t spend so much time with “real” jobs, they’d be huge. Creed huge. I swear. But for now, I’m glad I’ve got them to myself, relatively speaking of course.

Parasol: www.parasol.com/ • Poster Children: www.posterchildren.com/

Categories
Music Reviews

Poster Children

Poster Children

No More Songs About Sleep and Fire

Hidden Agenda

If Poster Children were a “full-time band,” they’d be huge. I don’t mean Yeah Yeah Yeahs huge, because I think they already have that. Ya know? But I think they’d be, I don’t know, like Creed huge. No kiddin’. Frat guy big.

For instance, bassist Rose Marshack has that indie rock grrl look that is fairly popular now, at least on the college campuses I stalk. And I’m not sure about this, but if she had a tattoo — only slightly visible — she’d be a covergirl type. Oh, kind of like Brody Armstrong of The Distillers but less bitchy, with fewer tattoos, I guess. Rick Valentin has that geek rock star thing going for him. I mean, he’s a computer scientist by day, Rock God by night. I wonder if he has secret identity hipster glasses, too. Oh, and you can’t forget his brother, Jim. Six-slinger indie cred. Can’t beat that shit.

What’s best about all this is that they got the musical chops to back it up — not like those other “post-wave revival” full time bands, The Rapture or Hot Hot Heat. For proof, all you have to do is listen to their ninth full-length record, No More Songs About Sleep and Fire. Marshack tugs along on her bass, providing the “heavy” to Rick’s melody, as new drummer Matt Friscia delivers a wonderful punkish tempo on “Sugafriend” and lays it all out on the politically charged “The Leader.”

On “The Floor,” the listener is greeted with a Pixies-inspired tune with its acoustic intro and demanding, aggressive vocals. The dual guitar of Jim and Rick Valentin turn the all-consuming angular guitar pop on its nose — who but the Children created this “jangling” to begin with?

So, you see, if Poster Children didn’t spend so much time with “real” jobs, they’d be huge. Creed huge. I swear. But for now, I’m glad I’ve got them to myself, relatively speaking of course.

Parasol: www.parasol.com • Poster Children: www.posterchildren.com

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Music Reviews

Moonbabies

Moonbabies

The Orange Billboard

Hidden Agenda

Musically, The Orange Billboard is nearly flawless. Think Trembling Blue Stars with less ’80s keyboard cheese, or Low collaborating with New Order and Yo La Tengo. The band knows their way around a bittersweet melody. You probably won’t find catchier, more danceable indie-pop than the first four tracks on this album.

Lyrically, things start to get more interesting. Moonbabies hail from Sweden and have a decidedly skewed take on English grammar and metaphorical imagery. Take, for example, the lyrics from “Over My Head”: “And you will need / another meal of my sour cream.” Or, “You can’t smell the dirt until they crap on your lawn” from “Fieldtrip USA.” Slightly bizarre stuff to place in a broken-hearted context, but it’s also a refreshing digression from the overly reiterated Dashboard route.

Parasol Records: http://www.parasol.com/

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Music Reviews

Parasol•s Sweet Sixteen

Parasol’s Sweet Sixteen

Volume Five

Parasol

The fifth incarnation of Parasol’s popular compilation series reads like a Swedish best-of album. Some fantastic tracks appear, including Sukilove’s “Talking in the Dark,” Sweden’s answer to Elliot Smith, Lasse Lindh’s “The Stuff” and Martin Permer’s “Popgirl.”

Another truly spectacular contribution is the ethereal, gorgeous pop song “Back to Budapest” by (yes, this is the name…) Kevin Tihista’s Red Terror. “Budapest” is a simple melody with a ’70s folk feel. Think the Mamas and the Papas mind melding with Portishead and you’re almost there.

One of the more “famous” dreampop groups on the compilation is Club 8. With its breathy female vocals, “Spring Came, Rain Fell” could be a bona fide dance hit. Yet, by far, the most “commercially” viable band on the compilation is The Soundtrack of Our Lives, who offer “Lone Summer Dream.”

Even with its overwhelming appreciation for all things Swede, Parasol has constructed an eclectic compilation that finds it way into my CD player more often than any other compilation.

Parasol Records: http://www.parasol.com/

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Music Reviews

Club 8

Club 8

Strangely Beautiful

Hidden Agenda

I’m very sorry to say that Club 8’s latest release, Strangely Beautiful, the follow-up to the tender and lovely Spring Came, Rain Fell, is nowhere near its equal.

That LP was one of the best of 2002 — this is one of the most disappointing sequels I’ve heard since Laptop’s second.

It all starts on a bad enough note with “When Lights Go Out” which is a pretty obvious sonic rewrite of some of Club 8’s previous disc’s material. In fact the damnedest thing about this record is that many of the same elements that make Spring Came so rewarding are also here, but with few new dimensions to travel or sides to show.

You do hear a bit more of a Beatles influence (possibly filtered through The Smiths) on this album, especially in “Saturday night engine.” This song hits a little harder here than on the Sweet Sixteen, Vol. 6 compilation that teased it earlier this year, but it’s still a song in dire need of a remix.

To be fair, musician/songwriter/producer Johan Angergard does appear to be trying to let new elements in on a couple of the tracks. Unfortunately, either he abandons them after a promising start or they just sound inappropriate. The very likable flute-sounds intro to “I wasn’t much of a fight” gives way to more standard Club 8 instrumentation and the scratching on “What shall we do next?” just grates.

It’s possible that latter song is something of a cry for help, ending as it does with the words “We don’t know what to do next.” I hope they think of something soon, because there are a few good songs here that on careful listening show Club 8 still have a few diamonds to mine. I really appreciated the instrumental “Between waking and sleeping,” although it pointed up the lack of growth in Karolina Komstedt’s vocals on the rest of the album. And I like “The next step you’ll take,” especially the lyrics, and “Cold Hearts.”

If this was Club 8’s second album ever, I could put all this down to “the dreaded sophomore slump,” but it’s actually something like the Swedish duo’s fifth release. So maybe it’s more like end-of-school burnout?

Where Spring Came turned the head from first listen and has only grown in emotional value in the year-plus since, Strangely Beautiful is, while not offensive, just boring.

Hidden Agenda: http://www.hidden-agenda.com/

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Music Reviews

Ronderlin

Ronderlin

Wave Another Day Goodbye

Hidden Agenda

A very superficial glance at Sweden’s music scene would produce a division into two camps: abrasive garage rock from the city and pastoral indie pop. Chances are, if you’ve heard one band from Sweden it’s the Hives, a band at the forefront of the current garage rock revival. Getting virtually no press outside of their country, you can almost picture indie pop bands like Ronderlin sitting on some desolate, pre-spring hillside watching as the last of their countryside girlfriends pack up their cars to join the ever expanding garage party and wondering when their time will come. It’s a shame, because while Ronderlin is just as lacking in originality as their urban countrymen, they are just as adept at appropriating from their favorite sources. The requisite chiming Byrds-ian guitar is there, as is the understated Hammond organ. Their crowning achievement in this traditional vein is the Belle & Sebastian-perfect “Reflected.”

Thankfully, Ronderlin are able to draw from influences beyond the standard roster of limp-wristed all-stars. “Time For Farming Soon” takes the Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and strangles it with pastel turtlenecks, turning it into the closest approximation to “progressive twee” I’ve ever heard. Surprisingly, it holds up fairly well. “Black Eyebrows” begins with an organ lifted directly from The Cure’s “Untitled” before acquiescing to the call of windswept beach pop. Quite a few of the album’s tracks bear gothic undertones of an atmospheric-less Cure, musically and lyrically. Being Swedish and apolitical, the lyrics are appropriately simple. I’m not joking when I say that all the songs on this album deal with springtime, abandonment, day turning to night and waving goodbye. It’s not too deep, but it’s an almost ideal soundtrack to being brokenhearted and alone on a hillside high above the rocking garages of the city.

Parasol Records: http://www.parasol.com/