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Mazes

Mazes

Mazes

Parasol

The 1900s might be the best indie pop band to come out of Chicago in recent memory, which makes a side project involving two of the group’s core members something to be noted. Edward Anderson and Caroline Donovan’s Mazes is a much sparer affair than the richly textured and densely arranged sounds of their full-time band, but the songwriting framework remains distinctly intact. Anderson’s compositions pull from any number of disparate sources (Fleetwood Mac, Low, Ladybug Transistor, The Doors, Page France, etc.) and jumble them up bare-bones style. The result is a supple, breezy album full of hooks and gorgeous vocal harmonies — check out “Face Down on Forest Roads” which features a vocal bridge that gives FM’s “The Chain” a run for its money.

As naked as most of these songs feel, the band often uses tasteful fills from assorted guest players/instruments. The lamenting melodica on “Song For Helen” ends up being that track’s glorious centerpiece. The slack strummed banjo of “Manual Systems” gets a similar honor. The only real misgiving that can be leveled at the album is that occasionally Anderson’s guitar noodling gets unnecessarily busy instead of simply rounding out the sound.

Understandably Mazes isn’t at the level of proficiency of Anderson and Donovan’s 1900s yet, but this debut is definitely a rewarding pit stop between that band’s full-lengths.

Parasol Records: www.parasol.com

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Music Reviews

The 1900s

The 1900s

Cold & Kind

Parasol

Following in the footsteps of Elephant 6 satellites Essex Green and Ladybug Transistor, The 1900s mine from a timeless Bacharachian/The Mamas and The Papas baroque school of pop. Their melodies seem destined for perfect pitch and placement, as though they’re covering one of their ’60s idols, but this seven-piece throws in some touches of ’70s soft rock — including a fairly strong strain of Fleetwood Mac — to keep the summery pools from stagnating in one decade’s aesthetics. There are even tense flourishes, as on “Wool of the Lamb” which recall Midlake’s languid epic “Roscoe.”

Adhering close to The Smiths’ upbeat music/sad lyrics dialectic, the music’s sprightliness is kept in emotional check by lead singer Edward Anderson’s disaffected lilt along with the gorgeous and slightly melancholy vocals of Caroline Donovan and Jeanette O’Toole. These are knowing acknowledgments, like the album’s title itself, that sun-drenched wistfulness inevitably carries gray clouds in its wake and we’re left with the echoes of “California Dreamin'” for the next generation.

Parasol Records: www.parasol.com

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Music Reviews

Toothpaste 2000

Toothpaste 2000

Catch-22

Parasol

I’m not a very religious man, but I do believe in personal Hells — places where everything is tailor-made to drive you closer and closer to brink of insanity. Friends, I have heard the soundtrack to my own personal Hell and it is Toothpaste 2000’s Catch-22 playing on a continuous loop. For the most part, it’s the inane lyrics that make the album insufferable. Take, for example, the worst offender, “Count Choc-o-lot,” with this opening verse: “You’re totally hot / I need what you’ve got / You’ve got quite a lot / Let’s go to your place / I’m Count Choc-o-lot.” It’s like injecting a mixture of bleach and corn syrup directly into my brain.

Giant, perfectly-recorded power-pop riffs do little to alleviate my pain. Granted, power-pop has never been one of my favorite rock ‘n’ roll subsets, but there’s something almost too self-referential, over-earnest and definitely too long (twenty-two songs, fifty-five minutes) about Catch-22‘s slavish devotion to The Melody. Nope, this one’s going to the record store to hopefully find its way into the hands of someone who will actually like/tolerate it. I’ll just stick to very occasional spins of my Big Star album. That’ll be enough sugar for me thanks — and, no, I won’t be brushing with you afterwards.

Parasol: 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

Parasol’s Sweet Sixteen

Parasol’s Sweet Sixteen

Volume Six

Parasol

In reviewing this latest in the compilation series of Parasol (and related labels) artists, I’ve decided to go down the list line by line.

1. Bettie Seveert, “Smack.”

Damn, I wish I knew when that new Laptop LP was coming out…

2. Thirddimension, “Other Side Of Town.”

Liner notes have it that this quartet released one of the best albums of 1998. Sounds awfully old wave to me, but certainly inoffensive.

3. The Action, “Brain.”

Unmemorable Nuggets II contributors from 1967/68.

4. John Cunningham, “You Shine.”

The Beatles and “pastoral pop” comparisons are too obvious to belabor. Though these affectations might wear a little thin on a disc of 10, for one song they’re quite agreeable. This is the first artist on the comp to pass the “let me hear more” test.

5. Orwell, “Toutes les Nouvelles Parlent d’Hier.”

Despite having played this album more times than usual before a review, I can remember very little about this song except that it’s sung in French. Which, given the current world situation, I have no choice but to declare it my favorite song of the year. (“Freedom fries”… who are we kidding?)

6. Ronderlin, “Reflected.”

Y’ever hear one of those groups that by all rights you should like, because they’re compared to a couple of others which you do (like, say, The Lightning Seeds and Club 8)…but you just don’t?

Me, too.

7. Menthol, “Danger: Rock Science!”

Menthol are giving me a heck of a time these days. I reviewed the album from which this song is taken last year and found it deeply flawed if promising, with less than a handful of really good songs. Since then, while I have not gained any new appreciation for the songs I didn’t like, those I did (like this one) I’ve been liking more and more.

8. Bikeride, “Faking Amnesia.”

Great hook, but every single time I hear this, I think they are singing “Blanket amnesia.” And I’m not faking.

9. Club 8, “Saturday Night Engine.”

Club 8 released one of my favorite albums of 2002, but this previously unreleased track has “B-side” written all over it.

10. Permer, “Summerdays Attract The Pain.”

The great discovery of this compilation. Electro-pop with hooks that should make Bikeride fall down, this sounds like one of those great obscure synth-pop singles they used to play on KITS in San Francisco in the ’80s and early ’90s…what, too obscure a reference?

11. Folksongs For the Afterlife, “Did I Let You Down?”

Great name for a band, and sonically somewhat interesting, but nothing to write home about.

12. Fonda, “Loving You Makes Me Sad.”

Almost too obvious an idea for a song title, and see 11.

13. Steve Almaas & Ali Smith, “Shrunken Head.”

I’m reminded of something Cindy Crawford said in an open statement to Madonna: “Look, if you have issues to work out with your father, do it on your own time, not ours.”

14. Chitlin’ Fooks, “Did It Again.”

Good hook, probably a good band, but not so much my thing.

15. Mans Wieslander, “Unsound.”

The best lyric of any on the set, and another candidate for further examination.

16. The Possibilities, “Now and Then You Appear.”

This is a total snap judgment, but the Possibilities sound to me like one of those local-hero bands that no one can understand why they never made it bigger…except for those who don’t live in their hometown.

17. Shimmer Kids UnderPop Association, “Model Kit.”

See 11. Fucking great name for a band, and I want to like them because they’re from San Francisco, but…

18. The Violents, “Three Fifty Nine”

There are so… many… bands… doing exactly the same thing as this. On any given night, you can see one somewhere on your local music scene. Unless you’re a friend or family member of the band, there’s no particular reason you need this version.

19. Absinthe Blind, “Shields”

Unlike Menthol, my opinion of Absinthe Blind has not evolved in the slightest since I reviewed their album Rings a few months ago. They still sound to me like a band badly in need of an imaginative producer to help better realize their work and keep a tighter reign on their excesses. I still have no use for them.

20. Scenic, “Lightspeed.”

And here is the fourth and last of the offerings on this platter that penetrated my jaded palate, and made me want to hear the band again. I haven’t heard a guitar-dominated instrumental psychedelic piece that sounded this good since the Mermen’s Amazing California Health and Happiness Road Show, the second-best album of 2000.

21. Doleful Lions, “Texas Is Beautiful.”

See 17 (minus the San Francisco thing).

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

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Music Reviews

Måns Wieslander

Måns Wieslander

Yet

Parasol

Swedish multi-talent Måns Wieslander has made a cozy album of slightly folksy sunshine pop with this one, a foray into the West Coast of the mid-’70s that still carries the torch of 1990s bedroom acoustics with it. Tracks like “Rhinos” and “Roadkill” stand out without actually trying to, while “Freezer Burn” manages to be funky, but not too obvious about it. Impressive. “Evil Eye” is absolutely beautiful, a stunning, free flowing track, and “Unsound” manages to add another dimension to the album, no doubt helped by the outside musicians brought in. Yet is an album of wistfully melancholic melodies vaguely hidden beneath inventive, lush arrangements. A lovely soundtrack for the coming seasons.

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

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Music Reviews

Steve Almaas & Ali Smith

Steve Almaas & Ali Smith

Steve Almaas & Ali Smith

Parasol

The unassuming cover art isn’t giving much away, but it will only take Steve Almaas and Ali Smith a few seconds to convince you that you’ve come across something very special. The two of them have put together such a profound, utterly sincere compilation of songs it=EDs nothing short of stunning.

The cover material may include their finest performances, and some of Almaas’ own material is less intriguing upon first listen. But even those will grow on you, and original compositions like “One Kiss at a Time” and “Mistake” are absolutely mesmerizing and on a par with the pair’s fine choice of cover songs and traditional tunes.

Ali Smith has one of the single most amazing voices I’ve encountered recently, and when she’s given free rein on a track like “Moving In Your Sleep,” the result is heartbreakingly beautiful. Steve Almaas is the one pulling most of the weight on here, but it’s the magic between the two that makes this recording such a profound experience.

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

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Music Reviews

Kevin Tihista’s Red Terror

Kevin Tihista’s Red Terror

Judo

Parasol

Last year’s splendid Don’t Breathe a Word was originally conceived as a double album, and Judo collects the songs that were left out from that set. As such, if you’re familiar with that first album, you’ll know what to expect here as well. Tihista’s hushed and orchestrated pop music is as immediately appealing and intricately layered as ever, and fact is, this may even be the better album of the two.

Chicago’s Tihista made a bigger splash in Europe — and in the UK particularly — with his debut than in his native USA. Not his loss. Poised somewhere between pastiche and nostalgia, humor and poignancy, revisiting and re-imagining, Tihista explores the past in a contemporary setting. Early 1970s West Coast and 1960s pure pop craftsmanship is seen in panoramic hindsight and the result is a crafted and considered album that transcends genres and decades to produce music of a timeless quality.

Tihista’s lyrics detail love in its various guises and is both an exploration of and a tribute to the cliches of pop language. “Don’t touch me like that/I don’t want to be felt,” he sings, drawing the picture of a scared, hurt man by a simple turn of phrase. His manner of evoking the past through both music and lyrics is a difficult one, but, in his delicate handling of his material, Tihista more often than not succeeds in making the past matter and make sense.

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

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Music Reviews

Jack Logan & Bob Kimbell

Jack Logan & Bob Kimbell

Woodshedding

Parasol

The album title hints at the casual and relaxed tone of these recordings, but there is little else to prepare you for the genuinely moving folk music of Jack Logan and Bob Kimbell. Opening with “Further South,” the pair comes across like The Band in an informal jam session, and their superb six-man strong backing band helps add a homely, laid-back feel to the songs.

From the brilliant “Host of the Party” to the lovely “Nothing But Sky,” Logan and Kimbell offer an impressive range of sounds and songs on here. Taking their cue from contemporary artists as diverse as Jim White, Califone and Alejandro Escovedo, Logan and Kimbell play acoustic Americana that’s highly contemporary without loosing sense of either its roots or its heritage. And if there are the occasional weak moments — “Legs And Brains” is reminiscent of some bad, slowed-down ZZ Top B-side — those are the exceptions and the odd ones out. Most of the time, this is an album of country music that treads that fine line between disarming wit and personal reflection, blending the light-hearted with profound and sincere introspection.

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

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Music Reviews

Starlet

Starlet

When Sun Falls On My Feet

Parasol

On their third full-length release, Starlet move even further towards creating sweeping representations of melancholia and poignancy, with Jonas Form’s uneasy melodic lines encapsulated by the band’s subtle, self-effacing performances. The lyrics all center around some lost love and seem almost too personal for comfort, even though the stories aren’t always too impressively narrated, and Starlet do sometimes come across like a less bitter but equally upset The Smiths with a Swedish accent. With their comforting songs and sounds, however, Starlet will surely appeal more readily to fans of Coldplay, especially with the blander, less noteworthy moments that this album contains a few too many of. In that, they are not dissimilar to fellow Swedes The Perishers, but both of them have in common the promise of a better album to come, and if Starlet maintain their focus while perhaps opening up to more discordant elements, the next one could be it. In the meantime, tracks like “Not Alone” and the lovely title track are enough to sustain interest.

Starlet: http://www.ewing-oil.net/starlet