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Music Reviews

The Chinese Stars

The Chinese Stars

A Rare Sensation

Three One G

The Chinese Stars rose from the ashes of the ever-so-brilliant Arab on Radar, and with the latter band’s shrieking vocalist (Eric Paul) and epileptic drummer (Craig Kureck) well in place, there really isn’t all that much that sets the two bands apart — this is certainly something for which we should all be grateful, thank you very much. However, while The Chinese Stars retain the angular oddities and the sheer weirdness of their predecessor, they are a more controlled and far more approachable entity altogether, as witnessed both on their debut EP, Turbo Mattress, and now again on their debut full-length disc.

Basically, The Chinese Stars come across as a more developed and mature act than Arab on Radar ever did, both with regards to songwriting and performances. Bassist Rick Pelletier, formerly of Six Finger Satellite, and guitar player Paul Vieria may have something to do with this. They are both more technically advanced players, thereby adding a sense of instrumental precision that The Chinese Stars (rather charmingly) lacked. It’s still quirky as shit, but it makes for a somewhat less intriguing sensory crush than Arab on Radar did. Yet, chances are A Rare Sensation will get more rounds in your CD player. It is, quite simply, easier on the ear.

As always, Paul’s lyrics are a mess of confusion and hilarity, this time focusing on the human machine, the machine human — or perhaps it’s just about sex. In any case, it makes the music even better.

Three One G: www.threeoneg.com

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Music Reviews

Phosphorescent

Phosphorescent

The Weight of Flight

WARM

When Matthew Houck first visited England in 2000, on the heels of his debut album (recorded as Fillup Shack), the London Evening Standard, in an oft-repeated hyperbole, suggested that Houck “may prove to be the most significant American in his field since Kurt Cobain.” Others merely settled for the somewhat overused “the new Dylan.” This, at a time when London was practically overflowing with young, American singer/songwriters wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Now, the British music media has never been afraid to cry out about the next big thing, but still, the Standard‘s outcry seems a bit premature in retrospect. Not least considering the fact that Houck himself has long since outdone his early efforts as Fillup Shack.

Last year’s debut album (as Phosphorescent), was a much more well-rounded and overall interesting affair than his Fillup Shack debut, and this year’s EP, The Weight of Flight, again ups the ante, proving that Houck grows more eloquent with each passing release. The influences of Will Oldham and Jeff Mangum are still strong, but now Houck sounds even more similar to another much-heralded young talent, namely Bright Eyes, albeit a more country-fied version.

But it’s not fair to reduce Houck to a mere product of his influences: he’s too versatile to pass off as some accidental byproduct, and he carries this versatility with the ability to mold his musical eclecticism into one single whole.

What marks The Weight of Flight off from his previous releases is that it’s more rock-influenced, sounding more like a real band playing together, as on the wonderful, elegiac “Not Right, You Know” and the gospel-tinged “When We Fall.” It’s a sound that suits Houck’s compositions perfectly, both more exciting and energetic than his former one-man-and-his-guitar persona. His take on the Willie Nelson staple “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” demonstrates his genuine understanding and respect of country music, while the quiet “Mrs. Juliette Low” is reminiscent of a naturalized Sparklehorse.

It remains to be seen whether Houck can carry this vision even further on his upcoming full-length album, but as for now, this is a remarkable achievement from a young artist who never stops to amaze with his versatility, musical craft and the sheer beauty of the music he makes.

WARM: www.thewarmsupercomputer.com

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Music Reviews

The L Word

The L Word: Music From The Original TV Series

Various Artists

Tommy Boy / Showtime

The L Word is so amazingly unprovocative you’d need to be a religiously fundamental hillbilly to even bother to hate it. Not to mention that it’s so embarrassingly cringe-worthy that only pseudo-radical Manhattanites can pretend to love it. In fact, the show does nothing but underline people’s bigotry towards homosexuals, portraying every gay person as superficial, self-obsessed and unable to stitch together a sentence without sounding like some Party of Five sidekick. When are we going to see a gay character act like a regular human being? Did anybody take a lesson from Ellen?

The accompanying soundtrack is very much like the series itself: a good cast reduced to a bland performance. Although you cannot really argue against names like Lucinda Williams, Ella Fitzgerald, Joan Armatrading, The Be Good Tanyas, Rufus Wainwright and Connie Francis, when you put them all together (and add small dashes of latter-day Marianne Faithfull and the best-left-forgotten The Murmurs), you evidently end up with a mish-mash of little interest.

To be sure, there are a fair amount of decent tracks here. But taken as a whole, it all dissolves into just about nothing: just a long, unitriguing compilation of regular TV series music. This easily could have been the soundtrack to Melrose Place. The concept of the series allows for some great song programming, using music that addresses gender issues, stereotypes and conformist oppression. But, not surprising, there’s none of that here. Every song selection is as unprovocative as the series itself; every artist is represented at her less intriguing (two exceptions: Francis’ “Everybodys’ Somebody’s Fool” is as brilliant as ever and Wainwright’s “Hallelujah” is fairly decent — they probably couldn’t get Buckley or Cohen).

And so, since the word “lesbian” isn’t mentioned on the album cover and since there are no pictures of girls’ making out in the booklet, this will only appeal to those who genuinely like the series on its own merits. So — anyone?

Tommy Boy: www.tommyboy.com

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Music Reviews

Yola

Yola

Another Girl

Top Shelf

European readers will be familiar with the Eurovision Song Contest, an annual music contest celebrating mediocre songwriters and their scantily clad singing protégés. Polish expatriate Yola has never, to my knowledge, entered this contest, but surely she must have grown up watching it on television, because her brand of nameless jazz funk-pop is exactly the kind of music favored on the show. From the Celine Dion-ish radio single “I Wanna Be Loved By You” to the not-too-steamy title track, Another Girl is as soulfully engaging as Anastacia, 5ive and Jennifer Love Hewitt combined.

Yola approaches her songs (all but one written by her) with deadpan graveness, even attempting a serious reading of Shocking Blue’s delightfully kitschy “Venus” (no small feat, considering lines like “A goddess on a mountain top/was burning like a silver flame”). However, even her best intentions can’t save this from being nothing more than another droll, if mercifully short, attempt to conquer radio through blandness and pure boredom.

Yola: www.yolamusic.com

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Music Reviews

Sloan

Sloan

Action Pact

Koch

Canadian rock-wizards Sloan continue their search for the perfect pop song, and on this album’s first single, “The Rest of My Life,” they come pretty damn close. Sloan have always done well in their native Canada, but, despite several attempts, they have failed to make much of an impact abroad, much due to label difficulties. That’s to the listeners’ loss, though, and not Sloan’s; they seem perfectly happy building an ever-larger audience the slow and hard way, fifteen years after they first got together.

Sloan is a rare phenomenon on today’s music scene, a band playing hum-able pop music with distinction and ease, carving out one amazing tune after another, seemingly on pure instinct. Heavily indebted to the Beatles-worshippers of power pop — Big Star, the Posies, the Teenage Fanclub and Guided by Voices — Sloan are competing against myriads of similar-sounding bands, but with one crucial advantage: Sloan sound relevant and contemporary. Plus, they stand up well beside their canonized musical influences.

Sloan are smart guys, but not annoyingly so. The pun of the album’s title is about as advanced as it gets. Sloan are thankfully more concerned about blissful hooks than postmodern irony. And as a result, the songs are mesmerizing; brimming with choruses you’ve almost heard before, but rarely so elegantly done, so engagingly pulled off. It’s pure pop bliss distilled, wrapped in a neatly controlled hard rock format. Check out “I Was Wrong,” “Nothing Lasts Forever Anymore” and “Who Loves Life More?” for some random examples of harmonic pop brilliance.

Action Pact, in fact, is good enough to rub shoulders with the best of the band’s past, 1994’s Twice Removed and 1998’s One Chord to Another. Any fan of intelligent (but dumb) and well-crafted (but juvenile) power pop, should feel obliged to seek out this album.

Oh, and this US version comes with two great, previously unreleased bonus tracks, making this a near-essential buy even for those who already own the domestic Canadian version.

Koch: www.kochrecords.com

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Music Reviews

Mike VanPortfleet

Mike VanPortfleet

Beyond the Horizon Line

Silber

You sort of knew what to expect from Mike VanPortfleet’s Lycia, but his first solo album since the band’s demise is far more than you could possible hope for. The dark ambience of Beyond the Horizon Line is devastatingly rendered, making for an album of transient beauty — throughout, dark clouds hide beneath the calm of his music. The slow opener, “Deep in the Morning Sound,” sets the album’s tone, the music rarely rising above a whisper but rendered with such precision and clear intensity. Unlike most gothic ambient albums, Beyond the Horizon Line is never reducible to mere background music. VanPortfleet is clearly inspired by the early European electronic music that so defined his work with Lycia, and he still retains the predilection for the New West that marked Lycia as one of the more unique voices in this genre. Beyond the Horizon Line quietly shifts between open landscapes and pristine, logical clarity. Only on the album’s final track does a sense of urgent despair creep through, punctuating the sense of an entire piece of music being rounded up and brought to its conclusion.

Beyond the Horizon Line proves that VanPortfleet didn’t stop when Lycia did, that he’s still got something to say, and even possibly still has his best work ahead of him.

Silber: www.silbermedia.com

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Music Reviews

Friend of Howard

Friend of Howard

Friend of Howard

Littlebrother

Martha Berner, working under the Friend of Howard moniker, debuts with a mature collection of strummed college pop in the singer-singwriter vein. Her strong vocals are the center point of attention, and producer Jake Johnson gives the disc an indistinct but solid sound, perfect for radio and, surely, TV programmers. If Friend of Howard doesn•t shift a lot of units, Berner could always settle on a career writing songs for Melrose Place. •Or Anyway• is a finely crafted 10,000 Maniacs meets Natalie Merchant number, and is the disc•s standout track, along with the closing track, •Tuesday.• Berner delivers on every song; she knows her scope and songwriting prowess and sticks to her established blueprint. This is probably a good idea considering how well she does this kind of thing. It•s by no means revelatory, and Friend of Howard is a long way from breaking new ground or carving out a unique sound, but that•s hardly her intention either. Rather, this is a solid EP of uptempo radio pop, as easily forgettable as it•s instantly likeable. And that•s not such a bad thing.

Friend of Howard: www.friendofhoward.com/

Categories
Music Reviews

Friend of Howard

Friend of Howard

Friend of Howard

Littlebrother

Martha Berner, working under the Friend of Howard moniker, debuts with a mature collection of strummed college pop in the singer-singwriter vein. Her strong vocals are the center point of attention, and producer Jake Johnson gives the disc an indistinct but solid sound, perfect for radio and, surely, TV programmers. If Friend of Howard doesn’t shift a lot of units, Berner could always settle on a career writing songs for Melrose Place. “Or Anyway” is a finely crafted 10,000 Maniacs meets Natalie Merchant number, and is the disc’s standout track, along with the closing track, “Tuesday.” Berner delivers on every song; she knows her scope and songwriting prowess and sticks to her established blueprint. This is probably a good idea considering how well she does this kind of thing. It’s by no means revelatory, and Friend of Howard is a long way from breaking new ground or carving out a unique sound, but that’s hardly her intention either. Rather, this is a solid EP of uptempo radio pop, as easily forgettable as it’s instantly likeable. And that’s not such a bad thing.

Friend of Howard: www.friendofhoward.com

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Music Reviews

Team Shadetek

Team Shadetek

Burnerism

Warp

The young and prolific Manhattan duo Team Shadetek have a small series of self-released discs under their belt, but this Warp release is their first full-length studio album. Burnerism, as the title implies, shows off the duo’s graffiti/hip-hop influences and their minimal, techno heavy reliance on thumping rhythm work — albeit slightly cut up and deconstructed, in conventional Warp manner.

Team Shadetek is certainly good at creating these jagged background tracks, infusing their music with a sense of careful density. However, their melodies are rather overused, the sounds almost clich•d, and the duo seems unsure of how to work their electronic minimalism in the context of hip-hop rhythms. “Lanolin” and “Limes” are the album’s two longest tracks (and the most successful ones), with Team Shadetek expanding the scope of their not-so-original hybrid techno. Elsewhere, though, there is little that bigger and better artists haven’t done before, and with more success.

Warp: www.warprecords.com/

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Music Reviews

W.A.S.P.

W.A.S.P.

The Neon God

Sanctuary

More than ever a solo vehicle for Blackie Lawless, W.A.S.P still stands as one of the last remaining hard rock bands of the 1980s. The last few years have seen some pretty dubious releases from W.A.S.P., none more so than their previous outing, Dying for the World, written in the wake of Sept. 11th, with Lawless reincarnated as everything he had previously fought against: a conservative, right-wing patriot, effectively ridding himself of the image as one of heavy metal’s few intellectuals (his solution to the terrorist attacks being, basically, to drop “the bomb” on the entire Middle East). Musically, however, even that album had some strong moments, proving the point that Lawless is at his best when he doesn’t try to think and simply churns out his anthemic, hard rock ‘n’ roll. Thankfully, The Neon God sees him doing just that.

Planned for years, The Neon God is the first of two concept albums about a young boy who finds he’s got a talent for reading and manipulating people, leading him to become a new Messiah with evil intentions. Nice plot there, but W.A.S.P. is, as always, best appreciated when we discard the lyrics and focus on the melodies. Lawless is back in his best form since 1988’s The Headless Children. “Wishing Well” burns and rambles with the fury of W.A.S.P.’s finest moments. It’s a demonstration of Lawless’s abilities as a hard rock composer and, above all, performer. Lawless is inimitable both as a vocalist and an arranger; the instruments blur together in the mix, his hoarse, beastly vocals roar and the drums and bass mesh together terrifically. It sounds like W.A.S.P., and it sounds great.

“Sister Sadie,” “Asylum #9,” “Red Room of the Rising Sun,” the list goes on. It’s all anthemic hard rock with a twist, Lawless blatantly ripping off lines from the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” and the Who’s Tommy without it sounding derivative or cheap. The album, in true concept style, is interspersed with interludes and quieter moments that work surprisingly well in this setting. Although, the album will be enjoyed for Lawless’s return to hard rocking form, and not for its anguished ballad moments. I never thought I’d say this — ever since Lawless seemingly lost his plot around the early ’90’s — but I’m actually looking forward to his next one. The Neon God will probably not earn him any new fans, but for everyone who’s enjoyed W.A.S.P. at their finest, this is worth checking out.

Santuary Records: www.sanctuaryrecordsgroup.com