8/3/08: The Dutchess And The Duke

She’s The Dutchess, He’s The Duke
Hardly Art Records
Release date: July 8, 2008
Rating: 4.75 out of 5

Sounds like: Nearly flawless blend of early Rolling Stones, acoustic The Beatles, a young Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, and pitch-perfect male/female vocal harmonization

Longtime Seattle musicians Kimberley Morrison and Jesse Lortz score an unexpectedly major hit with their latest musical incarnation The Dutchess And The Duke. Channeling the finest aspects of mid-‘60s folk-rock, Morrison and Lortz come damn close to attaining perfection with their debut She’s The Dutchess, He’s The Duke. Opener “Reservoir Park” could be one of the strongest singles of 2008, with Mick Jagger’s youthful grit, jangly acoustic guitars, and flawless vocal harmonies grabbing hold of your ear within five seconds and refusing to let go. It's the kind of track that could define an entire genre. “Out Of Time” mixes the sunny simplicity of the early ‘60s with lyrics about pistols and “lying naked on the bathroom floor,” “Strangers” speeds along like any number of joyful early The Beatles’ singles, and “The Prisoner” luxuriates in psychedelic guitar lines and gypsy moans. Street-smart teenage innocence a la Eric Burdon and The Animals turns up on “Back To Me,” and the almost-literary “love you but got to leave you” ballad “Mary” could stand up next to any of Dylan or Cohen’s early work. The only weak link of She’s The Dutchess, He’s The Duke comes on the awkwardly tender “You Can Tell The Truth, Now” but when the slow-moving intro of “I Am Just A Ghost” gives way to the eerie vocal layers and rumbling guitars which conjure up otherworldly images, any misgivings about The Dutchess And The Duke vanish. This unassuming duo has kicked off the restrictive shackles of imitation, channeling the best aspects of early R & B and pop into a gripping, refreshingly honest link between all that is good in 2008 and all that was earth-shattering in 1963. Album closer “Armageddon Song” belies its apocalyptic name, wallowing instead in playfully optimistic bliss; technically adept key changes, enthusiastic hand claps, and soul-affirming sing-a-longs verify the genuinely American treasure The Dutchess And The Duke have created. If you've got any affinity for the powerful rock, folk, and pop that changed the musical world, buy this now.

Myspace: www.myspace.com/thedutchessandtheduke
Label: www.hardlyart.com/dutchess_duke.html
"Reservoir Park" mp3

8/3/08: Seth Kauffman

Park The Van Records
Release Date: July 15, 2008
Rating: 3.75 out of 5

Sounds like: A looser, less-obsessive Beck; a little indie rock, a little slouching jazz, a lot of spectacular instrumentation. "Lo-fi North Carolina funk."

North Carolina soul rocker and multi-instrumentalist Seth Kauffman delivers a sparkling batch of eclectic jazz-inflected warmth. Kauffman recorded the many pieces of Research himself, resulting in dense layers of far-flung percussion, beautiful guitar riffs, fuzzy keyboards and sprawling college-rock lyrics. Violins, calypso drumming, and soul choruses bump shoulders on opener “Absolute Sway”; vinyl hisses, hip-hop beats, and a beautiful falsetto worthy of My Morning Jacket make “Not Much Left To Give” glimmer; and “Summertime Bossa Nova” loops acid-jazz percussion, space-noir guitars, and a moody, minor-key atmosphere over sensual keys. Research only gains steam as it moves briskly along, with other stops including the ‘50s garage-rock/trash-blues team-up “Ron Ben-Isreal Blues,” the all-too-brief early-‘70s reggae shamble “Wafting Sands,” and the hootin’ and hollerin’ fun of “Ain’t No Tellin’.” “I Bleed Easy” symbolizes Seth Kauffman’s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink mantra, combining countrified alternative rock with beautifully distorted slide guitar and plaintive beg-for-mercy lyrics. All of these influences blend together so effortlessly it’s hard to pick one defining genre for Kauffman; he may not be as popular as Beck, but Seth's got a comparable set of extensive and all-encompassing chops. His first-rate drumming alone could steer any modern jazz quartet.

Official site: www.sethkauffman.com
Myspace: www.myspace.com/sethkauffman
Label: www.parkthevan.com/sethkauffman
"Absolute Sway" video

8/3/08: The Weeks

Comeback Cadillac
Esperanza Plantantion Records
Release Date: July 8, 2008
Rating: 3.25 out of 5

Sounds like: Kings Of Leon, post-punk a la Mars Volta, a touch of ‘90s grunge, a lot of indie rock posturing

Jackson, MS, quintet The Weeks earn a heaping pile of obvious comparisons on their debut album Comeback Cadillac; repeat listens, however, reveal a deeper layer of rock understanding. The strutting indie-punk of “Teary-Eyed Woman” sounds shallow at first, but fiery guitars and melancholy vocal shouts add an injection of Southern authenticity. “Altar Girl” and “Buttons” provide the most obvious parallels between The Weeks’ lead singer Cyle Barnes and Kings Of Leon’s Caleb Followill, with Barnes perfectly cribbing Followill’s detached moan and howling hipster sneer. But the stark goth/grunge influences on “Hold It, Kid (Your Heart Just Skipped A Beat)” divulge a lineage that stretches back to Pearl Jam and Dispatch, while “Mississippi Rain” proves that not everyone can pull off Red Hot Chili Peppers-style funk rock. Bright spots like “Dog Days” make up for the few missteps, with piano flourishes and Barnes’ endearingly natural vocals standing out. Other highlights include the Modest Mouse by-way-of Social Distortion “Wishin’ My Week Away,” but the forced tenderness of “Sailor Song” and the exact Kings Of Leon replica “Ballad Of Tonto Higgins” close Comeback Cadillac on a bit of a weak note. Not the best debut ever, but The Weeks demonstrate that with a bit of influence-tweaking and a little more originality, promising material could follow.

Myspace: www.myspace.com/theweeks
Label: www.myspace.com/esperanzaplantation


7/28/08: Qwel & Kip Killagain

The New Wine
Galapagos4 Records
Release Date: June 10, 2008
Rating: 4 out of 5

Sounds like: Golden Era hip-hop with a barbed, progressive bite; socially aware rhymes, skeleton-sparse snare-and-bass beats, and live instrument flourishes

Underground Chicago rhyme technician Qwel joins forces with well-known jungle producer Kip Killagain for a rock-solid slice of real-deal hip hop. Touted as the third in his four seasons/four horsemen series, The New Wine represents Qwel’s vision of springtime in a corrupt world full of social, political, and cultural atrocities. Opener “Adam & Eve” features an eerie guitar sample and a meager finger-snapping beat that matches up nicely with Qwel’s urgent, free-flowing verses, which deftly cover extensive ground. “Big Eyes” creeps at a slower pace, with deep trance-hop drums and a minor-key bass line, while “Agape Rain’s” piano/violin combination casts a more hopeful eye on the world, with Qwel evoking carnal law, karmic justice, and the ancient ideal of agape (unconditional or divine) love. After that opening trio, The New Wine bogs down a bit inside Qwel’s complex rhyme schemes, but unpredictable and well-executed instrumental samples courtesy of Killagain keep things from dragging too much. The title track burns luxuriously with a jazzy retro horn-and-sitar melody, and other highlights include the self-explanatory satire “Reality TV” and the looser Asian-influenced “Frost Seedling.” But each and every track on The New Wine shares a common thread: the fierce onslaught of Qwel’s rapid-fire indictments of the world spinning madly around him. The line between prose, poetry, and rap disappears in the face of Qwel’s awe-inspiring ability, and although the idea of one artist commandeering an entire 41-minute hip-hop album seems insane in this guest-spot dominated world, one listen to The New Wine will convince you that Qwel has plenty of fire left to burn.

Myspace: www.myspace.com/qwelg4
Label: www.galapagos4.com/artists/qwelinterview.html


7/27/08: The Apples

Buzzin’ About

Freestyle Records
Release Date: June 2, 2008
Rating: 3.75 out of 5

Sounds like: Fast-paced hip-hop beats mixed with exuberantly jazzy horns, topped off with nimble turntable scratches and funky flourishes

The latest hip-hop/jazz/funk fusion comes from the unlikely Holy Land of Israel, where nonet The Apples have gained considerable steam on the strength of their eclectic and infectious blends. Eschewing traditional instrumentation like guitars and keyboards in favor of three DJS, four horn players, and a rock-solid drum-and-bass core, Buzzin’ About serves as an excellent introduction to The Apples’ immense talent. From the quirky acid-jazz feel of “Debil’s Dream” to the old world-influenced “Kol HaYom BaHalal,” The Apples cover large swaths of musical ground with ease. Classical sounds crash into the modern world on “Yablaki,” which features a feverishly fast off-key violin sample that pairs up nicely with its eerie ambiance, and the stuttered scratch-jazz of “Killing” updates bebop’s improvisational style for the 21st century. The shortest track on the album, “Run Shai Ran,” outshines the rest of Buzzin’ About in its brief minute-and-a-half, riding a loose New Orleans groove into an ecstatic horn-heavy sunset. A bit of scattered monotony sets in after Buzzin’ About’s 52 minutes, but this diverse and enjoyable debut proves that The Apples have the hooks and chops necessary for widespread success.

Myspace: www.myspace.com/theapplesmusic
Label: www.freestylerecords.co.uk/index.php?page=filter&artist=The%20Apples


7/22/08: Young Widows

Old Wounds
Temporary Residence Limited Records
Release Date: September 9, 2008
Rating: 3.25 out of 5

Sounds like: Noise-punk riffs laid over a solid hardcore backbeat; jagged Fugazi meets squelching The Jesus Lizard by way of gutbusting The Melvins

This Kentucky power trio brings a whole kitchen sink full of noise on the rambling, at times hard-hitting Old Wounds. After losing the lead singer of previous hardcore/metal incarnation Breather Resist, guitarist Evan Patterson took over vocal duties and led Young Widows into more experimental territory. Although Old Wounds opens slowly on the dirge-ish “Took A Turn” and the lumbering mess “Mr. No Harm,” the band finds its metal-influenced groove on the last four tracks of the album. “Delay Your Progress” blends psychotic clattering and throbbing, tough-as-nails bass into an early ‘80s punk redux, and “Let Him Be” features stomping chants and staggering drums ideal for sweaty, drunken live venues. The fuzzy cacophony of “Feelers” points in a solid direction, and album closer “Swamped And Agitated” merrily drowns under washes of psychedelic guitar blasts and ramshackle walls of sound that highlight the band at its pinnacle of energy. Piecing together Old Wounds from dozens of hours of live recordings may not yield the most cohesive results, but it does draw attention to Young Widows’ explosive and unpredictable abilities.

Myspace: www.myspace.com/youngwidows
Label: www.temporaryresidence.com/bands/young-widows.php

7/22/08: Horse Feathers

House With No Home
Kill Rock Stars Records
Release Date: September 9, 2008
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Sounds like: Ultra-hushed Northwestern folk with mournful backing strings; early Iron & Wine without so many of the Southern Gothic undertones

Idaho native Justin Ringle joins sister Heather Broderick and multi-instrumentalist Peter Broderick for a reflective journey through the tranquil folk landscapes of the American Northwest. Containing little more than sparse acoustic guitars and sorrowful cellos courtesy of Heather, House With No Home trots quietly along on intricate tracks like “Rude To Rile” and the lower-class ode “Working Poor.” Sunny orchestral arrangements make “Albina” stand out from the otherwise melancholy Horse Feathers pack, and Ringle’s tender vocals hit their stride on the playful “Helen.” Plodding, scratchy guitars give “Heathen’s Kiss” a darker feel, while the next-to-last track “This Is What” finds Horse Feathers picking up the pace (finally). While House With No Home doesn’t pull off anything that Sam Beam and Iron & Wine couldn't master five years ago, Horse Feathers still represents another solid notch in the ever-deepening Americana/quiet-folk catalog.

Myspace: www.myspace.com/horsefeathersmusic
Label: www.killrockstars.com/artists/viewartist.php?aname=feathers


7/18/08: King Khan & The Shrines

The Supreme Genius Of King Khan & The Shrines
Vice Records
Release date: June 17, 2008
Rating: 3.75 out of 5

Sounds likes: A mouth-watering gumbo of unabashedly retro 1960s rock/soul/funk influences

*This review originally published in the July issue of Drift Magazine (www.surfthedrift.com)*

“Retro” comes in all shapes and sizes these days. Fashion, architecture, advertising, cinema… nothing in our pop culture world escapes the nostalgic pull of a little retro-fitting, evoking memories of the past for people who may or may not be familiar with what they’re reliving. But when it comes to the music of Canadian-born King Khan (whose parents were immigrants from India), there’s no separation between retro and contemporary. In fact, give his latest album The Supreme Genius Of… (a collection of tracks recorded with twelve-piece psychedelic big band The Shrines) a listen without any context, and you’d swear up and down it hailed from a very special moment in 1969.

On The Supreme Genius Of…, this modern-day soul man bobs and weaves through a wonderfully greasy stew of rock ‘n’ roll, R & B, soul, and funky psychedelia, with touches of Frank Zappa’s lewd humor and an auditory murkiness making the whole album sound like buried treasure from a bygone era. From the opening guitar crunch of “Torture” to the Stax Records send-up “Land Of The Freak,” King Khan proves that he’s got a solid handle on the most memorable and emotionally appealing aspects of vintage American music. The eerily sensual blues rock of “Shivers Down My Spine” will make you want to practice your sleaziest slow-dance, while the horn-heavy funk of “Destroyer” brings to mind the Edwin Starr classic “War” (“Huh! What is it good for?”). Surfed-out guitars and hollered screams give “Land Of The Free” a frenetic pace, which is perfectly mirrored by the album closer “No Regrets,” an unapologetic barn-burning dance number.

King Khan also dabbles in tropical doo-wop on “Crackin’ Up” and electrified jangle-rock on “Burnin’ Inside,” but he and The Shrines’ complete mastery of all things retro sets The Supreme Genius Of… head and shoulders above any other ode to the 1960s in existence. If the groovy sounds of yesteryear get your blood a-boilin’, the raw authenticity of King Khan & The Shrines should serve up the perfect period soundtrack to your unabashedly retro summer. Who knew a Canuck with Indian blood could bring American music full circle again?

*This review originally published in the July issue of Drift Magazine (www.surfthedrift.com)*

Official band site: www.king-khan.com
Myspace: www.myspace.com/kingkhantheshrines
Label: www.vicerecords.com/khan.php
"Torture" mp3

7/18/08: Firewater

The Golden Hour
Bloodshot Records
Release date: May 6, 2008
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Sounds like: Feverish world music punctuated with a New York gypsy punk snarl

*This review originally published in the July issue of Drift Magazine (www.surfthedrift.com)*

World music seems to be all the rage in 2008, and foremost in that movement stands Firewater and its frontman Tod A, who from 2005 to 2007 journeyed through India, Pakistan, Turkey, Indonesia, and Israel accumulating recordings with local musicians for The Golden Hour. And where many world-influenced artists submerse themselves in their chosen regional specialty, Firewater injects enough New York punk attitude into its sound to keep things both familiar and exotic at the same time.

No stranger to political dialogue, Tod A opens The Golden Hour with the gypsy big band mash-up “Borneo,” which features pointed jabs at our current administration: “Gonna set my sails for virgin soil/You know I don’t wanna die for the price of oil.” From there it’s on to the authority-challenging “This Is My Life,” the strutting farfisa and electric banjo on the instrumental “Banghra Bros,” and on down the line with the joyously angry jazz-punk of “Hey Clown.” Israeli trombones resonate on the swinging “Weird To Be Back,” and a sad clippity-clop of djembe drums teams up with a weeping acoustic guitar line to tinge the drinking ode “6:45 (So This Is How It Feels)” with a massive amount of melancholy.

Firewater closes the album with the slightly bluesy “3 Legged Dog,” which sums up The Golden Hour's pained worldview and Tod A's tortured outlook: “Just because I can’t recall their names/All the faces and the places just begin to look the same/When you’re a 3-legged dog on the roam.” Other world musicians may boast of a summer residency in Paris or a revealing trip to a street market in Peru, but Tod A’s search for musical globalism reflects a different sort of obsession: in order to create Firewater’s next body of work, he went out in search of something completely foreign and unfamiliar in Southern Asia. Whether he made any kind of personal discovery along the way is up for debate, but The Golden Hour proves that long, hard journey certainly wasn’t made in vain.

*This review originally published in the July issue of Drift Magazine (www.surfthedrift.com)

Official band site: www.firewater.tv
Myspace: www.myspace.com/realfirewater
Label: www.bloodshotrecords.com/album/firewater/353
"Borneo" mp3
"Three-Legged Dog" mp3

7/18/08: Endless Boogie

Focus Level
No Quarter Records
Release date: June 17, 2008
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Sounds like: A steaming slab of straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll, tinged with blues, psychedelia, and heavy jamming

These four New York music industry insiders (Matador Records employees, world-renowned record collector, etc.) churn out 80 solid minutes of jammed-out, balls-to-the-wall rock, from the sweaty boogie of “Smoking Figs In The Back Yard” to the chugging Zappa-like freakouts of “The Manly Vibe” and “Steak Rock.” What was once just a Tuesday night “old man’s hobby” has turned into a legitimate rock-for-rock’s-sake enterprise, with the band living and dying by fiery guitar solos, deep blues grooves, screeching lyrical howls, and fifteen-minute improvisations. Endless Boogie is so cool they won’t play shows unless specifically requested to, and Focus Level is the ideal backing track for drinking, smashing things, getting dirty and nasty, or obliterating your better senses.

Myspace: www.myspace.com/endlessboogie
Label: www.noquarter.net/bands/eb.php
“Smoking Figs In The Back Yard” mp3
“The Manly Vibe” mp3


7/17/08: Dr. Dog

Park The Van Records
Release Date: July 22, 2008
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Sounds like: The Beatles’ endearing psychedelia, The Band’s rootsiness, and The Beach Boys’ crystalline vocals, all wrapped in a modern-day Philadelphia-soul/indie-rock package

Full disclosure up front: I’ve been a rabid Dr. Dog fan since 2003. I can still remember the hazy, drunken evening when Toothbrush, the band's self-released debut album, first set my insides aquiver… nostalgia aside, the band's fourth full-length Fate stands as quite possibly the strongest outing from this quintet of quirky Philadelphia retro-rockers. Although they’ve been dogged by constant comparisons to The Beatles, in terms of musical touchstones, you can’t ask to be lumped in with better progenitors. On Fate, the give-and-take songwriting team of Scott McMicken and Toby Leaman exhibits considerable growth, evolving into a deeper and more complex unit while still maintaining the band’s firm foundations: heart-tugging multi-part vocal harmonies, peculiar yet pleasing ‘60s-era recording techniques, and the kind of emotional depth and self-confidence most indie rock bands can only dream of. Album opener “The Breeze” rolls softly to shore with yearning lyrics and tender acoustic guitars from McMicken, along with quasi-tropical percussion and beautiful pianos. From there, the band takes a trip through jazzy yet passionate territory on “Hang On,” jumpy, off-time shimmying on “The Old Days,” and the slow-as-molasses R & B/classic-rock/weeping-soul amalgamation “Army Of Ancients.” As always, McMicken’s nasally delivery serves as the perfect counterpoint to bassist Leaman’s growling vocal power, which rises to a cataclysmic peak on the simmering slow-burner “The Beach.” Packed full of monumental organs, smoldering guitar solos, and true sing-along catchiness, “The Beach” may just be the best Dog song yet. This is all assuming you dig heart-on-your-sleeve exuberance and upbeat yet reflective pop songcraft. But if Fate garners the same positive responses as last year’s excellent We All Belong, Dr. Dog could stake a firm claim as one of the most enjoyably eclectic bands on the contemporary music landscape.

Official band site: www.drdogmusic.com
Myspace: www.myspace.com/drdog
Label: www.parkthevan.com/drdog
“The Old Days” mp3

7/17/08: Earlimart

Hymn And Her
Shout! Factory Records
Release date: July 1, 2008
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Sounds like: Introspective indie pop with a moody bent; a slightly happier Elliot Smith teaming up with a downbeat Yo La Tengo

Earlimart returns one short year after its last celebrated album Mentor Tormentor with another batch of moody pop reflections. Stripped down to the duo of Aaron Espinoza and Ariana Murray, these pillars of the L.A. underground maintain a fairly straightforward pop-rock line while drawing heavily from the overstocked well of Elliot Smith inspiration. The breezy “Face Down” relies on melancholy pianos and sad horns to make its case, while “For The Birds” combines tortured, breathy vocals with jangly drum hits and morose organs. Espinoza conjures up the ghost of Elliot Smith on “God Loves You The Best” and “Cigarettes & Kerosene,” not only cribbing the late master’s vocal delivery but also adding washes of strings and plunky pianos reminiscent of his symphonic arrangements. Earlimart surprisingly dabbles in danceable material on the midtempo “Teeth,” but returns to meditative form again on the churning title track and the drenched-in-sadness closer “Tell Me.” But don’t let the album’s title fool you: Ariana Murray’s sugary pipes turn up only sparingly, instead ceding the upper hand in this vocal lover’s duel to Espinoza’s fractured lyrics. Hymn And Her is the perfect soundtrack for any introvert who loves overcast skies and downhearted yet hesitatingly hopeful pop tunes.

Official band site: www.earlimartmusic.com
Myspace: www.myspace.com/earlimart
Label: www.shoutfactory.com/browse/146/earlimart.aspx
“Song For” mp3

7/17/08: Pygmy Lush

Mount Hope
Lovitt Records
Release date: July 1, 2008
Rating: 3.75 out of 5

Sounds like: Hushed, haunting country folk; a darker Iron & Wine or the quieter moments of My Morning Jacket

This band of Northern Virginia musicians comes from influential hardcore stock, but since 2005 Pygmy Lush has allowed its members to focus on their infatuation with the shuffling simplicity of folk music. Although the band’s debut album Bitter River split the difference between raucous punk and quieter acoustic tunes, sophomore release Mount Hope is filled with hushed, sometimes barely audible lyrics, along with softly strummed acoustic guitars and slight droning echoes of the band’s earlier noise. But Pygmy Lush handles the majestic space of their backwoods tranquility with skill, pairing gritty intricacy on “Asphalt” with haunting numbers like “No Feeling” and “Red Room Blues,” which both resemble My Morning Jacket’s exploratory quiet rock. “God Condition” ever so slightly picks up the Pygmy Lush pace, allowing the nearly indiscernible vocals to emerge from a distorted haze; but the following song, the wonderfully jazzy title track, only acts as a teaser due to its far-too-short 1:30 running time. “Frozen Man,” “Hard To Swallow,” and “Dreams Are Class” hearken back to Neil Young’s lo-fi beginnings, while adding evocatively eerie layers to keep things firmly rooted in the 21st century, and “Concrete Mountain” inexplicably tosses junk percussion and exotic accordions into the mix. And just to keep any easily applicable tags from latching on to Mount Hope, “Butch’s Dream” waltzes off in a romping rockabilly direction, proving that Pygmy Lush has the wide-ranging chops to tackle any genre. Way below the surface for now, Pygmy Lush’s evocative folk musings might just bask in a much brighter light thanks to Mount Hope.

Myspace: www.myspace.com/pygmylush
Label: www.lovitt.com/index2.html


7/6/08: Duchess Says

Anthologie Des 3 Perchoirs
Alien8 Recordings
Release date: September 2, 2008
Rating: 3.75 out of 5

Sounds like: Feverish blend of electronica, garage rock, and fem-punk; The Pixies, The Kills, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Be Your Own Pet

The first time I listened to Duchess Says’ debut album, I hated it. Giving it one more chance, I loved it. This Montreal quartet unexpectedly succeeds by merging blistering guitar assaults, thumping punk-inspired drum kicks, and distorted keyboard squelches to create a tantalizing and neurotically unique sound (the band calls it “moog rock”). Lead singer Annie C opens the album with gunshot blast vocals on “Tenen No Neu,” while prog rock and staccato start-stop explosions punctuate “Ccut Up.” Although Duchess Says lives up to their celebrated electronic influences on Six Finger Satellite cover “Rabies” and the weirdly computerized live anthem “Black Flag,” the finest moments of Anthologie Des 3 Perchoirs come when the band veers down the experimental rock path. “C.H.O.B.” is a one-minute grenade onslaught of ferocious punk basics, while “Aeae” staggers along with a snot-nosed attitude and incomprehensible screams. “A Century Old” shifts gears into spooky Devo-in-a-dark-alley territory, but its orgasmic apex represents the far-reaching galaxy Duchess Says seems to be reaching for. And “I’ve Got The Flu” shreds genre distinctions to pieces, signifying the psychotically symbiotic marriage of geeky techno beats, ‘80s retro-pop, indie-punk snarl, and sultry lyrical come-ons. One listen to Anthologie Des 3 Perchoirs’ alluring weirdness may make you forget all about those other Canadian buzz bands.

Official site: www.duchesssays.com
Myspace: www.myspace.com/duchesssays
Label: www.alien8recordings.com/artists/duchess-says
“Ccut Up” mp3

7/6/08: The Donkeys

The Donkeys
Dead Oceans Records
Release Date: September 9, 2008
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Sounds like: Dusty folk-pop with a sunny and skewed Southern California twist

Even with a tepidly mediocre name, this San Diego quartet relishes warm-hearted layers of feel-good summer haze on sophomore album Living On The Other Side. Sounding like a more laid back The Eagles or a more stoned and rock-centric The Beach Boys, The Donkeys piece together groovy organs, bittersweet vocal harmonies, and bristling electric guitars on the languishing "Dolphin Center" before going the unassumingly organic route on the rustic breeziness of "Traverse Wine." A little mod revival/ acid pop weirdness teams up with ironic hipster lyrics on "Nice Train," while a sprinkle of pyschedelic sitars and flutes makes "Dreamin'" stick out. The retro-sounding, completely unartifical "Excelsior Lady" smacks of 1971, but a telling line from the weepy country-blues "Boot On The Seat" sums up The Donkeys' whole country-love-pot-n-sunshine- trip: "Call me sentimental/I love things that are old/I'm just young and grateful/That I've had hands to hold."

Myspace: www.myspace.com/thedonkeys
Label: www.deadoceans.com/artist.php?name=donkeys
"Walk Through A Cloud" mp3


7/3/08: Wolf Parade

At Mount Zoomer
Sub Pop Records
Release Date: June 17, 2008
Rating: 3.75 out of 5

Sounds like: Complex and challenging yet enjoyably listenable progressive indie rock

Being a relative Wolf Parade newcomer, I won’t attempt to dissect the intricacies of the band’s evolution from acclaimed first album Apologies To Queen Mary to follow-up At Mount Zoomer. I will say this ain’t no sophomore slump, though, and even with shades of Modest Mouse, Arcade Fire, and the finer moments of Tapes ‘n’ Tapes showing up in Wolf Parade’s sound, this Canadian quintet still has one leg firmly planted in the future of musical exploration. Recorded in Arcade Fire’s church/studio, At Mount Zoomer’s production is brittle and crisp, making the intense layers of the album hit on all synapses. The buzzing and rollicking opener “Soldier’s Grin” segues perfectly into the sparse yet dense Spoon-like rock of “Call It A Ritual,” while the slowed-down “Fine Young Cannibals” features a spectacular guitar riff and shimmery synths that place the track in timeless territory. The two epics on At Mount Zoomer, the six-minute “California Dreamer” and the eleven-minute “Kissing The Beehive,” may be a little too ambitious for all but the most seasoned musical connoisseur; to my untrained ear “An Animal In Your Care’s” lo-fi, early ‘80s fuzz stood head and shoulders above the rest of the album. So long as Wolf Parade sticks together, instrumental excellence wrapped in a thin layer of experimentalism should remain on the musical docket. And that’s good news for indie fans, even if you're still a few listens away from understanding what the Wolf Parade buzz is all about.

Myspace: www.myspace.com/wolfparade
Label: www.subpop.com/artists/wolf_parade
"Call It A Ritual" mp3

"Language City" mp3

7/3/08: Suarasama

Fajar Di Atas Awan
Drag City Records
Release Date: August 19, 2008
Rating: 4 out of 5

Sounds like: Hypnotic, exotic, Indonesian-influenced folk

If you’ve ever been to Indonesia, then Suarasama’s Fajar Di Atas Awan will no doubt conjure up memories of that most exotic of locales. If you haven’t made the long trek to Southeast Asia, then this album represents the quickest, cheapest way to get there. Originally released in 1998, Fajar Di Atas Awan (which translates to “Dawn Over The Clouds”) is the work of two Sumatran ethnomusicologists, along with up to 20 of their academically-trained colleagues. But rather than focusing on their own geographical area (one of about 18,000 Indonesian islands), husband-and-wife team Irwansyah Harahap and Rithaony Hutajulu embrace a more sweeping view of the world's musical culture, including African, Middle Eastern, Indian, Sufi, and Pakistani sounds in their contemporary mix. And although you may not be able to understand Fajar Di Atas Awan’s words, the emotional impact of Suarasama’s music comes across clearly on the haunting “Sang Hyang Guru” and the fast-moving “Silang Bertaut Bunyi.” Amazing string work appears on "Playing Gambus," a self-explanatory song title that refers to the twelve-stringed Malay gambus, and on the 14-minute exploratory journey "Merangkai Warna," which features the Arabic Al' Ud, a fretless, pear-shaped predecessor of the modern lute. Offbeat instruments, I know, but it's this kind of non-Western beauty that keeps the popular world music train chugging down the 2008 track. Make no mistake, though, the mystical authenticity found on Fajar Di Atas Awan can't be duplicated or co-opted by Americans looking for a sultry new sound. Now if I could just afford that plane ticket to Indo to hear Suarasama’s music with my own ears…

Official site: www.suarasama.com
Label: www.dragcity.com/bands/suarasama.html


6/30/08: Emmanuel Jal

Emmanuel Jal
Sonic360 Records
Release date: May 13, 2008
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Sounds like: African-born hip-hop with a purpose

Go here to read my review of Emmanuel Jal's Warchild, published in the June 2008 issue of Eastern Surf Magazine

6/30/08: James Jackson Toth

James Jackson Toth
Waiting In Vain
Release date: July 29, 2008
Rating: 4 out of 5

Sounds like: A modern combinationof dusty '70s rock, upbeat folk, clever songwriting, and crisp production. A little My Morning Jacket, a little Rolling Stones.

Tennessee native and underground freak-folk cult figure James Jackson Toth makes his solo debut with a countrified yet complex take on early ‘70s light rock. Not the most original concept, but Waiting In Vain certainly creeps into your conscience after a few listens. “Doreen” is wrapped in swaths of sultry guitars and layers of intoxicating lyrics (“It’s nothing a pill or two won’t cure/But I’m the blood on your sawdust floor”), while “Look In On Me” crawls along with a pleading late ‘60s Stones swagger. Echoes of mid-career Bob Dylan show up on “The Banquet Styx” and the excellent “Beulah The Good,” the latter boasting a sparse, upbeat rock riff, inspired female backing vocals from Toth's wife Jexie Lee, and a sprawling lyrical ode (referencing Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Faust) deserving of a spot in the Great American Songbook. Other highlights include the hushed acoustic simplicity and mysterious feel of “Do What You Can,” along with the bluesy stutter of “My Paint,” but album closer “The Dome” sprawls so far across its seven minutes that it ultimately weakens the album as a cohesive whole. Spot-on guest instrumentation from Nels Cline (Wilco), John Dietrich (Deerhoof), and Otto Hauser (Devendra Banhart) easily makes up for that miscue, as does production and keyboard work from Steve Fisk (Nirvana, Soul Coughing, Soundgarden). An astonishingly solid debut from this more or less “underground” figure; like My Morning Jacket’s exercises in alt-country/psych-rock/freak-folk hybrids, James Jackson Toth has crafted an alluring, infectious, atmospheric rock album that defies boundaries while reworking obvious influences. Might not happen today, but Waiting In Vain stakes a valid claim to its own unique spot on the musical shelf.

Myspace: www.myspace.com/jamesjacksontoth
Label: www.rykodisc.com/jamesjacksontoth/bio
"Doreen" mp3
"Doreen" video


6/26/08: The Cool Kids

The Cool Kids
The Bake Sale EP
Chocolate Industries
Release date: June 10, 2008
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Sounds like: Fun late ‘80s rhymes (De La soul) with minimalist 21st century production (The Neptunes); “the black version of the Beastie Boys.”

No gangsta posturing? No crime-laden tales of hood life? What kind of rap release is this? Well, The Bake Sale EP is sheer fun for fun’s sake. That may be a lost art in modern hip-hop, but Chicago duo The Cool Kids bring the old school back via sneaker fetishes, feel-good bravado, throwback beats, and staccato, slow-as-molasses verses. The breezy “What Up Man” rides a sparse bubble of a beat, while “Mikey Rocks” rattles with a slurred, sugary delivery. “88” and “What It Is” bring a welcome faster pace to The Bake Sale, along with Golden Age jazz samples and good-natured battle rhymes. “Bassment Party” counts as the requisite club track, embodying The Cool Kids’ entertaining and enjoyable M.O. But The Bake Sale’s simplicity sounds fresh compared to some of the overhyped egos cluttering hip-hop today (“A Little Bit Cooler” even brags about playing video games). And I swear I didn’t hear a single curse word on The Bake Sale — how’s that ever going to sell?

Official band site: www.coolxkids.com
Myspace: www.myspace.com/thecoolkids
“Black Mags” video

6/26/08: The M's

The M’s
Real Close Ones
Polyvinyl Records
Release date: June 17, 2008
Rating: 3 out of 5

Sounds like: Fuzzy ‘60s pysch-rock reflected through a prism of glam and early indie influences, with an irreverent contemporary hipster attitude.

Chicago retro-rockers The M’s sound more like a product of the slightly psychedelic British scene than the blues-heavy Windy City. Pianos, horns, buzzes, chirps, whistles, and simulated strings show up, melding the best aspects of Kinks-style classicism with modern-day knobtwisting. True pop songcraft ties the whole package together. From the muffled jangle-crunch of “Big Sound” to the quietly quirky pop of “Papers,” The M’s prove that even with such obvious reference points, originality can shine through. Other highlights include the layered “Pigs Fly” (which brings to mind fellow ‘60s worshippers Dr. Dog) and the sparkling shimmy of “Get Your Shit Together.” A few slow tracks hesitantly close the album, and although Real Close Ones isn’t mind-blowing, it’s fairly solid through and through.

Official band site: www.the-ms.com
Myspace: www.myspace.com/thems
Label: www.polyvinylrecords.com/artists/index.php?id=316


6/24/08: 31Knots

Worried Well
Polyvinyl Records
Release: August 19, 2008
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Sounds like: Modest Mouse back on drugs and off their major label, “indie” before the term was popular, jagged art-rock with a mean bite

Intoxicatingly head-spinning electro-rock fusion on the sixth album from this celebrated Portland, OR, trio. Fiery guitar shards and group chorus blitzes set the tone on “Certificate,” while the sparse bluster of “The Breaks” and the explosive symphonics of “Something Up Here” will definitely blow your hair back. Tribal chants (“Strange Kicks”), military-style drums (“Opaque/All White”), shambling psychedelia (“Compass Commands”), and Bowie-worthy synth blasts (“Upping The Mandate”) follow; somehow the whole variegated mess comes together nicely on the shoulders of Joe Haege’s passionate guitar and vocals. According to 31Knots’ bio, “their live show is a constellation to navigate by,” and judging by Worried Well, I believe it. If you’re looking for high-energy experimentalism and haven’t already tacked in the 31Knots direction, they could be your next favorite underground discovery.

Official band site: www.31knots.com
Myspace: www.myspace.com/31knots
Label: www.polyvinylrecords.com/artists/index.php?id=308

6/24/08: The Shys

You’ll Never Understand This Band The Way That I Do
Aeronaut Records
Release: July 22, 2008
Rating: 3.25 out of 5

Sounds like: British classic rock, ‘70s American rock, White Stripes, light indie grunge

This Southern California quintet split their major label (Sire/Warner Brothers) after debut album Astoria, yet thrive on this summer's Aeronaut Records release You’ll Never Understand This Band The Way That I Do. The band muscles through polished, rock-heavy bombast on tracks like “The Hangman” and “All On Me,” while retro piano adds Beatles-esque touches to the four-song run “Savior,” “She’s Already Gone,” “Mercy,” and “Brother Please.” Pinches of dusty acoustic folk-rock pepper the back end of the album, most notably on “I’m On Your Side” and closer “La Costa Verde,” while the strings-and-keys “Love Is Gonna Get You” brings back memories of The Band’s more refined moments. Lead vocalist Kyle Krone alternates between slight snarls and tortured whispers, conjuring up an odd coupling of Jack White and Conor Oberst, while the drums of Tony Cupito and keys of Riley Stephenson add layers of immense sound. The Shys' confident brand of rock 'n' roll isn't earth-shattering, but at least they’ve got a good handle on their chosen medium.

Official band site: www.theshys.com
Myspace: www.myspace.com/theshysmusic
Blog: www.theshys.blogspot.com
“She’s Already Gone” video


6/23/08: Port O'Brien

All We Could Do Was Sing
Release date: May 20, 2008
Rating: 3.75 out of 5

Sounds like: Maritime folk-rock with an art-pop twist, Neil Young’s On The Beach, a plugged in and slightly more grounded Devendra Banhart

Salty California-by-way-of-Alaska folkies plug in and steer their acoustic ramblings of albums past (see the excellent 2007 release The Wind And The Swell) into artsy and earthy electric rock waters on 2008’s All We Could Do Was Sing. Lead single “I Woke Up Today” stampedes with a newfound jolt of amplified energy (its older incarnation was a full-throated holler, only acoustic), and “Close The Lid” combines jangly guitars and jagged, out-of-tune vocals to successful indie-rock effect. Woven throughout All We Could Do Was Sing are the real-life nautical tales of Port O’Brien’s lead duo, Van Pierszalowski and Cambria Goodwin, who join Van’s family every summer on the remote Kodiak Island, Alaska, Van to fish for salmon on his father’s boat and Cambria to work as a baker in the local cannery. The acoustic-based authenticity birthed of those experiences produces the aptly titled “Fisherman’s Son” and the shaggy, slow-moving “Stuck On A Boat,” while a sort of 1970s-era Neil Young rock pops up on “Alive For Nothing.” Goodwin’s slightly cracked voice shines through the sad haze of “The Roof Top Song,” but scratchy album closer “Valdez” sends mixed signals: it hearkens back to Port O’Brien’s lo-fi freak folk days, but seems out of place rounding off this new set of more electrified tunes. Whether the quieter Port O'Brien was a stronger band is up for debate. Still, if your heart soars at the evocative sound of seafaring life’s romantic renderings (this writer guilty), you’ll love Port O’Brien for their humble yet vigorously affecting musical mission statement.


6/22/08: RZA As Bobby Digital

Digi Snacks
Koch Records
Release: June 24, 2008
Rating: 3 out of 5

Sounds like: Only RZA can sound like RZA

Wu-Tan Clan mastermind RZA resurrects the Bobby Digital legacy for his fourth solo outing of fractured, left-of-field production and deliberate rhymes. Lead single “You Can’t Stop Me” (featuring often-underrated Wu affiliate Inspectah Deck) burns the brightest, with an old-school guitar/bass crawl pairing up with scratchy, horn-backed choruses and nostalgic lyrics. That same vintage sound pops up on “Money Don’t Own Me,” which features some live-band flavor from soul/funk aficionados Stone Mecca and an assertive guest verse from West Coaster Monk, who appears on three other tracks. Two of them fall flat, but the hopeful and sparkling “Drama” excels on the give-and-take storytelling of RZA and Monk; lustrous Billie Holiday-like choruses from the Swedish singer Thea van Seijen also add an excellent touch. Unfortunately, the below-average tracks stick out like sore thumbs on Digi Snacks: David Banner’s overly simplistic Dirty South overhaul on “Straight Up The Block,” RZA’s jacked up yelling on “Put Your Guns Down,” and the slow-as-molasses “Love Is Digi Part II” make absolutely no sense paired up with the rest of the slightly experimental album. What also makes no sense is burying "Don't Be Afraid" at the hidden end of the disc; the boisterous synths and twinkling pianos sound like an instant hit. A couple more cameos from Wu-Tang members would have helped, but plenty of menacing beats and inexplicably strong lyrics still add up to another solid (yet flawed) notch in RZA’s visionary discography.

Myspace: www.myspace.com/rza
Label: www.kochrecords.com/rza_digisnacks.htm
"You Can't Stop Me Now" video


6/16/08: Free Kitten

Ecstatic Peace! Records
Release: May 20, 2008
Rating: 3 out of 5

Sounds like: Sonic Youth, Pussy Galore, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, blissed-out experimental fem-punk

Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Pussy Galore’s Julie Cafritz recruit Japanese noise rock drummer Yoshimi (of Boredoms) to join their supergroup; walls of feedback, jagged guitar shards, and meandering vocal outbursts ensue. Highlights include the swirling, sweetly dissonant “Surf’s Up” (featuring superb guitarmanship from alt-god J. Mascis, which bumped the album up from 2.5 stars to 3), the rollicking, rhythmic “Sway,” and all four songs Cafritz fronts. Her aggressive vocals on the summery “Seasick” and the biting two-song combo “Roughshod” and “Help Me” are the perfect antidote to Gordon’s syrupy (and at times foot-dragging) song-speak. The childish punk silliness of “Bananas” sums up the whole Free Kitten experience: much like Sonic Youth, you’ll either love ‘em or you’ll scratch your head, trying hard like a good little music fan to understand what all the fuss is about.

Myspace: www.myspace.com/freekittennyc
Label: http://www.ecstaticpeace.com/artist.php?id=22
“Seasick” mp3
“Bananas” mp3

6/16/08: The Parlor Mob

And You Were A Crow

Roadrunner Records
Release: May 6, 2008
Rating: 4 out of 5

Sounds like: Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Wolfmother, less drugged-out Dead Meadow, Portugal. The Man

New Jersey heavy rock revivalists combine drive of early Black Sabbath and technical skills of Led Zeppelin with modern-day blues swagger and a sprinkle of fast-paced stoner rock; think White Stripes meets Wolfmother. In fact, lead singer Mark Melicia’s high-pitched wail brings to mind a fiery, pre-international-success Jack White, particularly on the bright indie rock of “Everything You’re Breathing For.” The dual-pronged guitar attack of Dave Rosen and Paul Ritchie blisters and incinerates on the epic eight-minute “Tide Of Tears” and the eardrum-pounding “Real Hard Headed,” while an acoustic downturn sets slow burners like “When I Was An Orphan” and “Can’t Keep No Good Boy Down” firmly in Page-Plant heavy folk territory. All in all, a surprisingly solid debut from this quintet of long-haired hipsters (skinny jeans were popular in the ‘70s, too). Originally signed to Capitol Records but dropped in the middle of a nasty merger with Virgin Records, The Parlor Mob landed safely in the waiting and open creative arms of metal-heavy Roadrunner Records. Teaming up with producer Jacquire King (Tom Waits, Kings Of Leon, Modest Mouse) for recording sessions in the mountains of Asheville, NC, surely helped.

Myspace: www.myspace.com/theparlormob
Label: www.roadrunnerrrecords.com/artists/ParlorMob
“Can’t Keep No Good Boy Down” video