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