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December Music Reviews


The American Song-Poem Anthology
Do You Know the Difference Between Big Wood and Brush
(Bar None Records)

Local collector of musical oddments Phil Milstein produced this compilation of "song-poems" from the 60's and 70's, and it's a hilarious and fascinating example of American folk art. If you're old enough, you may remember seeing ads in magazines or newspapers saying "submit your poems, we'll set them to music and make you money." Gullible songwriting hopefuls sent in their best efforts and paid up to $400 for the privilege. Once the record was made and the sucker's check cashed, a copy was sent to the author and the record company promptly dropped the ball. Yet these songs were given the full studio treatment, with strings, piano, backing vocals and styles ranging from folk rock, country, blues, and cocktail lounge.

"Rat A Tat Tat America" begins as a perky, kneeslapping ode to America, bluebirds and the Stars and Stripes, with treacly synth accompaniment, until the title lyrics and machine guns come in: "rat a tat tat, America/we are the birds of progress.." "Richard Nixon" has some seriously debatable lyrics: "God in his infinite wisdom/put Richard Nixon on this earth.." "I Like Yellow Things" is self-explanatory, while "Little Rug Bug" appears to be about a man with a crush on an insect. Legendary song-poem vocalist Rodd Keith sings "How Can A Man Overcome His Heartbroken Pain" and it's actually a nice little folk rock tune reminiscent of the Byrds with extra dumb lyrics (Yo La Tengo even covered it). On the other hand, "Burmese land is like monkey land/a bothersome, troublesome place," interpreted by a Doris Day sound-a-like, no doubt highlights the primitive state of psychotropic medication at that time. "Ecstasy to Frenzy" describes an acid trip while "All You Need Is a Fertile Mind" condemns pornography while encouraging masturbation. As Milstein says, "Song-poem music is the only scam that produces a unique work of art with every transaction." This CD is a must-own!

-- Laura Markley

The Strokes
Room on Fire
RCA

Much like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, another much-hyped band, The Strokes have produced a record that is very much like their debut. But unlike BRMC, none of the songs are very memorable. The glum sounding "What Ever Happened?" and "Reptilia" sound like outtakes from Is This It?. "12:51" left me wondering if the band has been listening to too much Ric Ocasek. Even during the best moments of this record, (like on "Meet Me In The Bathroom") I felt ripped off. It's sad that the whole New York scene seems now to have hit a wall. Hopefully some new, undiscovered band can hurry and breathe some life into it.

--Alexander Laurence

Aesop Rock
Bazooka Tooth
Definitive Jux

The in-store at Union Square's Virgin Megastore is fast becoming a rite of passage for Definitive Jux artists with a new album... which is a bit of an interesting proposition for folks used to special-ordering their CDs and Vinyl from Sandbox, HHI, Fat Beats and so forth. Before you could only randomly find a mention of them in some corner of the indie hip-hop web, now you get to see them perform at any number of easy-to-find venues.

This turn at the mic would belong to Aesop Rock, flagship emcee of the Definitive Jux empire and "bracket basher" with rhymes as complex as they are unforgettable. The day of the in-store appearance, he stood outside waiting to get the call to start... he's lanky, overtall, unassuming, and friendly-looking all at the same time; chatting up his rhymer pals outside. His demeanor was the exact opposite of many a grand-standing emcee with their need to brood menacingly or act up with the groupies in a sickening fashion pre-show. In other words, if you didn't know him, you'd guess he was any other man but the man about to perform.

It's a feeling that lends itself to his newest work, Bazooka Tooth: this album comes from this guy? In a music industry, especially hip-hop, that can't live without its definitions, Aesop lives without definitions; sometimes straight hip-hop swagger, often something more... ethereal? Lord knows the swirling, dense rhyme style could only be his own, though many a stressed out critic has tried (in vain) to liken him to others.
Bazooka Tooth remains all Ian Bavitz (Aesop's legal name), but seems to be a bit more of an attempt to ground things; a slight nod of accessibility. Unlike his Labor Days album, which dealt with working life, Bazooka Tooth is back in Float territory... everything on his mind. It's damn fine work overall, but not his best... which is alright, since you could probably make one of the best albums ever by picking the highlights from each of his six* (counting Daylight) releases. He never makes anything close to filler, just songs that don't reach the technical heights of his true winners.
Tracks like "Super Fluke" and "Mars Attacks" feel a bit underdone. You may have a hard time coming away with any definite feelings from these. "The Greatest Pac Man Victory Of All Time" doesn't come off nearly as joyous as it should with it's story about a great, great summer gone by. Lyrically correct, but overall the pieces don't come together.

A lot of winners on Bazooka Tooth, though. "Freeze" is yet another song that could only come from Aesop, with a rhyme and rhythm scheme uniquely his own. "We're Famous" must go down in history for being the first dis track aimed at both an entire industry and one emcee... the concept of a million and one as El-P rips into all. Both in concept and delivery it did feel like more of an El-P joint than an Aesop Rock one, it has to be said. "Cook It Up" is easily the funniest, most Elvis Costello inspired hip-hop track of all time, even if that wasn't the intention. Only in Aesop country could a love proposition begin and end that way. Brilliant.

Oh, and "11:35" is one of the best hip-hop tracks of all time. It can go on that best album of all time with earlier efforts like "Odessa","Big Bang", and "Daylight".

Aesop Rock eventually took the stage that day (on time, which is damn weird for hip-hop) to the massive applause and cheers of all assembled. He did tracks from the new album, did a searing live "No Regrets", and made himself known among the Definitive Jux rhymers when freestyle time came. People passing on the street looked in to wonder if that was the same easygoing kid hanging around outside five minutes ago.
Yes.

-- Maurice Downes


Elefant
Sunlight Makes Me Paranoid
(Kemado)

It's all about love, isn't it? More so for Diego Garcia, recently voted sexiest lead singer in New York by New York magazine. His songs are all about women: picking them up at train stations, watching them dance naked, making love to them, missing them. I'd like to see the songs they'd write about him.

On stage he is mesmerizing - a tall, graceful figure, a little scruffy, longish, razor cut hair and serious cheekbones. He likes to camp it up, swinging the microphone around like Tom Jones (in Boston it hit the low ceiling and he stomped off stage momentarily in a fit of pique) but you can't laugh at him - he's too beautiful and his music sounds too good. When he sings, without a pause "the night is perfect takes off your dress" we are startled by the unexpected command to disrobe, and this underlines the suddenness of desire. Another lyrical coup: ending a song with the lines, "I know she is calling/I hear her singing/This is her answer" and then the song ENDS, leaving the outcome to your imagination.

Diego's romanticism and cool delivery are given muscle by the skillful arrangements and playing of this band: "Mod" (guitar and keys), James Jeffrey Berrall (bass, backing vocals) and Kevin McAdams (drums). Many songs begin with a spare drum part and a busy bass, escalating slowly to something more dramatic. You can hear the Cure and other arty 80's bands here and in Diego we see the heir of Bryan Ferry and Morrissey (check out his hiccuped words now and then). "Misfit" is a standout track with its insanely catchy guitar riff and upbeat melody counterpointing Diego's wistful lyrics. "Bokkie" was Diego's nickname for a South African model he dated and interestingly, it is also the term for the poor street kids hired by gangs to commit assassinations. With its pulsing bass, spare, Fripp-like guitar lines and lyrics for the fey and vain: "being young and beautiful/in love with no one/but yourself" it is the perfect paean to an aloof supermodel. "Love, love... it's a beautiful place/It's a beautiful taste" - I'll take Diego's word for it.

-- Laura Markley

Monolake
"Momentum"
(Imbalance)

Berlin-based electronic music artist Monolake a.k.a. Robert Henke has emerged from the confines of his Ableton office space, after finalizing the latest edition of his live-performance computer software (Ableton Live 2), to once again spread the Monolake gospel of dark, expansive techno music.

His newest full-length, while still steeped in echo and cloaked in a shroud of darkness, largely abandons the minimal grooves and fluid, beatless blankets of sound that had come to define the Monolake mission.

Instead, "Momentum" embraces a chunky, almost industrial techno sound. While his last full-length release "Cinemascope" found Henke exploring new rhythmic tendencies in ways that were both atmospheric and recognizably emotive and musical, "Momentum" is a mostly propulsive and percussive affair.

"Cern" kicks things off with a heavy dose of mid-tempo drum machine, the hissing of steam escaping from Henke's midi-port, and scary, low-end synth sweeps. As is always the case with Monolake recordings, the high quality of the sounds used are readily apparent, but on this new release Henke seems more interested in sounds that suggest dancefloor interaction as opposed to immersive isolation.

Tracks like "Linear" and "Excentric" continue along in the same vein of rhythmic exorcism without much release and without offering much of an aesthetic change from track to track. Previous Monolake releases contained hints of organic expression and occasionally shed some light here and there, but the sun no longer shines in Monolake land.

The fluttering sounds on the track "Tetris" sound like bats to me, spreading their wings and diving headlong into the night. The new Monolake is bat music for bat people, or industrial glitch for club zombies.

--SK

Tara Delong
"You Do The Math"
(Fatal)

Underground hip hop has really been bubbling to the surface lately, with independent labels like Anticon, Lex, Definitive Jux, and Quannum all enjoying quite a bit of success as their artists become more and more well known. Steering hip hop in directions that are both intelligent and new and exciting without sounding overly retro isn't easy, but Tara Delong may have found a way around that -- simply by being her bad-ass self.

"You Do The Math," her debut solo release, follows on the heels of her three singles as Bedroom Productions with DJ Snax on the El Turco Loco and Hotel Lotte labels. While Tara's production quality has improved and her style expanded to include the Latin flavor of her new Mexico City surroundings, her vocal delivery and social consciousness remains just as solid as it was when she ran with Khan and crew in New York City.

Putting the current crop of rap artists to shame on the title track, Tara decries their despicable shallow outlook: "Nobody in the rap game saying these signs of lyrical girth, only what you're worth, like throwin' the Nerf, oh well." Her word play, which also touches on such serious issues as plastic surgery, divorce, and drug abuse, is well balanced with equal doses of humor.

This is especially true on the thumping, Miami-bass inspired "Big Butt Daniela," which is dedicated to "all the backers or those with a big future behind them."

There's no one musical style to be found on "You Do The Math." While, her sound is mostly grounded in hip hop, Tara isn't afraid to rock and roll or wax melancholic. Her style is truly unique and is bolstered by her infectious lyrical flow and feisty attitude that is at once playful and confrontational. Tara Delong's got just as much game, if not as much hype, as any of the artists in the new school of rap.

--SK

Viki / Hair Police
Split CD
(Load)

The third installment of Load Records' split release series sees the pairing of Michigan-based electro-noise artist Viki and Lexington, Kentucky's squall ensemble Hair Police. Simply put, both acts create a raucous electronic ruckus. Load Records is notable for releasing "difficult," non-commercial music, but this release takes the cake in terms of its lack of potential to appeal to even the most ardent follower of underground music.

The best kind of lo-fi electronica is that which proves that an unlimited number of possibilities and new musical directions can be obtained through the use of limited resources and inferior technology. Unfortunately, neither Viki nor Hair Police map any kind of new direction with their buzzing gizmos on their shared release.

Viki is the more-inspired artist of the two, with her squealed slogans and seemingly uncontrolled electronic sound scrapings. Her impassioned vocal distortions have the ability to penetrate deep into your spine, but they ultimately fail to make an impact as they're buried under what sounds like an exploding electrical power grid.

Viki is definitely the female yin to her fellow Michigan cohorts Wolf Eyes' yang, as her style is very throbbing and feedback-laden -- such stylistic inspiration seems evident. However, if Viki's music is simply an attempt to tarnish the glossy sheen and trendy aesthetics of the electroclash movement, she has succeeded hands down, and good for her.

Hair Police seem intent on unnerving the listener with their violent electronic sound. The five outbursts offered up on their side of the split are both unsettling and unfocused. Much of it sounds like it was recorded in a washing machine. Endearingly untamed, Hair Police bring the noise, and boy does it annoy.

--SK

The Pleased
Don't Make Things
(Big Wheel Recreation)

This San Francisco band has been causing a stir in the Cali underground for years. They released a few EPs and have appeared on a few compilations. They have played countless shows in the past two years. There has been some early success in England. We have been waiting all along for a real full-length album, and now we have it. It's starts out with some of the best songs of the past like "We Are The Doctor" and "No Style." They display their love of British music from fifteen years ago. The Pleased are a Californian band, so there is more space and psychedelic longings. On some of the new songs like "One Horse" and "Another Disaster" they expand their sound and surprise and thrill the listener. There is a tragic romantic theme throughout most of the record. Melancholy is a positive feeling. The Pleased are an important new band to check out.

--Alexander Laurence


Trachtenburg Family Sideshow Players
Vintage Slide Collection From Seattle, Vol. I
Bar/None

Free Williamsburg was one of the first places that embraced the Trachtenburg Family in New York City. That was before most of the deadbeat magazines in the city caught up. Their original family act had its beginnings in Seattle. The conceit is that they write songs about old discarded slide collections. Jason Trachtenburg writes most of the songs and does most of the playing. On their live shows Tina controls the slide projector. Their 9-year old daughter plays drums and sings. On the album they have some friends play with them to give their songs a fuller sound. Most of their songs are satire based on family trips. Some of their other songs have to do with corporations and marketing. Most of their lyrics come directly from these slides used in meetings. The best song as a song is "Eggs." They include a slideshow on the CD of "Mountain Trip To Japan, 1959." There are also some slides included in the booklet to give you a taste of what they do. But it all leads to the live performance. This is funny stuff.

--Alexander Laurence

The Creatures
Hai!
Instinct

The first three Creature records were often a few good songs padded out with some self-indulgent misfires that didn't add anything to the whole. I was expecting more of the same with this new Japanese inspired Hai! But a few tracks in, you can tell this is something else. It's obvious that Siouxsie and Budgie were inspired by the Siouxsie & The Banshees reformation, Siouxsie's recent collaborations with people like Basement Jaxx, or by Taiko drummer Leonard Eto. Most of the playing on this record consists of the drumming of Eto and Budgie. They later added the vocals and built songs around their drumming sessions. Songs like "Godzilla!" and "Tantara!" are inspired by their recent trip to Japan. It's refreshing to see all that goth and glam nonsense thrown out the window. Whereas in the past, they tried to also make some hit singles as the Creatures, now it seems like they are focused on making good music. This record is their best one in many years. This is a surprising success.

--Alexander Laurence

Gorky's Zygotic Mynci
Sleep/Holiday
Sanctuary

The Gorky's music is often genre defying and brings many musical traditions with it. They are often portrayed as this weird medieval folk band, but they have much more in common with bands like Mojave 3 or Alfie. They have done eight or nine album in ten years and have just released a greatest hits record. The first songs "Waiting For Winter" and "Happiness" are an improvement over their last record and show their growing obsessions with the weather and love songs. "Mow The Lawn" sounds like Canned Heat on crystal meth. Euros Childs is one of today's great-unknown songwriters. Richard James has had a larger role on the past few albums. Maybe this album has more influences of American country and roots rock and less prog rock instrumentals. You have to admire them for doing their own thing and not giving a fuck. The Gorky's are distinct for that reason alone.

--Alexander Laurence





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