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July Music Reviews

The Marionette and the Music Box
(Burnt Toast)

It's unfortunate that incidental music is often misjudged as something more than what it is intended to be. Background music is supposed to be passive, a tool used in scoring film, providing ambiance or, in the case of The Marionette and the Music Box, employed as accompaniment to an illustrated storybook. Sparse tonal guitars ring with restrained melody, cohabiting pockets of silence with various percussive and atmospheric electronic elements, to create the sonic backdrop for illustrator Jamie Hunt to set his story of friendship between the two title characters in motion. Beautifully packaged and art directed, it would be a disservice to both musician and artist if The Marionette and the Music Box wasn't reviewed for its merit as a piece of creative integrated media. Unfortunately it won't, and many will fault Unwed Sailor for contributing yet another seemingly derivative instrumental record of minimalist compositional guitar. I know it's the soundtrack for a kid's book and all, so excuse me when I say 'fuck 'em.' This is simply beautiful, cinematic scoring, drawing comparisons to the poetics of Gastr del Sol and the variable timbre of Bill Frisell or Pullman. Sombre, calming and, at times even ringing with the Gothic tones of medieval composition, it is nothing less than classical music for kids raised on Slint and Don Caballero, not Teletubbies and Raffi. I'm not sure how many 6 year olds will cozy up with The Marionette and the Music Box, but I know that for us adults, there are times when we need our music to just shut up and be.

-- Steve Marchese

Basic Instructions EP

It's unfortunate when trends really catch fire, reach their climax and ultimately lead to the expeditious demise of a genre. I can already see the fallout from the current "Dance Punk" revival littering Williamsburg as kids scurry like roaches to find the next cool thing. The positive side to all this transient fad-ness, is that when 1000 bands all show up at the party, the newbies and posers get weeded out for the amateurs they truly are. And I'm sure the British quartet Ikara Colt will be smiling however, because when the Battle Royale is finished, they have as good a chance as any of ending up with the belt. Solid, minimal post-punk guitar drives the 5 tracks on this EP, and tasteful programmed electro beats help propel the tracks to Danceland. Like Radio 4, !!! or The Eternals, this is well played, well written and fun music with a darker edge then that offered up by the bambinos in Brooklyn. And thankfully, they are confident enough to forgo the "The" -- not another "The" band (The Strokes, The Vue, The Faint, et al) and that should count for something.

-- Steve Marchese

Various Artists
(Vice Recordings)

Yes, New York, there certainly is something special happening. Although comparisons to other important New York musical movements like Proto-Punk, No Wave, and NY Hardcore are certainly premature, the Big Apple has never seen a proliferation of talented indie bands quite like the one currently under way. Although I recognize that a couple of the bands included on Vice's (yep, like the mag) new comp are major label trustafarians, the majority are hard-working musicians, many transplants from other parts of the country, looking to tap into the area's massive, enthusiastic audience. The playlist reads like a college CMJ report and includes the obvious commercial participants like The Strokes, Interpol and Longwave; cornerstones of the Dance Punk movement Radio 4, The Rapture and The Fever; quirky pop pushers The Walkmen, The Natural History and Ted Leo; dark minimal rockers Calla; electro punk Brooklynites LCD Soundsystem, The Rogers Sisters and Unitard; and lastly, seeming somewhat out of place, here come the Secret Machines. The list is impressive and indicative that yes, a helluva lot more than a tree is growing in Brooklyn. Seattle, Louisville, Chapel Hill and now, yes, New York.

-- Steve Marchese

With the Gift Comes the Curse

Fin Fang Foom. Of all the images and sentiments the name invokes, you're forgiven if you weren't thinking of either a brooding post-punk trio or a Marvel Comics monster created by Stan Lee in 1961. Presumably named after their horrific fictional namesake (introduced, of course, in Strange Tales #89, duh) the band formed in Jacksonville, FL in 1996, went through a rough patch in '97, experiencing the loss of an original member, and then relocated to the indie mecca of Chapel Hill, NC, touring hard, releasing vinyl and cultivating their sound. Richly melodic yet haunting, Fin Fang Foom rely primarily on the propulsive post-rock devices utilized by obvious influences like Fugazi and Jawbox -- tight, dissonant guitar parts; dramatic, bombastic drumming; solid bass lines tethered resolutely to the rhythm. The addition of significant piano melodies add a darker cinematic quality, not unlike the building drones incorporated by The 90 Day Men or even Faith No More (don't forget that Roddy was all over the keys). Although the alliteration and etymology of their name may appear whimsical, their music is anything but, filled with a mature, emotional density and introspective dynamic fire rarely seen in these days dominated by the nostalgic shake-ya-ass hedonism of dance-oriented punk rock. With the Gift Comes the Curse is supremely moody and affecting, yet unlike Sigur Ros or even Radiohead, shuns the stillness of mystery for the immediacy of epiphany.

-- Steve Marchese

Fly Below the Radar

(Foodchain Records)

Fans of Beachwood Sparks, Brendan Benson, and Elliott Smith might well love this CD. It is impeccably crafted, richly orchestrated, deeply American roots rock, so much so that it's hard to believe they're British. Yet it's too slick; there are no rough edges or surprises.

"It Is What It Is" is a strong opener, all shimmering, layered guitars and an upbeat bass line. The drums are snappy and propulsive, providing a foil for the mellow vocals and thoughtful lyrics about "sunlight on the wall." An aggressive, psychedelic guitar part in the middle provides further dynamics. The first few songs work along similar lines and have a force of motion the other tunes lack.

As for the rest, it's mainly laid back, sophisticated easy listening music that demands very little of the listener. It's pleasant enough. Minibar's lyrics are a strong point, painting clear images and dropping American place names such as New Mexico, west Texas, and South Dakota. Poetry abounds, such as the "rusty old car/abandoned by the side of the road" and "shadows on the rocks/a field of crucifixion trees." It's easy to get lost in Minibar's rocking chair rhythms and dreamy melodies, with wearily drawled vocals reminiscent of early Peter Gabriel. Harmonium, accordion, tack piano and pedal steel flesh out their sound. When the instrumental passages rise and swell my interest is almost captured but invariably, the song sinks back into some flaccid, predictable zone. Still, this may become your soundtrack for the summer, an aural break from the hubbub of city life.

-- Laura Markley

"21st Century Toy"

(Disko B)

Parisian artist Fred Bigot, a.k.a. Electronicat, combines simple electronic rhythms and sequences, spare guitar-pop, and vacuous lyricism to create a sort-of electromod sound on "21st Century Toy," his new full-length on the German Disko B label. Bigot successfully blurs the line between the retro electro and sixties revivals, with booming kick drums and jangly guitar licks.

The Vox organ is replaced by a synth patch, but the age of Aquarius still manages to permeate the proceedings as Bigot saves his highest of high-tech gear for studio tricks, and not for instrumentation. In fact, the repetitive rhythms and synth sounds rarely, if ever, vary from track to track and have a kind of cheap sound about them -- sounding quite a bit like Suicide.

Mostly self-produced, "Toy" reflects Bigot's good ear for hard edits and ability to create space within each track. However, his mostly English lyrics are as empty as the sound of his treble-kicking guitar, and come off as rather pretentious. Followers of fashion -- glam, electroclash, or otherwise -- are sure to appreciate the roots of style found in the music of Electronicat, but most will likely find that "21st Century Toy" lacks substance.

-- SK

The Brian Jonestown Massacre
Spacegirl & Other Favorites

(2003, The Committee to Keep Music Evil/Bomp!

Just abandon your notions of verse-chorus-verse and the three-minute pop
ditty and make way for the celestial sounds of the BJM. This is a CD reissue
of a rare album (vinyl pressing of 500) from 1993 with six unreleased bonus
tracks included. One has to admire Anton Alfred Newcombe (and his shifting
phalanx of talented musicians) for pursuing his singular vision for over a
decade now, indifferent to critical or commercial success. But the BJM's
loyal following know that this is the vintage Vox guitar, future hippy,
space-rock soundtrack for tomorrow.

If you're waiting for something to happen, you're trying too hard. Just
let the sound envelop you -- the layered, repetitive guitars, the
tambourine, and the ominous, sustained fuzztone note underneath the pretty
acoustic stuff. Get your mind blown by the Farfisa that comes in half way
through "Spacegirl," with ethereal vocals and lyrics that are sometimes
bland, sometimes cryptic and always open to interpretation. Memorable hooks
and riffs keep this ship on course while purposeful, military drums on some
tracks add tension and backbone to the waves of atmospheric sound.
Of the bonus cuts, "Ashtray" stands out as being something different.
It's like a lost Joy Division song massaged by Jesus and Mary Chain meets
Spacemen 3 guitars, with Ian Curtis channeled on the vocal.
This is Anton's happening and it freaks me out!

-- Laura Markley

The Flesh
Death Connection (EP)

When the title track opened, I immediately thought N.E.R.D.; that quirky use of bass and drums intended to make you move. Then it morphed into funky, low-slung sex, like Prince covering early Talking Heads. The keyboards provide a quasi-futuristic 70's effect in the background and you imagine a campy sci-fi picture soundtrack, or a newly-minted Pulp Fiction.

Overall, Death Connection (available July 8) is a solid EP, introducing the public to a group that we will definitely hear more from. Combining a disparate mix of influences and elements to good effect, the sound is familiar - but not enough; it's more of an evolution. Fusing inspiration from Gang of Four, LeTigre, The Stooges, The Ravonettes, and early 80's new wave (like The The), The Flesh has conjured up something remarkable.

"Love," the second track, is upbeat and decidedly more punk than the title track, interspersed with quirky keyboard spurts, and maintains its subtle groove of desperation well. It's a rock star pleading for dirty love in public, the place they love to do it the best. "Foes" is ingratiatingly moody with a quick-paced, almost Ludacris hip-hop style cadence book ended by sparse drawn-out vocals; with a little harem-like ditty thrown in every now and then for good measure.

"Copticon" is the only song over 3 minutes, and serves as the stereotypical concluding track; longer, more varied, and trying to really "get into the music." With its low strumming and brooding bass and drum and organ line, it reminded me of The The, and is a carefully orchestrated build-up of tension. It never really lets go until the end, and in the meantime, listeners are treated to a gloom and doom break down of the structure, a morph into a feedback-y guitar that is eerily reminiscent of the theme from the video game "Spyhunter," and then you reach the climax (literally and physically) of a building rant of exhortations that ends in "it's all over now," and the slow-dying strangling of the song.

The use of space in between beats really defines these songs, as the silence and pauses are used to good effect, and then filled in later on in the song by a sometimes swirling mix of bass, keyboards, and backing vocals. The off-kilter sound is noteworthy because it causes your body and limbs to gyrate in fits and jerks, creating an awkward beat to follow, or in a glass half-full scenario, a rock band that makes you move with the authority of the jangly beats of natives. This is, in my approximation, new wave electronica punk co-mingling with the Brooklyn dirty, grimy, old-fashioned sex vibe in a dark alley, not two steps from the door of a hip club. It should be safe, painless, and non-committal, but it doesn't care if you see flesh, or the dirty past underneath it. In fact, it yearns for it.

-- Grant Moser

Regenerated Headpiece

"Well, I'm in a band"

…is what many a guy has told many a girl to get that much closer to her, but what do folks who do what we call underground hip-hop say in that situation? Think about it for a second. If you're the run of the mill hipster rocker, clad in your impossibly blackened hair and meaningless vintage t-shirts (I should know, I own many myself) then you hit them with a combination of early 80's influences guaranteed to make you sound knowledgeable, deep… sexy. But underground hip-hop is a trickier concept. Just telling that same girl that you're in a hip-hop group might cause her to conjure up images of you grabbing your unmentionables on stage and making a play for every woman in the audience; talking a lot about money you don't have. Then you'd have to add to that, "No… we're an alternative hip-hop group" or "we're an indie hip-hop group" or whatever the hell most people who do this kind of music say. Never mind the references, because unless you're damn lucky she hasn't heard of BDP, Company Flow… maybe De La Soul, but just in passing… from a friend.

Such is the uncharted territory that much of underground hip-hop finds itself in that you can't find a centered way to impress people with it. Regenerated Headpiece is in an even deeper pickle than most groups, because they seem to be looking for some kind of new sound and understanding on their new album Dogfight. If they were talking about their earlier debut release, Rat Race Vacation, they could've started simply and said "Just emceeing, having some fun"; they didn't get too serious but there wasn't another bunch you could confuse them with. They've gone even further out on this newer album, with Shred Lexicon (get it?) taking less of a frontman role and DJ Exfyl's turntable work getting more experimental, Phon X expressing a more concerned worldview. Hip-hoppers are at great pains to distance themselves from anything resembling pretension or self-importance, even or especially the underground ones. Yet, Regenerated can live in both worlds at the same time, the party and the politics. So the group that now tackles the plight of the workingman and pleads with the audience to "open up your mind" hasn't lost their ability to hold your attention. It's only that their sound is a bit darker now, more thoughtful… though the possibility of losing themselves in their own wordplay always looms large, and once or twice they're not in complete sync with DJ Exfyl, but that's a tall order. Maybe when they first introduced themselves to this proverbial "chick" it was along the lines of "We're hip-hop, we're just having some fun, but it's more…" and on this album, Dogfight, they meet up later only for RHP to say "We're hip hop done a different way." Because they are.

The thoughtful approach, see? Maybe the girl in our story, Ms. "you're in a band?" is sick of running into the typical anorexic rocker type. That can get worn out, one needs some rhythm and cadence in their life and it couldn't hurt to be the one to break the usual mold. She can tell friends about the sensitive hip-hop artist that she met, or whatever way she wanted to describe him as being. And really, do her friends have anybody who can come up with songs on the spot… who can freestyle? They should be so lucky, but then it's easy to get taken by such a slick line.

-- Maurice Downes

Richard Hawley
(Beggars Banquet/XL)

This is the second release from the guy from Longpigs/Pulp. On his own he sounds nothing like those guys. He sounds like he has been admiring people like Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash. Last year I gave a rave review for Late Night Final which seemed like a breakthrough album for Hawley. He ignores music trends and must be, in a way, admired for that. But now there are countless bands performing this mellow acoustic rock about long lost love. Lowedges sounds like lesser outtakes from the last record. It doesn't seem like Hawley has brought anything new to the table.

-- Alexander Laurence

The Dragons
Sin Salvation
Gearhead Records

I saw these guys play a gig a few months ago and they torn down the place. Their love of Johnny Thunders and Catholic guilt fuel this new record. The Dragons are a San Diego garage band whose members are Mexican and Japanese. The title track "Sin Salvation" blows the roof off the joint. The guitar solos by Ken Mochikoshi are wall to wall. The energy is high, and where can you go from there? Tracks like "Self Destruction" and "Dirty Bomb" are as raw as The Damned at their peak. Actually they are more talented than those jokers. This record was recorded in three days and is mostly live takes. It has a lot of power and glory. The Dragons are a band who need our attention.

-- Alexander Laurence

Singapore Sling
The Curse of Singapore Sling
Stinky Records

This is a mysterious band from Reykjavik, Iceland. Their dark origins cannot be traced to the Icelandic sagas. No they don't sound like Bjork or Sigur Ros. They sound more like Raveonettes and draw from the same beatnik sources. Henrik Bjornsson writes most of the tunes. His friends show up and drink a lot and make a lot of fucking noise. That's the way Revolver was made. Singapore Sling have been together for about three years now. Recently they opened some shows for the intense Brian Jonestown Massacre. That makes sense because both bands have a love for feedback and psychedelia. All their songs are about fucking, which is a valid topic. I want to get high with these guys. This is music to take drugs to. I must pull my pants down.

-- Alexander Laurence




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