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RECENT REVIEWS

Billy Bragg
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Brian Jonestown
El-p
Elvis Costello
DJ Krush
Drexciya
Burnt Friedman & Jaki Liebezeit
Flaming Lips
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Robert Hampson/Janek Schaefer
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The September Music Guide

Ugly Casanova
Sharpen Your Teeth

(Subpop Records)

Ugly Casanova has been with us officially (or at least in an acoustic sense) for about two years or so, really, thanks to Edgar Graham, a fan of Isaac Brock's Modest Mouse, who shared some of his songs with the MM boys backstage during a tour about four years ago. From that brief collaboration, a brand-spankin' new side project for Brock, with Red Red Meat's Brian Deck; Pall Jenkins of Black Heart Procession; Califone's Tim Rutili; and John Orth of Holopaw, was created. Four years later, Ugly Casanova has finally released their first full-length album. Yeehaw and Amen.

Sharpen Your Teeth rocks out, lo-fi style, with blended sounds that vacillate between rocks hitting your car's windshield ("Parasites" & "Diamonds on the Face of Evil") to sweet lullabies suitable for cooing to the nearest baby ("Hotcha Girls"). Sharpen Your Teeth could be called interactive listening since the track progression creates a narrative with Brock's lyrics to keep you on your toes, guessing what to expect next. Trippy, melodic tunes bookend the album as "Barnacles" kicks off the ride and "So Long to the Holidays" slows everything down to an easy coast before coming to a safe stop. Along with Brock, Deck who also helped produced Sharpen… infuse a bluegrassy, from the hills-hick-twang sound we've grown accustomed to from Brock's earlier MM efforts. Perhaps the most appealing aspect of this album is Brock's lyrics which, on such tracks as "Cat Faces" and "So Long to the Holidays," retain Brock's signature depressed, on-the-verge-of-death-so-I-can-explore-the-vast-universe-appeal that MM's first major label release: The Moon and Antarctica hit us with a few years ago.

When I heard about the release of this album I skeptically wondered whether this was merely Subpop's way of appeasing us with wasted-talent-on-side-project-junk as we awaited Modest Mouse's newest effort to hit the streets. As it turns out, I am not only delightfully appeased but also blissfully surprised. As side projects go, Sharpen Your Teeth has a lot of great twists and turns. While Ugly Casanova is not Modest Mouse, it's a kick booty way to return to Brock's world once more. Hit play and listen often.

--Derek Elmer

Space Monkeys vs Gorillaz
"Laika Come Home
"
(Astralwerks)

Okay, maybe the joke is a little too cute.... you know, Gorillaz and Monkeys. And maybe the Gorillaz record has been a tad overhyped and was a little bit too cute in the first place as well. And wasn't there just a B-sides Gorillaz collection released a couple of months ago? True, true, and true a third time. But should you stop the franchise by not purchasing this album? Absolutely not. That is unless you want to miss out on a great time.

Space Monkeys (who have done nothing worth noticing up to this point) have remixed this baby of Damon Albarn and Dan the Automator to a dubby splendor. Beautiful brass arrangements aside, there is nothing new or cutting-edge about this collection, but fans of dub will find Laika Come Home to be infectiously catchy. And what's that you say...you can't stand Damon Albarn? Fear not, his voice has been all but removed from a majority of the tracks. What remains is a ghostly echo of his nasal draw accentuated by the la la las of Miho Hatori and bounding bass galore. This would have been a great chill out record for early summer, but with its late release I'll be listening as the air grows crisp as I lament the pathetic fate of that poor dog, Laika.

-- Robert Lanham


Archer Prewitt
"Three
"
(Thrill Jockey)

No one enjoys loungey retro-rock more than me. Jim O'Rourke's Insignificance was one of my favorites of last year. And I've always been a huge fan of Prewitt's Sea and Cake. When I picked up his most recent record, Three, a few weeks ago, I assumed it would be a sure thing for me. Sadly, I was mistaken and found myself wishing I had bought that Kinks record I had decided against instead.

To be fair, Three isn't horrible. It is just exceptionally dull and sounds derivative of most of the retro seventies pop rock coming out of Chicago these days (which makes Three derivative time two). There are even a few catchy tracks at the beginning of the disk. During my first listen, I remember actually digging the record until about track 4 when the unforgivable occurred; the keyboards licks began to sound a tad like Emerson, Lake, and Palmer and the violins unmistakably like Kansas. I ran to my disk player and skipped forward to track 10 "Sister Ice," a lovely track that almost redeems the rest of the album. Almost.... those ELP-sounding licks and an overall lack of energy ultimately suffocates this bland record.

-- Robert Lanham


Malacoda
"Datura"
(Arms Vs. Legs)

Richmond, Virginia music lovers and art-school students who supported the local underground music scene around 1991 enjoyed the output of a unique circle of talented artists and musicians whose dark and experimental approach delighted the town's multitude of drunken, tattooed punks desparate for stylistic unity in the face of indie rock's rising tide of influence and popularity.

The artists in question effectively merged the town's penchant for math-metal and heavy doom-core with their own tastes in industrial and electronic music. None of the bands they formed (Brainflowr, Sliang Laos) leaned as heavily on electronic sounds as Malacoda, which revolved around the chunky beat sequences of Rob Guess, the sonic guitar of Scott Hudgins, and Andrew Sigler's occasional trumpet blasts and rhythmic outbursts.

Originally released on cassette, "Datura" has been lovingly re-released on the Arms Vs. Legs imprint, a label run by a rabid fan and friend of these early 90s Richmond scenesters. Completely instrumental, the sound of "Datura" combines evolving rhythmic sequences and distorted guitars to create brooding end-time anthems.

"S-Kill D", a brief teaser, sets the stage with its slow, ritualistic rhythm and rising horn, summoning forth Malacoda's ominous movements. The wailing guitar makes it's first appearance amidst the crawling chaos of "Llo Silva", weaving in and out of synth stabs, sampled scratches, and funky-clunky beats.

"Datura" is generally pretty rhythmically inspired, the sequenced beats enjoying their place at the center of each track, however there are some nice ambient numbers as well, providing fluid transitions and thematic mood.

Malacoda later went on to join the World Domination roster, releasing the slicker sounding "Cascade" full-length in 1997. However, the dark shroud of "Datura" was lifted to reveal a somewhat mainstream sounding disco pop, gaining few followers, and leaving their original fanbase behind.

Now that "Datura" has received its digital debut almost twelve years after it's original release on cassette, Malacoda's vision can be effectively reinstated in the hearts of its fans and hopefully introduced to new followers of distorted, doomsday funk.

--SK

Mr. Lif
Emergency Rations

(Definitive Jux)

Our friend Mr. Lif is not one to mince words... or in this case images.

The cover for his long-awaited album Emergency Rations features two nearly identical pictures: simple iconic drawings of planes dropping ordinance on houses and their residents. Nearly identical; the first image is of planes bombing and in the second planes dropping rations on those same bomb victims. The effect is as polarizing as it gets and achieves much more than a simple "Parental Advisory" could ever hope to. You're either with or against him, and you can't pretend to be astonished by anything said on this album.

If you've guessed that the picture is in direct relation to the Bush administration's bombing campaign in Afghanistan, then ding-ding-ding, all those hours of CNN haven't dulled your powers of deductive reasoning. In this world of Eminem's brand of attention grabbing antics that have the effect of lyrical pork rinds (tastes good for a bit, but leaves you feeling greasy and bloated) it's refreshing to see that someone has taken up the mantle of being an asshole for an actual purpose. Let it be known that there is nothing sacred for Mr. Lif in this "Post 9-11 world". The man is in no mood to beat around the... ahem... bush and has made it known that Emergency Rations is his soapbox and you are his passing audience. And what better way to introduce you to his world where questions are mandatory and fear is a defense mechanism than such an (un) ambiguous picture. In the news we're allowed the separation of media coverage, time lapse and spin to make the pill a bit easier to swallow... when it's presented as two stark yet similar pictures side by side, then it's that much harder to dodge.

Yes, Emergency Rations is one of those albums, and at the same time it isn't. Channeling the spirit of Public Enemy and Rage Against The Machine, Mr. Lif does a lot of looking over his shoulder on this release. The intro track is basically a conversation between two individuals, Akrobatik and Brotha PC, discussing the disappearance of Mr. Lif, and how it's related to his "speaking the truth" (the gag is carried through the liner notes where Akrobatik notes that he "would've liked to thank his parents"... luckily his captors saw fit to let him perform at a Def Jux release show). It's a fitting introduction, as it lays out Mr. Lif's philosophy in a clever way: people openly believing what they're told, the need to question government and everything; a prevalent theme throughout. Then there are also other tracks, like one that merely talks about respect for hip hop's culture (Pull out your cut) and a beautiful throwback to an earlier style of rhyming and DJing on Get Wise '91. In this way, it's a politically-heavy album, but not solely political.

To call the album preachy would be unfair, only because it doesn't really come off that way. It's too creative and aurally sure of itself to feel mired by the message, but the message is definitely in the forefront. Luckily, as the result of several producers (including Mr. Lif himself), Emeregeny Rations never feels boring in the music department. That the tracks are put together by so many personalities gives the album a good amount of texture and the feeling of not quite knowing what the next track will hold. Throughout, Mr. Lif is lyrically strong and has the ability to change styles from song to song as the mood dictates. Given the strength of his live shows, you don't expect anything less.

You may not know what to think of Emergency Rations by the time it all comes to a close. It's an enjoyable listen, but there are one or two problems. Most noticably, it's a damn short album, proving that Weezer isn't the only group adept at stuffing a lot of material into 30 minutes. Especially after such a fierce ender like Phantom, I felt like there was still more to come... eight tracks, and one of them is an intro? Grrr.... but that intro track was actually necessary (for once) as it frames the rest of the album.

Then you may not be a fan of Mr. Lif's world philosophy, which would certainly be a problem, because he has no problem presenting it. The especially incendiary "Home of the Brave" pulls no punches as it describes "how they killed us, 'cause we've been killing them for years". The possibility of being offended by this album looms high, while others may just not be in the mood for his brand of paranoid rantings... if you see his words as such, that is.

Emergency Rations deserves more regard than that, really. Is it a message album? Definitely, but it's not a chore to listen to for that reason. Mr. Lif signs albums by saying "Question what you're taught". This album should make you question why more music can't be more things to more people.

--Maurice Downes

System
"System"
(~Scape)

System is an all-star Danish trio who are also known collectively as Future 3, and individually as Opiate (Thomas Knak), Dub Tractor (Andreas Remmer), and Acoustic (Jesper Skaaning). Reformed to explore the dubby, clicky sound of chill minimalism, the System experience fails to break any new ground and manages to provide fans of the Berlin-influenced genre with perhaps the sleepiest example of glitch-pop yet. There are nice sounds to be found on this self-titled release, but they never seem to go anywhere special.

Simulated melodica sounds and plinky guitar pickings abound but never really get to skankin' and only tease the listener into indifference after awhile. The miniscule rhythms crackle and pop but ultimately fizzle for lack of a bassline. True to minimalist form, the tracks leave a lot of space open for the listener's imagination to fill in, but the trio's overall lack of a unique vision unfortunately fails to ignite the senses. They seem to be working from a blueprint that's already been put to use by their contemporaries and labelmates, and fail to bring anything new to the dubby, glitchy style. System displays an adept sense of craft, but the end result of their efforts simply cannot be recommended by this reviewer.

--SK


Ash
Free All Angels

(Kinetic Records)

I have liked Ash for many years now. I even saw them play in late 1998 during CMJ. This was during the time of Nu-Clear Sounds which many consider their worst album. Ash was formed in Belfast around 1993 when Tim Wheeler, Mark Hamilton, and Rick McMurray were still in school. Their first mini-album Trailer was released in 1994. The band released their best album two years later called 1977, when they were all still teenagers. They were called Bratpop. Songs like "Kung Fu" and "Girls from Mars" made them famous. They got much more attention in 1998 when they added guitarist Charlotte Hatherley. Their record Nu-Clear Sounds tanked and their fans moved on to JJ72. Their experiment with being into New York City and heavy rock and being like an Irish Jonathan Fire Eater failed. They were quiet for three years. The drug addiction then started and Ash was getting calls from Behind The Music. They have come back with one of the biggest albums of the past year with Free All Angels.

"Walking Barefoot" reminds us of Ash's fascination with NYC punk. It's a return to their earlier sound and is a great summer song. Once you get to "Shining Light" you know that the excitement is back and all is forgiven. Its big chorus of "Burn Baby Burn" will remind you why you loved Ash in the first place. "Pacific Palisades" is like a punk Beach Boys. It is about their experiences in California and echoes the intensity of the opening track. Most bands get to their fourth album fully sucking. Ash has evolved. The American release also includes a DVD and three bonus tracks.

Azure Ray
Burn and Shiver

(Warm Records)

Most are interested in Azure Ray at this point because they hang out with Moby and The Faint. Band member Orenda Fink is becoming the Justine Frischmann of the Athens/Williamsburg/Nebraska axis of cool. With the support of Moby and producer Eric Bachmann, Azure Ray have improved nearly every aspect of their essential formula. Burn and Shiver is twelve songs of ambient ooze. It's a marriage of Julie Cruise and Electroclash. It is Leonard Cohen with a vagina.

The first two tracks "Favorite Cities" and "The New Year" have a sense of being displaced and being trapped in urban landscapes. Eric Bachmann has brought in more inventive percussive elements than those found on their debut. "How You Remember" has the most memorable hook, and is the strongest song on the album. Some songs sound like a tribute to Beth Orton or Dot Allison. With Burn and Shiver, Azure Ray will massage the ear.

Greater California
The Little Pacific

Subtitled

I discovered this Long Beach band when reading about them in one of the local papers recently. Greater California are a quiet, exotic and subtle band, full of breezy melodies and moody moments. They are hard to describe. They sound like they are doing their own thing and don't remind me immediately of any other band. They may be seen vaguely as stoner music that would have found itself comfortable in the mid 1970s. There's a sort of studded optimism in their music that is sort of infectious. There's a psychedelic edge to their music mixed with a California-ness recalls the band Call and Response.

They seem at times like a jazz group wanting to be a pop group, as on "Waiting" which may be the best song on the album, with the haunting chorus of "Everything is just fine." You can tell that you are in the presence of something special. You just can't put your finger on it. Since most bands in Southern California are these horrible punk bands who are only good for a laugh, it's a surprise that Greater California can co-exist here. Don't they feel like getting tattoos or stripper girlfriends? They seem uninterested in the junk culture that surrounds them. They don't resort to snobbery really. They just want to be floating on Highway 1 with a pleasant tune in their head. What more can you ask?



Bruce Springsteen
The Rising

(Columbia)

In our collective search for clarity and comfort following September 11th the music industry anted up its answer -- tributes, covers, and re-hashings of patriotic standards, most of which felt forced and flat, a compulsory gesture to a grieving nation. Just the national tragedy, it seemed, to roil the country set into churning out the musical equivalent of "These Colors Don't Run" bumper stickers and "Osama, Yo' Mama" t-shirts -- epitomized, perhaps, by Toby Keith's shameful cowpoke poetics on his chart-topping single, "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue." ("And you'll be sorry that you messed with The U.S. of A./'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass/It's the American way.") Keith's tribute succeeds only in portraying his own ongoing personal struggle with rhyming.

Bruce Springsteen's first collection of new material in seven years, The Rising, -- songs inspired largely by the terrorist attack and its aftermath -- seemed doomed to follow the same lackluster path. It wouldn't have been his fault either. Scoring a tragedy of this scale without inadvertently blaspheming the victims and the heroes, without making the events appear small and distant, seemed nearly impossible. Springsteen pulled it off, though. He addresses his subject matter with compassion and subtlety, and thankfully, keeps any cheese-ball sentimentality to a minimum.

The Boss has spent the bulk of his career painting vivid images of American life, narratives told from the perspective of factory workers, miners, and highway patrolmen - blue collar workers largely forgotten by popular music. He connects with his audience, because he speaks to them, for them. Fittingly Springsteen's tribute is the first to graze the topic of September 11th with taste, honesty, and power.

Backed by the E Street Band for the first time since 1987, Springsteen cycles through a collection of songs ranging from high-spirited rock numbers, to soaring spirituals, to sparse folk ballads. Lyrically, he doesn't provide answers, he doesn't preach love or vengeance; he simply echoes our confusion and sadness with wrenching, slice-of-life anecdotes: a firefighter who "disappeared into dust" ("Into the Fire"); the survivor's guilt of a man who lives to read about his heroism in the local paper ("Nothing Man"); a widow's incomprehension -- "Pictures on the nightstand/TV's on in the den/your house is waiting/for you to walk in" ("Your Missing").

The Rising is not without its low points. "Let's Be Friends (Skin to Skin)," an up-tempo love song, briefly throws the somber through-line that ties the album together. A clinker or two, however, is not enough to dampen Springsteen's inspired message, or offset the impact of his monumental achievement.

--Daniel Schulman

 




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