ABSINTHE BLIND RINGS (Mud)
The tribulations of touring have always provided inspiration for rock bands, and Illinois's Absinthe Blind are no exception: at least a couple of songs on the group's fifth album discuss the merits of musicianship. What makes this quartet's self-analysis unusual is that the band includes three siblings, of both sexes (Adam, Erin and Seth Fein), which renders the album's last line "She said playing in bands won't make you well" seem particularly intriguing. Elsewhere, 'the Dreamers Song' opens with the promise, or perhaps just a hope, that "It's our turn to write the Beatles song/so you can sing along." Absinthe Blind don't get that close, but by bringing in Spiritualized/Flaming Lips producer Keith Cleversley, they at least close the gap. And on a different note, when Erin Fein steps in to relieve brother Adam of vocals, as she does on 'The Break', she reminds of Sinead O'Connor. Which is no bad thing. B.
AIR*BARICCO CITY READING (Astralwerks)
You have to hand it to the French duo of JB Dunckel and Nicolas Godin for refusing to adhere to formula or follow the easy path to great riches. Following the international success of 1998's trail-blazing Moon Safari, they've bracketed 2001's dark and difficult follow-up album 10,000Hz. Legend with, firstly, a movie soundtrack (2000's The Virgin Suicides) and now, the musical accompaniment to a work of fiction. On City Reading, Italian novelist Alessandro Baricco emotes in his native tongue from his 'Tre Storie Western' in a rhapsodic, poetic fashion while Dunckel and Godin accompany with warm acoustic guitars, dark analogue synths, and bright but eery pianos all the usual ingredients in Air's post-modern stew. The advantage for the musicians is that even more so than with a soundtrack, they're allowed to forget about obvious melodies and rhythms and simply provide texture. And they do so beautifully: City Reading is a luscious collaboration worthy of each party's considerable talents. The stories are translated into English in the sleeve notes, but I prefer just listening to the ebb and flow of Baricco's lyrical voice rather than being forced to digest every word. Air are supposedly recording their next real studio album right now; I'm already curious as to what side-project they'll follow it with. A-.
THE ALPHA CAT PEARL HARBOR (Aquamarine)
IJamming! reader Elizabeth McCullough sent her self-produced CDs in for review hoping they would fit in with other music written about here. As The Alpha Cat, McCullough sails closer to conventional singer-songwriter tactics than I'm totally comfortable with, but both 'Across The River' and 'Sometimes When I Wake' achieve the Luna and Mojave 3 traits she strives for. Pearl Harbor would make a better EP than an album, but there's good music here any which way you look at it. B-.
APHROHEAD THEE UNDERGROUND MADE ME DO IT (Clashbackk)
Having helped kickstart the elctroclash movement with 2001's overly influential Miss Kittin and Thee Glitz, and having made the most of his time in the spotlight by remixing almost anyone who could cough up the cash, Felix da Housecat must have realized he was risking his credibility. Hence a third album in his alter ego Aphrohead, with an opening title track on which our Felix yearns for the days when there was "no million dollar budgets, no contracts, no concepts." Warming to his subject he insists that "this aphrohead shit ain't about selling a million records, and don't call me no hypocrite." Then he laughs, as well he might, because there aren't many who can bounce between the credible and the commercial like this with such ease. 'Kazoo' is contemporary, pumping tech-house; 'Groove Train' is smartly repetitive twisted disco; and 'Cry Baby', for all the title track's promise of "no samples, no filters", appears to make ample use of both. But that's okay: this is the sort of primarily instrumental party album that sidesteps trends and heads straight for the dance floor. There's a reason people like Stalling are considered leaders and here it is. A-.
APPLIANCE ARE YOU EARTHED? (Mute)
Appliance liken themselves to Television and Talking Heads in their attempt to rewrite the rules while respecting them. But until now, the Exeter, UK-based trio have only offered glimpses of their potential: equal parts electronic technicians (they design their own instruments) and conventional songwriters, they'd yet to forge truly new territory on their previous two albums. But with the smartly titled Are You Earthed? they finally do so in quietly understated style. 'Go Native' is a hook-filled, mellow rant, 'The Blue Rider' is a charming instrumental; on '88' they even emulate an electronic version of the Velvet Underground. Their approach is subtle in the extreme, but spend some time with it and Are You Earthed? proves is not just eclectic, but electric too. B+.
A.R.E. WEAPONS A.R.E. WEAPONS (Rough Trade)
The electroclash scene has so blissfully passed me by that New Yorkers A.R.E. Weapons' debut long-player is on the shelves before I've seen them in the flesh. This at least allows me to judge them on what ultimately matters (the music) rather than on what doesn't (the hype). And by that criteria, the Weapons clearly have something to back up all their slumming-at-the-art-gallery buzz: their eponymous album starts with a splendidly seedy glam rock singalong, 'Don't Be Scared', and ends with the poetically apocalyptic and equally anthemic 'Hey World', best described as an electroclash update of 'All The Young Dudes.' And the retro-Suicide nastiness of the two year old single 'Street Gang' also holds up well (though not as well as it would have done had Suicide themselves not made a new album in the intermin). But much of what comes in between is stronger on grit than it is on grooves: everything you need to know about 'Fuck You, Pay Me', for example, is in the title. The constant rehashing of 1970s New York imagery (down to borrowed lines from 'Walk On The Wild Side') suggests a worrisome determination to live out the cliché, rather than claim untrodden territory. And history has demonstrated that bands in which the manager claims to be a member (in this case it's Paul Sevigny, brother of Chloe, who herself goes out with Weapons singer Matt McAuley) ultimately do themselves a credibility disservice. B.
AUBERGINE 3 IN ALL THINGS MODULATION (Transistor)
A D.C.-based trio at the core of the live electronica crossover, Aubergine's jazzy, soulful jams espouse an accessibility and variety I found lacking in forerunners like the New Breed and Disco Biscuits. Credit for this goes to the sixties-style use of Hammond organs on 'World 6' and 'Don Pisco', of guest vocalists Rachel Leber and Angela Glass, and of sitarist Rob Myers, who lends some of Thievery Corporation's eastern bliss to a generally uptempo collection of non-stop segued dance. The temptation to throw everything in the pot and noodle until the stew is overcooked is hardly surprising given the appalling band name, but there are more than enough raw ingredients here to make a decent late-night snack. B.
BLACK KEYS THICKFREAKNESS (Fat Possum)
They're a young two-piece blues band utilizing just guitars and drums and their name is that of a color followed by a plural noun. But no, they're not the White Stripes. They're the Black Keys, and they're more orthodox in their approach to the blues. A little bit Led Zep, a little bit Black Crowes (whose name they also emulate) and a decent degree of straight-up garage punk, guitarist-singer Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney lack the humor and versatility of Jack and Meg White, but they make up for it in sincerity and spirit. B.
EDWYN COLLINS DOCTOR SYNTAX (Instinct)
British readers will already be familiar with this latest album by the indefatigable Scottish singer-songwriter, especially his well-intentioned but ill-timed tribute to 'The Beatles', released on the eve of poor old "quiet one" George's death. Collins, like Lloyd Cole and perhaps Jarvis Cocker, is often too clever for his own good, dropping pop culture reference upon pop culture reference ('Johnny Teardrop's about Johnnie Ray, 'Should've Done That' is for Prince) until, like Beck at his most galling, it's hard to know where imitation ends and inspiration begins. But of course such overt plagiarism is also part of his charm, and there isn't a white-Scotsman-who-wishes-he-was-black that I'd sooner hear singing the blues. 'Mine Is At' and bonus single 'Message for Jojo' are particularly notable. B+.
808 STATE OUTPOST TRANSMISSION (Shadow)
The Manchester dance producers have hardly been prolific of late: this is but their third album in a decade. And given the way they've bounced around labels and stubbornly avoided the charts, it would be fair to say they'd lost creative momentum in the process. Fortunately, Outpost Transmission finds Graham Massey, Darren Partington and Andy Barker once again on the cusp of all things exciting: tracks like 'Wheatstraw' offer that same combination of body beats and cerebral melodies that marked 'Cubik' all those years ago, and the inclusion of Elbow vocalist Guy Garvey on 'Lemonsoul' and Simian's Simon Lord on '606' shows they haven't lost their touch for interesting vocalists either. They're no longer trailblazers, but they're still very much in touch. A solid return to form. B+
FICTION PLANE EVERYTHING WILL NEVER BE OK (MCA)
One thing remains certain whatever the fashions: American major labels will always sign loud British rock bands. Fiction Plane are better than most, tempering their rockist tendencies (like the title track and 'Hate?') with racy power-pop hooks ('Cigarette') and anti-war observations ("I don't wanna put myself at risk so someone else can take their throne" in 'Soldier Machismo'). Probably the most grating habit is singer Tim Sumner's frequently forced high-pitched voice, a conclusion I came to before learning the reason for it: he's the son of Gordon, i.e. Sting. To his credit, the album and official press releases make no mention of this familial connection, and Sumner and partners certainly don't need to rely on it; all the same, those who disliked Sting for that upper-range whine and holy pontifications may be alarmed to hear the same attributes in his son - albeit wrapped in a louder, more aggressive and genuinely rebellious band. B
LISA GERMANO LULLABY FOR LIQUID PIG (Ineffable/ArtistDirect)
For those who don't know, Lisa Germano was a successful session violinist (touring with John Mellencamp, U2 and David Bowie among others) who struck on her own in the 1990s, releasing four deliciously dark albums for 4AD. When she lost her deal after 1998's Slide, she lived up to its title by slipping into a malaise of her own desire, forsaking a recording career for a day job in a book store and growing ever more dependent on the wine she'd been introduced to at a young age by her Italian family. Lullaby For Liquid Pig recounts her addiction with the grape in distinctly negative terms: "Hate will grow with your alcohol glow" ('Pearls'); 'I forgot what I's thinking/ alcohol/ swimming" ('Candy'); "I smell like wine/most of the time/a big red wine" ('It's Party Time').
So is she despondent about her despendency? That depends on your fondness for introspective music: I find Germano's haunting voice and sparse accompaniment (from the likes of Johnny Marr, and Neil Finn) extremely beautiful despite the self-hatred at work in the lyrics. R.E.M. collaborators Joey Waronker and Jamie Candiloro, meanwhile, ensure that the production, a combination of crunchy soundscapes and violin-driven heartache, remains true to the content. As a bonus for the whole project, the Ineffable label, a spin-off from iMusic, aims to be "a creative collective, in which artists support each other's projects and share overall profits." Something I'd like to hear more about and plenty more of. A-
WINE? Not this time. We think she's had enough.
BOB HOLROYD WITHOUT WITHIN (Six Degrees)
The world (music) of ethno-techno has been explored so relentlessly this last decade and a half it sometimes seems there must be no more undiscovered (musical) territories, but in the gifted hands of the unassuming Bob Holroyd, it's clear that there are still plenty fascinating journeys awaiting the inquisitive traveler. On Without Within, Holroyd uses an electronic underpinning to take us through tribal Africa and Asia without leaving his London studio, yet without looking like a profiteering cultural tourist in the process. Indeed, opening track 'Looking Back', previously recorded for an album benefiting a Kalahari tribe, now features the voice of the tribal leader expressing his love for the song. As a nod to the influence of Peter Gabriel, Holroyd also covers 'Games Without Frontiers', the only English language song on an album whose tempos and rhythms shift enthusiastically, but whose overall gameplan never stalls. B+.
LIL' KIM LA BELLA MAFIA (Atlantic)
My problem with hardcore hip-hop is humor or the lack of it. Put simply, I don't share most gangsta rappers' idea of a joke. Cue La Bella Mafia, as hilarious and yet humane a hip-hop album as I've heard in a while. Like you'd expect from Lil' Kim, it's bawdy, raunchy, and when she combines her overt sexuality with the standard rapper interludes the call-in radio show - it's downright hilarious. But it's no less funny when she goes the slick R&B route for the expletive-ridden 'Can't F**k with Queen Bee' or employs a children's chorus for a playa-hater singalong. Missy Elliott offers peer support on '(When Kim Say) Can You Hear Me Now?' and 50 Cent waxes dirty on the unimaginative 'Magic Stick'. The outstanding cut is probably 'Heavenly Father', on which Kim recounts, with rare seriousness, her trials and tribulations, wrapping it around a tribute for 'Executive Producer' and long-lasting influence The Notorious B.I.G. In the background, a sped-up vocal a la happy hardcore repeats "I pray for love," and you know she means it. B+
MUGGS DUST (Anti)
Yes it's Muggs from Cypress Hill and Soul Assasins, and no it's not the solo album you'd expect. It's actually closer to the record you (or at least I) hoped for from Massive Attack this time round: a brooding, occasionally menacing but always human mix of rock, dub, hip-hop, ambient and acoustic sounds. Greg Dulli shows up singing on 'Fat City' but otherwise, Muggs employs only the ethereal Amy Trujillo ('Morta,' 'Dead Flowers') and Josh Todd ('Rain, 'Faded') as vocalists, interspersing their efforts with instrumentals such as the glitch-like 'Slip' and 'Niente'. Ultimately short on real hooks, but abundant in imagination and emotion, it's a deeply dark triumph. B+
GEORGE SARAH OSSIA (Transistor)
He's not a big name on the dancefloor, but at the juncture where soundtrack compositions, ambient recordings and acoustic-electronic performances all meet, Los Angeles resident George Sarah is a vibrant force. Ossia was composed and recorded for a Discovery Health Channel program on Plastic Surgery, and if that seems an unlikely influence for an album, allow that Sarah has long weaved classical string sections (the natural) with synthesizers and drum machines (the, um, plastic). And so we get deliberately sparse, slightly haunting titles like 'Ballet and Surgery' and 'The T.V. Is In My Eye', which blend minimalist electronica with humanist classicism. Though short of stand-out tracks, it's a cohesive project that rewards repeated listening. B.
THE STRATFORD 4 LOVE & DISTORTION (Jetset)
Having raved about this San Franciscan quartet's second album for several months in advance, I was concerned its warm glow might wear off on me by the time of eventual release. Far from it: repeated plays only serve to confirm its status as the finest surprise of the year so far. (A surprise, incidentally, only in so much as the band's debut, The Revolt Against Tired Noises, was shockingly average.) A band who announce their influences half way through the album - "Spacemen 3, Primal Scream and T.Rex, Belle and Sebastian and the Bunnymen," - The Stratford 4 have taken their fondness for post-modern psychedelia and carved out an impressively personal niche.
As its title suggests, Love and Distortion is an album of both excessive volume and sexuality, its terms dictated by singer and guitarist Chris Streng who, one is not surprised to learn, was once in a band with members of Black Rebel Motorcyle Club. In apparently permanent heat, Streng delivers sweaty lines like "If you're going to fall out of his bed, I want you to land in mine" ('Kleptophilia') and "Everyone's talking about rock'n'roll and I just want to stay at home with my distraction and my lover" ('The Simple Things Are Taking Over') while his band mates drummer Andrea Caturegli, bassist Sheetal Singh and, particularly, superb second guitarist Jake Hosek - match their front man's lust with an almost unceasing wall of feedback-driven noise. (That such sexual songs should be performed by a band equally split between the sexes opens up interesting questions about rehearsal-room discussions and possibly positive conclusions, but it's a conversation we'll have to save for another day. )
In a rare diversion from trying to bed someone, Streng's lyrics peak mid-album with the eight-minute anthem 'Telephone,' a song I've cited on this site several times before for its remarkably frank and funny account of (possibly apocryphal) late-night conversations with the singer's Dylan-loving mother. After her fabulous put-down that "There's more to this life than the Stratford 4," the band wail ominously for several more minutes, as if still petulantly defying their parents though most likely because they just love making a noise.
None of which is to suggest that The Stratford 4 can't mellow out, but while 'Tiger Girl,' 'Twelve Months' and 'Tonight Would Be Alright' all successfully slow the tempo, they maintain alarming tension. All in all, Love And Distortion sounds like nothing so much as a record on the perpetual verge of a mind-blowing orgasm. And you know how you love that sensation. Solid A.
WINE? They're Californian, they're young, they're exciteable and they're trying a new take on a traditional formula. They're equal parts feminine and masculine, and they're 100% sensual. Cline's 1997 Big Break Vineyard Late Harvest Mourvedre is the ideal liquid accompaniment to their come-on.
ROB SWIFT UNDER THE INFLUENCE (Six Degrees)
As the mix CD craze winds down, one of the few areas left to mine is in asking influential DJs to compile the music that inspired them. In the case of X-ecutioners' turntablist Rob Swift, such a set list includes some wonderful and clearly influential old soul from The Explosions ('Hip Drop') and the Vibrettes ('Humpty Bumb') as well as pioneering hip hop from Davey DMX ('One For The Treble') and DJ Quick ('Scratch Attack 2'), much of it scratched together in Swift's inimitable style. There's not a dud in the pack, and best of all, his mix is not overextended: Under the Influence comes in at 45 minutes just enough to fill one side of a C-90. B+.
TÉLÉPOPMUSIK GENETIC WORLD (Capitol)
As a big fan of the French indie-rock-crossover (e.g. Air and Rhinocerose), I had high hopes for Télépopmusik too. But for all the time I've devoted to Genetic World, I just can't confess to being impressed. Of course it's well-crafted, and attractive in places too (e.g. 'Yesterday Was a Lie'), and certainly the single 'Breathe' will eventually get under your skin. But this is no Dirty Vegas style sensation, and were it not for the Mitsubishi ad campaign, it's unlikely I would have given Genetic World more than a cursory listen. C+
VENUS HUM BIG BEAUTIFUL SKY (MCA)
The female-fronted, electronic-backed act has long been a favored format of mine. But Nashville's Venus Hum, while fulfilling the criteria and delivering the goods early on in this debut album (especially on the danceable 'Montana') ultimately offer too much of a good thing, Annette Strean's operatic voice becoming ever more cloying as the tracks turn into treacle. It may be that I don't know what I'm talking about: in Britain, they're getting phenomenal publicity, but then given that most of their peer group (Morcheeba, Moloko, Mono and that's just the Ms) hail from the UK, it makes the acclaim all the more curious. B.