CAFÉ TACUBA CUATRO CAMINOS (MCA)
Often labeled Mexico's Beatles, not merely for their popularity but also their constant forward motion, Café Tacuba are finally granted American major label status some ten years after their debut hit album. Emotional and experimental by any rock band's standards, Cuatro Caminos manages to provide upbeat singalongs that highlight Ruben Albarran's raspy voice (the single 'Eo,' 'Soy O Estoy'), but also contains ballads ('Eres') and Radiohead style electronic soundscapes ('Encantamiento Inutil'). Agreed, even without the language barrier, you wouldn't mistake this for Anglo-American rock, let alone the Beatles, but that just proves what a lazy comparison it was to begin with.
Highlight: 'Hoy Es', something akin to a Mexican 'Private Psychedelic Reel.' I listened to it, dog-tired on a train down to London in October and almost hallucinated on its wild vocals and cyclical guitars.
FIERY FURNACES GALLOWSBIRD'S BARK (Rough Trade)
Most of the artists reviewed on this page wear their influences so blatantly they may as well be selling bootleg merchandise on the street corner. Not so the brother-and-sister duo Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger, who as Fiery Furnaces recently settled in Brooklyn from Chicago. On Gallowsbird's Bark, their kitchen sink sense of arrangement so determinedly disheveled that they sometimes seem to be playing several songs at once, yet so comfortably complex that they bring every number back home in time for something approximating a chorus makes for one of the most unique albums of 2003.
Matthew appears to be the more gifted musician, banging out all manner of atonal keyboard lines and offering up much imaginative guitar playing, but it's Eleanor's voice, frequently double-tracked for bonus effect, that lifts Gallowsbird's Bark into truly original territory. Clearly an experienced traveler, she displays knowledge of London by singing of the Millennium Dome, Regent's Canal, Little Venice and Greenwich on 'Leaky Tunnel,' reveals a familiarity with less illustrious European cities like Turku and Anjou on 'Up In The North,' and cites such American locales as Trenton and Cedar Rapids elsewhere. Few of these references make obvious sense, but the jumble of words that formulate Furnace songs only adds to the overall excitement.
Highlight: 'Two Fat Teeth.' It sounds like it was recorded inside a tin can, the violent guitar riff jars offsets an angelic piano line, and Eleanor's chorus, assuming I deciphered her correctly, offer nothing but mystery: "Oh, you've got a whim in your snaggletooth, and you can't knock it back with no 80 proof." But what a chorus. And what a glorious combination of sounds.
FONDA CATCHING UP TO THE FUTURE (Hidden Agenda)
California-based Fonda sings softly but with considerable style on its third album, Catching Up To The Future. It's an international sound, as reflected by the group's transatlantic composition: local man David Klotz writes most songs, while former Mighty Lemon Drops guitarist David Newton doubles up as producer, in which he endeavors to extract the most from his fellow Brit expat Emily Cook's lush-ous vocals.
And it's an melodically ethereal sound too, with songs such as 'Imitation of Life' (not the R.E.M. song) and 'Electric Guitars' leading other reviewers to liken Fonda to twee icons Heavenly, Swede poppers The Cardigans and shoegazers Lush. Personally, Cook's plaintive London delivery and the structure of songs like 'Surrender' reminds me more of Britpoppers Sleeper, Echobelly and Saint Etienne. (Dont expect the furious energy of the Mighty Lemon Drops though, for Fonda are decisively laid back.)
Catching Up To The Future offers more by way of familiar sounds than it does claims of breathtaking originality, and Klotz occasionally upsets the equilibrium by insisting on singing lead, but it's still a difficult album to dislike.
Highlight: The aptly titled 'Loving You Makes Me Sad' has the same dramatic simplicity as The Cranberries' 'Linger,' but increasingly comes into its own with an overlapping chorus, a gorgeous middle eight and a splendid arrangement.
WINE? It's sunny and soft. It's Californian but clearly influenced by Europe. It's subtle and yet easily approachable. Try Kunde Est
ate's Sonoma Valley Sauvignon Blanc Magnolia Lane 2002
HOT HOT HEAT MAKE UP THE BREAKDOWN (Sub Pop/Sire)
The bits and pieces I'd heard of Hot Hot Heat had whetted the appetite, but nothing had really prepared for hearing Make Up The Breakdown in its full-frontal assault mode. Deliriously derivative of things that used to make people go bump in the night (the Cure, the Specials, XTC), and sharing traits with contemporaries like Radio 4, The Faint and the Strokes without emulating any of them, Hot Hot Heat flail about, like their name suggests: as if they're on fire. Vocalist/keyboardist Steve Bays yelps furiously like a puppy chomping on his own tail, while guitarist Dante de Caro adds admirable funk over the most furious rhythm section (drummer Paul Hawley and bassist Dustin Hawthorne) since the Chili Peppers were raw.
In addition to the exuberant musical arrangements, the lyrics offer constantly smart wordplay. 'This Town' recalls the 'Concrete Jungle' of teen tribe warfare ("Never stop to look behind my back, so tell me what they said because I fear my life's in danger now"); 'No, Not Now' intimates a different kind of chase ("Some of us wouldn't be lying if we said we were trying too hard"); while 'Aveda' suggests the futility of it all ("I got my head shaved for her because she told me it would do all the right things for my identity").Trimmed of all fat, void of ballads and absent extensive workouts, Make Up The Breakdown is barely thirty minutes long something else it shares in common with the best of old new wave.
Highlight: 'Save Us S.O.S.' For those of us who've missed Andy Partridge's smarts and Robert Smith's caterwaul but want to live in the 21st Century and still know how to dance.
TED LEO/PHARMACISTS HEARTS OF OAK (Lookout)
Ted Leo's is a workmanlike name, more Joe Jackson than Elvis Costello, and if you ever had a preference for the former singer-songwriter unpretentiousness awkwardness over the latter's inspired cleverness, then Leo, with his jarring melodies, jagged rhythms and strained vocal pitching, is your man.
But he's no newcomer; in fact, after ten years solid work up and down the east coast, flitting from New York to D.C. and back again, it's Leo's longevity on the scene that might explain why it's taken three albums with 'new' band the Pharmacists to become accepted on the contemporary American indie rock scene. Whatever, he's on board now, for the simple reason that he's needed.
At their brightest say, 'The Ballad of The Sin Eater' the Pharmacists imbue the energy of the Buzzcocks with the contemporary enthusiasm of Hot Hot Heat. At their most angular 'Tell Balgeary, Balgury Is Dead' (also the title of an offshoot EP that includes Jam and Pogues coves) Leo sounds like the aforementioned Joe Jackson fronting a stomping bunch of rabble-rousers. Others cite references to Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott, though that influence was more apparent on 2001's The Tyranny of Distance. I also keep coming across likenesses to Billy Bragg, but the Bard of Barking doesn't have Leos' graces. Rather, with his emotional intensity, and his frequent falsetto (check 'Dead Voices' for an obvious example), Leo picks up where Kevin Rowland left off in his heyday. Reclaiming elements of the new wave past while rooted very much in the relevant present, Leo and gang prove that great things come to and come from those who wait.
Highlight: 'Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?' Lyrically, it pays homage to the Two Tone stable, with smart lines like "Gangsters and clowns with a stereotyped sound/It's coming like a ghost town
" Musically, it recalls songs with similar titles: the fury of Slaughter and The Dogs' 'Where Have All The Boot Boys Gone?', the pacing of the Ruts 'Staring At The Rude Boys.' Either way, it's proper pogoing power pop, not ska. And either way it's a thrill.
MANDO DIAO BRING 'EM IN (Mute)
"We honestly believe our record is better than anything by the Who, or the Kinks, or the Small Faces," claim Swedish quintet Mando Diao. Nothing like false modesty, is there? (And what a shame that mod-ern bands should aspire to be so old-fashioned.) The good news is that Mando Diao backs up its confidence where it counts in the performances, which have more in common with the Stones-Strokes-Velvets axis of guitar riffs than the mod bands they profess to better. At some point, the Swedish garage scene has to run its course, but for as long as (overly) enthusiastic bands like Mando Diao are emerging from that land's 'burbs with energizing songs like 'Motown Blood,' there's no reason to assume that moment has yet arrived. Bonus marks for sharing the vocals: Gustaf Norén and Björn Dixgård sing six leads each, which keeps Bring 'Em In just varied enough for repetitive listening.
Highlight: 'Paralyzed.' With its Iggy-Lou-Julian lead, its Sympathy-for-the-stones backing vocals, its brassy interludes, and its incessant guitar riffs, Paralysed encapsulates everything that's good about the garage rock revival.
MY MORNING JACKET IT STILL MOVES (ATO/RCA)
I admit that a prejudice against beards in bands kept me from initially embracing My Morning Jacket. That and my not unrelated disappointment with the much-publicized Kings Of Leon, with whom My Morning Jacket are often compared. But while KOL are made for mass coverage with their holy-rolling background, incredible youth and eager capacity for inebriation, it's the equally hirsute but less hysterical My Morning Jacket that merits music fans' real attention. And of course, brilliance is rarely shoved in your (bearded) face as per the Kings; the Louisville, Kentucky quintet's third album is a spacious, dreamy, yearning beauty of a thing that effortlessly segues between country rock, urban repetition and modern psychedelia.
A lengthy album, It Still Moves sparingly distributes its strongest moments: the horn-accompanied, blues-based 'Easy Morning Rebel, the surf-group harmonies of 'Rollin Back' and the synth-strengthened 'Run-Thru.' Throughout, songwriter and producer Jim James' voice recalls Neil Young's at its finest while simultaneously struggling to elucidate. (As if recording in a barn was not enough to smother his pronunciation, his singing is then drenched in oceans of reverb. The accompanying lyrics do little to clarify his intentions, though they make for lovely poetry.) I could take It Still Moves in a smaller dose, but hey, I'm just happy to have caught up.
Of course, I'm a little late to the party. The day I write the review, I read that original lead guitarist Johnny Quaid, James' cousin and on whose family farm much of It Still Moves was recorded, has quit the band along with keyboard player Danny Cash. Given the extent to which James dominates My Morning Jacket, it's presumably not a fatal blow, but it's a surprise all the same, especially for a band apparently on the brink.
Highlight: To quote one of the few lyrics that make immediate sense, 'Just One Thing' "does it for me": strings, a six-eight time signature and backing harmonies to make the Wilson Brothers jealous. Sing this to your partner and they'll probably say 'I do' on the spot.
THE POSTAL SERVICE GIVE UP (SubPop)
The perfect marriage of twee songwriting, synth pop and adventurous electronica, Give Up recalls the more simplistic moments of the Pet Shop Boys and New Order but with strictly contemporary production. It's all the more remarkable for the duo's backgrounds: neither vocalist Ben Gibbard's status in Death Cab for Cutie, nor Jimmy Tambarello's roving role in The Figurines, Dentl, and The Tyde, would suggest to this listener an album of such understated techtronic beauty. That the pair achieved these results by sending tapes to each other the old-fashioned way, through the mail (what, no broadband?), only makes the final mix yet more potent.
Tamborello's electronic arrangements place some genuinely left-of-center structures around Depeche Mode-like octave bass lines and beat box rhythms, but it's Gibbard's vocals that draw the pop fan's attention. On 'Nothing Better,' he duets with Jen Wood in a manner that sounds like The Beautiful South on the karaoke machine. And on 'Recycled Air,' Gibbard can sing endless "ba-ba-baas" and make it sounds totally appropriate. Proving that it's not all 80s throwbacks via the American indie scene, Give Up closes with 'Natural Anthem,' a fascinating tech-glitch instrumental that would make any artist on Warp Records proud.
Highlight: 'Sleeping In.' Pitchforkmedia may find the opening lyrics "Last night I had the strangest dream/ Where everything was exactly how it seemed/ Where there was never any mystery/ About who shot John F. Kennedy" cringe-worthy; I found the narrative addictive. The tune's a winner, too.
SIDONIE LET IT FLOW (Rainbow Quartz)
Not sure how I missed out on this first time around. Or perhaps I am: Rainbow Quartz is such a niche record label that when the first couple of songs, 'Love' and 'Cry', revealed themselves as standard retro-psychedelia, I probably skipped the rest. Shame on me. But also shame on Sidonie for not daring to reveal their true colors from the start. For once past these initially unadventurous tributes, the Barcelona-based trio opens up into a worldly-wise convergence of influences. The title track introduces sitars and tablas over Axel Pi's Charlie Watts'-like drum rolls and a chorus straight out of a Ride anthem, while 'Beautiful Stranger' sounds like Northside on holiday in Brazil (which in this case, is a good thing, I assure you).
The most obviously old-fashioned yet ultimately original song is '(Ahora Entiendo a) Gene Clark,' which manages to pay tribute to a former Byrd in its title by referencing the Monkees' 'Last Train To Clarksville' in its guitar riff, while Marc Ross suggests Tim Burgess' vocal in the verse and Jesus Senra emulates John Entwistle on bass. By the time Sidonie get to 'Through The Hole,' with its retro baggy beats and its electric guitars and sitars grooving along on top, they're an entirely different band than that which misled us back at the start. And a far more interesting one at that.
Highlight: The primarily instrumental 'Sidonie Goes To Varanasi' marries Chapterhouse in their Blood Music period with Kula Shaker in their hit single phase. It's revisited later as 'Sidonie Goes To London.'
SINGAPORE SLING THE CURSE OF SINGAPORE SLING (Stinky)
Iceland has hot music, that's been obvious for years, but call it a 'scene' at your peril: Singapore Sling are as removed from, say, Sigur Rós, as Leaves are from Björk. The Curse
is full of fuzzed-out walls of guitar, low-slung vocals and deftly hidden melodies, all of which puts the Slingers in with The Raveonettes and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Here and there, songwriter, producer and front man Hendrik Björnssen drops the wall of sound for acoustic psychedelic pop, as on 'Summer Garden' and the Spiritualized-like 'Chantisissity', but in his case, less is not more. The best songs here are those that unashamedly rock: the finale, an imaginative cover of the Standells' 'Dirty Water,' provides ample evidence. .
Highlight: 'Listen' reduces the Singapore Sling curse to a 12-bar blues riff and sounds surprisingly inventive for doing so.