DEVENDRA BANHART, "NINO ROJO"
Just as Rejoicing in the Hands of the Golden Empress represented the maternal principle, Nino Rojo represents the principle of the child. Following in a line of primal symbolism going back to the Egyptian deity Horus ("the crowned and conquering child"), the title depends upon that fundamental consonance between Sun and Son. The "red sun" disc of the Eye of Horus, casting the light of knowledge upon mankind; and the "red son" of Banhart's title, an "exuberant and foolish" child full of passion and curiosity. This symbolic conceit works to unite these two halves of the same generative source. Nino Rojo comprises a second volume of 16 songs from the same fruitful recording sessions that produced Rejoicing, and far from a collection of outtakes or castoffs, represents another stunning album from one of the most uniquely talented individuals currently working in this medium. As if to enforce the frolicsome exuberance suggested by the album's title, the songs here focus on energy, dynamism and the spirit of communal play. To that end, many of these tracks are more orchestrated than I'd come to expect from past albums, with guest players contributing voices and instruments. Benefactor M. Gira contributes his voice and harmonica to "Electric Heart," the album's transcendent coda, celebrating the light-bringing, conductive properties of collective love. On a few tracks tracks, Julia Kent of Rasputina and Antony and the Johnsons contributes her exquisitely expressive cello. Andy Cabic from Vetiver, one of the newer groups to emerge from the Golden Apples of the Sun new-folk scene, joins Devendra for a lovely vocal duet on "At the Hop," a buoyant tribute to romantic codependency. The disc is also enhanced with an MPEG video for the song, which mutates into a group sing-along, with a psychedelicized video heavily indebted to the hippie ruralism and communal spirit of Incredible String Band's Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending. Of course, Nino Rojo also contains plenty of tracks of Banhart playing solo, fingerpicking remarkably complex guitar figures, drawing on a seemingly endless reservoir of gentle acoustic melodies that each trigger the spooky resonance of deja vu. The album begins with a sad, sweet rendition of children's songwriter Ella Jenkins' "Wake Up, Little Sparrow." Banhart sings in his native Spanish on "Ay Mama," a lament for his mother in which he repeatedly sings "No hay que llorar" ("You don't have to cry"). There are more hauntingly simple songs on Nino Rojo, from the outsider anthem of "Noah" to the chilling surrealism of "Sister." Along with the remarkably fast-tempo playing on "Horseheadedfleshwizard," Devendra weaves a remarkably sinister assemblage of images: "I put the ovaries in my mouth/And all the dogs will die/And the devil will call the cats home/And he looks up to the sky." Banhart's guitar virtuosity continues to improve by leaps and bounds, with tracks like "The Good Red Road" matching the proficiency of guitar legends like Elizabeth Cotten and John Fahey. Nino Rojo is a joyful, magical work of unrestrained creativity, and taken together with its earlier counterpart, represents as strong a statement of artistic integrity as any musician could hope to produce. - Jonathan Dean
Intransitive founder Howard Stelzer has been careful to point out that his label in no way attempts to group its artists under any genre-defining ethos; nor does it give face to any marginalized society of artists, or a voice to any supposed "scene." As curator, he does not assume anything, but merely presents, offering beautiful examples of only what he finds compelling or inspiring at a given time. Stelzer's approach is more personal than most, while at the same time less selfish, resulting in musical selections that neatly expand past 'high art' definitions of experimentalism and into the approachability and directness of home listening. Twenty-Three, Intransitive's second compilation following 2001's similarly double-length Variious, is a perfect reminder of the label's unhurried, quietly-progressive history. The collection develops much like the high-school mixtapes Stelzer uses as touchstones for the compilation process, visiting a series of diverse artists with a distinct range of compositional methods, the only binding quality being their uniquely homespun way of approaching electroacoustic sound, a trait that is significantly accented by the curator's insistence that no digital devices be used for any of the recordings. Whatever the source, each of these tracks is a miniature lifeforce, a squirming, tactile mass of tension, energy, and changing dialogue, rooted firmly in the present tense. These sounds play the speakers differently each time, their frequent silences always in a new embrace of the room's ambience and their louds ever-poised to uncover or create new memories and fresh associations. Though most of the twenty-two contributions feature relatively thin, uncluttered production, nothing here sounds insubstantial; on the contrary, the delicate, near-vacant construction of many of the tracks becomes a point of paradoxical continuity for the collection, where the exploitation of one faulty connection or lapsing field capture might just eclipse the entry of another artist into the discs' drifting digest. The intimate, chamber-room experiments of Ronnie Sundin and Olivia Block are rendered new, and at some points indistinguishable from the brimming, rural psychedelia achieved by fringe artists like the Animist Orchestra and Birchville Cat Motel. Elsewhere, Guiseppe Ielasi's warm and hazy drone piece, "Two Chords," touches on the spherical minimalism of Francisco Lopez, whose contribution, "untitled #134," answers back with a hint of the lyricism that has defined Ielasi's output. The positioning of old and new works by a host of outsiders and obscurities, alongside pieces from the medium's more dependable busy-hands, also adds to Twenty-Three's vitality, rejecting canonical treatments in favor of a more mysterious and accidental unfolding. Unsurprisingly, this pace feels very natural, with continuity between the different pieces evolving at imperfect, very human measurements. Every contribution contains the seductions of impulsive, event-oriented listening, with its primacy of the improvised detail, while at the same time becoming part of a rapturous, intensely 'constructed' sound-environment that fills Twenty-Three, making it more of an expandable mood-piece than a label sampler. It's true, many of the artists included here have never seen releases on Intransitive, and if this labor of love is any indication, Stelzer's label is poised for bright future. - Andrew Culler
Cosey Fanni Tutti, "Electronic Ambient Remixes 4: Selflessness"
The demise of dark music distributor World Serpent has created a crippling ripple effect for all dependent parties involved. The vital payments that once supported their thought-provoking and ear-astounding independent artists such as Coil and Nurse With Wound have now dried up, leaving the majority of the company's active acts scrambling for new distribution deals and taking on the burden of significant financial losses in the process. Current 93's own David Tibet has regretably announced that he will need to sell his house, being unable to afford living there any longer. Sad to say, industrial music pioneer Cosey Fanni Tutti, along with her husband and frequent co-conspirator Chris Carter, have perhaps suffered some of the greatest harm, at least artistically, with two completed releases that were due out around the time of World Serpent's collapse. EAR 4: Selflessness, one of these final releases along with the woefully hard-to-find Carter-Tutti album. Presumably constructed from recordings taken from a live art action undertaken by Cosey in May 2002 at, of all places, Californian tourist mecca Disneyland, the music here unintentionally, unless through will of unconscious foreshadowing, evokes the desperation that she must now feel. Broken down into a series of four icy excursions into dark ambient realms, each roughly 20 minute segment retains its own particular subtle and not-so-subtle charms while still flowing smoothly and uninterrupted between one another. "Part One" bristles with cold winds and the peculiar sounds of distant mirth and merriment, contributing to an overall dissonance of train whistles and other delay-saturated noises. An enchanting synth pad surges and then subsides throughout "Part Two," surging with a sonic emotiveness that many fans of the current pop ambient darlings of the Kompakt labels would delight in. "Part Three" indulges in more minimal atmospheres than the preceding tracks with soft buried dubby rhythms and incoherant samples of a whining child. The closing track continues to play with the elemental building blocks from the previous sections while introducing more lush melodic tones, ending with the rise and descent of one particularly gorgeous drone. Though marred by the unfortunate circumstances leading to its delayed availability, ambient music afficionados and inquistors will find much to explore and examine by seeking out this recent work from an amazing and inspiring musical luminary. - Gary Suarez
This Atlanta, GA quartet has given life to a new kind of metal that can only be compared to a war machine: it's brutal, massive, unpredictable, and completely devestating. Nothing could possibly equal the intensity this band puts out without crossing that thin line into the realm of parody and hilarity. In 2002, Mastodon's Remission ripped into the heart and soul of every kind of metal that'd ever been heard and combined them to form a claustrophobic ride through chugging, cement-thick guitars, rhythmic abnormalities, and a melodic beauty that only the most elite of metalheads have ever been able to pull off without making themselves sound tame and absolutely void of any real menace. Well, if Remission was a head's first dive into the conceptual, dark, and obscure, then Leviathan is a burning purification that adds to the band's already confrontational sound and removes the obscured elements in favor of raw, rhythmic punishment. From the second "Blood and Thunder" starts it's obvious that something is different; the guitar that opens the song is a bare, crunching assault of time signature foreplay and punkish attitude. Troy Sander's voice, buried in the mix ever so slightly, roars out from behind the volleys of insane drum assaults and flesh-eating guitars that sear through the song like a burning spear. The sounds are far more open, the melody far more acute, and for their refusal to stay in the dark underworld of their previous album they arrive at a new plateau where there is nothing too strange to attempt. Blob-like riffs meet sudden time changes wherein the fastest drum and guitar playing chugs out new and unique melodies only to resolve into a completely distinct set of movements that somehow match up with the rest of the song. The abyssal "Megalodon" is proof that metal can go anywhere and attempt anything. What starts out as an acoustic sparkle of guitar and percussion fornication suddenly turns into the sledge-hammer bursts of screaming and persistent guitar growls... and then it resolves itself into a riff reminiscient of country music. It then suddenly breaks into a marriage of closed, choppy rhythms and the open melodious sounds of ringing chainsaws and harmonic interruptions. As though this weren't enough to send any metal-loving fan into a fit of epilepsy and confused schizophrenia, the very next song erupts in a flurry of playful guitars and dramatic vocals that can only be matched by all the emotive qualities of a symphonic composition. The diversity this band can pull out of their instruments at random is awe-inspiring and quite frankly I've never heard any band do it quite like these four musicians can. There's not a song on here that doesn't inspire a kind of "how in the hell did they do that?" feeling. The move from the densely saturated realm of the psychological Remission to the absolutely infinite and fear-inducing hopelessness of Leviathan was an entirely beneficial one. Nobody sounds like this band and given their technical mastery and knack for keeping the complex and heavy absolutely accesible, I don't think anyone can even hold a candle to them. - Lucas Schleicher
THE FUCKING AM, "GOLD"
Growing up in the suburbs of Toronto, there was a great collaboration in the early 80s between local prog-rock heroes Rush and Max Webster on the tune "Battlescar" that was, like, totally awesome for an impressionable rock radio pre-teen. Looking back, I don't think there's been many unique rock group pairings where both parties come through loud and clear without fighting for the spotlight as I would have imagined or care to remember. Over the years, most of the major label stuff always came across as either: a) a third party-penned tune recorded to benefit a worthy cause; b) a contractual and cheesy supergroup; or c) the obligatory tribute record, which is also usually a) and b). Source material re-mixes were and still are the popular collaboration for a lot of electronic-based musicians, with artists sometimes never meeting in person. A couple of years back, west coast precision metal trio The Fucking Champs and D.C. futuristic rockers Trans Am decided to embrace the earlier days of the rock's upper echelon by recording under the name Trans Champs, releasing a great EP in which both groups complimented each other and maintained their own identities. This time around as The Fucking Am, Gold has them broadening their unique middle ground of crunchy guitars and tight drumming to some darker, heavier and at times playful places. "The Gauntlet" had me close to headbanging to its super-tight and processed drums, monstrous wall of heavy guitars and low end, at times thick enough to vibrate the nose hairs. Taking its title from the now famous Pete Townshend defense, the time-warped "Doing Research For An Autobiography" nearly left my jaw hanging as it shifted back and forth from twin guitar major key 70s blues/rock licks and double bassdrum-driven keyboard explorations that touch on the psychedelic. The laid back and loose jamming of "Elastico Gomez" takes the excitement level down a few notches only to have layering drones build up the tension to segue into the crunchy and controlled meedleying of "Electrico Gomez" to close things down. As one who prefers to think as having outgrown my stadium rock upbringing, Gold had me wanting to pump my fist in the air and revisit my inner-metalhead without an ounce of irony. - Gord Fynes
Tara Jane O'Neil, "You Sound, Reflect"
It doesn't seem to matter where Tara Jane's called home, whether it's the east coast or the west coast, her Louisville roots are what shine through her music. Moderate guitar-based songs have a twang and charm and a complete mastery of songcraft that is not uncommon with other rural midwesterners like Jason Molina, David Pajo, and Will Oldham. It's music that's equally appropriate for frigid nights indoors as well as blistering summer afternoons. With Tara Jane's solo records, fans know what to expect for the most part: a collection of well developed songs with Tara on guitar and nearly everything else, paired with a very small number of guests on various other stringed instruments and drums, often matching abrasive chord structures with convincing vocals. Tara's a poet and the recordings are canvases where her verses and music meet: both sensual and confrontational, both delicate and coarse, almost all finding their way into her music simultaneously. Tara often experiments with other devices to make rhythms like the clicking track and whirring effects on "Famous Yellow Belly" and composes an occasional lengthy instrumental jem like the opener "Take the Walking," which is mesmerising with its rumbling bass-heavy delivery. One thing I can always rely on with Tara Jane records are that usually two or three songs always stand out to me as quintessential pop tunes, combining a strong, catchy tune with the perfect instrumentation. For You Sound, Reflect, I'm completely in love with the songs "Howl," and "Without Push," where Tara gets some help from Nora Danielson on violin and a couple various others on backing vocals. The driving drums and direct vocals on "A Snapshot" is also quite a powerful achievement, where Tara's aggressively listing off "this is where you lied to me and this is where you needed me,... and this is what you stole from me and this is how i used to bleed" amongst various other sharp things. It's always these strong songs nestled in an already strong album which make me think that an ideal world will recognize singer/songwriter Tara Jane O'Neil as a classic many years from now (since I've almost given up all hope with the current world). As my mind wanders off along these lines, I find it it's hard to believe even an internationally adored singer/songwriter like Joni Mitchell could ever have a hit today with some of the songs that made her a household name nearly thirty years ago. Anyhow, Tara shouldn't be missed now and I look forward to seeing her again live next month. - Jon Whitney
The Arcade Fire, "Funeral"
Montreal's Arcade Fire is the latest breath of crisp northern air to spark our heavy brains, and their debut album is a wonderful promulgation of thoughtful, emotional pop music that is striking in its clarity. "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" is an epic opener, so captivating that it may be some time before a listener can escape it to experience the rest of the album. A simple piano melody leads the track, placing its feet on the ground before the crushing crescendo of organs, accordions, guitars, chimes, and synths appears, bursting this love song at the seams. Vocalist Win Butler imbues the song with such fervor, an imperative desire that speeds the song along as the drums link themselves to the heartbeat, pushing the band to a breathless brink. "Neighborhood #2 (Laika)" is a far tighter piece, drawing the scope inward from the epic sprawl of "Neighborhood #1" to a darker, confined sound. A lolling accordion and sharp strings punctuate the drifting vocals, almost accusatory in their tone like a Greek chorus delivering their take on the situation from just offstage. The layout of "Laika" is quite clever, tossing new elements and surprising shifts into the song that make it far more intriguing than any straight ahead design. The Arcade Fire seems comfortable warping song structure to fit their expressive needs, and it works well throughout the disc. "Crown of Love" finds Butler channeling a suicidal Scott Walker, a quiet plea of forgiveness above a restrained orchestral swell, building and building until the weight becomes too much to bear. As the song closes it erupts into a stunning gallop, that hits like a ton of bricks and slowly fades away, comfortable departing with that shock still in the air. "Wake Up" aims to rival the Polyphonic Spree when it comes to off-kilter choral acrobatics. While the comparison is initially apt, the song quickly discovers its own place, a far less absurdist and far more realist foray into celebration of living, with all its complexities. The musical background of the song is overwhelming, and far more full bodied than much of the aforementioned comparison's output. Once again, as soon as the comfort of the musical motif of the song sets in, the band takes a hard turn into sixties girl groups territory, throwing in the whole wall of sound. Funeral is an exhilarating experience: the debut of a fresh, invigorating band and a batch of songs that will ensconce themselves in the hearts and minds of many for years to come. - Michael Patrick Brady
The Opus, "Breathing Lessons"
Instrumental hip-hop and I have a rocky relationship, but it's one that The Opus is working to mend. Mush has lined up a steady stream of my favorite releases over the last year, and Breathing Lessons definitely falls into the stack of things I've listened to more than anything else lately. Whispering voices and moody ambient loops lie under the beats for most of Breathing Lessons giving the record a kind of hip hop-noir feel not unlike the old Wordsound and Asphodel releases that first pulled me into the world of instrumental and experimental hip hop. This record is so solidly constructed that I don't even mind that it nicks the "Give me love so that I can kill" sample already used to perfection by Meat Beat Manifesto. The guest vocal by Lord 360 on "Isis" is intelligent and tight; cerebral but with a groove, and groove is what makes most of The Opus' work stand out. The beats are constructed from a classical hip hop paradigm with looped patterns of fours and eights, breakdowns, instrument drop-outs, and the occasional beat-juggling that sounds like it must come from a pair of turntables (even if it doesn't). Instrumental hip hop can often feel like it's waiting for something, or that it's somehow missing the vocal intended to tie it all together, but that's never a problem for tracks like "Whirlwind-Guardian" or "The Strange Adventures of Mr. Happy," where the music alone is enough to propel the songs forward. A steady diet of instrumental hip hop will leave just about anyone thinking that it all sounds the same, and to be fair, a great deal of it is constructed from the same sliced up not-so-rare grooves and jazz riffs, but The Opus layers compositions with enough spooky atmosphere, musical slivers, and finely tuned beats to make a record worth seeking out. - Matthew Jeanes
TWO LONE SWORDSMEN, "FROM THE DOUBLE GONE CHAPEL"
As a drummer, I'm always fascinated when electronic/studio-based projects take to the road with extra musicians in tow; the human element provided to make the live shows a lot more exciting. Performances augmented by a live drummer, guitarist, etc. interacting with pre-set samples and loops adds a new dimension to the compositions, blending organic rhythms and tones with digitally processed signals. The outcome generally takes the music to a whole new level and is, of course, much more interesting to watch than someone constantly keeping busy behind a mixing desk while note-for-note renditions play out. For their latest release as the Two Lone Swordsmen, the dynamic studio duo of Andrew Weatherall and Keith Tenniswood have tracked the bulk of their tunes with the live group approach. From the Double Gone Chapel has the guys using four separate drummers throughout to hook their raw bass lines and overdriven synths on. They proceed to layer upon their various rhythm sections for some novel, dark and sexy tracks. The half-time squelching keyboard groove of "Stack Up" opens up the disc for distorted, dental drill-like whirs which weave through the sounds of a digital beach shore. The steady pulses of the guitar percussive "Formica Fuego" and sliding down-tuned bass of "The Lurch" back a mix of post-punk and new wave which should crowd the dance floor of any retroesque club under its black lights and darkly attired patrons. In keeping with that particular timeframe, a distorted cover of Gun Club's "Sex Beat" appears early on in the mix; tight performance and instrumentation but doesn't do too much for me. The lilting noisescape "Punches and Knives" and dirty shuffle of "Kamanda's Response" croon with twisted lyrics and vocals which conjure up visions of a modern day Syd Barrett curled up in the corner of a dark smoke-filled studio. Having not followed the Two Lone Swordsmen too closely since their 2000 release Tiny Reminders, I wouldn't have expected such an impressive mix of live, laid back tracks on From the Double Gone Chapel by comparison. Then again, there's only so many ways to use the studio as an instrument without filling it with musicians to play into the ether. - Gord Fynes
NormanOak, "Born a Black Diamond"
Whimsy and fantasy are all it takes for Chris Barth to make a good album. The lyrics on the album don't always make sense, but sometimes they have a familiar sentiment that conjure up memories and ideas about the world that might otherwise be forgotten. The whole of this record works like this: Barth's voice takes front and center on nearly every track and it is a gorgeous voice capable of both distress and relief. The music, when it isn't just an acoustic guitar, rolls along like a garage band trying to feel out its new equipment and this childlike clumsiness is what marks the best songs on the album. In the meantime Barth speaks out lyrics like "I'm gonna watch my baby trees grow / Over the next fifty years I hope / I should have known I would hurt you like that / I'll bet the farm I won't make it home." Not exactly the stuff of Byron or Whitman, but it's the way that he sings that makes the lyrics so important; it is as though they were written to fit around the music and were not so much drawn up to convey deep, personal convictions. The music, as a whole, is simplistic with arrangements that play on the addition of instruments in just the right place. "Our Place in the Sky" is just a popping guitar rhythm with Barth's voice highlighting the accents until a bass guitar begins to wrap all the rhythm into a tide of melody and completes the song. "Watching Your House Burn" is a slow rhythmic intensification that pulses with all the reverb of layered acoustic guitars and the uneasy rumbling of drum machines. The opening lines, "I got poems on my shelf / I pick one off and raise a spell," are the epitome of the album and mark the progression of this song and others. As the acoustic guitar races along with Barth's voice a tension is developed that relieves itself in the sound a heavy, thumping bass and the echo of a simple and repeated lyrical theme. Most of these songs clock in at the two minute mark, but one outstanding and instrumental exception is "Sun Enters Capricorn." Whether or not the album's lyrics are completely convincing or even if they were just built around the songs after they were developed, Born a Black Diamond as a deliciously mystical aura. The guitar wailing and phased nuances on "Sun Enters Capricorn" wobble and tumble like a living creature in its death throes. The drums on this track are noticeably heavier compared to others and everything after this song seems to emanate out of this song, as though it were the most important piece. "The Ballad of Normanoak" closes the album on a solemn and reverent note, as though the music was all devoted to the mythical character of Normanoak. A fuzzed-out guitar makes its presence known between Barth's pained voice and the light plucking of an acoustic melody. "Normanoak, Normanoak / You touched me, you let out some smoke / Oh it goes, oh it goes" and the story (pointless? epic? nonsensical pseudo-myth?) ends. - Lucas Schleicher
Sally Timms, "In the World of Him"
Touch & Go
The covers record is a grand art form, often abused, but with a concept like this one there's no way to go wrong. Sally Timms' latest solo album is primarily comprised of songs written by men, hence the title, and with anyone else some of the material might come off a bit too forced. Timms takes these songs and, to her credit, does not change any words or situations in the songs to make them work from a woman's perspective. These performances are the original songs in new arrangements, brought about by Timms and the engineering/production team of Johnny Dowd and Justin Asher. The emphasis is on raw, however, with songs sometimes reduced in parts to just Timms' voice, a foreboding and sensuous being all its own. She has chosen some rather interesting specimens to emulate, from her other band the Mekons to Mark Eitzel to Ryan Adams, and each interpretation bears a stamp that will never wash off in my mind. This makes it impossible to listen to the original song without thinking of Timms' rendition, a testament to her artistry and originality when the tunes aren't even hers to begin with. The two Mekons songs are especially moving, as her interpretation is informed by something deeper, so any changes could imply that perhaps this is the way Timms always wanted the song to go; though the Mekons are along for the ride, providing the music. Most of all, this is a solo album of striking variation, with revealing and incredibly provocative imagery. The instrumentation involved alone is a wild ride, from musical saw to accordion to moog bass to strightforward guitar and drums. Programming by Asher is never tiresome, and Timms' voice rising from a whisper to a plaintive wail and filling the room with naked emotion is purely goosebump-inducing. By the time "Little Tommy Tucker" takes the speakers, I'm spent, and it's almost the bedtime story I need to fall asleep. It would be, that is, if it weren't so completely mesmerizing, with her frightening "none shall be married" refrain repeating in my head so vividly that I may never sleep again. - Rob Devlin
Auburn Lull, "Cast From the Platform"
After releasing their acclaimed debut album in 1999, it was abundantly clear that Auburn Lull have a firm grasp on the finer points of shoegazer space rock, and their music holds a power that they alone control and wield, letting it out in beautiful doses and specimens that can cause the heart and brain to swell. For their new album, they chose not to branch out a great deal and keep the formula somewhat constant not a bad thing but a firm limitation that has the potential to adversely affect the proceedings. There is growth in the band both as musicians and songwriters, and it should not be said that the music is stagnating within this structure. However, at times on this album it feels like the band is simply repeating themselves, working from a comfortable base but then not expounding. Some chances might be nice to hear, but ultimately the album is a satisfying one in many areas. Even something quite simple like the blending of songs from one into the next is handled with an almost medical precision, and the mood never shifts abruptly to jar one from the state of consciousness that is developed. The echoes that are captured on these songs are those of aching hearts and starving minds, of people miles apart though right in the same room together, of flighty concepts of things in the walls and the way things ought to be. Simple melodies and trickery abound, with samples and echoed percussion joined by droned guitars and simple notes plucked and repeated. Atmosphere is key, as each song is practically drenched in the weight of a place and time as well as a feeling or words. "Season of False Starts" illustrates this pursuit perfectly with build upon build, then, appropriately, false starts and stops, the voice ghostly rendering the words "decades fall apart," among other things. It's almost like the music of lessons or voices from beyond the grave will use, old Hamlet lecturing his son and saying "do not forget." While the album feels like they're referring to themselves, they also touch something far deeper within, and in those moments they approach the next stage in their evolution. - Rob Devlin
BLAINE L. REININGER, "NIGHT AIR 2"
The songs on Night Air 2 evoke the experience of walking across wet cobblestones slick with rain, ducking under awnings of sidewalk cafes and antiquarian bookstores, aimless and anonymous in an unfamiliar city at night. Blaine L. Reininger, a native of Colorado who has lived in Europe since the early 1980s, draws heavily upon his expatriate sense of isolationgeographic, linguistic and emotionalto create an articulate suite of mature pop songs. Most will know Reininger from his more than 20-year stint as frontman for the intermittently brilliant group Tuxedomoon, creators of Half-Mute, Desire and handful of essential art-punk classics. In the long gaps between the group's periods of activity, Reininger has pursued a fruitful solo career, releasing a string of baroque pop albums highlighting his talent as a multi-instrumentalist and witty lyricist. This album is billed as a sequel to 1984's Night Air, but that's a bit misleading, as it would be more aptly described as a best-of, consisting of 15 hand-picked tracks from albums and soundtracks recorded between 1989 and 1999. All of this material has been available previously, but in very rare pressings on Belgium's Crepuscule and other small European labels. As he has done on so many Tuxedomoon releases, Reininger plays violin and viola throughout Night Air 2, building each song from multi-tracked layers of dark, swooning strings. The rest of the sound is filled out with an assortment of synthesizers, keyboards and rhythm boxes, adding up to an urbane, metropolitan sound that matches the sophistication of a Stan Ridgeway or Gavin Friday, with its own unique Kafka-esque atmospheres. Reininger is fascinated by the noir expressionism of Fritz Lang films and Fritz Bleyl woodcuts, and his paranoid, cinematic atmospheres perfectly capture this zeitgeist. At times, the swirl of overlapping strings resembles the sound of a one-man chamber quartet covering Anton Karas' soundtrack to The Third Man. I've heard other modern versions of this noir soundI'm thinking of the music of Barry Adamson and Goldfrappbut Reininger's approach has the worldly appeal and poise of a veteran. The thick, textural glissandi of "Night Ride" careen down dimly lit nocturnal boulevards, carried forward by propulsive keyboards. "Winter in Wien" is the first of a three-part song suite entitled "Europe After the Rains," a sentimental homage to Max Ernst which doubles as an atmospheric meditation on the profound sense of history the solitary traveler experiences in old Europe. The songs switch freely between spoken-work beatnik recitations and refrains sung in English or French. Night Air 2 displays an intelligence and elegance so rare in modern pop music that at first listen it seems entirely foreign, but is all the more welcome for it. - Jonathan Dean
BERNTHěLER, "MERRY LINES IN THE SKY"
If Belgian group Bernth°ler are remembered at all, they are remembered for their classic 1984 single "My Suitor," a cello-driven slice of sweetly downbeat chamber pop. It was a favorite of legendary BBC radio DJ John Peel, and became a cult underground hit for the Brussels quartet. They released a couple subsequent singles that failed to make waves, committed some demo tracks to tape and disbanded in 1985. Lap dissolve two decades later, and LTM has put together a definitive collection of this all-but-forgotten band. Comprising the complete studio recordings of the band, released and unreleased, Merry Lines in the Sky also includes three Quicktime videos, including one for "My Suitor." I've listened to the disc a couple of times through now, and have struggled for something positive to say about the rest of Bernth°ler 's material. Unfortunately, it seems that success and longevity eluded Bernth°ler as a direct consequence of the quality of their music, and not by some cruel accident of fate. Where "My Suitor" succeeds because of its minimal arrangements and Albanian-born singer Drita Kotaji's softly expressive couplets, the rest of the tracks collected here fail to distinguish themselves at all. This is not to say that Bernth°ler are utterly devoid of talent; merely that they rather unremarkably approximate the "coldwave" sound of their contemporaries, echoed by other bands like The Cure and Antena. Kotaji's tuneless vocals frankly become a little grating over the course of the disc, and the oversimplified arrangements often work to the detriment of the songs. Many of these tracks seem underwritten and stunted, suffering from a paucity of ideas, interesting as fragments but ultimately not compelling. For those who remember "My Suitor" fondly and haven't been able to find any of the compilations on which it has appeared over the years, you could probably do worse than dropping a ten-pound note to purchase Merry Lines, and it's possible you might find the other 14 tracks pleasant. Just don't expect to uncover some unjustly obscure gem. - Jonathan Dean
ANNA DOMINO, "DREAMBACK - THE BEST OF"
This collection proves that Best Of is truly a relative term. In the case of Anna Domino (nee' Anne Taylor), the term is relative to the generally poor quality of her tired, continental pop. So, Best Of need not necessarily indicate quality in and of itself. And if the songs on Dreamback are indeed the cream of Anna Domino's extensive back catalog, I think I can safely steer clear of her albums. A metropolitan globetrotter and interior designer, Anna Domino settled in New York City in 1977, where she formed the group Madder Lake, contemporaries of legendary underground acts like Bush Tetras and Polyrock. She was also briefly a member of the band Mania D, who eventually became Malaria, one of the greatest of the female post-punk groups. Coming out of such a distinguished cultural milieu, I expected Anna Domino's solo work to be at least listenable. She released a handful of albums and singles on Belgium's Les Disques du Crepuscule, which explains its appearance on the LTM imprint, usually an indicator of quality. However, it seems Anna Domino had her eyes fixed on mainstream success, striving to make her pop music blend seamlessly with the ranks of other 80s pop songstresses like Madonna and Sheen Easton. Certainly influenced by her sometime collaborator Arthur Baker (also an early influence on the aforementioned Ms. Ciccone), Anna Domino deals in a brand of breathy pseudo-sophistication that seems entirely irrelevant to my ears. The bland studio sheen of the production and the prototypical assemblage of synthesized horns, drum machines and keyboards sound so much like every other forgettable 80s pop record, it's very nearly comical. If any of these songs were even slightly recognizable or catchy, the disc might at least be effective as an exercise in nostalgia. Unfortunately, Anna Domino can't even satisfy on that most pedestrian of levels. I find it absolutely incredible that her career has lasted this long; who was buying these albums? If I were to hazard a guess, I'd say that her audience might be the same Europop crowd that goes in for David Hasselhoff records, but I can't be sure. - Jonathan Dean
Radioinactive and Antimc, "Free Kamal"
Hip-hop records live and die by their MCs. A DJ can cut as crazy as he wants and a producer can mine the weirdest record bins this side of the moon but if the MC isn't solid, the record will fall flat. Unfortunately, that's what happens for this ambitious work from Radioinactive and Antimc. While the music is quirky, unpredictable and sufficiently groovy, the vocals just do not work for me. This is more of that self-described 'art rap' that mixes stiff rhymes and heady free verse with off-beat production and live instrumentation, and while some of it is fun, this just isn't. Fans of similar Mush artists will likely enjoy Radioinactive's flow, but the too-direct, too-choppy, too-preachy, too-simple rhymes often come off as amateurish and ill-performed. Spitting out words over a beat is an art, and one that's a lot harder to do well than most people seem to think. While some of Radioinactive's contemporaries have an off-kilter delivery that works because it's strange and fresh, most of Free Kamal reminds me of one of those files you might find online of a kid rapping into a webcam. If Mush had gone the Cex/Dr. Octagon/Cannibal Ox route of releasing an instrumental and vocal copy of Free Kamal, I'm sure I'd pop it in more often, but as it stands, the record has a fatal flaw that I just can't get past to enjoy.- Matthew Jeanes
Various Artists, "Grime"
We need another forced dance music sub-genre like we need more ironic mullets. Rephlex's press for this compilation talks valiantly about how it's just the music and not the labels to which we should be paying attention, but then it goes and hypes this new style dance music hybrid called "Grime". Grime to me would indicate a real layer of dirt, menace, or sonic or thematic depravity, but none of that is to be found in these polished dancefloor stompers that bridge the artificial gaps between electro, drum n bass, garage and just about every other club music popular in the last five years. The fact that some of this stuff like MarkOne's "Raindance" is pretty catchy as far as club music goes is overshadowed by the presentation and the conceit that this is a new scene and new sound to be gobbled up before it's past its prime. I mean, isn't that the general modus operandi of nearly all dance music? Every innovation and genre splice is just a way to keep people listening to what are otherwise thousands of tons of vinyl that is produced with a strict formula in mind. Grime is most certainly meant for the dancefloor as it lacks the variation and depth of contemporary electronic listening music. The patterns and repetition are designed to make people move, and move they will until enough records within this tempo range with these kinds of trademarks come out. After that, we'll get a new bin in the DJ stores for "Post-Grime" or something. The problem with this record to me is that it purports to pioneer something, but there's nothing here that would sound fresh to anyone but the most ardent genre-hound. It's music made for a select audience, and in that I'm sure it succeeds as the producers here prove they have plenty of chops for creating bouncy breakbeats and thumping bass. However, I find it unlikely that Grime will interest anyone outside of the stuffy world of snotty DJ circles and trendy club kids. It certainly didn't do much for me. - Matthew Jeanes
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