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The Jessica Fletchers – Less Sophistication

February 29, 2012 Leave a comment

Rainbow Quartz, 2005

Yes, the Jessica Fletchers.  Right again, based on the character from “Murder, She Wrote”.  These guys are even from Norway, so how the heck did they decide as a band that they’re going to name themselves after an 1980s detective played by Angela Lansbury?  Apparently “The Old Lady Detectives” wasn’t swinging enough for them.  Maybe this is a shout out to some sort of rerun that was popular in Norway when they were growing up, where “Murder, She Wrote” brought them joy when Jessica Fletcher busted some of her own friends as murderers.  Those were uncomfortable episodes (and yes, my parents watched the show and I enjoyed picking out the gardeners or church ladies who dabbled in murder).  I only wish some other shows might have been popular in Norway, like “The Golden Girls” or “Different Strokes”.  How killer would it be to see a show with the Jessica Fletchers, the Estelle Gettys, and the Watchu Talkin Bout Willises?  I would BE there.

If one could liquify a Snickers bar, add even more sugar, and top with whipped cream it’d be the Jessica Fletchers.  If that concoction sounds delicious to you, well, sip away in your plastic cup and extra long straw.  However, if the description made you gag then you’re going to hate this.  The Jessica Fletchers pour on all of the tricks associated with a hardworking pop band.  They’ve got the five relative handsome guys with five foppish hairstyles.  There’s even a guy with a mustache for good measure … though the guy with the glasses sort of looks like a psycho killer.  Anyway, one does not need to listen to the record for very long to determine whether they’re going to love it or hate it.

The first track sounds like the second track that sounds like the third track, which is to say that it’s all poppy cheerfulness without a moment of weight.  “It Happens Tonight” has Thomas Innsto singing his best high-voiced John Lennon impression while the backing vocals by three (!) other members of the band remind me of some kind of seventies cartoon theme song.  The guitar is light, the keyboard is charming, and there is absolutely no lull in happiness.  “Magic Bar” follows suit with an overdose of falsetto “la la la la la”s during the chorus.  They don’t even get tired of that la la stuff during “How Unlucky (Can You Possibly Get)” which also features a flute!  A flute!!  These guys can rack up the inoffensive pop points like no other band I’ve heard.

On “Get Connected” I did notice that the descending keyboard notes, as well as the vocal breaths, that introduce the song sound like a nod to the Zombies’ “Time of the Season”.  That’s not so bad, I like that song.  However, the chorus comes across as one of those Elton John numbers from the seventies … which I guess is the good time period of Elton John, which then scores these guys another one of those inoffensive pop points.  Really, if you haven’t poked your eyes out by now just imagining how poppily pure this band must sound like, I present to you the song “I Need Love”.  You don’t even have to know what that tune sounds like to know that five guys gave the okay to put a song called “I Need Love” on an album.  Laying the chick-digging strategies on a little thick, eh guys?

You too can be overwhelmed with upbeat, finger-snapping music by having a listen to some Jessica Fletchers songs at MySpace or Last.fm!

Well, I don’t know how one sorts it out over time, but despite the Jessica Fletchers’ best efforts to bask me in direct sunlight with their music, it’s not really my thing.  Yet I do believe that if someone did like this kind of carefree, high sugar content music then it would be a great listen.  There really isn’t a downer on the entire album, and none of the songs veer very far from the same intent the band began with on the opener of “It Happens Tonight”.  So if this sounds like your kind of fun, the good news is that the band put out a couple of more albums after this one.  Unfortunately, their main website doesn’t work anymore, which usually means one thing:  the Jessica Fletchers may have solved their last case of boohoo blues.

Jessica Fletcher eying her next suspect.

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Annuals – Such Fun

October 17, 2011 Leave a comment

Red Ink Records, 2008

I’m going to be honest here.  I recently took another look at this album cover and immediately thought it’d be a nice aside to remind readers that Bob Ross used to be the man when it came to painting pretty little trees.  If you don’t know who Bob Ross is, he’s the fuzzy-haired artist who used to paint amazing landscapes on a thirty or sixty (I forget) minute show on PBS.  His voice was quite relaxing as were his paintings.  Well anyway, I decide to search for information on him and LO AND BEHOLD!  This is a Bob Ross painting!  See, I may not be able to tell a Rembrandt from a Monet (yes, I’m embarrassed) but I know my Bob Ross.  The pretty little trees gave it away.  Granted, when I picked this album up I didn’t know Ross had anything to do with it, but I do like mountains and landscapes so it was an easy buy for me.

Annuals are a group from North Carolina who have actually been subject to some positive press back when this record came out.  Did I mention that I was cutting edge when it comes to buzz bands?  Okay, okay, three years late cutting edge, but listen, I’m all about post-buzz anyway.  Instead of buying into all that hype and expectation, I prefer to take the bar and drop it all the way down below the ‘perceived quality’ level.  There’s only one place left to go in my bottom-dwelling, post-buzz location of critique, right?

Early on in the record one thinks that Annuals is trying to utterly represent the Ross painting by playing serene pop music.  “Confessor” has a gentle guitar concoction over the verses while strings permeate the background.  Adam Baker’s vocals vary between warm understanding and high-pitched emotion.  It’s a song that the Gin Blossoms could have written if they were starting out in 2008.  “Springtime” slows the minimal momentum with some solo piano, only to build (of course!  Why didn’t I see it coming?) to a height with Baker doing his high-pitched emotional singing again.  Then there’s the “dah dah dahs” during the bridge.  Yeah, this is indie pop all the way.

Oddly enough, Annuals were starting to get a little sick of their own sound as I was by the time “Down the Mountain” arrives.  It’s very quick, a little unpredictable, and certainly louder.  There’s also some silly violin doodling during the breaks.  Er, what happened to Annuals?  At least the song breaks up the usual pop, which only returns in “Always Do”.  That song will make any sensitive child or adult want to hug themselves.  Yeesh.

The rest of the record keeps surprising the listener, for Annuals are clearly not interested in maintaining any sort of impression one got from early on in the record.  “Talking” speeds things up all over again, making it a very energizing pop rocker that sounds excellent during the chorus with explosive horns and guitar work.  Then, like a rug, your ears fall over themselves as “Hardwood Floor” utterly mellows out to cheeseball soft rock like some of those sketchy Death Cab For Cutie numbers.  This sound tends to win out for the rest of the album, as “The Tape” and “Blue Ridge” are equally as saccharine.

Thankfully, Annuals end on a good, stirring note with “Wake”.  The song showcases all of the elements that one has heard throughout the record without dwelling on one particular sound.  There’s the emotional vocals, the sweeping strings, the hard-edged guitar, and the general sense that one has just listened to a pop record.  It is a fine conclusion at nearly five minutes in length, giving the listener a real positive send off into silence and contemplation about what the heck Annuals are trying to do.

Go to Annuals’ MySpace page to hear some newer stuff of theirs, or try to dig up some of their older music at Last.fm.

I like Annuals, but I also don’t like Annuals.  I appreciate the band in that they are not hung up on sticking to a formula for too long, which made “Such Fun” an intriguing record to listen to.  One can dislike one song but might find something more interesting to listen to on the next one, keeping the Annuals out of a ‘hate one, hate all’ predicament that many bands usually have to deal with.  What I don’t like about Annuals is that some of their pop tunes are just much too overindulgent in heartstring-tugging.  I took a small jab at Death Cab for Cutie earlier, but from what I’ve heard of them they at least don’t try to pour on the sentiment in such large doses as Annuals tend to do.  Unless they’re going for the sensitivity vote from fans, I feel Annuals should try to reduce a little of the shmaltz and pick up a few more catchy hooks.

Then again, some people like that shmaltzy stuff, so that aspect of Annuals combined with their periodic rock outs may be one’s sort of thing.  The group continues to put out records and tour, so if you’re one to seek out a band that mixes up their tempos like they do one’s emotions, then go see what they’re up to.

The Magic Numbers – Those the Brokes

September 30, 2011 Leave a comment

EMI Records, 2006

Ah finally, I can play a game with my readers.  Quick!  Pick out who in the album art is not a woman.  Hurry, you’re running out of … oh, yeah, the ones with beards.  Well, they all have nice sets of hair, eh?  They also look very relaxed and rather content staring out of the window at us.  The really hairy guy is even waving at us.  Unless this is some kind of black metal ruse pitched at luring us in for the epic assault, these guys are probably cute and cuddly with their music.  Well, wouldn’t you know!

This British quartet know how to spin a very fine pop song.  I don’t know how anyone who is into pop music couldn’t excessively salivate during the opener of “This Is a Song”.  Granted, it’s five minutes which doesn’t typify a pop length, but it has all those elements that can sweep one up (if one allows one to get swept up).  From the light vocals of Romeo Stodart to the pretty backup vocals of Angela Gannon and sister Michele Stodart to the appealing changes across the choruses and verses, “This Is a Song” sets this album up to be a great one.

“Take a Chance” is another excellent song that has an intro that reminds me of M83 (circa “Before the Dawn Heals Us”) as well as the Strokes (circa always).  The quick, cheerful tempo combined with Romeo Stodart’s honeyed vocals easily make it an instant hit.  The group slow grooves it with “Boy”, which I guess was inevitable because if they had kept going as they were going I was going to explode with self-hugging gushiness.  Whew, dodged that.  The song might come across as too delicate, especially near the end when the ladies are singing forlornly, but one could give them a pass after the earlier greatness.  It takes a few songs to get to “Keep It In the Pocket”, which is another sureshot pop beauty.  I confess, it has a lot to do with the “ooh ooh ooh ooh”s that the group excellently employ between verses.  Honestly, how easy and yet how wonderful do a few oohs sometimes sound?  The Magic Numbers know how to do it without sounding too forced.

I have to say, after hearing the first half of the album I was searching around the Internet wondering where these guys ranked in the top 50 albums of 2007.  I mean, wow, this is some seriously awesome pop music!  I’m really liking it and what the heck?  Not even in the top 50 of 2007?  Are you KIDDING me?!  I mean, how could this fantastic record get utterly ignored in 2007 unless something murdered the successful build up of the first seven tracks?  There’s no way that the last four could’ve done something so terrible as to … oh, but they do.

As it was hinted on “Boy”, the Magic Numbers do have a penchant to get a bit slow.  Well, the last four tracks are all slow and make the final stretch a little dull.  Why’d they kill the momentum?  “Take Me Or Leave Me” is forgivable in that it could just pose as the serious, heartfelt quiet song that employs strings and wilting vocals by one of the ladies.  Too bad it takes nearly five minutes, which probably makes it feel a lot longer than it really is.  Unfortunately, it sets up the derailment in interest until the end of the record.

“Let Somebody In” is another slow plodder that is quaint but man, not after “Take Me Or Leave Me”.  Too much is too much.  “Runnin’ Out” tries to save things with its overabundance of momentum, but it just doesn’t have the same hook as “Take a Chance” or “Keep It In the Pocket”.  No matter, for whatever rekindling of pop fervor it could have alighted “Goodnight” ends up much too sappy as a finish.  And hey, to add a little salt to the final run of songs the hidden track that lurks is even slower and quieter than anything heard before.  (snore)  Ultimately, the last group of tracks are a real let down to listen to the end of the record knowing how excellent the lead up was.  So yeah, that’s probably why this didn’t get on many (or any) 2007 lists.

The Magic Numbers have a very neat, professional-looking website to check out.  Then there’s MySpace.  We all know about MySpace.  By the way, one of the genres the site lists the band as is ‘psychedelic’.  Oh, that’s a good one.  I will say that MySpace sometimes looks psychedelic, though.

Well, where to go from here?  The Magic Numbers had a record before and after this one, so one could take a chance on their earlier stuff as possibly being more poppy and fun.  One could also hope the Magic Numbers created a few more good tunes on their follow up record, yet at the same time dread that they went completely soft.  I’ll have to find out and let you know.  In the meantime, the Magic Numbers are still out there making music that you might be able to catch live at some point when they’re Stateside.  They’re certainly a band to go check out if you like your indie pop at a level that rides the line between catchy and catch z’s.

A Band of Bees – Free the Bees

May 13, 2011 Leave a comment

4AD Records, 2005

Oh boy.  It’s one thing to pick a band up at random out of a bin and hoping for the best.  The mystery is part of the excitement of picking up dollar discs, for you could wind up with something that is spectacular or completely awful.  Unlike those situations, I already knew about A Band of Bees due to a previous review I’ve written of them on this blog.  Therefore, by buying this record I was willing to take the chance that they were actually better than what I had heard before.  Some bands you hear once and just need to stay away from, but A Band of Bees weren’t that bad, so I figured I’d cough up some more dough on them.

This Bees record wastes no time in redeeming itself from its predecessor with the absolutely catchy “These are the Ghosts”.  I think the layered vocals, combined with the consistently brash drumming, make the straight forward indie rock jam a fine introduction.  Thankfully it truly is a good case of foreshadowing regarding the quality of the rest of the record.

Since I was expecting another one of those mildly interesting, decent indie pop albums I thought my hour’s worth of listening was going to be tolerably standard.  However, “Chicken Payback” showed to me that A Band of Bees are not just going to lie around and deliver the usual.  It is such a dance number, this “Chicken Payback”, due to many factors.  First, the light rhythm guitar riff and drum rhythm sound like a 50s throwback rock setup.  The lead guitar also screams 50s if not surf, but it’s vocalist Paul Butler’s excited delivery of the nonsensical lyrics that add wonderfully to the song.  This song definitely was the watershed moment of thinking these guys were a little more than the typical output from a modern band.

Another impressively strong track is the slow doo wop sound of “I Love You”.  The pleading in Butler’s voice, the collective crooning from the rest of the band, and that distant trumpet during the chorus remind me a little of that melancholic Motown vibe.  Dudes who are reading this should thinking about finding this song to score some romance points.   Without gushing over too much else on this disc, (even if it’s quite good throughout), I’ll mention a few more great tunes.  “Go Karts” has a tone that reminds me of a quirky Beatles tune fronted by Paul McCartney, while “This is the Land” comes across as a flower-waving seventies pop jam.  “The Russian” is an excellent five minute instrumental with its mixture of jazz and funk. “This is the Land” is another song of many that reference a sixties sound, which when mixed with some modern styles of composition, sounds quite good.

A Band of Bees can be heard online in a few places, such as here, here and here.  They’re still around so a live show could be in order as well.

Unlike my review of their debut record, this one by A Band of Bees sounded absolutely great.  I think Butler’s voice has that quality that won’t drag on the ears from too much exposure.  In other words, it blends well with the music without trying to step in front of everything to make itself noticed.  The band also seems to be a lot more interesting in its variety of approach, making each song enjoyably unique.  I have to say that my opinion of the group has changed and I’ll be looking forward to hearing their subsequent records.  Here guys, have a Golden Dollar for this one.

Shocking Pinks – S/T

April 12, 2011 Leave a comment

DFA Records, 2007

A lightly appealing cover of a pencil sketch gives off the air of indie pop, yet the band name may disagree.  I know of a particular personal photo from my younger days where I happened to be wearing a pink Adidas t-shirt and, yes, a pink pair of swim trunks.  I was shockingly pink (but unshockingly lacking style … ah well, what can you do).  Therefore, this band’s moniker had a slight twinge of personal connection, so I had no choice than to pick it up.  I also promised to make a mental note to refrain from accidentally coordinating bright colored clothing concoctions in the future.  I will leave those for an eighties retro party.

Shocking Pinks are not shocking in their volume or their approach, but hey, it’s a fine band name for an indie pop outfit.  With its tone of low fi pop, the third album from the one man band Nick Harte is filled with songs that range from casual pieces of softness to fervent chaos.  I suppose one there’s only one person running the show there’s no reason not to do whatever that person wants.  It’s clear that Harte knows this well.

“Second Hand Girl” is a fantastic pop song that reminds me of some Slanted & Enchanted-era Pavement with its catchy guitar and the unimposing vocals from Nick Harte.  There’s only about eight lines of lyrics, so most of the song is made up of the band going at it and allowing the listener to create the visual story in their heads.  The lengthy “Cutout” instrumental tune is also quite good, if only because its quick and pretty collection of sounds doesn’t include any interruption from lyrics.

“Yes! No!” is at first engaging yet doesn’t execute well.  The brooding synthesizer tones, in conjunction with the consistent drum pattern, gives the tune an ominous feeling early on.  Unfortunately, Harte’s voice comes across as too hurried and whiny when trying to keep up with the song’s pace.  Combined with some uncomfortable sounds between verses makes this tune a “No!” for me.

One tune that struck me as something that Harte could excel at if he stuck with it is “You Could Make Me Feel Bad”, which combines his creative instrumentation as well as a good utilization of his vocals through subdued echos.  Indeed, the track sounds like a Jesus and Mary Chain concoction, but as the last track of the album it leaves a good impression of what Harte is capable of.  Actually, the entire record does.  It would be a matter of finding out which styles he prefers to hang onto from here on out.

Shocking Pinks have a MySpace page and, ah, that’s about it.  Well, maybe websites are passe.

I can appreciate a guy like Harte who is talented enough to play multiple instruments and compose pretty pop songs.  Not all of them are my thing, but I can see where someone who likes his somewhat fey voice and musicianship might like most of the record.  Shocking Pinks actually haven’t put out anything since this record, so it remains to be seen if Harte emerges with the same or a different group.  All I know is that I’m not emerging at any point whatsoever in my shocking pink outfit of old.  Okay, okay, show me the dollars.

Edith Frost – Telescopic

March 18, 2011 3 comments

Drag City Records, 1998

Major score!  For less than a dollar I got a record by a respectable indie artist who happened to have autographed the album cover.  Sure, this could be equivalent to me signing one of my underwear and giving it to someone on the street.  I mean, who am I?  Who is she?  We’re just people … so an autographed record might be great if I really liked her music but it is only just an album with some writing on it if I don’t.  I had vaguely heard of Edith Frost because I liked her name and even more vaguely recall the type of music she played, so this was worth a buy to see if I had obtained something to brag about.

The music of Edith Frost really comes across as slacker pop.  It tends to sound a bit sluggish and awkward with very light drumming and guitar strums on most of the tracks.  Her voice is very light and sometimes seems to quiver, which I guess could constitute an aim for dreaminess.  The whole setup reminds me of my experience with Mazzy Star and its strong effect on invoking unconsciousness.  Nice enough, but perhaps too quiet for active listening.

“Walk on Fire” begins the album as a sort of sludgy pop song that lasts nearly five minutes.  Frost’s vocals take on a strong tone which, incidentally, is as strong as it gets for the rest of the record.  The fidgety guitar solo, featured halfway through the song, is barely heard above the rest of the band’s light tempo.  “Light” has a casual swing to it that gives it a ye olde time feel that reminds me a bit of the Squirrel Nut Zippers.  Perhaps that’s just because a violin is involved.  Frost sounds a little like early Liz Phair on “You Belong to No One”, though that is likely due to her sometimes monotone singing voice that has a few hard edges in it.  It turns out to be one of the better tracks on the album due to the music’s jovial tone.

Not all songs are blithely pretty to listen to.  On”Falling”, Frost includes an unnervingly repeated lyric of “we can go on forever”.  With Frost’s voice it actually sounds like a haunting threat that makes me check that the track time doesn’t exceed its three and a half minutes.  It turns out to be another one of those dreary tracks before Frost thankfully picks it up a bit with “Bluish Bells”.  Understand that a real rumbler from Frost is slightly speedier drums and fuzzier guitar.  It won’t start a party.  Songs like “Through the Trees” and “Are You Sure?” solidify Frost’s interest in sending the listener into dreamland with their plodding compositions.  (snore)

You can really get to know Edith Frost and her chatty personality on her website via a lot of Twitter updates.  You can also go to MySpace or Last.fm for some listening.

Ultimately this record comes across as a mix of casually interesting and dull.  Spinning it a couple of times made me appreciate the quiet tones more, but it could be easily relegated to forgotten background music.  I guess I had higher hopes for the autographed disc, but maybe it’s just not my type of music.  I nearly labeled the album a Bust but like I said, it took a few listens before I warmed up to it a bit.  I suggest anyone who likes quieter singer songwriters should give Frost a chance, but if you’re prone to liking more energizing music this may be a difficult listen.

Starsailor – Love is Here

February 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Capitol Records, 2002

Picking up an album that has songs like “Lullaby” and “Love is Here” usually induces my gag reflex, but sometimes the price dictates the irresponsibility.  Starsailor’s debut album didn’t cost me a full buck, which really helps to stoke the free-wheelin’ fires that tend to keep my wallet warm.  I could say that I went off the deep end that day, but that’s another story for another time.  I will say that regardless of the price the album cover has a bright, yet desolate, vibe.  Include the color scheme as well as the cliched line of ‘where is my life’s train track going?’ and the cover made me feel that Starsailor was going to try and beautify and enrich my listening experience.   Well, either that or this is the view of the listener tied and bound to a train track while Starsailor cackles from afar.  Someone save me?

The album begins solemnly enough with “Tie Up My Hands” and … hey, wait, tie up my hands?!  I AM on the train track!  Someone get me out of here I’m with Starsailor and they are rubbing their hands evilly and (slap, slap) okay … okay … to continue.  The lead singer, James Walsh, pops in and curiously sounds like the guy from Swell Season.  It’s got a high pitch that quivers at its peak and contains the yearning necessary for the given song content.  Considering that the voice never wavers from this approach, it could get a little stale and ineffective as one is swept along from song to song.

Though “Hands” is a quieter track, Starsailor tends to aim for mid-level.  The band builds and maintains a comfortable tempo on tracks like “Poor Misguided Fool” and “Lullaby”, accentuated with a consistent inclusion of piano.  Most tracks are introduced with said piano as a quiet beginning, only to inevitably build up to a swirling pop concoction as evidenced in the popular British single “Fever”.  Really, if you listen to that track on itself you’ll know whether or not you’ll be into Starsailor at all, for it has got all of Starsailor’s musical tricks and choices wrapped into four minutes.

Other songs, like “Way to Fall”, pick up really nicely more than halfway through, but it’s a long three and a half minutes before getting there.  “Talk Her Down” is a great song until the nasally quivering exit. Oof, bad aftertaste.  Finally, given that this is an album that was released in the early 2000’s and certain gimmicks were still around, there’s a hidden track.  But Starsailor blows it.  The hidden track shows up after more than ten minutes of waiting and, surprise, you wait all that time to hear the guys get together and hum for less than a minute. I roll my eyes at you and your decision making, Starsailor.

Given their longevity, Starsailor is all over the place on the internet.  Check out their website, MySpace or Last.fm site if you want to experience some modern British pop.

I guess these guys were noted as a big upcoming band in England during the time that this record was released, and despite what one may think of the vocals and quality of their music they are still releasing albums with modest success.  One could say that Starsailor is wonderful for some people but a little overdone for others, so that means that Starsailor will always find an audience as long as they keep doing what they’re doing.  However, it seems that the group is on haitus so Walsh can pursue a solo career.  Doesn’t that always seem to happen?

Whether it’s the band or the solo artist, Starsailor is still around in some form after a decade.  Therefore, if you end up following Starsailor’s train track into the distance rest assured it’ll probably be a long ride.  Unless, of course, they’ve tied you to that train track.  Then you don’t have long, my pretty.