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Gigolo Aunts – Minor Chords and Major Themes

June 29, 2012 Leave a comment

E Pluribus Unum Recordings, 1999

When you like a band once, you keep checking to see if you still like them.  I truly enjoyed “Flippin’ Out” so their follow up record was a must spin for me.  Even if I hadn’t heard of these guys before, the retro album cover with the purple trim is certainly grabbing.  However, showing pictures of contented dudes in a studio screams light music, so anyone else who was willing to dish out the dimes and nickels to hear what Gigolo Aunts were about probably left the hard stuff on the shelf and poured some lemonade as they popped this disc in the player.

The early part of this Boston pop group’s third record can easily turn off some of the more grounded listeners.  The overwhelming positivity of “C’mon C’mon” will give many people a toothache with its sugar impact.  The lyrics of “C’mon c’mon/can’t you feel something going on?” get repeated effusively and, aside from a few bits here and there, they are the only lyrics for the song.  What kind of a tune is that?  Then there’s “Everyone Can Fly” whose title made me gag just by reading it.  Who titles a song that sounds like it was lifted from Sesame Street?  It’s a much softer song in sharp contrast to “C’mon C’mon”, so I am not sure what the point was in getting everybody in a sky high mood only to douse them with light guitars and melancholy vocals.  So yes, the album starts off a bit awkwardly.

The tunes get back to more vibrant pop with “Half a Chance” and “Super Ultra Wicked Mega Love”, though the latter has a few power guitar riffs that heavily remind one of the early to mid-nineties, never mind the late nineties.  As the album quietly slides into “You’d Better Get Yourself Together”, Dave Gibb’s high vocals become very noticeable.  Five tunes in he’s gone from singing with exuberance, singing with balanced aggression, and finally to an absolute feeling of soothing gentleness.  It’s on “Together” that really makes Gigolo Aunts stand out as not just another power pop band.  Gibbs’ vocals help, but the sharply contrasting composition styles give an impression that Gigolo Aunts aren’t going to be predictable for thirteen tracks.

The best track, “The Big Lie”, could have been a big radio hit if it got out of Boston.  Well, and if boy bands and teenage pop princesses didn’t rule the airwaves at that time.  The tune has an urgency during its chorus, which turns out to be Gibbs’ profession that he’s not the right guy for whoever it is.  This is also a song that got stuck in my head for a few days, probably because it actually built up the adrenaline during that aforementioned chorus.  The band doesn’t let up for too long before “Rest Assured” bursts out a few tracks later.  It’s almost as if the band knew their listeners might be nodding off at this point to include two really strong power pop tracks so close together.  The reason is quickly apparent, however, when the last few songs resemble a steep decline into the nice soft pillow that is “Residue”.

Listen to a few tracks by Gigolo Aunts on their MySpace page if you need a power pop shot in the arm.

My body got the shakes from listening to this record, mainly because its energy level got jerked around so much.  I went from snapping the fingers, looking forlornly at a sad puppy picture, swiveling rabidly in my swivel chair, and then passing out.  These songs are everywhere, which can be very frustrating if one wants dwell on a particular side of Gigolo Aunts music.  I personally liked the group when they were energized, but I felt that they sunk too much into the lightweight stuff so that any sort of momentum was quickly eradicated.

Gigolo Aunts did manage to put out one more record in 2002, but the pop band called it quits after a decade of power popping.  It is too bad that their sound is no longer with us, but perhaps they went the way of the Gin Blossoms when they realized everyone (sadly) was listening to nu metal or throaty pop songs.  To think that if they had only stuck around for eight more years they could have caught on the Train bandwagon and sugared us over with crappy songs.  Except they wouldn’t be crappy, for despite my misgivings with the numerous soft tunes I still think that Gigolo Aunts are a great band.  Definitely check them out on 1994’s “Flippin’ Out” or even this album.

Marxy – Kyushu Nostalgia

November 14, 2011 Leave a comment

Beekeeper Records, 2004

Brand new.  Fifty cents.  Giant cat playing the piano.  Either this record was going to be an epically excellent find or a trap for bargain CD hunters.  Man, I’ve fallen into too many traps in my searches so I was really hoping this was going to be a good one.  Since it was wrapped I had nothing to go on aside from the cover and the back cover.  Would you know that the back cover had, ah, two cats playing the piano?  No track listing, no band information … just cats.  Well, when only two quarters stand between me and my curiosity you know what’s going to win out.

Marxy is actually a nickname/moniker for W. David Marx, who is an American musician and writer that happens to reside in Japan.  I have to say, that’s quite a background!  Instead of dragging the rough and tumble American rock Marx opts to infuse all sorts of pop elements into his music.  He also doesn’t wish to stop at straight pop tunes and is prone to be a bit random in his attention.  This can prove to either be a nice, casual listening experience or a head shaking one.

The songs on the record are primarily sung by Marx, but “Make It Through Today” utilizes the light vocals of Miho Takashima.  This only adds some true Japanese cred to the album even if her voice isn’t particularly strong.  It doesn’t have to be with some of these lightweight tracks, since Marx is definitely going for as soft as possible on hugworthy pop songs like “Let’s Be On Our Way” and “Ashika Love”.  Honestly, with his keyboards and precious composition choices, I would be astounded if Marx hasn’t considered trying out the children’s TV show music circuit over there in Japan.

To highlight the randomness of this pop experience, the third track (written in Japanese … but let’s just title it “Game Over”) is a short bit involving an 8-bit gaming experience that doesn’t end well for the player.  That’s it.  Then there’s the ‘oooooh’ outtake track that doesn’t make it to thirty seconds and “Be In Eleven-Eight, Man”, which is pure nonsense.  Although these have to be better than those skits on hip hop records, they’re not much more than filler.

Check out all the rest of the stuff by W. David Marx on his website, which has his discography as well as a few tunes to listen to.

As cute as Marxy’s music is, I can’t help but feel that this is an incomplete album.  It probably has a lot to do with those short ditties and interludes, because even though there are twelve listed tracks only five of them last past two minutes.  It’s almost as if Marxy couldn’t stand to merely create something that could be listed as an EP, so extra bits were thrown in to technically extend the record into a full album.  Oh please.

I do like the music and approach of Marx’s effort, though, and those Japanese artists (even if they’re from America) always intrigue me with what they’re thinking of next.  Marx has released a few more records past this one but nothing since 2008, but if one goes by the three year rule there is still hope he may have something else in store.  Yes, I’m making up the three year rule, but I have to say that it’s a good point of reference to determine if there’s more to come or the artist is done.  C’mon Marxy, break out some more cats.

Addendum:  I will say that Marxy’s “Cat vs. Mouse” from their most recent release is actually quite good, so go check it out if you want a more electronic pop experience.

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 Blake Babies – Innocence and Experience

October 3, 2011 Leave a comment

Mammoth Records, 1993

First off, I have to admit I have a small thing for Juliana Hatfield.  It probably started when I declared the Lemonheads’ “It’s a Shame About Ray” as one of my favorite albums.  I follow what Evan Dando does as well, but Hatfield’s light vocals on that release as well as her early Blake Babies stuff has always interested me.  Then there’s those curious eyes of hers.  She always looks a little angry or disappointed in most of her pictures, but that’s probably because one never finds her smiling much (take a look for yourself on Google images).  Finally, the fact that she’s from Boston and used to work at Newbury Comics completes the reasons as to why I’m always keeping an eye out for all things Hatfield.  I did know that this record by the Blake Babies was likely an old light pop affair off of the defunct Mammoth Records, so I figured it was going to be a safe bet for a solid listen at a discount.

The Blakes Babies are a trio that, when heard, instantly bring back those memories of the  early days in the nineties where the easygoing pop music was neither in your face nor particularly memorable.  Since this record is actually a collection of b-sides, demos, and live tracks most of the songs actually take place in the late eighties given when the band started.  For most of the record, songs revolve around the general approach of the “Rain” demo song.  There’s the jangly, light guitar that carries the comforting pop rock feeling throughout the song while Hatfield’s vulnerable vocals sing about an unfortunate relationship story.  Though songs like “Lament” (with Evan Dando on bass) and “Star” pick up the pace a little bit, every song is consistent in its sound and construction for the most part.  If you like your Blake Babies you’ll enjoy most of the songs on here.  However, if you’re new to the band you might get a little bored if you are used to more variety.

Even though most of the songs seem to blend in together for me, I will say that “Out There” stands out.  Perhaps it is because Hatfield’s vocals not only rise above the usual quiet level but they also sound double-tracked.  It also helps that the band picks up their level of volume during the chorus so as to wake you up after the slew of couch sinkers.  Another tune that may not be for everyone, but will win over those who like the original anyway, is the group’s upbeat cover of the Grass Roots’ “Temptation Eyes”.  Nice choice!  I also think that any band that does a Neil Young cover, like the Blake Babies do with a live version of “Over and Over”, is only trying to win me over.

Lots of listening choices for the Blake Babies.  You could head on over to their MySpace or Last.fm pages, or instead veer directly towards Juliana Hatfield’s website.

I feel that although this disc didn’t really put it together in terms of making a strong impression, one has to keep in mind that it is a b-sides and rarities collection.  This one is for the fans who already like the Blake Babies.  I wouldn’t start here if one was thinking of delving into the group’s music, but it’s still a decent record to start from if one wants to experience their sound.  “Sunburn” or “Earwig” are probably better examples of albums of what the group can do.

The Blake Babies took a lengthy hiatus after the release of this collection and only released one more record (“God Bless the Blake Babies”) in 2001 before ending things officially.  Juliana Hatfield, of course, has been releasing and self-releasing her own albums for quite awhile now.  I imagine she probably sounds a lot different now than she did nearly twenty years ago, but the pleasant vocals are probably still there.  If what you read about and hear from the Blake Babies interests you, then go pick up something new from Hatfield when you get a chance.  And uh, if you see anything by the Blake Babies or Hatfield for a few dollars or less at a local music store, ah … well, you know who to send a note 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.

Nurse & Soldier – Marginalia

September 23, 2011 Leave a comment

Jagjaguwar Records, 2007

There are album covers that grab you right away, and there are album covers that don’t do much of anything.  I felt that despite the utterly plain design of what looks like embroidery and a few letters of interest, this group might be worth a light purchase.  Maybe it was due to the record label, Jagjaguwar, which also released some of the new Dinosaur Jr records.  I’m a big fan of them, though I didn’t know anything of what Jagjaguwar might also have on their roster of releases.

The Boston-based Nurse & Soldier consists Bobby Matador (Oneida) and Erica Fletcher.  Even with just the two of them, the songs sound very full due to layers of guitars and electronic sounds.  This helps make a song noisier when they wish it (“Capture the Flag”) or quite serene (“Satellightning”).  Although both members tend to sing solo more often than not, when they combine their vocals it adds yet another pleasing instrument to their arsenal.

One of my favorite tracks occurs early on in “In the Dark”.  Honestly, I feel that the group sounds like a mix of the poppier side of Brian Eno and earlier Magnetic Fields on the track.  The latter band sound is likely due to Fletcher’s vocals, which sound simultaneously uninterested yet emotional if one listens closely enough. The scratchy, fuzzy guitar meddling in the background nicely adds a little bit of urgency to the song as well, even though its tempo gives the impression of pensiveness.

“Back In Yr Corner” sounds like it should’ve been the college radio anthem of 2007.  It has the twee sound that also doubles as a comforting pop embrace with the constant presence of a warm keyboard sound.  That twee sound only shows up after a somewhat moody tempo begins the song, so the combination of twee and moody really seems to work here.  Along with Fletcher holding some higher notes and the duo dishing out a few “ohh ooh ohh ooh oh-oh”s, it is a rather infectious song.

As for other tunes I like, “North of Baltimore” gives off the impression of being a Galaxie 500 song that didn’t make the cut due to not being sparse enough.  It’s a great song with Fletcher’s lilting vocals chiming in nicely amidst the engaging guitar work.  The band isn’t all quiet and nice, as “Lies & Alterations” picks up into more of a light pop rock sound that reminds me a little bit of those indie nineties bands.  “Brought Up Too Soon” is as fast as Nurse & Soldier get with its lone fast track.  Even when momentarily quicker in pace, Nurse & Soldier still come across as enjoyably pop.

Though there hasn’t been much regarding updates, one can still try and catch up with what Nurse & Soldier are up to on their website.  They also have a few songs to listen to on MySpace.

So yeah, I’m definitely glad I took a chance on the plain album!  As for Nurse & Soldier, the duo hasn’t released anything since this record and it sounds like they’re quite busy raising their child.  I imagine, though, that as the little one ages this group is far from done.  This is what I hope, for I think this sound could really win over quite a few indie music fans.

Tarnation – Gentle Creatures

September 12, 2011 Leave a comment

4AD Records, 1995

I have to admit that I enjoy reviewing bands that I’ve actually heard of and will find relatively easy to write about.  It also helps that I wrote about Tarnation’s second album earlier, so I knew exactly what I was going to pick up.  However, it turns out this is the first record they released, so as great as their second album sounded the first could go in many directions.  It could be less polished and clunky or perhaps heavier on the rock ‘n roll.  You know, sometimes bands are still finding themselves and Paula Frazer does come from a punk background.  But hey, for a dollar I was just hoping for some of that fine Americana music to relax to whatever bumpiness may occur.

Amidst a decade knee deep in grunge and grunge knockoffs, Tarnation takes a calmer tack with its warm Americana and folk songs.  There is nothing on this record that will make your heart race, unless of course you’re swept up in the lyrics.  I found that the casual pace of the record actually serves as a relaxation pill to help get one’s feet kicked up.  It certainly helps that the band utilizes the lap steel guitar and a cello once in awhile, though anyone know what an optigan is?  I had to look it up to determine that it is an electronic keyboard that had a short run in the early seventies.  I guess it also assisted in these country feelings.

Now, as much as I like the sound of Tarnation and Frazer’s voice, I could completely understand if someone is turned off early on in the record.  This could be due to either the back-to-back six minutes songs of “The Well” and “Big O Motel” or easily the quiet, plodding pace of the band.  Not much changes during these songs, so if one does not enjoy the light strumming and slide guitar on “The Well” then the tune will be cumbersome.  The same goes for “Big O Motel”, which is ever lighter and more repetitive.  The rest of the album sticks to three minutes or so for the most part, so why these epics were fastened early on in the listening process is a little puzzling.

Lengthy songs aside, Tarnation is quite good in the shorter instances.  The opener “Game of Broken Hearts” sounds like a solo demo by Frazer, but it easily sets the tone (and example) for the rest of the record with its easy guitar and Frazer’s stirring vocals.  The title track’s brevity is a pity, for as the lone instrumental on the record it gives off the air of a track from an unknown western movie.  “Do You Fancy Me” is as slow as anything else, but something about using the word ‘fancy’ as well as Frazer taking the cloud-shooting voice down a bit makes the song a real nice, countrified listen.

Unlike the second album, where it was Frazer all the time, “Gentle Creatures” gives time to the other band members to sing lead vocals.  Matt Wendell Sullivan’s deeper voice sounds excellent on “Listen to the Wind” with Frazer echoing in the background.  As for the other band members, Lincoln Allen has a fine weathered voice on the traditionally country “Stranger in the Mirror” while Michelle Cernuto sings in echo on a Magnetic Fields-like “Burn Again”.  Though Frazer has the most captivating voice, the rest of the band succeed in carrying a few good tunes when given the chance to sing.

There still isn’t a lot on the web about Tarnation, but Paula Frazer’s MySpace page, the band’s Last.fm page, and a video from their second album may convince you to go check them out.

The group put out “Mirador” a few years later before taking a ten year hiatus, which essentially gave Paula Frazer time for her solo career.  The band did put out an album in recent years, so it remains to be seen whether or not Tarnation is back for real. I suppose I’m a fan of the group now with two straight, enjoyable records.  Some people may not warm to Frazer’s voice or the quiet country sound of the songs, so if a few tracks don’t turn you on then you likely won’t agree with my spin on the two albums.  For me, I suppose that if I need to hear something soothing with a vocalist that doesn’t grate on me I would choose something from Tarnation.