High Bias
Listening with extreme prejudice

November 27, 2005 Home |  Archives |  Features |  Contact Us

Album Reviews

THE KISSERS
Good Fight
(Skeptic Rock)
Good Fight is the second record from the Kissers, a Wisconsin band with a talent for blending sounds from both sides of the Atlantic. Part Irish folk and part American roots, the disc is surprisingly politically-minded. At least that's how it comes off: the third track, "No War," is about the war in Iraq and a little later comes "Captain George," about you know who. Even in the press release, the band describes their obligation to keep people aware of the world around them. Ambition aside, the music is pretty good. The best tune is "What They Can." Lance Looper

LD & THE NEW CRITICISM
Tragic Realism
(Darla)
LD Beghtol has quite the indie rock resumé, encompassing work with underachiever Flare and darlings Moth Wranglers and Magnetic Fields. But screw his past. What matters now is his work with the New Criticism, and it's great stuff. Beghtol's found his sound with this band of acoustic ne'er-do-wells, coming off like the Pogues if their whiskey had been replaced by brandy. Beghtol's songwriting reaches an apex here; sardonic and moving tunes like "Unpaid Endorsement," "Too Old to Die Young" and "I've Got One Foot in the Grave and the Other on the Dance Floor" will alternately tweak your sense of propriety and twist your heart into a knot. Tragic Realism is music that's too smart for everybody's good, and thank goodness. Michael Toland [buy it]

THE LIVING BLUE
fire, blood, water
(Minty Fresh)
Champaign's Living Blue used to be known as the Blackouts (who released an album called Living in Blue). The name may have changed, but the song remains the same: raw but melodic postpunk rockers that would sound as at home at CBGBs as they would in Jack White's garage. Singer Stephen Ucherek sometimes dances on the edge of a Richard Hell impersonation, but for the most part his urgent blare plays nice with the power pop hooks. Producer Adam Schmitt polishes the band's sound just enough to be clean without sounding slick, letting the songs and performances carry the day. Michael Toland [buy it]

LOWLIGHTS
Dark End Road
(Darla)
Like the Handsome Family, California's Lowlights love dusty roads, minor keys and the dark corners of American folk music. Dameon Lee and his friends motor down a Dark End Road at a variety of speeds, letting the song dictate whether the accelerator is on the floor ("Drive Thru"), barely pressed ("The One I Love is Gone") or at an even keel ("Too Young to Tell"). I suspect Lee's uniformly strong tunes and conversational vocals would hold up regardless of treatment. Melodic, soulful and often quite lovely, this Dark End Road won't require a flashlight to traverse. Michael Toland [buy it]

MANUAL
Azure Vista
(Darla)
Danish guitarist/composer Jonas Munk is Manual, and Azure Vista is as evocatively named an album as I've lately heard. Anchored by unobtrusive electronic percussion, Munk's sweeping guitar soundscapes rise and fall, sometimes floating above the beat like mist on the seashore, other times streaking across the sky like the wake of a supersonic jet. Munk avoids aimless noodling by layering his textures on top of actual melodies, most of which are quite lovely. (Lanterna is a touchstone, but so is Windham Hill.) "Summer of Freedom" adds testosterone to gorgeous wisps of six-string sound, while "Tourmaline" is the music you wish was playing in the background during a tender lesbian love scene. The title track would be an ideal soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Azure Vista washes over the world like the first rays of sunshine at dawn. Michael Toland [buy it]

HARRY MANX
Mantras For Madmen
(Dog My Cat)
I like an artist that's prolific. Canadian songwriter/instrumentalist Manx put out a strong album (West Eats Meet) early this year and is already following it up. Mantras For Madmen isn't just WEM Pt.2, either. With fuller instrumentation, influences ranging from his beloved blues and Indian raga to folk and pop and, most importantly, an earthy sensibility that contrasts with West's more spiritual concerns, Mantras is smooth, catchy and soulful, confidently displaying another aspect of Manx's wide-ranging talent. Michael Toland [buy it]

MAQUILADORA
A House All On Fire
(Darla)
Maquiladora looks out at the emptiness in the rolling sands and the barren wastelands of California and sees beauty, and it helps deal with the band's own inner pain. Plaintive steel guitars and sonorous pianos comment on the singer's half-stoned/half-desperate ramblings, while the rhythm section keeps things moving at a leisurely but steady clip. Some cloudy psychedelia ("Long Lost Love") emits as well. The record can be a bit somnambulant, but genuine poignancy catches the ear when you least expect it. Besides, how can you ignore a sad, beautiful song called "Blackened and Damned?" Michael Toland [buy it]

THE MOTHER HIPS
Red Tandy ep
(Camera)
After a period of hibernation, the Mother Hips are back in action with the brief Red Tandy ep. The band continues in the pop direction of its breakthrough The Green Hills of Earth, but toughens the sound slightly, replacing psychedelic flourishes with earthy riffs and arrangements. "Colonized" is the gem here, but the lush "Blue Tomorrow" and sprightly title track certainly boast significant virtues. A more than promising restart. Michael Toland [buy it]

JON NICHOLSON
A Lil Sump'm Sump'm
(Warner Bros.)
Nashville-based Nicholson is a member of the so-called MuzikMafia, along with Gretchen Wilson and Big & Rich. But he's nothing like his fellow travelers, preferring a warm, groove-based sound to satiric C&W. Nicholson's got an excellent blue-eyed soul voice, with no gratuitous grit or histrionic melodrama, and his appealing tunes pull a variety of stylistic moves under his umbrella. "I listen to Al Green and the Faces/Cheap Trick and the Replacements," he declares on the funky "Stereo," and while there's little evidence of the latter trio, there's plenty of the Reverend in Nicholson's grooves. (Not to mention a couple of nods to country rock in "Grandma" and "Grass River," but they're the exception, not the rule.) Nicholson hasn't penned the irresistible killer that will put him over to the millions of hearts he aims to seduce, but the evidence on A Lil Sump'm Sump'm suggests he may yet get there. Michael Toland [buy it]

OF ARROWE HILL
Hexadelica and the Speed of Darkness
(Ouija Board)
Following up its fine LP The Spring Hill Penny Dreadful, Great Britain's psychedelic underdog Of Arrowe Hill feeds heads the excellent Hexadelica and the Speed of Darkness. Like Dreadful, this record revels in variety, from the peppy pop of "Sometimes, Sometimes…" and shimmering folk of "Pop Art Surveillance Witch" to the acid-fried country blues of "Cursing the Season" and the amp-battering grunge of "To Make Yer Feel Better." Filtering 60s acid rock through the 80s postpunk psychedelic revival, Of Arrowe Hill takes a colorful trip through the mind's eye. Michael Toland

JAMIE OLDAKER
Mad Dogs & Okies
(Concord)
Oklahoma might be good for something after all. That's what producer Jaime Oldaker had in mind when he hatched this idea. Mad Dogs & Okies is an all-star compilation of musicians whose lives and/or careers have been heavily influenced by the Sooner State. The disc boasts names like Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, Taj Mahal, Tony Joe White and plenty more. The biggest surprise is Peter Frampton's "Sending me Angels." I must have listened to that one a dozen times in a row. Oldaker has assembled a who's who of American music and whether you have any attachment to Oklahoma or not, this record should find its way into your collection. Lance Looper [buy it]

WOODY RUSSELL
Salt
(Cats Up the Street Music)
Woody Russell's voice is the first thing you notice about Salt. His smooth, emotional tone adds substance to his songs and makes them stick with you. The second thing you notice is the playing. The music is tight, with no wasted notes. This is only his third record, but Salt has the sound of a musician who has invested a lifetime in sharpening his playing. The songs themselves are thoughtful, with a pretty sharp sense of humor. Russell is establishing a reputation as a singer/songwriter to watch, and Salt is a proof point in support of his blossoming career. Lance Looper [buy it]

THE SAINTS
Nothing is Straight in My House
(Cadiz/UFO)
Every few years, Australian music icon Chris Bailey emerges from the smoke and mirrors with another lineup for and record from his long-running outfit the Saints. On Nothing is Straight in My House, the ranks include the Church's Marty Willson-Piper on guitar, but if you think that means the album contains the same shimmering psychedelia as that band, think again. Nothing is the roughest, toughest platter to bear the Saints name since their mid-90s masterpiece Howling, with roaring guitars and some of Bailey's grittiest vocals. That's not to say this is a punk album, mind. Tunes like "Paint the Town Electric," "Passing Strange" and "I Couldn't Help Myself" boast the beguiling melodies and introspective atmosphere Bailey cultivated (and excelled at) over the last couple of decades, and "Garden Dark" is probably the finest epic ballad (complete with a rapturous Willson-Piper solo) he and the band have yet created. But "Nylon Pirates," "Porno Movies," "A Madman Wrecked My Happy Home" and the title cut kick ass in the old rock & roll style, loud and snarling. "Bang On" barrels down the boogie-rock highway while remaining true to the Saints style, while "Where is My Monkey?" revisits the Pretty Things-style R&B pop that inspired the band in the first place. Nothing is Straight in My House is another gem in a sparkling catalog. Michael Toland [buy it]

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