Supergrass, S/T (Parlophone)

Supergrass - S/T Supergrass
By: Eric G.

This is classic British pop music on the same level as early Rolling Stones and even Abbey Road-era Beatles. "Moving" kicks off Supergrass' third album with a schizophrenic tone: the moody, string-laden intro slips effortlessly into the kind of funky rocker only Supergrass could pull off. Vocalist Gaz Coombes busts out sounding exactly like Thom Yorke of Radiohead- his impressive range on full display as he soars above his acoustic guitar, but, as is the case with all Supergrass songs despite whatever influences are on display, it ends up sounding distinctly like Supergrass. This album is the band's darkest and, yet, it's catchier than I Should Coco and more accomplished than In It For The Money. Supergrass just keeps getting better and better.

Supergrass was offered the chance to have its own sitcom a la The Monkees thanks to Steven Spielberg's infatuation with its infectious debut hit "Alright", but the band turned the proposal down because it wanted to focus on making records. First of all, how many bands would get an opportunity like that? And secondly, how many bands would have the balls and bravado to turn it down? Supergrass is a self-proclaimed 'albums band', although it's singles are all bursting with the kind of energy and panache that bands like The Who and The Kinks imbibed in their respective classics. I'd say Supergrass has made the right decision turning down a sitcom because, if it keeps making albums like this one, it will surely outlive any fleeting fame a television show could have yielded.

"Your Love" is an outstanding pop song with a verse as catchy as its growling and rollicking chorus is. Supergrass isn't afraid to put Beach Boy harmonies over a jaunty piano riff and sing "What Went Wrong (In Your Head)" while making it all sound like an understatement. "Pumping On Your Stereo" rocks as much as any classic Rolling Stones song and Gaz does a better Mick Jagger than Mick Jagger does without even trying. This band is busting at the seams with ideas that flaunt its influences yet sound totally innovative and unique. Supergrass is Britain's underdog purveyor of pop music. Oasis wants it too bad and is bogged down with bland ambivalence while Blur has chosen a different path altogether. And Suede sounds too much like, well, Suede to carry on any kind of grand tradition, which is not to say that Supergrass addresses any kind of pressure to save or sustain British pop. It's just that Supergrass makes timeless and beguiling pop music with depth and definition that gets better with every album.

Those Bastard Souls, Debt And Departure (V2)

Those Bastard Souls - Debt And Departure Those Bastard Souls
Debt And Departure
By: Robert H.

So there's a mixed bag of good news and bad, Grifters fans. First, some bad: word has it that the Grifters are, at least, temporarily, on hold, if not permanently disbanded. Dave Shouse evidently feels that his songwriting is going in a direction other than that of the band and so wants to spend at least a little time doing his own thing. The good news, however, is that his new project, Those Bastard Souls, carries the Grifters banner with a great deal of the old character, retaining much of the familiar but unusual tone that made the Memphis band great.

Appropriate to Shouse's purpose, the songs themselves are more foregrounded on Debt and Departure than they tended to be on the Grifters' albums. While a Grifters tune might feel like several complete songs splashing into each other in a confluence of sounds, Those Bastard Souls strive to hone and perfect one good song. The result is a less busy sound, but one that is hauntingly compelling nonetheless. The second track of the album, “Telegram”, is probably the best song Shouse has ever written and provides reason enough, in my book, to have the album. The lyrics are dead-on depictions of post-relationship wanderings and longings, focusing alternately on backyard images, gin hopes, and "three words/that never left me/'cause I thought they never could." The arrangement progresses from acoustic rhythm guitars, to violin, to distorted guitars, and back to violins, all the while over a piano bass line: it accomplishes diachronically what Grifters songs did synchronically, and the result is unmistakable perfection. But Those Bastard Souls doesn't reach this peak again, and the result is that the album feels a little spotty. Many of the other songs are more straightforward, gritty, and blues-influenced pop songs that feature one driving catch. The title track is an exception and deserves to share space with “Telegram.” Once again, the lyrics keep us grounded "and the pale half-moon hangs overhead/as if half way between all or nothing/should count for something", and the song develops its energy alongside the narrative desperation.

When Those Bastard Souls shines, it is because of a tension building over the length of a song that finds vent in a cathartic crescendo, finally tapering to a reflective aftermath. Songs like "Up to You", "The Wake of Your Flood" and "Spaced Out" (a toned-down reprise from Full Blown Possession) near success with this formula, but don't quite reach the complex heights for one reason or another. (Now and again, Shouse gets a little over-ambitious lyrically: "I'm restless/like a compass/just before the earth splinters and burns." A danger for the poetically inclined. Other times, there's just not enough development in the melodic structure of the song.)

Those Bastard Souls is best when it’s mellow and precisely orchestrated. Heavier tunes such as "Train from Terminal Boredom" and "Curious State" will leave Grifters fans wistful. The fact is, about half the songs on this album cry out for that extra layer of sound and twist the Grifters were so good at placing. They are good songs, but they are not what they could be. (They miss, actually, some of the slop that made the Grifters songs so engaging.) So, while I hope Shouse continues in his current direction, I also hope he recognizes that he is still writing quite a few Grifters songs and that for those, no one does it better than his old band.

Andrea Parker, Kiss My Arp (Mo’ Wax)

Andrea Parker - Kiss My Arp Andrea Parker
Kiss My Arp
Mo' Wax
By: Eric G.

Kiss My Arp is an amazingly stylized and brilliantly crafted debut album by DJ and sometimes vocalist Andrea Parker. She began her career as a DJ back in 1993 and released her first single for Mo' Wax almost four years ago, entitled "Melodious Thunk." Parker is a classically trained cellist and possesses an alluring however timid vibrato, but she is best known for her remixes of Lamb, Depeche Mode, and The Orb. Parker's predilection for the dark and brooding has garnered her a curious following amongst the electronic underground, which is strange considering that most of her musical reference points consist of jazz and modern composition.

Parker traverses much musical ground here, and, as a testament to the strength of her songwriting and mixing skills, this album is available in both instrumental and vocal versions. The brooding trip hop of "The Unknown" ostentatiously displays her lustrous voice. "Clutching at Straws" gives more than a nod to Bjork's fusion of strings and cutting edge electronics while "In Two Minds" explores much darker terrain. Parker's aesthetic use of low-end syncopation countervails some of the drama infused by the frequent use of strings. Her instrumental songs are cool and aloof but entrancing nonetheless. The polyrhythmic "Melodious Thunk" gives way to the twittering bleep infested "Some Other Level", showing the bridge from her early work to her recent, more sophisticated output.

"Elements Of Style" fuses hip-hop beats with jazzy arrangements not unlike Wagon Christ's Tally Ho!, but it's Parker's effective use of fractured rhythms that dominate the tone of the album. Even when she seemingly jogs in place as on the Bond theme-esque "Return Of The Rocking Chair", she manages to push the envelope past the obvious Portishead influence and make an emotionally stirring impact with her eerie, repetitious lyrics. Parker makes haunting but intelligent music, and her sponge-like consumption and subsequent manipulation of eclectic styles makes Kiss My Arp one of the year's finest releases.

Fracasos, El Sexy (Dyspepsidisc)

Fracasos - El Sexy Fracasos
El Sexy
By: Eric G.

Fracasos is an upstart band from Evansville, Indiana with many influences but little direction. Any band that evolves out of something called ‘Fernspank’ is already off to a bad start. El Sexy is full of genre-hopping, slightly self-indulgent instrumental interludes, acoustic guitars that sound like they were recorded by a bad salsa band in the mid-eighties, and vocals that are half whispered/half spoken (always a bad idea). Usually “indie” bands relish in the lo-fi recording quality that their four-tracks afford them, but Fracasos’ record just sounds bad without any of the charm of a home recording.

A handful of the musical bits are interesting enough, but the record is borderline unlistenable. “Month Of Sundays” sounds like the band didn’t even rehearse before pressing ‘record’, and, again, the vocals are just terrible- even without the atrocious lyrics: “I want you to lick my skin.” Ugh. The band purports in its press notes that this whole multi-media package (a blurry, half-assed, black and white pencil doodle appears on your screen if your foolish enough to stick this in your PC) can be interpreted as “a commentary on the fashion industry’s representation of humans as nothing more than translucent, robotic imagery.” Give me a break. Surely these guys are still in high school.

Pinehurst Kids, Viewmaster (4 Alarm)

Pinehurst Kids - Viewmaster Pinehurst Kids
4 Alarm
By: Eric G.

Having ‘kids’ in your band’s name is kind of a stigma these days in light of the whole emo/punk debacle (the Getup Kids, etc.), but the Pinehurst Kids really have nothing to do with that unfortunate genre, excepting the aforementioned name problem. Pinehurst Kids are a trio from Portland, Oregon, who play a grunge-infused version of power pop, replete with semi-downer lyrics and naive, teen angst. No random time changes or tuneless vocals for this band. Just simple chord progressions and lots of energy. The songwriting can be middling at times, which is the primary drawback of Viewmaster, but the band shows enough promise to overlook such faults.

Sometimes leader Joe Davis overcomes the run of the mill power pop formula to infuse some distinct emotions. He’s got the chops- it’s just that occasionally the lines get blurry. His voice tends to blend into the background because it’s kind of thin and strained, and his lyrics rely too much on emotional cliche (“Burn Alone”). Viewmaster takes a few listens before it starts rocking, and even then it’s not until you’re a handful of tracks into it. “Evil Mirror” has a classic pop hook, reminiscent of early Cars with that muted guitar chugging in the verse. The title track may be overly long, but it’s got the right amount of tension, building at a subtle pace. “Don’t Worry” sounds like Built To Spill, which is never a bad thing.

This is the Pinehurst Kids’ second full length, and at this rate their next record should be the one that sets them apart. As it is now, the band has yet to shed much of the ‘early years’ aspects of its songwriting and playing.

Low, Christmas (Chair Kicker’s Union/kranky)

Low - Christmas Low
Chair Kicker's Union/kranky
By: Robert H.

In a year sponsoring releases by apparently infallible talents like Luna, Beck, and The Magnetic Fields, a band consisting of an undistorted guitar, a plodding bass and a snare drum might seem likely to fall through the cracks. But, damn, if Low isn't a surefire nominee for band of the year. For not only do they have Secret Name on their side, an album that is both a departure from past releases and the best example of their cleanly wrought and whisper pretty songcraft, they also have presented us with one of the best Christmas albums since the fall of Bing.

The idea of a Christmas album from a band that at times appears to think the world is moving towards despair in slow motion might seem about as appealing as burning elves. After all, who wants to hear "Jingle-Bells" transformed into a droning dirge? But to have this expectation is to miss the sweetness, sincerity and Sisyphean hope that underlies Low's otherwise melancholic tone. (Anyone who has ever seen them play and has witnessed the beatific countenances behind Alan and Mimi's angelic voices understands this immediately.) "Christmas" should highlight this point for even the most skeptical. The album consists of eight songs, five of which are originals. As if to put their most festive foot forward, the opening "Just Like Christmas" is an uncharacteristically upbeat tune that almost forces you to dance. Sleigh bells, rhythm guitars, and poppy drum track: this is not the Low we have known. Well, that's about all of that. The band retreats to its sparse vision in "Long Way around the Sea", a ballad underscoring the toil of the three kings' journey with the lonely harmonies early Low has taught us to love. Track three gets more Secret Name-ish with a kick-ass version of "Little Drummer Boy" (which is, incidentally, the only Christmas song one could imagine Low's ancestor Ian Curtis covering) featuring a stoic snare keeping time over a synthesized, distorted drone. Probably the best original song on the album, "If You Were Born Today", offers a perfect example of Low's bleakhope vision. Opening line: "If you were born today/ we'd kill you by age eight/ never get the chance to say/ 'Joy to the World…'" Got it?

Continuing their 1000 batting average in cover-choices, Low offers a straightforward but palpably pining "Blue Christmas" featuring what might be Low's first traditional (albeit slow) guitar solo, and a "Silent Night" that would be a peaceful lullaby for the most anxious of insomniacs. Low ends with two of the most innocent and endearing morning-after songs that have ever been written. "Taking down the tree" features the unpredictably beautiful combination of triangle and banjo, and the final track tells us that after all the money is blown there is still enough left for "One Special Gift." As the insert can tell you, this Christmas album is that gift. I, for one, thank Low very much.