Saso, Big Group Hug (Melted Snow)

Saso - Big Group Hug Saso
Big Group Hug
Melted Snow
By: Eric Greenwood

Why on earth would anybody name an album Big Group Hug? It smacks of emasculation and the ripple effect of the whole 1960"s zeitgeist. However languid the music may seem, Saso understands the dynamics of subtlety and substance. So, let"s try to forget what the album is called for now. Musically, Saso moves at a predominantly glacial pace- not as quietly or as slowly as Low does but similarly understated. The low-end of the title track almost drowns out the chiming guitars. Vocals are infrequent and indistinct, clouding the foreground with long, drawn-out notes that hover just above the den of noise.

Similarly on "Blood Bath", Saso explores more graying, repetitive guitar tones and rumbling low end. About halfway through the song, a strangely out of place and jarring soundbite interrupts the dreamy flow, complete with a laugh track. The band then shifts gears into a winding denouement. It"s foreboding yet serene. "Bird Brain" shows signs of a pulse underneath the colorless soundscapes. Is that a distorted guitar? Ah, yes. Saso is admitting to a subliminal affinity for My Bloody Valentine, if this brief instrumental groove is to be believed. The coldness of "Dripfeed" begins to thaw when the strained vocals follow a maudlin piano accompaniment, but, alas, it"s too short to be of consequence.

The tonal sustain of "Lazy Bones" is barely audible at first. Two minutes in and a dark arpeggio is all that surfaces. The guitars chug lightly, threatening to liven things up, but the best we can procure is an heavy-lidded rhythm supplement and a slow, anticlimactic fade. Pretty but uninteresting. Synthetics bubble at the introduction of "Dimwit" only to be replaced quickly by dual acoustic guitars and another aimless meandering. The vocals on "Somebody" are welcoming and melodic but do not approach anything resembling a chorus or a hook. They are truly unnecessary, serving merely as a lazy reminder that there is indeed a singer.

The piano sound on "My Brain Hurts" is so schmaltzy it"s subversive. Vocals are at the forefront for the first time on the album. The drums shuffle lightly in the almost-chorus. A light falsetto croons over the downtrodden melody- all minor keys, of course, but it fails to hold any more attention than the instrumentals wedged anonymously in between. This music is exquisitely packaged yet impersonal to a fault. The new age twinkling of keys and soft plucking of strings grows tiresome without any kind of climax or tension. Saso has its low-key sound down pat; now it just needs some songs to go with it.

Death Cab For Cutie, The Photo Album (Barsuk)

Death Cab For Cutie - The Photo Album Death Cab For Cutie
The Photo Album
Barsuk
By: Japanese Correspondent- Patrick Doherty

Sixteen months after the release of its sophomore effort, Death Cab For Cutie returns with an attempt to overhaul its sound somewhat, trading lofty experimentalism for more conventional songwriting techniques. Let"s be honest, though- these guys are still playing prog-rock, relying on long, drawn-out progressions and steady rhythms to form the foundations of their lackadaisical and melodic indie rock sound. Thankfully, though, they"ve ditched the pretentious post-production trickery that permeated We have The Facts And We"re Voting Yes.

Long-time fans of Death Cab For Cutie know exactly what I"m talking about. The band"s dreamy yet solemn tone has always been supported by traditional rock and roll structures, but showy changes would often creep in and derail the momentum too abruptly. For example, you"d be rocking out when all of sudden the same chord would be plucked for four minutes with no accompaniment whatsoever. That"s a good idea once – maybe – but the band has been known to run that trick into the ground, which is a sure-fire way to suck the rock right out of a song. Thankfully, some of those bad habits have been mitigated in Death Cab For Cutie"s latest release, The Photo Album. The sound of the album is more organic, focusing on rawer emotions while ignoring the temptation to cave into precision music making.

Not only is the sound more naturally soulful on The Photo Album, but also the lyrics are slightly more straightforward. Singer-songwriter Ben Gibbard"s past abstractness about cigarettes and freeways only hinted at emotional despondency. Now we are treated to the brutal honesty of tracks like "Styrofoam Plates": "You"re a disgrace to the concept of family/the Priest won"t divulge that fact in his homily and I"ll stand up and scream if the mourning remains quiet" it doesn"t change the fact: he was a bastard in life/thus a bastard in death." For those of you fearing that Gibbard has lost his poetic chops, there are plenty of times where he plays with the edges. "From A Movie Script Ending": "Passing through unconscious states/when I awoke I was on the highway/with your hands on my shoulders/a meaningless moment: a movie-script ending." And of course, for the hometown fans, there"s the obligatory anti-LA song that seems to be a feature on every indie record coming out of the Northwest these days.

Gibbard"s breathy vocal resignation remains the trademark of the band, though. Drifting in and out of falsetto along with the chord movements, he gives you the ready impression that you"re riding hand in hand with him on a roller coaster of gut-turning emotion. There"s even a song that might qualify as Stephin Merritt-esque ("Coney Island") with its faux-crooning over delicate percussion. Bands as good as Death Cab For Cutie tend to have singers who write music and play it, and the continuity between the music and vocals is no less apparent here than in any other Death Cab For Cutie album. In fact, it"s vastly improved.

The most noteworthy aspect of The Photo Album is the band"s upward trajectory. The music is cohesive and even, though still somewhat sluggish. And consequently, Barsuk and the band appear to be pinning a good bit of hope on this album"s mainstream success, making it the subject of an intense media and promotional blitz (there is even a full-on installation for Death Cab For Cutie at the seven-story Tower Records in Tokyo, Japan). But the good news for fans of the band"s early style is that it has managed to retain its essence, while casting away that which might have stood in the way of broader acceptance.

Tenacious D, S/t (Epic)

Tenacious D - S/t Tenacious D
S/t
Epic
By: Eric Greenwood

"I love you baby but all I can think about is kielbasa sausage your buttcheeks is warm." There are so many reasons why that line is funny, not the least of which is its utter absurdity. Such is the charm of Tenacious D. Jack Black and Kyle Gass are two fat guys with an affinity for cheesy 1970"s metal and, of course, Satan. Their humor springs from the crudest recesses of the mind and fires randomly from synapse to synapse, but they dress it up in such catchy tunefulness that you can barely contain your laughter or your awe.

Fans of HBO"s Mr. Show already know the deal with Tenacious D. They"ve been touting themselves the greatest band in the world for years. An acoustic duo that plays mock metal balladry calling itself a rock band – much less the greatest rock band in the world- is so completely ridiculous that you don"t know whether its part of the schtick or just a byproduct of their warped imaginations. It"s both, of course, and the music just might be able to convert you to discipleship.

Comedy albums tend to suck, as you probably know, but Tenacious D"s debut will not let you down. Hardcore fans of the duo worried that this album will be a major label ass-kissing and that the comedy will be dumbed down for the masses have nothing to fear. Black"s lunatic jester to Gass" na"ve straight man routine gels perfectly even without visual aids. The only obvious alteration to the formula is the presence of a full band. Foo Fighter Dave Grohl is on drums. Members of the Vandals, Red Kross, and even Phish help out too. The difference is enough to make shallow fans scream sell-out ("it"s different so it must be bad and a result of major label dollars"). That"s a bunch of crap. Electric or acoustic Tenacious D equals non-stop rocking.

Jack Black"s psychotic energy runs the show. He has an extremely versatile voice. Seriously, the guy can belt out the tunes. Anyone who saw High Fidelity knows what I"m talking about. It"s hard to fake soul. And wise white people rarely attempt Marvin Gaye covers, but Black knocked "Let"s Get It On" on its ass. And likewise, Kyle Gass is no slouch either. He runs the harmonies behind Black"s melodies and plays a mean acoustic guitar to boot. Tenacious D"s musical prowess will bowl you over. The songs are good. Really good. Take away the insane lyrics, and you"ve still got music worth listening to. Granted, it sounds like Journey being raped by Ronnie James Dio, but you have to admit that"s intriguing.

Tenacious D is known for its spontaneous banter in between songs on stage. It"s hard to fake that kind of dynamic in a studio, but the comedic interludes on the album live up to the precedent set by the loads of live mp3"s that have been making the rounds for years. "Hard Fucking" is a good example: "the ladies don"t really like the hard fucking/you feel like you"re giving them some extra juice/they"re not into that"maybe they are, though, into that"you know what the test is/you just say "get on top honey"you do what you like."" This segues nicely into the acoustic ballad, "Fuck Her Gently": "I"m gonna fuck you softly/I"m gonna screw you gently/I"m gonna hump you sweetly/I"m gonna ball you discreetly." Just seeing the words on the screen doesn"t even convey half of what"s funny. Black"s vocal intonation is hilariously insane. He turns on the histrionics full blast and mocks several generations of rock singers in a mere of four lines.

"Dio" is a Tenacious D classic. The brief power ballad intro builds into full-fledged metal might, replete with Black"s best amalgam of cliched metal affectations. "Dio has rocked for a long, long time/now it"s time for him to pass the torch/he has songs about wildebeests and angels/he has soared on the wings of a demon." Old school metalheads would be throwing goat and banging their heads to this without even realizing that they"re being mocked, albeit indirectly. On "Cock Pushups" Jack and Kyle talk about getting in shape for the ladies now that they have a record deal: KG- "how many pushups can you do?" JB- “Cock pushups?” KG- "I guess you could only do one, really." JB- "Yeah, one is all you need." This isn"t a case of the sad fat guys mocking themselves for your amusement. Black and Gass are cynical pop culture junkies with wits that are as insightful as they are offensive.

If there"s any drawback to listening to Tenacious D, it"s that you miss all the visual comedic nuances between Black and Gass. Their expressions alone can slay you- not to mention their jokes, but what this album lacks in visual comedy it compensates for with balls to the wall rock and roll. The other main problem with comedy albums is that once you"ve heard all the jokes it"s hard to keep the laughs fresh. But again, Tenacious D"s songs are crafted so well that you"ll keep coming back to them. It"s a comedy album and a rock album for the price of one. You can"t lose.

The Charlatans Uk, Wonderland (MCA)

The Charlatans Uk - Wonderland The Charlatans Uk
Wonderland
MCA
By: Eric Greenwood

For some odd reason The Charlatans UK have been largely ignored in this country for the better part of their decade-long career. Maybe it"s the curse of using the "UK" tag at the end of their name. No band in history has overcome that to achieve mass commercial success in the United States. But The Charlatans have made a career out of survival, morphing and mutating their sound- never for the sake of fads but to further their sense of musical integrity and exploration. Wonderland is the apex of that seven-album journey. The band"s finest release by far, it"s a swaggering, head-long dive into funk, rhythm and blues, gospel, roots rock and roll, and disco but with a very sleek modern edge.

I"m never one to extol the virtues of back-up soul sister vocals, but I must admit they work here. In a perfect world "You"re So Pretty, We"re So Pretty" would be a radio smash. Lead Vocalist Tim Burgess has discovered his long-dormant falsetto to mesmerizing effect, but the back-up singers are what really add that mid-period Rolling Stones tone that makes the song. It"s a dark electronic groove with sparing guitars, lots of keyboards, and thumping rhythms. Burgess does his best to sound like a coked-out diva with an annoyed affectation that exudes sexuality. The hooks are insanely catchy. I can"t count how many times I"ve repeated this song over the last few weeks.

"Judas" is equally intoxicating. Burgess" falsetto is even more dominant here. Gliding among organs and a funky bass line, its double-tracked gloss instantly recalls Superfly, 1970"s soul. Yes, this is the same band that exploded onto the British "baggy" scene in 1990 with the catchy stoner pop hit, "The Only One I Know." After a few years of mild obscurity in the mid 1990"s (that should in no way reflect the quality of their music at the time) The Charlatans pulled their heads out of the water with the much-heralded Us And Only Us in 1999. The Charlatans of 2001 are all but unrecognizable from any of their previous incarnations, save for Burgess" distinct Brit-pop inflection, but the music more confidant and experimental than ever.

The lead-off single "Love Is The Key" epitomizes their new found bravura. It"s a guitar-charged sexual predator with Burgess doing his best Prince imitation in the verses. The chorus is crackling and those back-up singers surface again to make sure you don"t forget that this is indeed party music. I still can"t believe this is The Charlatans. "A Man Needs To Be Told" is both seductive and soulful. Think David Bowie circa "Young Americans." The band adds a country tinge to the sultry sway while Burgess coos "A young boy once told me I"ll be an old man and I"m only fifteen/it wasn"t part of the plan/it wasn"t part of the dream." Phenomenal stuff to say the least.

The slick R&B luster of "I Just Can"t Get Over Losing You" intermingles perfectly with The Charlatans" boundless dance-rock grooves, revealing how solid the bands" record collections must be. The array of influences here is staggering, but more impressive is the way the band ties it all together on this soon-to-be-classic album. Even the faux-industrial techno edge of the lone instrumental, "The Bell And The Butterfly", fits into The Charlatans new realm of strengths. The trip-hop scuttle of "And If I Fall" hardly even sounds derivative. Burgess" chorus flows so smoothly over the crest of syncopated beats and warm keyboards that you get lost in his synthetic idealism.

Wonderland is the sound of a band at its creative peak. With the bar this high, The Charlatans will be hard-pressed to top themselves. You"ve probably always been slightly aware of The Charlatans but only as another faceless Brit-pop band. The fact that they"ve been around this long should have intrigued you enough to check them out. But, they"ve been one of those bands that seemed comfortable on the periphery. Wonderland should change everyone"s attitude in a hurry. Absolutely, do not miss this album.

Bjork, Vespertine (Elektra)

Bjork - Vespertine Bjork
Vespertine
Elektra
By: Eric Greenwood

Strap on a dead bird, and curl up next to a volcano- it"s the new Bjork album! With another set of icy cool electronics, random sputters and whirs, Bjork spills her guts at a much slower pace than usual. It"s all immaculately produced, of course, but rather lacking in surprise. No worries, though. Bjork"s voice is enough to distract you from the fact that the "emote over lush landscape" formula may be showing signs of wear. To quote a friend of mine "it may be a clich", but I could listen to Bjork read the phonebook." At the very least it"d be funny hearing how she butchered all the names.

Vespertine, her fourth album, is a very private and complicated affair. Picking out the singles isn"t quite so easy this time, though you"re bound to hit upon them. With Bjork"s prolific single output, the law of averages should be on your side. "Hidden Place", the first one, is only slightly welcoming in its orchestral sweep. It"s got a crackling chorus, though, and it"s quaintly sweet. Bjork"s never been quite so lovey-dovey before: "he"s the beautifullest, fragilest, still strong/dark and divine/and the littleness of his movements/hides himself/he invents a charm that makes him invisible/can I hide there too?" Despite the curious syntax and spelling, her point hits home.

After her emotionally wrenching turn in the most depressing film of all time, Lars von Trier"s Dancer In The Dark, it"s somehow comforting to hear Bjork at peace. She glows when she sings, overpowering the music when she really belts it out. That"s always been her trademark. Wet blips introduce the serene "It"s Not Up To You." The layers of instrumentation reveal how the effects of starring in a musical are spilling over into Bjork"s pop personality. Soundtrack dreamscapes with harps and strings and even a choir of children flower behind her private thoughts: "How do I master/the perfect day/six glasses of water/seven phone calls."

There will be very little dancing whilst listening to Vespertine. It"s an album designed for headphones or solitary confinement. Rumor has it if you listen closely you can hear any number of mundane sounds found around the house, but I have yet to distinguish anything out of the ordinary. The production is typically lavish and pristine, grandiose even. The juxtaposition of Bjork"s lyrical oddities and the universality of her emotions have always placed her in a league of her own, yet Vespertine leaves me wanting somehow. It just takes so much energy to engage this album. Casual listening reaps few rewards, but the deeper I dive in the closer I come to understanding where she"s going with all this.

The sinister prowl of "Pagan Poetry" does all the work for you. Bjork"s sudden fits of guttural muscle always manage to raise the hairs on the back of my neck, especially when they coincide with a surge in musical tension. The song climaxes when Bjork desperately proclaims "I love him" over and over. After such an eerie build up I"m not sure how I would take such a proclamation were I on the receiving end. Matmos remains relatively restrained, providing surprisingly coherent beats behind Bjork"s full throttle wail on the glacial "Aurora."

The pulsating deviance of "Heirloom" slinks and skitters as Bjork recites stream-of-consciousness verse: "my mother and son pour into me/warm glowing oil/into my wide open throat." Not a catchy tune that one but frighteningly seductive all the same. Similarly, on "Harm Of Will", co-written with "filmmaker" Harmony Korine, Bjork turns lyrical nonsense into an affecting, dramatic piece by virtue of her glorious inflection. Bjork"s voice often bails her out of sticky situations, almost to the point where you"d forgive her any misdoing.

Finally, on "Unison" Bjork offers a glimpse of her light-hearted side. The music is bright and uplifting, heightened by her admission that "I never thought I would compromise." The song is an ode to love- an open-faced declaration of intent: "let"s unite tonight/we shouldn"t fight/embrace you tight/let"s unite tonight." It"s a gentle closer, as it subtly makes sense of everything that"s happened before it. The whole album is threaded together by Bjork"s sudden state of happiness. With Vespertine she is stepping away from the commerciality of her previous albums in favor of a more private and evocative sound. As difficult as it is gorgeous, Vespertine ranks among Bjork"s finest albums.

Modest Mouse, Everywhere And His Nasty Parlour Tricks (Epic)

Modest Mouse - Everywhere And His Nasty Parlour Tricks Modest Mouse
Everywhere And His Nasty Parlour Tricks
Epic
By: Eric Greenwood

I suppose that if you"re a Modest Mouse completist and you don"t have a record player (and don"t like paying Japanese import prices) then this new EP is worth your time. However, if you"re just a music fan who appreciates Modest Mouse for its quality songs, then this EP is probably not in your best interest. A rehash of sorts for Modest Mouse fans, Everywhere And His Nasty Parlour Tricks is an horribly titled trip down memory lane. With four tracks culled from the Night On The Sun 12" that was released on Up Records last year (and related Japanese EP on Rebel Beat Factory), this EP offers little in the way of substantive Modest Mouse material. It breaks down like this: two great songs, a remix, an album track rerun, and some filler.

First lets start with the two good songs. Despite its almost eight-minute length, "Night On The Sun" is moody and seductive. Isaac Brock"s lyrics are typically unsettling but palatable through his bizarre rhyming technique and smooth double-tracked vocals. The music is a sparse mix of effects-laden guitars, light melodic bass, and shuffling drums. Building to an emotional instrumental climax with dueling guitars, "Night On The Sun" is prime Modest Mouse, as it bridges the rough edges of early albums with The Moon And Antarctica"s layered paranoia. "You"re The Good Things" is an acoustic pop ditty that bares an uncanny resemblance to former label-mates Built To Spill. Brock is in an uncharacteristically upbeat mood here, showcasing his inner pop star.

Now for the bad news. There"s a reason "Willful Suspension Of Disbelief" didn"t make it onto The Moon And Antarctica- it"s not very good. It resembles the textural atmosphere of the band"s groundbreaking third album, but it fails to conjure up any of the same magic, as it repeats a dull riff ad nauseum. The sporadic, indifferent vocals do little more than serve as an esoteric distraction. Not exactly the way to kick off an eight-song EP, unless your goal is certain catalepsy. "The Air" is engineer Brian Deck"s pastiche of snippets from The Moon And Antarctica in one big, blurry mess, proving that he is indeed a fine producer but a tunesmith not. The band redelivers "I Came As A Rat" in exactly the same form as the album with an exception to the title- here it has an inexplicable parenthetical addition of "long walk off a short dock." Ok.

So far the dollar for good song ratio is not turning out to be a bargain. "3 Inch Horses, Two Faced Monsters" is mildly intriguing as Modest Mouse"s interpretation of gothic country. It"s a fragment at best. Repetitive and stale. You may recall the line "I don"t know but I"ve been told/you never die and you"ll never grow old" from the tale end of "A Different City" off The Moon And Antarctica. "So Much Beauty In Dirt" is another fragment, wherein Brock again showcases his oddly repetitive poetry. Less than ninety seconds long, though, the song barely has time to register much less move you. "Here It Comes" is a peak into a vault that shouldn"t have been opened. Example- sometimes Brock"s lyrics try too hard to be clever ("talk about the future in past tense"). That"s the stuff that will be interesting when assessing the band"s impact long after it"s gone.

Unnecessary and unimpressive, this EP is filler by definition. I"d recommend that you seek out the two good songs for download and save your money. Or, if you really want your money"s worth, just go see the band live.

The Strokes, Is This It (RCA)

The Strokes - Is This It The Strokes
Is This It
RCA
By: Eric Greenwood

Riding the wave of hyperbole surrounding the release of this album would do The Strokes a disservice, so I will try to avoid resorting to superlatives to describe their music (although, I"m sure a few will creep in"). The Strokes are a mass of contradictions: Wealthy, artsy, good-looking upper class white kids embracing the New York City underbelly as a musical schtick, who play the game better than the real bands that have been sweating it out in the clubs in search of that golden record deal for years. Signed off the strength of a demo, The Strokes barely had to work for their instant success, which practically ensures that a cloud of resentment will loom over them. I wouldn"t worry too much about them, though- they"re young and smart and fully aware that they"re a great band.

At first Is This It is nothing shocking to your adept and, perhaps, jaded musical ears. It"s simple garage/guitar rock inspired by the usual class of hipster pre-requisites like The Velvet Underground, Television, and Iggy Pop/The Stooges. I also hear a twinge of Jim Morrison in Julian Casablancas" unpredictable delivery but more on that later. Like any good recipe, it"s the amount of each ingredient that counts, and that"s the key to The Strokes" understated genius. Plenty of bands have hooks and good songs and retro-garage sounds, but none compares to The Strokes. They"ve tapped into something so truly extraordinary " and so simply – that you"d swear it were an accident. That theory goes out the window, though, when you listen to how naturally the band gels on pop gems like "Soma" and "The Modern Age."

The laid back nonchalance of the title track/opener barely prepares you for the immediacy, melody, and tension that The Strokes evoke with such unaffected passion on the rest of the album. Julian Casablancas mimes Lou Reed"s style well enough to deserve the comparison, but it"s not just an imitation- it"s an interpretation with many facets. Casablancas is golden lead-singer material. Breezy and bored one moment, he will explode without warning into fiery bursts of emotion that sound so impulsive and uncontrived that you can feel the tension like you did with Jim Morrison before he was too fat and boozed up to remember his lines.

There"s something primal and exciting about "The Modern Age", but it"s hard to put your finger on it. The guitars churn out simple chords, joyfully chugging along while Casablancas takes turns crooning with his arrogant inflection and pretending to ad-lib those poetic yet standoffish lyrics: "Leavin’ just in time/Stay there for a while/Rolling in the ocean/Trying to catch her eye/Work hard and say it’s easy/Do it just to please me/Tomorrow will be different/So I’ll pretend I’m leaving." Then "Soma" rolls out and just kills the notion that pop music can"t change your life anymore. Such a simple pop song yet so effective. The guitar melody jumps an octave and Casablancas joins it vocally- it"s an old trick but never has it sounded so casual and perfect.

On "Barely Legal" the band clips a beat from "Love Will Tear Us Apart", but it"s hardly a downer. The wiry guitars spray a jubilant melody while Casablancas waxes nostalgic: "They ordered me to make mistakes/Together again like the beginning/It all works somehow in the end/The things we did, the things you hide/And for the record, it’s between you and me." Summoning an altogether darker side for "Alone, Together", The Strokes wave the Television banner proudly. Beautiful, descending bass melodies cross fade into dirty, old school guitar solos and all the while Casablancas wreaks his inimitable vocal havoc. All of it is familiar territory musically, but The Strokes paint with such an unique brush that it sounds newer and fresher with every listen, especially when you hold it up to what"s happening elsewhere in the underground music scene.

Is This It is a party record. It"s a dance record. It"s a garage rock record. But first and foremost it"s a punk album both in spirit and sound, but not in the stereotypical "Sex Pistols" sense. You"ll turn it up as loud as it goes and sing along. You"ll think about it and hum the tunes to yourself when you"re at work or can"t listen to it. You"ll scream along to "Take It Or Leave It"- in front of the mirror even, and you"ll look forward to the next time you get to hear it again. These are the tell-tale signs that you’re listening to a great album. The hype may be overwhelming- even for a band as confident and able as The Strokes, but the music rises to the occasion and you won"t be able to control yourself when you"re under its spell.