Blanket Music, Move (Hush)

Blanket Music - Move Blanket Music
By: Eric Greenwood

It would be easy not to notice this album if you dropped in at a party, and it just happened to be playing in the background. The music is so laid back and innocuous that it just hangs pleasantly in the air. You probably wouldn't know why you were tapping your feet, but each song has a secretly magnetic pull. You may even wake up the next morning humming one or two of the tunes, unable to remember where you'd heard it before.

Blanket Music dabbles in lounge, jazz, bossa nova, and retro guitar pop with sweet male/female harmonies. The music does not engage you directly, but if you engage it, you'll find yourself charmed by the breezy hooks and smooth flows. Vocalist Chad Crouch receives his share of comparisons to Belle & Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch, which is justifiable to a degree, as they both possess a hint of the ghost of Nick Drake, but I think Crouch sounds more like an infinitely less neurotic Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes. And maybe a hint of David Byrne.

With the obligatory vocal comparisons out of the way, I can concentrate on Crouch's golden goose: his lyrical ability. "Hips" may sound like the perfect accompaniment to an afternoon spent lounging by the pool, but if you listen closely, you'll hear a passive-aggressive diatribe against music critics. It's pretty ballsy to say, "Hey, you're a condescending prick, will you review my album?" But when you couch your cynicism in a hook as infectious as "shut up and sway your hips" it's hard to take offense.

"Tap The Beat" is equally as intoxicating, both lyrically and musically. A subtle bass groove with a Jamaican flair underscores Crouch's harmony with one of his female back up singers. It's a strangely quaint love song, pondering the scenario of what two lovers would do to help one another if they were to lose their limbs: "And if I lost my arms/and if I lost my legs/I would put you on my back/and I would grab things off the shelf for you." The vocals are delivered in such a breathy, carefree way that it almost negates the altruistic sentiment, but they fit the lovely sway of the song perfectly.

Blanket Music couldn't be a better name for this band, musically, but the lyrics will take a bite if you aren't careful. Crouch aims his vigilant pen at "hot designers fresh outta school" who "gotta hustle to be cool." He hits the yuppie nail on the tech-savvy head with these lines: "he's going out to drinks with them/and he's in a fix for sure/turtlenecks tossed on the floor…that black, zippy jacket, it was cool but now it's wack/he's talking to the mirror, he says 'I think white is the new black.'"

On "Walk The Dog" Crouch rambles off a list of mundane chores while one of the female back up singers intones "Tick…Tick-tock." The drums shuffle repetitively as an acoustic guitar plucks a maudlin melody. Crouch's sincerity is hard to dismiss. Some would call such an outlook disturbingly cynical, but you get the sense that Crouch takes pleasure in what others tend to ignore. He even goes so far as to call "to-do lists" a form of "inadvertent poetry." "Cityscape" is the biggest burst of energy on the album, and it is also Crouch's best moment vocally. The unexpected bend of notes as he sings "Elevator up/elevator down" is luminous.

Not many bands could make spelling out the word "Karaoke" so melodious, but Blanket Music pulls it off with gusto and a sense of humor. This album is full of tiny triumphs like that. Blanket Music creates smart, danceable music that feels like a summer breeze and nods respectfully to the genres that clearly inspired it. Move is a thoroughly engrossing album, if you take the time to see what makes it tick. You may have even heard something off it and didn't even know it. So, pay attention next time you're tapping your feet at a party and don't know why.

Blur, Leisure (Food/SBK)

Blur - Leisure Blur
By: Eric Greenwood

Blur naively stormed the British music scene in 1990 with some false advertising. “There’s No Other Way” seemingly fit right in with the “baggy” Manchester dance pop revival, but it was hardly representative of the band’s versatility. Blur was far too talented to limit itself to any passing fad, and it initially stunted its fanbase as a result.

Leisure is an astute debut record, however. Blur clearly had the chops for writing dense melodies; it was just a little confused as to where to apply them. Leisure suffers from a severe lack of direction, but it contains some timeless material despite its surface weaknesses.

“She’s So High” features a classically sweeping guitar riff, allowing Damon Albarn to show off his melismatic voice. His harmonies with guitarist Graham Coxon in the chorus foreshadow the rest of the album’s ear for 1960's melody, though no other song is as effective in its execution.

Sure, “There’s No Other Way” was undeniably catchy, but it left a sour taste in the public's collective mouth at the time. It was too saccharine and too trendy and, consequently, left Blur easy to dismiss as possible one-hit wonders. This would, of course, prove false, but the band had to struggle for years to shake its flash in the pan status.

The band has been embarrassed about Leisure's third single, “Bang”, since its release, perhaps, because of the line, "bang goes another year/in and out of one ear/everybody's doing it/I'll do it too." It was equally as steeped in retro “Madchester” trendiness as “There’s No Other Way” was, but it lacks the former’s immediacy. Plus, the aforementioned lyrics only got worse as the song progressed.

Albarn’s lyrical focus would tune up for the band’s next album, Modern Life Is Rubbish. On Leisure, though, he seemed stuck in some kind of idealistic haze- a testament to his hippie upbringing and tender age, perhaps. Flashes of brilliance like “Slow Down” mixed a shrill mountain of My Bloody Valentine-style guitar noise with haunting harmonies for another album highlight. Blur could create an astonishingly beautiful wall of discord when it wanted to.

Leisure ages surprisingly well. It took me years to disassociate it from that whole Happy Mondays/Inspiral Carpets scene of the early 1990’s. Even the dull songs show a charm and musical profundity that most bands never quite attain. Blur’s debut works much better in context with the rest of its catalogue, but on its own seems a bit stilted and contrived.

The British version of the album contains “Sing”, which is arguably one of the band’s finest compositions, mixing dark lyrics, eerie atmospherics and ghostly harmonies with Graham Coxon’s stupefying guitar work. This song alone could change one’s opinion of Leisure, but Americans weren’t introduced to it until its release on the Trainspotting soundtrack in 1996.

This Computer Kills, S/T (Substandard Records/new Red Archives)

This Computer Kills - S/T This Computer Kills
Substandard Records/new Red Archives
By: Eric Greenwood

Just as I finish telling somebody that playing hardcore in 2002 is not unlike flogging a long-dead horse, here comes This Computer Kills to serve up a big plate of crow for me to eat. Sadly this Reno, Nevada trio announced its breakup only one month after the release of its debut full-length (which was just last month). What a shame. This is easily the best hardcore record I've heard in years.

I hate it when age is brought up in terms of a band's talent, but it truly is unbelievable that these guys were still in high school, writing music this accomplished. This Computer Kills plays hardcore, yes, but not your typical, run of the mill, power chord, numbskull pap. The band employs tools you've certainly heard before: razor sharp guitars, extremely busy, high-end, melodic bass lines, and shrieking, half-sung/half-screamed vocals, but it presents it all in a reanimated and totally refreshing way.

The music is desperate and frantic. The vocals are probably the band's best asset. Screaming can either be an instant turn off or the defining aspect of a band's sound. The latter is most definitely the case here. The guitarist and bassist trade off vocals, but the wellspring from which these guys draw their shrill inflections is astonishing. They seem to be able to scream with power and longevity without any signs of tiring. What's even more impressive is the way they turn their screams into half-sung notes, so that you're not just ambushed by a bunch of unmelodic vocal noise. It's tuneful and frightening.

The bass player seems to lead each song with muscular fretwork that will cause any bassist to wonder how he can possibly play like that and sing at the same time. Don't misconstrue- he's not playing a bunch of extraneous notes just to show off and sound ridiculous like Les Claypool of Primus- the bass lines are tight and smart, driving each track into frenetic layers of spastic yet melodic hardcore. The melodies are not peppy, though. Weezer, this band ain't, and, thank God for that. There are more than enough copycat Weezer bands to sate the country's teen angst audience for years.

The only sign of the band's age is inherent to the lyrics, which tend to lean on the dramatic side, but the delivery blows away any youthful transgressions. "Fade Away" embraces the spirit of Moss Icon, Black Flag, The Minutemen, and Joy Division, musically. Explosive and aggressive changes are born out of quirky guitar/bass interplay. The bass and drums are mixed higher than the guitar, which might drive away many hardcore fans, who yearn for nothing but pick slides and power chords, but the discerning listener will appreciate the break from tradition. With the bass player sustaining the structure of the songs, the guitarist can experiment, which sounds very strange in such a tense context, but it works.

"Paradigm Anomie" is the best song on the record. I have repeated it so many times I can't even remember what it was like to hear it for the first time, and I'm still not sick of it. An insanely catchy bass line thrashes out the introduction, and the vocals are perfectly overlain. The chorus is so good. After a few shrieks the singer hits this sustained note, using his real voice, and it's just so fucking cool. At two minutes and forty seconds, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better punk song that is this succinct and perfect. Even the lyrics are mysteriously intriguing: "Passion is a virtue long misplaced by time, pave the streets with microchips and random access souls/streetlights scream unknowingly, we need more power/I’ve got a stick shift in a makeshift… Paradigm: Anomie/Try to tear it down, let it go, tear it down…it's all right."

"Soapbox Kids" continues the band's incorporation of unlikely influences into its unique hardcore sound. Arty, jangly guitar work reminiscent of Pere Ubu and The Police (seriously) sounds crazy up against bratty, screamo vocals. The band's ear for melody transforms the song into a dark sing-along, if you can imagine such a thing. Even a Cure influence wedges its way into the mix on the terrifying "Once Conversational." The band intuitively capitalizes on all the right moments of tension, creating a desperate atmosphere of manic terror. Clean guitars and gothic-tinged bass lines swirl into a death march as the band screams: "I hate your words and your ruse/we were once conversational."

I can honestly say that every song on this album is well worth a listen. Some are even deserving of far higher accolades. This is unbelievably catchy, memorable, and intense punk rock- just the way it ought to be. This Computer Kills called it quits far too soon. If you've been waiting for some band to come along and reinvigorate hardcore as we know it, then you'll definitely want to seek out this record. You'll regret it if you don't.

Stephin Merritt, Eban & Charley Soundtrack (Merge)

Stephin Merritt - Eban & Charley Soundtrack Stephin Merritt
Eban & Charley Soundtrack
By: Eric Greenwood

Traditional soundtrack albums are always hit or miss, and Eban & Charley is a little bit of both, as it finds Stephin Merritt just outside his natural element. It's odd that Merritt would choose to use his birth name for the first time on such a strange and somewhat inconsistent release. Eban & Charley, a film by James Bolton, is the story of a questionable relationship between a 29-year-old ex-soccer coach and a fifteen-year-old slacker. It's no surprise that Merritt would jump on board a film with such a polarizing subject matter, but his musical choices are somewhat disappointing in light of his recently lauded output. It must be said, however, that Merritt – even on an off day – still outshines the majority of composers today.

The soundtrack is cluttered with plonky instrumentals sandwiched between a few of the type of ironic/romantic ballads you've come to expect from Merritt's world-weary pen. The ostentatiously avant-garde instrumentals are incidental, and it's a shame that they make up the preponderance of the album. You won't listen to them for musical pleasure. They're clearly designed to be mood pieces set to compliment scenes from the film, which makes listening to them out of context somewhat difficult. The childlike instrumentation twinkles and twitches with samples of nature and wildlife, and they contrast sharply with the six remaining folk pieces, perhaps, to signify the corruption of innocence inherent to the film.

The meat of the soundtrack is not very filling, but it's enough to tide over those longing for new music from Merritt before his next "proper" album with The Magnetic Fields (who, incidentally, just signed to the very eclectic Nonesuch label). The reverb-drenched "Some Summer Day" sways gently in resignation. Merritt's voice is double-tracked, adding to the ephemeral feel of the all-too-brief tune. "Poppyland" is the standout song here. Merritt's lovelorn baritone is in full swing amidst a programmed low-end undercurrent and a primitive beat. Twinkling pianos playfully support Merritt's typically sedate melody in the verse: "when black waves break/on the world you make/the pieces go to Poppyland."

Some may wonder why the downtrodden ode, "Maria Maria Maria", is included, as it explores the anguish of a marriage, but its poignant sense of longing suits the film's theme aptly. It's gorgeously sparse with a melancholic, folksy edge. "This Little Ukulele" would easily have fit in with Merritt's 1999 masterpiece, 69 Love Songs, as it showcases Merritt's sublime lyrical genius: "I wish I had an orchestra behind me/when you lose in faith, an orchestra gives proof/well, an orchestra can tell you pretty stories/but this little ukulele tells the truth." The minute-long "Tiny Flying Player Pianos" seems inconsequential at first, but the effect of its subtle cadence is arresting, if only momentarily.

The dirty, reverb-heavy guitar in the final vocal track, "Water Torture", sets an ominous mood until Merritt's hilarious rhyming alliteration kicks in, proving, once again, that he is the craftiest wordsmith working today: "’Teasing bees is easy,’ wheezed Louise. ‘These bees are teased.’ Tease these, Louise.” Ha. Eban & Charley may feel like it only flirts with greatness because of its thirty-minute, or so, length, but if you are a die-hard Stephin Merritt fan, then this is an indispensable album. For the casual observer, however, you may want to be introduced another way. May I suggest 69 Love Songs or The Charm Of The Highway Strip, instead?

Yuka Honda, Memories Are My Only Witness (Tzadik)

Yuka Honda - Memories Are My Only Witness Yuka Honda
Memories Are My Only Witness
By: Eric Greenwood

The musical brains behind Cibo Matto delivers her first solo work for John Zorn's Tzadik label, and it's a diverse collection of electronic instrumentals, skimming across the tops of dance, soul, disco, funk, blues, and rock. Honda's production skills are outstanding. Each track thumps inside your chest and crossbreeds more genres than you can probably count. Honda showcased the breadth of her musical talents on Cibo Matto's 1999 pop classic, Stereotype A, and she pushes even further into experimental territory here.

The eclecticism is rarely forced or out of synch, and Honda weaves these patches of divergent styles together remarkably well. She depends heavily on electronic instrumentation, including samples, mini discs, and programmed beats, but this is not your typical "electronic music" record. It has an overwhelmingly organic feel, despite the abundance of programming. Honda's laid back style is easily recognizable, which is no small feat given the familiarity of the musical terrain traversed here.

The schizophrenic "Why Do We Mistrust The Machines We Made" is an eight-minute mind warp that must be experienced with headphones. The up beat, jazz-inflected vibe that opens the song evolves into a dark, atmospheric deconstruction, replete with strings and keyboards. The song picks itself back up again, though, recalling Western-influenced African pop. The transitions are not always so natural; however, as evidenced by the sudden tonal shifts towards the end of the song, but Honda has too much skill to allow herself to sound like a dilettante.

Honda indulges in kitchy dance pop on "You Think You Are So Generous, But…", incorporating light-hearted, tinkering melodies over big, bouncy beats. Midway through the song, an alien electric guitar sneaks in and throws your expectations off course. The song then quickly descends into a minimal synthetic meandering, which serves to remind you that this is not a record to clean the house to. Lending further evidence to that conclusion is the driving and propulsive "Sun Beam…", in which a fairly straightforward techno beat mingles with gloomy keyboards and low-end bass only to climax with a polyrhythmic permutation.

Honda is both playful and serene on jaunty snippets like "Single Silver Bullet" with its twinkling piano, silly sound effects, and unpredictable, digressive beats, which serve as transitions into the more substantive tracks. "Schwaltz" serves up a strange amalgam of jungle rhythms, jazzy excursions, and brief waltzes. The multiple layers of keyboards playing concurrent melodies raise the tension to a maddening level, which conflicts directly with the soothing sway of the waltzes lurking at the core. "The Last One To Fall Asleep With" couldn't be more dissimilar. The deep, resonating strings glide slowly while samples of choir voices lull you into a numbing stupor.

The influence of Miles Davis looms large on "Night Driving." The blue-tinted trumpet sounds affected enough to have been produced on a keyboard, and the deliberately loungey piano feeds the cliché. This track stands out more than any other does because it lacks Honda's distinctive touch until the final minute when it spaces out into a wash of flange and electronic murmurs. The album ends on an abbreviated note- in a flurry of hazy, pastel keyboards meant to evoke flashbacks that live up to its title, "Liberation #6- Leaving The Memories Behind."

Honda proves herself to be an extremely versatile and unpredictable musician on her debut solo outing. She has expanded upon the pop sensibilities of her work with Cibo Matto while taking on an even more experimental approach, cultivating her extraordinary musical amplitude. Memories Are My Only Witness is an easy-listening but difficult record- it goes down fast but makes you think about what you have ingested.

Daniel Ash, S/t (Psychobaby)

Daniel Ash - S/t Daniel Ash
By: Eric Greenwood

Yikes. Bad techno schlock from former guitar genius confirms that Daniel Ash can't make a decent solo album to save his life. This is just terribly embarrassing. Cheesy, decade-old techno beats? What is Ash thinking? He proved he could at least pretend to hang with the underground electronic experimentalists on Love And Rockets' two far-underrated albums, Hot Trip To Heaven and Lift, respectively, but this self-titled third solo album from the former Bauhaus/Tones On Tail/Love And Rockets guitarist is a major disappointment. Ash just simply fails to use his God-given talents- you know, things like songwriting skills and vocal melodies.

Is he too coked up to strike a memorable chord? Surely, he's given up the drugs by now. You can't do coke for twenty years, can you? I'd imagine he's drinking wheat germ and taking yoga classes at this point. Maybe, that's the problem. If so, let's get back on the drugs, pronto. Songs like "Hollywood Fix" and "The Money Song" aren't going to resuscitate anyone's career. The former bounces along like a C+C Music Factory outtake from 1989 while Ash mumbles "I'll build you up/to feed your pain." I know I don't have to tell you how bad that sounds. Try seven minutes of it. The latter song incorporates Pink Floyd's "Money" riff into a reverb-drenched mess with some Hollywood slut whispering "money" over electronic bongos. This has to be a bad joke. Where's the real album, Daniel?

Oh, you're still here. It really doesn't get much better, but since you're obviously a glutton for punishment, I'll go on. "Mastermind" tries to be seductive with ghostly keyboards and Ash's ominous repetition of the word "mastermind", but the European house diva disco beat tends to curb any enjoyment, unless you're the type that gets off on body glitter and pacifiers. "Come Alive" seems to have the same bad beat, but Ash speeds it up a notch and adds some noise. He yells "God Is Dead" over the repetitive dance mix while his wah-wah guitar fights for some attention. Wow, God is dead, eh? That's some heavy stuff, man. Nothing Einsturzende Neubauten didn't say fifteen years ago, though. It's pretty much unlistenable tripe, cementing this album's status as one of the worst of the year, so far.

"Ghost Writer" unfurls like an actual song instead of some bad club remix. Ash's recognizable drawl floats over the dated synths and wiry bassline. It's a step up, for sure, but far from what you'd expect from a man who was involved with what are arguably some of the best albums of the 1980's. "Kid 2000" tries to be creepy with Ash's nephew reading some garble about the future, but it sounds like a go-nowhere, half-assed fragment, despite Ash's bluesy guitar licks making a rare appearance.

It would have been easy enough to cash in on the success of the Bauhaus reunion tour with a new album or even another tour, but Ash and his bandmates didn't want to taint their own legend- too much. Completely abandoning your roots is another problem altogether. Ash just doesn't have the chops to compete with the current crop of electronic musicians. He's an amazing guitarist, but he practically ignores the instrument here in favor of boring, repetitive, and uninventive electronic meanderings. Avoid at all costs.

Cornelius, Point (Matador)

Cornelius - Point Cornelius
By: Eric Greenwood

Cornelius" follow up to his dizzyingly schizophrenic breakout, Fantasma, is a more cohesive but less spontaneous collection of clean samples, calculated rock, and fusion noise. Cornelius is a meticulous producer. Every single sound is deliberate and precise, and he builds each song into a symphonic climax, using wholly unorthodox means. Organic percussion mingles with dreamy, harmonized vocals and repetitive samples while Cornelius overlays breezy guitars and bright, energetic riffs. The sonic consistency may bore fans thirsting for more of Cornelius" spastic and unpredictable eclecticism, but the ensuing stereophonic experience is second to none.

"Point Of View" rocks in a passively restrained, repetitive way. Staggering beats circle around sunny voices passing in and out of each ear while multiple acoustic guitars fill in the gaps with chiming melodies and stagnant rhythms. Each layer raises the tension slightly, but the culmination is never cluttered or noisy, as Cornelius keeps each track distinct and purposeful. "Smoke" is much funkier. Keeping the rhythms tight, Cornelius pursues more vocal harmonies. The multiple guitar tracks jerk and slide in between the beats, and Cornelius lets loose with some carefully placed feedback and noise.

The incessant light water splashing in "Drop" may make you have to run to bathroom, but you"ll be humming a cheery tune while you"re in there. The chorus of voices drones above another acoustic-based funk riff. More rumbling, funky slap-bass straight out of Duran Duran"s playbook adds a danceable, almost pop feel to the infectious rhythms of "Another View Point." Cornelius picks up the aggression a bit here with a propulsive backbeat and some sharp guitar squawks. "Tone Twilight Zone" is a gorgeous mix of guitar harmonics and outdoor sound effects that casts a mysterious calm over the entire album.

The loopy, lazy vocals on "Bird Watching At Inner Fore" recall Stereolab on half as many Quaaludes. As the acoustic guitars grow more intense, the beats sputter frenetically in the background. More nature noises infiltrate the mix as well, but they aren"t as calming amidst such nervous strumming. The door to sonic chaos finally opens on "I Hate Hate", where Cornelius unleashes a speed-metal guitar lesson worthy of Slayer or even Melt Banana. The bossa nova-inflected remake of "Brazil" features a computerized voice, which carries the dramatic melody. The result is sad and surreal and plaintively retro-futuristic- like watching 2001: A Space Odyssey in 2002.

Although, Point may be comprised of a narrower set of references than its predecessor was, Cornelius seems to be able to channel his genius through an impressive array of styles and moods. His skills are more focused and, thusly, the songs are more memorable. Where Fantasma shot randomly in every direction, Point sticks to a predetermined set of styles that showcases his stellar musicianship. Depending on your mood, this can be a dance record or an headphones record or even a driving record. The depth is there and repeated listens unveil new interpretations every single time.