November 1, 2004, by Bill Ribas
November 2004 CD Reviews:
Pantheon, Crush the Weak
Apollo 13, Brave New World
Eyelevel, Elevator Plans
Motel Creeps, Pleasantries in the Parlor
Ted Czuk, The Gamut
Groove Factory, Conobus
Alaria Taylor, Unfinished Business
Daniel Carlson, Now
Camp Susannah, Happy Today
Maggie Kim, Lesson 1.5
Die Warzau, Convenience
Pantheon, Crush the Weak (© 2004 GuavaJamm Entertainment)
Like many musical genres, the hardcore stuff will never die. Proof of that is this disc, a mix of thundering bass lines, shredding guitar bits, and enough obscenities to make Tipper Gore faint. One thing interesting here, however, is the absence of a drummer a real-life drummer, that is. Oh sure, there are beats, but it's either sampled and looped, or courtesy of a box. And while you think that might not matter, I beg to differ.
The use of a DJ who employs bits and pieces, along with keyboard sampling, has a definite effect on the dynamics of the band, but without a drummer, there seems to be something missing in the mix. Yeah, the sound is there, but it is somewhat soulless, in that there is no anchor for the music. This is most evident on "Lucky Eyes," where, after a guitar chord hangs for a few seconds, the electronic drums come in, and the successive taps of the electronic snare just pale in comparison to the real deal. On top of the nonexistent drummer, the sampling and such is a tad high in the mix, taking away from the frenzy that the guitar and bass form. Check for yourself at
Apollo 13, Brave New World (© 2004 C.I.S. Publishing)
Here's an interesting disc, although somewhat scattershot stylistically. The reason for the diversity lies in the creation, as Shannon Savoie, the frontman for the Kansas-based outfit, the Band That Saved the World (reviewed here a while back), began working on some of his own material apart from the band. Also joining the lineup from TBTSTW were Mike MacFarland on keys, guitars, among other things, and Will Dinkel on bass. Drummer Danny Rojas was recruited, and voila, the band was complete. They laid down a bunch of stuff, won first place in an international song contest, and continue to grow as I type.
Anyway, while some stuff is in the electronica dance arena, you'll also find bits of reggae, and straight-ahead rock. Though this lack of focus may be, well, a bit unsettling for some, it actually plays rather well, coming across like 45 minutes of good college radio. The fact that they can be chameleons, successfully handling a variety of styles, points to a bright future. Some bands have enough trouble getting their own sound right, making a disc a nightmare to listen to, but Apollo 13 have a mature and capable approach which, unless they're struck by a bad case of writer's block, should allow them to continue to produce good music.
Eyelevel, Elevator Plans (© 2004 Engine Company Records)
The trio is John Pompeo on guitars and vocals, his brother Steve Pompeo on drums, and bassist Jeremy Pflug. Their sound has a sparse lushness to it, almost like a stripped-down Radiohead disc without all the bells, whistles, and gimmicks. But even that assessment doesn't come close to describing what the disc does to you. Yeah, you might want to use the word "ethereal," as the music sounds much bigger than it is. And that's not a detriment, all I mean is it's just bass, guitar, and drums, but sounds like so much more. A song like "Butterfly" is a good example.
Starting off with the bass playing thirds, then the vocals come in, along with guitar and bass bits using a volume pedal to swell in and out. And as the song progresses, more guitar bits are introduced, brushes tap away on the snare, and magically, the sound gets huge. When you give it a listen, you'll see what I mean. The rest of the disc has that same magic. Sure, it helps that the songs are melodic, and easy on the ears, but a close listen really makes you appreciate the studio. Suffice it to say, they get a lot of mileage out of a trio. Great work here.
Motel Creeps, Pleasantries in the Parlor (© 2004 Motel Creeps)
Dang, man, as soon as I put this in I was back in the heart of the '80s, and my brain tried to think who the singer reminded me of (ah yes, from Echo and the Bunnymen, the one with the bad teeth). It is weird, in a way, to hear bands emulating that style, when you've lived through the '80s and experienced all the stuff that you now see on nostalgic VH1 specials. But that's my problem. Unfortunately, the problem with this glorious disc is that it only contains four songs.
Now with a lesser band, it wouldn't matter so much, but with this band, it's driving me nuts, because I want to hear more. And it's not a nostalgia thing, but rather a sincere desire for more since
they did such a good job on the four cuts here. Greg Welch has a good voice, though it could be a bit more prominent in the mix, and Eric Butler's guitar work is real nice. His leads and rhythm work are sweet, though not over played. The rhythm section of John Vitelli on bass and Jim Connolly on drums holds the band together tightly. Until they have a full disc out that you can sink your teeth into,
waltz on over to www.motelcreeps.com for more info.
Ted Czuk, The Gamut (© 2003/2004 Ted Czuk)
He's been a jazz saxophonist, a rock-and-roll guitar player, a country-western bassist, a blues pianist, and a folk harmonica player, and now, Ted Czuk summons his myriad personalities and playing abilities, giving them all a home on one disc. Obviously, a disc so stylistically varied would never fly at a big label, but since the indie thing has taken off worldwide, Czuk figured he'd put out something that covers a lot of ground. And while he might be a jack of all trades yet master of none, he has assembled an interesting resume.
I don't mean to insult him with the "master of none" cut, but there are weak spots on the disc. Then again, I haven't put out a stylistically diverse CD myself, so score Czuk one, critic zero. Lyrically, Czuk really shines, with a subtle sense of humor and a sharp ear. In "Baby Lie," for example, he pleads, "So won't you sweetly play the game, baby lie, I can't take the honesty, so if you're really fond of me, then there is only one way to reply, baby lie, baby lie, come on look me in the eye, and lie, baby lie, baby lie." In the end, you get a sense that Czuk is an all-around good guy, and you can meet him at
Groove Factory, Conobus (© 2004 S. Bastien)
Our next offering comes all the way from Scotland, and is chock full of electronica dance music. While there is not much press accompanying the music, the quick bio notes that Stephen Bastien began his musical career in the Caribbean playing with a steel pan orchestra. How he made it to Scotland might be an interesting story, but alas, it's not recounted. In any event, he made his way through various bands, until recently, when he set up the Groove Factory company, in hopes of selling his dance music. As far as the music, well, fans will know I am no lover of electronica, but I can, if need be, pass judgment, and here I go doing that again.
Bastien's music is not the hard-charging, attack-heavy stuff that blasts in your face and gets you angry enough to dance, but rather a more reserved form. There are times as well that some of the numbers sound downright amateurish, as if Bastien was still feeling his way around a synthesizer. And there are spots where he does manage to generate interest, making more than just sounds, and coming across as if some thought had gone into the composition. I'd mention the good and the bad numbers, but none of the tracks are titled (a marketing mistake?). There is no track that really grabs me by the collar, but then again, I ain't much of a dancer.
Alaria Taylor, Unfinished Business (© 2004 Angel Dog Records)
Reading Taylor's biography is a bit daunting. Well, not that there are any big words or anything, but at one point, due to health problems, she was essentially confined to her home, and a career in music was out of the question. Luckily, though, she recovered, and now offers this CD for your listening pleasure. She has been the recipient of several awards, and her song construction shows her to be more than your average yokel who croons numbers at the local coffee hut.
There are times when a certain nasal quality pervades her vocals, but maybe that stuff only bothers me. Stylistically, the arena is the lighter side of rock, although a raucous number peppered with wicked slide guitar ("Lose My Mind") does give her a chance to rip it up a bit. On the opener, "One Hour a Day," a somewhat autobiographical song, she veers comically, singing about the Virgin Mary, "People flock to see her all over the earth, It's her biggest gig since the virgin birth!" And Taylor, on her website,
www.alariataylor.com, does offer info on how the songs came to be, with explanations on the lyric pages. A lot of stuff comes from her health battles, understandably, but it's interesting to see what performers are thinking when they write songs.
Daniel Carlson, Now (© 2004 AptZero Recordings)
Though just a five-song EP, this offering by Carlson is a moody man's dream. There's more layering than in Donald Trump's hair, with the sounds of each instrument artfully stacked in the right places. The result is a dark-edged "Elliot Smith meets Radiohead on a gloomy day" kind of disc. Carlson's voice wavers just a tad, with a trepidation not unlike a young David Byrne. Clocking in at about a minute and a half is "Gold," a throwaway filler cut (which is odd, given that this is an EP), but the other numbers will have you moping around the house and thinking of better days in your youth.
Not that Carlson is a depressing guy, but the minor chords are abundant, and you won't be hopping around, happy just to be alive. Given that the music has a large impact on mood, it's safe to say that Carlson is successful in his songwriting and in the production of the disc. The fact that the songs can generate a wistful feeling on the first listen proves the power of good writing. And sure, I'd like to hear him do a few happier numbers, but I'd guess, on the success of the songs here, that another disc isn't too far away.
Camp Susannah, Happy Today (© 2004 Bunnyhead Music)
This disc is like a breath of fresh air the bright, clear voice of Susannah Blinkoff, though she can make it sexy and sultry in a heartbeat, the stellar playing by a great band, and just some great, overall grooving music. Blinkoff's voice at times reminds me of Suzanne Vega, as she exhibits a breathy delivery on many songs. As for the musicians, there is guitarist John Ballinger (Rufus Wainwright), bassist David Sutton (Tracy Champman, Liz Phair, Tears For Fears), percussionist Scott Breadman (Macy Gray), pianist Billy West (Maimou), and drummer Ray McNamara.
In short, the musicianship is solid as a rock, and it really allows the listener to concentrate on Blinkoff's vocals. Were there any shortcomings in her pipes, it would stand out, and I'm happy to say that there are no problems whatsoever. She bends words, drags them out slowly, or just sounds like a bright beacon on the musical horizon. On "Talkin' To Myself," an upbeat number, she sounds happy and outgoing. The song is probably a good contender for the single off the disc. "We Were Gonna Be" is a bittersweet love tune, one which also shows that Blinkoff and crew understand dynamics, building the song up and then lowering it down gently. A beautiful disc from start to finish.
Maggie Kim, Lesson 1.5 (© Maggie Kim)
As the first song begins, with a high pitched "doo doo doo, doo doo doo," and what sounds like an electronic drum kit, I wonder if this is yet another talent-less hack with a self-produced EP. There's a thin jewel case for one, and a picture of a scantily clad girl on the cover. But then, the song opens up more, and I'm starting to like the "doo doo doos." And then as the second number begins, there's a slightly raspy, ohh-so-sexy voice just oozing out of my speakers. Sheesh, where did she come from?
Her bio gives the particulars, how she shifted from dark alt rock to the pop stuff. And while I haven't heard her previous stuff, the six numbers on this disc point to a formidable presence in the pop world. Her songs have strong hooks, are quite melodic, and heck, she even does an interesting cover of Prince's "Raspberry Beret." There is an appealing quality to her voice, as it balances between rasp and emotional desperation. On "Just Stay," a love ballad, she seamlessly shifts between grit and sadness. Sign me up as a fan.
Die Warzau, Convenience (© 2004 Pulseblack Records)
They haven't put out a disc in over eight years, but for fans of the band's heavy, industrial sound, the wait is worth it. The term industrial should, however, only be applied as an indicator, and not a label, since the band is not as heavy or driven, as say, KMFDM. Sure, there is a strength that leans toward the industrial genre, but the band is just as capable veering off in other directions. Songs here are varied, from slower numbers to more energetic driving ones, and even a nod to Brit pop with "Come As You Are."
This is a meaty disc, one that takes some time getting accustomed to, and one that generates appreciation with regard to the keyboard programming, and just how the pieces of a whole song fit together. I suppose it takes a keyboardist or drummer state of mind I'm just a simple guitar guy, and I wouldn't know the first thing about when to run a sequencer or what types of sounds to interject and at what time in the songs. But these lads from Chicago make it seem effortless, and the result is a sonic success for the ears. With 16, count 'em, 16 tracks, there's a wealth of music here to listen to. A brilliant return disc.
Email columnist Bill Ribas
Join Our Mailing List Send This Page to a Friend Current Stories
Gig Listings Musicians Classifieds Street Beat Back Issues