This week’s CD reviews are on:
>> Betty Blowtorch
>> Bertrand Burgalat
>> Elf Power
>> Macy Gray
>> The (International) Noise Conspiracy
>> Ja Rule
>> The Lilac Time
>> The Shermans
>> Tokidoki & Alsace Lorraine
Are You Man Enough?
There is nothing redeeming about this album. Betty Blowtorch – a mediocre quartet of femme rockers starved for originality – consists of Bianca Butthole (bass, vocals), Sharon Needles (Guitar), Blare N. Bitch (lead guitar), and Judy Molish (drums). They carry a violently cliched persona of cheap biker-bar rock ‘n’ roll hussies, and their unfortunate debut, Are You Man Enough?, is a weak attempt at “shock rock” songs (i.e. “Shut Up and Fuck” and “Hell on Wheels”). It’s not hard to conclude that the Betty’s of Blowtorch might be into the music more for the act they put on rather than the music itself. And, musically speaking, their act is really the best thing they have going for them.
Over-used four chord progressions and shallow lyrics that push the border of “laughable” haunt a typical Blowtorch song. Despite a valiant effort from Vanilla Ice (rapping about the length of his male appendage in the song “Size Queen”), Are You Man Enough? falls short in all aspects. The songs become one giant brain-numbing blunder of wailing vocals and hackneyed guitar hooks that shoot for that “raw rock quality” but come up as clueless as Bill Gates in a sporting goods store.
The Sssound of Mmmusic
You know an artist doesn’t have much to offer when a bio has to didactically point out that the person is a genius. For instance, in Burgalat’s bio, there are asides such as “Wow!,” “Amazing!,” and for those who don’t believe all his so-called “feats”–“It’s true.” Not even this pathetic attempt to convince someone that Burgalat is the greatest person to come from France can prevent me from disliking this album. In his 40s, Burgalat, like that Mirwais character, is a late-bloomer of a producer, and cannot seem to successfully create a work of his own. The Sssound of Mmmusic at times captures the essence of the “French pop” scene but mostly this album is filler. The only real highlight is an older release thrown in called “Sunshine Yellow,” and it’s performed by an MTV UK veejay. If that’s the best he can do cameo-wise, I have an even harder time believing his record company.
The Winter is Coming
Elf Power has been associated with the psychedelic power-pop Elephant 6 scene for years. Their sound has linked them with bands like Apples in Stereo, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Olivia Tremor Control. With their fourth full-length release, The Winter is Coming, the band seems to confirm this relationship, shunning conventional happy-go-lucky Beach Boys influenced indie-rockers for a fantastic spiritual journey through songwriter Andrew Rieger’s mind.
Laura Carter’s accordion and Adrian Finch’s violin add an interesting element of formality that plays well against the whimsical, castle-in-the-sky themes of songs like “The Winter is Coming” and “The Sun is Forever.”
But on heavy tracks like “Wings of Light” and “Albatross” the band is at its best. These drugged-out, mystical journeys are reminiscent of Atom Heart Mother-era Pink Floyd. Combining delightfully catchy melodies with fuzzy guitar work and sonic string combinations, Elf Power has created a truly original record. Nothing is derived here.
Elf Power will play the North Star Bar on Saturday, Oct. 27. Tickets are $10.
Macy Gray’s follow-up to her debut album, On How Life Is, is anything but sophomoric. Cleverly titled The Id, Gray taps her unconscious for a personal and spiritual exploration of life’s most complicated themes. In 13 tracks, this talented singer covers life, love, sex, and violence with incredible passion.
Her emotions are conveyed through a variety of music genres. “Sweet Baby” (a duet with Erykah Badu) features a classical arrangement, while “Don’t Come Around” is a soulful, R&B song about lost love. One of the best songs on the album, “My Nutmeg Phantasy” (featuring Angie Stone and Mos Def), is a combination of funk, jazz and hip-hop. But throughout, Gray’s style is impressive, vibrant and full of creativity. The Id is more than an extension of Gray’s accomplishment as an artist, it’s a sampling of the novelty she will continue to bring into the music world.
The (International) Noise Conspiracy
A New Morning
Dennis Lyxzen, frontman of Sweden’s (International) Noise Conspiracy has been living in the shadow of Washington, D.C.’s Ian Svenious for some time now. His fusing of radical politics, fashion, and loud music has always seemed suspiciously similar to Svenious’ output with the Nation of Ulysses and The Make-Up (both now defunct). But with A New Morning, Lyxzen may have finally come into his own.
Whereas The Make-Up took a subtle approach with a gospel sound, the (I)NC uses guitars like weapons to create high-energy rock rhythms, backing Lyxzen’s shake-your-hips verses, call-and-response choruses, and occasional screams. A New Morning sounds like a proto-punk band a la the Stooges, but without the guitar solos and with organs, pianos, and horns at all the right moments.
Lyrically, the album personalizes the leftist themes from last year’s Survival Sickness. Rather than regurgitating theory and criticism, Lyxzen takes radical politics to the level of the rock-music fan, as he assures us with all the sensuousness of Mick Jagger that he “just want[s] to be free / not some billboard advertising dream.” A New Morning will undoubtedly get choruses of revolutionary demands stuck in any listener’s head, but whether those demands are ever contemplated is another story.
What makes Ivy more than just another knob-twiddlers-fronted-by-a-chick-vocalist outfit is their pure pop sensibility. Unlike the terse and moody electronica put out by the likes of Mono and Sneaker Pimps, Long Distance floats cutesy and catchy melodies atop circuitry and impressive instrumentation. Gentle guitar and bright horns make “Lucy Doesn’t Love You” a gem, and “Edge Of The Ocean” kicks on pulsing keys with a hip-hop beat. Producers / instrumentalists Andy Chase and Adam Schlesinger provide a tight musical backing to Dominique Durand’s ethereal vocals, and bring in guest talent to add their two cents here and there (James Iha plays guitar on “Midnight Sun”). Some moments like “While We’re In Love” drag, but even when it’s less-than-exciting, Long Distance still manage to keep your head bobbing.
Pain is Love
(Murder Inc./Def Jam)
On his third album since being signed to Def Jam, Ja Rule has matured from a hardcore thug to a more sensitive rapper, talking more about love than gang violence. Despite this, he doesn’t show much improvement in his production work for Pain is Love.
Tracks like “Dial M for Murder” and “Smokin and Ridin” go back to his debut album Venni, Vetti, Vecci. He tries to show he can still be a ganster with verses like “I’m a beast with animalistic intentions / Rap’s first organized crime family / Sellin’ more records than dope.” But on the track “Lost Little Girl,” Ja Rule shows the mature and sensitive side of his talent by telling a story about a girl lost in a lifestyle of stripping, drugs, and gangbanging.
“Livin It Up” and “I’m Real (Remix),” are the only tracks which show the better side of his production work. Despite having guest appearances, including Missy Elliot, Case, and 2Pac, Pain is Love doesn’t demonstrate the rhyming and production abilities Ja Rule has shown on his last two albums. He doesn’t seem to have the ability to separate himself from a typical rapper, which is why his latest album is more pain than love.
The Lilac Time
Stephen Duffy is more famous for what he’s done behind the scenes, most notably his songwriting contributions for Barenaked Ladies. But his own groups, Lilac Time and the Blur spin-off Me Me Me, have put out enough blissful guitar pop to have a devoted following. On Lilac6, however, Duffy pulls the stereotypical British songwriter stunt: he goes country on us. That’s right, just like Costello, Graham Parker, and Nick Lowe before him, Duffy has written a myriad of steel-peddle pumpin’, lyrically trite twang ballads. In other words, he’s gotten old. By the time a good song comes along, “The Last Man on the Moon” for example, the album is nearly over, and it’s too little too late. There are rumors that Me Me Me are going to have another CD coming out. Hopefully the other members will deprogram Duffy in time for him not to ruin their credit too.
Falling Out of Love EP
Don’t blink. You could miss this Swedish trio’s new EP. The Shermans play bouncy, childlike songs about … well, childhood. And love. Ingela Matsson’s vocals are cute, especially when she harmonizes with herself or adds her own back-up vocals. Mikael Matsson used to play in Red Sleeping Beauty, a fantastic early ’90s indie pop band. Like that group, the Shermans keep things short; the average song length is two minutes and six seconds. (Hey, I said don’t blink.)
Falling out of Love is a “teaser” for Happiness is Toy Shaped, the group’s second full-length album on Shelflife Records. Each of the five songs has a Japanese indie flavor. “My Baby,” the closer and EP’s best song, is Motown-infused audio confectionery. Will I run out and buy a Shermans full-length? Probably not. Will I listen if a friend plays it in their car? Of course. Good head-bopping music is always a treat.
Through Small Windows
Chicago is a rock music city. Be it the blistery sounds of Shellac or Tortoise’s telekinetic jams, the city doesn’t exactly evoke a feeling of innocence and sweetness. Hell, it’s windy and bleak and dark. Yet Tokidoki and Alsace Lorraine, two fine Chicago-based bands, don’t let the scene (or weather) disrupt their coy indie pop.
Tokidoki cast themselves as “the anti Shellac,” an apt description for a band of one woman, one man, one acoustic guitar and one keyboard (with only one sound). The band is a product of the tiny mid-to-late ’90s Chicago pop scene that spawned acts like Yum-Yum and Dingle. This sole self-titled CD was recorded in 1997, but is just now seeing the light of day. Building on the excellence of their first two singles, the 12-track album clocks in under 24 minutes. No complex solos, no “breakdowns” – just introspective pop songs a la Lois Maffeo’s little sister rocking to The Mountain Goats.
Jumping four years into the future, a modern “hip-pop” influence blankets Through Small Windows, the debut from Alsace Lorraine. Focusing more on synthesized atmospherics, the trio combines old school hip-hop beats with the classic pop sounds of artists as diverse as Patsy Cline, Marine Girls and Ride. Vocalist Caitlin Brice is the true star here, as she wraps delicious melodies around insta-hits like the “Chalk Marks on the Ground” and the Clientele-esque “Name Etched in Home-Room Chair.”