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Random Stabbings 30

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Ed Harcourt, “Until Tomorrow Then: The Best of Ed Harcourt” (Astralwerks Records)
So here’s the Ed Harcourt best-of, and… who, you say? A limey music prodigy in the eyes of NME scenesters, Harcourt was accused of running out of ideas by his third LP or somewhere around there, but when one confines himself to a Badly Drawn Boy space with extra 70s thrown in, the heard-it-befores do have a habit of coming fast and furious, the nature of the indie-pop beast in the first place. In the main, Harcourt’s a keyboard player, usually piano. To capture an oldies-Elton essence he allows the instruments to bleed over into each other’s tracks, and that works just fine if you’re of a mood to indulge in dentist-office pop with enough edge to do some damage.
The public dissing started around his 2004 LP, Strangers, and that’s where the album starts, with “Born in the 70s,” a ragtop-convertible-cruiser that’s hopeful, confused and as innocently postured as what the Dentyne-faced frizz-hairs used to do on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. The critical acclaim and Mercury Award nomination came in the wake of his 2001 debut Here Be Monsters, here represented first by “She Fell Into My Arms,” a spittle-flecked exercise in Monkees-vs-Bright-Eyes hipster bait, later by “Apple of My Eye”’s school-auditorium indie. “Black Dress,” again from Strangers, may have influenced Arcade Fire’s sense of chamber pop, a portent of Springsteen-ish things to come in that space. Order from

Athlete, “Beyond the Neighborhood”
(Astralwerks Records)
Athlete is the marginally glitchy big-pop 4-piece people think of as too smart for US radio, a sort of UK-branded Goo Goo Dolls to some extent if going by their UK-chart-topping sophomore album Tourist alone. “Airport Disco” is the grabber, one that Alternate Routes must surely be wishing they wrote, with its gentle but whammo hook and faraway synth cheese. There’s quite a lot of faraway-ness here, evidencing a worn-out tour-horse of a band that’s lately spent too much time patiently waiting for plane flights and not enough time suffering for their art – not too many fans of Tourist appear to be too enamored with this one, but maturity can be a puzzling concept to people. Lead singer Joel Pott is an introspective, sensitive one anyway; the Tourist hit that put the band over the top in Britain was “Wires,” about his prematurely born baby’s tribulations in the hospital. If you want a canned description, think Eddie Money trying to learn Figurine a thing or three; Pott’s voice is like Money’s at times and Roger Waters’ at others. A tad too much filler, hand-me-down metaphors and aimless genre wanderings detract, but the good parts are good enough to mop the floor with the albums of their competitors. Order from

Raine Maida, “The Hunters Lullaby” (Kingnoise/Nettwerk Records)
The single nicest surprise so far this music-product off-season is, perplexingly enough, Canadian. Maida, the singer for Our Lady Peace, watched his band run the table at Canadian awards shows and rack up sales everywhere but here in the US, where their biggest exposure came via the song “Whatever,” which, as luck would have it, crazy-murdering steroid-gulper Chris Benoit adopted as his WWE intro song. The band progressively toned down their hard rock, story of everybody’s life, but that didn’t play in Peoria either, so here he’s gone solo to see what American lovin’s in store by edging a little toward the hip-hop side.
That’s not to say he’s decked out in grills nowadays, but the menacing piano loop in album roll-out track “Careful What You Wish For” does forebode gat-fire and hard pipe-hittin’ hood tales. It never deteriorates into in-your-face honky rap, though; Maida mixes a few unobtrusive, natural rhyme-flows up with his Sinex-blasted nu-metal croak, sounding nervous but musically aware. “Yellow Brick Road” is a drop-dead post-Beck hit that seems to have simply slipped out of him; great chorus and enough hip-hop to inspire bursts of table-drumming in the sports bars down here in Bushworld, one would think. Just in case, though, “China Doll” tables a little French-café alt-folk for the home crowd.
In sum, the album’s a grower if given half a chance, familiar but a little dark and cold and unsure of itself, although it really needn’t have been. Order from

Bigelf, “Hex” (Custard Records)
By now I can’t begin to guess how many times my hopes have been dashed when an album comes in from a band slotted to warm up your local middling-big crowd, not that UK crew Bigelf are on the calendar yet, but they’re probably the only mid-sized, well-promoted indie-metal band that isn’t. And so I peered with great trepidation at Bigelf’s album cover: weird trees like on the cover of Black Sabbath’s debut, check. Four tall skinny dudes in Jack the Ripper hats, black outfits and big crosses they hold no faith in, yeppity yep. In the opening song, guy yells “I’m the MAD HATTER!” and laughs into an echo chamber like on that stupid Ozzy song, after which they steal from “Electric Funeral,” bada-bing. “Come ON, you guys,” I moaned aloud, pulling over to vomit, cry and punch my own face in.
But then these guys suddenly got awesome – awesome and hilarious, intentionally or not. The Sabbath ripoffs begin and end with “Madhatter,” and for the rest of the album they nick the Beatles, ELO, Pink Floyd (“Bats in the Belfry II,” which comes before “Bats in the Belfry I” in the track list, is ELO doing “Welcome to the Machine”) and Cheap Trick (“Pain Killers”). If this doesn’t take over the world, it’ll be one of the best what-the-hell-was-thats since Wesley Willis. Order from

Blake Lewis, “Audio Daydream” (Arista Records)
American Idol-watching potato chip addicts love exploding their phone bills into smithereens through the act of repeatedly voting for mildly entertaining people they view as critical cogs in the cultural ecosystem. Not enough of them voted for Blake Lewis to get him past Jordin Sparks (expectant parents, would you kindly consult for the correct spelling of given names before you proceed any further) in the sixth season, possibly because the American public is finally ready to let go of boy bands and synch up to the rest of Western civilization, but more likely because Lewis scared the straights into thinking he’s going to break into their houses because he likes to beatbox like some sort of wild animal.
CBS Records used to use a team of 15-year-old girls to test incoming demos from bands the label was thinking of signing. If some Muffy didn’t like her assigned band within 15 seconds, the demo got thrown in the garbage. Blake Lewis might pass the 15-second test on style, but substance-wise his stuff is about as interesting as watching wood decompose. Only when he drops the coquettish Funky Bunch nonsense and Maroon 5 been-there-done-that does he make any impact, such as late in the game on the electropop sundry “1000 Miles” and, well, when he beatboxes a drum n bass rinseout on “Hate 2 Love Her.” “Gots To Get Her” may impress your great grandmother if she still remembers “Puttin’ On the Ritz.”
The reason most American Idol finalists fail is because they’re thinking Vegas before they’ve even got a couple of records in the can. Even would have to pay some props if one of these people got a contract and promptly fired the horn players in favor of, I don’t know, filth-caked winos trying to play harmonicas or something. As with all the alt-rockers getting seriously drug-addicted before their first half-cocked EP has barely cooled on the street, it’s all backward-land. Idols splash into the show-biz piranha-tank with no history or horror stories, empty husks readily vulnerable to extinction when computer animation designers finally achieve genuinely hot-looking people. Order from

Genesis, “Live Over Europe 2007” (Atlantic/WEA Records)
Okay, stop thinking about whatever you’re thinking about and think about Genesis and all the memories you associate with them. “Follow You Follow Me” playing softly in the background while the dentist peers evilly at your sleeping tooth roots. The GMC commercial with the seminal 80s synth line from “Turn It On Again” accentuating the sheer power you could experience behind the wheel of a big fat gas-gargling brick-wall-smashing mega-truck. All the times you rode in an elevator with “Throwing It All Away” burbling overhead and your brain idly pondering why no one on earth has ever seen Phil Collins and Popeye in the same room. To Americans, Genesis is part of the fossil record of Top 40s past, but the limeys, the French surrender-monkeys, those fish-belly-pale Finns, they’re all still into that band, man. The stage setup Genesis deployed during this year’s European tour is bigger than the Batman ride at Six Flags, and there’s a DVD here to prove it. What’s disarming about the CD experience – live cuts taken from around a dozen different tour stops – is, actually, how pleasant and invigorating it is. The songs are favorite old shoes to these guys, who infuse them with very little instrumental shock-and-awe, thus creating a deeply comforting vibe that you finally notice about a third of the way through. Unrushed sounds hang in the air, bespeaking high class without snobbery, Englishness without the unpalatable staleness common to English arena-pop bands who’ll never grace a glossy magazine page not in Kerrang. You know who could be the next Genesis is the band Particle, but they’ve got a few elevator classics to cook up first. Just FYI. Order from

Led Zeppelin, “Mothership”
(Atlantic/WEA Records)
The latest in a long line of remastered Zep classics is all rehash apart from the remaining three band members (in other words, Jimmy Page, with Plant and John Paul Jones sipping brandy at separate tables somewhere within driving distance of the studio) having done a little re-engineering of the overall sound. I’ll assume that most readers seriously don’t want to be subjected to a quibble-fest over the job Page did here; it’s not really clear what the source was for these songs, most likely a copy of the 2-track master, which means “quality-wise” it’s bested by one or two previous attempts. And obviously this was intended to capitalize on the one-off reunion show in London, so expediency was probably the game; the professed objective was to get the volume levels evened out in order to fit into the personal mix burns of listeners today, as prior to this there was a need to amp the volume on the tunes when they showed up. Far as that goes, most music nowadays is compressed to unrecognizability and very loud, so every once in a while you’ll notice a radio jock stuck with near dead air when (s)he throws a Zep tune into a block – you can all but hear the DJ’s coffee cup getting tipped over in the mad scramble to peg the volume.
The separation of instruments and vocals and other things didn’t turn out super-great here, but it is more separated. The problem with that is that the organic creatures that are these songs are laid belly-up like frogs in a science class. Frankly, that sucks. On vinyl, “Ramble On” is pretty close to the ultimate booze song, faraway, foggy, more than a little demented. “The Lemon Song” is even more so, but that’s not on this collection and thus can’t be picked at, although with “Ramble On” losing so much of its feel you’re better off anyway. In the case of Zep tunes, which were originally erected for vinyl, digital “clarity” is a rather stupid notion. All the bleeding over of the tracks made them great in the first place, and digital devices simply cannot handle some of the nuances.
Selection-wise, Mothership is a random Zeppelin generator which, aside from “Immigrant Song,” totally ignores Zep III, the single craziest hard-rock album in history (White Stripes’ “Get Behind Me Satan” is its closest modern ancestor).  Newer fans who like the band’s sound are advised to ignore this and just take it album by album, no-brainer advice not repeated enough. Order from

Sia, Some People Have Real Problems (Hear Music Records)
If Zero 7 is your choice of quasi-electro chill, Aussie chanteuse Sia Furler’s sort of an old homie. Her last sounding was on the 2006 Zero 7 album The Garden, where she was assigned a few knuckleball tunes, though none that come close to revealing her more barmy (and original) side; the Z7 dudes tend to use her as a Stevie Nicks/R&B diva-bot widget, which is in the end toward their collective detriment, a little. Certainly her strength is makeout music for people taken in by the Zach Braff school of modern ennui – a little acid jazz, 70s fluff, any laid-backness one might associate with lukewarm lust in the urban jungle – and she makes use of it, in spades, with several hit-worthy songs on Some People, notably “Little Black Sandals,” its title telegraphing the punch of its Gabrielle-like prettiness (yep, it could have been the flip-side to “Dreams”). Furler is quite adept with scatting, though; lead single “Day Too Soon,” full of 70s mystique and splashy drums, shows that she’s been digging on Amy Winehouse’s throatiness and nu-big-band chic. Same thing occurs in one tangent of “Beautiful Calm Driving,” another telegraphing of effect, which is otherwise one of her most reserved, contemplative tracks, up to and including the full stop that comes mid-tune. Order from

Lizzy Borden, “Appointment With Death” (Metal Blade Records)
Oh ho, so now it’s an “appointment with death” you want to foist upon the world, Lizzy? Back when the only low-rent-spectacle competing against Lizzy Borden shows was Triceratops vs Tyrannosaurus in the steel cage, you guys sure sounded like Motley Crue. You are so bagged.
All the thrasher kids took up the chant “Death to false metal,” and called you guys “posers,” one of those hyperbolic scene-eating-itself things that made it sound like you got up on stage in pretty dresses and did Raffi songs instead of those block-rockin’ Looks That Kill beats. That was some bleak stuff.
So here we are – you’ve finally caught up to the late 80s, hard at work implementing your vengeance. What’s great is that it’s safe to have three Brides of Dracula chicks from LA basking in your mojo on the album art (AND sneak super-poser George Lynch from Dokken into the studio by cover of night) even though you did a 360 and now sound exactly like Helloween or Iron Maiden (seriously, is there a difference?), which is jiggy because all the beefs are just old and stupid. And whatever, the kids are all listening to xylophone music and emo (seriously, is there a difference?) anyway.
Just goes to show, hang in there long enough and METAL WILL CONQUER ALL. Order from

Sontiago, “Steel Yourself”
(Endemik Music)
The two or three adventurer-listener readers out there familiar with Anticon’s catalog of avant-hip-hop records will know what I mean when I say that this is very San Francisco. A native Pennsylvanian, rapper/singer Sonya Tomlinson is nowadays a cog in the Portland, Maine scene, the most ambitious and enthusiastically supported accumulation of New England musicians outside of Boston.
So anyway, guess what, this is alternative hip-hop, after a dubby Missy Elliot vs Portishead fashion, as told by a married white 20something. “Hollow” is pure Portishead, a love note to her indie-rock hubby, JD Walker, who’s wildly famous if you ask the right handful of scenesters. “We’ll Still Be Here” contrives a female Astronautilas wandering a ratty but ultimately safe rap-waif dreamscape.
Cool stuff, this, but Tomlinson’s singing occasionally crashes the system. When she eases back and engages her Billie Holliday/Portishead scratchy-record gear it’s a peach, but elsewhere her self-backups are so grating you’ll run to the nearest chalkboard and crazily scrape it with your fingernails to drown her out. The most gruesome moments come in “Force It,” where she makes like a burb-tard coed doing Cranberries karaoke – begone, foul Olive Garden patron, hair is literally growing on my teeth. Order from

Outraged ranting, indie label release news and spaghetti sauce recipes are always welcome. Email

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