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Reviews > CDs

Published: 2004/05/29
by Jesse Jarnow

Holding The Bag – BuzzUniverse, Free Space, John Hickey, The Hilltop Waterworks, The Loft, Plump, Psychopomp, Scarecrow Collection, Spacecake, The Vibe

Musik For Abstract Citizens – BuzzUniverse
BuzzUniverse occupy a psychedelic world rooted somewhere after the synthesizer-brightened heyday of bands like Pink Floyd and the Ozric Tentacles, but before the onset of full-force laptop electronica like Aphex Twin and The Chemical Brothers. If they occasionally delve into the cheesy (some of the more funk-driven arrangements, such as the opening "With the Wind"), they frequently range into the genuinely pretty (the warm organ drone of "Orbital"). More importantly than a specific accounting of what’s good and bad on the album, BuzzUniverse absolutely succeed at pulling out surprising tricks across the album’s 40 minutes. "Rhumba" starts as a fairly bland groove, before turning quickly into cosmically informed interpretation of its title. They are a creatively resourceful band, which will come in handy as they refine their ideas more. Oblique Strategies sez: "What would your closest friend do?" More info…
Move – Free Space
Free Space’s debut is a fairly impressive take on jam-pop. For starters, it’s polished as hell, and in just the right proportion. The arrangements are adventurous. They’re a quartet, but – between them – they can count guitar, mandolin, trombone, pianos, saxophone, clarinet, flute, bass, drums, and marimba. What’s better is that they don’t draw attention to this, instead letting the instrumentation richly color the songs’ backgrounds. Their songwriting holds up, too, coming within a breath of nailing that elusive mix of indie sensibility and the distilled Americana of jambands. Unfortunately, it’s a long breath. Free Space’s vocal melodies are too smooth, too relentlessly melodic. With a harder attack – one jagged-ass rhythm guitar part or an atonal lead would do them oodles of good on nearly every song – and a more rhythmic vocal approach, these fellas could be real swell. Oblique Strategies sez: "Is it finished?" More info…
Down With The Ship – John Hickey
As guitarist with George Clinton’s P-Funk All-Stars and Bernie Worrell’s Woo Warriors, John Hickey has brought his share of latter-day funk to the world. On Down With The Ship, his solo debut, Hickey has crafted a more personal statement. Though he gets help from Worrell (who turns in a perfect solo on ‘Rub and Tug’) and others, Hickey plays most of the instruments, including drums on a few tracks. The album is funky, no doubt, but is so in a genuine, old-school way — more psychedelic than soulful (though it musters more feeling than most the hyperspeed Berklee graduates out thar these days). For Hickey, funk is more of an emotion than a genre, and Down With The Ship shows it. It is not a dance party, but it is a cool listen. Oblique Strategies sez: ‘Do the words need changing?’ More info…
Up With the Day – The Hilltop Waterworks
The Hilltop Waterworks are a newgrass band – from Illinois, I think – with a penchant for R.E.M.-like jangle-pop. Most of the 12 tunes on their debut are graced with Chris Manson’s 12-string electric guitar. When properly deployed – such as the extended guitar solo on "Byrd Hill" – the instrument lends the band a mature, diamond-like sound. Unfortunately, Manson is relegated to rhythm duty for the better part of the disc. Most of the songs dash through the usual clich- moonshine stills, dark hollows, rushing rivers – atop a thumping backbeat. The latter is one of the band’s other newgrass innovations. It’ll be interesting to see if they can continue to draw from these two ideas – bluegrass and jangle-pop – on their future songs, or if they’ll have to draw from new wells. Oblique Strategies sez: "Do something boring. More info…
Soulful Southeast Exhibit – The Loft
Despite the no-no of putting their adopted genre in their album title, The Loft actually is fairly soulful. It helps that their album is well-recorded and well-mixed, the better to hear the rich textures of Nathan Johnson’s Hammond organ. Johnson achieves a single sound throughout the album, threading through the album’s 13 tracks. Likewise, his piano – on tunes like "For Medicinal Purposes Only," which breaks down into a rave-up – is recorded with the same crispness. A big reason for the band’s professional sound is John Banzhoff’s urgently (and earnestly) growled vocals. It doesn’t really matter what he’s singing. He makes it work. The album is soulful, funky, creatively arranged, and cool. Even if the music is never profoundly original, it transcends the generic in just about every aspect. A well-played debut of which to be proud. Oblique Strategies sez: "Use ‘unqualified’ people." More info…
Voyage – Plump
If you happen to get a copy of Voyage by Plump, and you happen to run your home computer through your stereo system, then I recommend you put on the album and take a spin over to the band’s website. The random sample of music will fire up, and – suddenly – you’ll have two Plumps coming outta your speakers, burning up the hi-fi with a wickedly quadraphonic polyrhythmic freak-out of horns and squealing electric guitars and whatnot. Unfortunately, if you remove one of the Plumps from the mix, the music becomes a whole lot less interesting, Plump shrinking from free jazz orchestra back to a mild-mannered funk-jazz ensemble from Texas. A lot of the time, their music doesn’t have much to recommend it, though certainly don’t lack ambition. I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what funk, ambient music, reggae, and New Orleans shuffle have to do with C.S. Lewis’s ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,’ a novel from his neo-Christian Narnia series, but somehow they’re all crammed into a 16-minute cut of that name. If you like puzzling over that sort of thing, Plump might be for you. Oblique Strategies sez: ‘Change instrument roles.’ More info…
Themes for Contemporary Living – Psychopomp
Every so often a record shows up in the ol’ mailbox that is just obviously gonna be weird. The tip-off on Psychopomp’s Themes For Contemporary Living is a gray-toned cover photograph of some aging wedding band musicians in matching plaid coats and bow-ties playing on a hideous pattern of vaguely psychedelic paisley palm trees. That and Psychopomp’s name written in hot pink above that. The music inside – seemingly a product of two improvising musicians, guitarist Paul Bourdeau and programmer John Handforth – is similarly bizarre. The pieces follow their own bizarre paths through deep space, never settling for anything less than pure unsettling abstraction. It’s adventurous and deeply creative music, and great fun to listen to. That said, some of the tones the pair employ occasionally get in the way (such as the squealy prog-rock synth solo about three minutes into ‘Vulcanology’). Nonetheless: good ears, good fun, good music. Oblique Strategies sez: ‘Listen to the quiet voice.’ More info…
Hooked and Shattered – Scarecrow Collection
Scarecrow Collection is an easy-going acoustic-guitar rock outfit from, I’m pretty sure, New Jersey. Like early Strangefolk, their songs hint at other approaches – "Pressure" contains trace elements of a reggae groove beneath the strumming – but the band never really follows those threads. In places, such as the acoustic Dead-like space they carve on the title cut, they move towards something quite pretty. Unfortunately, it is often tempered by generic grooves. As the album progresses, Scarecrow Collection tries out different styles on cuts, moving into sleepy organ jazz on "Burgess," and it seems as if they’re trying to please everybody. The resulting album doesn’t express an original voice so much as the band’s desire to create one. One wishes they’d test their own boundaries a little more. Maybe they’re not sure where to look yet. Oblique Strategies sez: "Don’t stress on thing more than another [sic]." More info…
Freshen Up – Spacecake
With a name like "Spacecake," I suppose I was expecting something a little, um, stonier. Instead, the Manhattan band delivers an album a wee bit more straightforward. The songs skitter from roots-rock ("Southbound Train") to not-entirely-convincing rocksteady ("Freshen Up") to songwriting that seems more homegrown ("Machine Outside My Window"). It is on the latter variety of songs that the band does best. "Machine," though lacking any distinctive hooks, is also the hardest to classify — as if it grew out of something more natural than trying to write a song to fit within a certain genre (see above). The band isn’t quite there yet in terms of finding unique nooks in their imagery and arrangements, but they seem to have set themselves a decent course. Oblique Strategies sez: "Destroy – nothing – the most important thing." More info…
Epic Flow – The Vibe
The cover of The Vibe’s Epic Flow promises two discs worth of ‘Improvised Worship’ and they deliver just that. Y’know, worship? Of God? Yeah. That. I admittedly haven’t made my way through both discs, but their ‘improvised worship’ sounds an awful lot like cheerfully conceived, albeit haplessly cheesy jam-pop tunes. If the songs are improvised then, well, they’re pretty convincing on that level. And, I have to admit, leader David Hunter (of DavidHunterMinistries.com) has a genuinely beautiful idea when he says he ‘see[s] a day when people worship God without scripts.’ That’s great, though people have been doing that for thousands of years, see Jewish cantorial music, among other approaches). Unfortunately, The Vibe doesn’t quite succeed at transmitting their Love, unfiltered, to the audience (though guitarist Gil Delaney nails Garcia’s late ’70s filter-tone in a bunch of places). Interestingly, this plugs into the centuries-old debate of whether it’s better to worship privately or to proselytize. As a personal act of devotion, it’s hard to fault The Vibe. As a public recording, it’s far less successful. A worthy experiment from (and for) those who believe that nobody fucks with The Jesus. Oblique Strategies sez: ‘You can only make one dot at a time.’ More info…

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