Wilson and Alroy's Record Reviews We listen to the lousy records so you won't have to.

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more odds and ends... the 00's


Artists reviewed on this page:
The Absence - All Shall Perish - All That Remains - Amiena - Funda Arar - Arcade Fire - Arsis - Baby Elephant - Bamboozled Soundtrack - bEkAy - Miri Ben-Ari - Alec Berlin - Between The Buried And Me - Diane Birch - Black Milk - Blue: Original Cast Recording - Born Of Osiris - Murat Boz - John Brodeur - Cage The Elephant - Çamur - Carved Inside - Ceylan - City High - Coheed And Cambria - Keyshia Cole - Contrastic - Cormorant - Death Remains - Decapitated - Decrepit Birth - Dissonance In Design - Disturbed - Dodecahedron - Melinda Doolittle - Dope Body - Drake - Dreamgirls: Music From The Motion Picture: Deluxe Edition - Due North - Ekrem Düzgünoğlu - 11 As In Adversaries - Lauren Ellis - Exit Strategy - The Faceless - Chris Francis - Franz Ferdinand - Funeral For A Friend - The Gallows - Glorior Belli - Gömkçe - Go-rin-no-sho - Hadise - Yusuf Harpatlu - Havok - The Holy Goats - Benji Hughes - Idle Warship - Immortal Technique - Intervals - Job For A Cowboy - Kaiser Chiefs - Işın Karaca - Uğur Karakuş - KEN mode - Göhkan Keser - Kiki & Herb - Killswitch Engage - The Knux - Kylesa - Lamb Of God - Liferuiner - Jana Losey - M.I.A. - The Mandolin Wind Project - Mastodon - Milking The Goatmachine - Mineral Kings - Ms. Dynamite - Gilbert Neal - The O.C. - Obscura - Petey Pablo - Parx-e - A Compilation Of Independent Music - Penguin Party - Pinhani - Plastic Soul - Sinem Polat - Power Of Soul: A Tribute To Jimi Hendrix - Protest The Hero - Pushcar - Pyramids Of Giza - Random Axe - Martha Redbone - Revocation - Rihanna - Roadside Zoo - Roadrunner United - Romeo Must Die Soundtrack - David Ross - Ziynet Sali - Jill Scott - Remy Shand - Shawnna - The Showgoats - SixToEight Mathematics - Skyzoo - Sleigh Bells - Sparkles The Bahamian Diva - Regina Spektor - Spymob - Standing In The Shadows Of Motown - Pamela Stonebrooke - Sylosis - Nichole Teemant - Them Crooked Vultures - Those Who Lie Beneath - Through The Eyes Of The Dead - Tig Wired - Tribella - A Tribute To Joni Mitchell - Tweet - Ulcerate - Unknown Mortal Orchestra - The Unseen Guest - Elle Varner - A Very Special Christmas 5 - Rafael Vigilantics - War From A Harlots Mouth - Wayne Kounty - Gretchen Wilson - Xenocide - The Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Yasemin Yıldız - Yuck


This section includes artists with their first release in 2000 or later, and movie soundtracks from the same period. Reviews of All That Remains, Angel Haze, Alicia Keys, Janelle Monáe, N.E.R.D., Nelly and St. Lunatics, The Red Chord, Sıla, Bubba Sparxxx, tUnE-yArDs and Kanye West have been moved to their own pages.(DBW)


The Absence, Enemy Unbound (2010)
Yet another South Florida death metal band to be reckoned with, The Absence formed in Tampa in 2004, and has stuck to the Gothenburg school playbook since then: Even when they ramp up to thrash speeds (title track), they keep the focus on hummable riffs ("Wartorn") and intricate, even lyrical guitar lines ("Erased"). Frontman Jaime Stewart manages to stay comprehensible although his growling is plenty scary, and the rhythm section (Mike Leon, bass; Justin Reynolds, drums) is more than adequate. The main draw, though, is dual lead/rhythm guitarists Peter Joseph and Patrick Pintavalle, who deliver fury, speed and taste in a variety of pleasing combinations ("Solace," one of three instrumentals; "Hidden White"). Sure, you could say they simply do Arch Enemy, but when they do it as well as Arch Enemy does, who cares? Self-produced; no guests. (DBW)

Ados, Katarsis (2012)
Call me old-fashioned, but I've always had a soft spot for early 90s hip hop tracks based on a couple of ear-catching samples with an evolving mix that may use loops but doesn't sound static. No one does this anymore (though Pharoah Monche comes close) so it's nice to hear someone in Turkey taking a rather successful stab at it (the Wuish "Bir Avuc Ayıp"). Often the backing is straight-up rock/funk ("Farkina Varilivor") or string/vocal ("Basit") looping, but at times the Anatolian influence creeps in ("Kamber," where Ados is accompanied by a track-long bağlama solo). I can't follow anything Ados (given name: Adem Oslu) is rapping about (though I found an online reference to the "anger of a lonely man"), and his voice is more confidently unassuming than captivating ("Kampana"), but the backing is enough to keep me coming back for more. Produced by Berkan "Atiberk" Şahin; Dilkes Kardar guests on "Felç." (DBW)

All Shall Perish, The Price Of Existence (2006)
Supposedly this Oakland quintet plays deathcore, which is somewhere between death metal and metalcore, but I don't necessarily find that particular pigeonhole useful. They're certainly very aggressive, and new vocalist Eddie Hermida screams rather than sings, but with lots of Pantera-style heavy grooves ("Wage Slaves") and highly technical leads from new guitarist Chris Stoney, they sound more like Bay Area neighbors Machine Head ("Eradication," a single). There are a fair number of whomping riffs ("We Hold These Truths..."; "Better Living Through Catastrophe") plus an instrumental for balance ("Greyson"), but ultimately it's all a bit generic - the band just doesn't stand out enough in today's crowded metal landscape. If you can make out the words (I can't), the songs describe an environmental apocalypse, which isn't exactly a fresh topic by this point either ("There Is No Business to Be Done On A Dead Planet," featuring Gunface). I heard their 2008 release Awaken The Dreamers once and found it quite dull but I may review it eventually. (DBW)

Amiena, Right Here (2006)
This L.A.-based singer's blend of honeyed vocals and slow-moving dance grooves recalls Desiree (especially on the motivational "Get Myself Up"). But producer Rocky Grisez also incorporates the looped guitars and subtle rhythms of Dallas Austin's TLC work, making compelling tracks out of familiar building blocks ("Will You"). "Possibility," incorporating a horn into the airy mix, is a jazzy gem. She and Grisez have hit on a winning formula, but sometimes the lyrics get mired in romantic trivia ("Stay Out Of Love"), and a couple of the tunes are eminently forgettable ("I Swear To You," by Bob Gentry). Bonus points for shouting out RAWA.org in the CD booklet. (DBW)

Anata, The Conductor's Departure (2006)
Yet another fantastic Swedish death metal band, though this time more technical than melodic ("Cold Heart Forged In Hell"). Guitarists Fredrik Schälin and Andreas Allenmark and bassist Henrik Drake (Conny Pettersson's drumming is a bit thin) form an unstoppable machine, combining the lumbering inevitability of a stoner band with the atonal unpredictability of a tech-experimental band - they end up sounding like a cross between Immolation and Necrophagist, but to my ears better than either. Each heavy groove leads into the next mindblowing riff which leads into the next headbanging break, and every song sounds better than the one before... After a while, I just sit there with my mouth open ("The Great Juggler"), and by the end of the disc I can't remember why I ever wanted to listen to anything else. They're recording a new album in 2013 after a long layoff, though as far as I know they haven't replace Allenmark, who left in 2008. (DBW)

Funda Arar, Aşkın Masum Çocukları (2011)
Funda Arar is younger than Turkish pop pioneers like Sezen Aksu and Nazan Öncel, but her sound is a throwback: stately strings bending like willows ("Sen Ve Ben"); bağlama and hand percussion in pop song structures (title track); a strong whiff of melancholy even on the most upbeat fare ("Piyango (Pou Gyrnas)"). She's not categorized as Arabesk: though the differences are slight, she uses more minor and major modes and keyboards than, say, Ceylan. The club-ready dance mix of "Aşkın Bana Değdi Değeli" comes across as concession rather than conviction. Producer Febyo Taşel (also Arar's husband) wrote most of the material, which ranges from passable (the bodice-bursting "Anman Adını") to sublime (the insidious "Gül Döşek"), and memorable either way ("Herkes Gibisin"). Overall, though, it's Arar's low center of gravity that makes the disc stand out from the pack: Lots of people could sing those notes, but very few can make me feel they actually mean something - I don't know how Arar does that (especially considering I don't know what most of the words mean) but I'm glad she does. (DBW)

Funda Arar, Sessiz Sinema (2012)
Like Arar's previous outing (and as the title, meaning Silent Movie implies), string-heavy retro that's beautifully realized and gently stirring. The energy level is lower, only revving up in a couple of places ("Yok Yok"), and for that reason tougher for a Philistine like yours truly to get into. But Taşsel's taut arrangements and Arar's quiet intensity grow on you - banked fires burn hottest, or whatever the cliché is. Plus, the few uptempo cuts absolutely and unashamedly rock ("Leblebi," with a killer woodwind hook). (DBW)

Arcade Fire, Neon Bible (2007)
This Montreal indie septet is possibly the worst, most overhyped critics' fave band I've ever heard. I mean, at least the guy from TV On The Radio can sing. Lead "singer" Win Butler has no range or projection - he sounds like Lou Reed without the accent - and he's probably the best thing about the group. Pretension factor is through the roof with turgidly deep lyrics (title track) and pompous orchestrations (the pseudo-Springsteen "Black Wave, Bad Vibrations"). Meanwhile, musicianship is beneath the floorboards, with rote chord progressions ("Keep The Car Running"; "Antichrist Television Blues") and plodding tempos ("Intervention"; "My Body Is A Cage") - the band members play a zillion different instruments, but find nothing interesting on any of them. The two passable tunes are the typically overblown "No Cars Go" and the uptempo Franz Ferdinand-style rocker "The Well & The Lighthouse": they're still worthless melodically but at least have some energy. (DBW)

Arsis, Starve For The Devil (2010)
I first heard this Virginia Beach band opening for Arch Enemy, and their detail-oriented but bare-knuckled brand of melodic death metal is similar in some respects: the pace is frenetic, the riffs are striking ("A March For The Sick"; "Closer To Cold"), and just when you least expect it there's an arena rock lick to crack you up (the gloriously overdone layered solos in "From Soulless To Shattered"). And like their Swedish cousins, the unrelenting intensity and formulaic structure can sometimes make you think you're listening to one undifferentiated mass of sound and fury ("Beyond Forlorn"; "The Ten Of Swords"). The lineup supporting singer/shredder/songwriter James Malone has frequently changed - on this disc it's Nick Cordle (guitar), Nathaniel Carter (bass) and Mike Van Dyne (drums) - and for all his abundant talent (I'd kill to write a tune like "Half Past Corpse O'Clock"), he would benefit from having an equal and opposing force in the group to combat the sometimes stifling sameness. (DBW)

As I Lay Dying, Shadows Are Security (2005)
The term "metalcore" originally meant a cross between heavy metal and hardcore punk, but it's gotten to mean a watered-down, unambitious metal - with repetitive thudding power chords in lieu of riffs, a minimum of solos and tuneless screamed vocals - dismissively called "mallcore" for its presumed appeal to listeners too young to know better. Some bands labeled as metalcore - All That Remains, Trivium - are actually quite versatile and skilled, both as instrumentalists and composers, but San Diego's As I Lay Dying exemplifies the stereotype. Their volume and distortion can be cathartic, but the production and songcraft are shockingly simplistic. Since every song is in C, nearly all the riffs are built on the second and third of the scale, and they're all at the same tempo, you're forgiven if you think you're listening to the same song twelve times in a row. Produced by lead singer Tim Lambesis with guitarist Phil Sgrosso, and they do try a couple of changeups - an auto-wah guitar effect on "Losing Sight"; harmonized leads on "Reflection" - but when the main course is this unappetizing, it doesn't matter how nice the tablecloth is. (DBW)

Aslızen, Işık (2012)
Lush-voiced singer/songwriter Aslızen Yentur debuted with a 2008 EP Şerefe under the name "Zen" which ranged from slow, orchestrated tortured romance showstoppers ("Savaş") to fast tortured romance dance numbers ("Kal Demiyorsun"). It didn't sell, so she resurfaced with a new variation of her given name and a subdued manner: The tempos range from medium-slow ("İnsan," so mellow it could be a Sade number) to lively ("Sihirli Lamba," in Gökçe ska territory), but her singing is more restrained, with only hints of her full strength coming through ("Çamur," appearing in two mixes). A six-song (seven-track) EP, so it's not a comprehensive demonstation of her talents, but together with the previous release it marks her as someone to watch out for. (DBW)

The Autumn Offering, Requiem (2009)
A young band from Florida that plays metalcore with melodic death elements and popwise sung choruses ("Bleed Together"), but they're not Trivium. Not quite, anyway: Matt McChesney's vocals aren't as distinctive as Heafy's, and the parade of 3- to 4-minute songs doesn't have the same musical or lyrical ambition. But guitarists Tommy Church and Matt Johnson serve up a similar mix of bashed riffs and elegant solos ("Narcosis"; "Venus Mourning"), and drummer Jonothan Lee keeps up rhythmic interest with a long succession of fills. When the tunes are solid it's a winning combination, and they have some interesting compositional ideas (the chaotic bridge on "Worn Out Wings"). Apart from the pompous instrumental "Light Of Day," though, there's a sameness to the material that starts to get to you by the end of the disc ("Portrait"). Produced by Mark Lewis. (DBW)

Avenged Sevenfold (2007)
The fourth full-length from the Huntington Beach metal quintet softens their post-thrash sound with occasional keyboards ("Almost Easy"), strings (the annoying, sneering, mock-romantic "A Little Piece Of Heaven"), and even a little kid singing ("Unbound (The Wild Ride)"). Lead vocalist M. Shadows has backed away from the metalcore screaming of the band's early releases, but his singing voice is too thin to project either emotion or menace, and often sounds downright wimpy on the melodic choruses. Meanwhile, The Rev's drumming is speedy but lacking in power, a cripping weakness in what's usually the center of a modern metal band. The end result is rather like Green Day with heavier guitars ("Gunslinger"), and the weak political diatribes ("Critical Acclaim") only increase the similarity. Guitarists Zacky Vengeance and Synyster Gates do come up with some juicy riffs ("Scream"; "Afterlife"), and the band's willingness to experiment (steel guitar on "Dear God") would be nifty if the tunes were better to begin with. (DBW)

Baby Elephant, Turn My Teeth Up (2007)
Hip hop producers Prince Paul and Don Newkirk teamed up with keyboardist Bernie Worrell and a rotating stable of vocalists for this collection of 80s-style dance/funk grooves. The guest list plays up the retro vibe: David Byrne ("How Does The Brain Wave?"); Yellowman ("Cool Runnins"); Shock-G (the mellow, organ-heavy "Plainfield"); George Clinton ("Scratchinatanitchouttareach"). The most unexpected visitor is Gabby La La; the most successful is Nona Hendryx, whose sardonic "Crack Addicts In Love" is a standout. As you might expect, Worrell's playful, unpredictable lines are the best part (buzzing synth leads on "Baby Elephants N Thangs"; honky tonk piano on the title track); Prince Paul's beats are strikingly pedestrian and unvarying ("Even Stranger"), but he does a good job of creating a loose, funky mood. (DBW)

Various, Bamboozled Soundtrack (2000)
The soundtrack to Spike Lee's attack on Hollywood stereotyping of black people occasionally chokes on its own message. The usually reliable Stevie Wonder miscalculates on his two takes on the subject, delivering labored history lessons with unfocused melodies - "Some Years Ago" sports a full orchestra that isn't given much to play, while "Misrepresented People" starts with modest harpsichord backing and expands into a by-the-numbers synth and drum track. Prince is even more didactic on "2045 Radical Man," ranting about his pet theme - artist ownership of master recordings - as if it were the most important issue facing humanity, and not bothering to create any tune at all. A remake of Public Enemy's "Burn Hollywood Burn" seems almost unavoidable given the subject matter and the group's association with Lee, but the Chuck D./Roots collaboration dies whenever Mr. Self-Righteousness Zach de la Rocha starts yelling. However, many of the tracks do deliver: the opening "Blak Iz Blak" featuring Mos Def, Canibus, Charli Baltimore, MC Serchy, DJ Scratch, muMs and Cano Grills is terrific, with pointed rhymes and a rapid-fire chantable chorus. muMs also contibutes a blistering a cappella rap, "Ploylessness." Goodie Mob scores with the remarkably low-key "Just A Song." Erykah Badu adds vocals to Common's fine hip hop love song "The Light," and contributes an ill-advised cover of Rufus's "Hollywood" - her voice just can't compete with Chaka Khan's depth and richness. Angie Stone does a much better job of channeling Chaka on her own composition "Slippery Shoes," with a subtle, similarly retro R&B groove. The album's best soul diva, though, ends up being smokey-voiced newcomer India.Arie: she's marvelous on "In My Head" - in a weird promotional move, five snippets from her 2001 debut Acoustic Soul close out the CD. The weirdest choice is Bruce Hornsby's typically morose "Shadowlands," which doesn't bear any apparent relationship to the plot or anything else on the disc. (DBW)

Battles, Gloss Drop (2011)
There are roughly a million bands doing the genres-in-a-blender post-everything dance-music-for-intellectuals thing, and a lot of them do it with either creativity or high production values: NYC's Battles is one of the few bands that has both, so when they combine, say, electronica keyboards and jazz drums ("Africastle" with Matias Aguayo) it's simultaneously challenging and involving. The disc is mostly instrumental, though several guests add vocals (Gary Numan on "My Machines"; Kazu Makino on "Sweetie & Shag"). Multi-instrumentalists Dave Konopka and Ian Williams - John Stanier sticks to drumming - push sonic boundaries gently, so "Futura" explores a minimal herky-jerky groove for six minutes without sounding overtly experimental. "Sundome" (with Yamantaka Eye) is their finest moment, developing a kinetic synth theme until it calls to mind clichés like "sonic journey" or "sound painting." Though a couple of tracks don't quite come together ("Rolls Bayce"), only rarely does the omnivorous pastiche approach seem reductive or silly ("Dominican Fade" is both). (DBW)

Behold... The Arctopus, Skullgrid (2007)
A highly technical, all-instrumental Brooklyn threesome that mixes heavy metal textures with atonal licks and a random approach to composition that seems to change course every thirty seconds... They turn on a dime so often it would give Frank Zappa a headache. Rather than strain to avoid a Buckethead comparison, I'll just give in: they cover much of the same ground as Big B, and produce a similar mix of wonder and frustration in the listener, as you wish they'd skip some of the lamer riffs and build actual songs out of the better ones. Guitarists Mike Lerner and Colin Marston - who plays something called a Warr guitar (!) - have tons of ability and an ear for unusual melody ("Transient Exuberance"); drummer Charlie Zeleny zips right along. On the rare occasion that they lock into a groove, they can be terrific ("Canada"); the rest of the time their music is easier to admire than to enjoy. Marston also plays guitar for a Krallice, an allegedly experimental, resolutely blah black metal outfit. (DBW)

bEkAy, Hungry, Broke + Determined (2003)
A white rapper from Brooklyn, and though he says repeatedly that he doesn't want to be compared to Eminem, it's hard to resist considering that his record overflows with jokey pop culture references, nursery rhymes ("How U Make A Hit"), and misogyny ("My Bitches"). That said, I like bEkAy's act better: his one-liners are rapid-fire and often hilarious, so when he sticks to a topic he can be devastating ("Sick," "Backwards"). He's still more compelling when he stops bragging and gets vulnerable on the gut-spilling "Sorry" and "The Way Shit Goez" - more of that, and less complaining about his trouble getting a recording contract, would have been even better. The music ranges from simple keyboard/bass loops ("Alphabet Assassination") to Wu-style morose strings ("Tryin' 2 Survive"), and it's mostly very effective, though a few tracks are dull (the would-be dance number "Scream," the Eurythmics-sampling "These Street Dreamz"), and "The Tribute," which briefly samples a parade of hip hop classics, is flat though well intentioned. My copy of the CD doesn't have composer or producer credits; maybe they'll eventually appear on his web site. (DBW)

Miri Ben-Ari, The Hip-Hop Violinist (2005)
Ben-Ari's dazzling multi-tracked violin parts - as catchy as they are technically impressive - have usually been the highlights of the albums they've appeared on (most notably Kanye West's debut), so it's not surprising she got a solo project out. What's surprising is how solid all the non-violin tracks are: brother Ohad Ben-Ari shows a knack for propulsive percussion loops and heavy keyboard vamps ("We Gonna Win"). There are only a couple of instrumentals ("Chillin' In The Key Of E"), so the number of guest vocalists is huge - rappers include West, Fabolos, Scarface, Fatman Scoop; singers include John Legend, Lil' Mo (an overwrought "Hold Your Head Up High") and Anthony Hamilton ("Sunshine To The Rain") - and their multiplicity of approaches keep the album from stagnating. Still, the focus remains on the violin, whether she's getting startling special effects or just spinning memorable hooks, from the Eastern European fiddling of "Jump & Spread Out" to the massed chorus of strings on "4 Flat Tires." A couple of songs are built on samples (West's "Fly Away" is based on the George Duke song of the same name) and there's a cover of "The Star Spangled Banner" (with Doug E. Fresh beatboxing); otherwise, most of the music is by one or both Ben-Aris. She clearly missed an opportunity, though, by not calling the record The Queen of Hip Hop Violin a la Mary J. Blige. (DBW)

Alec Berlin, Beauty, Grazing At The Trough (2006)
Berlin's a Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter who also happens to play a mean lead guitar. His economical rock and roll sound, and especially his voice, bring early Elvis Costello to mind, and at his best, his lyrics are as wry but funnier: the crisp rocker "Everything I Want" is absolutely brilliant, a song I wish I'd written myself. "Calling Plan" and the rockabilly "My Baby Likes To Eat" are in the same vein, though less insightful. But there's a lot of padding. Lyrically, he indulges in a lot of bitter lost love anthems that aren't particularly gripping ("I Know The Truth"). And many of the melodies are familiar or repetitive ("Crawl"; "Goner") so often there's not enough to listen for while you're waiting for the guitar solo. Bass is by Jeremy Wilms or Ben Zweinn and the drummers are Nikolaus Schuhbeck and Clancy, with a sprinkling of keyboards and horns. Hear Berlin at his MySpace page. (DBW)

Between The Buried And Me, Alaska (2005)
Ready for another strained analogy? Here it is: The same way that in 80s metal, lead guitar proficiency increased to such an extent that it became impossible to impress by mere technique, in current metal the same thing has happened with genre proficiency, so that it's no longer remarkable that a band can switch from jazz to death metal to salsa, and all that matters now is what you do with those building blocks. This North Carolina prog metal outfit makes such a point of their eclecticism that they took their name from a Counting Crows song, and they back it up with undeniable musicianship ("All Bodies"). I wonder, though, whether they'd be better off as a plain ol' metal band, because most of the other sections - impeccably rendered as they are (the samba "Laser Speed") - are drab in comparison to their full-bore rock (title track, with dizzying guitar solos; the deliberately crunching "Roboturner"). "Backwards Marathon," by contrast, changes direction so many times it never gets where it's going. On the other hand, "Selkies: The Endless Obsession" transitions smoothly from metal to laid-back arena rock without ever losing focus, showing how well this approach can work at its best. (DBW)

Between The Buried And Me, The Great Misdirect (2009)
Again, a bewildering assortment of side dishes complement the heavy main course - "Mirrors" is jazzy pop a la Steely Dan; "Desert Of Song" is countrified rock vaguely recalling Soul Asylum - but this time organized into Opeth-length songs (three cuts exceed ten minutes, with "Swim To The Moon" nearing twenty). The more important difference is that the individual musical sections, regardless of genre, aren't interesting ("Disease, Injury, Madness"). The one solid piece, "Obfuscation" - mostly melodic death metal, occasionally breaking into dance keyboards and fusion guitar soloing - is a lot of fun, and the Yes homage in the middle of "Swim To The Moon" is amusing. But that's not much reward for slogging through the whole album. (DBW)

Diane Birch, Bible Belt (2009)
Yet another young retro singer-songwriter with a formidable hype machine (S-Curve Records) behind her, but Diane Birch does have talent. All thirteen songs are hers, and she totally nails Laura Nyro's steady rolling but melancholy gospel-pop vibe (the choir-backed "Fire Escape"). Since her voice also resembles Nyro's, she risks sounding like a clone ("Mirror Mirror"), but since she can write songs with the offhand glory of "Nothing But A Miracle" and "Valentino," it's a risk worth running. The horn-backed "Fools," which originally convinced me to buy the album, may be the most perfect pop song of the year. A few numbers are slow ("Rewind") or fast (the bar blues "Don't Wait Up"), but most are in the same relaxed, medium tempo. There are a few areas for improvement: producers Steve Greenberg, Betty Wright and Michael Mangini hit all the right early 70s notes (honky-tonk piano on "Rise Up"; swelling orchestra on "Photograph") but at times veer into Norah Jones-like slickness ("Mirror Mirror"). And Birch is fully developed as a composer but not as a lyricist, as the song concepts are often thin ("Rewind"; "Magic View"). Still, a promising and generally satisfying debut. (DBW)

Diane Birch, Speak A Little Louder (2013)
In 2010 Birch cut an EP of 80s goth rock covers, and that influence is strong on this followup: the warm 70s soft-rock stylings - "Pretty In Pain" aside - are replaced by chilly keyboards and austere arrangements plastered with an ungodly amount of echo and reverb. She pairs that with a Stevie Nicks-ish vocal approach ("Lighthouse"): odd to hear alt-rock and corporate rock, which were supposed to be opposites, inhabiting the same nostalgia niche. All this would be purely of academic interest, except that Birch has preserved the most important elements of her debut: melodic invention ("Tell Me Tomorrow"), dramatic structure ("Frozen Over"; title track) and emotional directness (the masterful takedown "All The Love You Got," one of several breakup songs). Just a couple of lesser tracks: "Superstars" is either too grandiose or too unfocused, not sure which; "Unfked," a lovely melody with only piano backing, nonetheless feels gimmicky - using "fuck" in a song title is so 2010. (DBW)

Black Milk, Tronic (2008)
The third solo album by this Detroit producer/rapper is one of the most unassuming, unpretentious records I've heard this year. Black Milk's vocals are low-key and unimposing: while many rappers bring in guests to add punch, you get the feeling he has so many - Royce Da 5'9", Pharaohe Monch, Fat Ray, AB, Colin Munroe ("Without U") and so on - because he's more comfortable behind the boards. The beats don't call attention to themselves either, but at album length the flexibility of his approach grows on you. The spare, keyboard and programmed drum sound recalls early 80s hip hop ("Give The Drummer Sum"), with light use of tools like sped-up vocal samples ("Losing Out") and a great ear for what makes a track minimalist rather than just minimal ("Hell Yeah," just a drum loop, horn hit and keyboard phrase). He also wards off potential staleness by changing up grooves in the middle of a song ("RePPiN For U"; "Elec (Outro)") With all the retro touches sometimes bordering on New Wave ("Hold It Down"), Black Milk's style is a bit like The Knux, but less rambunctious, more sophisticated: he has a lighter touch because it's a surer touch (the lovely "Bond 4 Life" with vocals from Melanie Rutherford). (DBW)

Black Milk, Album Of The Year (2010)
The gently self-mocking title (deconstructed on "Black And Brown" by Danny Brown) is pure Black Milk: clever, spare, without airs, confident yet humble. This collection of well-selected samples ("Deadly Medley," with Royce Da 5'9" and Elzhi), kinetic beats and exuberant rhymes ("365") isn't as consistently enjoyable as his 2008 effort, but the high points are enviable: the smoking, Mandrill-sounding "Keep Going"; "Warning (Keep Bouncing)" with an ocean of synth squiggles. In particular, Black Milk is hard to touch at putting together drum parts, whether they're sampled, programmed, performed, or some combination ("Round Of Applause"; the wrapup "Closed Chapter" featuring Mr. Porter). The low-key nature of the enterprise has a drawback, though: when the backing track and rap are just so-so, the listener's attention is apt to wander ("Welcome (Gotta Go)"). Rutherford adds vocals to several tracks ("Distortion"); Black Milk was working on an album with her, Searching For Sanity, but it hasn't happened yet. In 2011, he did release a different collaboration, Random Axe. (DBW)

Black Milk, No Poison No Paradise (2013)
I admit I'm envious of Black Milk's ability to assemble subtle, engaging tracks: He can use everyday elements like low-key keyboard loops and vintage programmed drums without becoming predictable ("Monday's Worst"; "Dismal"). He can go off the beaten track like Cerrone-ish synth against out-of-sync percussion on "Ghetto Demf," and "Perfected On Puritan Ave.," in which acid jazz is interrupted by chaotic drum bursts, without being self-consciously experimental. And he can combine the two approaches to create tracks which are strikingly original but seem like you've always known them, like "Money Bags (Paradise)" and "Black Sabbath" (with vocals from Tone Trezure, who seems to have taken Rutherford's place). "Deion's House," the only outsider production (by Will Sessions) is similarly deft. If you're inclined to criticize, though, you could say that Black Milk is still exploring the territory he's been covering since at least 2008's Tronic. Roots co-founder Black Thought on "Codes & Cabfare" is the only big-name guest; a few other rappers - Dwele, Mel, Quelle Chris - are joined by pianist Robert Gasper. (DBW)

Various, Blue: Original Cast Recording (2001)
A stage production with songs by Nona Hendryx performed by Michael McElroy as Blue Williams, a Teddy Pendergrass-like figure. There's a remake of Hendryx's Mandela message tune "Winds Of Change"; otherwise everything's new, with music by Hendryx and lyrics by Hendryx and the show's author Charles Randolph-Wright, and they range across genres tracking Blue's "career": "The Beat" is a nod to 80s World Beat; "Bahia Blue" is a slinky samba; "Angel" is one of several soulful love songs. Hendryx is adept at all these styles, constructing songs that avoid cliché while at the same time not drawing too much attention to themselves. While the laid-back smoothness of Phyllis Hyman and Anita Baker isn't my thing, she does a good job of recreating it - I can't help wishing she'd squeezed in at least one rousing showstopper, though. McElroy has a warm voice and enviable technique, but he can be lacking in personality ("Color Of The Sky"), he shines most on the jazzier numbers ("New York Nights"; the gripping finale of "Smokin' In Bed"). Phylicia Rashad co-starred in the show, but only appears as a backing vocalist on one track here ("Falling Up"). (DBW)

Born Of Osiris, A Higher Place (2009)
I apologize in advance for both (a) reviewing so many deathcore/technical death metal bands, and (b) comparing them all to The Red Chord. And yes, this Illinois six-piece has a similarly frenzied, quick-changing, blistering attack ("Elimination"), but they also dip their toe into wider sonic pools like Between The Buried And Me ("Rebirth," spotlighting keyboard player Joe Buras; the prog-rock middle of "The Accountable"), producing an overall scattershot effect closer to Dillinger Escape Plan ("Exist"). Unlike those other bands, though, BOO struggles to come up with noteworthy compositions, so often the fury and facility are overshadowing a lack of meaningful content ("Live Like I'm Real"). The best songs are irresistibly kinetic - title track; "Thrive"; "Starved" - but there aren't enough of those. Vocalist Ronnie Canizaro is an ordinary low-register screamer while guitarists Lee McKinney and Jason Richardson and rhythm section David Darocha (bass) and Cameron Losch (drums) are capable but don't display much individuality. Produced by Zeuss. (DBW)

Murat Boz, Şans (2009)
Like fellow Turkish popster Kenan Duğulu, Murat Boz sounds perfectly at home in a variety of contexts all over the traditional/modern and Western/Near Eastern axes: "Buralardan Giderim" is a slow lament with bağlama and strings, "İki Medeni İnsan" is electrodance froth with synths and programmed drums, and both are equally captivating. Most of the tunes are from either Soner Sarikabadayi ("Uçurum") or Fettah Can ("Ben Aslinda"), though Boz wrote three ("Gümbür Gümbür"), and two are by Ersay Üner ("İstanbul Eglencesi," an unstoppable party track that's the record's greatest achievement). Whether the composition demands uptempo gyrations ("Ben Aslında"; "Para Yok") or sober reflection ("Sallana Sallana"), producer Ahmet Çelenk serves up the appropriate setting, and Boz supplies the expected emotional tone. The drawback of all this check-the-box competence is that the ordinary numbers - from the sappy love song "Özledim" to the breathless raver "Herseyi Yak" - have nothing differentiating them from any other pop artist anywhere on the globe. (DBW)

Murat Boz, Aşklarİm Büyük Benden (2011)
At first I thought this followup was too mild for its own good, put off by its sharp focus on gentle, plaintive songcraft. As I kept listening, I was drawn into Boz's melancholy but not mopey frame of mind ("Hayat Öpücüğü") - though he didn't write any of the songs, his sobering interpretations shape the disc from start to finish. In this context, the more lively numbers sound a bit intrusive rather than welcome, diverting as they are ("Aşkin Suçu Yok"). Some songs are so simple they have nothing but their wistfulness to impart ("Bulmaca"), but the better ones are well-constructed and almost magical ("Soyadımsın," by Fettah Can). As before, production - mostly from by Mert Ali İçelli; four others contributed one track each (Ozan Doğulu's "Korkma") - is standard international dance-pop, with few specifically Turkish elements (title track) - the bağlama-loaded "Korkma" is an exception. (DBW)

John Brodeur, Tiger Pop (2000)
It's refreshing to find a young rock singer/songwriter who sounds more like the Zombies than the Beatles: the uptempo "Infected (So In Love With You)" and mournful "Remains Of A Heart" reflect both sides of the Zombies' aesthetic, with pristine tunefulness, joyful harmonies and basic rock instrumentation. Brodeur even has a touch of an English accent (or affects one: his contact address is in upstate New York). To blunt the nostalgic edge, though, he lays on some heavyhanded synth and production gimmicks, which probably detract from the songwriting. And the lyrics don't venture far from the usual romantic themes ("Remains Of A Heart"). But his tunes are so good it hardly matters (the irresistable, sneering "Sucker"), and some of the arranging tricks pay off, as on the funk bass-meets-slide guitar "Easier." Produced by Brodeur and John Delehanty, who also added a few instrumental tracks though almost everything was played by Brodeur. He has a web site, which promotes his new band The Suggestions. Too bad he hasn't sent me a copy of their EP to review. (DBW)

Cage The Elephant, Thank You, Happy Birthday (2011)
There have been other rock bands demonstrating a virtuosity with sounds while clearly lacking vocal and instrumental prowess, but these guys are on the far end of the Bell Curve, with an uncanny ability to hammer rudimentary licks and rhythmic figures into striking songs ("Sell Yourself," put together from three or four hooks you'd never dream would work together). Drummer Jared Champion is the standout player, though his talent too lies primarily in arranging textures ("Shake Me Down," with chilling mood shifts). Likewise, the lyrics - by vocalist Matt Schultz - are smart without any mindbending pyrotechnics ("Always Something," with echoes of Duane Eddy; "Indy Kidz"). So beyond the hummability ("Aberdeen"), the group's popularity is surely linked to their relatability: you get the feeling (albeit false) that any of us could do what they do if we put our mind to it. The VU homage - and lead single - "Around My Head" is actually one of the weaker tracks. The downside is, when the tunes don't come together, they're just whiny singsong drivel that sounds like warmed-over Wreckless Eric ("2024"; "Right Before My Eyes," also unilluminatingly added as a hidden track). No guests; produced by Jay Joyce. (DBW)

Çamur, Bu Aşkın Izdırabını (2006)
I can't lie: I only know about this Turkish rock outfit's sole album because nearly all the compositions were covered by pop diva Zerrin Özer. Adding insult to injury, in most cases her full-throttle interpretations surpass the tamer originals ("Yara"). More often than not, Murat Ak's sedate vocals (not unlike those of Pinhani's Sinan Kaynakçİ) kill the buzz his exceptional tunes are creating ("Yok"). Still, it's worth hearing the original takes on the material, the subtle approach has its own pleasures (the interlocking percussive base of "Yok"), and one of the disc's best tracks wasn't covered by Özer: the funk-rock wonder "Serseri." (DBW)

Carved Inside, Cryptic (2011)
Winterberg, Germany, is home to Carved Inside, billed as "progressive deathcore," though their pounding verse/soaring chorus structure growls "melodeath!" Their debut is the best argument against DIY recording I've heard in years: the full-bore guitar tones ("Human Preservation") and spellbinding riffs - now intricate ("Tears Of The Sun"), now bashing breakdowns ("Condemned") - are pure gold. But the stiff, grooveless drumming and some timing errors ("Your Eyes In The Hands Of A Butcher") bring the project down. Any producer worth a nickel would have turned this great mass of potential into a great album, and I hope they'll get there eventually - for now, see these up-and-comers live if you get the chance. (DBW)

Centaurus-A, Side Effects Expected (2009)
Admittedly, there are a ton of technical death metal bands with similar approaches, and it's possible I'm reviewing too many of them. For example, this German five-piece - named for a constellation, not for A-Rod - has strong similarities to Obscura, with neoclassical guitar solos ("The Ease") and complex song structures ("Resistance Ain't Futile") in addition to the rapid-fire runs, creative dissonance and rollercoaster rhythms that are de rigeur for the subgenre. But they're less abstract, serving up enough heavy grooves to satisfy a Pantera fan ("Narcotic") with enough guitar madness for the Joe Satriani crowd ("Drop Off"), with better songwriting instincts than either ("Arson"). The group is also more balanced than many similar acts: rhythm section Michael Ahlgrimm and Patrick Schroeder are rock-solid and experimental as guitarists Maik Matanovik and Hernan Andres Martinez Riveros, while vocalist Johannes Henke at least has presence. If you don't dig any of the various sections of, for example, "The Praying Mantis," I'm sure you have your reasons for listening to metal but I don't understand what they are. (DBW)

Ceylan, 2011 Arabesk (2011)
From what I understand, the Arabesk genre of Turkish pop leans heavily on massed strings, bağlama and some woodwinds: upbeat tracks have electronic percussion while slow ones are based on hand percussion or traps ("Bana Mı Düşer"), and there's a near-total avoidance of keyboards. For the Euro-gringo listener, the style has a great deal in common with old high disco (apart from the Near Eastern modes), and at times there's a high camp factor to match. Ceylan plays it straight, belting out dance numbers ("Buda Geçer") while bringing a more subtle touch to less aggressive fare ("İstidim Yor"). So I'm sympathetic to every aspect of the enterprise, but the results are middling, because the compositions - half by İlyas Keçeci, who duets on "Sustum Artık"; half by a slew of others - never quite connect. The exceptions are the midtempo "Mesele" and the pleasantly dramatic "Bana Mı Düşer." (DBW)

City High (2001)
A New York City hip hop soul trio made up of Robby Pardlo, Claudette Ortiz and Ryan Toby; Ortiz and Toby do most of the singing, Pardlo does most of the rapping, and Pardlo and Toby do most of the songwriting (Ortiz's only co-write is on "City High Anthem," a surprisingly bitter dressing down of the previous generation). The musical arrangements are basically retro-70s instrumentation supplemented by loops and programmed drums, on the mellower end of the neo-soul spectrum, and the vocals are solid but similarly derivative: Ortiz and Toby have listened to a lot of Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men, respectively. What sets the project apart is the memorable melodies and lyrics that are sometimes incisive ("What Would You Do," a surprisingly sharp, moving contrast of worker and consumer viewpoints on stripping) and sometimes just loopy ("15 Will Get You 20," a cautionary tale about accidentally committing statutory rape - surely one of the key issues of our time) but never ordinary. It's a bit weird to hear a chorus consisting of a woman bragging about her looks (the hit single "Caramel"), but I guess it's inevitable given all the male rappers bragging about their money, and more importantly, it's an irresistable vocal hook. Wyclef Jean and Jerry "Wonda" Duplessis exec produced and produced four tracks including "Why" and yet another cover of Leon Russell's "A Song For You." (DBW)

Coheed And Cambria, No World For Tomorrow (2007)
One the best rock bands ever to come from Nyack, Coheed And Cambria is the brainchild of Claudio Sanchez, who writes the songs, sings lead, plays guitar, and named the band for the main characters in a space opera he wrote. Each album tells a chapter in the adventures of the two characters, and I'll admit I'm not even attempting to follow the story. Sanchez sings in a high, clear falsetto which has brought comparisons to Rush's Geddy Lee. The band is usually classed as progressive rock, presumably because of the grandiose album and title concepts ("The End Complete IV: The Road And The Damned"), but apart from a few long running times the tunes are actually fairly standard hard rock ("Feathers"), without the keyboards or experimentation usually associated with prog. Their best tunes are high-energy rockers with unexpected breaks and carthartic choruses ("The Running Free"; title track), and the guitar duels between Sanchez and co-lead Travis Stever often lead in fun directions ("Gravemakers And Gunslingers"). Ultimately, though, the record is excessive, bloated with second-rate songs (the seven-minute, Floyd-like "On The Brink") and not enough variety. Bassist Michael Todd is solid but doesn't get any time in the spotlight; Foo Fighter Taylor Hawkins filled in on drums for this release, bridging the gap between the outgoing Josh Eppard and replacement Chris Pennie. Produced by Nick Raskulinecz. (DBW)

Keyshia Cole, Just Like You (2007)
If there's such a thing as Hip Hop Soul, that's what Keyshia Cole does... Which is a nice way of saying she's a lesser Mary J. Blige. Cole has a malleable voice that can win you over with subtlety ("Fallin") or blow you away with raw power ("Losing You," a duet with Anthony Hamilton), and can communicate a broad range of feelings. But she's not much of a writer or song picker, so too much of the material is tired (Scott Storch's "Give Me More," another would-be empowerment anthem based on sampled strings) or flat-out weak ("Last Night" with Diddy). Writing good songs is tough, but what's more mysterious is how many producers don't give her much to sing: "I Remember"; "Work It Out"; on and on. Missy Elliott's "Let It Go" (also featuring Lil' Kim) is no classic, but at least she lets Cole open up the throttle. The one killer cut is from Rodney Jerkins: I've been a Darkchild detractor from way back, but "Shoulda Let You Go" (with Amina Harris) is a masterful blend of hooks and beats that still leaves plenty of room for the singer. (DBW)

Cormorant, Dwellings (2011)
The Bay Area's Cormorant calls itself "progressive black metal," and the blend of folk interludes with death metal growling may put you in mind of Opeth. In truth, though, they're a throwback to Rush, combining top-notch instrumental technique with high-minded lyrical concepts via singer/bassist Arthur von Nagel ("Funambulist") and lots of 70s arena rock riffs from guitarists Nick Cohon and Matt Solis ("The First Man"). Hard to take seriously at points (especially the overblown grand finale), and familiar-sounding at others (the Sabbath-y "A Howling Dust") but most of the time the record is as enjoyable as it is accomplished ("The Purest Land," with manifold rhythm changes spotlighting drummer Brennan Kunkel), and the best moments are thrilling (the instrumental "Confusion Of Tongues"; the second half of "Junta"). (DBW)

Contrastic (2000)
There are plenty of post-modern metal bands that throw every genre they can think of into a melting pot, and stir vigorously, but not many as artful or as offhand about it as the Czech Republic's Contrastic. Their first full-length has everything from Eurodisco keyboards and 70s arena tropes ("The Letter") to spoken word and a jazz guitar odyssey ("About...") - all strangely bedfellowed with abrasive, grinding metal. Moreover, it's cleverly done: the whispers and wah-wah on "Sex With Four Walls" undercut the unromantic theme. ("Verchrottung Durch Arbeit" is one of the few tracks with no non-metal ingredients.) All the while, Trisy's drumming - though not lacking in vigor - is as delicate and restrained as everyone else is debauched. Not an unmissable must-have because so many of the individual tunes don't live up to their promise ("War Laws") - however, if you love the reach and facility of Cynic and Atheist, but wish they had a sense of fun, this record could be your dream come true ("Chopin's Ulcerous Colic"). The group contributed five tracks to a 2002 split LP (of similar approach and high quality) then broke up, though three of the members formed the backbone of grindcore outfit Opitz. (DBW)

Decapitated, The Negation (2004)
This Polish quartet plays pretty well for a bunch of guys with no heads. Okay, cheap shot, but the band does skate further to the edge of self-parody than usual, even for death metal: so rigorously discordant and unmelodic in their downtuned rumbling and Cookie Monster grumbling (title track) that you get the feeling if they came across a killer riff they'd dismiss it as insufficiently serious. It's quite difficult to make out anything guitarist Vogg is playing or vocalist Sauron is saying, so you end up focusing on the succession of rhythms from drummer Vitek, and even he seems to be spasmodically bashing more often than not ("Sensual Sickness"). What you have to grant them, though, is that they follow death metal's harsh blueprint without cavil or compromise ("The Empty Throne," probably the best of the batch): they'll perform the operation, but they won't use any anesthetic. Sauron left in 2005 and Vitek died in a 2007 traffic accident; Vogg soldiers on with a new crew. (DBW)

Death Remains, Stand.Fight.Believe (2013)
The rhythm guitar record of the year: This London metal quintet doesn't have time for solos, combining metalcore song structure (the breakdown in "Carriers") with thrash tempos and byzantine riffing, while vocalist Barry O'Connor usually screams but occasionally sings choruses ("Blood Brothers"). To put it another way, they sound quite a bit like early Trivium ("A Cold Farewell" is particularly like "Anthem"), and their compositions are similarly powerful ("The Northern Line Massacre"). Apart from the brief title track, every song goes for the throat and doesn't let go, and the good news is you don't want to be let go ("Proof Of Life"). The band is so committed to their style and realizes it so flawlessly, it's hard to believe this is their debut. Produced by Sikth's Justin Hill. (DBW)

Decrepit Birth, Polarity (2010)
This Santa Cruz death metal outfit is a mix of experimental/prog and traditional "chugga chugga," played with maximum intensity and virtuosity that recalls Death's late period (the bonus track is a fiery cover of Death's "See Through Dreams"). The group's embrace of both intellect and brute ferocity is expressed by the contrast between the infantile band name and their high-minded song titles ("(A Departure Of The Sun) Ignite The Tesla Coil"), and thanks to that contrast, song concepts that would be absurdly twee in the hands of a Sufjan Stevens are ruthlessly hard-hitting ("A Brief Odyssey In Time"), while even the simplest headbanging riffs are orchestrated into sweeping epics ("Metatron"). However, there are a couple of catches: The individual song sections are mostly mediocre apart from sure winners "The Quickening Of Time" and "Symbiosis." Listen as closely as I may, I can rarely tell death growls apart, and vocalist Bill Robinson (not the Pittsburgh Pirate) is no exception. Meanwhile, Matt Sotelo, like Kirk Hammett, strikes me as a facile but uninteresting lead guitarist despite his song construction strengths. The band has experienced high turnover since their 2003 debut; immediately after recording this disc, guitarist Dan Eggers and drummer KC Howard exited the band, and temps filled their spots on the 2010 Summer Slaughter tour I witnessed. (DBW)

Def Sound, Def Sound Is Alive (2010)
L.A.-based Def Sound comes off like an introverted, precocious kid left alone with a room full of recording equipment, and I've always had a soft spot for that. He's musically rapacious, centered in hip hop but appropriating New Wave ("$ Times Girls"), classic rock ("If the Sky Was A Her She'd Be U"; "Infatuation," sampling the Beach Boys), and found sound (80s video game bleeps on "Take U There"). His rapping style is low-key, crisply enunciated, brash and wry by turns; while he's often focused on romance, his subject matter ranges from science fiction to philosophy. As much as I dig his attitude and approach, though, many of the tracks are so self-effacing they don't make an impression, and despite all the good cheer ("Love Letter 2 Life") he often stays too close to the surface to make an emotional connection. Accordingly, the best moments come when he invites someone over and lets them play with his toys: "Heavy Machinery" has a groove that's equally quirky and nasty - produced by Roosevelt - plus Belvi x Lite; "Up Is The New Down" is danceable and witty, but goes into overdrive when the effusively talented Novena Carmel stops by. (I swear I wrote that before I realized she was Sly Stone's daughter.) Best part: the album's free at his site, so check it out if you're at all intrigued. (DBW)

Depar, Hediye (2012)
Istanbul's Depar has more talent than focus: they play several different kinds of rock 'n' roll at varying levels of proficiency, and would probably go farther if they narrowed their sights a bit. Their uptempo material can be thrilling, with guitarist Ferhat Üstün, bassist Yeşim Kayman and studio drummer Arbak Dal setting up a durable but breathable pocket and Sefa Şenel adding bristling, wiry guitar leads, presided over by vocalist/chief writer Yeliz Üstadımız, authoritative if sometimes whiny. The frenzied "Dunya" is the best of the batch, but "Sahne Hayat" and "İstedim" are similar and worthy, and the band also makes canny use of dynamic range and rhythmic variety to put across slightly slower fare ("Zit"). The results are less remarkable when they branch into ska ("Senle Ben"), Divinyls-y arena rock (title track) and drippy mood music ("Dipten," a knockoff of "Mad World"). Produced by Cenk Eroğlu. (DBW)

Dissonance In Design, Sentient (2013)
Yet another somewhat progressive, moderately technical death metal act, this time a quintet from Denver. Like Protest The Hero, DiD starts with standard hard rock/heavy metal harmonic and melodic material but builds complicated tracks out of them ("Entwined in Aether"); this works wonders on the snappier tunes ("Terminus Part I: Purpose"), but occasionally they spin their wheels when the running times get longer ("...Between Space & Time"). Oh, and there's some science-fiction concept underlying the album, which might do more for me if I could understand any of the words. The band was started by the Patuto brothers (Harrison, guitar; Zac, drums), though the approach seems to have solidified when they absorbed two Vale of Pnath members - guitarist Vance Valenzuela and vocalist/lyricist Stevie Boiser - and bassist Nemi Sobhani has both a sensitive touch (particularly in the quieter passages) and a righteous groove. They has a lot going for them - guitars playing contrasting rhythms, a focus on both light-speed licks and crunching vamps, unexpected dynamics changes used to define song structure rather than an end in itself - and because their compositions aren't as far-out as, say, Obscura, they're accessible if you're an old school prog head looking for something with more bite. (DBW)

Disturbed, Indestructible (2008)
Hailing from Chicago - though fronted by New York transplant David Draiman - Disturbed doesn't fit neatly into any of the modern metal categories, as they're more aggressive than other hard rockers but don't feature the rapping and loops of nü-metal, the blast beats and distortion of death metal, or the experimentation of alt-metal. Working with a limited toolkit makes them vulnerable to dull moments ("Haunted") - that's why I can't stand Godsmack, which has a similar sound. But generally Disturbed overcome that hurdle, thanks to focused, riff-based songwriting, careful arrangements (the laddered melodies on "The Night") and Draiman's intense delivery ("Inside The Fire," a meditation on suicide). Dan Donegan plays both driving rhythm figures and agile solos - no idea how he pulls that off in concert, as he's the only guitarist in the band. Bassist John Moyer and drummer Mike Wengen are solid, but a band like this isn't about how flashy the individual pieces are, but rather how well they fit together. At times that gives the songs a cookie-cutter, workmanlike rather than inspired quality ("Enough"), but you could do a lot worse. (DBW)

Dodecahedron (2012)
From the band name and megaprecious song titles ("View From Hverfell III: The Traveller Of The Seed Of The Earth"), I was expecting a precise but soulless mathcore record. It is precise, and I'm sure these Danish black metalurgists won't claim to have souls, but the emotional impact of their "wall of spleen" sound is hard to deny. It's much easier to describe individual virtuosity than Dodecahedron's collective mastery of texture, but you'll know it when you hear it ("Vanitas"). While far from uniform - sections range from slow to fast, loud to ear-splitting - the record is almost all atmosphere (there's not a single riff that sticks in my mind)... a difficult tightrope act to maintain through a full-length, but they manage it. ("Descending Jacob's Ladder," which sounds like a five-minute visit from the Central Scrutinizer, is the only piece that doesn't work.) And I've never heard anyone - not even Neil - do the "endlessly drawn-out song-ending distortion" routine this well ("I, Chronocrator"). Not entertainment in any usual sense, not edifying in any way I can articulate, but certainly an experience worth seeking out. (DBW)

Melinda Doolittle, Coming Back To You (2009)
I love Melinda Doolittle: after watching American Idol off and on for years, she's the only contestant I've seen that made me sit up and say "I want to buy her album when it comes out." Her voice is rich, her control is flawless, her personality is disarming, her emotional connection to what she's singing is unquestionable. This debut, produced by Michael Mangini, tries to play up her retro soulfulness while giving her plenty of room to shine, but it's a mixed bag. The material ranges from pop standards ("The Best Of Everything," "I'll Never Stop Loving You" and "Wonder Why," all by Sammy Cahn) to ancient blues ("Dust My Broom" and "Walkin' Blues," both Robert Johnson's) to new songs that sound older ("Fundamental Things"). The band - Adam Pallin (guitar), Ray Angry (keys), Cindy Blackman (drums) - rolls along accordingly, but the arrangements don't just verge on cliché, they plunge right in (the hazy sax lick and swelling strings on the title track, for example). So as decent as some of the tunes are (the smoky, strutting "I Will Be") as good as Doolittle is throughout (knocking "Declaration Of Love" out of the park), the whole enterprise sounds self-consciously anachronistic and stagnant - I enjoyed her live act quite a bit more. (DBW)

Orphan/Dope Body, Self Entitled (2010)
Baltimore's Dope Body mines a narrow vein, crafting hooks out of processed bass licks, a funky drummer, and basically nothing else ("Lean" - yep). The approach is bracing and startling when it works ("Easy/Hard"), less surprising when it sounds chaotic and underdone, as is usually the case on this split LP with Orphan. The energy is high, bassist Zach Utz's ideas are intriguing ("Tomahawk"), and the execution is concise, but the recording quality is so execrable that Andrew Laumann's vocals are incomprehensible and drummer David Jacober's groove only rarely comes across (the thrashing "Gawk"). There's a difference between quality lo-fi recording and a sloppy mess, and there's no better way to hear that difference than by comparing these two Dope Body records. Meanwhile, Orphan also has a rough-hewn post-punk attack ("Taco Truck Snackery"), but completely devoid of novelty and nuance, or even a decent lick. (DBW)

Dope Body, Nupping (2011)
Dope Body's noisy brand of funk-fused, post-punk rock and roll is hard to pin down but easy to enjoy ("The Shape Of Grunge To Come"). The trio throws itself into heavy grooves with a heady spirit that sometimes recalls Contrastic ("Mr. Black"); while the individual licks are often rudimentary ("100 Mile"), they cohere into adrenaline-packed mini-anthems you ignore at your peril ("Falling Down"). Andrew Laumann's echoey, unhinged vocals bring to mind Gallows' Frank Carter, while David Jacober on drums finds the missing link between hip hop and hardcore ("Bangers & Yos"), and Zach Utz uses effects pedals to make bass and guitar sound like a battalion of wild and wonderful things ("Enemy Outta Me"). Dope Body come across as too scattered and disorganized to build a long career, but I sure hope I'm wrong about that: A record like this, where even the lesser tracks are bold and invigorating ("Chain Link"), indicates a group with a lot to say. (DBW)

Drake, Thank Me Later (2010)
This year certainly had its share of debut albums from artists who were already on the radar: Drake's bow isn't as bold, ambitious or entrancing as Janelle Monáe's - a dizzying standard - but it sure beats Nicki Minaj's Pink Friday. Drake's the least impressive singer of the three, but the best rapper ("Fancy"), using clever couplets to express affection, vulnerability and regret without making a Kanyé-sized stink about it. And while the megastar cast - Alicia Keys, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne ("Miss Me"), Minaj ("Up All Night") - might make you think "overpromoted flavor of the month," from the opening "Fireworks" (with lines like "You never see it coming, you just get to see it go") Drake repeatedly demonstrates that he's at least as talented as his multiplatinum guests (The-Dream's seduction silliness "Shut It Down" is a case in point). Hey, Joni Mitchell was well connected too - it doesn't diminish her accomplishments. The producers are equally high-powered - Timbaland, Swizz Beatz, West - and they're kept on their toes by Drake's skilled (if less renowned) team of Noah "40" Shebib and Boi-1da. (DBW)

Dreamgirls: Music From The Motion Picture: Deluxe Edition (2006)
It took twenty-five years to bring the Broadway show to the big screen, but when it was done it was done right, and the same goes for the soundtrack album (I got the two-CD Deluxe Edition; there's also a single-disc version). Producers Harvey Mason Jr. and Damon Thomas tackle nearly every form of black music from the 50s through the 70s with striking success, from nightclub jazz ("Big") to disco ("One Night Only"), and keep the arrangements flexible and exciting even on the story-advancing filler ("It's All Over"). Curiously, they're weakest at recreating the Motown Sound itself: supposed hits like "Cadillac Car" and "Dreamgirls" fail as completely as they had on the original 1982 soundtrack. The stars are also exceptional: Eddie Murphy shines as a cross between Jackie Wilson and James Brown on "Fake Your Way To The Top" and "Jimmy's Rap"; Beyoncé accurately emulates Diana Ross's clear, calm precision; Jennifer Hudson easily ranges from Patti LaBelle-style belting ("And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going") to Aretha Franklin's mellow early-70s sound ("I Am Changing"). Four new tunes were added to the original book, of varying quality: "Love You I Do" is an irresistable upbeat pop song, while "Listen" is a typical Beyoncé ballad (also included on her 2006 solo album). (DBW)

Drew Ofthe Drew, Green (2013)
Remember Beck? The guy who wrote catchy ripoffs of 90s soul and funk but with this ironic post-everything smirk indicating he thought he was above it all? Drew has the same "kid loose in a recording studio" disregard for convention and the same genre affections, but his depth of feeling and ability to meld borrowed elements into a coherent original vision stands in direct contrast, a Bizarro World Beck. Things that look ridiculous on the page (banjo on the reggae love song "Cry,Die,Fly"; out-of-left-field electroburbling on the pleading neosoul "Rage Space") come across as unforced and charming. Curiously enough, all the half-formed, disorganized experiments work beautifully (the guitar effectstravaganza "Bash City"; JP Bouvet's cymbal and snare feature "Jaypian") - the album's weak points are the conventional R&B slow jams ("Compatible"). It's all held together by funky (though often loud) guitar and Drew's falsetto hooks - if you can imagine Maroon 5 without the cloying eagerness to please, you'll be pretty close ("Pull Me Down"). (DBW)

Drum And A Tantrum, The End (2013)
The difference between retro and nostalgia may seem small but it's important: I went to see the Sugarhill Gang last night, and it was great fun to hear a whole crowd rapping along to "8th Wonder" (though it's a shame the lyricist, Cheryl Cook, and the rest of The Sequence weren't there) but it was pure nostalgia... The Gang had nothing new up their sleeves, we all knew it, and we weren't expecting any different. On the other hand, two-piece Drum And A Tantrum (both former members of Sleepy Wizard) mines early 70s Americana/singer-songwriter tropes for self-expression - because it's genuinely what they hear, not because it already sounds familiar. A whole crop of young singers are in the Laura Nyro piano/horns/maybe-some-strings mold (Diane Birch, for one), but it's rare to hear the spare piano and drums - with light countrification via slide guitar, dobro, mandolin ("Time And Again") - of early Elton John, with disarmingly direct vocals recalling Cat Stevens ("The Power," which also has strong echoes of "Unforgiven"). It's rarer still to hear these tools used to create moving, emotional songs - Heart And A Sleeve would be an equally appropriate band name - from the instrumental "The First Time I Saw The Beginning" to the centerpiece "Sticky Fingers." Pianist/singer Julian Altbuch is the center of attention, but drummer Russell de Moose plays a critical supporting role (in live shows he plays various plucked and strummed instruments, though I don't know if he's the player here); the production isn't overbearing but makes nice use of early 70s staples like excessive echo ("Philadelphia Columns"). (DBW)

Due North, Follow Me (2001)
Hard-core heathen that we are, we don't review a lot of religious music, but I got the debut from this Oklahoma City Christian soft rock duo in the mail, and there's a lot to like about it. Anna Jordan contributes all the singing and lyrics, and she has a lovely pure alto. Bradley Ford writes the music, plays guitar and keys, and programs the drums: he has a good ear for melody, and his electric guitar solos have a spirited economy recalling Lindsay Buckingham. Several songs are based on acoustic guitar, and they're fun ("Hold Out Your Hand"; "You'll Find Your Way Home"). The lyrics are mostly of the smiley-faced "love songs to God" variety, not particularly preachy, which I guess suit the music better than fire and brimstone would. The problems come when Ford relies on bland synth washes and vaguely Latin percussion: there's an important difference between soft rock and New Age, and Due North goes way over the line on the concluding "Faithful Love" and "Stand Up," with droning chords and little guitar riffs that shoot for hypnotic but settle for dull. And occasionally the tunes are just obvious ("Change Of Heart"). For more information, check out the band's web site. Home recordists take note: the CD liner has the lyrics and basic info, while the more detailed recording notes (what inspired each track, how they were recorded) appears only in a separate promo pack - that's the way to do it. (DBW)

Ekrem Düzgünoğlu, Karayel (2012)
On the surface, a conventional folk-pop singer-songwriter record, along the lines of 70s Silvio Rodríguez ("Nazande"; the guitar-driven "Alma Ahimi"). Most of the songs are traditional (I assume: they're credited to "Anonymous," apart from two self-penned tunes) but the tone ranges from a (the bleakly threatening "Ab-ı Ceşm") to z (the rollicking, horn-backed "Niğde Bağları") and back again. I keep spinning this disc with the persistent feeling that a profound secret is encoded in it, and that repeated listenings will eventually reveal it to me - like reading opaque scripture. I don't know if that's the sensation Düzgünoğlu is going for or what he's doing to engender it (apart from the drama-producing choir in "Sebu Hicran"), but I do recommend you listen for yourself. (DBW)

Dysmorphic, A Notion Of Causality (2013)
France's Dysmorphic serves up technical death metal that's more song-oriented than the pure experimental bands like Behold The Arctopus but more chaotic than epic-makers like Obscura. From Quentin Regnault's drumming to Eric Haure-Touzet and Jules Martinez's frantic fretwork, the technique is headspinning - they even make room for Johann Sadok's bass, an oft-neglected instrument in the genre. Undeniably accomplished as this all is, the individual licks are more original than compelling, so - "Skeptical Existence" excepted - the sections don't build up any momentum: you keep listening for what will happen next, but once it's over nothing sticks with you. It's a bit like watching the world's fastest egg roll roller: the skill is impressive, but at the end of the day all you have is a big pile of egg rolls. (DBW)

11 As In Adversaries, The Full Intrepid Experience Of Light (2010)
French black metal outfit Glorior Belli is known for pushing the boundaries of their genre with textured guitars, blues licks, and clear sonics. But when they finished recording this prog-metal set they realized it would throw fans for a loop - Satanists aren't as tolerant of heresy as you might imagine - so they put it out under a different band name. They may have stumbled into a clever marketing strategy, because after hearing this creative, boundary-crossing exercise I'm now looking into the albums they put out as Glorior Belli even though I'm not much of a black metal fan. Anyway, G. a/k/a Gionata Potenti plays drums, and J. a/k/a Infectvvs does everything else: bass, guitar, vocals, and (I'm assuming) most of the songwriting. Of the six tracks, only "A Stealthy Freedom" is clearly experimental - entirely composed of guitar effects and backwards loops - but the songs are all over the metal map: "Verses From Which To Whirl" is near-thrash with screamed vocals, building to squalling solos before dissolving as if by acid; "Agitation In The Glorious Theme" brims over with the chaotic cacophony the MC5 promised but couldn't deliver. "The Night Scalp Challenger" - with lead vocals from Niklas Kvarforth from fellow black metalers Shining - is probably closer to Glorior Belli's typical sound. The title track has clean singing and minimal distortion, but it's truly bizarre anyway, thanks to an army of overdubbed guitars playing serpentine, intertwining lines: I can't figure out where it's going - you'd need five ears to keep track of it all - but I don't care, because each stop along the way is so thrilling. (DBW)

Lauren Ellis, Feels Like Family (2003)
I'm not a huge fan of countrified roots rock singer/songwriter/slide guitarists - heck, I haven't even reviewed Bonnie Raitt - but Lauren Ellis is the real deal. She handles a range of guitar styles (backwoods lap steel on "Afraid To Love"; straight rock soloing on "When I See You"), while her weathered voice easily ranges from good-time rock to anguish. But what's more valuable and rare, she's also a strong songwriter, from bluesy riff tunes ("Dry As A Bone") to heartfelt love songs ("Shades Of Blue"); she wrote everything here except for "Just To Be With You" by Bernard Roth, and the pedestrian "Extra Mile" by Jodi Siegel and Danny Tims. Her lyrics are functional but not brilliant, mostly concerned with romance ("End Of Our Line") except for the title track - a meditation on chosen vs. birth families - and the quietly seething "Setting Son." Musicians vary but usually include Rick Lonow or Kenny Malone (drums), Viktor Krauss or Ed Cain (bass), and Catherine Styron Marx (keys); self-produced. The CD comes with a DVD remixing the whole album in 5.1 stereo, plus some extras like videos and interviews. (DBW)

Exit Strategy, The Apostate's Creed (2010)
Grindcore from Calgary, Alberta, featuring Joe Sikorski (guitars), Greg Musgrave (bass, growled vocals), Casey Rogers (drums) and Thérèse Lanz (screamed vocals). There's plenty of top-speed rage ("Scraping Carmen"; "The Rotting Acre") and anti-establishment politics ("Anti-Theist"); the songs change gears quickly ("In The Name Of..."), and the licks are played expertly ("Virus"). On the other hand, the songs rarely stick in your head - the frenzied "Fields Of Meat" is a wonderful counterexample - and the band doesn't get as much mileage out of their dual death metal vocalists as you might think (Carcass is still the gold standard in that department). And not to get all PC but it's hard to tell whether "Bride Of The Prophet" is a general anti-religion screed or if it's specifically targeting Muslims - particularly when the call to prayer kicks in - and I do hope it's the former. On balance the record is comfortably within genre norms in both ambition and execution: there's much better extreme metal out there, but you could do a lot worse. (DBW)

The Faceless, Planetary Duality (2008)
This California technical death metal band has so much in common with Cynic that when I saw them live I initially thought they were Cynic: same clean vocoder (by guitarist Michael Keene) alternating with grunted death vocals (by Derek Rydquist), intricate mellow guitar passages in between ultra-heavy sections ("Coldly Calculated Design"). If anything, though, The Faceless thrives on even more extreme contrasts, as the death metal segments could be Carcass while the lighter side could be Stanley Jordan. Keene and bassist Brandon Giffin seem to be the leaders, though the songwriting is credited to the band and Keene engineered and produced. Only rarely does the structure seem contrived - the keyboard break on "Xenochrist" is an exception - or chaotic (which is my problem with Behold... The Arctopus): you always feel like you know where the band is going even when it's hard to follow ("Sons Of Belial"). And unlike, say, Atheist, the individual riffs and progressions could stand on their own, even without the quick-change trickery. (DBW)

Fit For An Autopsy, The Process Of Human Extermination (2011)
Death metal/deathcore from New Jersey, invigorating if unsurprising ("The Conqueror"). Vocalist Nate Johnson (formerly with Through The Eyes Of The Dead) is a one-man wall of sound, as his growled antiestablishment phrases - nearly always containing the meaningless intensive - approach white noise. Guitarists Patrick Sheridan and Will Putney stand out further, with riffs that deliver the unexpected both rhythmically ("The Consumer," with The Human Abstract's Travis Richter) and harmonically ("The False Prophet") - atypically for the genre, the melodic breaks and solo sections don't detract from the intensity ("The Jackal"). The riffs are consistently solid if never spellbinding; all the songs are short, which I wish more bands would look into, but in FFAA's case I'd like them to expand out to a magnum opus or two: there's too little of what, say, All Shall Perish does too much of. There are a few guest vocalists, including label head Guy Kozowyk, though to be honest I have a tough time telling one growler from another. (DBW)

Chris Francis, Studs N' Sisters (2006)
The closest comparison for this second album from British guitar whiz Chris Francis is Joe Satriani's debut Surfing With The Alien, but since it seems I've neglected to review that, I'd better give some more detail: While most instrumental guitar showpiece albums veer toward fusion (the Jeff Beck school) or metal (the Yngwie Malmsteen school), Francis serves up arena rock songs with melodies and verse/chorus structure that just happen to have no vocalist. And while there are loads of guitarists who put together albums long on flash but short on musicality, Francis delivers something rarer: tunes that stick in your head (title track; the Van Halen-y "You Can Dance Better Than That"). He is fleet of finger, sure, but the technique is harnessed to the needs of the song (most of the time, at least: "Lift The Dogs" is an exception). Most of the cuts are uptempo ("Light It Up"), but he's as adept on slower fare, such as the almost mournful "Used-To-Be." All by Francis except for a rather contrived cover of "Material Girl." (DBW)

Franz Ferdinand (2004)
I have nothing against retro when it's well done, and this much-hyped Scottish foursome is certainly capable of that. Usually they put garage guitar hooks over bassist Robert Hardy and drummer Paul Thomson's disco rhythms, sounding like Back To The Egg-era Wings: the terrific, tempo-shifting hit "Take Me Out"; the less memorable "Auf Achse." Unfortunately, on a lot of tracks they have more energy than ingenuity, blustering and flailing in an attempt to cover for a lack of actual melody ("Dancing To The Matinée," strongly reminiscent of "Hava Nagilah"). Frontman/guitarist Alexander Kapranos and lead guitarist Nicholas McCarthy write the songs, and the tunes are better than the lyrics, which are overly distanced takes on romance: either tongue-in-cheek (the homoerotic "Michael") or self-consciously clever ("Come On Home"). Produced by Tore Johannson. (DBW)

Franz Ferdinand, You Could Have It So Much Better (2005)
No change from the previous record's blueprint, but it's more consistent, with only a couple of dull tracks ("Walk Away," with a twangy guitar lick that escaped from Blondie's "Atomic"), and they make more use of vocal harmonies ("The Fallen"). Again the guitar hooks are mixed ridiculously far forward (leadoff single "Do You Want To"), the tempos range from fast to faster ("This Boy"), and the tunes are short, simple and catchy ("Evil And A Heathen"). They use some unexpected shifts a la "Take Me Out," though that backfires on "I'm Your Villain" when they trade a terrific riff for a subpar one. And they stretch into Beatles homage with the chorusy piano and drugged vocals of "Fade Together." The lyrics are more direct and honest ("Well That Was Easy"), though they're still not going to be confused with Joni Mitchell. Produced by Rich Costey and the band. (DBW)

Franz Ferdinand, Tonight: Franz Ferdinand (2009)
The pre-release hype was that FF had reinvented themselves as a synth-friendly dance band, and indeed, buzzing keyboards dominate "Can't Stop Feeling" and the trying eight-minute Hex Hector homage "Lucid Dreams." But mostly it's business as usual, with one peppy guitar tune after another (leadoff single "Ulysses"; "Turn It On") and the occasional half-baked love song (the semi-acoustic "Katherine Kiss Me"). The formulas still work (the kinetic chant "No You Girls"; the tempo-changing "Send Him Away") though they're getting close to their sell-by date. A bonus disc of dub mixes called Blood was originally included with some versions of the album, then later spun off as a separate release. Produced by Dan Carey. (DBW)

Funeral For A Friend, Conduit (2013)
One of the top ten bands sharing a name with an Elton John song, FFF is usually described as "post-hardcore" but this sixth full-length is basic hard rock, with an equal amount of metal and punk influence. Singer Matthew Davies-Kreye and guitarist Kris Coombs-Roberts have been around since the Welsh act's early days; Gavin Burrough (guitar), Richard Boucher (bass) and Pat Lundy (drums) are fairly recent additions. Most tracks are based on a Burrough rhythm lick - he either open tunes, or has some other way of producing a pleasant sliding effect - plus Davies-Kreye's brash, tuneful singing ("Spine"); Lars Ulrich-like, Lundy is more an accompanist than the power center. They don't display as much variety as you'd expect from an act in mid-career, and few singalong choruses are too mallcore for my blood (the oddly sunny "Sun-Less"), but on its own terms the record succeeds... Clocking in at just under half an hour, it's nowhere to look for deeper meanings but a fun ride. (DBW)

Gallows, Grey Britain (2009)
A hardcore punk fivesome from Hertfordshire, the Gallows incorporate some heavy metal ambition (the mostly instrumental opener "The Riverbank") and complexity (the riff rollercoaster "Leeches") into their second album, but without losing any of their blunt force ("Black Eyes"). It's easy to scream but difficult to truly come across as violently angry, and Frank Carter pulls that off flawlessly as he spews his disaffection with a host of modern ills ("London Is The Reason"). Guitarists Lags Barnard and Steph Carter piece together brief, jagged hooks into songs that are as unpredictable as they are catchy as they are cathartic ("Misery"). Drummer Lee Barratt bashes when appropriate, and also indulges in the long rolls that warm this old Sleater-Kinney fan's heart. Often the band comes across like Dillinger Escape Plan with less math and more politics, and I don't know about you but that's right up my alley. They overplay their hand with pretentious mellow sections on "The Vulture (Acts I and II)" and the concluding eight-minute suite "Crucifucks," but in general it's a blast; sadly, Carter left the band before a third album was recorded. (DBW)

Glorior Belli, Meet Us At The Southern Sign (2009)
This French black metal band has only one formula, but it's a good one: deliberate midtempo grinds with blues-based riffs ("Fires Of The Sitra Arha"), plus the dependable Satanic growling. Of course, the problem with such a one-dimensional approach is that the sub-par tracks have nothing to offer ("Fivefold Thought"). The uniformity of tone is so overpowering that the rare exceptions - the pretty instrumental "My True Essence"; the clean-sung verses of "In Every Grief-Stricken Blues" - seem like a window into another, brighter dimension. So overall the effect is blunted: listening to the whole thing is less rewarding than sampling an individual track would lead you to believe. The same twosome broke out of their black metal confines on an experimental 2010 disc, released under the name 11 As In Adversaries. (DBW)

Gökçe, Kaktüs Çiçeği (2012)
If Turkey has a Gwen Stefani (not that it should), surely it's Gökçe Dinçer: her upbeat pop has driving rhythm showing a strong ska-punk influence ("Tuttu Firlatti") - in fact, the frequent brass punctuations make her ska rather more authentic than No Doubt's was. Mostly self-written; I can't find information on producers or arrangers - which I suppose is what I deserve for buying a digital copy - but the crisp, muscular arrangements bring the details into sharp relief: the breakdown in "Kime Ne"; the harmonized lead guitars on "Oh Olsun"; sawed kemençe on the otherwise straight-ahead rocker "Sorma Neden." Gökçes got more than enough spirit and melodic invention to sell the punchier numbers (the funky "Ne Yapardim," one of the best tunes I've heard so far this year) though as a crooner she lacks heft ("Baskasi"), and fortunately, the tempo rarely slows ("Bitti Mi"): if I were the kind of person who threw parties, this would be a fine disc to spin. (DBW)

Nicki Gonzalez, Moron Love (2006)
Singer/songwriter Gonzalez would make a good touring partner for Jana Losey, as they occupy the same niche - brash but not bratty; using cleverness to reveal, not replace, an emotional core - without sounding too similar. Gonzalez can be funny (her label is called Paxil Rose), she can be serious ("On My Side"), and best of all, she can be both at the same time ("Jackie," a sly but sincere ballad). The band - Gonzalez on piano and a few other things, brother Ira Gonzalez and Rob Clay dividing bass duties, Sam Clowney and Mitch Easter on guitar, and Warren Smith on drums - serves up unvarnished pop-rock with occasional frills (horns on "Leave"). At times she tries too hard, but at her best Gonzalez can put together a convincing delivery, a powerhouse melody, and clever lyrics: "After Tonite" is one of the best "we're breaking up, but not quite yet" numbers I've ever heard. On the other hand, she's also liable to oversing ("You Love Her" has a Christina Aguilera quality), and a couple of lesser numbers mix arena rock familiarity with indie rock tunelessness ("Superstar"). Produced by Ted Comerford. (DBW)

Go-rin-no-sho, Inner Light (2000)
Go-rin-no-sho is a rapper/producer from East New York, and in contrast to most rappers who say they're describing drugs and violence on the streets only to teach kids to stay straight, you get the impression that he really means it. In fact, he's so sincere he sometimes comes off like a well-meaning guidance counselor who doesn't realize no one is taking him seriously ("One + One"). His press kit states, "This is the record that you can buy for your kids, family members and friends, whether they are liberal or conservative," apparently not realizing that you can't take a meaningful stance on social issues if you're trying to please everybody. Fortunately the "positive message" didacticism is accompanied by a forceful, fast-paced but smooth delivery, reminiscent of KRS-One. The record's best feature isn't played up in the promotional materials at all: the pleasantly understated grooves, which use familiar elements like laid-back piano and drum loops and female backing vocals (slyly delivered by Keisha Hoggard and Kenya Speller of 2-Xquisite), but seem organic rather than Wu grafts. There are even some tracks where Go-rin-no-sho's not preoccupied with uplifting the masses, and they're fun ("Feel The Rhythm"). More variety from track to track would have helped, but overall this is an enjoyable alternative to the musical and lyrical excesses of much of today's hip hop. You can order the album at the Troupe Records home page. (DBW)

Gutslit, Skewered In The Sewer (2013)
One of the more song-oriented deathgrind outfits I've heard, Mumbai's own Gutslit not only organizes their grunting, squealing guitar licks into recognizable structures ("Atrophic Cranial Disintegration"), they also care about recording quality. Though the sound is not only unvarnished but unwashed, each instrument is clearly audible, which enables the better tunes to pack a wallop ("Pustulated Phallic Enthrallment"; title track). The individual licks aren't terribly complex, but they do a good job of packing them together so the energy level never flags. The flip side of that is, there's not much use of dynamics, some tracks are ordinary ("Pulp Face") and the running time is short. Still, if - like me - you're sick of waiting for another Red Chord album, this is about as close as you're likely to get. (DBW)

Hadise, Aşk Kaç Beden Giyer? (2011)
A Belgian-born, ethnically Circassian Turkish national may seem like an unlikely R&B star, but Hadise has been successful in Europe since her late teens. She started out recording in English and charting in Belgium, but her two most recent albums have been in Turkish, including this one. I'm not sure who produced (though members of Street Fabulous were behind the title track and "Melek"), but the record sounds great: the 80s drum tones on the love song "Kaline Yalan Bulma" are perfect; "Burjuva" makes suprisingly effective use of stuttering sampled vocals. Most of the disc is turned over to technodance that's propulsive if uninventive; the title track sounds like something Kylie Minogue would record. The compositions - most have lyrics by Alper Narman and music by Erdem Kınay - are middle of the bell curve in style and quality ("Harakiri"), mostly; "Melek" has the frothy allure of Utada's lighter side. Hadise's voice is thin, but the tracks don't demand more than she can deliver, and in the "faint praise" department, I give her a little credit for not jumping on the Dr. Luke/Katy Perry/Ke$ha assembly line. The one killer cut is the sinuous "Superman" by Güşen, also the only song with recognizably Turkish musical elements: I'm surprised she didn't include another mix of the tune with the strings and bağlama replaced with Western-friendly synth. (DBW)

Yusuf Harpatlu, Zamanı Geldi (2013)
After listening to Harputlu's latest, I had to doublecheck that it wasn't a compilation from some 70s pop legend: partly because the arrangements (heavy on strings and fuzz guitar, virtually no keyboards) are anachronistic, but mainly because everything has an epic, anthemic sweep ("Heval"; "Yaz Yaz" has the kind of strident orchestration I haven't heard since Paul Buckmaster's heyday). Meanwhile Harputku always sounds like he's singing from a mountain top during a thunderstorm, which should get old but somehow never does ("Sen Bir Parçamsın"). Produced by Ferman Akdeniz, who also wrote nearly everything (the galloping "Öpsem Öpsem," maybe the best of all) - you can bet I'll be checking out his other work. (DBW)

Havok, Time Is Up (2011)
Denver thrash revivalists Havok love the 80s and want you to know it: cuts like "Fatal Intervention" is so close to early 80s Bay Area thrash you might think the master tapes were recently discovered in somebody's garage. If this had been Metallica's follow-up to Kill 'Em All, a) nothing would have sounded amiss; and b) fans would have been thoroughly satisfied. Nearly thirty years late, it's retrograde for sure, but quite accomplished and, thanks to the spirit of reckless fun, vital and listenable ("Out Of My Way"; "No Amnesty"). So if you don't mind the stunning lack of originality it's quite enjoyable. Pete Webber pounds the drums, Reece Scruggs provides giddy guitar solos ("Scumbag In Disguise"); bass slaps from Jesse De Los Santos are the one unexpected touch. David Sanchez, who also plays rhythm guitar and writes, is a standard-issue screamer, which makes me wonder: Why is the singer so often the weak link in a metal band, when there's a surplus of good singers (compared to writers, players, etc.) in so many other genres? Is it solely that metal fans don't insist on it? (DBW)

The Holy Goats (2002)
What is it with unsigned bands and goat puns? This New Jersey fourpiece is yet another Stones wannabe: they even subject us to a wimpy jam-band cover of "Stray Cat Blues." They're not as annoying as Blues Traveller (no endless tunes or harmonica solos) but even more generic, with a lead singer (also the songwriter) who manages to be overemotional yet undistinctive, and totally unmemorable songs, except for some direct ripoffs ("Rock N' Roll Thru My Head" = "I Want You (She's So Heavy)"). The players - lead guitarist Deek Mason, bassist Michelle Eckert and drummer Steve Crawley - are perfectly competent, and I'm sure their eighth-generation blues-rock goes down just fine when you've got some beers in you, but who could want to own the album? (DBW)

Benji Hughes, A Love Extreme (2008)
Because bearded, Charlotte-based Benji Hughes released a double-CD debut packed with off-center, discursive songs in a variety of genres, I had kind of penciled him in as a good ol' boy version of Nellie McKay. And in fact, he does often verge on McKay's "hey look at me I'm being winsome" cutesiness ("Neighbor Down The Hall"; "The Mummy"). Most of the time, though, he makes an impression whether he's working with soft rock harmony vocals ("Waiting For An Invitation"), melancholy piano ("So Much Better"), 80s synthpop ("Ladies On Parade") or none of the above (the pure pop "It's Your Life"). Even when the subject material is slight ("I Went With Some Friends To See The Flaming Lips) or stale (or both: "Tight Tee Shirt") the tunes are sturdy and surprising (The Cure-style "Even If"), often revealing an offhand vulnerability ("Girl In The Tower"; "Why Do These Parties Always End The Same Way?"). There are a few instrumental interludes scattered throughout, and the best are excellent (the dour but delicious "Coyotes"). On the downside, Hughes isn't much of a singer, with a limited range, weak projection, and an off-again, on-again approach to pitch ("All You've Got To Do Is Fall In Love"). Written, produced and largely performed by Hughes and Keefus Ciancia. (DBW)

Idle Warship, Habits Of The Heart (2011)
Purportedly a collaboration between singer Res and rapper Talib Kweli, but Kweli stays in the background, allowing Res to have her audacious way with a set of off-kilter dancefloor productions (most by Farhot or DJ Khalil): somehow she sounds in control when she's most emotional ("God Bless My Soul"), while bringing intensity to the (few) calm moments. The retro soundbites (girl group motifs on "Laser Beams")and patchwork composition ("Enemy") have a lot in common with Deee-Lite - which I mean as a compliment - but the sound also stretches into programmed electronics ("System Addict" with Jean Grae & Jay Knocka). There are ineffective stretches, though: When Kweli pops up, it's mostly to drop pop culture non sequiturs ("The Floor"), and several tracks have winning energy but no heft ("Rat Race"). Guests include Chester French & John Forte ("Covered In Fantasy"), Kay Cola ("Are You In") and Michelle Williams ("Katya"). (DBW)

Immortal Technique, The 3rd World (2008)
The third album from Peru-born, Harlem-bred Immortal Technique is his usual high-energy radical rabble-rousing, with strikingly pointed barbs - he's the first MC I've heard ask what happened to all the supposedly militant Muslim rappers after 9/11 - served with healthy side helpings of humor and raw sexuality. (He asserts a couple of times that his view of women exclusively through the lens of pornography doesn't contradict his left-wing politics, but doesn't develop the thesis - maybe that's for his next album.) His verbal facility is so strong he can make memorable one-liners out of dry topics like repression of union organizers (title track) and Manuel Noriega ("Watchout Remix"). Every rapper talks about album sales and how righteous they are, but "Reverse Pimpology" is the first song I've heard with something new to say on those topics in decades. The main producers are DJ Green Lantern and SouthPaw ("Golpe De Estado" featuring Veneno and Temperamento), though tracks are contributed by everyone from Bronze Nazareth ("Payback") to Spictacular ("That's What It Is"). In general, the tracks are not complicated but they're effective, avoiding obvious samples while setting up steady grooves for Immortal Technique to hold forth over. Several guests pop up (Ras Kass and Diabolic on "Payback"; Poison Pen and Swave Sevah on "Stronghold Grip") but never steal the main act's thunder. (DBW)

Intervals, In Time (2012)
I rarely review EPs, but as this is about the best EP I've ever heard, I'll make an exception. The second release from the Toronto-based vocal-free fourpiece is prog metal the way it ought to be: equally technically accomplished and stick-to-your-ribs satisfying, arriving at hard rock catharsis by unexpected routes (the unleaded "Momento"). Mastermind Aaron Marshall plays consistently striking rhythm guitar figures ("Tapestry," featuring Olly Steele), while his leads often hark back to arena rock conventions ("Mata Hari")... Brief opener "Alchemy" is the only cut that doesn't go anywhere. Drummer Anup Sastry rarely steps into the spotlight except on the Wired-like "Epiphany"; I don't know what second guitarist Lukas Guyader or bassist Matt De Luca contributed. (DBW)

Intervals, A Voice Within (2014)
On their debut LP, Intervals leaves their instrumental roots behind (apart from the brief, fusion-y "Breathe") as new bassist Mike Semesky also sings. The change has less effect on the band's sound than you might expect, as his voice is used as one more instrument in the complex arrangements ("Ephemeral") and his delivery - precise yet emotive, without grandstanding - perfectly matches the band's overall approach. As before, they alternate grinding vamps with startling licks that are as ayptical rhythmically as melodically, also throwing in the occasional soft passage ("Siren Sound" contains excellent examples of all three). "Moment Marauder" is a careening tour de force that nonetheless feels calmly self assured - their polished virtuosity with an offhand demeanor is what reminds me of Cynic, though their music isn't otherwise similar. They often set up a deft contrast between grace - winding lead lines I presume are played by Marshall - and force - power chords I'm guessing are from Guyader ("The Escape") - maybe too often, as the strategy is marginally less effective each time it appears. The only misstep, though, is "Atlas Hour": sappy and short on riffs, with a repetitive fade. (DBW)

Job For A Cowboy, Demonocracy (2012)
I actively root against JFAC, because the more successful the Arizona deathcore quintet is, the less time drummer Jon Rice will have for his duties in my favorite band ("still together" category). And their previous album was fairly easy to dismiss, as it sounded like a guy yelling at you through his phone for an hour. But this time there's much more dynamic range, structure and focus ("Imperium Wolves") while lead guitarist Al Glassman has the precise sound of 80s metal ("Tongueless And Unbound") but a refreshingly original approach to solo construction ("The Deity Misconception"). Better yet, frontman Jonny Davy may have the most flexible voice in the genre: he always sounds angry, but sometimes it's the high screech of someone who's going to knife you in the parking lot ("The Manipulation Stream"), sometimes it's the gibbering of a lunatic ("Black Discharge"), sometimes it's the implacable growl of Satan, knowing he can afford to be patient because you'll relax your tight grip on your soul sooner or later ("Nourishment Through Bloodshed"). When they put all those elements together with unpredictable, thrilling riffs, they're unbeatable ("Children Of Deceit"), and even when the licks are ordinary ("Fearmonger") they're effective. I will say I'm no fan of the deathcore custom of ending every album with a long, ponderous number ("Tarnished Gluttony"), but then I was never one to smoke a cigarette after sex either. (DBW)

Kaiser Chiefs, Off With Their Heads (2008)
I'm not sure what's up with UK youth today: all the female singers seem drunk and distraught, while the boys are peppy and perky. Anyway, Kaiser Chiefs has the same post-New Wave power-pop sound as Franz Ferdinand, but with a few frills: jokey organ; some surprisingly loud guitar ("Spanish Metal"). All the songs are credited to the whole band, and they're memorable more often than not ("Can't Say What I Mean"); the all-for-one spirit extends to the performances, as everyone from singer Ricky Wilson to drummer Nick Hodgson sounds fine but no one stands out (the Duran Duran-like "You Want History"). The disc weakens by the end, though, with some misfired mockery ("Addicted To Drugs") and drab melodies ("Remember You're A Girl"). And including a bonus live EP was a tactical error, because it demonstrates conclusively that the band can't actually play their instruments ("Never Miss A Beat" becomes a joke due to Andrew White's continuing failure to nail the lead line). (DBW)

Işın Karaca, Anadilim Aşk (2001)
I've mentioned before that Türk pop icon Sezen Aksu seems to give her best songs away, and this album's an extreme case: Aksu produced the debut for her former backup singer as well as writing or co-writing all the tunes, and it's top-drawer stuff. Genres range from the accordion fantasy "Bitmemiş Tango" to the mega-slinky "Çikita," all rendered with feeling: The uplifting "Başka Bahar" - arranged by Erdem Yörük - could be a lost Gloria Gaynor classic, while the low-key tunes are just as affecting ("Kalbim Ağrıyor"). None of it would sound the same, though, without Karaca's huge voice (the wrenching "Doğum Günün Kutlu Olsun Oğlum"), most comfortable on melancholy fare ("Lamba") while equally effective on joyful numbers ("Yaz"). (DBW)

Işın Karaca, Arabesque II: Geçmiş Bize Yakışıyor (2011)
Karaca's take on Arabesk starts with the same swelling strings, syncopated percussion and mournful melodies of, say, Ceylan ("Dertler Benim Olsun"). But she ramps up the energy with faster tempos and loud guitars, bring it closer to the forceful rock sound of Zerrin Özer's 2007 disc ("Gönül") - though "Seni Sevmeyen Olsün" is pure, pulse-pounding disco. Like Karaca's first volume released in 2010 (which is far less audacious), most of the songs are remade 70s material from pioneers including Neşet Ertaş ("Kendim Ettim Kendim Buldum") and Orhan Gencebay. The compositions aren't groundbreaking but they're gripping ("Yağmur"): When a track - fast or slow - comes up on my smartphone in shuffle mode I never skip it, which my current attention-addled state passes for high praise. Karaca's full-throated vocals (coached by Selami Şahin) are effective ("Ben İnsan Değilmiyim") if not particularly distinctive; most of the credit for the record's success must go to main arranger Selim Çaldıran: "Tanrım" is a sly, well-constructed romance number; the plodding "Neden Saçların Beyazlamış Ark" is the only weak link. (DBW)

Uğur Karakuş, Bilemedim (2011)
I might as well admit up front that I don't understand how Karakuş does what he does. Where most Turkish pop and folk artists I've heard can be plotted on a two-axis chart with melody/harmony and production/instrumentation each ranging from Euro-American to Near Eastern, Karakuş generates effective uptempo pieces ("Karakiz") and mood music ("Seni Affedeminyorum") without recourse to either European idioms or Phrygian-sounding makam. Again and again, the strings (making extensive use of quarter tones) and percussion strike a groove, supported by bağlama ("Pasa Gülüm" - what tonality is that intro?); reaching for comparisons, the title track has a mild bossa nova bounce while"Aşk Gerek Aşk" is a standard Türkpop dance track. Karakuş's voice is reedy, and his nasal, melismatic interpretations - impassioned as they are - aren't to my taste, bringing to mind the Rodney Dangerfield line "He really cares... About what, I have no idea." Several of the tunes are his ("El Bana"); others come from colleagues like Ümit Aksoy and Abdullah Nail Bayşu; though Karakuş isn't a big star in his native land, I recommend that you check him out if you're looking for something off the beaten path. (DBW)

KEN mode, Venerable (2011)
KEN (which stands for "Kill Everyone Now") mode is the brainchild of Winnipeg-based brothers Jesse (guitars/vox) and Shane Matthewson (drums), and their brand of post-hardcore/noise-rock marries highly technical melodic and rhythmic patterns with unrelenting violent aggression a la The Dillinger Escape Plan - always brutal, never brutish ("Obeying The Iron Will"). There are a couple of lengthy pieces: "The Irate Lumberjack"; "Never Was," which stays slow and deliberate longer than you'd think possible while mayhem lurks beneath the surface. And like DEP, when they finally set aside the high concepts and just bang out rock and roll, they're blistering ("Mako Shark"). Produced by Kurt Ballou. The band changes bass players every five minutes: Jahmeel Russell co-wrote "Flight Of The Echo Hawk") but was gone by the time they got to the studio; when the disc was recorded, Chad Tremblay was on the thick strings; by the time it came out he'd been replaced by Thérèse Lanz. (DBW)

Göhkan Keser (2012)
Sıla wrote (with her usual partner Efe Bahadir) and produced a varied set for the well-known model/actor, with everything from techno-dance ("Hadi Ordan") to slow romantic numbers with traditional instrumentation ("Ceket"), and plenty in between ("En Köt ü Günümüz Böyle Onsun"). It's all solid, but only a few tracks are truly exceptional (the horn-backed, funky "Unutulmuşun") And I don't hear in Keser what Sıla evidently does: his voice is clear and precise but lacks intensity and individuality ("Kırık Ayna"), which she tacitly acknowledges by bolstering his vocals with her own on several cuts ("Bazen"). Perhaps she's simply writing so many songs she needed another outlet for them. (DBW)

Kiki & Herb, Will Die For You: At Carnegie Hall (2005)
You could say this mock lounge duo - Justin Bond portrays vocalist Kiki; Kenny Mellman is pianist Herb - is just a running gag, in drag, about an old bag. And you wouldn't be wrong, but you'd be missing the point. While Bond's Kiki is outrageously over-the-top, spewing lengthy monologues about alcohol, politics and a variety of other misadventures, he endows her with enough pathos and indomitable spirit that she's never simply a caricature ("Institutionalized"). And musically the two are magical: they assemble compelling medleys from the unlikeliest odds and ends ("The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" segues through Method Man and Eminem into "Once In A Lifetime") and draw true feeling out of mushy numbers like Kermit The Frog's "Rainbow Connection." Bond carries most of the load ("A Lover Spurned"), but Mellman's piano arrangements are striking while remaining true to the idiom. That said, the conceit starts to wear thin at double-CD length, particularly toward the finale when - this being a Carnegie Hall extravanganza - guests with more name recognition than talent are trotted out (Isaac Mizrahi and Sandra Bernhard on "Those Were The Days," though to be fair it turns out her singing is better than her comedy). Kiki & Herb split up, apparently, while this was sitting in my "to review" stack, and since you can't see them live anymore it's more essential than ever. Produced by Julian Fleisher. (DBW)

Killer Be Killed (2014)
A supergroup drawing from various heavy metal strata: thrash/groove (guitarist Max Cavalera), mathcore (vocalist Greg Puciato); prog sludge (bassist Troy Sanders) and alt-metal (drummer Dave Ellitch, formerly of The Mars Volta). Rather than delving into each of those styles, though, the band creates a streamlined blend of all of them that's groove-heavy ("Curb Crusher"), fast-paced ("Face Down"), and song-focused: there are no lengthy solos or extended suites, and most songs feature a melodic sung chorus ("Dust Into Darkness"). The overall effect is closer to melodic death metal than of the bands these guys normally play in; it's well covered ground these days, but the execution is outstanding, with one memorable grinding riff after another ("I.E.D."; "Snakes Of Jehovah"). (DBW)

Killswitch Engage, As Daylight Dies (2006)
The most popular band to emerge from the Massachusetts metalcore scene, Killswitch Engage was formed from the remains of Aftershock and Overcast at the end of the 90s, and soon made an splash with its high impact heaviness. Though guitarist/producer Adam Dutkiewicz has overseen other projects with a lot of stylistic range, on the band's fourth LP he serves up one lumbering sonic assault after another: "This Is Absolution"; "For You"; "Desperate Times." The revved-up thrasher "Reject Yourself" and "Eye Of The Storm," which slows down enough to generate some actual menace, are the standouts, but mostly the record's dull despite the vigor and volume. With no rhythmic variety, no memorable licks, and almost no articulated riffs or solos, it feels like you're being beaten to death with a blunt instrument, which may be the idea. Vocalist Howard Jones can scream but usually sings clean, often sounding like the 80s British crooner with whom he shares a name ("My Curse") - supposedly the lyrics would be uplifting, if I could make them out. Bassist Mike D'Antonio is more prominent than usual for metalcore, while drummer Justin Foley is less; I can't tell what guitar parts are by Dutkiewicz and which are by Joel Stroetzel, since they're both essentially rhythm players. (DBW)

The Knux, Remind Me In Three Days (2008)
A rapping/producing twosome originally from New Orleans (relocated post-Katrina), The Knux is made up of brothers Rah Al Millio and Krispy Kream. This debut is an odd but bracing mix of live instruments and sequencing, with a try-anything spirit recalling hip hop's early days. The combination of toy keyboards ("Cappucino"), bass-cranked drum samples and random guitar bursts ("The List") doesn't come off as gimmicky, because everything is combined so skillfully into tracks, each with a coherent mood (the raucous party "Roxanne"). At times it sounds downright New Romantic ("Life In A Cage (Electric)") but never stays in any one bag too long. Their lyrics don't live up to the music, though, often wallowing in cliché ("Daddy's Little Girl"), rarely finding a novel subject ("Parking Lot" is one of several oversexed rants) and running good ideas into the ground ("Bang Bang"). (DBW)

Kylesa, Ultraviolet (2013)
Making sludge metal is easy - downtuned guitars with lots of distortion, playing adagio, recorded inside a cardboard box - but making a good record out of those ingredients is difficult - often the result is too slow to generate catharsis but too ragged to build an atmosphere of menace. Kylesa's brand of sludge adds psychedelic soloing and two lead singers (Phillip Cope and Laura Pleasants, also the band's guitarists) to the standard template, and on their sixth album they bring a big pile of first-rate licks ("Exhale"), structured into concise compositions with complex arrangements ("Unspoken"). In fact, the mix gets so full it stretches the genre definition ("Quicksand") - never mind the guitars and keys, the sound is thickened with theremin at several points ("Drifting"). On the other hand, using dual drummers - Carl McGinley and Eric Hernandez - doesn't add anything much as they're playing basically the same patterns, and comes off as a gimmick. Produced by Cope. (DBW)

Lamb Of God, Sacrament (2006)
From Richmond, Virginia, Lamb Of God is what's known as a post-thrash (or groove metal) band: heavy, drop-D guitars banging out one chord in syncopated rhythm (alternated with machine-gun riffs), a minimum of solos, barked Satanic-sounding vocals, and unrelenting brain-battering drumming. It's ground that was first explored by Sepultura circa Chaos A.D., and can easily get dull and/or forced in the wrong hands. But on this band's fourth studio album (not counting an independent release when the group was known as Burn The Priest), they conjure up an endless series of complex licks, with guitarists Mark Morton and Willie Adler often playing in close harmony ("Again We Rise"), as drummer Chris Adler matches them fill for fill. It's a thrilling, aggressive rush from the opening mock-heroic "Walk With Me In Hell" through to the closer "Beating On Death's Door," with only a couple of ho-hum retreads like "Forgotten (Lost Angels)" in the mix. The basic formula doesn't change much, but there are some frills - a guitar solo on "Requiem"; offbeat structure throughout - to keep things from getting too predictable. Areas for improvement: vocalist Randy Blythe doesn't bring much to the party, just low-register screaming and a Sopranos-level vocabulary, and bassist John Campbell can be hard to hear. I have the 2005 live release Killadelphia, and it's also quite solid, though the live setting removes much of the sonic variegation; I also saw the band in early 2007 and reviewed the show here. (DBW)

Lamb Of God, Wrath (2009)
I was planning to make a full page on the Lambs, but I've gotten bogged down, and I think I know why: an album at a time, I'm knocked out by their steamroller energy, virtuosic ensemble playing, and unexpected rhythmic accents, but there's very little variety across their entire body of work, and after too long Blythe's growling really gets on my nerves. All that applies to this new release, where there's a quiet instrumental opening ("The Passing"), there are seismic riff tunes ("Set To Fail," with a Southern fried geetar solo; "Choke Sermon"), there's brilliant drumming ("Fake Messiah"). But you feel like you've heard it all before, which really gets to be a problem on the retread-heavy second half ("Grace"; "Broken Hands"; "Dead Seeds"). They're still better than Mastodon, though, and don't let anybody tell you any different. (DBW)

Liferuiner, Future Revisionists (2013)
I was trying to guess what metal subgenre this belonged to, and I guessed "emo hardcore," which is pretty close to the Toronto four-piece's self-description of "melodic hardcore." The band plays in an ordinary style - impassioned vocals, two distorted guitars-bass-drums instrumentation, moderately fast tempos - but to extraordinary effect ("Feeling/Meaning"). They're sort of in the same neighborhood as Funeral For A Friend, but with greater mastery of tempo and volume shifts ("Vacant") and far more imaginative riffs ("Despair") - as if Obscura trying to be a punk band, sort of. Vocalist Jonathan O'Callaghan is the sole original member; the others joined in the past couple of years after a bizarre episode in which a tour manager copyrighted the band's intellectual property and fired all the musicians, replacing them with an anonymous crew from south of the border. The guitar lines on "Harvest/Famine" and "Self Purgatory" are an impressive demonstration that you can still write hooks that are original without being complicated - honestly, I don't know why they work, but I can't deny they do. (DBW)

Jana Losey, Bittersweet (2006)
Losey is louder than your usual singer-songwriter but not as loud as your usual roots-rocker - sort of an indie Fleetwood Mac at their most vigorous. At seven songs and twenty-four minutes, this is a very long EP or a very short album, and either way it's solid work, packed with catchy melodies (the singalong "(S)He Loves Me"), reflective lyrics ("Messy Little Happiness"), and a sober eye combined with a healthy sense of fun (title track). Producer Melanie Peters co-wrote the songs (except for "Little Sister") and plays guitar and bass, while Losey plays keyboards; other players include Dave Uosikkinen (drums), Charlie Shew (percussion), and Harry Aceto and Maria Beahan (bass). As has become common, Losey's MySpace page is the best place to find current info. (DBW)

M.I.A., Arular (2005)
Sri Lanka-born, London-raised rapper M.I.A. became an overnight sensation with this widely praised debut, which blends electronica and hip hop with a low tech, industrial sound. The album is named for her father, a Tamil guerrilla leader, and the lyrics use a lot of revolutionary imagery ("Sunshowers" was banned by MTV for a reference to the PLO), but she also relies so heavily on non sequiturs it's hard to tell what her political agenda (if any) is ("Bucky Done Gun"). She shares some characteristics with comtemporary Ms. Dynamite - omnivorous approach to genre, raps often delivered in a sing-song, freewheeling but not frivolous persona, hit and miss sloganeering - but her cut and paste, everything/nothing sensibility goes further. And like Ms. Dynamite, M.I.A.'s quirky vocal hooks can be irritating ("Pull Up The People") or fascinating ("10 Dollar," one of the catchiest choruses I've heard in years). The disc is notable for its insistent percussiveness: regardless of who produced each individual track (honors go to Steve Mackey and Ross Orton, Bruckner and Byrne, Diplo, and Richard X among others), any melody is produced by tabla ("Fire Fire"), steel drums, music box ("Amazon") or a synth representation of same. M.I.A. is something different, and she's got talent, but beneath the surface, there's not much going on: she's not a storyteller, never expanding beyond fragments ("Hombre"), and the sound collages catch your attention but rarely reward it. (DBW)

Ms. Jade, Girl Interrupted (2002)
This Philadelphia-based rapper came along when producer Timbaland was heading into a commercial slump, and nothing here was a hit. But with a few years' distance, there's plenty to like about the rhyming and the backing tracks: Jade invests everyday speech with unusual gravity, which is a neat trick ("Get Away," a romance-gone-wrong tune that's plain-spoken as it is moving; "She's A Gangsta"). Timbaland's ear for odd sounds is generally on target ("Ching Ching," on which Nelly Furtado is actually likable; "Feel The Girl," with squishy clavinet) and when he slips ("Jade's A Champ," overreliant on tabla) Jade bails him out. Even the flops are instructive: failed leadoff single "Big Head" has a spoken chorus that seems like a first draft of "SexyBack." There are a number guests, from Timbaland regulars like Missy Elliott ("Really Don't Want My Love") to A-listers (Jay-Z on "Count It Off"; Pharrell on The Neptunes' "The Come Up") and up-and-comers (Nesh on "Keep Ur Head Off"). (DBW)

The Mandolin Wind Project (2003)
A side project of two Oklahoma City musicians - Dewayne Grissom (mandolin) and Bradley Ford (guitar and everything else) - that falls somewhere between soft rock and light jazz, with a dollop of bluegrass. Mandolin usually get drowned out in big ensembles, so it's a treat to hear it plucking out melodies - Grissom mostly plays acoustic, though he breaks out the electric mandolin on "Thunderchief." The drums and bass are mostly programmed, but Ford uses them sparingly enough that they fulfill their function without being distracting. All the tunes are co-written except for Ford's "Mirage"; they're catchy ("Austin," the good-time "Three Roses"), intriguingly structured, and varied enough that the record never seems monotonous ("Cotton Belt Route," with Gary Riley adding a lengthy sax solo). "Oakland Mills" is a standout, building from a tender acoustic opening to a loud but exquisitely lyrical electric guitar solo, then quieting down again. There's not a bad cut here, but Grissom sings three numbers ("Autumn Days"), and his quavery, vaguely Cat Stevens-like voice is a bit jarring. Anna Jordan, Ford's partner in Due North, sings backup on two tunes; David Short adds violin to a few tracks (the decidedly un-Scottish "Scotland"), including a radical electric solo on "Thunderchief." For more information check out Windspread Records. (DBW)

Mastodon, Blood Mountain (2006)
Atlanta-based Mastodon is sort of a cut-rate Tool, a "progressive metal" purveyor of pretentious lyrical themes ("Sleeping Giant") and the usual "unusual" time signatures: 7/8 ("This Mortal Soil"), 12/8 ("Hand Of Stone") - though (thankfully) the running times are kept under control. They have the form of epic metal down, but not the content: the production is suitably heavy, and the song structures are complex, but almost none of the music is actually good: who cares how fast they can jump from blah riff #3 to blah riff #4 ("The Wolf Is Loose," which also bites Guns N' Roses' "Welcome To The Jungle")? Lyrically a concept album, using an incoherent mishmash of Native American and Eastern religious images to urge us to live in harmony with nature... like the bad dream of a World Religions student after watching that Al Gore movie. And in case you weren't already irritated, the record closes with a Lynyrd Skynrd-style Southern rock tearjerker ("Pendulous Skin") featuring atrocious lead vocal emoting. There are a couple of solid tunes - the conventional thrasher "Colony Of Birchmen"; "Siberian Divide" - and sometimes all the showoffy meter changes are at least unsettling ("Capillarian Crest"), but mostly this is the kind of band you pretend to like to impress your friends, not the kind of band you really listen to. Produced with engineer Matt Bayles. (DBW)

Milking The Goatmachine, Stallzeit (2013)
Okay, I'll admit it: I love the sophomoric song titles ("Only Goat Can Judge Me"; "Milk 'Em All"). But I also love everything else about this two-piece Berlin-based deathgrind act: I love the sledgehammer riffs, easy to grasp but hard to dismiss ("Salt Lick City"), of Goatfreed Udder (real name Daniel Jakobi). I love the frenetic yet clearly articulated drumming of Goatleeb Udder (real name unknown to me) ("Udder Infection"). I love the song lengths between two and three minutes: long enough to develop a theme but not long enough to fall into a rut (title track). Plus they get more mileage out of dirty nursery rhymes than anyone since the Lunachicks ("Look @ These"). Extreme metal bands very frequently cover other metal bands on bonus tracks, and usually it's just a sped-up growled version of the original arrangement; the concluding cover of Mötorhead's "Ace Of Spades" could be described the same way, except that it's amazingly awesome. (DBW)

Mineral Kings, Metropolis (2002)
First off, there are a couple of trends in self-released homemade recordings I'd like to put a stop to. DON'T write liner notes explaining how and why you wrote your songs: if world-famous artists don't expect us to care about those details - and they don't - how can you think your listeners will be interested in how many bourbons you had before you wrote the chorus of "North Beach Drifter"? And if you are going to write about your songs, DON'T hype every tune with pseudo-rock crit raving ("a superb way to turn out the lights"; "almost preacher-like urgency"; "a haunting feel redolent of Pink Floyd"; "a true-life experience enveloped in a spider's web" - yes, those are all direct quotes). I read the text before I put on the disc, so maybe that's why I dislike the music so much. Middle of the road rock and roll, brightly recorded, featuring precise but emotionless guitar from Art Forte and Tony Morosini (also on bass and drums respectively) and aggravating, self-important tenor vocals from Carv Tefft ("A Lot Like You" is the worst of a bad bunch). The tunes are memorable only when they're grating, often repeating a single chorus line until you're ready to scream ("Jack O'Lantern"). Three guys who've been jamming on Beatles and Stones songs so long they would instantly reject a new sound if they happened to stumble across one: a home-studio Journey. For more details, check out their web site. (DBW)

Misery Signals, Absent Light (2013)
This Milwaukee-based five-piece fit into the New Wave of American Metal, based on metalcore vocals and breakdowns ("Luminary") but broadened with melodic hooks ("The Shallows") and progressive elements like odd time signatures and quiet intros ("A Glimmer Of Hope"). Apparently their earlier discs were closer to straightforward metalcore; this fourth album comes after a multi-year layoff and some personnel changes (founders bassist Kyle Johnson and the Morgan brothers - guitarist Ryan and drummer Branden - are joined by vocalist Karl Schubach and second guitar Gregory Thomas). At their best, they sound like a far more violent Between The Buried And Me (the hard-hitting "Two Solitudes"), and they're never boring, with enough harmonic interest and dynamics shifts to keepthe listener off-balance ("Shadows And Depth"). Somehow, though, the record leaves me cold: it's not because of the occasional misfire, like the tacky string-and-drums outro of "Reborn (An Execution)," and it's not because it's emotionally distant, though sometimes it is - my problem is, none of the licks, grooves, flourishes or other elements stick in my head, so every time I listen I feel like I haven't heard it before... the opposite of déjà vu. (DBW)

Ms. Dynamite, A Little Deeper (2002)
A British singer/rapper with a Blige-derived blunted belt, an omnivorous approach to production - electronica, reggae, neo-soul - and loads of the anti-drug, anti-gun "social consciousness" so treasured by music critics reviewing black artists. When it all comes together with a good tune, the effect is magical, as on "Put Him Out" - a clever "get rid of that zero" number with a memorable melody and Santanaesque lead guitar - while on "Gotta Let U Know" she addresses a subpar partner with tender ambivalence. Other highlights include the gentle love song "Brother" and the synth-string anthem "Afraid 2 Fly." "Krazy Krush" isn't as sharp, but the syncopated squeaky synth backing is still a pleasant change from the hip hop norm. When the hooks don't work the results can be dull ("Dy-Na-Mi-Tee," with an irritating hook based on Musical Youth's "Pass The Dutchie"; title track), but her persona is still engaging: she almost succeeds in making a preachy a capella number bearable ("Watch Over Them"). Producers include Punch, Salaam Remi, Tony Kelly and Dave Kelly; Kymani Marley duets on "Seed Will Grow." (DBW)

Gilbert Neal, Vultures And Diamonds (2010)
Hailing from Hillsborough, North Carolina, Neal is a singer/songwriter who can generally be found in a midtempo groove at the intersection of pop, rock n' roll and R&B ("Calico"). So don't come to him in search of novelty, but he has a facility for crisply realized pop tunes with clever lyrics ("The Boy Who Reunited The Beatles") that makes me think of Joe Jackson. This disc, Neal's third, has one insidiously catchy tune, "I'm So Big," and a bunch of pretty good ones ("Impervious," the hardest rocker on the disc). His reedy voice is pleasant when he stays in a Neil Young-ish mode ("Do Your Dance"), but frequently he pushes too hard, and he's prone to both excessive vibrato ("The Vulture") and David Byrne-y mannered declaiming ("All The Walls") - Neal is a finished product in many ways, but has room to grow there. His guitar solos, by contrast, are consistently excellent: each one is dynamic, economical and purposeful ("Rag Doll Day"), and no two are alike. Steve Camilleri's the drummer, and Marc Duncan adds guitar to "Rag Doll Day"; otherwise, Neal played, programmed, performed and produced pretty much everything. (DBW)

Gilbert Neal, Dirty Red Pagan (2013)
Neal digs deeper this time around, thematically at least: "The New America" casts a jaundiced eye on the state of consumer capitalism; "Forgive Yourself" is one of the catchier existential despair tunes I've heard; "Pull Away" is one of several self-deprecating reflections on the lost aspirations of youth. Even the humorous numbers have a wistful edge (the ego-deflating "Not Just You"; the nostalgia-puncturing "Let's Get The Band Back Together"). The arrangements are also more layered and varied - still mostly played by Neal, plus Camilleri on drums, Darrell Nutt (who produced with Neal) on percussion, sax by Matt Dougleas and some guitar leads by Marko Marisic - incorporating elements of power pop, funk and reggae without making a huge fuss about it ("Everything's A Steal"). These elements come together on the album's centerpiece, "Water," which recounts a quasi-successful search for meaning with a memorable, deceptively simple chorus and a clever, understated breakdown. So much of the disc is low key it's sometimes easy to tune out ("I Miss The Way"), but the closer you listen the better the record gets. (DBW)

The Neutronics (2012)
Nowadays most funk - even the good stuff - has so much "OMG can you believe I'm playing funk?" ironic detachment it's hard to take seriously. Which is why it's so refreshing to hear a take on the genre that's fully committed: not just to fun and excess ("Smelladocious") but the full range of emotional expression. This London-based fourpiece sounds much larger, due to judicious use of guests (particularly on the eye-opening suite "Spaceship"), an expansive mix, and - most importantly - no wasted notes. The members have mastered their elements - Milt Mavrakakis's Sly-style wah'd keyboard ("Do You Love Me"), George Malamas's Bootsy bass ("Supa Soul Brotha"), Talbert Wilson's samba rhythm on "Psychofunkadelia" - but never overuse them at the expense of the overall groove. Frontman/guitarist Delroy Blake's quest for true love - atypical for the genre to say the least - gives the album a strong through-line ("She's Gotta Be"), and every track has unique rewards. You can tell a lot about a band from the way they approach covers, and the take on "Can't Get Next To You" is not deferential or self-consciously "funked up," just calmly confident. (DBW)

The O.C., Inglorious Bastardos (2012)
A side project from two Montreal-based Spanglish hip hop crews (did you even know there were two?), The O.C. is an affectionate nod to old school ("30 Bars," recalling Sticky Fingaz) that brims over with energy and invention, cheerfully foul-mouthed and punning. Initially, Chele and One (from Heavy Soundz) seem like they're going to fall into a rut - rap in English followed by a Spanish riposte on the same topic ("VidaLife") - but they soon break that mold, partly with the help of guests (title track, with Umano & Madhi). The themes are standard - declarations of superiority, social comment ("Reality" with Lunatico; "Madre Earth") - but the treatment is often surprising ("KoKaine"). Production is mostly from either Browny ("Reality" featuring Lunatico) or Benny III ("VidaLife"); some of the best tracks are built on live percussion and horn licks ("The O.C"; "Soy" featurin Rila), but there's also great work done with 80s style loops (the circular bass line on "Bien & Evil"). "Somos Locos" - featuring a blistering verse from Baby.K (not the similarly named Italy-based rapper) - not only sums up the unhinged atmosphere, it's also the key cut. Several tracks are unexceptional ("Just One... Solo Uno"), but nothing's truly weak. (DBW)

Obscura, Omnivium (2011)
Band name notwithstanding, Munich-based Obscura is pretty accessible as technical death metal goes: This third full-length is chock-full of attention-getting licks ("Septuagint") shaped into intriguing suites ("Celestial Spheres"), with technique generally relegated to serving the compositions rather than vice versa ("Vortex Omnivium," which features dizzying work from rhythm section Jeroen Paul Thesseling and Hannes Grossmann). Lots of metal bands use dual lead guitars playing harmonized lines, but Obscura gets more than most out of Steffen Kummerer and Christian Muenzner, who move adroitly from synchronized arpeggios to jagged rhythmic figures to expressive solos and back again ("A Transcendental Serenade"), without ever stepping into a rut. Kummerer also wrote the lyrics, which are based on 18th Century philosopher Friedrich Schelling's writings. Despite all the head games, though, there are raw thrills aplenty, and a "hey, check this out" lightheartedness that's rare in extreme metal ("Aevum"). Morean ("Velocity") and Tommy Talamanca ("Euclidean Elements") add guitar solos to one track apiece; produced by the band with Dark Fortress's V. Santura. I caught Obscura live in late 2011, and reviewed the show. (DBW)

One City One Sound One Movement Vol. 1 (2010)
I don't review a lot of compilations, but since the current crop of go-go acts doesn't release conventional albums, I'm going to direct your attention to this one, the soundtrack to a documentary that hasn't (as far as I can tell) come out yet. Though a few oldtimers crop up (Sugar Bear on "Work Dat"; Little Benny on "Straight To The Bank"), most of the tracks are contributed by underrecorded newer acts, most of which play the "bounce beat" style: TOB (Take Over Band) ("Live It Up") and subgenre originators TCB (Total Control Band) ("Bounce Beat Kings"). The Reaction Band's "Freash" is a great example of that style, with a luscious vocal hook over the insistent timbal pattern. It's also a welcome opportunity to hear veteran go-go acts which never broke through, like Junkyard Band ("Freek Inn," on the "Grown & Sexy" side of things) and the all-female Pleasure ("Do Me"). Though the standard syncopated percussion never lets up, the diversity of approaches is striking: Hard Az Steel's "Do Or Die" (featuring Marty B and Shorty Corleone) has the deliberate pace of early 90s hip hop but an extended rock guitar solo. There are a couple of oddball inclusions, though: I like Anthony Hamilton, but his duo with hanger-on extraordinaire Farnsworth Bentley is a diffuse waste of time ("Greener"). (DBW)

Petey Pablo, Diary Of A Sinner: 1st Entry (2001)
A rough-voiced, forceful rapper from North Carolina, Pablo's a beneficiary both of the commercial infallibility of rap from the Dirty South (see Bubba Sparxxx and St. Lunatics) and of his association with wonderproducer Timbaland. Pablo touts his versatility, and there's some truth to that: two highlights are the self-produced squeaky dance tune "Funroom" (with vocals from Tweet) and the love song "Fool For Love," with nods to Marvin Gaye and Al Green; "Test Of My Faith," with gospelly backing vocals and an O'Jays sample, is intriguing though not really gripping. But there are too many dull boasts based on stale catchphrases and off-the-shelf hooks ("La Di Da Da Da," "Y'all Ain't Ready," "919"). Meanwhile, Timbaland has reached the stage that The RZA hit around 1998, using his name to hype a record but only producing a handful of cuts; his "Raise Up" is head-snapping, sweaty Southern Bounce, but "I" and "I Told Y'all" are unimaginative attempts at same. The other main producers are Chuckie Madness and Buddah & Shamello; Eddie Hustle, Huck-A-Buck, Punch and the team of Abnes Dubose & Eric Sadler produce one track each. (DBW)

Petey Pablo, Still Writing In My Diary: 2nd Entry (2004)
Sounds more like the B-side to me: the same mix of styles and subject matter as his debut, only without any audible hits. On the single "Freek-A-Leek" and "Jam Y'all" (quoting Funkadelic) producer Lil Jon tries to ride the squiggly synth groove that made his "Yeah" a huge hit for Usher, but it falls flat (the bonus track, "Vibrate" is more of the same). Timbaland produced only "Break Me Off" (with Elliott) and "Get On Dis Motorcycle" (with Sparxxx), both of which strain too hard to get your attention with abrasive but dull hooks. Pablo produced a couple of cuts himself ("Let's Roc," with a sly banjo sample; "Stick 'Em Up"); Kanye West contributed "I Swear" (a memorable love song which doesn't use his trademark sped-up soul vocals). Otherwise, it's a bunch of lesser lights like Q, Focus, Honky Kong (whose "What You Know About It" cleverly samples Chicago) and Sholar, and since the music is mostly drab, you're forced to notice that Pablo doesn't have much to say ("Let's Roc"). (DBW)

Parx-e - A Compilation Of Independent Music (2007)
Let me start by saying that compilation CDs are the wave of the future for independent labels: thanks to MySpace and low-cost recording, the market is more flooded than ever and it's impossible to a listener or critic to even attempt to get a fix on every new band coming out. It's a perfect opportunity for a sharp-eared entrepreneur to skim off the cream of the crop and promote some deserving artists who would otherwise fall through the cracks. So Chris Parke is on the right track by rounding up nineteen different unknown acts from the US, Australia and New Zealand (plus Stapleton, from Scotland). And I won't fault him just because some of the tunes don't float my boat (Fourth Four Collapse's sleepy U2 imitation "Another Push"; Jessica McPherson's shapeless Sade knockoff "Flow"). The problem is that Parke doesn't have a thematic or stylistic focus - there are too many plaintive alt-country singer-songwriters (Katie Brianna's "The Devil Came Back For You"; Joe Rohan's "Pair Of Horses") for fans of pop-metal (Highroad No. 28's "Drugeater"), and vice versa - so the collection just sounds haphazard. Most of the best tunes here are power pop, from the Brightwing's joyous "All I Need" and the Wellingtons' "She Gave Up" to Pine's sly "Hosanna," so perhaps Parke should hone in there and drop the mediocre quiet (Shannon Curtis's "Boomerangs & Seesaws") and loud (The Scissor File's punkish "Reason To Run"). I'm oversimplifying, of course: Rebecca Loebe's "As I Tell You So" makes wonderful use of harmonized vocals, The Beatiful Burn ("Introduction") is worth checking out for fans of Coheed And Cambria, and Agent's catchy funk-metal "Crave" is my favorite song on the disc. (DBW)

Penguin Party, See Thru Songs (2008)
The whole idea of indie rock, if I understand the concept at all, is to strip away the veneer of glitz and hype to focus on memorable songs that actually communicate something. This Brit quartet - fronted by Arco's Dave Milligan - didn't break the bank for slick recording tech - the keyboards sound like toys, programmed drums sometimes recall late 80s home studio efforts - but went all in on power-pop songcraft that both grabs your attention and sticks in your head afterwards ("Someone Else's Turn To Be Me," with a sly funk guitar hook). Which isn't to knock their vocal and instrumental talent: the anarchic guitar solo on the otherwise grim "Elephant's Graveyard" is a wonder. Often they're in a melancholy post-Beatles bag resembling Crowded House ("United State Of Grace"), with minor-key verses leading to joyful harmony-laden choruses ("Mirror Ball"), but aren't beholden to formulas either (the caustic campfire "Going Back To Grandma's"). I want the band to be successful, but I don't want them to lose the DIY freshness of these recording - I guess that makes me an indie rock nerd after all. (DBW)

Penguin Party, Sex Furniture Warehouse (2011)
Again, a strong set of compositions (the New Wave reggae "This Is My Station"; the monster riff of "Why I'm Never Invited To Parties"), this time with better production values that enhance rather than stifle their idiosyncracies, as the accurately reproduced genres (the horn-backed rave-up "It's Not Big And It's Not Clever") are complemented with nice touches (the spot-on Jeff Beck imitation on "Mike Leigh-On-Sea"; sitar flourishes on "Whatever Happened To Tomorrow's World?"). Plus, more pub singalongs than anyone this side of the Kinks ("It's Just Your Life; It'll Soon Be Over," the same joke as "Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life" though not nearly as funny). The weakness this time out is too-clever-by-half lyrics ("She Was Only A Roofer's Daughter" - forty years after "Walk On The Wild Side" and "Ob-La-Di," transvestite stories aren't shocking or interesting), which can make the whole enterprise seem like a put-on. (DBW)

Pinhani, Zaman Beklemez (2008)
Based on their smooth, often gentle rock songs with lengthy overdriven guitar solos ("Dügün"), you could call Pinhani Turkey's answer to Phish. And perhaps Phish has songs as affecting as "Bir Anda" and "Ağlama" - though if so, I haven't heard them. Also, when at their snappiest, Pinhani is much snappier ("Yansın"). Vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Sinan Kaynakçı writes most of the tunes; bassist Zeynep Eylül Üçer and drummer Hami Ünlü provide flexible, mutable support. Like Lindsey Buckingham or Stephen Stills, guitarist Akın Eldes doesn't have mindblowing speed or otherwordly imagination, just a deft sense of what makes a solo stirring rather than showy ("Dursun D"). The group also works in instruments like trumpet (title track) and clarinet ("Ne Güzel Güldün") when they're unexpected but not unwelcome. Every tune is satisfying - though "Yalnızlık" unduly resembles the "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" fade - and I could have rated the album (Pinhani's second) higher; I didn't because the quality level is so uniform that the peaks aren't much higher than the valleys. (DBW)

Plastic Soul, Channel Ninety-Two (2000)
I'm so in love with Brent Bodrug's producing and arranging style I want him to produce an album for me. As he did with Warm's 1998 debut, Bodrug here gets a sound that's pristine without being sterile, with lead guitar (by Andy Russell) running the gamut from funk scratches to power chords, crisp drumming (by Dan Wiedenbeck) that's heavy enough to carry the rhythm but never overbearing, and rubbery bass (by Alan Colicchia). Bodrug (who also added keyboards) rocks. But Plastic Soul, a four-piece Buffalo power pop band, is boring as hell: leader Gerry Love's songwriting is imitation Beatles circa '65, as should be evident from the group's name, with trivial romance themes ("Girl Next Door") and repetitious refrains ("Empty Woman," "Mary") that occasionally degenerate into obnoxious nonsense ("One Inch Soul"). Coming off a 1998 self-produced debut, the band didn't have much song material, but rather than wait a while, they knocked out this EP of seven brief songs (not counting the corny tape loop intro and hidden cut-and-paste bonus track). At their best, they're like Oasis without the drunken swagger - which isn't a strong recommendation in my book. But then, I don't like the band's professed idols (The Kinks and The Small Faces) either. You can get ordering info and more at the band's own web site. (DBW)

Sinem Polat, Merhaba 2013 (2013)
A debut album from an unheralded singer who works in a familiar style, but man this is a blast. One tune after another employs traditional Turkish instrumentation - well, I guess all the electric bağlama is semi-traditional - and melodic figures, but each one has a distinct mood and nearly every one is hard-hitting ("Antepten Yar Seversem"). The strings swoop and swirl, moving easily from mischief-making to majesty ("Çu"); a variety of other instruments float through the mix; and subtle, carefully recorded polyrhythmic percussion nudges the whole enterprise along. Polat's vocals aren't noteworthy in themselves, but they fit comfortably into the faster grooves and are sincere, not showy, on the slow ones ("Yalnızım"). Apparently the single was "Diyarbekir" (by Ahmet Satılmış), though it's far more folkloric than the rest of the disc - more like Kardeş Türküler than Türkpop. I haven't been able to find full credits, but most songs were written by either Özgür Ata (four tunes), Zakir Zerel ("Yalnızım") or Şerif Kayran ("Unut Beni," a midtempo number with coda vocals from Gökhan Doğanay). (DBW)

Power Of Soul: A Tribute To Jimi Hendrix (2004)
No, I didn't learn my lesson from the last Hendrix tribute album. Once again, the interpretations stick close to the originals, so even when they're done well - Cee-Lo's "Foxey Lady"; Eric Gales' "May This Be Love" - they're trivial. This time there are a bunch of R&B A-listers: Chaka Khan ("Little Wing," with a grating, noisy solo from Kid Rock guitarist Kenny Olson), Earth, Wind & Fire ("Voodoo Child (Slight Return)"), Prince (the over-arranged "Purple House" - too bad he didn't contribute one of his great live performances of "Villanova Junction"). But aside from Bootsy Collins and George Clinton (the funked-up title track), and Sound Of Blackness's jive, gospelized "Castles Made Of Sand," they don't move out of a rock context. Lenny Kravitz's piano-based "Have You Ever Been" is surprisingly effective, though, with an affecting backing vocal from Tawatha Agee. The disc is padded with previously released material: Santana's "Spanish Castle Magic" and Sting's "The Wind Cries Mary" were on another tribute album, while John Lee Hooker's "Red House" and Stevie Ray Vaughan's endless "Little Wing/Third Stone From The Sun" medley have also turned up one place or other. And I don't know when Eric Clapton's sluggish "Burning Of The Midnight Lamp" was recorded, but it was a while ago, because all of Chic is on it including the deceased-since-1996 Bernard Edwards. Though the exterior packaging doesn't indicate it, I got a bonus disc with Seal's oh-so-sincere "Wind Cries Mary" and Vernon Reid's fun take on "Stars That Play With Laughing Sam's Dice" - your luck may vary. Overseen by Janie Hendrix and Sheldon Reynolds, who adds imitation Jimi solos to several tracks. (DBW)

Various, Preaching To The Choir: Movie Soundtrack (2006)
Sort of an indie Fighting Temptations, a soundtrack album mixing hip hop and gospel. Largely written and produced by Nona Hendryx, who also performs a couple of tracks (the subtle, contemplative "Wild Wind"). Other vocalists include Michael McElroy ("He'll Bring You Out"), Edwin Hawkins ("All The Angels"), Billoah Greene, Lamar Campbell and others. But some of the liveliest material comes from relative unknowns: "Champion," written, produced and performed by Claudius Craig, is a fun, high-energy mix of salsa, R&B and gospel elements. Tunes include James Taylor's "That Lonesome Road" in addition to more easily anticipated numbers like "Jesus Is Holy" and "Lord I'm Coming Home." The best cuts here are a blast ("He'll Bring You Out"), but much of the rest is either repetitive (Bishop William Toney's "Any Way You Bless Me"; "Tower Of Babel," despite a strong premise) or too fragmentary to deliver on its potential (Hendryx's too-brief "Run & Tell Jesus"). (DBW)

Protest The Hero, Fortress (2008)
Normally when you hear about a band that starting playing together when they were each twelve years old, you think "gimmick." But this Ontario prog metal quintet has serious talent, with hyper leads from guitarists Luke Hoskin and Tim Millar, and power-packed precision from bassist Arif Mirabdolbaghi and drummer Moe Carlson. Often they apply DEP-style mathcore rhythmic complexity to GNR-style arena rock riffs ("The Dissentience") - it's a simple formula, but most of the time they either cloud the issue so you don't notice what they're doing (check the cheapo keyboard sound on "Limb From Limb"), or do it so well you don't fault them for it ("Bloodmeat"; "Goddess Bound"). Lead singer Rody Walker sometimes screams, but more often he sings in the same Geddy Lee-recalling register as Claudio Sanchez - he's probably the band's weak link but he's not awful. Produced by Julius "Juice" Butty. (DBW)

Protest The Hero, Scurrilous (2011)
As noted, I'm generally sympathetic toward PtH's project, which seems to be working progressive metal tropes into a pop song context and (less frequently) vice versa. The opener - and lead single - "C'Est La Vie" sketches out the parameters, with manic scale-climbing guitars changing direction every ten seconds, 80s arena vocals (Walker sounds like the guy from Triumph, only more emo) and a gentle, melodic middle. It's fun to hear unconventional time signatures sounding so radio-friendly ("Termites"), and when the tunes have thrilling riffs ("Tongue-Splitter"; "The Reign Of Unending Terror") and/or thought-provoking lyrics ("Sex Tapes") the record's a winner. Often, though - particularly in the album's sagging midsection - the band settles for stitching together unprepossessing licks and compensating by playing them really fast ("Moonlight"). Again, Butty produced; frequent collaborator Jadea Kelly adds icy Evanescence-style vocals to "Hair-Trigger." (DBW)

Psychostick, The Flesh Eating Rollerskate Holiday Joyride (2007)
Don't you love it when a joke band plays better music than most of the real bands? From Tempe, Arizona, Psychostick is the mock metal side project of Evacuate Chicago, and their Christmas EP beats most of the other metal I've listened to this year. The opening "Holiday Hate" has pounding riffs and weird meter shifts to go with a taut anti-commercialism message and a pile of one-liners. "Jolly Old Sadist" is a solid shot of sing-a-long comedy before shifting into a briliant, brief doom metal parody. Not to mention the sad-but-true reminder of failed resolutions, "Happy Fucking New Year." Guitarist Joshua "The J" Key seems to be the primary songwriter, but lead singer Rawrb Kersey, bassist Mike Kocian and drummer Alex "Shmalex" Preiss each got some licks in. Though there are just five songs (plus three quick interludes), and the emo sendup "Red Snow" is a bit too accurate, every one is Yuletide gold. (DBW)

Pushcar, Apartment D (2000)
Written, performed and produced by two guys (Jim Saunders and Chris Farrell) in an apartment in Santa Monica, but you'd never know it was a home recording from the excellent production values - detailed pop-rock arrangements making good use of layered keyboards, sound effects, vocal harmonies and some clever cut-and-paste dynamics changes. But the vocals are thin ("Out Here In The Sun") and the compositions are depressingly routine: the best are Beatles knockoffs ("Halo Effect" is "Dear Prudence" practically note-for-note), while the rest lack any clear melody and are often sluggish: the 80s-style moper "No Waste Of Space," the noise-substituting-for-emotion "Defiant Song." Plus Saunders occasionally overuses effects like bullhorn vocals ("Limbo"). Each song has does have its own little icon/pictogram, which I think is pretty cool. Other musicians include Robert Gregorio (who wrote "Garliguy"), Anthony Mondello and Robert Bonilla on guitar, Damon Marshall on drums, David Kim on keys, and Paige Farell, Stephanie Saunders and Paul Katami on backing vocals. Based on how far they take this tired batch of tunes, I bet the duo could really shine producing other artists. For ordering information, check their site. (DBW)

Pyramids Of Giza, C.L. & D. Boogie - Ryan Stiles (2000)
With all the mail the Post Office loses, why couldn't they have diverted my promo copy of this disc to some other unlucky recipient? A couple of frat boy rappers with an erroneously high opinion of their wit, and occasional jazz backing ("Jazz & Poetry") - Beastie Boys meet Digable Planets, only much much stupider. C.L. stands for Cunning Linguist, which should clue you in as to the mental level of the proceedings. The rhymes are an endless stream of lame pop culture references, most backing tracks are built on ineptly played guitar licks ("Principal"), and the production is full of annoying gimmicks (the distorted human beat box on "Frisco"). Have I left anything out? Oh, they actually sing on the amazingly lame rock ballad "Killin' Me." But don't take my word for it: check them out yourself at MP3.com. (DBW)

Random Axe (2011)
A collaboration of well known hip hop talents, though short of a supergroup: Detroit-area rapper Guilty Simpson and producer Black Milk, plus Brooklynite Sean Price, best known as half of Heltah Skeltah. (All three had worked with producer J Dilla, who died from a rare blood disease in 2006.) Black Milk's backdrops are subtly propulsive, nudging the tracks along without grabbing the spotlight ("Black Ops"), shifting so frequently and drawing on so many disparate sources they never become predictable (the standout "Monster Babies"). Simpson and Price have the same softspoken-but-serious vibe ("The Hex") - Simpson is featured solo on two brief cuts ("Never Back Down") - and their brisk, unflashy, businesslike approach is refreshing at first. After a while, though, the unrelenting mellowness of the enterprise becomes grating: efficient and low-impact are positive terms when you're talking about cars; not so much when you're talking about art and entertainment. Black Milk cohort Melanie Rutherford guests on "Jahphy Joe", and there's a smattering of other guests, generally with either "Fat" or "Rock" in their names (hard to see how they overlooked Chubb Rock). (DBW)

Serhad Raşa, Sen Gib (2012)
Turkish pop sometimes seems stuck in a timewarp, but in the best possible way: Raşa is the sort of singer-songwriter I thought they didn't make any more, pensive and cryptic yet dynamic and compelling ("Ah Annem"). He's prone to drop astringent electric guitar into otherwise dour meditations ("Yüründüm"), and bring upbeat songs down to earth with a subdued half-spoken growl ("Bir Düş Güldüm Çucuklar"), all without seeming mopey. Sonically the disc reminds me of Argentine rock troubador Charly García's 70s work (which I tentatively mean as a compliment), a less melodic Silvo Rodríguez, or maybe a more substantive Jim Croce - folk-rock with bite. On the other hand, "Rüzgar Öndüm" sounds so much like a Pinhani song - both guitar solo and overall tone - I expected to see Sinan Kaynakçı listed as a guest. Apart from the corny, stop-start "İstanbul Satar Bizi," this concise disc is hard to find fault with. (DBW)

Martha Redbone, Home Of The Brave (2001)
Ever hear a record and wonder how it had been missing from your life for so long? The sort of record that feels like an old friend when you hear it for the first time. In this case it's my own fault, because I received a review copy in the mail years ago, put it to one side, and forgot about it until now. Redbone sounds so self-assured, so adventurous yet so polished, you'd think she's been topping the charts for years. Together with co-writer/co-producer Aaron Whitby, her omnivorous retro-R&B sound is grounded in peak period Sly, with hints of Prince, Mavis Staples, and Nona Hendryx ("Free," soulful swing plus slide guitar), plus a couple of more modern touches (the harsh ascending line in "Boyfriend," almost in "Rebel Without A Pause" territory). About half the tracks sound like A-sides ("Vineyard"; "Liar"; the funky bonus track "Cinderella"), and even the also-rans are pleasant ("Heaven"; "Boyfriend"). Redbone's vocals are so natural it's almost supernatural (the anthemic "Underdog"), while the arrangements hit all the right 70s notes without spilling over into self-conscious homage - clavinet on "House On The Moon"; Cynthia Robinson-style doubled trumpet on "Someday You'll Love Me"; Patrice Rushen-like Rhodes on "Perfect Life" - apart from the "Cool Jerk" bass line on "Sarsparilla." The core band is Whitby (keys), Teddy Kumpel & Alan Burroughs (guitars), Todd Horton (horns), Jonathan Maron (bass) and Graham Hawthorne (drums). As with Diane Birch's debut, you won't hear anything here you haven't heard before, but you've rarely heard it done this well either. (DBW)

Revocation, Chaos Of Forms (2011)
Orginally known as Cryptic Warning, Boston-based Revocation has been playing technical death metal since 2000. Their fourth full-length is packed with abrupt tempo and style shifts ("Cradle Robber"), lightning riffs and blast beats, but this time integrated into a more accessible sound (prompting predictable cries of "sellout"). At times it's so accessible that the riffs sound familiar ("Cretin"; "Beloved Horrifier," which I'd swear is a Haunted song), but at least as often the creativity matches the fury ("Dethroned"; "Conjuring The Cataclysm"). Guitarist David Davidson has a deep bag of tricks, on rhythm but especially on lead ("Dissolution Ritual"), bouncing from Scorpions-style melodicism to atonal note bursts to rapid sweeps so confidently it sounds like a master plan rather than cacophony (title track; "Fractal Entity"). The rest of the group isn't as attention-grabbing (apart from whoever is playing the Deep Purple-y organ on "The Watchers"), but everyone holds up their end: keeping up with all those twists and turns is not as easy as these guys make it seem. Produced by Peter Rucho. (DBW)

Rihanna, Good Girl Gone Bad (2007)
This young Barbadian singer is the hottest thing in R&B, but I couldn't tell you why from her ordinary, predictable third album. Rihanna uses the same au courant producers as everyone else: Timbaland, Norway-to-New York transplants StarGate ("Don't Stop The Music," an unimaginative sampling of "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'"), Ne-Yo ("Question Existing"). Most of the material is hackneyed and predictable ("Hate That I Love You" - you don't say?): "Shut Up And Drive" is a Pink-style faux rocker. Even Timbaland's contributions are a letdown apart from the lovely "Rehab" (not the Amy Winehouse song). "Breakin' Dishes" is an exception, as producer Christopher "Tricky" Stewart uses simple building blocks - a basic beat, a childish keyboard lick - to build a novel, arresting track. Rihanna herself sings like Beyoncé without the individuating mannerisms ("Push Up On Me"). She comes across better on the mellow tunes (title track; "Question Existing"), but even there she doesn't show much personality: the most interesting thing about her is that she pronounces "umbrella" as four syllables ("Umbrella" with Jay-Z, a huge #1 single with a solid, hypnotic backbeat). (DBW)

Roadside Zoo, Caleb Coolville (2004)
Unsigned bands send me CDs regularly, and usually I don't review them unless I like them... I figure, why warn you to stay away from an act you've never heard of? When I started listening to the disc from this Ann Arbor four-piece, I didn't think I'd ever be writing this review, because their brand of funk is totally lacking in subtlety and invention, and the singing is terrible ("Funky Song"; the reggae-fied "Jesus Lives On The Beach"). The lyrics are obvious ("Take A Stand") and even the better grooves go on too long ("Smilin'"). But when they calm down a bit, they play some very tasty mellow rock ("Species"). Guitarist Daryl Prudich gets straightjacketed on the uptempo tunes, but he's very fluid on the closing instrumental "Caleb Floats"; Cole Devilbiss coaxes a wild variety of sounds from his keyboards (the gentle "Getaway"; the otherwise lame "You Can Get Down Too"); Chris Ramos is solid on bass; flexible drummer Dave Mallozzi is probably the most impressive of the bunch. The band's college-age supporters might revolt if they abandoned their good-time funk in favor of chilled-out mood music, but that's their strength. Recorded by Pat Smith, who produced with the band. Yes, they have a web site. (DBW)

Roadrunner United, The All-Star Sessions (2005)
To celebrate their 25th anniversary, Roadrunner Records pulled together a large crowd of heavy metal stars and asked them to put together an album of new material. The tracks were divided among four captains: Machine Head's Robb Flynn, Slipknot's Joey Jordison, Fear Factory's Dino Cazares and Trivium's Matt Heafy - and each came up with songs suited to the lineups they were pulling together for each track. So Heafy wrote the dramatic, hellish "In The Fire" for King Diamond, Flynn wrote the agit-prop "Independent (Voice Of The Voiceless)" for Max Cavalera, Cazares wrote "No Más Control" for Ill Niño's Cristian Machado, and so on. (The only track that doesn't really fit the schema is Mikael Åkerfeldt's "Roads," with just voices and keyboard and none of the four captains.) As a result, almost every kind of metal you can think of is represented somewhere: Jordison's tracks include mega-harsh death metal from Deicide's Glen Benton ("Annihilation By The Hands Of God") and the practically glam, hook-filled "Tired 'N Lonely" featuring Life Of Agony's Keith Caputo (a highlight). Apart from a few big names like Dani Filth ("Dawn Of A Golden Age") and Howard Jones ("The Dagger"), they seem to have had some trouble recruiting singers, so there are some less-than-luminaries represented (Glassjaw's Daryl Palumbo on Jordison's "No Way Out"), and Heafy wound up singing one of the Cazares tunes ("The End," a single). (DBW)

Various, Romeo Must Die Soundtrack (2000)
Timbaland put a minimum of effort into this soundtrack, handing off many of the tracks to other producers and sticking to his usual conventions - tight, syncopated bass and snare, spare techno keyboards - without pushing himself to find new sounds or truly affecting melodies. The long running time is split evenly between sung and rapped tracks (the distinction between hip-hop and R&B doesn't apply, since the backing tracks follow the same approach in either case). Aaliyah, the film's female lead, has four songs, and many of Timbaland's other proteges also turn up: Ginuwine, Playa, Magoo. Aaliyah and Ginuwine - his two solo singers - seem to be moving in opposite directions: while Ginuwine oversings "Simply Irresistable" to death, she's so reserved on her tracks she might as well be talking (Missy Elliott's "Are You Feelin' Me?"). Her approach does work on the catchy opener "Try Again," thanks to Timbaland's slippery, insidious synth groove - it's the one cut here that's really worth tracking down. (Aaliyah also gets top billing on "Come Back In One Piece" - based on a sample of Parliament's "Sir Nose D'Voidoffunk" - but she only sings the chorus, with DMX handling all the verses.) Static (of Playa) seems to have replaced Missy as Timbaland's main lyricist, writing about half the songs; I honestly don't notice much difference, though I suspect Elliott pushes Timbaland harder on the music end of things. The tracks Timbaland didn't produce vary from pleasant (Chanté Moore's "This Is A Test") to pointless (Destiny's Child's "Perfect Man"); the only surprise is "Swung On," with Stanley Clarke cooking up a unpredictable groove on a variety of live instruments, plus cogent rapping from Politix. (DBW)

David Ross, The Power To Be (2006)
Granted I'm ignorant, but while I've heard a lot of praise music from a Christian perspective (usually evangelical), I haven't come across much from the Hebraic side of the aisle. Well, NYC-born Ross clearly intends to be a pop star and an orthodox Jew without compromising either, and he's got the talent, starting with a supple, powerful, precise voice ("My Everything") and an easy expertise with melody ("Ashira Lach"). He often works in a smooth R&B idiom (title track), the uptempo numbers use drum loops and cut-and-paste production ("Anim Z'mirot"), and he mixes in extras like a rap - on the title track, from Rambomb - or a children's chorus ("The Flame"). To my ear, though, he's at his most affecting when he strips away the electrodance layers and sings over simpler backing ("Salaam"; "I Know You Know"). And as frequently happens with praise music, he's liable to prioritize his uplifting message over artful presentation, and end up with gooey, greeting card feel-goodism ("The Light"). Self-produced and largely self-written, though some tunes are by associates like Michael HarPaz or Eva Kiviat; apart from Ross, players include Shmuel Ziegler (drums), Ari Gold, C Lanzbom (guitar), James Baylis (sax) and Aaron Sobol (clarinet). (DBW)

Ziynet Sali, Bir Akdeniz Rüyasi (2013)
As a British-born Turkish Cypriot, you might expect Ziynet Sali to be comfortable in a range of milleus, and that comfort has served her well in the fickle world of pop stardom. (From her 2001 debut Ba Ba, many of her hits have been Greek pop songs with new Turkish words.) Like any artist who doesn't write, Sali is at the mercy of her songwriters and producers (I wrote off her 2012 dance album after one listen) but this live album is a great way to catch up on her career, with all her best known hits ("Rüya") couched in sparkling full-band trappings. Turkpop - and Sali in particular - often oscillates between vapid synth-dance and leaden ballads, but these arrangements stick to a middle ground that combines rhythmic power and delicate expressiveness ("Bize Yeter"), tension and release, balancing keyboards and guitar with winds, strings, brass and loads of percussion, both imported and domestic. The mammoth, solo-rich instrumental interludes in a medley of two love songs ("Amman Kuzum" and "Yanmisim Sonmusum Ben") best exemplifies the approach, though the sweeping "Herkes Evine" is the best single cut. There are several guest performers: Angela Dimitriou (her signature hit "Margarites"), Ozan Doğulu ("Sen Mutlu Ol") and clarinetist Vasilis Saleas. Lacking the singular vision of Sıla (who covers similar sonic territory), the passion for neglected genres of Candan Erçetin, the vocal strength of Işin Karaca or subtlety of Nazan Öncel, Sali borrows a bit from each of them, and creates something safe but still valuable. (DBW)

The Schoenberg Automaton, Vela (2013)
Brisbane quintet The Schoenberg Automaton plays technical death metal with a capital everything: extremely complicated, extremely brutal, extremely powerful. It's tough to balance order and chaos, but - thanks in large part to drummer Nelson Barnes - TSA sounds coherent no matter how bewildering the time signatures get ("Arecibo"). Guitarists Shayne Johnson and Damien Boorman flit energetically but effortlessly among different styles ("Pineapple Juice & The Tough Stuffed Olive"), ever unpredictable but with a strong sense of groove ("Ghost Of Mirach"); I don't hear bassist Zimi Shabanay as well but I assume he's helping. I find the singer the weak link in most metal bands (and apparently I'm not alone) but Colin Cadell deserves credit for being comprehensible and menacing at the same time ("The Worm Engine"). Initially impressive as all the dexterity and skill is, though, what leaves a lasting impression is the songs ("A Stone Face Of Piety") - it's much easier to write jagged riffs and lumbering grooves than it is to assemble them into coherent pieces like "All Roads Lead To Rome." Overall, TSA has the same strengths as The Red Chord (also named in reference to twelve-tone classical music) - they may improve on this debut (the second side is relatively weak until "Ultimatewhirringendmachine") but they sure don't have to. (DBW)

Jill Scott, Who Is Jill Scott? Words And Sounds Vol. 1 (2000)
Jill Scott's a Philadelphia poet-turned-singer who got attention for a guest shot on "You Got Me" by The Roots, who I really should review one of these days. Anyway, this debut's gotten a lot of positive attention, but for all I can hear it's immensely boring. Nearly every track has the same combination of Rhodes piano block chords and simple drumbeat, with next to no melody, while Scott alternates between "jazzy" singing (i.e. meandering among notes that have no relation to the backing track, without much presence or power) and pompous Sonia Sanches-style poetry recitation ("Exclusively"). Her lyrics are largely simple tales of romance ("He Loves Me," "It's Love," "Love Rain") and when she tries to get more profound she ends up with silly word games ("One Is The Magic #") or paranoia ("Watching Me"). Producers include Darren Henson, Andre Harris, Keith Pelzer, Jeff Townes, Vidal Davis, Carvin Haggins (all for A Touch Of Jazz Productions) and Ted Thomas Jr. (DBW)

Remy Shand, The Way I Feel (2002)
Exec produced by neo-soul svengali Kedar Massenburg, and it's easy to spot the influence of Stevie Wonder (in truth, Shand sounds a lot like the guy from Jamiroquai imitating Wonder), Prince ("Burning Bridges," which builds to a moving climax), Smokey Robinson ("Everlasting"), et al. Live drums, Fender Rhodes, clavinet, wah-wah... all that is par for the course: what's surprising is that so many of the tunes are memorable ("The Second One," the single "Take A Message") - he has a gift for casual melody, something like Gaye or Mayfield, but without copping their style. Shand mostly focuses on romance, but sometimes veers into heavy funk ("Liberate"; the Ernie Isley-like guitar solo on "Everlasting"). One of the things I like about the record is its rough edges, even occasional sloppiness... Shand plays all his own instruments (except the horns on "I Met Your Mercy") even when he isn't very good at them, and frequently mixes something a lot louder than you're expecting, which keeps the sound from getting predictable. And thanks to the dense arrangements, even on the less arresting songs there's always something going on (dueling synths on the otherwise dull "Looking Back On Vanity"). The problem is, the disc has a central lack of personality: Shand shows us what he can do, but gives no sense of who he is - and not in a mysterious-cipher way, either. Written, produced, engineered and so on by Shand. (DBW)

Shawnna, Worth Tha Weight (2004)
Don't tell Ben Taylor or Louise Goffin I said so, but musical talent doesn't usually run in families. Chicago rapper Shawnna is Buddy Guy's daughter, but she inherited none of his taste or emotional range, to say nothing of his technical skill. Her voice is in the same register as MC Lyte's ("Kick This One" plays on the similarity, sampling Lyte's "Kickin' 4 Brooklyn"), but she doesn't do anything with it except recite - in a slightly pissed off tone - tired lines about hangin' on the street and bangin' in the club. Exec producers Ludacris and Chaka Zulu do a good job of mixing things up, assembling a variety of backing tracks from mellow sax-based grooves ("Super Freak" produced by Terrace Martin) to weird violin squiggles ("Weight A Minute") to Timbaland-style tabla ("Block Reincarnated"), in addition to the usual synth bounce numbers ("Let's Go" by Just Blaze)... it's mostly serviceable, but not nearly enough to make up for the fact that Shawnna brings no excitement or interest to the proceedings. Guests include Jermaine Dupri ("U Crazy"), Twista ("R.P.M.," where his hyperspeed delivery provides practically the only enjoyment on the disc) and Missy Elliott ("What Can I Do"). (DBW)

The Showgoats, Catfish Saturday (2000)
There are a ton of musicians out there who have good ears and respectable chops, but are missing a distinctive spark to make them stand out from the crowd. And many of those musicians are cutting their own self-distributed CDs and mailing them to me. North Carolina rock five-piece The Showgoats cranks out catchy three-minute country-influenced tunes that are pleasant enough, with decent riffs ("Holding Ground") and some nice downtempo arrangements ("Broken Receiver"). But it doesn't add up to much, at least to my roots-rock-saturated ears: you've heard all the chord progressions and guitar licks before ("Nowhere Fast"), and they don't appear to be in the service of a unique artistic vision. Producer/engineer Jamie Hoover gets a great shimmering sound out of the guitars, but apparently he fell in love with the instrumental tracks so much that he mixed Mark Degnen's lead vocals down to a nearly inaudible level. When you can hear him, Degnen generally sticks to a low-key, unemotional delivery that makes me think of REM ("Cowboy Song" also shares a melody with "The One I Love"). But if they lack artistic ambition, by the same token they avoid pretension and self-indulgence - they're basically a bar band, but they're good at it. Find out more at www.theshowgoats.com. (DBW)

SixToEight Mathematics, Drive (2003)
Funny how influences work: the frontwoman for this Jersey punk act, Alana Quartuccio, credits Kat Bjelland and Green Day as her main inspirations, but she's way more fun: catchy sing-a-long choruses ("If That's Me"), simple but effective rhythm guitar riffs, and an unpretentious attitude. The band's co-leader is drummer Mike Random, who sings lead on the wonderfully snide, gradually building "L.A.Y.S." and backing vocals on most of the rest; bassist Melissa O'Connor doesn't stand out much except on her composition "Bed." I'd like more consistency in a record that's just seven songs and twenty minutes long (Random's "The Way" is kind of a bore) but there's plenty of promise. Recorded and mixed by Jeff Brogowski. Since releasing this album, the band has replaced O'Connor with MaryBeth, and added Ali McDowall as second guitarist, resulting in a thicker, more propulsive sound... I've seen them live a couple of times and I'll review their new disc when I can get my hands on it. (DBW)

Skyzoo, The Salvation (2009)
Brooklyn-based Skyzoo has been written up as a standout rapper, but from what I hear he's comfortably mid-level: unsubstantiated assertions of preeminence ("Return Of The Real"), defensive relationship squabbling ("Under Pressure"; "Dear Whoever"), decent backing tracks that nonetheless seem like you've heard them before ("Easy To Fly" with Carlitta Durand). Similarly, his rhymes and delivery are adequate but in no way out of the ordinary ("Bottom Line"). There is more emphasis than usual on well-intentioned but rote uplift numbers with gospelly choirs and Sunday morning R&B samples ("The Opener"); sadly, they illustrate the difference between the truly inspiring and the merely inspirational. Most of the beats come from 9th Wonder or Cyrus The Great, with a smattering from other producers (Black Milk's "Penmanship"), and plenty are satisfying enough ("Maintain") but flavorless. (DBW)

Sleigh Bells, Treats (2010)
I've often wondered why there isn't more dance music with loud guitars. Doesn't everyone love "Beat It"? Didn't everyone love Gillette? (Maybe I should have quit while I was ahead.) Anyway, Brooklyn-based Sleigh Bells doesn't play dance music exactly, because it's so resolutely lo-fi it comes off sounding experimental, but it sure is kinetic ("Infinity Guitars"), with the raw power that minimalism is capable of but rarely achieves. You could describe the album's ethos as "find something that sounds great, and turn it WAY UP!" Derek E. Miller is the heavy - producing, playing or programming the instruments, and doing most of the writing - but vocalist Alexis Krauss shows admirable range and control, from wispy voicings of cotton-candy melodies ("Run The Heart") to Run-D.M.C.-style yelling ("Straight A's"). Even when the compositions are less than great ("Rachel," so simple it's simple), both principals impart urgency to material that could turn kitschy or ambivalently "ironic" in less committed hands ("Rill Rill," with one of the more subtle Funkadelic samples I've heard). (DBW)

The Soul Rebels, Unlock Your Mind (2012)
Like Tower Of Power only more so, The Soul Rebels are known mostly for their large, impressive brass section. I'm guessing they are more fun live than on disc: though this disc is enjoyable, it's nothing to raise a clamor over. At moments, they have the overly perky "let's get happy" approach of a marching band (the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)"); at others they play lowest common denominator pseudo-funk a la Lettuce ("Let Your Mind Be Free"). Then there are a few curveballs, like the reggae lilt of the title track. Most of the time, though, they range easily from subtlety to substance, from grace to grease ("My Time"), and many of the songs have a War-like loose swing and engagingly simple hooks ("We Gon' Take Your Body"). And whatever else is going on, hearing Edward Lee Jr. rip through funk bass lines on sousaphone is a blast. (DBW)

Sparkles The Bahamian Diva, Diva Feva (2003)
Sparkles approaches junkanoo - a variant of soca, a fast 4/4 dance music, sort of a cross between merengue and calypso - with an infectious good-time attitude. Her boisterous high spirits carry straightforward "let's dance" anthems - "Gimme Junkanoo"; "Blow Ya Whistle" - and self-promotion ("Bahamian Diva") alike; even the kiss-off "U Gat Issues" crackles with humor. She brings the tempo down for two ballads, "Am I Capable" and "Heartbreak Unaware," which are pleasant but not as distinctive or attention-grabbing. Produced and partly co-written by K.B., who is sort of a one-man island record industry as a performer and producer. Her 2007 single "I'm On A Budget" - a ridiculously catchy repudiation of overspending, which shouldn't be lost on a nearby superpower with a negative consumer savings rate - is not available on album, but download it if you can find it. (DBW)

Spawn Of Possession, Incurso (2012)
A technical death metal band from Sweden, with two founding members - guitarist and principal composer Jonas Bryssling and vocalist Dennis Röndum - plus lead guitarist Christian Muenzner, bassist Erlend Caspersen and drummer Henrik Schönström. In some ways they're quite like Obscura - extended suites ("The Evangelist"); tricky riffs that are nonetheless cathartic; unexpected neo-classical passages ("Spiritual Deception") - which would be good enough for me. But they're punchier - partly thanks to frenzied bashing from Schönström - and have an even better sense of composition (the bewildering but coherent "Where Angels Go Demons Follow"). And SoP's lineup is shockingly strong top to bottom: Caspersen is one of the few tech-death bassists who cuts through the mix and establishes himself as a soloist ("Apparition," otherwise the weakest cut on the disc), while Schönström is as musical as he is technical ("Deus Avertat"). Anchored by mindblowing Muenzer soloing, "Bodiless Sleeper" may be my favorite cut, wildly careening yet terrifyingly sane. I don't know enough to say that this is the best tech-death record ever made, but it's gotta be up there. Produced by Magnus Sedenberg. (DBW)

Regina Spektor, What We Saw From The Cheap Seats (2012)
Singer/songwriter Spektor inhabits the "girl at her piano" archetype so enthusiastically she can sound like a caricature, veering from stark confession into funny accents ("Oh Marcello") and cutesy, evidently improvised ditties. The amazing part, though, is that she invests those elements with meaning and force, incorporating them into a presentation that's as powerful and moving as it is personal ("Don't Leave Me [Ne Me Quitte Pas]," an updated version of a song she'd previously recorded in 2002). On her sixth studio album, Spektor mostly avoids the half-written jokey tunes in favor of popwise contemplation ("Firewood," in Diane Birch territory) and unexpected dance borrowings ("Small Town Moon," with a mock-anthemic sneering middle that shouldn't work but does; first single "All The Rowboats"). Like Tori Amos, Spektor sometimes goes too far with the music hall vibe ("Patron Saint"), but just when you think she's getting too whimsical she splashes your face with an acid observation like "Ballad Of A Politician." Produced by Spektor and Mike Elizondo, who also contributed bass and some guitar; Aaron Sterling and Jay Bellerose share drumming duties, and horns crop up in a couple of places ("The Party"), but overall it's a stripped-down affair. Three bonus tracks: A ho-hum song with her husband's band Only Son ("Call Them Brothers") and two fine covers of songs by Soviet-era Russian troubadour Bulat Okudzhava. (DBW)

Spymob, Sitting Around Keeping Score (2004)
I got interested in this Minneapolis rock four-piece because of their extraordinary backing on the first N.E.R.D. record. Shorn of that absurdist cut-and-paste sensibility, Spymob is just another earnest pop/rock band with 70s synth patches (title track), but they're pleasant enough. Keyboardist John Ostby is the head honcho, singing lead and writing all the lyrics, of which some are clever (the defensive pre-date confession "I Still Live At Home") and some sophomoric ("It Gets Me Going," from the perspective of a pet dog). He also drives most of the songs with pounding eighth-note piano ("Fly Fly Fishing Poles," reminiscent of "Lady Madonna") or burbling synth ("German Test Drive," which also features his Sting impression). The rest of the group - Brent Paschke, guitar; Christian Twig, bass; Eric Fawcett, drums - stays in the background, adding fills here and there but never taking any solos. Most of the tunes are moderately catchy, holding your attention while they're playing but not a moment after ("2040"), with smooth harmonies ("National Holidays") and Ostby's voice is similarly effective - reaching into falsetto whenever he wants an emotional payoff - but unremarkable. Produced by Stephen Lironi, aside from a couple of tracks overseen by Alex Oana. (DBW)

Various, Standing In The Shadows Of Motown (2002)
The soundtrack to the movie based on the book about Motown's unsung studio musicians, and most of the tracks are from a concert with guest stars fronting what's left of the label's 60s-era house band. Since many of the key players - James Jamerson, Bennie Benjamin, Earl Van Dyke - had died, the lineup is mostly the second string: Bob Babbitt on bass, Uriel Jones on drums, Ivory Joe Hunter and Johnny Griffith on keyboards. Each guest artist gets two shots, and they're pleasant though never revelatory: Bootsy Collins camps up "Do You Love Me" and "Cool Jerk"; Chaka Khan sings "What's Going On" and duets with Montell Jordan on "Ain't No Mountain High Enough"; Ben Harper tackles "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" and "Ain't Too Proud To Beg"; Me'Shell Ndegéocello does "You've Really Got A Hold On Me" and "Cloud Nine." Gerald Levert (Eddie's son) does the best impression, ably channelling Levi Stubbs on "Reach Out I'll Be There"; Joan Osborne ("(Love Is Like A) Heat Wave"; "What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted," which was originally recorded in L.A., not Detroit) is the biggest surprise simply because I wasn't aware she could sing at all. As a bonus, there are a few 60s tracks from the vaults: the hard-to-find "The Flick" by Earl Van Dyke and The Soul Brothers, featuring one of the only recorded Jamerson solos, and instrumental mixes of "You Keep Me Hangin' On" and "Bernadette." Harmless. (DBW)

Pamela Stonebrooke, The Intergalactic Diva (2003)
Stonebrooke's sort of Annie Lennox meets Sade, with the full voice and stagey inflections of the one, and the mellow, mildly jazzy vibe of the other. The backing flirts with L.A. genre-neutral overprofessionalism ("Vanity") but more often it finds a nice balance between laid-back sophistication and power ("This Train"), between synth programming and live playing - I wish the download I bought came with musician credits. Okay, now for the slightly weird part: Stonebrooke sings positively about sexual encounters she believes she's had with reptilian alien abductors ("Alien"; "Heart Of The Grey Matter"). Other songs tackle environmental destruction ("Amazon," with a shoutout to Chico Mendes), the rat race ("Better World") and not-necessarily-interspecies romance ("Big Night"), but by then you may be too freaked out to take it seriously. Which would be a shame, because as odd as she seems to be, Stonebrooke is fully in control of her art. All the tunes are original, and they're well constructed, melodic and memorable ("Alien"); the lyrics are carefully considered ("Sex Under Glass"); her voice is big but she doesn't beat the listener over the head with it, using different shades depending on the mood she's trying to convey ("Out On The Street"). Considering how much I like this without being a fan of Lennox or Sade (or reptilians), you should definitely check this out if you are. (DBW)

Super Junior, Bonomana (2010)
So far I haven't been bowled over by K-pop, but the fourth release from this jumbo-sized Korean boy band (usually comprising around a dozen members) is the best I've heard so far, generally in an updated Backstreet Boys mold ("All My Heart"). I don't know if Michael Jackson is a big influence on K-pop in general, but his spirit is evident here, from Yesong's sky-high, wounded quaver ("In My Dream") to the Corporation-sounding chord progressions and rhythm guitar figures on "Here We Go." The title track whisks together Auto-Tune, Ne-Yoesque bright keyboards and a reggaeton beat, somehow without sounding like the soulless trend-hopping it kinda is. Produced by Lee Soo Man, who's also produced many other top K-pop groups including TVXQ, SHINee and Girls' Generation. (DBW)

Sylosis, Edge Of The Earth (2011)
British extreme metal band Sylosis is obsessed with constructing epics: their second album has one lengthy multi-movement piece after another ("Procession"), building from portentous openings through raging choruses and stirring solos to dramatic climaxes ("Empyreal"). Even the four-minute numbers brim over with anthemic grandeur ("Where The Sky Ends"). The pacing and tone are flawless, while all the instrumental tracks - more or less in a melodeath vein - are precise but not persnickety ("Sands Of Time"), giving the impression they logged years of studio time without losing passion. Sadly, the compositions themselves don't merit the first-class treatment: one riff after another flashes by without leaving a lasting impression ("Awakenings" is a happy exception). So if you want the odd experience of listening to an immaculately rendered seven-minute suite you won't remember a note of afterwards, pick this up. If Sylosis had Carved Inside's tunes (or Carved Inside had their sound), the combination would be unstoppable. (DBW)

Nichole Teemant, In Here (2008)
Utah singer/songwriter Nichole Teemant is easiest to classify with piano-based 70s singers like Carole King but actually she's closer to Under The Pink-era Tori Amos ("Pure Light," with massed harmonies and light strings). Occasionally she revs up to country-rock ("Virginia"), but mostly the mood stays mellow ("Lullaby"). So there's nothing novel about the concept, but the execution is strong: the songs are well constructed, with memorable melodic hooks ("Serenity"), and Teemant's voice is rich and commanding without pushing too hard. Her husband Merrill Teemant co-produced and wrote or co-wrote three songs ("Rain"); otherwise, Nichole wrote everything except some lyrics ("Annabel Lee" is from an Edgar Allen Poem). On the downside, a few tunes are overly familiar - "Lonely Games" is built on the hook from Berlin's "Take My Breath Away" - and the lyrics can be cloying ("Hero"), clumsy ("Redeemed") or both ("Becoming"). Musicians include Jamie Glaser (guitar) and Allan Zavod (keyboards) but the credits are sketchy. (DBW)

Them Crooked Vultures (2009)
Maybe this observation is breathtakingly obvious, but when people are talking about the 70s rock revolt of the punks against the dinosaurs, does anyone ever point out that the dinosaurs overwhelmingly won? Not just that the original punks are all dead and/or gone (unless you watch Elvis Costello's talk show) while dinosaurs still fill stadiums, but that the punk influence on up-and-coming acts is virtually indiscernible, while arena rock tropes are everywhere. Anyway, Them Crooked Vultures are a supergroup made up of Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age), guitar and vocals, Dave Grohl, drums, and dinosaur extraordinaire John Paul Jones, bass and keyboards. If you want jagged Zep riffs, you got 'em ("Mind Eraser, No Chaser") and all the band members contribute vintage sounds: Homme brings a pitch-perfect Jack Bruce imitation ("Scumbag Blues," with an engaging if meandering guitar solo), Jones serves up clavinet-sounding keyboards, Grohl pounds out the variety of AOR styles with aplomb (the grin-inducing disco-rock "Gunman"). They do take the homage too far with the sprawling space jam "Warsaw Or The First Breath You Take After You Give Up," and a few of the tunes are forgettable ("Caligulove"). Mostly, though, the group hits the target of crafting songs that weren't 70s rock radio staples, but sound like they should have been ("New Fang"). (DBW)

Those Who Lie Beneath, An Awakening (2009)
Alroy and I always root for bands from Portland, Oregon, and this deathcore quintet isn't always easy to love but they show potential. Typical for the subgenre, they alternate rapid-fire solo passages and slower bass-heavy groove sections, with unchanging death growls from Jamie Hanks - the song structures are predictable, and often the compositions are nothing special either ("8 To 5"; "Through His Eyes," with a familiar-sounding key riff). In an effort to appear virtuosic beyond their actual facility, lead guitarists Taylor Danley and Kyle Rasmussen play a lot of what sound like finger exercises, fluid but unmusical ("Awaken"). Relentless drummer Devon Berliner has the requisite skills - as in typing class, speed counts but so does accuracy - but doesn't innovate. So those are the humdrum elements; the good news is, they hit on some thrilling vamps (the pinch-heavy "Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind"; the lyrical finale of "Lucid Nightmare") and occasionally put together a terrific song: "Frozen Feastings" and "As The Vultures Circle" are captivating mini-suites incorporating cathartic breakdowns and melodic solo passages. I saw TWLB open for The Red Chord, and reviewed the show. (DBW)

Through The Eyes Of The Dead, Skepsis (2010)
The third full-length from this South Carolina metal quintet follows a standard deathcore template: the guitars focus on bashing vamps that change up frequently with some melodic interludes ("Siphonptera From Within") and extended solos, while the vocalist (Danny Rodriguez) growls as menacingly as he can and the drummer (Michael Ranne) pounds out 16th notes on everything he can lay his hands or feet on. So there no novelty in the big-picture sense, but if you zoom in there's a lot to enjoy: the riffs and vamps may not knock you out of your chair but they're consistently fresh and slightly unexpected ("Perpetual Defilement"); the two guitarists achieve a range of striking effects by moving from thudding unison to ringing harmony ("No Haven"). They get points for economy, also, as the only song exceeding five minutes clearly merits the treatment ("Defaced Reality," with a so-simple-it's-profound one-chord breakdown). I don't hear bassist Jake Ososkie much, Rodriguez is your basic "everything's screwed" metalcore screamer and Ranne is no Chris Adler - the beat is steady and speedy but the rhythms are never unusual intriguing - so the reasons to listen really boil down to founder/guitarist Justin Longshore (I'm assuming he's the chief composer as well) and second guitar Chris Henckel. Self-produced. (DBW)

Tig Wired, Ne Obliviscaris (Never Forget) (2008)
A concept CD about working in construction, with lyrics by lifelong shutdown maintenance man Chris Campbell and almost everything else - music, vocals, guitar, bass, production - by his brother Colin Campbell. Colin is comfortable in styles from blues ("Shutdown Blues") to reggae ("A Happy Start"), classic rock (the Lou Reed-esque "You Give Me No Reply") and even synth dance ("After 20 Years"), but he's at his best on midtempo, mid-volume tunes with lush choruses, driven equally by guitar and piano ("Gotta Be Safe," reminiscent of Joe Jackson in all the right ways; "The Colour Of Oil"). Everything's melodic and carefully arranged ("There's A Wild One Going On," with an amusing horn section), though some of the tunes are less than memorable ("Waiting For My Life To Begin"). The lyrics are often evocative and powerful ("Another Brother Down"), but just as often they're rather pedestrian reflections on working life ("It's This Job I Do") - yes, work is hard and you're on the road a lot and that impacts your relationships, that's not exactly a novel insight. Of course, I suspect the lyrics are intended to resonate with folks who actually live that life, not to educate some middle-class slacker rock critic. For more details, get to their web site. (DBW)

Tribella, Thirteen (2010)
Where Coheed and Cambria plays pop-rock music in a prog-rock manner, Austin-based Tribella uses prog-rock styles to create pop-rock songs: frontperson Sarah Glynn has a confident hand on guitar ("Skate Park Instrumental") but a breathy voice; drummer Dena Gerbrecht has a jazz touch recalling Connie Kay, subtle but vigorous, so that the more abstract meters and harmonies still sound grounded. Though at times they overpromote the experimentalism, what they're overpromoting is for real: yes, the title track calls attention to its meter, but I'd rather have that and the rousing concluding vamp than neither one; "WTKN" may overdramatize its tempo shifts, but it's still a smile-inducing blissful experience. While their crisp aesthetic keeps them from bogging down in lengthy jams, often they go so far with a minimalist approach to composition that there's not enough material for even a short running time ("My Guest List," with equally repetitious lyrics and chord progression). Go hit their web site for bonus tracks including the fine, strutting "Feel Feel." (DBW)

Various, A Tribute To Joni Mitchell (2007)
A succession of big names covering Joni Mitchell, some previously released (Prince's "A Case Of You") and some new (Emmylou Harris on "The Magdalene Laundries," the only non-70s tune tackled). More interesting and enjoyable than the other star-studded 2007 Mitchell covers collection (Herbie Hancock's) because of the variety of approaches, from Brad Mehldau's fluttering solo piano turn through "Don't Interrupt The Sorrow" to Cassandra Wilson's intense acoustic blues interpretation of "For The Roses." The nicest surprise is Sufjan Stevens remaking "A Free Man In Paris," as his goofy over-orchestrated one-man-band Americana routine suits the tune better than you'd think possible; curiously, Elvis Costello stumbles with similar instrumentation on "Edith And The Kingpin." There are missteps, of course - Bjork's usual mannerisms ruin "The Boho Dance"; Sarah McLachlan's "Blue" is self-consciously tripped-out and arty. Most often, though, the record's as pleasant as it is uneventful: James Taylor's reharmonization of "River"; Caetano Veloso's percussive yet laid-back "Dreamland"; k.d. lang's lush "Help Me." (DBW)

Tweet, Southern Hummingbird (2002)
Another Timbaland/Missy Elliott-backed female singer, but Tweet's debut doesn't sound like anything from Aaliyah or Nicole... it's actually closer to neo-soul a la India.Arie, with prominent acoustic guitars ("Always Will"; the stark, memorable kissoff "Motel") and gentle melodies (the mournful "Smoking Cigarettes"). Tweet produced much of the album herself, including "Best Friend," a Prince-like slow jam with duet vocals from Bilal. Her lyrics aren't complicated but they are spare and effective ("Drunk," an ambivalent contemplation of ambivalent contemplation). However, while Tweet's voice is unfailingly pleasant, it's never rousing, and the album's mellow mood can get a bit stifling, despite a couple of club bangers ("Boogie 2nite"). The hit single was the masturbation ode "Oops (Oh My)," which does sound like a typical Timbaland production, with a bass hook that's simultaneously metallic and sleazy, and features vocals from Elliott; Timbaland also produced "Call Me," in his melismatic-hook-backed-by-tabla mode. (DBW)

Tweet, It's Me Again (2005)
Another batch of hip hop-inflected neo-soul, but without the coherence and pointed lyrics that set her debut apart. So while there are a couple of brilliant songs (the "fork in the road" love song "Where Do We Go From Here?") and a lot of decent ones ("I'm Done"; "Iceberg" - both laments), the album as a whole is overlong, diffuse and stock (the collection of truisms "Sports, Sex & Food"). And when her lyrics don't stand out, her limitations as a vocalist do (the would-be torch "My Man"). Timbaland worked on the unpredictable but ultimately unsatisfying midtempo "Steer"; Elliott produced seven tracks and adds vocals on two ("Things I Don't Mean"; "Turn Da Lights Off"). Most of the rest was produced by Nisan Stewart ("Cab Ride," which samples the theme from Taxi); Tweet produced "Iceberg." The tries-too-hard party anthem "We Don't Need No Water" not only borrows the famous chorus of "The Roof Is On Fire," it also samples Mandrill's "Mango Meat." (DBW)

Ulcerate, The Destroyers Of All (2011)
More is less on the third album from this Auckland death metal quartet. The slowed-down, amped-up riffage and wall-to-wall sound mix are bracing and cathartic ("Burning Skies"), providing all the unhinged foreboding of doom metal without the patience-testing boredom. A track at a time they're tough to beat ("Cold Becoming"), but they ride the same horse so long the record becomes wearing: by the time you're halfway through the songs sound like repeats ("The Hollow Idols"), and by the concluding ten-minute title track you'd rather be somewhere else. It's the difference between taking a few punches sparring in the gym and being beaten to a pulp in the parking lot. I know some bands go overboard building soporific gentle interludes into their metal, but a bit of that would have gone a long way on this record. (DBW)

Unknown Mortal Orchestra (2011)
The sort of record that sounds so easy to make you wonder why everyone doesn't do it: Uncluttered, R&B-influenced indie rock grooves with uncomplicated melodies ("Jello And Juggernauts") and enough space left over for acerbic yet endearing guitar solos. In other words, very much the sort of record I would make if I had talent, and I can tell you from experience it's much harder to pull off than main man Ruban Neilson (formerly in The Mint Chicks with brother Kody) makes it sound. "Thought Ballune" wades effectively into Zombies territory. Even the weakest cut - the obvious punk rave-up "Nerve Damage!" - upsets the applecart with an intricate opening and closing guitar lick. Drummer Riley Geare fits right into the "no sweat" aesthetic, propelling each groove without trying too hard ("Bicycle"); Josh Portrait doesn't turn any heads on bass, but as producer he deserves credit for letting the tunes shine through: No lilies were gilded in the making of this album ("FFunny FFriends"). Make sure you don't start with the bloated, listless 2013 followup II. (DBW)

The Unseen Guest, Out There (2004)
British pop with Indian instrumentation and influence has a long and distinguished history, and though this duo isn't near the gold standard, it's respectable. Declan Murray is the lead singer and lyricist, and he and Amith Narayan share composing, production and instrumental duties (mostly acoustic guitars, but including everything from slide guitar and mandolin to veena). The arrangements are intriguing, piling up string instruments to hypnotic effect ("In The Black"), and sometimes startling (the sudden violin flourishes in "Come On In"). But Murray's vocals are drab - nasal and overly detached - and his lyrics are self-important and arch ("Sandalista"... that wasn't a particularly clever phrase in the 80s when I first heard it). And the tunes are hit or miss, with too many ordinary melodies (the sing-a-long chorus of "Listen My Son"; the "Dear Prudence" retread "Mangala Express"). Percussionists Anil and Sumodh appear on every track; other guests include Joy (banjo and mandolin), Shah Jahan and Wadiyal (violin on "Come On In"), Lajjo G (harmonica) and Sunil Bhasker (harmonium); carefully recorded by Lijit. See unseenguest.com for more details. (DBW)

Elle Varner, Perfectly Imperfect (2012)
More or less the record I hoped Alice Smith was going to release: assertive ("Sound Proof Room"), vulnerable ("Only Wanna Give It To You" with a memorable guest rap from J. Cole), original without being outlandish ("Welcome Home"). All served up with a dry wit and ascerbic sense of humor ("So Fly"). The music is hip hop soul, of a sort... The drums are programmed, and there are a few well-chosen samples (fiddle on "Refill"; a Mary Jane Girls replay on "Only Wanna"), but the compositions are structured like old school R&B ballads ("Not Tonight"). Varner doesn't have the raw vocal power you might expect for this genre, but her vocal range and especially her expressiveness overcome the limitations of her instrument. A lot of second-generation talent on hand: half the tracks were produced by Warren "Oak" Felder and Andrew "Pop" Wansel (son of Dexter Wansel), and Varner's own parents both appear: Jimmy Varner and Mikilyn Roderick, both former members of 80s soul group By All Means. (DBW)

Vastum, Carnal Law (2011)
In a metal landscape where it can seem every group is trying to carve out its own obscure niche, it's great to hear a band that's not trying to play faster than, tune lower than, or otherwise out-"extreme" everyone else, but is simply focusing on the classic death metal values of head-banging licks and scary sonics. San Francisco's Vastum is made up of three-quarters of Acephalix plus guitarist/vocalist Leila Abdul-Rauf (also a Hammer of Misfortune) and drummer Adam Perry, and while no one stands out, they form a congruent unit with striking uniformity of purpose (the heavy, harrowing "Spirit Abused"). There are plenty of bands that could come up with riff tunes like "Umbra Interna," but few who could work them into such white-hot searing instruments of pleasure/pain. Extra kvlt credit for pricing the download at $6.66. (DBW)

Various, A Very Special Christmas 5 (2001)
The latest entry in the Special Olympics-benefiting series was mostly cut live at the White House in December 2000, supplemented with some studio tracks (City High's take on "O Come All Ye Faithful," Dido's "Christmas Day," Eve 6's rock arrangement of "Noel"). Powder's smirking "alternative" version of Alvin and the Chipmonks' "Christmas Don't Be Late" is irritating, but it's still an improvement on the original. The live performers include old standbys - Jon Bon Jovi makes his fifth appearance in the series with "Blue Christmas," Sheryl Crow returns with "Run Rudolph Run," John Popper sings "Back Door Santa" with B.B. King - and new faces - Macy Gray croaks out Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas," Stevie Nicks contributes a surprisingly lifeless "Silent Night." Stevie Wonder sings two duets, a very loose "Merry Christmas Baby" with Wyclef Jean (who also performs a ragged version of "Little Drummer Boy") and Stevie's own "I Love You More" with Kimberly Brewer. And in tribute to Phil Spector's Christmas disc, Darlene Love renders "White Christmas" pleasantly enough but without her past enthusiasm. (DBW)

Rafael Vigilantics, The Spade Tapes (2013)
I get review requests from a lot of indie rappers, and typically it's readily apparent why they're unsigned. Portland-based Vigilantics is the exception: A strongly individual personality with music to match, when you hear him you know it's not anyone else. Partly that's due to the production (by Ben Bazzrea and Chris Kennedy), which uses the live instruments including lots of guitar ("Darkness") and continually shifting dynamics typical of pop, but in a propulsive mix of anger and melancholy that's pure hip hop. Partly it's due to the masterful singing of Rebecca Tafline, who has a voice that's equal parts gutbucket soul and Rickie Lee Jones, often putting a different spin on the tracks with words that have nothing apparent to do with Vigilantics's subject ("Frantic Night"). But mostly it's due to Vigilantics himself, who has a facility for clever couplets but never relies on that, throwing himself into his stories with amped-up desperation - lots of folks say they're rapping like their life depends on it, but in his case it really sounds that way. A concept album detailing a doomed romance on the run, but it never slips into Bonnie & Clyde gangsta cliché, instead capturing the peaks and depths of young love, turbocharged with drugs and violence, and compressed into a couple of fever-dream weeks ("Darkness"). His flair for storytelling combined with intense emotion puts me in mind of Ghostface Killa, and while Ghost's wordplay is much more sophisticated I doubt he's ever made an album this focused and cohesive. Lucky-One, Onry Ozzborn and Mic Crenshaw guest on "Bedside Tables"; otherwise it's Raf and Taf all the way. (DBW)

Wale, The Gifted (2013)
Washington DC's Wale was one of the first nationally known rappers since Kurtis Blow to work with go-go bands, but by this disc he's featuring the same pop star guests as everyone else: Rihanna ("Bad"), Ne-Yo ("Tired Of Dreaming"), Cee-Lo ("Gullible") and of course Nicki Minaj ("Clappers," which does feature some go-go bounce beat trappings). The production relies heavily on a 70s soul vibe (the Marvin Gaye-sampling "LoveHate Thing"), which is pleasant in small doses but ultimately stultifying ("Heaven's Afternoon"). "Golden Salvation [Jesus Piece]" is a standout, with a serious kick under gospel vocals. On the other hand, "Vanity" - one of a few tracks reaching for Drake's world-weariness - tries to turn Tears For Fears' "Mad World" into a club hit, and flops. Though most of the disc is effective, I'm assuming his earlier work is stronger, and I'll be tracking down The Mixtape About Nothing (alluded to in a Jerry Seinfeld cameo). (DBW)

War From A Harlots Mouth, Voyeur (2012)
We have a new entrant in the best album/worst band name sweepstakes (without even getting into the missing apostrophe). The fourth full-length from this Berlin technical death metal quintet incorporates innumerable deathcore-style abrupt shifts ("Of Fear And Total Control") as well as a variety of post-rock elements (the industrial-sounding "Temple"). Paule Seidel propels the machine forward with extremely busy drumming that never becomes distracting or showoffy ("To The Villains"), while guitarists Daniel Oberländer and Simon Hawemann explore a wide array of contrasting textures ("Vertigo"). (I can barely hear bassist Filip Hantusch, and vocalist Nico Webers is a ordinary screamer.) Generally WFAHM is best when driving full-speed ahead (a terrific cover of Will Haven's "Dolph Lundgren"), but the deliberately lurching "Krycek" shows they have more in the tank than just overcaffeinated aggression. Apart from some material that's more unusual than arresting ("Scopophobia"), all I can fault the record for is a few gimmicky strings-only interludes ("Beyond Life And Death"). (DBW)

Wayne Kounty, Fantasy World (2005)
Centered around producers/performers Kenny Flav and Supa Dave, Wayne Kounty seems to be aiming for the orbit of OutKast and the Soulquarians, mixing hip hop, funk and soul to create an alternative universe of music, love and grooviness (title track). But there are some differences: they work with more conventional sounds and song structures (reggae on "Give Ya Whatcha Need" is about as far afield as they get), and though all their vocalists are capable none are strongly individual: Will Gardner channels Stax on "Heroin"; Nicole Robitaille switches between Badu and Beyoncé registers on the funk ballad "Superhero." But they're masters of small details like slippery bass and programmed drums that don't sound ordinary, so when they come across a killer melodic hook they know exactly what to do with it (the unforgettably sly "Do U Really Like It?"). However, when they don't, the tunes can sound pedestrian and undifferentiated ("Snapshots," with yet another Spandeau Ballet replay), and much of the disc falls into the mezza mezz middle (the funk rocker "I Wanna Take You Away"; the predictable love song "I Care"). Despite some name guests (Queen Latifah on "Bring It Home"; George Clinton on "Xception") the album didn't make much of a splash although it was better than a lot of the 2005 releases that did. (DBW)

Gretchen Wilson, Here For The Party (2004)
Country singer/songwriter Gretchen Wilson is part of the MuzikMafia clique that also produced Big & Rich; their take on country music incorporates rock and hip hop influences - there's a brief Wilson rap on "Chariot" - though they still rely heavily on traditional instrumentation like pedal steel and fiddle unlike artists like Garth Brooks and Faith Hill, who perform what amounts to pop music with a Southern accent. This debut was a smash hit thanks to the single "Redneck Woman," which staked out Wilson's defiantly trashy persona with an irresistable singalong chorus. The title track has the same zest, and the hands-off-my-man "Homewrecker" (with a dirty guitar lick recalling Neil Young) is close behind. Depth, though, is not Wilson's strong point, so her ballads are dreary and predictable ("The Bed"; "When I Think About Cheatin'"), and the ode to her hometown "Pocahontas Proud" rings hollow. Produced by Rich, Mark Wright and Joe Scaife. Wilson's followup records were downhill from here, showing no growth: on 2005's All Jacked Up, the title track and "California Girls" (a sly comment on the Beach Boys song) are the only worthwhile numbers, amid trite horrors like "One Bud Wiser"; on 2007's One Of The Boys even the singles fall flat. (DBW)

Xenocide, Galactic Oppression (2012)
I don't claim to understand the #OccupyTheGalaxy storyline, but this Vancouver death metal quintet's music is easy to grasp: powerful, punishing but particular, as tech-style syncopation and jagged runs ("I, Warning") mesh with satisfying anthemic vamps ("Space Rot") and the occasional old-school extended solo ("Remnants Of Organics"). Most current metal is either too complicated to appeal to the gut, or too simple to appease the intellect, so it's a treat to come across songs like "Forgotten Bloodlines & Empty Oaths" that merit close listening while making your ears bleed. Not to mention the outstanding high-low double-tracked vocals (from Michael Jakes and guitarist/lyricist Tabreez Azad), rarely heard this side of early Carcass ("Death From Orbit"). I don't often get to say this, but my chief complaint is that the record isn't longer. (DBW)

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Fever To Tell (2003)
I can understand why bands copy Sonic Youth's approach (heck, I've done it myself): garage-rock immediacy and avant-garde hipness, plus if you go out of tune or hit a wrong note you can say it was intentional. And indeed, this NYC three-piece's debut (following a couple of EPs) got a lot of Next Big Thing attention, though there's only one great song (the frantic, forceful "Tick"). For better and worse, churlish vocalist Karen O dominates the proceedings, squeakily spewing insults ("Black Tongue") and non sequiturs, and for some reason her voice is processed to make it as tinny and grating as possible, so she ends up sounding like Chrissie Hynde on helium. Guitarist Nicolas Zinner is a Thurston clone, banging out crunching rhythms ("Man") or single note riffing ("Maps"), and drummer Brian Chase ably handles styles from thrash to cocktail as the mood changes ("No No No"), but the sound is pretty thin. The tunes get longer and slower toward the end of the disc, and things totally fall apart by the concluding dirges "Y-Control" and "Modern Romance." (DBW)

Yasemin Yıldız, Sen Gülümdün (2011)
Yasemin Yıldız is a young singer who favors old styles, generally acoustic folk with plenty of bowed strings, hand percussion and atypical time signatures ("Çal Tulumcu," one of four numbers in 5/4 or 10/8). While rhythmic interest and musicianship are high (the extraordinary bağlama accompaniment on "Muppa (Ne Ediyim)"), the melodies and vocals can be ordinary, almost drab. As a result, the slower songs meander ("Çonaşki (Işiğım)") but it's hard to argue with the results when she picks up the pace ("Kadere Bak"; "Çaykara Yollari" - both written with Alper Taşyürek). Yıldız wrote several of the songs, including a couple of the best ones ("Beni Yaktin Sevdigim"); other tunes came from fellow New Traditionalists like Murat Yıldız. I suspect there are much better albums in this style, but until I find out what they are this is a reasonable place to start. (DBW)

Yuck (2011)
From London, a fresh look at 90s indie rock: Daniel Blumberg (most of the vocals, guitar) and Max Bloom (most of the guitars, vocals) try to bring Sonic Youth's ragged guitar violence into an song-oriented context, and succeed where many - including SY themselves, at times - have failed. At times the plucking of heartstrings is slightly overdone ("Rose Gives A Lilly") but more often it's sincere and affecting ("Suicide Policeman"). A couple of tunes miss (the lugubrious grind "Rubber" overstays its welcome), but overall they get away with their shenanigans because they can also write and sing gentle melodies when they're of a mind to ("Shook Down"): the combination saves Yuck from becoming either too pretentious or too precious. The two leaders are backed by Mariko Doi (bass) and Jonny Rogoff (drums) - each steady if ordinary - plus touching supporting vocals from Illana Blumberg. (DBW)


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