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Destination Venus
Todd Giudice
2001 No Label

Driven in a quest for discovering moving and emotive music, we reference music which is known versus music that is unknown. Music that is learned versus music that is as yet, unlearned. As a primary rule, we can hearken back to the words of Arturo Toscanini as he coached his orchestra, "This is music, feel something!" A release from an unknown artist must be allowed to blossom. With familiarity growing from each listen,'Destination Venus' from Todd Giudice is currently in full-bloom in this reviewers CD collection.

Todd Giudice is from the Hudson Valley region of New York, and his 11-song disc evokes the sonic textures of The Band, Wilco and Dream Syndicate co-mingled with the best of America's folk rock roots. The jangling guitars and great melodic lyric phrasing blend to offer a sincere and lingering commentary that can easily be related to the living experience. In the opening track 'Waiting for the war to begin' Todd Giudice sings of the often painful depths of interpersonal interaction. He describes the essence of the knowing familiarity of two souls intertwined in a relationship; the anticipations and anxieties that lie therein and offers the realization of the inevitable co-dependence. He hints at the complacency to live within these two inevitable extremes as he sings "You know how to get near and hang my every thought on a string. Then you tear 'em down, each and every one, now there's no sound left to hear. We're waiting for the war to begin."

With a pure Americana vibe and Todd strumming an acoustic guitar, the track 'Help' delivers an almost country groove. The band remains grounded enough to excavate the emotional depths and lays bare an earthiness that lies beneath our emotions. Todd's vocals open with "I think I need a little help, asking for assistance. Baby, what I really want is some of your religion", describing what it means to have a degree of confidence and experience, yet still try to humbly face the world each day. The lesson is that the older we grow, the more biased the terrain and the more we should realize perhaps it takes a little work to remain objective and not isolate ourselves through idiosyncratic inward collapse.

In 'She's so beautiful' Todd sings of adoration. "In a stream of innocence, I can see her soul. It comes out soft and slow. All her love, it spills like sunshine from her eyes, in a gaze of endless sky". He is smitten, he is absorbed and he is devoted. This song also offers an exceptional retro-60s guitar solo reminiscent of that wonderful Roger McGuinn solo on "Eight miles high" with the Byrds or Pete Townsend's guitar work on "I can see for miles" with the Who.

In 'Grind', Todd Giudice sings "You start out really beautiful, then you reveal your tragic side" capturing that awkwardness and the incredible balance of daily living levied against self-control and the inherent vices we each carry with us. In this sense, he is speaking of emotional bad habits and not the traditional destructive behavior. As a bonus track, there is an acoustic version of this song instead of the full-band arrangement that appears earlier on this disc. The acoustic version, with its naked and spare instrumentation, offers a glimpse at the intimate power of a Todd Giudice solo performance.

With a balance of maturity coupled with strong melodies, exceptional band support and a fine recording, one wonders why an artist like this doesn't have wider national appeal. Anxiously, this reviewer will wait for further music and another chapter describing the beauty and fine details of our own evolving human condition. The music of Todd Giudice should be much more widely known.


Reviewed by: Jeff Robinson  Posted: 2004-12-17 09:04:36

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2002 Hydrophonic

In Space No One Can Here You Scream

Hydrophonic's debut full-length CD is a vanity project so profoundly vapid, over-arching and self-satisfyingly cheesy that if a copy of this disc was left lying about the oval office, it might just be responsible for wiping out what's left of intelligent life on this planet. If you're still looking for evidence of WMD my friends, somebody dial Dick Cheney's digits, because I just found it.

Let's start with the song titles; each track is creatively named for one of the nine planets of our unsuspecting solar system with the sun, the earth's moon, an asteroid belt and one of Neptune's moons included in order to cover each of the thirteen offerings here. There's even a graphic on the back cover so you can locate your favorite dirge in said galaxy. The only reference that this planetary concept has to the sounds contained therein is a vague space-rock vibe to some of the tracks. For example 'Moon' reminded me of a Hawkwind cover band cooking it up at some Elk's Club dinner in Franklin in maybe '73? Pink Floyd these guys are not.

Moving through our oxygen-depleted journey in this galaxy of stultifying nothingness (surely their hometown of Lansing, Michigan offers no such resemblance to this vacuous void?), we encounter a veritable shuttle-potty full of artless motel lounge jazz, soul-less pseudo-fusion, Godless pseudo-gospel, erectile dysfunction inducing late-night Super-fly bedroom bullshit. All somehow akin to the music of Stevie Wonder meets Sly & the Family Stone in phooey-funk fashion that may as well be interpreted by the Shriner's Circus. Hydrophonic even toss in an unintentionally mocking attempt at a country blues so lacking in the remotest evidence of human emotion as to border on parody.

Listening to this disc is like listening to stray dogs fucking, you want to plug your ears but your fingers are no longer taking commands from your brain. I couldn't make it through one entire song at a time. I had to attack each 'planet' in gag-inducing bits. If you can imagine that forgotten step-uncle on your mother's side with the greasy comb-over, white tassel loafers, robin's-egg blue leisure suit and a Casio keyboard doing Bobby Vinton with his finger stuck on the samba button and then filter it through the aesthetic of a mid-afternoon poolside greeting card salesmen convention at a Holiday Inn, then you've only begun to fathom this idea. The utter queasiness of this stuff will induce a gag reflex in anybody with even an atom of musical heart and soul in their bones. If you think exposed plutonium is dangerous, you haven't had your ears melted by this ear-pooh.

Music Commandment No. 1: Just because you can doesn't mean you should.


Reviewed by: Kevin Ewing  Posted: 2004-12-17 09:07:01

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Between Sheets and Walls
The Dropzines
2003 No Label

With "Between Sheets and Walls" the Dropzines have produced an album full of undeniably catchy indie pop caught somewhere between the sunny bliss of Velvet Crush or Teenaged Fan Club, and classic psych-pop with raw southern inflection. They are a solid rock trio hailing from Pennsylvania and their idea here is simple; guitar, bass and drums with basic but effective vocal harmonizing. Frontman Shawn Stabley (guitar, vocals) brings with him a very impressive past. Formerly of The Most Sordid Pies Stabley has recorded with such producers as John Skillet (Yo La Tengo, Phish, Sonic Youth) and Kramer of Shimmy Disc Records. Rounding out the trio is Michael Brenneman on bass and Jason Kline on drums and additional vocals.

The album kicks off with the immediately accessible "Sad Tuesday", a steady rocker which while being a tad sparse lyrically will not disappoint with its brevity and Stabley's George Harrison-esque slide guitar work. The band takes a stride toward more southern oriented rock with "Lets Go of You", which seems to set the album's theme for the rest of the tracks; steady shifts between southern rock and west coast pop.

A welcome change in instrumentation comes three-quarters into the album with 'At the Party', an acoustic guitar driven piece. With the emergence of some warmth from a strategically placed backing cello, further instrumental diversity comes from harmonica chorus breaks and a sprinkling of piano on the bridge. 'Her Curtains' presents itself as the standout pop gem of the album. Once again the lyrics may seem a bit diluted, but they are certainly heartfelt as the often reminiscent Stabley remembers either the literal or the symbolic death of a loved one which in turn leads he himself to coming to terms with lost time. Musically the track's down-tempo yet climbing nature makes it distinctive while still remaining instantly recognizable and addicting. The Dropzines deliver this by providing classic major/minor chord hooks along with the album's most effective harmonies and plenty of la la la's to boot.

In the well-worn territory of indie-pop it is easy to commit a number of fatal errors and yet here is a band that has been able to avoid most. As previously stated the band's great strength is in brevity. Keeping the album to a concise thirty-three minutes, they are able to provide traditional and familiar tunes with heavy hook after heavy hook without triteness or overlap. As far as straight ahead indie pop goes, The Dropzines are on their way to the top of their class by showing great promise on their first full-length release.


Reviewed by: Aaron C. Lindell  Posted: 2004-12-17 09:08:05

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2001 Prone Recordings
** 1/2

NIN or Ministry they're not; instead, these angst-ridden lads from Detroit, Michigan tend toward a lighter industrial/electronic mix more along the lines of a garden variety Marilyn Manson. The formula here is simple; subdued electronic meanderings interrupted by bursts of clipped and ferocious fuzzy guitar assaults topped by mosquito-larynx vocals and predictable youthful alienation lyrical subject matter. For the most part the band sounds tight and focused throughout the short 5-song set. The best bits here are the sophisticated polyrhythmic drum beats, which unfortunately are so chopped up by the constipated vocals and electronic impasses that any momentum is lost well before each track wheezes to its finale.

The single point of interest lies in the seemingly incongruous inclusion of a cover of Kate Bush's 'Running Up That Hill'. I guess the band thought if NIN can cover a track by Annie Lennox & The Eurythmics, then maybe a Sweaty Suede Lips interpretation of a track by another cool British 80s babe with brains would warrant the effort. For a few minutes the boys actually achieve a sort of whispering Shriekback-esque atmospheric intensity. Goes to show what a bit of quality material can do.

In the future, with more mature and ambitious material and an increasingly confident vocal delivery, these suedies might just have the potential to develop into an interesting post-industrial/electronic alternative. But for now they remain merely a mildly disappointing diversion.

Reviewed by: Kevin Ewing  Posted: 2004-12-17 09:09:09

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2002 Epic/Interscope

Riff Rockage

If someone would have told me that Chris Cornell would do something musically vital after his...'Beatles-wannabe' solo album, I would have claimed them insane. This album nearly defies my thinking...nearly. At it's high points, it delivers neanderthal riffs in true solid mid-tempo guitar rock fashion. At it's weak points, it has many loose ends which could be the result of another laissez faire-style Rick Rubin production. In press interviews, Soundgarden whined that Michael Beinhorn was too tough on them in the studio. In spite of their complaining, 'Superunknown' is convincingly their greatest work. A producer with vision assembles a team and captures band performances to deliver a complete, ornately painted sonic landscape.

Chris' vocals were bar none the best the 90's had to offer in the rock and alternative rock domains. Going unexplained on at least two of these Audioslave tracks is his blantant mimicry of Brian Johnson of AC/DC. This is not only a bad production decision, but it belittles the amazing talent he does have. Working against him as well are the vocal composites. What were deemed 'Master Takes' for this collection are well short of the mark for what Chris can deliver and SHOULD deliver.

For the most part, the riffs of Tom Morello linger in one simple blues/box phrase for many, many bars too long on most songs. Perhaps a product of the modern Pro Tools cut-and-paste mentality, these seem to go unchecked for agonizing lengths with little invention or change. Fundamentally, this situation leaves Chris with very little room to move in the verses on the bulk of the material and at times, the songs get bogged down, tedious, repetitious and lethargic. One major point of redemption though are the solos of Tom Morello. The parts are poignant and the sonic elements are robust, well-engineered gems to behold.

We know the potential here. It's a 'supergroup' and yet these tunes still needed to be developed. If staid riffs can't entice the vocalist, then what will? This could be a great band.


Reviewed by: Jeff Robinson  Posted: 2005-05-20 19:40:26

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Creeping Things
One Bad Apple
1998 Carp/Diesel Core Music

I always liked Black Sabbath, both Ozzy’s and Ronnie’s. What I never liked was what that band’s persona did to certain aspects of rock and roll; they unintentionally opened a Pandora’s box of uniquely white male adolescent oddness. A curious few seemed to miss the mighty Sabbs point entirely and have instead ended up confusing the concept of ‘heavy’ music with ‘Night of the Living Dead’ theatrics. What’s even more curious is the almost exclusively young white rural Middle American demographic that constitutes this music’s core audience and participants. Such is the case with One Bad Apple, whose chosen format is ‘Cookie Monster’ metal, aptly named for the music’s reliance on a gruff, barking, gravel-throated vocal style which bears more than a passing resemblance to the voice of Sesame Street’s famous shambling baked goods connoisseur. It’s a sub-genre all it’s own with an insular audience who seem more interested in scaring away girls and sonically alienating us milk-toast folk than eliciting any real terror. In fact to the uninitiated this stuff tends to induce more giggles than screams.

Though as musicians these boys have the technical chops to pull this marginalized malevolence off, a quick glance at the requisite snapshot of the band doing their best Rob Zombie imitation replete with standard issue black wristbands and skull t-shirts reveals there’s nothing much here to lend any air of originality or authority to an already stiflingly restrictive metal style.

The one curiosity turns out to be the Christian-laced lyrical bent (get it, ‘One Bad Apple?) which seems so incongruous within the confines of this ‘Evil Dead III’ soundtrack that it leaves me wondering if this was really the type of thing the Big Man upstairs had in mind when he/she/it gave us the power to make music in the first place. In the end, this stuff strikes me as music for guys who as kids liked to break the legs of frogs with a baseball bat and toss them in the lake (I once knew a dude like that) or like to eat human flesh, or both.

Good-natured ribbing aside, it’s mildly heartening to know that within the coagulated sub-genre that is Cookie Monster metal, a few of these lads are preaching positive messages to our current crop of puberty-challenged adolescents. On the flip side it remains disheartening to be reminded of how religion so often seems to attract such polarized, one-dimensional and ultimately disturbing acolytes.

Reviewed by: Kevin Ewing  Posted: 2005-05-20 19:43:36

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Stories from the city, stories from the sea
PJ Harvey
2000 Island records
* 1/2

Without a tether

Certainly Polly's worst disc to date- although clearly her cutest photos. It only took her 7 albums AND living in New York to finally heed her press and actually imitate Patti Smith (vocal on 'Good Fortune') Entirely unoriginal and derivative. This record also features the new, small sound of PC/MAC recording- although the liner notes clearly show analog Studer 2" tape machines. She desperately needed Flood to mix this mess and give it some sonic size. If you're an audiophile, there's little to get excited about regarding the calibre of the recording. If you're a fan, expect no growth or artistic maturity here. The melodies are far too simple and undeveloped to be of interest and the lyrics are far from confessional- this is significant because it was PJ Harvey who deeply described what it means to be female with great detail on earlier works "Dry" and "Rid of me". With the perpetual downsizing of the music industry and the lack of a significant staff at such an historical label as Island Records probably factored in here. Hopefully someone will push her to do better work. Polly has such potential.


Reviewed by: Jeff Robinson  Posted: 2005-05-20 19:45:29

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Ko & the Knockouts
Ko & the Knockouts
2002 Sympathy for the Record Industry

Take Dave Davies/Kinks-styled 60's era guitar with a bluesy edge backed by a relentlessly rhythmic Keith Moon-style drummer and have them fronted by a very Silverlake (Los Angeles) and very confident Ko Shih on bass and vocals and you get Ko & the Knockouts- one of Detroit's strongest bands to date. It's a great 2" 16-track analog recording too done by bass player Jim Diamond, formerly of another critically acclaimed Detroit band the Dirtbombs. This disc will totally exceed the need in your CD player and will make a most stellar addition to your collection of 21st century Detroit garage rock sounds!

Reviewed by: Jeff Robinson  Posted: 2005-05-20 19:49:19

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Best of Bullfrog Bar & Grill, Vol. 1
1998 Bullfrog Records
** 1/2

While it’s tempting to question the wisdom of wasting aluminum or any other resource on the mostly dunder-headed drivel being offered up as a soundtrack for the guzzle your beer flip the bird start a donnybrook then barf in your friend’s Camaro crowd at the myriad bikini-babe-bars about town, I realize most of these band members struggle through the same quietly desperate existences as the rest of us, busting their humps in soul crushing dead-end day jobs just to get out on the weekends and live their dreams. As such to trash their efforts seems rather like fishing with dynamite; too easy, maybe even inappropriate. As Bruce sang, "some guys they just give up living and start dying little by little, piece by piece, some guys come home from work and wash up, and go racin’ in the street."

That said, what we have here is your basic toot-your-horn self-promo sampling of a handful of bar bands that play at a popular local watering hole called the Bullfrog Bar & Grill in Redford, Michigan. Between the cover photo of a clutch of Howitzer-chested bikini-clad eye candy to the redneck comic blurbs of some southern radio personality by the name of Roy D. Mercer spliced between tracks, I held little hope of finding anything sonically worthy. Surprisingly, one band stood out against all odds. But first the bad news:

I first saw Robb Roy a few times back in the late eighties out in Roseville in the days of Toby Redd and Black Market and though at the time they struck me as better than the average local bar band, their dead-on-arrival contribution here makes me wonder what if anything positive has happened in the fifteen-plus years that have passed since I stopped looking at life through the golden blur of a beer-bong. Suffice to say the only band I expected anything from on this disc offers up one of the more forgettable tunes in the package, sad that.

On the flip side, The God’s Made Love effort, "Velvet Baby" starts the set on a mildly optimistic note; that is if you like your Oasis cocktail strained through an old Night Ranger shaker. By the time I viddied track four’s Leslie West-meets BTO mug shots in the cd booklet however, I had my finger moving toward the skip track button before you could stutter "b-b-b-baby…" Couple this with the disconcerting band moniker of ‘Without A Face’ and I realized to slog through this alive I’m going to need alcohol. Then comes the kicker; I haven’t popped the top on my Labatt Blue Light when I find myself stopped stiff; what ensues is a precise sonic maelstrom, three and half minutes of goofy-grin inducing hard rock heaven, underpinned by a pile driving rhythmic tag-team laying the foundation for some diamond-sharp fret-fragging, all the while leaving room up front for the soaring voice of one Dino Johnson (who?) This dude must gorge on two helpings of Chris Cornell Cheerios for breakfast daily. Unopened beer still in hand, to my surprise these goofy fuckers are laying down a wall of sound not unlike Soundgarden cross-bred with early Montrose; imagine Space Station No. 5 genetically spliced to Black Hole Sun. Later I went ahead and played the tune maybe ten times in my pick-up on the way to Home Depot so loud I disturbed an old codger cutting his grass on a John Deere while I idled at a stop light, and this with my windows up.

Yeah, so the mix is flat, the vocals floundering somewhere behind the high-hat din and the earth-engine chuggosity but who cares? If I sound like I’m making much ado about nothing, it’s because I am; all I know is if you close your eyes and press play, you could swear on the mighty Zeps grave that for a few short and follow-your-blissful minutes, these guys weren’t goofy old fat fucks but instead buffed and burnished flaxen-haired rock gods.

Do you need this disc in your collection? Not. But stumbling on an ear-biscuit like ‘Due To Desire’ from these hard-rock Tele-Tubbies was like discovering a crisp five spot in a pair of old CarHarts; it’s that "shit yeah" feeling all over again. The rest of the bands, kudos for the effort but don’t quit your day jobs.

Reviewed by: Kevin Ewing  Posted: 2005-05-20 20:22:30

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2004 Trunkmonkeymusic
* 1/2

Detroit’s Letterbox make their debut with this self-titled EP. Moments of this disc are musically likeable and in the right context, could even pass for a few spare moments of mid-day modern rock radio. The vocals are competent and strong and at times afford a solid presentation of character.

Opening with an uptempo, guitar driven track called ‘Let me in’, one is drawn toward wanting to like this band. The trouble arises in the second verse with the words, "Took a walk all by myself; thought about a painting on the shelf; skinny girl next to a skinny guy; cheap wine under a bright blue sky." The lyrical content smacks of cheap rhymes, unsophisticated imagery and a genuine lack of cohesive observation. While it doesn’t serve to offer much promise for further listening, things mildly improve on the latter songs.

Track two is titled ‘Sleeping with the light on’ and visits the oft-tread (cough, obvious) concept of facing one’s demons in a truly self-conscious fashion. It's riddled with a confusing mix of pronouns and lyrical abstraction. Lyrics like, "So don’t wish to(o) hard for something not is to be, 'cause sometimes a dream’s better than reality" leave one wondering things like why didn’t these guys bother to finish writing this song before recording it? It's an unfortunate loss too because the instrumental track is substantial with regard to band dynamic. The musical contrast between verse and chorus is solid. Of additional concern to this reviewer with this song is the evidence of what appears to be an alarmingly obvious edit at the end of the song. The result abbreviates the tune in such crude fashion that it knocks the listener right out of any enjoyment they might have been in the middle of.

‘I See you in Colors’ opens with a bit-too-familiar sounding descending guitar riff. The keyboard and near-jangling electric guitars bring forth subdued moments in smart, infectitious pop fashion, but like the song preceding this one, the shortfall is the lyrical content while the strong suit is the chorus melody.

Whistle and banjo (or guitjo) make the last track "Blame’ fundamentally different from the rest of the disc and while the track tumbles along nicely riding on the drum groove, it lacks a sense of any sincere connection to any relative emotion with regard to lyric or vocal delivery.

One is certainly enticed enough hearing this 5-song release to remain curious about the live-show context of this band. As for the disc, if it were to have any staying power at all that demanded repeated listens, the lyric content would have to be substantially stronger. In addition, the spare (no band member information or writer credits) album packaging, gives one the impression that this is a demo somehow gone the distance.


Reviewed by: Jeff Robinson  Posted: 2005-05-20 20:47:11

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Kid Rock
2003 Atlantic Records
* 1/2

The kid stumbles, he falls

'Rock' could just have easily been titled, "My big fat redneck hootenanny". Incredibly low-brow fare. Someone close to Kid Rock should have talked him down from putting the sexist, degrading, boneheadedly (don't you know how stupid this makes you look?) inane song "Cadillac Pussy" on this release. Less than a b-side yet still appearing amidst a sea of equally mediocre, but ever so just so slightly better material, the song gives ample reason why even he could lose silicon queen Pam Anderson. Transplanting this Ortonville, Michigan hick to the coast- (Malibu, California specifically) might have done much to salvage whatever attitude, opinions and future musical aspirations the Kid may have.

Kid Rock's simplistic, by-rote, almost comical karaoke-styled performance cover of 'Feel like makin love' by Bad Company is eclipsed with hallowed, vibrant penumbral detail by the Paul Rodgers original. Paul Rodgers is arguably one the greatest rock-n-roll singers of all time, so we should all find solace knowing that with the Kids performance, at least Paul got his royalty check!

There are a number of other bad moves on this self-produced disc that aren't even worth putting fingers to keyboard for. Some of the positive efforts though result in a few palatable tracks. 'Black Bob' and 'Jackson, Mississippi' are two such tunes that deliver the sleaze with that familiar Kid Rock bravado. They might even enhance a collection of Kid Rock (if such collections exist), but mostly you'll find yourself programming around the minefield of dreck included on this excessive 15-song release.

The kid is simply out of step on this one.


Reviewed by: Jeff Robinson  Posted: 2005-05-22 18:57:51

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Sex, Love and Rock 'n' Roll
Social Distortion
2004 Time Bomb Records
**** 1/2

Ashes to Diamonds

Some say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Such is the case with once mighty Orange County bad boys Social Distortion, an ageing group of sneering California punkers led by charismatic, jailhouse-tattooed front-man Mike Ness that by the late 90’s had suffered more than its fair share of hard knocks and broken bones. After surviving Ness’s early heroin addiction, a prison sentence and a myriad of personnel changes through the 80’s, Social "D" found themselves on the brink of mainstream success over a decade later riding a wave of publicity for their punk/rock masterwork Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell (’92), garnering accolades from such widely diverse admirers as Bruce Springsteen, who was so enamored of Ness’s gritty outsider stance and angst-ridden lyrical concerns that he sang back-up on Ness’s first solo effort Cheating At Solitaire seven years later. Follow that by the loss of valuable career momentum from years of contract squabbles, a knuckleheaded decision to cow-tow to the commercial marketing juggernaut known as post-grunge by enlisting Michael Beinhorn to produce the long over-due and largely misguided White Light White Heat White Trash in ’96 and storm clouds were definitely back on the horizon. Finally, and tragically, it was the loss of schoolboy friend, founding member and guitarist Dennis Danell to a brain aneurysm at the age of 38 that brought the band to its knees. After battling two decades of love, loss and a fickle music industry, Social D staggered bruised and battered into the 21st century dragging their difficult past and a small but fiercely loyal fan base wearily behind them.

An energetic live compilation released in 2000 was a shot in the arm for fans and a welcome chance for the now venerable leader Mike Ness to take a breather and lick his wounds. Not that Ness hadn’t been busy, in fact, he managed to release two solo albums in ’99, the first a set of originals called Cheating At Solitaire, followed months later by the cover album Under The Influences. Cheating At Solitaire became an instant cult classic and remains the album that has come closest to successfully melding Ness’s diverse influences, from glitter to traditional country and bluegrass to old blues and rockabilly, genres that Ness had kept largely hidden in Social D, preferring instead to focus on punk and a Stone’s rock swagger. It seemed at the time that, as a viable creative vehicle for Ness’s talents, Social D might finally have run its course. Many fans assumed it a natural progression for Ness to concentrate on his solo work as he approached middle age.

That’s what makes Sex, Love and Rock ‘n’ Roll such a pleasant surprise. Seemingly out of the ashes comes a disc of new material that has all the brash, snotty, punker-trash-talking rock raunch fans had been yearning for since Heaven and Hell. The first cut, Reach For The Sky hints at a new direction only in the lyrics; sonically it’s a standard blistering Mike Ness set starter that does little more than prime the pumps for what’s to follow. But for longtime fans, lyrics like "I find myself now thinking twice, I never thought about no future, It’s just a roll of the dice, But the day may come when you’ve got something to lose" signal a newly introspective Ness musing on refreshingly adult concerns such as personal responsibility and loss.

The second cut, Highway 101 is the real new beginning here musically, and sets the stage for an ear-popping collection of sonic nuggets as fresh and inspiring as anything the band has recorded since Heaven and Hell and Ness’s best work since the solo masterwork Cheating At Solitaire. Sex, Love and Rock ‘n’ Roll is smart, sexy, swaggering fun, and never skips a beat, careening from blistering power punk workouts like Don’t Take Me For Granted to more introspective songs like Footprints On My Ceiling and Winners And Losers, the latter a poignant lament on the responsibility of living with personal choices. Sex, Love and Rock ‘n’ Roll is a revamped and recharged Social D with a new and hard-earned emotional lyrical maturity that lends a welcome weight and emotional complexity to Ness’s more familiar concerns of alienation, love lost and living on the edge. Ness still considers himself an outcast, and there’s a real sense of longing and loss here, but now there’s also time to reflect on love gained. Consider the final verses on Angel’s Wings, the albums last track: "I triumphed in the face of adversity, And I became the man I never thought I’d be, And now my biggest challenge, a thing called love, I guess I’m not as tough as I thought I was".

If you think all this existential angst makes for a load of snoozer emo-angst, not to worry. There’s joy, life and energy bursting out in each of these tracks. There’s even some rare writing collaborations with the band; cuts like Nickels and Dimes, co-written with Danell replacement Jonny Wickersham bristle with a witty lyrical irreverence and a bratty punk/pop backbeat that keeps things upbeat and fun. Much of this record is an emotionally mature outpouring of a desire to reconcile the gains and losses of the past with the responsibilities of the present, all with a now patented flip of the middle finger from Ness at the future. Powerful, catchy guitars with a relentless backbeat supplied by new drummer Charlie Quintana and the return of charter member and bassist John Maurer make Sex, Love and Rock ‘n’ Roll a superlative tribute to late band mate Dennis Danell and one of the most musically rich, emotionally mature, and ultimately satisfying Social Distortion efforts to date. Highly recommended.


Reviewed by: Kevin Ewing  Posted: 2005-05-27 11:17:29

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When the Telephone Rings
The Silos
2004 Dualtone

It’s always tough to judge someone else’s creativity particularly when said creative efforts are honest, direct and accomplished. The subjectivity of judging others work can make the process of rating new music problematic at best. In the case of The Silos latest, "When The Telephone Rings", the problem isn’t quality as much as relevance. As pioneers of alternative country back in the 80’s, The Silos have managed to survive the turbulence of changing tastes and personnel over the years to emerge as one of the more accomplished practitioners of this still-viable but increasingly marginal genre. With artists like Lucinda Williams having established her place atop the rest of the pack of earnest, smart, integrity-filled musicians trying to make a go of it at the outer edges of popular music with little press and even less airplay, it’s a wonder bands like The Silos can still be found churning out new records and turning up for the rare gig every once in a while away from their homebase of New York.

There’s no mistaking the reverance these bands maintain for people like Bob Dylan, the Band, Tom Petty, and in a lesser way, the Byrds, without whom alt-country would not exist. The thing about the Silos is that nowadays they seem to sound less like their influences and more like their followers. "When the Telephone Rings" could just have well have been a new and better Wallflowers or Counting Crows release as much as the next evolution in alt-country. The problem stems as much as anything from a curious affectation this music engenders, in that anybody with a raspy whine, a pedal steel and some homespun lyrics can manage to sound like authentic heartland music. I knew a girl once who listened only to alt-country, subscribing to the obscure publications covering the scene and buying all the discs by all the bands she found there. Most of them sounded pretty much the same, more or less, solid, earnest songs but in the end, oddly uninspired music. I asked her once how she chose her bands and she implied that it didn’t really matter if one band was better or worse than another, it was just the fact that they played pedal steel guitars and tended to own a pair of cowboy boots- whether they wore them on stage or not. This tendency to be more interested in the persona the music portrays than the particular songs themselves unnerved me, and it hints at the basic problem with alt-country today. We can listen to a band like the Silos and hear the integrity and the craft, and admire the lack of pretension and pandering, but we’re damned if we can hum a single tune when the record is over. I don’t know if this is the fault of a reviewer who has simply heard too many records over many years to get that excited over simple competence and integrity, or if it’s more that these are really well-constructed songs, with tasteful accents like a violin or pedal steel guitar or an accordian sprinkled in the mix to spice things up; but it seems that the songs as a whole add up to less than the sum of their parts. It takes until the seventh track, 'The First Move', with Mary Rowell’s lovely, searing fiddle lines floating hauntingly through the melancholy atmosphere for The Silos to finally break through mere competence to touch on the sublime.

If you like alt-country as a genre, and you’re not that interested in heartbreaking hooks or transcendant moments of revelation, then "When The Telephone Rings" will be a welcome addition to your summer road-trip collection on your way to Nashville or Austin. But if you need a little more refined earnestness and passion, which is admittedly quite a lot to ask for in the first place these days, then you might be better served to stick to the rank bulls like Lucinda or The Band, or even the imminently inspired Steve Earle. As it is this is well-constructed, well-played, thoughtful music. It just isn’t going to change your world anytime soon.


Reviewed by: Kevin Ewing  Posted: 2005-05-30 22:18:37

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Brian Wilson
2004 Nonesuch

For some, the Beach Boys are the linchpin in contemporary American pop music, following only Elvis Presley in their influence (remember, morons, The Beatles were British). For others, they were merely goofy post-adolescent poster boys for a curious blend of intellectual inanity and oddly forced naiveté; just a handful of middle-class suburban California neighborhood dorks who could sing some nice, albeit mostly silly harmonies and melodies which had no connection whatever to any sort of reality the rest of America lived in.

If you were then, or still are a Beach Boys fan, then you’ve most likely been aware of "SMiLE" as the long-simmering and legendarily unfinished vanity project by the groups eternally boyish, and sometimes downright looney leader, Brian Wilson. The Beatles officially ushered in the salad days of psychedelia with Sgt. Pepper in 1967, and soon after pop music also began officially aspiring to art. With the success of The Beach Boys "Pet Sounds" in 1966, a friendly, unofficial competition of sorts had begun to develop between the three biggest bands of the day, namely the Beatles, The Beach Boys and The Rolling Stones. "SMiLE" began as a Beach Boys Americanized answer to the up-the-ante artiness of "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", but instead of matching that records irresistible whimsy and melodic magic, "SMiLE" instead devolved into an over-archingly silly vanity project. In fact, rather than cementing Wilson’s songwriting legacy with the likes of Lennon and McCartney, it instead ended up as the beginning of the end for the Beach boys and for Brian Wilson himself. The legend of the unfinished "SMiLE" grew as the years passed, and from its lengthening shadow, Wilson became more and more of an oddball recluse. After pulling himself more or less together in recent years, rumors of Wilson returning to the studio to finish the 37 year old doppelganger that was now "SMiLE" began to surface. Longtime fans were finally rewarded when Wilson brought the newly finished work to the London stage live in February, 2004. He followed up the show by finally returning to the studio to finish "SMiLE" proper.

Disregarding the decades, the legend, the myth and the hype, "SMiLE" is a self-consciously ambitious art record, albeit as interpreted through the lens of the pre-internet porn sixties, and at times sounds like an attempt at a song-for-song reshaping of Sgt. Pepper. The lyrics, which for the most part are almost adolescently simplistic, coy, even downright embarrassing at times (check out 'Vega-Tables') tentatively hold to some sort of vague, mostly incomprehensible narrative of the history of America, not surprisingly winding up in sun-baked and surf-ready Hawaii. Problem is, there is nary hide nor hair of the catchy melodies and harmonies (however insipid) of The Beach boys at their best. The second cut, 'Heroes And Villians', is the only fully realized song and while stirring up the ghosts of past Beach Boys glories, never attains those lofty heights. The vapidly enjoyable classic 'Good Vibrations' is tacked on to end of the set, but it functions more as an oldies add-on and only serves to highlight the disparity between the Beach Boys at their best and this mild, uninspiringly meandering offering. That’s not to say the record isn’t listenable; every few minutes it conjures up tiny snippets of Beach Boy-esque magic, but for the most part it just as quickly shrinks back into the more typical aimless studio noodling Wilson was prone to after the Beach Boys heyday. Much has been made of Wilson’s genius as a songwriter and vocal arranger, and bits of the old magic pop up here and there in "SMiLE", but that’s just it, it’s mostly just a bunch of bits. Instead of a cohesive concept record, we instead get cereal box snippets of what might have been or could have been or maybe shouldn’t have been fully realized Beach Boys songs

Overall, "SMiLE" registers more as an irrelevant postscript to the naiveté of the sixties, The Beach Boys and of Brian Wilson. For the diehard Beach Boys fan, "SMiLE" should serve as pleasant, sentimental noonday lunch or weekend barbecue background music and probably more importantly, give them some much-needed closure. But if you’re trying to figure out why The Beach Boys and Brian Wilson were such a big deal to begin with, this isn’t the place to start. Suffice it to say "SMiLE" doesn’t embarrass Wilson’s legacy, it just doesn’t do anything to add to it. Much ado about nothing in the end, really.


Reviewed by: Kevin Ewing  Posted: 2005-07-13 13:47:24

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Come away with me
Norah Jones
2002 Blue Note Records

Norah Jones, the daughter of sitarist Ravi Shankar is certainly no newcomer to music, she's a promising new vocal talent in music. Interesting to find this released by Blue Note. She is sure to have a long career delivering original music. One can speculate whether Blue Note's missing of the boat on the music of the now deceased Eva Cassidy weighed in their decision to sign the lovely Ms. Jones. To a fault, most of the standard material on this disc is delivered with near identical verse vocal phrasing and at times one feels as if they are listening to the same song over and over. The producer surely must have made comment on that fact. It leaves one wondering about the range of Norah's 'vocal invention' or her raw abilities as a JAZZ singer. The stunning elements are to be found in the self-composed titles. Earthy, organic and sincere, 'Nightingale' is outstanding. 'Come away with me' is unearthly in vision. In an interview producer Arif Mardin said they had many, many songs to choose from. It makes one wonder if Norah couldn't have released an even stronger album showcasing her talents as a composer through choosing more original material. That said, Blue Note is not a pop label and has an obligation to release jazz product. In that, Norah Jones may be an odd fit. Did she deserve 5 Grammy's for this? No, but taking into account the NEW music industry, the sales spike from such an appearance on the Grammy's makes it insanely beneficial.

Reviewed by: Jeff Robinson  Posted: 2007-07-21 13:49:06

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