April 18-24, 2002
CDs by people who live near you.
With Patti Smith wandering between labels, this is a risky time for growling poets. Jen Hess' deep voice and measured phrasing is very familiar, recalling Smith's laid-back later work. Where Hess finds her own sound, she must share the credit with Richard Hotchkiss, whose cello provides unwavering support. Remains is more despondent than 1995's Jen Hess & Hotch EP; its few glimpses of light come through the music. Lyrically, only "Pierced Punk," a honky-tonk valentine, doesn't dwell on loss or discomfort. Hess seems preoccupied with time; almost half of her titles keep an eye on the clock. "Counting on Saturday," which borrows its bass line from "Walk on the Wild Side," jauntily ribs those who live for the weekend. "Second Hand" pines for Johnny, Smith's longtime muse, while the piano-driven "Burning Bridges/Killing Time" searches for love closer to home, but comes off more distant. Even if Hess wanted to, she couldn't supplant Smith. But at least they're both mentally prepared for some rough spots. After all, when hasn't it been a risky time for growling poets?
Rocks and Tears(Elefant Records)
On her first full-length CD, Kelly Slusher hides timid vocals and melodies beneath a blanket of reverb and drum loops. But when the blanket pulls away, a strong set of bittersweet pop is revealed. "Untrue" echoes Lynchian chanteuse Julee Cruise and "Movie" conjures a low-fi Lush, but the most gripping moments are the simplest. The locally transplanted Sacramento songwriter gets confessional on "Knee Deep," wistfully singing "Don't apologize for what I've been through" over acoustic guitar; "I'm the Devil of the Neighborhood" sulks in a similar fashion. Still, Rocks and Tears is far from a dismal album. "I Need You," a toe-tapping duet with producer Dustin Reske, could be the most cutesy breakup song you'll ever hear.
Honey for Dinner (Galaxia)
While courant-culturalists and nerdy Ghost World sorts -- suddenly sick of their Pavement LPs, bored already with re-reading Lester Bangs reviews -- mine the potent popularity of traditional bluegrass and "old-time" musics, Peggy Honeywell finds old spirits in the new materialist world. Honeywell -- a Philly expat who demo'd Dinner live-to-tape at Space 1026, the home of animating partner Andrew Jeffrey Wright, with whom she created the film The Manipulators -- has turned naivete on its ear with a CD's worth of art-school Appalachiana, fake folk and canvas-covered country. Akin to latter-day Velvets, Modern Lovers or Talking Heads demos, Honeywell's grand ol' opry is a blackened wheatfield stuck in a burned-out brownstone with misted sunlight streaming through broken windows. This Sunday-morning-in-May ambience surrounds the strummy, lonely "Moon" and the jaunty, sexy "Darlin Man" with similar sleepy hollowness. The shiver in her voice reveals a pure surety, a confident pledge of heartfelt emotion and an appetite for making each interlude strange, yet miraculously simple, and sumptuously sweet without being saccharine.
The Twin Atlas
The guys (Sean Byrne, Lucas Zaleski) of The Twin Atlas don't wow you with hooks or flashy instrumental work. (Which ain't to say they're neither catchy nor skilled.) They quietly overwhelm you with soft-focus mood sketches drawn up with guitar and genteel percussion. From the slow-mo pyrotechnics of "Exploding With You" ("When the people burst into flames, and smile on your good heart") to the slide guitar-y "State Lines" to the sunshiny "Quiet on the Set" ("Let's jump a hundred times, fall through fences we used to climb"), this isn't the stuff of getting up from the armchair. Which is, y'know, not a problem.
Upload the Past… Download the Future
Holy Uncontrollio!(Floating Fish Studios)
The Philly-based band Punch Drunk dates back to industrial music's glory days -- having commenced in '91 and disbanded by '94. Upload is a collection of remastered robocore tunes recorded back in 1992-1994 (including a live track performed at Silk City). The 14 hard, aggressive, soul-blackening electronic stormers grind like pre-rave techno madness and plunge like deadly, distorted guitar-driven punk-metal with Steve-O's outraged, wailing vocals. Punch Drunk was five guys raging with futuristic instruments -- using electronic percussion, sequencers and computers -- and delivering purely synthetic, violently quirky and poisonously loud sonic devastation. Their live shows always incorporated laser lighting, fog machines and strobes to enhance the mechanical experience. Fans of Chemlab, Lords of Acid and Godflesh will enjoy a toxic flashback into this hard-tech industrial of the early '90s.
Obomatic is one of just a handful of bands keeping the Philly industrial scene alive. The band features members of local heroes Any Questions?, fused with the aggressive ranting and raving of the aformentioned Steve-O. Holy Uncontrollio! is a 10-track joyride through a dark and deadly mindfuck that leaves you feeling like a robot dangling from a virtual meathook. The synth heavy, punk-rock-ish, techno-driving digital robocore rips through your darkened inner soul with tasteful anger and sinister quirkiness. But at the same time, the tracks jam like pop songs -- at times diving into slow, groovy and trip-hoppin' head-bobbers -- with simple and irresistible melodies that are almost soothing within this synthetic, robotic nightmare. It's a unique paradox that both goths and industrial heads can appreciate.
The Waking Hour (BAK)
It's been said before and for a reason: Sugar Skulls sound like X. Never mind the fact that, unlike X, they have two guitars and a fat-sounding horn section. What people don't say enough is that they like the Sugar Skulls for the same reasons that they like X. The guy/girl vocals. The aggressive riffs and heartbroken lyrics. The volatile, vulnerable sound that explains how this band can turn packed rooms into blurry, drunken, sweaty dance parties. Mostly the audience just imitates what it sees happening on stage. Their very long-awaited debut CD has finally been released into freedom and captures all of the fire and passion of their live show.
The Stiff Generation: If It Ain’t Stiff It Ain’t Worth a Tribute (Groove Disques)
Groove Disques -- the label of Nixon's Head, The Trolleyvox and all things Frankenslade-ian -- puts its mouth where its money is with next month's compilation dedicated to Britain's Stiff label. With '60s graphicana and "fuck art" sloganeering, the U.K. pub-and-punk-rock label may have devoted itself to eclectic populist pop (Madness, Tracey Ullman, Devo, Lene Lovich). But Stiff started as little more than an outlet for Brinsley Schwarz's manager Jake Riviera to dump that infamous bunch of drunken, brawling players: Nick Lowe (who also produced initial Stiffs Elvis Costello and The Damned), Bob Andrews, Ian Gomm and Schwarz himself. Like the label, this Stiff redux embraces high musicality and inventive artistry, drunken revelry, pop that's raw, Beatles-y and Bacharachian and the spirit behind "fuck art, let's dance." All that sounds perfect for surprisingly happy-go-lucky sorts like Pat Buchanan and The Bigger Lovers (who respectively turn Lowe into a sports-bar rockabilly and Steely Dan-intro'd rave-up), Photon Band (who makes Rachel Sweet's Spector-esque "B-A-B-Y" into a buzzing rocker) and Nixon's Head (who make you feel not so guilty for loving Graham Parker's "Stupefaction"). Other locals go for more dramatic surroundings, as on The Trolleyvox's take on "Is Vic There?". Here, Department S's song is given an ominous theatricality the original lacked. Amy Rigby utilizes a similar stammering drama on "Yankee Wheels," the Jane Aire & The Belvederes' tune. That same sensibility doesn't work well on truly iconoclastic tunes from Madness and Ian Dury, where Lisa Mychols and Steve Holley/Keith Lentin make oddball anthems uniquely un-unique bar rockers. But, if you can't find love in your heart for two years' worth of Groove Disque sweat across 22 tracks of gold-fingered pop -- including Stiff acolyte Matthew Sweet, the Young Fresh Fellows and Ian Gomm hisself -- fuck art and fuck you. Let's dance.
Tapping the Vein
The Damage (Rebelution Entertainment)
Tapping the Vein’s vocalist, Heather Thompson, was never afraid to peddle the band’s two EP’s for a mere $5 each, adding, in her surprisingly gentle soprano, a “money-back guarantee,” before launching into another gut-wrenching rock ballad. Five years in the making, their first full-length release needs no such guarantee: It’s that good. Thompson’s vocals, so raw and powerful live, translate seamlessly in the studio, partly because no one felt compelled to throw silly production bells and whistles on top of her extraordinary voice. It’s just there, potent and evocative, whether in melodious lullaby or screaming-diva mode. But vocals aside, it’s kinda nice to finally be able to hear drummer Eric Fisher’s programming woven into the layers of Mark Burkert’s guitar work. The result, underpinned by Joe Rolland’s bass and Fisher’s drums, is at once lush and violent -- an astonishing tapestry, beautifully rendered, of the blood, sweat and tears that comprise the sheer force of emotion in lyric and music alike. TTV classics like “Beautiful” and “Butterfly” stand proudly beside their younger cousins, such as the bluesy “The Ledge” or the wistful “Hurricane,” all draped about the beautifully constructed centerpiece title track. “I’m not about to fail,” Thompson belts -- damn straight she won’t.
Everything Is Fine
Y'know how when everything is wrong and someone asks, "What's wrong?" and you're like, "Everything is fine," and you mean, "Leave me alone"? That's the deal. Marc Manning, writer of dire songs, and his band (Friends of the Library's Geoff Matis and Bill Moriarty) craft slow dirty dirges to cloud your head by. Spare and unforgiving, the songs on "Vents" are built with acoustic guitar, spare percussion and bass, and some appropriately moody atmospherics. Several cuts, like "Holy Water," the title track and "Safe Inside," have a Nirvana Unplugged feel (think "Something in the Way"). The difference is the rest of "Vents" is slower by comparison, which is totally not a knock.
Birds Fly (Suicide Squeeze)
On this EP, guitars make mere "blink and you missed 'em" cameos. Aspera is increasingly besotted with the fairground samples on their synths. This is one disturbed circus -- the soundtrack to a crazed, drunken clown's after-hours romp through town, or, more succinctly, a cross between Syd Barrett and Tangerine Dream. Drew Mills' vocals get processed and shoved into the background, which will probably please listeners who could never get past his adenoidal tendencies. For a band clearly interested in pop hooks, Aspera have always eschewed the concreteness of pop. If this were an album full of mini-suites, such haziness might be annoying. On a five-track, 17-minute venture, it's delightful.
Glass Bomb Baby (Fuzzy Box)
Maria Moran (from Philly by way of San Fran and already gone on to Boston), a.k.a. Zipperspy, likes her life like she likes her music: busy. Along with acting as installation artist and multimedia maven, she's already done this broken noise -- a twitchy, glitchy hyper-jungle-infused musique -- for labels like Nihilist and Ground Fault. So is this locally produced metal-machine music experiment a piece of cake? Listen with headphones and you'll find nothing is easy in the Z-Spy universe. Like her previous outing, Icki Beats, there's a spazzy, almost epileptic buzz in effect within the soul of her digi-manipulated mechanics. Some moments are chipper kids' play; the squeaky "Sippa Snowa," the lab-coated soul of "Propeller," the comic Germanics of "Slam Jam." There's a stinging ring to even the most upbeat proceedings that's set into motion from minute one when Moran top-loads Glass Bomb with forlorn anti-funk. The viola-laced laugh track "Swing Ringer" and the Jew's harp-filled "Pest" has, as its base, a feel of Morricone on meth, a speed-driven sadness that weighs heavily on the splatter-strewn tortured textures. Glass Bomb is savage and electronically unsettling.
Harpsichord at City Tavern (Harpsichord Mark Custom Recording Service)
Elizabeth Boggs' name will be recognizable to anyone familiar with the Philadelphia baroque chamber-music scene. Her vibrant, joyful harpsichord playing has formed the rhythmic and harmonic spine for countless concerts over the years, notably the sorely missed Bach Chamber Music Series at St. Peter's. Boggs can be heard on a regular basis adding a touch of musical authenticity to the 18th-century cooking at the City Tavern, and this CD captures a big chunk of her program, in music ranging from Orlando Gibbons and the early baroque to a young Mozart, whose mature music marked the end of the harpsichord as a regular solo instrument. Boggs plays a bright, tautly toned instrument built by Eric Herz, and she's captured in a close and lifelike recording. This is certainly an invigorating recital.
Lang Lang, piano, St. Petersburg Philharmonic Yuri Temirkanov, cond.
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3. Scriabin: Etudes (Telarc)
For the time being, at least, Philadelphia is home to the latest piano superstar of the classical music world. Lang Lang came to Philadelphia from his native China to study at Curtis with Gary Graffman, and even while still a student, he began to tour the major musical capitals of the world. This latest Telarc disc captures a live performance at London's Royal Albert Hall that typifies the exuberance and huge technique of this gregarious young artist. His boldly colorful playing, in this late-romantic Russian music, hearkens back to a golden age of virtuoso playing. After the clapping dies down at the end of the concerto performance, Lang Lang plays a brief but engagingly touching transcription of a Chinese folk song. Be prepared to hear a lot more from this charming young fellow in the years to come.
Network for New Music
Higdon, Rands, Thomas, Primosch Dream Journal (Albany)
This CD replicates a concert given by these same forces as part of the Network for New Music season of 1999-2000. It was a wonderfully diverse, vibrantly performed event at the time, and it holds up as well as a recorded testament to the vitality and importance of this ensemble. The most audacious piece is "Dream Journal" by James Primosch, which employs two pianos, percussion and electronics to chase after the elusive powers of the subconscious. Equally effective, but more conventionally conceived, is "wissahickon poeTrees" by Jennifer Higdon, with lush textures and dramatic lines inspired by the vast majesty of Fairmount Park. In between, there is strong, melodious music by Bernard Rands and Augusta Read Thomas, with superb solo turns by oboist Richard Woodhams and cellist Scott Kluksdahl. This is an exciting snapshot of the best of our local new-music scene.
Julia Vieland, piano
Julia’s Gift (Self-Released)
The title refers to the fact that Philadelphia pianist Julia Vieland conceived of this project as a gift to her grandchildren. The program consists of mostly familiar fare, especially to piano students: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin. Although such pieces as Schumann's "Scenes from Childhood" and Debussy's "Children's Corner Suite" derive from juvenile themes, Vieland finds just the right balance between beautifully polished and sophisticated presentation and the sweet, naive emotional core in these masterpieces. In doing so, Vieland has elevated a rather hackneyed program to a unified recital that radiates a love for the music and a deep-felt desire to share that passion. Her "gift" will charm the child in all of us.
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Esther Halpern Sings From the Gilded Cage: 45th Anniversary (AEA)
Esther Halpern is the well-known matriarch of the Folk Festival and the Folksong Society. For the many who were not even a gleam in somebody’s eye by the time Halpern and husband Ed closed their legendary Gilded Cage coffeehouse, this CD is an amazing document of a time when they opened the floodgates for today’s appreciation of roots music from around the world. One of the many young Center City residents who used the Gilded Cage as a second home, hanging for hours, nursing a cup of coffee, is now a nostalgic studio owner named Walter Fields. He contacted Esther about reissuing the 1962 LP, and she readily agreed, with the idea that all sales would fund traditional and ethnic music activities in the area. The result was a deluxe box, with the original liner notes explaining where each song came from, many pictures of Halpern and the club, and some of Gordon Bok’s earliest guitar recordings accompanying her. Halpern sounds so young and so sweet on a collection of songs from blues to Yiddish, Chasidic to Appalachian.
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