Your monthly imaginary horoscope told in album reviews!
December 2005 AstroPOP! is brought to you with musical reviews by Chris Estey.
Sagittarius (November 22 – December 21)
"The boss man says there is no work this winter, so go on home now and check back in the spring," Rocky Votolato observes within the bleak "The Night's Disguise," one of many lines he utter-plausibly sings on the twelve songs that make up his way-long-awaited release, Makers. Through masculine, subterranean, absolutely convincing street-level vignettes like the mini-opera "Where We Left Off," the updated Simon and Carbuncle "Uppers Aren't Necessary," and the romantic debris arranged and rearranged for "Portland is Leaving," this album is one a young Bruce Springsteen or Tom Waits would have taken a few years off to let ferment, too. The album combines bitter experiences in the real world elongating into haunted expressions of metaphysical proportion. The acoustic-based rock is pleasantly full and mellow, while paradoxically nail-tough vocals and sagacious lyrics consistently grab you by the black pea-coat lapels with juxtaposed images of aching hope, and hope achingly deferred. Yet this robust Barsuk release reminds the Sagittarius in all of us that challenge can make one great. This is a preliminary plug for an album so important that we had to warn TIG readers (Sadj and otherwise) to be ready to add it to their Top Ten lists as the new year commences (release date is late January 2006).
Capricorn (December 22 – January 19)
Once you have made up your mind, Capricorn, you cannot stop making things your own way. Like Mark Lanegan of Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age, who has never been tempted to make anything less than the most soulful music he can. When Lanegan met Belle & Sebastian's Isobel Campbell in Glasgow, dropped a hint that he'd love to make a record with the divine-sounding chanteuse. Now V2 has released the resulting Mark Lanegan and Isobel Campbell collaboration, the paradoxically gritty yet pretty Ramblin' Man EP, which is a little taste of Ballad of the Broken Seas, the upcoming full-length they've recorded and plan to release next year. The Hank Williams title track is the sort of dark night of the soul you go through this time of year, Capricorn, despite your upcoming birthday. "Come Walk With Me" is a balm to the bitter soul, their voices interlocking magically. The two B-sides also included feature Campbell, and are necessary jewels for any B&S fans' obscure gem collections (she was born to record "St. James' Infirmary").
Aquarius (January 20 – February 18)
"Even a vampire wouldn't drink my blood," Ron Lewis sadly admits on the opening track to his four-song taster (ha!) for his band Ghost Stories. But Aquarius thirsts, and once this Fruit Bats drumming, Rogue Wave-supporting artist behind Ghost Stories (helped along live by members of Blessed Light and Blue Sky Mile, among others) pours his intelligence and wit into a pop song, you can't help but take a big gulp. "Even a Vampire" starts with squeaking keyboards and chunking drums, and Lewis hauntingly tells a story of romantic desperation that borders on pathological, while "Isn't It Appropriate That Way" chugs with musical joy even if Lewis trembles with fear in its anxious lyrics. While Ghost Stories sound absolutely nothing like XTC, the elements of perfectly creative pop are here in similar ways, willing to be psychedelically abstract but driving at the same time. In other words, Aquarius, keep your head above water — the end is in sight.
Pisces (February 19 – March 20)
Judas was a patriot and a humanitarian, as well as being a Pisces. He hated the corruption of Rome, a nation that exploited the countries surrounding it. For those willing to take an uncomfortable stand in history, say, by moving from Seattle and leaving behind his band Mines and taking up residence in a Brooklyn studio-home, Chad Nelson's songs for Field Notes sound like something that could make pop culture history themselves. Shining most on the intricate and intimate mesmerizing parlor room pop of "Full Circle" and the 80's style post-punk dance rock of "Sister Says," Color of Sunshine is proper solo journeying, inflected with pastels at dusk. Don't know what they make of this sort of thing in Brooklyn, but in backyards here it's a perfect sound track for Pisces to watch leaves fall in the plastic pool.
Aries (March 21 – April 19)
Aries are aggressive. But because they don't show bruises, they look pretty no matter how hard they're playing. For Purple Blaze, Christopher Paul Richards, AKA Ris Paul Ric may not be still making music as angular and avuncular as his original band, Q AND NOT U. In fact, he's crafting early Shins-style acid-afternoon raindrop-pop (the splendid, gently-ranting title track) with light psychedelic-Michael Jackson bedroom folk-funk ("Run Up Wild On Me"). Touring with Dan Caldas of Black Eyes, many have been able to come out and feel his soft Armageddon vibe this fall; and now they can play his sensual miniatures at home, pretending that Syd Barrett is Prince of the Air.
Taurus (April 20 – May 20)
Hot-headed, the builder, the producer: Taurus needs music this month to inspire her through the seasonal paralysis. Theo Prince's punchy, occasionally trashy-sounding gutter-pop band The Weapons has an EP called Formula For A Fight, which, while not blazingly original, is sturdy Saturday afternoon getting drunk punk ("40 oz.," "Jawbreaker"). Reminding me of seeing Love As Laughter at the Velvet Elvis in the late 90s, this Northwest-crawling neo-pub band has already hit the High Dive, The Crocodile, and venues elsewhere. This five-song debut is a good way to see if you care to spend some time out with them some night, Taurus — as we know you're not going to want to stay home no matter how dark it gets…
Gemini (May 21 – June 21)
For Gemini, whose colors of green and red are perfect for the holidays, we present two perfect yuletide season albums, to match your dualistic moods. First, there's Los Straitjackets doing sparkling, driving, Surf and Tex-Mex-inspired Christmas instrumentals for Yep Roc, including a Tarantino-flick sounding "A Marshmallow World," with its big drum opening, and a "Feliz Navidad" in a car crash with "La Bamba." The Mexican wrestler-masked Los Straightjackets unwrap similar surprises throughout, which they'll be showing on the road (and in Seattle on 12/10) with the amazing-dancing' World Famous Pontani Sisters! Meanwhile, for those Geminis who choose spoken word over instrumental rock, V2 has released the soundtrack and DVD for "The Aristocrats," possibly the most offensively-hilarious movie ever made, in which a single vaudeville joke is repeated ad nauseam (for some, literally, particularly when things get scatologic
al to the extremes). "92 Comedians, 1 Joke!" the cover says, and some of the former include George Carlin, Paul Reiser, Richard Jeni, Bob Saget (!), Andy Dick, Rita Rudner, Judy Gold, and many others doing outstanding versions of the same filthy classic set-up over and over. If you have the stomach for it, it will bust it right open. Was it all a hoax by Penn & Teller? Who knows, but Rita Rudner's variation ("The Cocksucking Motherfuckers") is worth admission alone. If you missed the movie in the theater, buy this in both film and album versions (one for the house, one for the car!).
Cancer (June 22 – July 22)
Being a natural leader and organizer, Cancer, it's strange that you're attracted to full-on aggressive past-times, but Boot To Head Records from Portland, OR puts that kind of stuff out for you, so there are at least two Christmas presents you're going to want this year. The first is The Clergy's transcendental gutter-punk, perfectly captured on their All Who Fly album, a strange mixture of remarkable emotional vulnerability and overt spirituality (the latter which may put many off). Christie Simonatti's voice is better than ever, with as much passion as she had on their early 90's indie tapes, but the band is more capable of subtle interludes now, and Kevin Collins' classically shrieking guitar mingles perfectly with Jim Swanson's sonorous bass-lines. The other Boot to Head release, The Stivs' Sweet Heartache and the Satisfaction is fairly pedestrian garage punk, although a near bombastic Stooges feel on a few songs sometimes takes the rudimentary rock into more transgressive territory. While Jack Endino does a fine job producing, they could just get a little scarier, and leave the Squad 5-0 cum Black Halo cliches behind. Mix tape keeper: "The Satisfaction."
Leo (July 23 – August 22)
Leo is an effortless charmer, destined for long relationships, and a happy family life. Hush Records' new shining star is Toothfairy, a sweet and tender collection of hooligan midi journal entries, with character-rich vocals talk-singing slices of life full of delightful humor ("I Was Kicked Out of The Band," which quotes "I Melt With You" and "Stephanie, My First Crush") through layers of exquisite keyboard melodies, blips, and hand-claps. The on-the-one bedroom funk of "Buzz Cut" will be hitting indie play lists from coast to coast, if that isn't happening already. Toothfairy's Chad Crouch (who actually is Toothfairy) used to be in Blanket Music, which was praised by Magnet and Pitchfork, and while admitting a Postal Service influence, I find his observations and experiments less chilly and more inviting — just like you, dear Leo.
Virgo (August 23 – September 22)
You're a practical person, Virgo, and not given to utopian schemes. Thus we recommend thejohnbenders new four song EP, The Single Sided Conversation in which good old emo-core fuses with modern crunch rock, delivered by four men who obviously want to help and change the world (playing Tsunami Benefits, etc.). The worshipful vocals ("sweet forsaken one") and spiraling, spindly guitar-lines of opener "Overpass" make the inevitably ferocious shouted chorus seem appropriate, as if drama is occurring, not just drama queens being shrill from one moment to another. The band recorded this debut with Kane Hodder producer Tony Dallas Reed in Port Orchard's Temple Sound, and the almost rock opera vastness of the results are impressive. Funny, just as this sort of thing seems played out, some bands use it to evolve rock itself.
Libra (September 23 – October 23)
You are sexually attractive, personally magnetic, entertaining, and affluent, Libra, so what if you have to occasionally knock off someone or you get a little depressed in the lonely wee hours? Just like Frank Sinatra, who recorded his rawest, most artful work after his big band years and before his 60's cinematic aspirations, with such elegantly despairing songs as "Angel Eyes" and "It Was Just One Of Those Things." Those two classics are just one of many great black-and-white early television performances captured on Frank Sinatra Show with Bing Crosby and Dean Martin, one of the best DVD reissues from MVD. Dark, grainy, filled with forced humor and strangely avant-garde choreography, the world of Sinatra never seemed more stark or inviting.
Scorpio (October 24 – November 21)
You're a twisted freak, Scorpio, but at least your sociopathic nature makes for fun and games. Life with you is never dull, but try to keep it light and frothy this dark month. Listen to Scissors For Lefty's Bruno, a scraggly collection of homemade disco and singer-songwriter spoken word with tinkles and beats, delivered with truly fantastic and diverse vocals, showing why this band has been able to share stages with everyone from Grandaddy to Black Heart Procession. "Ghetto Ways" is delightful dance floor illegal rave, "Softly The Sea Swallows the Sun" has a great slattern feeling with juicy shuffles, and "More Than The Summer" is for perfect winter heavy rotation with its breathy rap and Donovan style chorus. Put the knife away, Scorpio, and chill with some slacker progressive mini-mall trip-hump.