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REVIEWED! 1 JULY 2001

COCKEYED GHOST Ludlow 6: 18/TIM EASTON The Truth About Us/REEVES GABRELS Ulysses (della notte)/MOTHER MAY I Demos 1990-1996/L'ALTRA Music of a Sinking Occasion/STICKMAN That Boy Again/AUTOLINER Be/REBECCA GATES Ruby Series/MISSION TO MARS Rockandrollspidermanbasketball/CLIFF HILLIS Be Seeing You/FROG HOLLER Idiots/MUM & DAD Castle Heights

COCKEYED GHOST
Ludlow 6:18
Karma Frog
www.cockeyedghost.com

“And I’m not sure I wanna do this anymore…” 

If anyone out there still believes that the rock ‘n’ roll life is glamorous, rewarding and ultimately fair, please take cognizance of the cautionary tale of Californian rock band Cockeyed Ghost. Formed around the nucleus of singer-songwriter Adam Marsland and drummer Kurt Medlin, Cockeyed Ghost had released three critically acclaimed records viz. Keep Yourself Amused, Neverest and The Scapegoat Factory premised on the myriad joys of timeless pop music. 

Despite all this, Cockeyed Ghost was headed for the big heartbreak for soon after the release of The Scapegoat Factory, the Big Deal label would go belly up and the band was left in limbo. This sad story is humorously chronicled in the punky “Burning Me Out (Of the Record Store).” 

Thankfully, Cockeyed Ghost has managed to put this setback firmly behind and with its own Karma Frog label are able to present for your pop loving pleasure, the sublime Ludlow 6:18 – an album that continues to showcase Marsland’s formidable talents. Together with Robert Ramos (bass) and Severo (guitar), this gorgeous work resonates in the grand tradition of Californian rock. 

Brian Wilson’s influence is often bandied about when discussing Cockeyed Ghost, whilst this is not untrue, reflects more the catholic approach of Wilson rather than any outright mimicry. In fact, to these ears, I detect the not inconsiderable weight of Todd Rundgren behind such pop charms as the melancholy “December” and the vibrant Philly soulful “The Foghorn.” Elsewhere, Byrdsy folk-rock (“Ludlow 6:18”), grungy epiphany (“Ginna Ling”), sprightly Jesus rock (“Karma Frog”) and wistful desert blues (“Old Trails”) are the order of the day in typical eclectic fashion. 

A pop achievement in an age of jaded and cynical rock, Ludlow 6:18 is a treasure to discover, hold and yes, own. (8)

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TIM EASTON
The Truth About Us
New West
www.newwestrecords.com

www.timeaston.com

You always hear critics talking about a fresh voice. What does that actually mean? 

Well, in the context of modern day pop music, I do know that it’s certainly not only about so-called original or pioneering work. Take Tim Easton. Superficially, I suppose you could categorize his work as “alt. country,” whatever the hell that means nowadays. Listening to the sublime pedal steel of the great Bruce Kaphan (ex-AMC) or the acoustic guitar plucking of Wilco’s Jay Bennett, it’s tough to come up with anything other than that by-now jarring stereotype. 

But there’s more. 

It’s not in the style or the approach but somehow Easton (with the assistance of producer Joe Chiccarelli, various members of Wilco and Mark Olsen/Victoria Williams) manages to imbue a little something special into each and every song that keeps this “old” roots format fresh. 

It could be the Nick Drake tinkling ivories on “Half A Day,” the mellotron samples on “Carry Me,” the (White Album) Beatlesque vibe of “Downtown Lights,” the ghostly vocal double-tracking on “Get Some Lonesome,” the electric 12-string guitar on “Happy Now,” the atmospherics of “Bad Florida,” the easy listening feel of “Soup Can Telephone Conversation,” the spine-tingling pedal steel on “I Would Have Married You” or the honky tonk piano vaguely Dylanesque “Don’t Walk Alone.” 

Or maybe it’s just the sound of that rare and precious moment when indeed the traditional and the contemporary meet and create magic. (8.5) 

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REEVES GABRELS
Ulysses (della notte)
E-magine Entertainment
www.emaginemusic.com

www.reevesgabrels.com

You could very well describe Reeves Gabrels as a poor man’s Robert Fripp or um…Adrian Belew. And you would be partially right, I suppose. After all, Gabrels’ particular style of six stringed histrionics owes its fair share to the King Crimson leader and his pop – oh okay, progressive art-pop – writing is reminiscent of Belew’s forays into that arena.  

Gabrel’s first came to public attention in Tin Machine and has since been closely associated with David Bowie. Ulysses (della notte) is exactly as you might expect, askew songs of the David Byrne school and that guitar sound. But it’s when Gabrels drags out the heavyweights that this album truly shines. “Jewel” features vocal contributions from Bowie, Frank Black AND Dave Grohl and it is as good as that musical combination suggests – aggressive guitars, melodic sensibilities and offbeat lyrics. But “Yesterday’s Gone” is the surprise package. An evocative ballad that stars Robert (The Cure) Smith, it is one of the most bittersweet tunes you will ever hear. Tinged with wistful regret, Smith is the lynchpin behind the song’s success. 

The rest of this album never rises above satisfactory – that said, fans of the early 80s King Crimson albums will certainly enjoy Ulysses (della notte). (6)

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MOTHER MAY I
Demos 1990-1996
Dat Kord
www.mothermayi.com

Damon Hennessey does a curious speech clarifying the existence of this limited edition CD on the very last track albeit in a treated manner. “It’s all about the vibe,” Hennessey contends when addressing the reason why these demos seem to please fans more than the finished product. That often happens because the song is still fresh. 

Mother May I is practically dormant at the moment and Demos 1990-1996 is definitely one for the faithful. Culled from six separate sessions and featuring tracks that ended up on the albums proper. There are moments of sheer dynamic power, notably on the first group of songs dating back to 1990 featuring high points like “Teenage Jesus,” “In Between” and “Dick And Jane” showcasing the band’s penchant for melodic power pop even as grunge hovered on the rock horizon. 

The rest of the material seems to be missing the spark and vitality of the 1990 stuff as if the demands of a major label deal somehow bridled the band’s creativity. However, tracks like “Sitting Pretty,” “In A Box,” “Bittersweet” and “Down Here On the Ground” provide the thrills any indie guitar pop nut will enjoy. (6.5)

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L’ALTRA
Music of a Sinking Occasion
Aesthetics
www.aesthetics-usa.com  

Post-rock? 

Now isn’t that the laziest description you’ve ever come across? This handle has been used to account for the flowering of free form jazz/electronics hybrid emanating from Chicago in recent times. Thus far, Tortoise has been designated flag bearer but things are never exactly as they seem. 

It would be criminal to merely label L’altra with the “post-rock” moniker and leave it at all. Truth is there is a lot more than meets the eye (or ear) even when you get a taste of the opening title track which startles with its free form jazz meets drum n bass vibe. Fact is much of Music of a Sinking Occasion has the ethereal appeal of the finest indie slowcore around. From the pleasing “Little Chair” to the pastoral English setting of “Lips Move on Top of Quiet,” from the Nick Drake-invoking balladry of “Handwashing for Good Health” to the ghostly hymn-like “Motorme,” the gentle concave voices of Lindsay Anderson and Joseph Costa and the gorgeous atmosphere hooks you into a dream state, often evoking the likes of Mark (American Music Club) Eitzel and Mark (Red House Painters) Kozelek. 

Rather like the title track (which is reprised at the end) “Say Wrong,” manages to transcend the melancholy ambiance to deliver a faux-progressive jam ala Arthur Lee’s Love. Without losing control, L’altra convey emotional abandon in a brilliant interplay between trumpet and flute in the song’s coda. There is certainly merit in the argument that perhaps the band should consider a stronger move into this direction. 

Still, what they have achieved with this constantly surprising album bears recognition. (7.5)

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STICKMAN
That Boy Again
Self-released
www.stickmanor.com

Stickman is an extraordinary artist band that is able to blend the sheer craftsmanship of The Band with the harmonic and rhythmic abandon of the post-punk new wave of the early 1980s. Formed in 1992 around the core of brothers Sam and Stu Mullins, Stickman’s sophomore album finds the group (now with Kylie Buddin and Gordy Axt) in formidable shape. 

That Boy Again is a veritable abundance of riches everywhere you listen – both in terms of music and words. Whilst the tunes, instrumentation and arrangements are intelligent and sophisticated, the lyrics reveal Stickman to be a whimsical commentator on the things that make up our interesting world. 

“Funny Teeth,” a folk rocking tribute to the wonders of Anglophile achievement asks the critical question – “…if they’d won the war, would we take our tea at 4 in the afternoon?” Not to mention making the conclusion that “…instead of REO we’d have XTC if we’d just thrown the war.” Well, that’s something to chew on! 

The rest of That Boy Again keeps this level of quality up – the wistful love song “Delores,” the Bruce Hornsby-like piano-driven social observations of “Somewhere in Idaho,” the dynamic discourse on personal ads that is “The Personals,” the whimsical conspiracy treatise REM evoking “King Martian” and the beautiful “Sleight of Hand” which the likes of Andy Partridge would be proud to be associated with. 

With the pure luminosity on show, it may be nit picking to wish that the sound was a tad better but there you go. I suppose when you’re dealing with pop music with heart and brains, what more could you possibly ask for? (8.5)

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AUTOLINER
Be
Parasol
www.parasol.com
 

Autoliner viz. John Ross, Brian Leach and Tom Curless, released a CD called Autoliner last year under the moniker Life on Mars. Unfortunately, the trio was contacted by another band called Life on Mars and hence, that album is now known as Life on Mars and the name for the band is now, Autoliner.

Got that? No? Nevermind because ultimately it does not really matter! 

Ross, Leach and Curless, whatever they choose to call themselves should only be described as follows – the mad scientists of pop! Following in the grand tradition of like-minded master craftsmen as Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, Arthur Lee, Todd Rundgren, Jeff Lynne, Andy Partridge et al, Autoliner makes it a point to add as many textures and musical ideas as a song can physically contain to produce multi-layer classics. 

From lush orchestral ballads (“Lighthouse”) to dynamic harmonic rockers (“Supersonic Baby (In Disguise)”), from frenetic mini-suites (“Green Mary”) to majestic folk pop (“Ready”) and much much more, the onslaught of influences will leave you spinning. 

This is an album that firmly lives up its bold ambition. (8.5)

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REBECCA GATES
Ruby Series
Badman
www.badmanrecordingco.com

“The artist formerly known as The Spinanes,” proclaims the blurb on my promo copy of this rather fascinating disc. Suffice to say that part of the appeal of the Spinanes’ three albums was Gates’ knack to blend melodic splendor with a lo-fi indie pop awareness. The last Spinanes’ album was the 1998 release Arches and Aisles, which was hailed for its scarred beauty. 

Gates returns to the music scene keen to make her mark with a significant shift in direction. With the ascent of so-called “post-rock” arising as the new indie-pop of choice in the 21st century, she has roped in Tortoise’s John McEntire to co-produce the seven song EP that is Ruby Series

Whilst ostensibly, the material on this EP is clothed in “post-rock” finery i.e. jazzy inflections, slowcore approaches and banks of electronica, what remains constant is Gates’ songwriting strengths. “The Colonel’s Circle” is the standout in this respect. Delivered by Gates’ whispered vocals and an involved neo-classical guitar-bass-cello pattern, it leaves the listener breathless and touched by the affecting sentiments. 

Also worthy of note – the languorously gorgeous torch song opener “The Seldom Scene,” the vibes-driven percussive “Lure and Cast” and “In A Star Orbit,” and the folky fragile closer “I Received A Levitation.” 

Kudos to Gates and McEntire for making a truly unique pop document that is at once distinguished and timely. (8)

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MISSION TO MARS
Rockandrollspidermanbasketball
Self-released 
www.notlame.com

Power to the people!

Whatever we may gripe about the modern pop scene (and boy do we gripe!), one inescapable fact is that 21st century technology has allowed us the choice of much more great music, if you know where to look for it, of course.

Mission to Mars aka singer-songwriter-guitarist Philip Golden is a good example. Equipped with fine material and the invaluable assistance of producer Rick Stone, Golden has assembled a collection of high quality pop songs that traverse the gamut of rock n roll history.

From the opening slide guitar-fuelled country-inflected rocker “Hanging Onto” to the closing open chord poignant “Funeral Procession,” Golden displays a uncanny pop savvy coupled with the economic know-how to maximize the use of drum loops and cello. Songs like the intriguing “Event Horizon,” the unique mix of fierce percussions and harsh strings on “2nd Place Dreaming,” the Keef riff referencing “Crawling to LA” and the morbid yet mature acoustic “Watery Grave” point to a blossoming talent.

Guaranteed to please after the second or third listen, Rockandrollspidermanbasketball is a labour of love dedicated to the heart of rock and roll. And power to the people! (8)

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CLIFF HILLIS
Be Seeing You
Not Lame
www.notlame.com

With previous band Starbelly, Cliff Hillis had proven himself to be the powerpop musician’s musician. Chord changes that made the listener sit up and literally take notice. What really hits between the eyes is the sheer immediacy of those changes – with tunes to match! True, Hillis wears his (power) pop influences a bit too blatantly on his sleeves viz. the mellifluous potency  of the Beach Boys/Beatles, the fragile soulfulness of Big Star and the guitar attack of Cheap Trick. A couple of good modern day reference would be Matthew Sweet, Michael Penn and the Posies, but that’s not his problem.

Thus, there is an assured dynamism in songs like “Coming Out Alive,” “Second Dimension,” “Never December” and “Grounded” where Hillis’ economical use of chordal structure provides instant satisfaction.

However, the stunning revelations of this strong effort are the softer, jazz-folk inflections of spine-tingling wonders like “Wake,” “Before and After” and “Nothing Matters More” where Hillis utilizes the acoustic guitar and emphatic vocals to astonishing effect.

Vibrant, timeless and contemporary, Be Seeing You is everything you expect from the “new” powerpop and more. (8)

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FROG HOLLER
Idiots
Record Cellar
www.record-cellar.com

“The Song is King.”

Amen! Pennsylvanian sextet Frog Holler viz. John Kilgore, Mike Lavdanski, Ted Fenstermacher, Darren Schlappich, Josh Sceurman, Toby Martin and Todd Bartolo are good old country boys – the titular “idiots” celebrated in the title of this rustic gem of an album.

The band has an instinctive sense of how to complete Schlappich’s root pop songs. Alternating bluesy riffs (“The Kingdom of Bocephus Klein”), bluegrass guilt ballads (“Happy Hour,” “WJKS”), horn-blasted hillbilly rants (“Bitter Blues,” “Who Will….?”), pedal steel enveloped confessionals (“Adam Hotel Road”), pleasing jaunty rockabilly vignettes (“Choose A Path,” “Spiders & Planes”) and offbeat marching instrumentals (“Native Trout”) with consummate ease.

Celebrating small town life succinctly - as indicated by sentiments like “…well, I’m PA Dutch and I ain’t learned much but I’m willing to try” in the shuffling “Pennsylvania,” Idiots is a well-crafted snapshot of the life and times of “a small group of creative, intellectual, strong-willed, open-minded, non-conformists…” Indeed. (7.5)

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MUM & DAD
Castle Heights
Twisted Nerve
www.twistednerve.co.uk

Yes, if your Mum & Dad were Paul and Yoko, this is probably the music you’d make.

You’d be a perfectionist, avant garde, mixed up pop genius with the annoying habit of throwing a spanner in the works. For art’s sake of course.

This six song EP is at once disturbing and precious, if you can imagine that. Three ‘out there’ found sounds instrumentals called “Big Pen 1,” “Big Pen 2” and “Big Pen 3” respectively set the tone for the bizarre but these appear positively mundane when set against the horror movie-themed title track as Claire Pearson’s fragile vocals is counterpointed by what sounds like banshees gnashing and wailing. “6 Week Holiday” mixes a curious tranquility (with buzzing flies in the background) with a lusty soulful chorus whilst “Swinchiard,” is a deranged Nick Drake ballad with swirling synths and underwhelming electronica.

Eerie yet irresistible, Castle Heights is not for the faint of heart but the brave will be richly rewarded with music that is always surprising and never boring. (7.5)

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