CD Reviews

Living with the Living
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists

It pains me to have to report that this album, the fifth by the politically inspired, melodically punky Ted Leo, is not his best. By continuing to focus on war being bad and corrupt leaders being corrupt and all that, Leo seems to be going through the motions, lyrically, this go-round.
    Musically, his usual reference points are there — from Springsteen to the Jam — but an attempt at reggae, “The Unwanted Things,” only brings to mind The Clash’s cover of Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves.” Another unwise use of falsetto propels the big ballad “The Toro and the Toreador,” which will sound eerily familiar to anyone who’s ever heard Jeff Buckley sing — and then rips off Big Star in the same song.
    “Bomb.Repeat.Bomb” here doesn’t just sound like something Rage Against the Machine would do, it sounds like them, too.
    Worst of all, the disc is broken up into 90 45-second bits.
    So, if you’re making a mix for a girl named “Colleen,” good luck adding this song, Romeo. —Peter Berkowitz

Bad Blood in the City
James “Blood” Ulmer

    What is there to say about James “Blood” Ulmer? He’s “raggedly soulful,” he’s indirectly hilarious; he’s an old friend of Ornette Coleman. He’s a step below icon status, and Bad Blood in the City shows the world why he should be cherished.
    When you were a part of the Odyssey Band, where can you really go? You’ve pushed innovation as far as you can. Frankly, the best thing you can do is stop trying to reinvent the wheel and just produce truly excellent blues music on your own.
    There’s so much material on Bad Blood that it’s hard to know where to start. “Let’s Talk About Jesus,” “Katrina,” “Dead Presidents”: a gospel blues song about miracles, a sad tune about the destruction of the jazz capital of the world and a ditty that doubles as a history lesson for fourth graders. Every track on Bad Blood, though, has one thing in common: superior musicianship. Ulmer is the kind of blues guitarist you dream of running across: gifted, true and real. —Kirsten Schofield

The Ergs

    The Ergs … more like the urgh. I really hate being one of those reviewers who finds it clever to make stupid jokes like this, but, boy, does the warmed-over, pop-punk junk of upstairs/downstairs just beg for it.
    Maybe if I was still 13, I would find this interesting, but then maybe that’s an insult to 13-year-olds everywhere. Uninspired three-chord dreck litters the landscape of this record, which, were it made by teenagers, might be kind of excusable, but coming from guys who will be 27 this year … isn’t that kind of embarrassing?
    Yes, there is a place in this world for everything, but I must admit that’s not a theory of life that I readily embrace. Especially when I hear music like this. To steal a line from the band’s song, “Books About Miles Davis,” singer Mike Yannich earnestly warbles, … you’ve heard it all before. I apologize.
    Apology accepted. The Ergs play Friday at Third Street Dive (440 S. Third St., 587-0706) with Be My Doppelganger, Lemuria and The Exit Strategy. Showtime is 10 p.m., cover is $3. —L. Park

Gruff Rhys

    It sounds somewhat condescending to refer to Gruff Rhys’ Candylion as “a pleasant surprise,” but no offense is meant. Rhys, the frontman for Super Furry Animals, released a previous solo excursion that was sung entirely in Welsh, a language that makes German sound mellifluous in comparison. Candylion trumps that disc by being (mostly) in English, with some Spanish and a mere two tracks in his mother tongue. All of the songs, however, feature a breezy brand of jaunty psychedelic folk-rock that makes the album easily accessible and utterly winning. An overriding sense of whimsy permeates these tunes, but it’s a manly kind of whimsy, from the pure pop of “Cycle of Violence” and “The Court of King Arthur” to the finale “Skylon,” an epic story-song in which the narrator foils a hijacking with a supermodel. Hey, I said it was whimsical. —Jay Ditzer

Peter Rowan & Tony Rice

    Peter Rowan is, quite literally, the link between Bill Monroe and the Grateful Dead. As such, his music typically reflects a balance between the rigid discipline of old school bluegrass and the “anything goes” approach of acid-rock. On this brilliant effort, he is paired with long-time pal and guitar virtuoso Tony Rice. And, as the title suggests, the two legends are further complemented by bassist Bryn Davies and mandolinist Sharon Gilchrist. Here, the capable quartet tackles standards such as the traditional “Cold Rain And Snow” and Townes Van Zandt’s lovely “To Live Is To Fly.” Additionally, they lay down definitive versions of the Rowan-penned favorites “Walls of Time” and “Midnight Moonlight.” This is the best bluegrass album of 2007. —Kevin M. Wilson

Traffic and Weather
Fountains of Wayne

    I finally get to write about these guys. ’Bout time, too. I’ve been driving past the original Fountains of Wayne for 30 years. Roadside attractions — whether they’re on I-95 or someone’s footpath through the airport (“Michael and Heather at the Baggage Claim”) — form a lot of the tsunami of day-to-day detail that songwriters Collingwood and Schlesinger pump into their band’s latest set. The melodies and hooks here run from good to excellent, some by virtue of genuine theft from other rockers. There are no individual powerhouses, though, no matter how much guitar and drums, sunny harmony or studio clatter fill up the tracks. And the little observations can pile up like dust bunnies, and become just as desirable. There are still unique and satisfying listening experiences with character studies like the young woman slipping into couch potato-hood (“Somebody to Love”) or the waitress whose dart-throw convinces her to move to Bowling Green (“New Routine”). But there’s much meandering on the borderland where mind-tickling facets fade into non-sequiturs. —T.E. Lyons

Castles In Spain

    Frankly, I have become accustomed to shoddily produced, over-mixed radio rock, and it has been a while since a rock band truly excited me. Castles in Spain have succeeded where others have failed.
    Fans new and old will certainly agree that the band’s most recent effort is strong from the start: driven electric guitar, rock solid bass and drum partnership and in-your-face vocals. It is not only the determined quality of the music, but the emotional lyrical style and the group’s honesty that defines the soul of the songs.
    “Mine Oh Mine” and “Gratitude Adjustment” are standouts: the first brutally personal, with evocative, classical steel string guitar, and the latter with its mesmerizing drum rhythms and highly intelligent metaphors. The music is stunningly well arranged, and Biachi — the group’s vocalist and producer — pays special attention to both the vocal treatment and its place in the overall composition. No two tracks are exactly alike — a daring way for the group to display its range. —David Salvo

Dandelion Gum
Black Moth Super Rainbow

    Black Moth Super Rainbow’s third full-length album, Dandelion Gum, can be judged by its cover. The face made of a rainbow of squiggly lines aptly suggests a collection of tracks best experienced while laying in the grass, staring up at the sun, possibly under the influence of a psychotropic substance.  Indeed, the songs are psychedelic and somewhat mysterious. Liberal use of a vocoder, coupled with layers of wheezing synths, makes frontman Tobacco’s vocals sound less like a communication medium than yet another member of a trippy keyboard symphony. While the vocoder renders the lyrics unintelligible, that air of mystery is fine: This album isn’t about thinking hard. The bizarre pseudonyms of the band’s members — Tobacco, Power Pill Fist, Seven Fields of Aphelion, Iffernaut, and Father Hummingbird — only add to the trippy mystification. Why the anonymity? What does Power Pill Fist even mean? Just try not to think about it. Strangely, the tracks occasionally border on melancholy, reminding the listener of the death, or perhaps nonexistence of the idealistic era whose sound Dandelion Gum recreates. —Andrea Hunt

Given to the Rising

    Years ago, some marketing genius coined the term “intelligent heavy metal” (or “thinking-man’s metal”) in order to ease the quantification of heavy music that tended to avoid the genre stereotypes of Super-Hit and sleeveless denim.
    Q.E.D.: Neurosis, since the mid-’80s, has consistently produced some of the genre’s most compelling music while not really catering to the lowest common denominator (which is and has always been, let’s be honest, pretty freakin’ low). Given to the Rising contains all the de rigeur elements: thunderous drums, harsh dyspeptic vocals, minor key guitars and lyrics that border on gothic melodrama. Fortunately, as is usually the case with their projects, the elements congeal without treading dangerously close to self-parody (or the Spinal Tap Syndrome), which plagues almost every other metal band. Steve Albini’s production keeps the vocals partially obscured in the mix and pulls a bit of the punch out of the drums, but these are minor squabbles.
    It’s a pretty satisfying and scary addition to their canon. Epic, psychedelic, apocalyptic and of a scope ordinarily reserved for British progressive rock bands (or Claudio Simonetti).
Big ’n’ Bad. —Michael Steiger