The Pipettes - We are the Pipettes

You know what sucks about three smoking hot British birds dressed in modish black polka-dot dresses singing early-1960s-inspired girl-group pop songs? Nothing. Absolutely nothing sucks about that. Which is why the Pipettes’ (pronounced Pip-ettes, as in that poor tortured orphan from Great Expectations or Gladys Knight and the (...)-ettes) upcoming debut album is one of the best new releases of the year. What truly works about the girl group, however, is that they rise far above the level of throwback kitsch and are not bound to the Phil Spector / Brill Building model of teenage music. In fact (and they probably don’t want to hear this), their sound is just as indebted to late 70’s acts like Blondie and ABBA as it is to the Shangri-La’s and Ronnettes. This isn’t in any way a criticism: the songs are petty much terrific across the board and the girls sing masterfully together: the album as a whole is nearly pitch-perfect.

We Are The Pipettes begins with a psychedelic Mickey-Mouse-Club-style role-call (Gwenno! Becki! Rose!) that segues into the titular track, which lays out the band’s ethos, “We’ve got no regrets…We’re the prettiest girls you ever have met,” above a driving fuzz-ified guitar line. The wonderful “Pull Shapes,” their current single across the pond and the best song on the album, is what would have happened had Carole King written a song for ABBA, and, dare I say it, could even convince the kids once again that violin / guitar based rock and roll is just as worthy of the dance floor as hip-hop. “You’re Kisses Are Wasted On Me,” the girls’ first English hit, is an ecstatic, hand-clapping type of song, and manages to balance coy girlish charm with old-school feminist calls-to-arms. The rest of the record goes through well-trodden girl band territory in a terrifically refreshing way: they discuss clean cut guys with dirty minds, the terror of going home alone after a night out dancing, and feuds with their prettier, more popular friends.

What is utterly surprising about the music the Pipettes sing is the innocence constantly underlying the bluster. Songs like “Tell Me What You Want” and “Sex” are more Frankie Valli then Karen-O. Rather than hearing balls-to-the-walls sexuality, we encounter instead wistful and upbeat harmonies and lines like “Just rest your pretty head.” I suppose this attitude separates them from the early 1960s girl bands as much as the sonic differences do. They rarely fetishize the rebellious attitudes that have caused many of the Phil Spector-penned songs to age (morally at least) so poorly. When we now listen to the Crystals sing, in earnest, “He hit me / and it felt like a kiss,” we cringe (even though it is, by all other measures, a terrific song). And there isn’t really a hint of the me-against-the-world ethos that gave bands like the Shangri-La’s their hits. Even the most throw-back song on the album, “A Winter’s Sky,” the lone ballad of the bunch, is more about teenage hopefulness then teenage loneliness.

Given the detrimental effect that England’s most famous girl band, the Spice Girls, had on our own music (thanks for inadvertently paving the way for Ashlee Simpson, girls), it might not be all that attractive for us hip Americans to give a shot to a new girl-band. But take it from an old-school pop enthusiast: these girls are the real deal, masterful singers and terrific performers. They keep one foot in the past while staring directly into the present, in three-part harmony that soars majestically over inspired orchestral pop. And you can dance to it too.

--Matthew J. Broad

Release Date: July 17, 2006

The Pipettes Website

Zero 7 - The Garden

The Garden, the third album from Zero 7, is the latest from the UK downtempo duo Sam Hardaker and Henry Binns. While the band’s first two albums feel a bit like swimming underwater, The Garden finds Zero 7 coming up for a breath of fresh air, with an equal blend of down- and up-tempo tracks which manage to entertain yet, in some ways, fall just short of the mark. Even so, the album exemplifies the duo’s propensity for writing songs that are catchy and hard to forget. While the group’s When It Falls (2004) album never quite lived up to the oh-so-high expectations set by Simple Things (2001), the group’s newest album seems to allude to the group’s realization that it can’t sustain success simply by repackaging Simple Things. So we have The Garden, an apropos album title that symbolizes the group’s growth and regeneration.

The most notable addition to Zero 7’s sound on The Garden is the addition of Swedish singer-songwriter, Jose Gonzales, one of the blogosphere’s many love children (deservedly so), whose voice has been perfectly matched to a number of the group’s patented electro-soul melodies. The combination sets a mood that is engaging and slightly – though not overtly – ambient; peaceful with a heightened sense of determination. It’s perfect for candlelight, wine... you get the picture. Gonzales’ captivating voice and the band’s slightly psychedelic tones call to mind high school days in a black-lit basement, listening to Pink Floyd for the first time. Just look to “Futures,” “Left Behind” and “Today” as perfect examples of why these two should collaborate on additional projects. Gonzales’ nimble finger-picking on acoustic guitar provide a much-needed diversion to the heavily synthesized songs that litter a good portion of the rest of the record.

Despite their attempts at creating an interesting diversion from Simple Things, only the songs that feature Gonzalez really grab my attention. Songs such as “The Pageant of the Bizarre” sound a bit too much like Morcheeba, while “If I Can’t Have You” carries the angst and bitter melody of a sloppy Fiona Apple cover. “Seeing Things” exposes the duo attempting to showcase their up-tempo chops, with mixed, slightly awkward results. The group resorts to cheesy drum-machine percussive effects and fluff-pop distractions rather than those luscious soundscapes that Zero 7 is known for at times creating so brilliantly. The same goes for “Crosses”, a trance-like remix of a Gonzalez original that loses sight of the original song’s subtle beauty with its heavy filler of blips and bleeps. This track, like much of the album, could benefit from fewer hypnotic, repetitive strains and a little more nuance.

Despite these criticisms, there are a few gems of note on the record. “Throw It All Away,” a captivating track crafted without benefit of Jose Gonzalez, makes use of strategically-placed time changes that gently tug the listener back and forth between a walking rhythm and a soaring refrain. Just as you begin to feel comfortable floating up in the clouds, a delicate outro comes in and slowly sets you back down. And speaking of excellent outros, the closing measures of “Waiting To Die” feature some of the best horn arrangements on the album, leaving you feeling peaceful and optimistic as you’re sent you on your way.

The album as a whole moves at a nice pace and features a number of moments of great mood music, the genre which has, of course, defined the band’s image to date. It is evident that Hardaker and Binns are challenging themselves as well as the listener by trying new things, which may leave longtime fans uneasy and new fans a bit confused. Regardless, The Garden exemplifies once again just how talented the two are at making music that is easy to enjoy, regardless of your familiarity with the bands previous work. It also provides a good hint, thanks to the occasional brilliant melding of Simple Things -era tranquility and newer, brighter sonic experimentation, that the duo is moving in a positive direction towards a bigger, better more musically diverse Zero 7.

--Karl Pawlewicz

Release Date: May 22, 2006 (UK) June 6, 2006 (US)

Zero 7 Website

The Morning Benders - Loose Change

Did I miss something? Is it 1966 again? I hope so, because I’m in California and that would mean surf movies, those classic cars with wood paneling on the sides, Epiphone 335 guitars that actually sound good, and that innocence heard in music before we all became jaded and pissed at our government, scoffing at the American dream. Well, somehow The Morning Benders have stayed pure, untainted by the scum that infects a good deal of our current music. Maybe they don’t own a television or maybe they skip the world news section in their daily newspaper reading.

Whatever the case, Loose Change is a breath of fresh California air. This seven song EP, recorded in the group's hometown of Berkeley with one bare-bones microphone and a small laptop computer setup, is an amazing accomplishment for just a year-old band. The songs were recorded as demos and odds and ends, hence the name, Loose Change. These are simply great songs pooled together to form a simple, yet fantastic record. The album doesn’t boast fancy production, synths, or techno beats, and there are moments where you can hear singer Chris Chu’s vocals bouncing off of the house’s bare walls. Yet it’s this completely charming low-fi recording, full of dynamic organic sounds, that makes the album so pleasing to the ear.

Written beautifully in a 60’s California-pop style similar to The Beach Boys, each track boasts shimmering vocals, driving vintage drums, and complex vocal harmonies. But that’s just the surface of Loose Change. Though TMB have channeled New York-style rapid phrasing (most universally identified via The Strokes), they have still managed to find their own voice. Loose Change is mostly a fun and lighthearted listen, with songs urging you to not take them too seriously and pining for a, to quote track two, “fancy and free” life, but there are also moments of sincere heartache and introspection.

If The Morning Benders sound was compared strictly to The Beach Boys cannon, I'd have to say that Loose Change sounds most similar to the rough-around-the-edges but inspired classic, Smiley Smile. Though a commercial failure at the time, in hindsight, Smiley Smile is considered by many as one of the Beach Boys' most unique works. A raw, eerie psychedelic glimpse into the darker recesses of Brian Wilson's brain, the album was decades later exemplified by the more polished re-mastered original work, Smile. Though Loose Change is strictly a home-grown recording, my guess is that TMB also have some pristine production talent in their blood. Their next steps perhaps will work in what I like to call RBBCO, that is “Reverse Beach Boys Chronological Order,” to produce their wall of sound, Pet Sounds-esqe sonic masterpiece. Hopefully, we won't have to wait three decades.

Though each track on Loose Change is of stellar quality, the song “Grain of Salt” has received the most praise and attention, and it is deserving of the hype. It’s a jolly jaunt through classic Californian pop-lore, with a driving beat that would have any mop-topped surfboard-hauling youth sporting dark shades, coastline-cruising in their classic “woody” car, tapping every available finger and body part on steering wheels, doors, and mirrors. The first line of the song, “Take my heart with a grain of salt, it’s been broken but it’s nobody’s fault,” perfectly sets the pace of the EP (and perhaps the records to follow). The pumped-up vocals soar on the line, “Now I have to go back to that place I know best / But I’m happy this time, I know that, this love is mine,” over an innocent, almost tongue-in-cheek bed of retro “yeah, yeah, yeah’s.” (Minus the Karen O’s.)

Loose Change ends with the song, “Morning Fog,” a sweet lullaby with a loose and steadily strummed acoustic guitar and soft bass accompaniment. Chu wistfully sings, “My old friend, where have you gone / hopped on the bus in the morning fog. Don’t be gone too long / I’ll stay near the phone / ‘til I hear the steps bringing you back home / now that I’m alone / I can finally say / the words that wouldn’t come any other way.” A beautiful slide guitar moves through the bridge, and the song ends with a gorgeous, perfectly-timed fade out.

So just how did this young group of Golden State virtuosos maintain their artistic purity on Loose Change? Was it a conscious rejection of pop media junk, or just their way? However they did it, thank God for The Morning Benders for providing a new soundtrack to some hot summer days and articulating all that is vital in young life in California.

--Part Swedish Chris

Release Date: September 18, 2006

The Morning Benders' Website

Golden Smog - Another Fine Day

Self-indulgent, uneven, and utterly improper. Oh crap, it’s that most dreaded of all musical chestnuts: the SUPERGROUP!! It’s one of my pet peeves. Merging talented musicians together makes sense on paper, but we all know it often stinks of corporate cash cow. These “bands” lack any hunger to make a good album: people will buy the record out of intrigue regardless, so what is actually recorded doesn’t really matter. It’s only a side project, after all. I braced myself for a negative review.

Thankfully, my fears were completely misplaced. After one listen it’s clear that Another Fine Day was not created for any of the aforementioned cynical reasons. It’s just a bunch of talented musicians jamming out together. Consisting of elements from Wilco (the talismanic Jeff Tweedy), The Jayhawks (Gary Louris, Marc Perlman), Soul Asylum (Dan Murphy), and Run Westy Run (Kraig Johnson), this is one “supergroup” that actually lives up to the billing.

Golden Smog escape the trappings of the supergroup moniker by showing an obvious love for playing with each another. They seem to lack any fear of making a bad album, which allows them to be both relaxed and experimental. Testament to this was their decision to record half of the album in a location where nobody spoke English. Much like Josh Homme’s Desert Sessions, which lured musicians away from LA and into the Californian abyss, Golden Smog retreated to Puerto Santa Maria, Spain. Away from intrusive executives and producers, free from the shackles of major label expectation and overproduction, Tweedy et al can be heard in their most natural, pure state. This is alt-country rock stripped down to its most bare bones.

Another Fine Day begins fantastically, with “You Make It Easy” proving to be a beautiful song. It manages to be at once melodic and menacing, before it spirals off into a lovely, yawning fade. The opening track offers a reassuring start to the first Smog album in eight years, instantly assuaging any fears fans may have had about a changing direction of the band. Combined with the delay between albums, this is their first release since Wilco’s ascension to “it” band status and the (rumored) Jayhawks’ break-up. But these external forces prove irrelevant to the amiable sound of what is essentially five guys playing music that they truly love playing.

The return of the Minneapolis five-piece actually came about in far less romantic settings. Founding member Marc Pearlman got a call from Guy Richie in 2004 to pen the music for a car advert he was directing. Although the advert was quickly banned (conservative spoilsports complained about it showing a nine year-old boy joy riding), Corvette sowed the seed for the Smog’s latest album. The song is vintage power pop, played with an exuberance that contradicts their many years in the business. The chorus, “The dream is never over/Gonna blow your mind again/Like the first time,” explicitly exposes their excitement at playing together again. It’s a reunion of old friends. You almost get visions of “Brokeback Mountain”, with each Smogger sneaking away from their full-time band to barren lands to reignite an old flame they can’t quit.

But I guess it’s wrong to refer to this as a ‘comeback’ album. A band as elusive as Golden Smog cannot be perceived as ever really existing, and so can’t really have ever been away. Rather, it seems they form whenever the collective have an itch that can’t be scratched by their full time bands. Their name is quite fitting. Smog turns up out of nowhere, unannounced and can come and go in an instant. Wherever they’re going, one thing about the Smog is clear. They truly are a supergroup.

--Matthew Reville

Release Date: July 18, 2006

Golden Smog's Website (Needs Updating)

Golden Smog's Myspace


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