Reviews: Brilliant Colors, Astronautalis, The Island of Misfit Toys

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Hey ho, everyone. I’m scrambling to get reviews out before the school year begins and the holiday season cranks up. Been traveling, so, I’m a little behind the curve. A few of these have been out for a while, so apologies to those who have seen any of these records reviewed elsewhere. We do our best to cover as much stuff as possible, and some things slip through the cracks at times, or sit around for a while waiting for attention. If it’s worth a tinker’s damn I’ll try my gosh darnedest to get to it. Also included at the end is quick review of a cool new Vampire book. Until the next go round… Enjoy.

Astronautalis,This Is Our Science (Fake Four)

Seattle-based Andy Bothwell is Astronautalis, and he can rap with the varsity team when he puts his mind to it, but he’s not always up to the challenge. The backstory is that he started as a “battle rapper” fifteen years ago and he is prone to lapsing into Eminem-mode. It’s not the only thing going on here, but it’s a prominent element, and he needs to actively fight against it. In fact, Bothwell’s best vocals appear on tracks that utilize his singing skills as much, or more, than his rapping skills. “Measure The Globe” is a good “pop” song, but on “Dimitri Mendelev” he goes a step beyond and actually sounds like oddball dance-pop artist Just Jack and the song itself has a similar melodic motif. “Secrets on Our Lips” is a good song, solidly illustrating the point about his singing vs. his rapping. The music, as a whole, is very good, sometimes surpassing the vocals. Broadening the vocal palette even more on the next record will only help the cause. Lots of potential for something really good, but it’s not there yet.

Brilliant Colors, Again And Again (Slumberland)

I totally get why people like this band. The trio of Jess Scott, Michelle Hill and Diane Anastasio is an unassuming unit at first blush, but beyond the apparent low key personality traits there is a more substantial lo-fi musical thing going on and they got some flava. You can’t get around the eventual comparisons to Scrawl, and if they can consistently come close to that standard they’ll be able to hold their heads high. “Hitting Traffic” is inauspicious initially, but becomes more engrossing, and the phrasing and melody of “How Much Younger?” launches it upward, and exhibits a unique approach they should use more often. Jess Scott’s vocal tone can be a little flat, and a few songs are more vanilla than others in terms of any kind of edgy distortion, but that’s the only real weakness. The more they push the further they go.

The Great Book Of John, S/T (Communicating Vessels)

This is the second TGBOJ album, and the Ryan Adams-lunches-with-Richard Ashcroft “Robin Hood” kicks it off with a pleasantly pointy, gray-toned urban cowboy boot to the cranium. There’s some Band Of Horses melancholy in there too. The core of this band is Taylor Shaw, who was a founding member of Birmingham’s Wild Sweet Orange, and his swelling vocals rise over elusive melody lines and take his songs to a place slightly off the beaten path. The Ryan Adams train comes back around again to pick up MMJ on “Ashes Over Manhattan,” an ode to death, whose title speaks for itself, and there’s “Wise Blood,” which has some of that same shambolic swagger, but Shaw’s own melodic presence comes through loud and clear. The guitars flow, allowing the songs to twist and turn around the vocals as needed. “Let Me Slide” adorns itself in a multi-hued, sad sweater, subtly declaring he’ll slide “…if I’m not what you want…”. The rest of the band (Bekah Fox, Alex Mitchell, Chip Kirkpatrick) joins producer Jeffery Cain in bringing Shaw’s songs to the post-graduate level. With this record Taylor Shaw has reached the landing right below his forebears, and he can go pretty much anywhere he wants to from now on.

Satan Is My Brother, A Forest Dark (Boring Machines)

SIMB is an Italian quintet, and A Forest Dark is their second release on Boring Machines. It is essentially a (new) “soundtrack” inspired by the Italian film, Inferno (1911). One of the very first silent films made in Italy. Keyboards, bass, electronics, sax and trombone are the tools and the entire piece is sub-divided into eight movements (Movimento I-VIII). What seems formless and amorphous at first eventually takes shape and starts to create an evocation of spooky, ashen film noir scoring. It comes across not so much as a contemporaneous film score, but, rather, a musical simulacra, as if the band is watching the film (with you) and playing along live. I think that’s supposed to be the general effect. The sax and trombone moaning over the top of what sounds like the muted banging of piano strings is great, and the soupy bass lines that start oozing through the system to fill in all the empty space make this much “heavier” than what one might assume. By the end it has evolved and it takes on much more distinctive forms: “VII” is like a funky 80s jazz-prog workout, and “VIII” lands in the area of an abstract noise-jam not unlike Chrome. The stuff they do with their laptops is more akin to the gothic funereal music of the C’est La Mort Label in the early 90s, than it is the jittery electro-dance pastiche of the last twenty years. That’s a good thing. Quite excellent overall.

Sky Drops, Making Mountains EP (Custom Made Music)

This is a 5-song EP by a duo made up of Rob Montejo on guitar and vocals and Monika Bellette on drums and vocals. Their forte is groovy and garagey stuff (“Explain It To Me”), and they can dabble in some stoney, post-psychedelic rock (“Keeper”), when they want to. They also move toward more spacey and ethereal at times(“Out The Window”), and they tweak the envelope a little bit on every song. Not anything explosive, but an interesting band on an interesting underground label.

The Island Of Misfit Toys, Bear Hair

The silly title of this album has a serious origin that comes from something frontman Anthony Sanders says to his band when he’s in a shitty mood, and what the band came up with to describe Sanders and his cathartic songwriting, “Combing out his bear hair.” I note that because when you first hear The Island… it’s not easy to make out exactly where this somewhat tangled mess is going. The first song, “Beginnings of A Beard” is Bright Eyes/Connor Oberst-inflected, particularly on the vocals, and not bad at all, but they don’t hang around there for long. Track two, “Bear Hair 1,” pushes the energy level up and is an even better song than the opener, and by the time they get to “Insulated Crate” they’re also showing off a decent sense of humor, on top of everything else. It gets a little silly from time to time, yes, but by end of the album they’ve combed out that shit and we’re left with a thick and bushy, but lustrous, bear mane. (Had to do it.)

Various Artists, Chicas: Spanish Female Singles 1962-1974 (Vampisoul/Munster)

Female “ye-ye,” that’s what they called this wild mix of Latin music, rock and roll, soul, garage-pop, R&B and beat music in Spain. This 24-track compendium of singles provides an array of rather strange offerings, as it runs the gamut from regional specialties to pop music covers, done “en espanol,” of well know hits of the commercial Spanish music scene. There’s the forceful and emphatic Pili Y Mili who give us a fresh take on “Money,” with “Un Chico Moderno.” Los Stop delivers the goods on a very poppy cover of “Reach Out,” entitled, “Extiende Tus Brazos.” Sonia packs a wallop on “Get Off My Cloud” as “Aqui En Mi Nube.” There are two artists with similar names (Marisol and Marisel), the former sings in English on a track entitled, “Johnny”; and there’s an oddball group called Los Hippy-Loyas. Marta Baizan covers “See You In September” as “Tu Vere En Septiembre”, in a mostly straightforward fashion. Regardless of how we might receive some of this now, these women were all bold breakthrough artists in what was, at the time, a still dicey post-Franco Spain, and they blazed a trail for everyone who has come through since. Munster just keeps on cranking them out. Well worth the little bit of time and money it will take to find a copy online somewhere. Comes with a 36-page booklet and extensive liner notes, with nice pics and artwork.

Dark Angels Revealed by Angela Grace (Fair Winds Press) 239 pages

The alternate title for this book, which appears on the back cover, is The Ultimate Fan Guide To Dark Angels, but it’s also a good introduction for the newcomer to the realm of the Dark Angel/Vampire-cult. It’s divided into five chapters (Dark Romantics, Dark Rulers, Dark Rogues, Dark Guardians, Darkest of the Dark) with a total of thirty-four entries that cover movies, television and novels, and the greater historical context within which each operates. They’re pretty much all here, from Vlad Dracula and Count Orlock to Lestat and Edward Cullen; there’s also Blade, Angel, Selene, Hellboy, Spike, Asher and Eric Draven, and so on. Each entry provides some additional backstory on the character that can be helpful in framing her/him within the larger Vampire culture. Grace’s grasp of the hold that culture now has on Generation Y is significant. She is clearly a fan herself and that comes through as she explains the cunning and bloodlust and death-obsession that goes along with it all. Oversized trade paperback, with nice artwork, and a moisture-resistant cover, so it’ll work well in the bathroom as good, quick toilet- reading material. Ironically fitting, in some way, but not meant as an insult in any way. Bleed on.