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Noise in review

Our critics’ picks of the litter



Distributionally obscure ( but sonically super-accessible, Michael Haaga’s theplusandminusshow (ieo! records) might be the best unabashedly unhyphenated rock record you never heard this year. This is the kind of stuff FM radio was made for—dynamic, layered, anthemic and highly rewarding of volume—but can’t seem to find the time for. Maybe that’s because radio’s all about disposable singles, and Haaga has actually, almost anachronistically, crafted an Album Oriented Rock-age album that tracks front to back like a singular piece of work. (BT)

Mission of Burma’s On Off On (Matador) is the best reunion album ever, delivering in spades and topping my personal list. Sonic thud and mangled pop make a lethal concoction with this storied outfit of Boston fortysomethings. This is where post-punk thrives. (BR)

Sadly, there’s never going to be another Neutral Milk Hotel record, but fans of that Elephant 6 sound—dreamy, moody, poppy and above all homespun-folksy—should rejoice in the reissue of Black Foliage (Cloud Recordings), a long out-of-print 1996 record from NMH cohorts Olivia Tremor Control that grows on you like fungus. Julian Koester, who also plays the musical saw on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, contributes more ghostly wails here. A pre-Apples (in Stereo) Robert Schneider sings and plays guitar, and ol’ Jeff Mangum himself graces a few tracks with melodica, vocals and suitably woodsy selections from his library of found sounds. It’s neat how a record that predates so much great music by its alumni feels like a reunion now. (AS)

The first 10 seconds of Leviathan (Relapse) is pretty much all you need to hear for Mastodon to become your new favorite metal band: “Iron Tusk” goes off like an M-80 in a holiday punchbowl, and it just gets crazier from there. There’s a little bit of everything on Leviathan: Voivod-style thrash, mutant Southern rock, Viking mysticism and the clarion call of vintage Iron Maiden. Not to mention metal chops that put would-be usurpers to the sword. Far from being a dog’s breakfast of eclecticism for its own sake, though, the songs on Leviathan are seamless, sweeping in scale, rich in dynamics and played with admirable swagger. If only more metal bands would, you know, think outside the box. (AS)

Richard Buckner whips up an odds-and-ends of brilliant Americana on Dents and Shells (Merge), lonely and sullen but dipped in hope. The sonic equivalent of the big hug we’ve all been needing. (BR)

“My new stuff is nothing like my old stuff was,” sings Todd Snider on the opening track of East Nashville Skyline (Oh Boy). It’s especially true in the sense that Snider’s live electricity has always landed with a dull thud in the studio—up until now, that is. For those who think folk singer plus social commentary equals trite, Snider is the ultimate elixir. He’s also an equal-opportunity offender; on “Conservative Christian, Right Wing Republican, Straight, White, American Males,” Snider takes shots not just at the title characters, but also at “tree-huggin’, peace-lovin’, pot-smokin’, porn-watchin,’ folk-singin’ hippies like me.” Fun stuff. (MKF)

Who are Les Sans-Culottes? Only the most adorable band since Shonen Knife! They sing in English and French (often in the same song), they have cool throwback rock names like Mars Chevrolet and Kit Kat Le Noir, and they coo sweet nothings like “my little cabbage” at each other on “Allô Allô,” which is hands-down the cleverest slice of Francophone pop since the Plastic Bertrand’s “Ça Plane Pour Moi.” Bare-bones simple and catchy as all get out, Fixation Orale (Aeronaut) is almost enough to make you forget most of what passes for pop in France. (AS)

Alchemy mixed with detuned guitars comes up pure gold on Old Time Relijun’s Lost Light (K Records). Hearing the epic “Cold Water” is like going to church on acid. Highly recommended for people who hear stories in trees, water and wind. (BR)

The Lights have got that sexy clang: taut, brittle post-punk with verve to burn and a slew of pointedly catchy anthems. “We Are the Victims of the Pleasures of the Sense of Hearing” is just too cool, ditto “I’m a Dangerous Snake,” with its headrush bridge and tinny Ian Curtis vocal: “I’m not the man who hands out the crying list/I’m a young man/with the hopes and dreams of a young man/in this so-called scene.” They owe a certain debt to Pavement (and also share a coincidental kinship with the Kent 3, an earlier Seattle trio with a similarly paranoid mod sound), but Beautiful Bird (Bop Tart) is still pure Lights. (AS)

The parts are greater than the whole on Tres Chicas’ Sweetwater (Yep Rock). Those parts—and they’re individually formidable—are vocalists Caitlin Cary, Lynn Blakey and Tonya Lamm, each with worthy bands stacking their respective resumés. Together on this group debut they sound uncannily woven of the same cloth, whether they’re romping through covers of tunes by George Jones, Loretta Lynn and Lucinda Williams or harmonizing seven substantive originals into the mix. “About the prettiest thing you’re likely to hear this year,” we wrote in August, and the prediction stands that test of time at least. (BT)

If someone ever made a movie about the Golden Age of Jay’s Upstairs, Greasy Retrospective (Wäntage USA) would have to be the soundtrack. A long-overdue roundup of early singles and studio outtakes with a dollop of new stuff on top, Greasy captures the Fireballs of Freedom at what a lot of old farts, myself included, feel is the top of their pre-Portland game. This is vintage Missoula ’Balls, right on the cusp between the funk era (when they were still going by Honky Sausage) and their first album-length assaults on the legacy of the MC5. “The Dart Song” demands a place on any top-five list of Missoula party anthems, and the only way to listen to it is at maximum volume. (AS)

Deep from the heavy underground comes Dove’s self-titled, self-released album, drenched in Melvins and Cannibal Corpse by way of Florida. It delivers one slow pounding after another. I hereby declare them to be the future of metal. (BR)

People say that Australia has yet to produce a really great band in the wake of AC/DC. Some of those same people say Augie March could be that band, but also that the Melbourne five-piece might not be fully understood or appreciated in its proper context for another 10 or 20 years. Strange Bird (spinART) is a pretty good place to get started with these weighty issues. Songs like “The Vineyard” stick with you from the first listen and deepen with every successive listen; darker efforts like “There’s Something at the Bottom of the Black Pool” touch the same campus of vague dread in the brain as the drawings of Edward Gorey. Endearingly weird and weirdly endearing. (AS)

1,001 alt-country rock bands have put albums out this year, and none of them will ever be as good as Wilco’s A.M. Cub Country is obviously aware of the saturation, given that they include an anonymous voicemail after the last track of Stay Poor/Stay Happy (Future Farmer) in which a friend of the band complains about their music being played in Urban Outfitters. White-noise factor notwithstanding, former Jets to Brazil bassist Jeremy Chatelain and his crew dust off an old formula and breathe emotion and intensity into it. For those about to (alt-country) rock, we salute you. (MKF)

What I like about Franz Ferdinand is that they’ve sneakily made “edgy” guitar rock danceable again for the working man. These Scottish cats work the fruitiest ’80s hi-hat backbeats and dancefloor come-ons with wild abandon and a refreshing lack of diffidence. Franz Ferdinand are one cocky bunch; the last Scottish band, I think, to pound on the door to the big-time with half as much conviction was Big Country. Their eponymous debut (for Sony) is a mix of sardonic wit, dueling guitar jangle and songs you just can’t say no to. I tried. Believe me, I tried. (AS)

Eccentricity and religion go hand in hand on Brother Danielson’s Brother Is to Son (Secretly Canadian), a lovely acoustic family affair. Danielson, aka Daniel Smith, will have a place in both folk and folklore if he keeps putting out gems like this one. (BR)

Former Talking Heads leader David Byrne has truly evolved from bizarro pop songwriter into a skilled composer. Actually, he wears both hats on Grown Backwards (Nonesuch), and neither his old pop shtick nor his newfound affinity for orchestral and choral arrangement loses its luster during this gem’s 15 tracks. Some have suggested that Backwards isn’t as “on the edge” as the Talking Heads were; true, but Byrne has also never written songs as personal as these in his career. Juxtaposing jigsaw-puzzle lyrics with the music’s sonic steam bath, Grown Backwards is like your stereo leading you on a tour through a modern art museum. (MKF)

Just when you thought Guns N’ Roses was gone, a whole new version for American mothers to hate pops up, and since no one seems sure if Axl Rose’s epic project Chinese Democracy even exists, Velvet Revolver’s Contraband (RCA) is probably about as close to a GnR album as we’re going to see for some time. Big dirty lead riffs, Slash solos sliding all over the neck, gratuitous profanity standing nakedly alone outside of either verse or chorus—it’s all there. Slash and Duff are joined by former Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland in a rock and roll supergroup that for once actually lives up to the billing. (MKF)

Reviews by Mike Keefe-Feldman, Bryan Ramirez, Andy Smetanka and Brad Tyer.

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