Capsule Reviews: March 2013, Part 1

Here’s another in my occasional series of capsule reviews; once again I had a huge stack of CDs deserving of review, but time doesn’t allow for full-length reviews of everything, and these were in danger of gathering dust. They deserve better. My self-imposed limit for this particular exercise is 150 words on each album.

Deni Bonet – It’s All Good
Typically, I’m not drawn to folky female fiddlers. That’s what I wrongly assumed Deni Bonet was; her music’s much harder to pin down than that. Sure, her violin playing is up front, but her tunes are exuberant, highly catchy pop songs. Imagine Nurds-era Roches with an even more playful side, and a more rock-centric approach. It certainly helps that Bonet is aided in her musical goals by co-writer (on some tracks) and producer Richard Barone, a legendary talent in his own right. Bonet has a clear, appealing voice, and her songs stick in your mind long after the CD’s done spinning. Steve Holley (of late-period Wings) plays drums on several tracks, and Bonet’s violin often serves the sonic role normally assigned to electric guitar. And when there is lead guitar, Bonet’s fiddle engages in lively sparring. REM‘s Peter Buck lends massive guitar overdubbage support on “Safety Date.” Fun stuff.

Thorcraft Cobra – Count It In
The first few seconds of the opening track are a red herring: Autotune/Vocoder-treated vocals chirp “You can count me out,” and for a second, I shared that sentiment. But then a muffled laugh gave way to a power-chording rocker much more in tune with my musical sensibilities. Taking a page from such his-n-her acts as Captain and Tennille and Sonny & Cher (okay, not really), Thorcraft Cobra‘s Billy Zimmer (guitar) and Tammy Glover (drums; both sing) actually have little in common with those acts. Nor, thank goodness, are they yet another White Stripes retread. Instead they ply their trade in the punky powerpop end of the pool, and enlist help from kindred spirits Steve McDonald (of punky powerpop legends Redd Kross) and Russ Mael of those prototypical bent art rockers, Sparks. The augmented duo amps things up to Cheap Trick levels, with a sly wit recalling Fountains of Wayne.

Backhouse Lily – Discoma
When the drum-n-bass subgenre came on the scene in the 90s, I didn’t pay much attention. It didn’t move me. But clearly some very interesting things can be done with a rhythm section if the players are good enough, and if the inspiration is there. Back in the 90s Ben Folds Five‘s Robert Sledge showed that electric bass could credibly be used as a lead instrument without being overly gimmicky. But Backhouse Lily turns both of those aforementioned concepts on their heads: yes, they’re drum-n-bass, but their approach is a sort of instrumental progressive rock, not miles away from Russian Circles but with a much more commercial flavor. Like the work of no wave auteur Glenn Branca, Backhouse Lily’s music often suggests the presence of instruments that simply aren’t there. What is there is bass-led music that’s a helluva lot more fun (and miles smarter) than, say, Primus. Highly recommended.

Secret Friend – Time Machine
Australia has an uncanny knack for turning out some of the sunniest, catchiest, friendly (but not lightweight) pop music. Sure, it’s a really big country, and generalizations are hard to make, but there’s no way to explain away the finely-wrought and seemingly effortless kind of music that Secret Friend presents on this album. Reminiscent in places of The Milk and Honey Band, Secret Friend (Steven Fox and Linus of Hollywood plus assorted friends) crafts breezy songs that are impossibly appealing. Keen listeners will hear all sorts of influences, as the songs aren’t all built around a fixed set of instruments, but Fox doesn’t lean too much in any one direction. The result is a sound that’s all his own. Sometimes vocalist Willie Wisely sounds a bit like Justin Hayward fronting, say, Haircut 100. His female foil is the honey-voiced Kelly Jones. Time Machine is MUST-hear for fans of infectious pop.

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