Mobius Band: Friendly Fire

mobius360bIt’s difficult to imagine Mobius Band’s primary songwriters—multi-instrumentalists/vocalists Peter Sax and Ben Sterling—ever being pissed off about anything. At least not to the point where they’d punch someone or run out of a room screaming; that’d just be weird coming from two soft-spoken, small-town Massachusetts boys.

The last couple years, however, have seriously tested their temperament. On the eve of the trio’s first tour in 2005, drummer Noam Schatz temporarily left the band due to the sudden death of his father. (Sax and Sterling soldiered on with an iPod drummer until Schatz’s return 10 days later.) Meanwhile, Sax had been struggling to make it in Brooklyn, working as a temp. For his part, Sterling endured a painful break-up sparked by a close friend sleeping with his girlfriend. As Sterling puts it plainly, “A domino effect was happening, for sure.”

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WARM IN THE WAKE: American Prehistoric [Live Wire]

Despite the presence of searing hot stars, violent meteoric collisions and assorted NASA jetsam, outer space is primarily composed of a whole bunch of nothing. Not much happens. When it does, though, the action is breathtaking. By describing itself as “cosmic,” Warm In The Wake is being far more literal than it probably realizes. Much of the Atlanta quartet’s debut drifts along in a pleasant AM-radio daze until a startling piece of instrumentation punctuates the emptiness like a falling star. On “Joseph Campbell,” whirring, squealing synths flare up against a lush bed of jangling guitar. On the Sea And Cake-styled “Airport Girl” and “Dark Gypsy Moth,” a jazzy piano streaks beneath Christopher Rowell’s soft-as-a-pillow vo-cals. Prominent drums and a whisper of guitar lead off “Reelin’” with a beat lifted from U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” It’s as if Brian Eno suddenly started knob-twiddling for an unknown Southern band’s porch jam. Perhaps because much of American Prehistoric was recorded live, these instrumental accents never disrupt the flow of the song. That promise of excitement is what makes the spaced-out stretches of this LP worth contemplating for hours on end. [www.livewirerecordings.net]

—Tizzy Asher

Animal Collective: The Theory Of Evolution

animalcollective360bThe members of Animal Collective have always been a mischievous, shape-shifting medium for primal psychedelic pop and weird-science sonics. Can they survive growing up, playing straight and turning pro? By Stuart Berman

When you talk to Animal Collective, certain words keep coming up: “natural,” “energy,” “feel” and the band’s preferred term of endearment, “dude.” The words are consistent with the image Dave Portner, Noah Lennox, Brian Weitz and Josh Dibb put across in their publicity photos: lots of trees, lots of greenery and, when the mood strikes them, bunny suits.

But these days, a conversation with Animal Collective is just as likely to include words such as “balance,” “focus” and “professionalism.”

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EARLIMART: Mentor Tormentor [Majordomo]

Long saddled with expectations of becoming L.A.’s next big export, Aaron Espinoza and Co. have earned plenty of acclaim, most notably with 2004’s lush, Elliott Smith-dedicated Treble & Tremble. But so far, Earlimart hasn’t lived up to its considerable promise or delivered an album filled end-to-end with great songs instead of five terrific tracks and a remainder of tasteful, often unmemorable guitar pop. Three years and a new label later, the 15-track Mentor Tormentor may be Earlimart’s best album. But it still falls short of greatness, hamstrung by songwriting and production moves that have clearly become the band’s comfort zone. Not that this is always a bad thing. “Answers And Ques-tions” hits every note in the Earlimart playbook: Soaring synth washes, airy electronics-dusted production and Espinoza’s sighing vocals carry a chorus as broad and beautiful as a sunset. But unexpected moments—keyboardist Ariana Murray’s Aimee Mann-esque turn on “Happy Alone,” Espinoza snarling through the fuzzed-out “Everybody Knows Everybody” and the choir and handclaps backing “Cold Cold Heaven”—overshadow the rest of the album with an energy Earlimart seems so maddeningly reluctant to tap. Such flashes feel like opening a window in a stuffy room, only to slam it shut. [www.majordomorecords.com]

—Chris Barton

MEKONS: Natural [Quarterstick]

After 30 years, the Mekons really are the last gang in town. Although only Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh remain from the lineup that recorded debut single “Never Been In A Riot” in 1977, most of the current Mekons have been together since the proto-alt-country revelations of 1985’s Fear & Whiskey. Every few years, they round themselves up from their solo careers and side projects that are no longer peripheral to throw another bottle of devilish potions into the world’s ocean. Natural, their first collection of new songs since 2002’s OOOH!, is a mostly acoustic affair, with Susie Honeyman’s mournful fiddle threading throughout. It’s full of loose sing-alongs, drunken chants and spooky ballads; of apocalypse, cynicism and Satanism; of a jaded worldview that joyfully sees everything as—in the words of the opening track—“Dark Dark Dark.” “Ignore the human sacrifice,” sings Greenhalgh on “Burning In The Desert Burning,” a song about suicide bombers. “You have to believe this is the end,” sings Sally Timms on “Cockermouth,” a reggae-flavored ditty that’s full of a zest for life. We may be going to hell, but with the Mekons to guide us, we’ll enjoy the ride. [www.quarterstickrecords.com]

—Steve Klinge

THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS: Challengers [Matador]

For the New Pornographers, 2005’s Twin Cinema marked a period of significant transition. Not only were the band’s hyper-pop blitzes tempered with more sobering balladry and expansive, prog-informed set pieces, but the promotion of touring keyboardist Kathryn Calder to co-vocalist suggested that ringleader Carl Newman was no longer willing to work around the ever-busy schedule of star chanteuse Neko Case. (To say nothing of wild-card contributor Dan “Destroyer” Bejar, who’s also running on borrowed time.) So it’s with considerable relief that all the original Pornographers appear in their usual proportions on Challengers, underscoring their commitment to a cause that, four albums in, shows no signs of flagging. Where Twin Cinema featured a sometimes abrupt trade-off between upbeat and downcast, Challengers feels more comfortable with the act of taking it easy. Unlike the hard-charging openers of albums past, Challengers begins with the beatific “My Rights Versus Yours,” whose ascending, melancholic melody is left unadorned until the second chorus, when the drums kick in to trigger a gentle, piano-pounded gallop to the finish line. The song sets the album’s pleasingly patient tone. While longtime fans may lament the paucity of instamatic anthems, “All The Old Showstoppers” and “Unguided” reveal their charms with each new verse. And really, we end up just where we did seven years ago, with a rousing, Bejar-penned finale. But where Mass Romantic’s “Breaking The Law” demanded the keys to the kingdom, Challengers’ “The Spirit Of Giving” finds the Pornos on the inside, victorious and sitting pretty. [www.matadorrecords.com]

—Stuart Berman

Shout Out Louds: Everyday Art

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Anyone hiring Adam Olenius for his graphic-design skills has certainly picked the right man for the job. “If I do something, I have to do it 100 percent, and when I put my mind to design, I want to do it really well,” says the Stockholm-based art-school graduate, who’s conceived splashy prints for nightclubs, art galleries and fellow musicians like Stina Nordenstam. Not to mention, of course, all the T-shirts, tour posters and CD-booklet work for his peppy alt-pop combo Shout Out Louds, which initially started as a mere side project to the singer/guitarist’s art career. “I’m not a painter, per se,” says Olenius. “I’m more into cutting and pasting; I combine everything in collage.”

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Emma Pollock Makes MAGNET A Mix Tape

emmamix330As a founding member of the Delgados, singer/guitarist Emma Pollock used her soaring voice and intricate songwriting to place the Glasgow band beside Belle And Sebastian at the forefront of Scottish pop. Through their Chemikal Under-ground label, the Delgados launched Mogwai, Arab Strap and Bis. On solo debut Watch The Fireworks (4AD), Pollock’s sincere, searching lyrics and aching melodies remain the focus.

IAN MENZIES & HIS CLYDE VALLEY STOMPERS “Salty Dog” (1959)
My dad was a jazz clarinet and saxophone player. He used to play this song quite a bit, and it was one of my mom’s favorite tracks. The Stompers are from Clyde Valley, which is just outside Glasgow in the country, and this is just a great trad-jazz song that I used to dance around to. I have early memories of it being my favorite song when I was seven or eight. The vocalist is Fionna Duncan, and she’s got a really raucous voice.

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The Mendoza Line: The Break-Up

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A romantic split marks the end of the Mendoza Line, whose bookish folk rock and bittersweet pop was the sound of a band made to be heartbroken. By Phil Sheridan

What Socrates failed to mention when he pronounced the unexamined life as not worth living is that the alternative is no day at the Acropolis, either. The examined life is hard, and the overexamined life can be a real sonofabitch. It’s also the source for most of the great literature, music and drama human beings create.

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