Willy Mason, Mary Gauthier, Mirah, Shout Out Louds, Faith Evans, Ermehn, Rob da Bank, Saint Etienne, Bizarre, Pernice Brothers, Dirtbombs, Gorillaz

Willy Mason, “Where the Humans Eat” (Virgin) – 3/5

Nineteen year old singer/songwriter Willy Mason’s gruff voice belies his youth. ‘Where Humans Eat’ is comprised of bleak tunes and simple guitar figures drawing on country, blues and folk influences. His quiet voice and rounded, slightly nasal vowels are reminiscent of Leonard Cohen, while bluesy opener ‘Gotta Keep Movin’ echoes early Bob Dylan. Although Mason is clearly conscious of these canonical influences, he brings his stylistic bag of tricks to bear contemporary themes relevant to his own post-modern malaise. On ‘Oxygen’, for example: ‘I wanna speak louder than Ritalin/For all the kids who think they’ve got a disease’.

Mary Gauthier, “Mercy Now” (UMG/Lost Highway) – 3/5

The way Texan Mary Gauthier populates her simple narratives with hardworkin’ poor folk leading desperate, deadbeat lives, she could almost be a female John Prine. Her plainly poetic lyrics and jaded voice are unquestionably the focus of this album. (The CD booklet on which her lyrics printed amounts to a small novel). Musically, ‘Mercy Now’ is straightforward country, with fingerpicking, banjo, lap steel, Hammond and simple percussion complementing her grave, soft drawl. Her well chosen cover of Harlan Howard’s ‘Just Say She’s a Rhymer’ works well, as it’s a little less lyrically self conscious than some of her own material.

Mirah, “C’mon Miracle” (K/Peeping Tom) – 4/5

Hailing from Olympia, WA, Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn has released several folky, lo-fi albums over the last five years on Calvin Johnston’s (Beat Happening) legendary K label. Given her idiosyncratic, stark songwriting and indie sensibility, it’s perhaps not surprisingly that she has earned many comparisons with Cat Power over the years (including one on the cover sticker of this CD). However Mirah’s work is generally more accessible, and far less precious, than Cat Power’s. This has never been more true than on the mature, relatively conventional ‘C’mon Miracle’. Once again, Mirah’s songs are excellent, her voice sounds great. But what sets this album apart is the production which, though often subtle, is incredibly sensitive to the music, and sets a benchmark for indie singer/songwriter-type albums. Small, inventive touches like the intimate, doubled vocals on ‘We’re Both So Sorry’, the raw distorted drums and swirling guitars on ‘Look Up!’, the Latin breakdown in the catchy ‘Don’t Die In Me’, and the autoharp and strings on ‘Exactly Where We’re From’, add extra layers of interest and eclecticism to already strong songs, while never getting in the way. If you’re after a female singer-songwriter with a dose of indie cred, Mirah could well be your woman.

Shout Out Louds, “Howl Howl Gaff Gaff” (Capitol/EMI) – 3/5

Sweden has a weird knack for producing market-ready pop stars every few years, in the genre of the moment. Thankfully, the Shout Out Louds are more akin to the Cardigans or the Hives than Abba or Roxette. Their debut album ‘Howl Howl Gaff Gaff’ is replete with immaculate, energetic Strokes-ish pop songs. Take infectious opener ‘The Comeback’ for example, with its world-weary vocals, and chugging backbeat. Much of the album (‘Please Please Please’, ‘Shut Your Eyes’) follows the same formula. Squeaky clean and radio friendly with a light sprinkling of teenage malaise, but nothing too dark – I believe they call this indie pop.

Faith Evans, “The First Lady” (Capitol/EMI) – 3/5

The First Lady of R&B? With a recording career dating back to the mid-nineties, Notorious B.I.G.’s former missus Faith Evans probably has as good a claim to the title as any. In any case, Evans’ has a staunch, seductive voice and talent to burn. ‘The First Lady’ is full of mid-tempo grooves and contemporary R&B themes – hitting the town with the girlfriends (‘Goin’ Out’, featuring Pharrell), overcoming adversity (‘If I Had To Do It All Again’, ‘Hope’ featuring Twista), and so on. There’s also a definite reverence for classic R&B forms, from the jazzy piano samples on ‘Get Over You’, to the deconstructed James Brown break on ‘Mesmerized’.

Ermehn, “The Path of Blood” (Sony BMG) – 4/5

Local hiphop has been riding high on a wave of media and major label hype for a few years now, and, as one of the original artists on the scene (his debut ‘Samoans Part 2’ was released back in 1998), it’s great to see Ermehn (re-)enter the fray with this excellent release. Billed as ‘Aotearoa’s first gangsta hiphop album’, critics may accuse the South Auckland ghetto aesthetic of being derivative, but the glock’n’hibiscus graphics are more than just a visual device. This is a gritty urban album, and one which could not have been made anywhere but South Auckland – from the shout-outs to the usos, to the tales of P dealing, to the Once Were Warriors, Mark II, and Tina Cross samples. That said, most of the album indeed recalls classic US gangsta rap. The smoky piano hook on opener ‘Bank Job’ has got Wu written all over it, and with only a few exceptions (the Outkast-esque raps on ‘Free Fallen’, the soulful ‘Silver and Gold’ featuring Cydel, and the teary ‘Mama’s Way’), most of the album is pretty balls-out macho stuff. Mareko and Tha Feelstyle both make appearances, but the best guest verses come courtesy of relative newcomers Tuface and Mr Sick. An important release.

Rob da Bank, “Sunday Best” (Sunday Best) – 3/5

In the world of dance music, the word ‘Sunday’ signifies coming down – cue major relaxation and positive soulful vibes. With this in mind, BBC Radio 1 DJ Rob da Bank established the Sunday Best label, releasing work from an impressive roster of artists, including Lemon Jelly, Grand National, and Max Sedgley. This unmixed double CD combines fifteen tracks from the label’s eight year history (disc two) with an eclectic selection of tracks which have provided inspiration (disc one). The ‘inspired by’ disc is most interesting, running the gamut from eurodisco, to old-school Northern soul, reggae, and lounge. An idiosyncratic potted history of feel-good dance music.

Saint Etienne, “Tales from Turnpike House” (Sanctuary/Sony BMG) – 2/5

While ostensibly part of the late eighties/early nineties British house scene (the legendary Andy Weatherall brilliantly remixed their cover of Neil Young’s ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’), in their over-riding concern with visual image, and affected ‘council estate-chic’, Saint Etienne also anticipated a couple of the more irritating characteristics of the mid nineties britpop explosion. The band has recorded sporadically since their heyday, and ‘Tales from Turnpike House’ sees them sticking to tried-and-true formulas: the sultry Sarah Cracknell sings cute, literate pop songs over gentle beats and dreamy, uplifting orchestration. By no means groundbreaking stuff, but nice enough.

Bizarre, “Hannicap Circus” (Sanctuary Urban/Sony BMG) – 3/5

Self-described ‘fat, shower-cap wearin’, nipple-rubbin’ son-of-a-bitch’ Bizarre is an original member of Eminem’s hiphop band D12. Much of ‘Hannicap Circus’, his first solo LP, is calculated to amuse the headz by offending the straights (sample track title: ‘Porno Bitches’). In that sense, it’s a kind of comedy record in the vein of RZA’s Bobby Digital albums. The material is patchy, however – it feels sometimes that music was a secondary consideration to the ‘crazy thug’ skits and raps about hoes, weed, and pills. Nevertheless, there are a couple of highlights, especially funky, rolling lifestyle anthem (and Eminem guest spot) ‘Hip Hop’.

Pernice Brothers, “Discover a Lovelier You” (Ashmont/Spunk) – 3/5

The Pernice Brothers continue to move further and further from their alt.country roots, and forge a career producing highly crafted sixties-influenced pop. The reverence shown on ‘Discover a Lovelier You’ for the canon of respectable pop (Spector, Wilson, et al) will make it highly appealing to Uncut readers. A bit self-conscious, maybe, but near faultless. And behind the accomplished song-writing, playing, and arrangements, is a gentle, slightly black humour. As much as their sound and sensibility recalls The Shins or The Flaming Lips, in singing of the romance of poverty on ‘Sell Your Hair’, they could almost be an American Belle and Sebastian.

The Dirtbombs, “If You Don’t Already Have A Look” (In the Red/Shock) – 4/5

Dirtbombs front man Mick Collins is a Detroit garage rock legend and was a major inspiration for the young Jack White. This enormous (fifty-two tracks!) double CD is both a best of and a collection of rare 7″ singles. As you’d expect, the sound quality is pretty variable, but that’s a bonus with this wilfully lo-fi, up-tempo, soul-inflected rock. Nuggets/Back from the Grave-era garage rock is an obvious inspiration, as is eighties hardcore. On the second disc, Collins and Co put their primal stamp on covers from an astonishingly eclectic range of artists, including Flipper, Ohio Players, Stevie Wonder, Elliot Smith, ESG, and Soft Cell. Highly recommended.

Gorillaz, “Demon Days” (Parlophone/EMI) – 4/5

A strong second album from Gorillaz, who – with the departure of Dan the Automator and Del Tha Funkee Homosapien – have become more Damon Albarn’s baby and less a proper ‘band’ since their self-titled 2001 debut. Nevertheless, Albarn has once again assembled an impressive array of collaborators, including Neneh Cherry, Shaun Ryder, and Denis Hopper. Original graphic Gorilla Jamie Hewlett (Tank Girl) makes a welcome return, contributing music videos and an album-cover illustration for every track. Production on ‘Demon Days’ comes courtesy of Danger Mouse, he of Beatles/Jay-Z mash-up ‘Grey Album’ fame. The juxtaposition of Albarn’s Britpop songwriting and hiphop production still remains at the heart of the Gorillaz project. Current single ‘Feel Good Inc’ is an unlikely-sounding but brilliantly infectious combination of verses from De La Soul and a Bealtesy chorus, held together with eighties electrofunk synth stabs and an irresistible dubby hiphop bassline. Other highlights include the handclappin’ funk of ‘Dirty Harry’ (perhaps an oblique reprise of ‘Clint Eastwood’ off their debut?), the lilting ‘Kids with Guns’, and Roots Manuva guest spot ‘All Alone’. Albarn may take himself a little too seriously at times, but this is still some of the most innovative and eclectic pop music being produced today.

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