Music: The Year in Your Ear

A look back at the best locally-spawned CD releases of 2006

 
IsWhat?! — The Life We Chose



· ISWHAT?! — THE LIFE WE CHOSE
IsWhat?! has been one of the more interesting acts in the region since forming 10 years ago, with their strong, poetic blend of Jazz and Hip Hop rhythms and brilliant, sharp lyricism. Those elements and more came together perfectly on The Life We Chose, their first new album for Hyena Records and their finest, most diverse and dynamic yet. With cuts featuring live drumming from noted skinsman Hamid Drake; DJ scratching from Casual T of the local turntable crew Animal Crackers; Electronica precision from NYC duo Ming + FS; more traditional Hip Hop tracks with contributions from a wide range of guest MCs; and tracks featuring New York jazzbos like Roy Campbell, Lewis Barnes and Claire Daly, The Life We Chose challenges and often shatters every preconceived notion you've ever had about what IsWhat?! is. The Life We Chose was the most creative Hip Hop album of the year, local or otherwise. (Mike Breen)

· PEARLENE — FOR WESTERN VIOLENCE AND BRIEF SENSUALITY
For Western Violence and Brief Sensuality is bluesy rockers Pearlene's most cohesive, melodic and powerful effort to date. While the energy and soul is still turned up to 11, the new album tightens the focus of Pearlene's vision by being less ramshackle and more powerhouse. It's also fascinatingly multi-dimensional. With its mix of rowdy barnburners and soulful anthems, For Western Violence brings all of Pearlene's hinted-at potential front and center, stripping away some of the "garage band" scruffiness to reveal a unit with endless staying power.

If you're bored with the same-old-same Rock & Roll of today, this album will restore your faith. (MB)

· HEARTLESS BASTARDS — ALL THIS TIME
The Heartless Bastards' 2005 debut, Stairs and Elevators, was a marvel on a number of levels. On their sophomore album, All This Time, the Bastards have managed the near-impossible task of duplicating the shiny surprise of their debut by presenting a completely different rendering of their Blues influences. After the release of Stairs and Elevators, singer Erika Wennerstrom claimed that the Bastards were just as swayed by Classic Rock as the Blues, and the ironclad proof of that statement courses through every note of All This Time. Just as Led Zep (and much of the mid-'60s British Blues Rock movement) turned their first-generation Blues influences into Hard Rock energy, the Bastards transform their foundational Delta Blues odes into melody-charged Rock anthems. The Bastards vanquished the dreaded sophomore slump while advancing their creative evolution a light year or two in the process. (Brian Baker)

· THE MINOR LEAGUES — THE PESTILENCE IS COMING
The Pestilence Is Coming is a mind-blowing "concept" album featuring 15 tracks of the group's incredibly refined, impossibly catchy Indie Pop. The album is a jubilant, dizzying collection, highlighted by colorful, kaleidoscopic melodies that just seem to pour out of singer Ben Walpole effortlessly. Exquisitely arranged and sublimely orchestral, Walpole's songs are padded with layers of unique ornamental extras (xylophone, Peruvian pipes, glockenspiel, accordion, etc.), but none of it is extraneous. Walpole is a sharp, imaginative writer (reading the lyric sheet is almost as fun as listening to the songs), telling character stories and touching on everything from politics and class to isolation and love. It's nothing short of remarkable that this is a home-recorded project. The record is as crisp as any Indie album you'll hear, and the hooks are some of the best you'll find on any Pop/Rock album. Fans of undeniable melody-masters like Brian Wilson, The Kinks, Beulah, The Apples in Stereo and (old) Blur — you have a new favorite band. (MB)

· THE HIDERS — VALENTINE
Hovering in the Americana-sphere around artists from Neil Young and The Band to newer acts like Sparklehorse and The Thrills, Valentine is, in a word, mesmerizing. There is a natural hypnotic glaze to most of tracks, as the acoustic and electric guitars and the sweeping rhythms combine to create a billow of irresistible ethereality. There isn't a dud in the bunch here. The songs are full of drama and soul, possessing an imposing majesty and a vibe of sober sorrow that makes Valentine a perfect "shoulder to cry on" CD for anyone going through a soul-crushing breakup. With an album this amazing under their belts, there's no hiding for The Hiders anymore. (MB)

· KIM TAYLOR — I FEEL LIKE A FADING LIGHT
For Fading Light, it's again Kim Taylor's gauzy singing that is the most immediately grabbing element, her voice floating in the same hemisphere as smoky, emotive song merchants like Fiona Apple or Beth Orton, but with the liquidity and phrasing of a classic, creative Jazz chanteuse like Billie Holiday. On the eerie, fervid "Troubled Mind," Taylor shimmies in and out of the plodding rhythms like an old cabaret singer, while even on the relatively more straightforward songs, Taylor's voice is stirring, primarily thanks to the provocative, sensual songwriting. Over the course of Fading Light's 13 tracks, Taylor shows a more adventurous and versatile side than what was hinted at on her still-mesmeric 2002 debut, So Black, So Bright. Visceral, timeless and seductive, it's the kind of album you can get lost in, never caring if you ever find your way back out. (MB)

· BUFFALO KILLERS — BUFFALO KILLERS
Garage Rock fans of every stripe grieved the news that Thee Shams had called it a day after the 2005 release of their thunderous Sign the Line. In fact, the Cincinnati quintet wasn't breaking up so much as reconfiguring. Reconstituted, the threesome christened themselves Buffalo Killers and headed to the studio to create the slowburn fury of their eponymous debut. From the slinky, psychedelic Blues riff of "San Martine des Morelle" and the Stones-y slide lightning of "The Path Before Me," it's apparent that Buffalo Killers are working a slightly more sophisticated and yet still viscerally powerful angle on their debut. Although Sign the Line hinted at this direction last year, the trio is clearly re-energized, roaring through this lysergically-tinged set of Garage Blues nuggets like Cream and Crazy Horse channeling the spirit of the Standells at a basement séance. Buffalo Killers are the real raw deal. (BB)

· THE THIRTEENS — BAD APPLES
Bad Apples showcases The Thirteens' deft ability to balance on the thin tightrope between vintage Country and Rock & Roll, with vibrant performances and ear-grabbing, rousing and sometimes heartrending songwriting. Drummer Kendall Davis, guitarist P.G. Lewis and bassist Mike Gregory provide a spirited, flawless base, while Sam Nation (who sadly died in an automobile accident before the album was released) and Missy Teen volley vocals and harmonize with a loving telepathy. Nation's voice is impressively versatile, entertainingly shifting from a Rockabilly hiccup ("Send Me Back My Stuff") to a gutter-creepin' growl ("Good Boy") to a natural, soulful pine ("The Jumper"). Teen's airier voice makes for an intriguing dichotomy; her harmonies (as well as the creative counter melodies) take the album to another level. (MB)

· THE TURNBULL ACS — THE TURNBULL ACS
Capturing fantastic live performance on a recorded disc is often impossible, but in the Turnbulls' case, if a marginal loss of spontaneity is the downside, then the add-ins are the upside. What better way to complement the phantasmagoric storytelling of the Turnbulls' frontman Dan Mecher than with studio tweakage that channels creaking doors in guitar chords and bottom-of-the-well vocal stylings? One way or another, this band will get you. (Hannah Roberts)

· WOJO — BORDERLANDS
Wojo has gradually added members (this album is their first with keyboardist Luke Alquizola, a great addition to the band) and grown artistically with each passing year. Borderlands is the pinnacle, unquestionably their finest work yet and worthy of attention outside of their local fan base. The international Americana/AltCountry/Roots press should eat this shit up, and with good reason. Borderlands is soulful, poetic Roots Rock that is carefully, masterfully crafted and performed. (MB)

· HIEROPHANT — POPULAR ASTRONOMY
Flexibility and diversity are the keys to the success of Popular Astronomy, which pulls influence from the full spectrum of Rock & Roll and then stitches it all back together so they are barely recognizable. Most bands that do this either end up sounding like lost musical tourists or come up with something so far-reaching and esoteric it's alienating. Popular Astronomy is challenging but far from impenetrable; even with the multifaceted input from each member, a "Hierophant sound" is definitely achieved. It's a weird, almost otherworldly brand of Rock, but the "live" feel of the album gives it a captivating intimacy and the strong but slanted melodicism adds to the allure. (MB)

· GOOSE — LIVE IT UP, TURN IT GOOSE
The Goose is loose! The local four-piece completed and finally released its first album, Live It Up, Turn It Goose, in 2006. Fans of Jason Arbenz and Paul Cavins' work with Throneberry will be thrilled with Goose's similar knack for climbing, irresistible melodies and a classic, grounded, to-the-point Pop/Rock musical approach. The album was recorded by Cavins and he allows the songs to breathe naturally, without a trace of effects or other studio "fixes." But background vocals, engaging, crafty guitar work, piano and organ help create a full sound. Highlights include opener "Cannot Wrap Her Thoughts," which epitomizes Arbenz's strength as a brilliant melodic sculptor (he's one of the best songwriters this city has seen in the past 20 years), "Roosevelt Square," which has the sleepy, soulful organics of The Band, and the old Stones boogie of "Johnny Q. Fanfare." No nonsense and perfect. (MB)

· HI-TEK — HI-TEKNOLOGY 2: THE CHIP
In 2001, DJ/producer/MC Hi-Tek proved his worth as a "frontman" with his widely-acclaimed "solo" album, Hi-Teknology, which featured a bevy of special guests, including Common and Slum Village. He follows the top-loaded-guest-list tact with Teknology's sequel, Hi-Teknology2, though Tek inches a little further out this time by manning the mic more often. The cameo role in Hip Hop today often results in toss-off verses, but Tek (like the late J Dilla) brings something special out of his guests, as Q-Tip, Busta Rhymes, Talib Kweli, Jadakiss, The Game and most of the other guest MCs offer deep, crafty poetics on slots that are worthy of their own albums. While at its essence a DJ/producer album, Tek doesn't just show off his technical skills on Hi-Teknology2, he serves the song, crafting cuts that are loaded with Soul and R&B hooks, shadowed mostly by ethereal, twinkling backdrops that mix slinky Funk with spacious Hip Hop rhythms. (MB)

· CAMPFIRE CRUSH — LUNAR MOSS
Campfire Crush's debut album, Lunar Moss, has a distinct, upbeat sound mixed with quirky transitions, layered vocals and a coat of strangeness. No crunchy guitars (or guitars at all). A gravity-free, open-ended feel anchored by the rhythm section. An edgy Pink Floyd, a happy alien, a natural acid. The album was written collaboratively over two years but singer Dan McCabe jokes, "When the others aren't lookin', I like to infect it; I add things and get a little weirder." (C.A. MacConnell)

· THE STAPLETONS — SUPERSTAR REVOLUTION
The brothers Stapleton regrouped for Superstar Revolution, a highly tuneful, well-crafted collection of shit-kickers and the occasional soul-stirring ballad, including "Surrender" and "America," two of the finest songs the band has ever produced. The band's ace musicianship has never come through as strongly as it does on Superstar, which also comes closest to capturing the band's infectious live energy on tape. Organist/keysman Landen Summay makes his first appearance on a Stapletons album here and adds a vital layer to what is clearly the band's most fully realized album to date. (MB)

· FOR ALGERNON — REMEMBER WHY WE RAN
Jason Wells' previous releases have been isolated affairs, with the multi-instrumentalist recording most of the sounds himself. It was an approach reflected in for algernon's songs, which seethe melancholy and float on intimate atmospherics. In lieu of grand poetic statements, Wells tells a story on remember why of an up/down relationship through the characters' own words. It's a brilliant device, as the lyrics often sound like they could have been cobbled from actual conversations and arguments overheard through thin walls. The songs continue in Wells' low-key Indie Pop tradition, with wispy, emotional resonance. With this release, Wells has crafted a poignant, humble masterpiece that will haunt almost anyone who has experienced relationship woes and charm any Indie music fan who lives for honest, emotive songwriting. (MB)

· DAVID WOLFENBERGER — PORTRAIT OF NARCISSUS
Singer/songwriter David Wolfenberger's time out West seems to have seeped into his songwriting style. Portrait of Narcissus is a relatively more laid-back affair than his last album. Opening with the dusky, organ-dirging "Something's Gotta Give," the album trades on orange-sunset-against-purple-sky atmosphere, channeling usual suspects like The Band and Neil Young, also adding a little Eagles ease for flavoring. There's a joyous feeling of contentment on "Inconsolably Overjoyed," which is the authentic sound of either a man full-bore in love or someone on a double dose of Prozac, while "Vespa Girl," with its ping-ponging Wurlitzer and almost Brit Invasion-style melody, has a bubbly Pop vibe, sounding like Ron Sexsmith with a sugar buzz. Gorgeous and soulful, playful and deep, Portrait of Narcissus gives Wolfenberger another ace entry into his already dazzling discography. (MB)

· STAGGERING STATISTICS — ALL OF THIS AND MORE
Perhaps adopting the bunker mentality that many felt after Election Day 2004, Staggering Statistics holed up in the Greenhornes' practice space on that fateful day to record this, their second full-length disc, which finally came out in '06. Full of jagged, skeletal guitars, propulsive bass playing and the short lyrical sketches of lyricist Austin Brown, All Of This and More was released nationally on Shake It Records in June. Even without a political manifesto guiding their efforts, several tracks seemingly do touch on 2004's unsettling climate, clashing Brown's dreamy lyrical imagery with wry observations and impassioned cautionary tales. (Sean Rhiney)

· BLACKLIGHT BARBARIAN — BLACKLIGHT BARBARIAN
Blacklight Barbarian harkens back to the classic Hard Rock of the '70s, when guitar riffs stood as important as any other element of songwriting. With an atomic mid-tempo stomp, eruptive, chunky guitar and open-ended song structures lending a component of Psychedelia, Blacklight Barbarian recalls the anvil-heavy thunder and distant Blues influence of Black Sabbath and Blue Cheer, as well as their newer-breed disciples like Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age. Some call it "Stoner Rock," but Blacklight's brand — while still impetuous and elastic — is more focused, less bleary-eyed than most. Blacklight's debut smokes with unfurled intensity, the vocals (handled by both bassist Chris Owens and guitarist Ryan Ferrier) seethe gritty, gutsy soufulness. Ferrier's guitar tone is rich with vintage, warm distortion, while Owens and drummer Scott Whisner have a mind-meld lock that makes them one of the tightest rhythms sections around. (MB)

· AMERICAN HARDCORE — NO APOLOGIES
This band's debut album last year was promising, but there seemed to be more emphasis on getting across their swaggering attitude instead of fully delivering in the music department. Whereas the debut felt somewhat retro, Apologies has a more contemporary feel that brings them closer to a Metal sound, thanks largely to the muscular singing of new frontman Brad Vance, the more vigorous drumming of fellow "new guy" Ryan Cady and the fantastic, anvil-heavy riffage of guitarist Jim Rodgers. Apologies is heavier and more diverse and the songwriting and performing are much more advanced and tighter this time around. With No Apologies, American Hardcore show they've figured it out and have all of the tools to take the band to the next level. (MB)

· ELLERY — LYING AWAKE
Taking tracks from their attention-grabbing local EP Make Your Troubles Mine, this local duo rounded out a full-length for Seattle indie Virt Records. A gorgeous recording, abetted by Ric Hordinski's magical production touch and some impressively well-developed songwriting, singer Tasha Golden has a stirring, delicately soulful voice that guides the listener through the album with a gentle yet assured hand, delivering the towering melodies with a snug intimacy. There's a distinct airiness, but repeated listens confirm that this is more than fluff, as the band expertly translates the emotional content of the lyrics into an incredibly expressive backdrop, loaded with shimmering ornamentation in every crevice, but also maintaining an engaging spaciousness. (MB)

· AMPLINE — ROSARY
Greater Cincy's finest instrumental Indie band solidified a new lineup and released their strongest effort to date in 2006. Rosary features plenty of amped-up, energized Post Punk, but the deeper you get into the album, the more the sound and songs expand, as the band experiments with impulsive structures and ear-grabbing sonics. The key to a successful instrumental band (it should be noted that Ampline does use the occasional sung melody here, but they are usually ghostly, buried in the mix with the other instruments) is their ability to appeal to listeners used to hearing someone singing by keeping the songwriting consistently compelling. Mission accomplished. (MB)

· VIVA LA FOXX — I KNEW IT WASN'T LOVE BUT ...
This trio's fiery, propulsive "Sex Punk" is an orgy of lacerating rhythms, orgasmic shrieks and balls-squeezing riffs, the soundtrack to a debauched after-hours romp as likely to end in bruises as it is blurry-eyed ecstasy. Searing, chaotic and abrasively sensual, Viva's debut is eight tracks worth of primal impulsiveness. Singer/guitarist Amy Jo and bassist Danielle Belle volley vocal howls with the sass and insistence of a dominatrix, while Reuben Glaser creates frenetic friction with his impetuous guitar bursts, spurting grimy, broken-bottle riffage with a wild-eyed intensity. Viva La Foxx emits a feral, smeared-eyeliner, don't-fuck-with-me swagger, but it's so fiercely fervent and volatile, you can't help but be drawn in deep. (MB)

· ELLISON — SAY GOODNIGHT, SLEEP ALONE
Ellison's music is usually categorized as Emo, but they deliver much more than good haircuts and the angst-ridden lyrics associated with that genre. Ellison, now signed to Carbon Copy Media (the label started by Hawthorne Heights' lead singer, JT Woodruff), delivers a stellar national debut with Say Goodnight. Lead singer Josh Hill has a voice that is always clearly delivered, but exudes an aching that tugs the heartstrings. While many songwriters are inspired by similar subject matter (heartbreak, love and loss), Hill's voice takes it a step further. Anyone can write lyrics and sing them; Hill's yearning voice lets your ears tap into the actual expression. Ellison's music far surpasses the black jelly bracelets and wispy-banged haircuts to provide listeners a more vivid experience and a deeper look into a genre that is often taken at face value because of its simplicity and lack of variety. (Daniele Pfarr)

· COMET BLUEGRASS ALL-STARS — A NEW KIND OF LONESOME
Though it's their debut studio effort, the Comet Bluegrass All-Stars' A New Kind of Lonesome still possesses a "live-like" intimacy. The title track has a vintage Bluegrass/Country vibe, sounding like something you'd hear on an AM radio 60 years ago, highlighted by flawless, resonating harmonies (a common thread throughout the album). Much of the rest of the disc showcases their extraordinary interpretative skills, with some off-the-grid song choices, including Ray Charles' "I Got a Woman" and Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff." The best exhibition of the band's playing is during their epic take on Peter Rowan's "Midnight Moonlight," as solos fly like sparks and what appears to be some backwards-masking trickery creates an almost psychedelic effect. The band's virtuosity shines throughout Lonesome, but it's the soulful delivery and natural grace the musicians secrete that make it a slam-dunk success. (MB)

· THE SLOES — DESPERATE TRAIN
Calling themselves a "progressive acoustic" band, The Sloes are a versatile three-piece specializing in (but not limited to) Americana stylings with the occasional World Beat undercurrent. The band's 10-song debut, Desperate Train, is somewhat sparsely arranged, but the minimalism is filled up by the trio's lively, passionate performances. The Sloes' debut elegantly rides the rails through shuffling Roots Rock, Bluegrass-flavored Folk Rock, folksy, winsome balladeering, wispy, crooning Jazz and hooky, emotive Pop. They also toy with undulating Latin ambiance ("There Was A Time") and Middle Eastern Rock (on the blissfully strange cover of "Paint It Black"). Desperate Train's fusion of tranquil Folk and more exploratory Roots music adventures makes it an album full of subtle surprises, tied together by writing that is admirable in its creativity but also traditional enough to appeal to open-minded purists. (MB)

· RALPH JONES BAND — JUST FOR THE SCENERY
The creative progress from the Ralph Jones Band's last CD is impressive. Just for the Scenery tightens up the focus for an album of ghostly Indie Pop imbedded in a mesmerizing sea of broad, inventive Post Rock. The guitars rattle like harmonious windchimes, creating a sweeping churn that sounds a little like traditional Asian music. The kinetic, intuitive drumming is equally compelling, rolling in an almost Jazz-like manner and filling in the space with tasteful contributions that are as vital to the band's sound as anything else. Melodies are "catchy," but not in the repetitive, bashed-over-the-head fashion of most Pop; the hooks are more covert and haunting, creeping up on the listener like an unexpected cold chill on a hot summer day. Just for the Scenery is the kind of album you can get absorbed by, lost in the elegiac grooves, engulfed by the spacious layering and left in awe by the strikingly original songwriting and execution. (MB)

· MIKE FAIR AND THE ADVENTURE SEEKERS — I AM SMILING, DAMMIT
Guitarist Mike Fair has some busy fingers, performing for the past several years with Wojo, Ma Crow and the Flock, MC Blue and The Blue Ravens. That's a fairly broad stylistic range, but the versatility isn't overtly apparent on Fair's Adventure Seekers debut, I Am Smiling, Dammit. On the album, Fair creates his own sonic identity instead of dipping his fingers into too many genre jars. The album shows not only what a capable songwriter Fair is, but also what a strong, unique vocal personality he possesses. Fair's singing is somewhere between Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and early-period Rod Stewart, and musically that comparison's not too far off either. With such a cache of well-crafted, expressive songs in his possession, it's a wonder Fair hasn't stepped out of the shadows until now. (MB)

THE BEST OF THE REST
· RUBY VILEOS — THE FALL OF THE MOTOR PEOPLE

· THE BLUE ROCK BOYS — VOLUME 1

· CRYBABY — LADY LIGHT EVOLVER

· SUFFOCATE FASTER — DON'T KILL THE MESSENGER

· LONELY THE SEABIRD — FROM THE TOP OF THE STAIRS

· BEAU ALQUIZOLA BAND — UNBALANCED

· BOB NYSWONGER — DEPOSITION

· THE JAZZ CIRCLE — JOSHUA

· ANOTHER TRAGEDY — THE BEAUTY OF SUFFERING

· LORENZO — LOVE SHAPE BRUISE

· STORY — STORY

· THE FLIGHT STATION — FALLING STAR

· MS. JAZ — ME TOO LIVE

· THE SHIRTS — PRESSED

· GET SWEATY — GET SWEATY

· A.M. ELEVATOR — A.M. ELEVATOR

· SHAMVOODOO — GRIFTERS

· CHRIS COLLIER — OVER TWENTY

· MICHAEL MCINTIRE AND THE MARMALADE BRIGADE — DREAMIN' OUT LOUD

· BULLET PROOF CHARM — REVERSE ENGINEER

· LIQUID FIRE — LIQUID FIRE

· TEAM STRAY — POPULAR MECHANICS

· SONNY MOORMAN — LIVE AT THE CINCY BLUES FEST

· OVAL OPUS — OVAL OPUS

· CLOSE TO HOME — LEGENDS LIVE ON

· KELLY RICHEY — SPEECHLESS

· NOCTALUCA — TOWERING THE SUM

· HATS OFF — ACCUMULATION

· K-DRAMA — BEHIND THE GLORY

· RAMSEY — HEAVEN'S DARK CORNERS

· MERCUROCHROME - IS THAT WHAT THEY WANT

· SEVEN ORCHIDS — RAISING HELL IN WHISKEY HEAVEN

· THE SHEDS — THE SHEDS QUIT SMOKING

· 24HOURFLU — 24HOURFLU

· GHOSTMONSTER — HAIR-RAISING ADVENTURE!!!

· JONUH — JONUH

· TAYLOR FARLEY AND BLUE ROCK — BEAT THIS

· MIKE HAGEN — COME DRINK WITH ME

· AARON HEDRICK — WORKING CLASS VILLAIN

· THE NEWBEES — FAMOUS

· NEW MACHINES — WELCOME TO METROPOLIS

· PATIENTZERO — INFLATABLE APE NATION

· VAUGHN AND CO. — WRONG TREE

· NORUST — COAL TRAIN EP

· 8 BALL JUNKIES - ALHAMBRA PALACE

· JOEL CAITHAMER — ACTIVATE!

· KELLY THOMAS — ANOTHER MILE

· MISSION MAN — INDIEPENDENT

· HOLY CRAP — HOLY CRAP

· RED IDLE — IDLING LIVE

· THE HINGES — UNHINGED

· KRINJ — TONIGHT, WE ESCAPE

· THE PROPER AUTHORITIES — PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT

· MISS JOANIE — POTTY PARTY

· ARAPYMA — VICTORY OR DEATH

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