· The Haywards — Bring on The New Messiah Wherever He or She May Roam
Following last year's dual releases of the minimalist Early Days of Old Age and a collection of earlier outtakes, Singles and Mistakes 1996-2000, The Hayward's new disc Bring on The New Messiah Wherever He or She May Roam is an evolution of their earlier rootsy, Indie Pop sound that incorporates their previously realized experimental side with great success. The result is an adrenalized, fuzzed-up version of The Vaselines with all the poppy sing-along weirdness and skeletal art-school riffing in one satisfying gift-wrapped package. The group has always been one of the Queen City's popular rotating collaborative collectives — members of The Fairmont Girls, Post Haste and Ass Ponys have all done their time. An earlier incarnation of the band (as The Middle Fingers) utilized the same approach with the constant anchor always being the clever musings of singer/songwriter David Enright, who has the charisma to assemble a powerful local cast of supporting players to interpret his songs with each project. There's something vaguely familiar in excellent, dreamy Pop numbers like "Intended Misalignment" and "Done" — a comforting sense of loss and melancholy without the messy Emo-moping perhaps. Enright's naked guitar riffing and geeky pseudo-sexual lyrics ("You suck without feeling" from "Done") expose a clever indie soul. Longtime Hayward collaborator Lisa Kagen is Enright's constant foil, sometimes breathing the same fragile lyrics as the singer, like on the chugging "Pre" or one of the disc's closing hidden tracks. Similar in style to the fractured Art Pop stylings laid down by now defunct '90s stalwarts Radiolaria and the everlasting lineup of The Fairmount Girls, The Haywards' latest disc is an engaging listen with bright sparks of sentimentality and fragility. (tokyoroserecords.com) — SEAN RHINEY
· Velvet Dreamfield — Act 1 Scene 1
Velvet Dreamfield is a band. Or is he a man? No, wait — it's both.
He's the personification of a six-man collective, actually. Act 1 Scene 1 is collection of songs, somewhat narrative, that Velvet presents in an autobiographical manner. The music is a blend of old and new Rock sounds, not too heavy, but with lots of depth. The songs are very album-oriented, and Act 1 is definitely meant to be taken as a whole. The bevy of guitar tracks and fluid bass create chasm grooves occasionally reminiscent of Robin Trower and other times more like Radiohead. Drums and percussion hold down the fort and sometimes take center stage, as on the closing track, "Traces." The rich cello and chiming guitar experiments add flourishes that nicely round out songs like "Theatre." Vocalist Bryce Reed has a beautiful tenor and loads of control, but is very reserved through most of the album. No need for an Eddie Vedder impersonation, but a little more emotion and variety would help define the songs. Guitar solos are jazzy and plentiful, recalling Steely Dan and Jefferson Airplane. All of the performances are tight and creative, and the recording quality is impeccable, although the overall sound could be a little more cohesive — you tend to be drawn in to focusing on the instruments individually rather than as a whole. This is often a symptom of self-produced works. An outside producer or other unbiased ear might be a consideration for the next album. Meanwhile, Velvet Dreamfield's Act 1 Scene 1 stands as a strong first outing for this groove-centric crew. (velvetdreamfield.com) — EZRA WALLER
· Zak Morgan — When Bullfrogs Croak
If you have young kids, chances are you're ready to throw out the Sesame Street and Wiggles tapes and burn an effigy of Barney. Children's music for the most part thrives on extreme simplicity and repetition, a formula that eventually drives parents to madness. Zak Morgan is the antidote. On his second studio album, When Bullfrogs Croak, the music is intelligent, stylish and sweet, satisfying both short attention spans and mature tastes. Morgan's outlandishly entertaining solo acoustic act has been exercising imaginations on the festival, grade school and library circuit nationwide for several years. His style is handily summed up as a combination of the two artists that he chose to cover on this disc — Shel Silverstein and Cat Stevens. Simple but supple strumming sprinkled with edgy wit. Morgan's nine original songs are a blend of humorous punning, storytelling and colorful images. The writing and arranging are at once both playful and majestic. No small part of the album's flawless beauty is Ric Hordinski's Midas touch; he produced, recorded and mixed the album in addition to co-writing several songs and adding his virtuoso guitar playing. Other outstanding contributions come from John Zappa (trumpet), Joe Lukasik (clarinet), Karin Bergquist and Annette Shepherd (backing vocals). For a children's album, there are quite a few long, moody songs interspersed with the upbeat tunes, but the toddlers that I had available as a test panel didn't seem to mind the slow-downs at all. As a bonus, the 32-page booklet is lushly illustrated and filled with fun. In addition to lyrics and colorful and comical cartoon depictions of the songs' subjects, there is a "Zakland's Unabridged Dictionary," which explains all of the 300 words, references and "Zakisms" in the lyrics that might confuse the Fisher Price set. Such attention to artistic and musical detail is what elevates this disc from must-have to heirloom status, suitable for kids of all ages. (zakmorgan.com) — EZRA WALLER