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A Head Full of Peach Salsa
by Moon Dog

 Yeah, I know, it's not much of a title for a music column, but you probably picked this guide up for free anyway, so quit yer complainin'. Besides, it gives me a reason to start using a ratings system -- for all those who, like me, prefer a user friendly precise option in their media reviews:

^^^^^ = Five chips - The salsa's great and the chips are eternally refreshed. Dunk at will and repeatedly. Own this.
^^^^ = Four chips - The chips are a wee tad more stale than you would prefer. Enjoy the salsa, though, 'cause it's mighty tasty. You might want to own this.
^^^ = Three chips - Salsa's less than perfectly fresh and the chips are still stale. It adequately mimics the peach salsa experience, but that very special something is missing. Borrow this at least.
^^ = Two chips - It physically resembles chips and salsa, but it ain't it. Don't feel bad if you miss hearing this.
^ = One chip - It seems to resemble a foodstuff, but who knows what it is anymore? If you must, crane your neck briefly to take notice of this, as you would a car wreck on the highway.
= No chips - Better you eat cow chips than this. Avoid this and warn your friends to avoid this. Please. All set? Good. Now for the new reviews…
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  Mark Oliver Everett (aka E, aka MC Honky… oops, I mean…never mind, you didn't hear that from me…!) has returned with a new Eels album (now completely without Jonathan "Butch" Norton, his longtime collaborator and percussionist).
  Eels with Strings Live at Town Hall (^^^^, Vagrant, February 2006) finds this assemblage (including "The Chet," "Big Al," "Paloma," "Julie," "Heather," and "Ana") doffing all synths in favor of celeste, pump organ, trash can, suitcase, saw, melodica, autoharp, as well as the usual guitar, percussion, violin, mandolin, lap steel… well, you get the idea.
  The new arrangements (with strings arranged by Paul Brainard, Koool G Murder and Jim Lang) of "Bus Stop Boxer," "Trouble with Dreams," "Novocaine for the Soul," and "Hey Man (Now You're Really Living") serve the tunes well, and still greater treats are added, including covers of the Left Banke ("Pretty Ballerina"), Johnny Rivers ("Poor Side of Town") and Bob Dylan ("Girl from the North Country"). Most of the set, recorded on June 30th of 2005 at Town Hall in New York City, features music from the last Eels studio album, the brilliant Blinking Lights and Other Revelations. The live CD features four tracks not on the companion DVD release, like the delightfully caustic ballad from Daisies of the Galaxy, "It's a Motherf***er" (though, in turn, the DVD features offstage shenanigans, and a baker's dozen more musical tidbits not on the CD).
  Through it all, the smirking-while-shot-in-the-gut vocal delivery of Everett remains. Everett even dips back into his pre-Eels output to his early solo works, with a version of "The Only Thing I Care About" from E's Broken Toy Shop album. For an Eels fan it's a must have. For those who aren't yet fans, they very well could be after taking in this wonderful set. Hey man… now I'm really livin'.

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  I remain a big fat Gomez head. From their first album (1998's Bring It On) through their last album for Virgin Records (2004's Split the Difference), they have been a mainstay of intelligent and musically forward thinking pop, minus the pretensions that sink many another band.
  And consider, too, that the band has held the same line-up for something like nine years now! Ian Ball, Ben Ottewell and Tom Gray share guitar and vocal jobs with ease, and the band commonly shares the songwriting creds.
  As such, let me try to hash out for you who's who: Ben Ottewell's smoky lead vocals may be the most recognizable, particularly if your unknowing introduction to Gomez was their late 90's appearance in ads for Philips, covering the Beatles's "Getting Better" (available on 2000's B-Side collection, Abandoned Shopping Trolley Hotline)
  Tom Gray is the lead on songs like "Silence" from 2004's Split the Difference (you can still scare up an animated video for that song if you search online).
  Ian Ball is the stinging slightly nasal vocal lead on "These 3 Sins" from the same album, as well as others. The muscular and versatile rhythm section consists of Paul Blackburn (bass) and Olly Peacock (drums). Hear them strut their stuff on tunes like "Shot Shot" and "In Our Gun" from In Our Gun.
  Something that's also consistent about Gomez over the years, too, is their ability to take in great influences from roots music, classic 60's pop rock and the funky synth pop experiments of bands like Radiohead and Wilco, often proving themselves the equal or better of their contemporaries.
  So, now I hope you know Gomez and are ready for more of the same beautiful pop.

How We Operate (^^^^1/2, ATO Records, May, 2006) should be fresh in stores as this hits your mailbox/ computer/ free reading stand etc., and it may be their most accessible album yet.
  "Notice" is a sweetly arranged pop ballad that takes a lyrically accusatory tone, as Ian Ball (leading the harmonizing) complains, at first about being ignored by a woman, and then about his intended's gullibility at not noticing his deceptions.
  Country and blues flavors permeate the record, as on the title track, where banjo twangs lay over the echoing acoustic guitar, before Ben Ottewell kicks in, followed by a sinister rhythm section and rocking lead guitar, more great harmonies and mellotron strings for good measure.
  "Girlshapedlovedrug" is yet another tune, like "Notice" that should, in a right thinking pop world, get overplayed in a hurry. Lyrically in the same acid romantic vein as the Beatles' "Girl," this track also allows the band to strut a little studio inventiveness in the middle of a very solid tune with a great hook.
  "Chasing Ghosts with Alcohol" features Ottewell again, in a setting that begins in very bluesy territory (complete with slide guitar and electric piano), before rocking out in the middle.
  Ottewell leads again on "Tear Your Love Apart," which even incorporates some garage band sounds (ala the hammond organ of ? and the Mysterians, or if you like, Elvis Costello and the Attractions), before heading off to psychedelic surf music guitar solos, and all with great harmony vocals from Ball and Tom Gray.
  And if they haven't worn their Blues pedigree well enough, the next tune finds Gray bemoaning his inability to decipher "Charley Patton Songs." This song, however, is more jazzy in a vein closer to, perhaps, XTC's "Mermaid Smiled," though less frenetic, replacing the horns with a string arrangement, and effortlessly turning into something like R.E.M. or Wilco in the middle section.
  "Cry on Demand" is another poetically cynical relationship song from Ball, with a poppy Byrds-esque country-rock guitar set off by loopy middle bits that coulkd have been played by the Meters. Yes, it's that good, and it gives the full band a good workout, especially Blackburn and Peacock.
  That song is followed by a still more country tinged finale, "Don't Make Me Laugh," with Tom Gray in the lead on this break-up ballad.
  Basically, anything by Gomez is wonderful, but let this latest album be your entrée, if you will, to the best pop band you're not hearing.

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  Sondre Lerche (pronounce it SON-druh LER-keh) is yet another artist who manages to squirm out of all convenient pop pigeonholing. On his debut, Faces Down, and its' follow-up Two Way Monologue, he comfortably encompassed breezy euro-chamber-pop and folk singer-songwriting balladeering ala Nick Drake.
  For his latest, however, he's chosen a more stripped down style.
  Sondre Lerche and the Faces Down Quartet - Duper Sessions
(^^^1/2, Astralwerks, March, 2006) finds Lerche and his Faces Down backing group joined by pianist Erik Halvorsen for a set that often finds him vocally close to Harry Connick territory, though he never quite abandons his pop tendencies completely. The result is a breezy album that is peppered with Cole Porter ("Night and Day"), and swinging covers of Elvis Costello ("Human Hands") and Prefab Sprout ("Nightingales"), among Lerche originals filled with his trademark impish wordplay and falling somewhere between folk-pop country and jazz flavorings, with less of the strings or heavier layered sounds of the last record.
  Unfortunately, on first listen, the album offers no clear stand outs among the originals ("Human Hands" is great, though). It may be merely that the simpler sound flies lower under the radar, and I may have to…. correct that, WILL have to… give a second or fourth listen to "Dead End Mystery" or "The Curse of Being in Love." "(I Wanna) Call It Love" comes closer to the heights scaled on Monologues. Still, this is a very listenable and poppy album.

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  Can it be that Elvis Costello can no longer surprise his audience? Could it be that the diversity and scope of his body of work currently render anything he might try less significant or meaningful because he has, basically done it all before?
  Bite your tongue.
  Okay, so maybe I didn't feel moved to own "Spice World" (the Spice Girls movie) because Elvis appeared in it.. And, yes, if he sold the rights to "Everyday I Write the Book" to P. Diddy orr Diddy or any pedestrian rapper type, I would feel less than moved to buy it. Thankfully, Elvis is repeating himself in a slightly more predictable way: working with the Metropole Orkest on an entertaining set of tunes that include many of his own, and a few other jazz and old r&b oddments.
  Elvis Costello Live with the Metropole Orkest - My Flame Burns Blue
(^^^^, Deutsche Gramaphon, February, 2006) also tells quite a story in extensive liner notes. It turns out that he's been very busy in the last decade or so. Besides the eight or so other albums that he's released, he also was artist-in-residence at UCLA during the 2001-2002 school year, and that during that time, at the request of Sue Mingus, he wrote lyrics for Charles Mingus' "Hora Decubitus." The timing of the 2001 school year being what it was, Elvis found his lyric equally inspired by the immediate post-9/11 world as by Mingus' raucous tune. The lyrics are awash with urgent images of sirens and radios, fractured melodies and a reaffirmation of the beauty of life.
  Costello also takes on the late great Billy Strayhorn's last tune, "Blood Count" with new lyrics and vocal on the title track, where Elvis adapts the vocal overtones of Johnny Hodges' alto saxophone in a dark tale of deceptive and elusive lust. The evocative tones of Duke Ellington's original version are carried over here, reminding me of Ellington's film score for "Anatomy of a Murder".
  "Favorite Hour" returns from the small combo arrangement achieved on 1994's "Brutal Youth," granted majesty with a slow, passionate reading, with Steve Nieve on piano (as he is on most of this release). Costello wrote this one about a man about to be executed during a time when he was contributing to a songwriting course at a British summer school.
  Also here is Costello's "Upon a Veil of Midnight Blue," from the same time period, which originally was written, in a different form, for bluesman Charles Brown, and has been previously performed in roughly this form by folk/rocker Mary Coughlan. E.C. delivers his reading of his torch song for the first time on CD here. Both this and "Put Away Forbidden Playthings" are little nuggets that also appear on the 2 disc re-release of Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet's "The Juliet Letters" on Rhino Records.
  Also a first here is a tune entitled "Speak Darkly, My Angel," which originated from his work with opera vocalist Anne Sofie Von Otter. It seems to come from a similar place to his string quartet/ vocal work with the Brodsky Quartet, as it tells the story of a wealthy divorcee who tires of her new young lover, and thinks of pushing him out a window. Yes, Baby Spice won't be covering this anytime soon, with its' operatic overtones and wry, dark sense of humor.
  Other relatively minor Costello gets a lush big band treatment, courtesy of the Metropole conducted by versatile jazz arranger and composer Vince Mendoza. "Almost Ideal Eyes" (from "All This Useless Beauty") gets an appealing post Sergio Mendes samba treatment. "Can You Be True?" reappears from his likewise downbeat album "North" from 2003. "Episode of Blonde" smoulders in from 2002's "When I Was Cruel" with welcome string accents, in this tune that would not feel out of place in the ouerve of Bob Dylan.
  To most old fans, however, the highlights would have to be the good old Elvis classics given new big band life. "Almost Blue" offers a lush arrangement of the tune that Costello originally had in mind for the late Chet Baker (and that Baker performed a number of times (Sometimes he would even get the lyrics right!). It may be E.C.'s most genuine claim to share the throne traditionally shared by a legion of classic tin pan alley composers, and Elvis delivers it with typical emotion, aided by the strings, with a peppering of harmonica and trumpet. "Clubland" (from 1982) gets a rearrangement by Sy Johnson which takes on the latin touches that flavored the original, as well as swing lounge-y bits and circus calliope waltz sections, and it benefits from having the versatile original's pianist Nieve handy. "Watching the Detectives" is rebuilt slightly from it's ska flavored original arrangement into a 50's/60's detective show theme. Of course, it's another of those early masterworks that Costello appeared with out of nearly nowhere in 1977, and by itself was a perfect early example of his range. Mendoza's arrangement proves a welcome work-out space for the orchestra, and E.C.'s vocal rocks. The extraneous piece to me here is "God Give Me Strength." The Bacharach/ Costello collaboration is still a strong tune, performed here well, with Nieve and the orchestra. But why do this when a perfect version already exists on 1998's Bacharach/ Costello album "Painted from Memory"? "Watching the Detectives" would have been as strong a closer.
  For fans only: this new collection contains, as a bonus disc, a recording of Elvis Costello's "'Il Sogno' Suite," which is adapted from his score for Mauro Bigonzetti's ballet based on Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." It's performed by the London Symphony Orchestra with Michael Tilson Thomas. It's just an added bonus to a very good album for Elvis heads out there. Like the no doubt forthcoming rap remix of "Alison."

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Listen every Friday night and Saturday morning for "Call It Thing," the Friday Gothic Blimp Works from Midnight to three a.m. on UH Radio!

Till next time....
Moondog

WWUH: Program Guide 2006 ©

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