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November 8, 2002

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The Juliana Theory

Love

Epic Records

This album should be so much better. Two songs in, Love crumples and refuses to stop sucking until it comes to a halt at the sixty-plus mark. It's not a pretty sight. And, believe it or not, I actually had high hopes for this album.

I saw the Juliana Theory this past summer in Los Angeles, where they played an absolutely storming set that, at least in my mind, put to rest all of the emo-lite accusations that have dogged them since their first record, Understand This Is a Dream. Brett Detar had morphed into a bona fide rock star, oozing charisma and stage presence as he strutted from corner to corner, waving the microphone around as if he were in a fencing match. The rest of the band members were equally energetic, nailing their parts perfectly as they careened across the stage. Meanwhile, the handful of songs they unveiled from the forthcoming album showed immense promise. The syrupy emo mush of their earlier material had been replaced by a distinctly rock modus operandi. The band looked ready to meet mainstream stardom head-on.

Unfortunately, the Juliana Theory chickened out in the studio. That, or their label made some atrocious recommendations. All of these songs have been produced and mixed so thoroughly that it's hard to imagine that they were initially created with real instruments. The assembly-line mixing job of Tom Lord-Alge (Weezer, Sum 41) is certainly a big part of the problem, but equally distressing is the band's inability or unwillingness to free themselves of the emo straitjacket. "Jewel to Sparkle" might have been a gritty rock track (and it probably was in demo form), but on the album, the chorus has been processed to the point of complete sterility. Instead of rocking, almost all the songs steadily melt into a puddle of studio gloss. Detar generally falls back on old habits: histrionic wailing, banal emoting, and overly annunciating his syllables.

Of course, there are occasional moments of greatness. The first two songs, "Bring It Low" and "Do You Believe Me?," pack a ferocious one-two punch, and "White Days," is the mid-tempo rocker U2 wished they'd had as a second single to follow "Beautiful Day." But apart from those exceptions, Love is a sad, moribund affair. The Juliana Theory trys to straddle rock and roll and emo, but the results are unlikely to satisfy fans in either camp.

—Jon Garrett

Spoon

Kill the Moonlight

Merge Records

Spoon does more with three notes than most bands do with an entire scale. That seems like an absurd judgment, I know, but it's entirely appropriate. Spoon's lead singer Britt Daniel and collaborators Jim Eno and Mike McCarthy have a primitivist philosophy, preferring to build melodies from individual notes where other songwriters might skip ahead and, say, work with actual chords. The result sounds something like a souped-up version of the theme from The People's Court played by the world's laziest dance band. Surprisingly, the formula works, at least most of the time. Just as he did on Spoon's previous release - last year's Girls Can Tell - Daniel overcomes the self-imposed constraints of his backing band by becoming the hardest-working vocalist in modern music. Indeed, keeping up with him through the tempo changes is exhausting just to listen to; I can't imagine what it must be like to sing these parts. Whether or not he's driving himself into the ground in the process, it's the vocals that make Kill the Moonlight such a compelling listen. At his best - like on the confessional "Paper Tiger" - Daniel turns three-minute pop songs into epics of love, loss, and longing that will have even the most jaded listener wondering how in the hell he's able to do it all so simply. Even when he's off - "Jonathon Fisk" is a notable misstep - his skill nonetheless demands abstract, if grudging, respect. Unfortunately, this album is divided pretty evenly between moments of reluctant approval and moments of cynicism-destroying bliss. Kill the Moonlight may still be worth checking out, however. Even when it doesn't work, it's still a far, far better album than most. And when it does work

—Tom Zimpleman

Kind of Like Spitting

Bridges Worth Burning

Barsuk Records

Kind of Like Spitting is kind of like a band. Comprised of singer-songwriter Ben Barnett and whomever he may be working with at the present moment, this is a hybrid of dreary folk and punk rock that some have taken to calling "sad-core." I'm not a fan of clever, genre-splitting labels as it is, and the label is particularly inappropriate in this case. On some previous releases, like You Secretly Want Me Dead and Old Moon in the Arms of the New, he's been forced to adopt a lonely-man-and-his-guitar persona, but I'm guessing that's mainly to keep production costs low. After listening to the twelve songs on his latest releases, Bridges Worth Burning, I'm guessing that Barnett would rather step in line with the great American punk tradition than become known as a balladeer. Unfortunately, for all of the rhetoric about being inspired by bands like the Minutemen, Barnett wants to do a lot more with his songs than punk rock really allows. I can't fault this decision; Barnett's a talented songwriter and shouldn't confine his creative compulsions to a single genre. Most of the time, he does just that, turning down the feedback and quieting the pounding drums just enough so that listeners can appreciate the melancholy tenor of the lyrics. The album never comes together, though, and those lyrics are the problem. Granted, lines like, "Make what you can out of nothing/keep bluffing your way to extinction/you're a sick fuck to think that this unlike anything else will last forever" have a certain shaggy respectability, but over the course of an entire album, they make for a terrible slog. The fact that Barnett's gravelly voice sounds constantly wrung-out doesn't make things any easier. We're all sad - it's probably the human condition - but Barnett would be better off focusing on the subject about half of the time and then intermittently copying the reckless abandon of his influences a little more directly. Those times when he does let go - like on "Following Days" and "This Lemonade is Terrible" - accompany pronounced emotional breakthroughs. At those times it occurs to me that I'm listening to catharsis, not reckless abandon, and frankly, that makes me feel cheated.

—TZ

Dave Matthews Band

Live at Folsom Field

RCA Records

The Dave Matthews Band was having fun at this concert - that much is evident from their latest live album, Live at Folsom Field. The set-list from the summer 2001 concert is heavy on Everyday and Busted Stuff songs with a few old crowd favorites thrown in. As much as the band tries to inject some energy into their newer songs, they still fall flat. The interminably long version of "Angel" is a vast improvement on the studio cut, but it still should've been pared down from 14 minutes. There's probably the best version of "All Along the Watchtower" that I've heard DMB play, but then the band follows it with "The Space Between" - the addition of background Gospel singers can't lift the song out of mediocrity. The slick Everyday songs don't leave room for the band to experiment live. Their energy really shines through in the album's highlights - "All Along the Watchtower," "Two Step," and "Recently." The two-disc set is filled with the moments that make buying live albums worth it - the extra expletive in "Big-Eyed Fish," the "Dixie chicken/Tennessee lamb" addition to "Crash Into Me" that's become a concert staple, and the long intro and extra verse leading into "Two Step" - but then it's also got all the drawbacks of a live album, like over a minute of clapping and cheering after "Stay." No one really wants to listen to a stadium full of drunk screaming fans clamoring for an encore. With a little tighter editing (and perhaps a different set-list), the album would have been a much better listen.

—Carolina Bolado