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April 18, 2003

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Levity

Mark Oliver Everett

Remember that band the Eels? "Novocain for the Soul"? Is it all coming back now? The singer/songwriter for the Eels, Mark Oliver Everett (aka E), has made his first foray into the cinema world by writing and performing the score for the new Billy Bob Thornton movie Levity. In the film, Thornton plays a convicted murderer who is released after 20 years in prison and seeks redemption in the outside world. For obvious reasons, the soundtrack oscillates between somber, introspective songs and slightly upbeat songs. Interestingly, the instrumentation does not differ much from the Eels' albums; the soundtrack consists of piano, guitar, and often an almost inaudible string section.

The real feat is that Levity never really sounds like it has limited instrumentation. Rather, at times the score seems just as moody and emotional as a traditional symphony-scored soundtrack. Also included are two unreleased Eels songs-"Skywriting" and "Taking a Bath in Rust." Each could easily come from the Eels' 2000 release, Daisies of the Galaxy. They are politely introspective, beautifully composed, and undeniably sad-in short, what the Eels are known for.

Typically, I don't listen to scores. That said, this was a very enjoyable listen. Levity is so well-composed that the emotion which words normally give to a song is already present. The two Eels songs are simply icing on the cake. So, if you are an Eels fan or you like instrumental music, you should own this score.

-Brad Heffern

The Minus 5

Down with Wilco

Down With Wilco is likable enough, and still it disappoints. If someone had told me that the members of Wilco had entered the studio with Peter Buck, Ken Stringfellow, and Brian Paulson (who did studio work on both Uncle Tupelo's Anodyne and Slint's Spiderland, to give you a sense of his range) under the supervision of music-world gadfly Scott McCaughey, I would have told her that the results might be the holy grail of American music I have been eagerly anticipating ever since I was a freshman in high school whose only goal in life was to listen to "Give Me Indie Rock" at a volume sufficient to make my head combust. This, sadly, is not that album.

The problem with Down With Wilco is a serious lack of ambition. The Minus 5 is a side project for everyone involved, including McCaughey, whose primary band is the Young Fresh Fellows. The album is thus decidedly blue collar, and has the feel of a toss-off: any greatness on it is purely unintentional. The opening "Days of Wine and Booze," aside from its excellent title, has a dreamy, high gloss quality that promises more than the rest of the songs can deliver. Three tracks later, in fact, we're given "The Town That Lost Its Groove Supply," which sounds like somebody's grating impression of the Doobie Brothers, and needs to be heard only once to be skipped on every subsequent listen. "Daggers Drawn" and "Life Left Him There," while not as noticeably bad as "The Town That Lost Its Groove Supply," are fairly plodding, and they're animated only by McCaughey's voice; that's a mistake, since McCaughey is an entirely featureless singer, sounding like nothing and no one in particular.

Jeff Tweedy takes over lead vocals on "The Family Gardener," a song that, judging by its gentle tone, was probably written for the Loose Fur album and streamlined for inclusion here. It's the only moment when the members of Wilco make their presence known; the remainder of the time they simply play, competently but undramatically, the kind of unrepentantly rowdy alt-country arrangements that Tweedy might have come up with in the AM era.

True, Down With Wilco has some fine songs. If I ran a record label, I would probably shout at my talent scouts to find me bands that can write another "What I Don't Believe," or "I'm Not Bitter," but all the same I would be frustrated that we were putting out a moderate album rather than a really killer EP. And so the wait continues.

-Tom Zimpleman

Fruit Bats

Mouthfuls

Chicago's own Fruit Bats are primarily composed of vocalist/multi-instrumentalists Eric Johnson (not to be confused with the virtuoso guitar player, or the Archers of Loaf guitarist of the same name) and Gillian Lisee. Upon the demise of Johnson's first band, I, Rowboat, Fruit Bats have gone from a side-project of Johnson's to a full-time one, especially in light of their recent signing with the legendary and almost-major label, Sub Pop Records. Their first album, Echolocation, was released by Chicago's excellent Perishable Records in 2001. A collection of charming and texturally bubbly folk songs, this material was a compilation of Johnson's song-writing from his high-school years up until the album's release. The new record, Mouthfuls, is altogether more clean and fleshed-out, with more emphasis on melodic song-writing and less on texture and experimentation. While the folky instrumentation is still intact, from the occasional pling-plang of the banjo to the resonant acoustic guitars to the eclectic percussion, the songs feel more produced and perhaps less immediate than those on Echolocation. That's not to say they aren't good, however.

Tracks like "Seaweed" and "Union Blanket" feature beautiful, rolling finger-picking interplay between guitar and banjo, and fresh chord progressions that demand a cold glass of iced tea and a long walk through the neighborhood. Gentle, saturated piano chords perfectly complement smooth vocal harmonizing and rhythmic guitar patterns on songs like opener "Rainbow Sign" and "Track Rabbits." While Mouthfuls is not particularly groundbreaking, it is nevertheless uniquely relaxing; this collection of rich, warm, summertime music gets better with each listen.

-Nicholas Buchholz

The Essex Green

The Long Goodbye

Pop music and April just go well together. Cool breezes, green grass, and the first weeks of the baseball season all contribute to a certain buoyancy found in the music of groups like Dear Nora and Elf Power. The Essex Green certainly qualify for inclusion in this category, as their new LP The Long Goodbye provides the perfect soundtrack for April in Hyde Park.

The Essex Green is a Brooklyn-based pop band with more than a little Green Mountain cred. Its members have played previously in erstwhile Vermont outfits such as Guppyboy and The Sixth Great Lake, and portions of The Long Goodbye were recorded in this reviewer's hometown of Essex. That being said, Jeff Baron, Sasha Bell, and Christopher Ziter play a brand of music that is difficult to pin down on the pop spectrum; influences definitely include the Beatles and the Byrds.

The Long Goodbye hits the ground running with "By the Sea," a song propelled by simple flute melodies and soothing vocal harmonies. "The Late Great Cassiopeia," the obvious single here, is pop at its finest: multi-tracked boy/girl vocals are suspended above a driving bass line, sharp drums, and hand claps.

The band explores different sonic territory after the opening tracks. The subdued "Our Lady in Havana" is lyrically more dense than the other tracks, while "Lazy May" and "Old Dominion" are more folk and bluegrass than pop. "Julia" begins with the memorable line, "You may be on central time girl/But I'm still behind you here girl," before reaching a flute crescendo.

On the whole, The Long Goodbye is an altogether satisfying album, combining standard pop with simple balladry and literate, if not illuminating, lyrics. Which makes this album perfect for April in Hyde Park, a place full of literate, if not illuminating, dialogue.

-Dave Lawlor

The Blood Brothers

Burn Piano Island, Burn

Perhaps you're unfamiliar with the Blood Brothers. Let me give you the skinny: they're a five-piece from Seattle who have been gaining recognition over the past few years due to their original, arty, hardcore, and energetic live shows. They're also the latest pet project of ├╝ber-producer Ross Robinson, who is most famous for his role in engineering the radio metal movement of the late-'90s (Korn, Limp Bizkit), while recently attempting to atone for his sins by bringing talented bands to the forefront (At the Drive-In, Glassjaw).

You probably won't like Burn, Piano Island, Burn the first time you hear it. I don't care if you're a long time fan of the Brothers, you just won't like it. The music is too dense (even when compared to their previous efforts), and the melodies are too well-thidden in chaos. But like good pop, these songs blossom with familiarity, and you'll soon be able to pick the songs apart, finding the method to the madness.

A lot of reviewers like to harp on this album's aggressiveness, its cathartic nature. For me, this is not the record's most striking quality; rather it's what's at the core of these songs-something catchy, fun, dare I say danceable. That's not to claim that this is a brainless pop record. The Brothers' lyrics are as artfully crafted as their music. Smart, sarcastic, and snotty, they manage to be provocative without ever taking themselves too seriously. And that's just the stuff that you'll be able to make sense of.

In conclusion, if you can hang with really aggressive music, and don't mind investing a little time in an album to get something out of it, you should check this record out-it's really one of this years' best. Or better yet, check out one of their live shows. It just so happens that they're playing the Fireside Bowl on May 4. I do hope to see some of you there.

-Denver Max