eviews of new CDs by local bands Scarlet, Copper Sails, Plasmodium, Special Ed and the Shortbus, and the “804 Noise” compilation.
Copper Sails “Silhouette” (self-released)
This disc, the fourth for the Richmond band Copper Sails, has some things going for it. The production is first-rate, care of John Morand at Sound of Music Studios. The execution’s good — these guys can play. The singer is strong and handles his chores ably throughout, varying dynamics and intensity. The mix correctly puts the vocals out front, focusing attention on the most compelling aspect of the band.
However, there’s something missing from “Silhouette,” and that’s memorable material. The songs themselves bog things down, and the band can’t rise above them. The songwriting and guitar work sounds derivative of ’80s bands that tried to have it both ways — to be sensitive while rocking heavily. The arrangements aren’t very imaginative, and a credible melody is just out of reach on many cuts.
“Question” stands out clearly from the rest of the album. After aping U2’s “Elevation” for a few measures, it kicks in and doesn’t let go. It’s a much better song than all the rest and offers hope for the future. If the album were full of material this strong there’d be reason for excitement.
Copper Sails do what they do well, and that’s gotten them some modest success, opening for a range of national acts. But what they do to this point is not very distinctive, and it’s not enough to get them to headliner status. ** — Andy Garrigue
Plasmodium “Clairaudience” (Dry County Records)
Eclectic, adventurous and, at times, shamelessly silly, Plasmodium wears a variety of arty genres before taking off the mask to reveal the clown face underneath. A collaboration between Hotel X percussionist Jim Thompson and Bio Ritmo trumpeter Bob Miller, the CD is firmly in the wiseass rock tradition, a witty combination of avant-garde and pop elements by players who love serious music but just can’t keep a straight face.
The early songs are deadpan. The opening ambient piece is followed by “Sin,” whose angst-drenched lyrics over drum loop and bass riff sound like a collaboration between Brian Eno and Morphine. The next song, “Ancestor,” could be out of the Bill Laswell world-funk songbook. “Space Eye” may be the best piece on the album, walking the knife-edge between clever and stupid with the assurance of early Pink Floyd.
But there’s no going back after “Dr. Octobongopus,” an audaciously self-conscious one-joke bit of a sort seldom attempted since the breakup of the legendary Bonzo Dog Band. From here on it’s all jokes, first the field-recording drive-through comedy of “Reimagining the Raven” and finally the hard-boiled, paranoid convenience clerk yarn “CCCCCCCCCCCCC.”
It’s fair to question how well this will stand up over multiple listenings; the humor is fairly obvious, and even the most brilliant recorded comedy tends to fade as fast as the flavor in gum. But it’s got a beat, and you can dance to it. *** — Peter McElhinney
Special Ed and the Shortbus “Special Ed and the Shortbus” and “Downhill From Here” (self-released)
This popular local alternative bluegrass band has released two new albums simultaneously, an eponymous set of clean material and “Downhill from Here,” which displays the band’s penchant for potty humor.
These two CDs also vividly reveal Special Ed’s sins and saving graces. When the band stays at the controls during its musical ride it displays real talent. When members goof off, it’s pretty much a waste of time.
Both albums offer plenty of clean and classy guitar. Songs feature monster mandolin, slick fiddling and banjo picking. A flute injects texture and the bass is steady. The band can really play.
It’s harder to appreciate the lyrics and vocals. Most of the songs on “Downhill” are intended to display the band’s ribald lyrical side, but, overall, it’s a pretty mild and uninteresting effort. Too often, what’s intended as offbeat or clever falls flat. And why do folks who apparently like bluegrass enough to play it try to sing like hillbillies when it’s so foreign to their natural style? It too often comes off as mockery.
I understand the boys put on a whale of a show. These guys are obviously out to have a good time and instrumentally they’re impressive. The loose and lively weirdness probably works well on stage, but on a CD it’s pretty pointless. Objective production ears and a harder look at the song selection would make for a better package next time. “Special Ed and the Shortbus” ***; “Downhill from Here” ** — Ames Arnold
Various Artists “804 Noise” (804 Records)
This compilation of sound manipulations by regional artists is unified by the contributors’ sometimes-violent idea of what can be called music. This genre of mostly instrumental sound is known alternately as experimental noise, noise-rock and sometimes just noise. “804 Noise” also contains drum and bass elements, and many of the pieces have a soundtrack quality.
Whatever you call them, these machine-based compositions force listeners to divorce themselves from traditional notions of melody and harmony. Some of the tracks are deliberately designed to chafe the ear (like the calculated irritation of “Count” by Birds In A Meadow). Others offer soothing evaluations of sound (the subterranean sophistication of Stephen Smith’s “For L”). But even the latter defy convention in ways that the uninitiated may find thoroughly displeasing.
If there ‘s a theme beyond the complete disregard for conventional structure, it is a driving sense of experimentation and discovery. Obvious influences aren’t readily apparent, though bits and pieces of the musical avant-garde can be found by those willing to listen. The free jazz of “Zin (Unfinished)” by the appropriately named To Kill A Petty Bourgeoisie, and the hip-hop of “An Uplifting Thought” by Manic Amyche are a couple of examples.
Though this forward-thinking approach to music will always be relegated to the fringe, “804 Noise” will find a loving home in any CD collection open to the unfamiliar. ***— C.B.