Absentstar: Sea Trials

After a teaser of a four-song EP in 2007, Chicago rock band Absentstar is back with their debut full-length on Columbia Records, Sea Trials. This quintet has a Brit-pop feel, resembling a cross between the Killers, Keane, and a more melodic version of Blue October. Produced by Semisonic’s Dan Wilson, Absentstar delivers a 12-song set of blazing pop tunes with interesting arrangements and soaring choruses. Lead singer Derek Ingersoll tends to overdo it with that fake British vocal thing, but there’s no denying that this is a talented band with some solid songs. “Half Life” and “For God’s Sakes” are no-brainers as some of the best work here, and were also on the EP. But there is beauty in some of the newly released tracks, such as the haunting “Life Support,” which is driven by raunchy guitar riffs; and “All is Forgotten,” a really pretty piano anthem. Absentstar is not going to set the world on fire, but Sea Trials is certainly a promising debut. (Columbia)

Absentstar MySpace page

Jukebox the Ghost: Let Live and Let Ghosts

Seth Timbs and his mates in Fluid Ounces better check their playbooks, because Washington D.C. trio Jukebox the Ghost lifted entire chapters of it for their debut Let Live and Let Ghosts. “Where Are All the Scientists Now?” in particular feels like Fluid Ounces’ In the New Old Fashioned Way album rolled into one song which, for the uninitiated, is a very, very good thing. Granted, the explosive piano work by singer Ben Thornewill is sure to draw more comparisons to Ben Folds than Timbs, but the sad truth is that Folds hasn’t made a record this effervescent in over a decade. Jukebox the Ghost takes the three-man approach of Ben Folds Five, replaces the bass with a guitar, and creates music that merges Queen’s bombastic spirit with the minimalist approach of the White Stripes. Prog rock for sissies, if you will. It’s quirky and undeniably fun, but a few more hooks would take this material a long way. Love the attitude and approach, though. (The Rebel Group 2008)

Jukebox the Ghost MySpace page

OMD: Live: Architecture & Morality & More

Give OMD credit for knowing the limits of their marketplace potential, and serving up a live record that is right in the wheelhouse of the very people (only people?) who would still consider buying an OMD album at this point in time. Live: Architecture & Morality & More, on paper, is a die-hard’s dream come true, a track-by-track performance of the band’s most highly regarded album, fleshed out with various hit singles from the rest of the band’s catalog. The execution, however, is another matter. The mostly down-tempo album doesn’t exactly leap out of the speakers, Paul Humphreys’ keyboard tracks lack the punch of their studio equivalents, and on the two songs where Humphreys sings lead (“Souvenir” and “(Forever) Live and Die),” his voice wavers all over the place. Such a tantalizing idea – how sweet would it be to see ABC do The Lexicon of Love, or the Human League do Dare, in a similar environment – but two more weeks of rehearsal would have done wonders. (Eagle Records)

OMD MySpace page

Division Day: Beartrap Island

Division Day sure is divided. They can’t decide if they want to be a punk rock band that occasionally branches out into electronic soundscapes, or an experimental electronic band that occasionally takes things up a notch with a tune you can actually dance to. Let’s hope they eventually settle on the former. When they kick up the speed, give their guitar player a real riff to play and let their singer yelp and scream for a bit, they stand out as something worth paying attention to. The energetic “Tigers” highlights the band’s ability to really sound unique when they aren’t afraid to plug their instruments in and let loose. Even better is “Ricky,” an amazing, sinister track with a great squealing guitar riff. Too bad the band seems to avoid doing anything like it for most of the album. It’s almost like Division Day don’t know their own strengths, shying away from explosive songs like “Ricky” and instead moping about in shoegaze purgatory. Of course there’s an audience for that (those My Bloody Valentine fans have to buy something) but it’s not nearly as fun. Oh, and their MySpace page has an awesome cover of Roxy Music’s “More Than This,” which is nowhere to be found on the album. Tease. (Eenie Meenie 2007)

Division Day MySpace page

The Cat Empire: So Many Nights

After heading to Cuba to record its last album, Australia’s the Cat Empire returns to Melbourne for So Many Nights. It’s a sensible homecoming, given that the band has dedicated its fourth full-length to its country of origin, but thankfully, the familiar scenery hasn’t dulled the group’s wanderlust – these 15 tracks are fueled by the same dizzying blend of influences that fans have come to expect from Cat Empire albums, including traces of everything from rap to merengue. It’s like a mix CD soundtrack for the coolest party you’ll never throw, only all the songs are performed by the same band. They embrace eclecticism more fervently than pretty much any modern pop band you could think of, which is probably why their wild Australian success hasn’t carried over to American shores – it isn’t hard to imagine your average program director shitting a literal brick after listening to So Many Nights. Longtime fans might quibble with the disappearance of the Cuban overtones that popped up on last year’s Two Shoes, but only momentarily; after that, they’ll be too busy dancing to care. If you crave variety in your music – or are just looking for proof that Gloria Estefan was right, and yes, the rhythm is gonna get you – So Many Nights is one of the safer purchases you’ll come across all year. (Velour 2008)

Cat Empire MySpace page

American Speedway: Ship of Fools

It’s about time someone got the old formula of fast, loud metal right. Sure, bands like Mastadon and the Sword are great, but all that stuff about whales and mythical beasts can get old after a while. Sometimes you just want to listen to songs about screwing, fighting, and drinking – and that’s when you should listen to American Speedway. Offering nonstop, balls-out thrash with some punk thrown in for good measure, this Philly band delivers the goods on their debut album, Ship of Fools. This is music to listen to while you downing a bottle of whiskey and punching a hippie in the face. Song about sex? Check. Songs about fast cars? Check. Songs about illicit drugs and alcohol? Double check, via the one-two punch of “Drinkin’ and Drivin’” and “Cocaine.” This is not a record you let your kids listen to if you’re trying to instill in them a sense of responsible drinking and a “Just Say No” drug policy. However, if you’re a drunken mess who sees hardcore drugs as a perfect cure to a hangover, then congratulations – you just found the soundtrack to your life. Ten songs, 30 minutes, no bullshit. Someone call Lemmy, we just found the opening act for Motorhead’s next tour. (LABEL: Prophase Music 2008)

MySpace Link

Peasant: On the Ground

As much as you might think you miss Elliott Smith, Peasant’s Damien DeRose misses him more, and made a record to prove it. On the Ground, DeRose’s second album under the Peasant name, so faithfully captures Smith’s acoustic melancholy – DeRose also does a mean impression of Smith’s butterfly tenor – that it borders on necrophilia. Thankfully, DeRose is nowhere near as depressed as Smith was, so while his songs may seem sad, they’re not bleak. Indeed, there is a dash of Shins-style whimsy sprinkled throughout the proceedings that keep the album from venturing into downer territory. The end result is an album that’s pretty, but slight. If it contained more songs like “Stop for Her,” which could easily pass for a bonus track from Smith’s Figure 8, we’d be talking about something truly special. (LABEL: Paper Garden 2008)

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Derek Webb & Sandra McCracken: Ampersand EP

When married actors work together on a project, the end result is often unwatchable (“Shanghai Surprise,” “Eyes Wide Shut”). This might explain why Christian progressive and pop classicist Derek Webb and his wife Sandra McCracken released 13 albums between them before daring to record something together; they’re too smart to fall into that trap. However, one listen to their first joint venture, an EP simply titled Ampersand, will make one want to slap them silly for not working together sooner. Webb may have the higher profile, but McCracken is this EP’s star. Her song “When the Summer’s Gone” is the best song Sheryl Crow never wrote, “Watch Your Mouth” is as good as – or better than – the material on Webb’s superb 2007 album The Ringing Bell, and the two do a sublime cover of BobDylan’s “If Not for You.” The couple’s status as best kept secret is officially on notice. (LABEL: Derek Webb & Sandra McCracken 2008)

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Flight of the Conchords: Flight of the Conchords

Just when you thought you’d finally gotten their songs out of your head, New Zealand’s “fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy-folk duo” Flight of the Conchords strikes back with a full-length album to hold fans over until the return of their eponymous hit HBO series. Though this is actually their third album to date – a live CD (Folk the World Tour) was released in 2002 and a six-song EP (The Distant Future) sneaked into stores last year – the self-titled disc is the duo’s first official studio album. Most of the songs that appear in the 15-track collection have been available in some format before, and though several (like the 80s rap-inspired “Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymenoceros”) actually lose some of their comedic bite without visuals to go along with the lyrics, others are just as effective without them. “The Prince of Parties” (a Bollywood meets the Beatles pop-rock tune) is the perfect example of a song that, while hilarious when viewed in the context of a drug-induced fantasy, is still something you wouldn’t mind listening to while driving around town. The same goes for many others, including the pop ballad “Leggy Blonde,” the synthesizer-heavy “Robots,” and a glam rock homage to David Bowie. It’s too bad, then, that there are still a few stinkers on the disc; especially when personal favorites like “I’m Not Crying,” “If You’re Into It” and “Frodo (Don’t Wear the Ring)” didn’t make the final cut. Still, the Conchords remain one of the freshest acts in the entertainment industry (whether it’s as comedians or musicians), and as long as they continue to crank out quality material, we’ll be around to spread the good word. (LABEL: SubPop 2008)

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nelo: nelo

nelo (rhymes with “hello,” spelled all lowercase, says the one-sheet) is a young band from Athens, Georgia by way of Austin, Texas. And while these kids were in high school a decade ago, they managed to endear themselves to that Dave Matthews-meets-Sister Hazel brand of Southeastern jam rock, a sound they still bring to the table in 2008. But while many bands have tried to emulate that sound, it’s not always this easy to find one that does it well. nelo does that with decent songs and outstanding musicianship. Plus, lead singer Reid Umstattd can positively belt this stuff out. In all, nelo has put together a really nice debut that is tailor made for AAA radio. Most of it is jangly pop/rock, but some of the best tracks are the slower ones, such as “On Top of Love,” “Alright,” and “Please.” This band might blend in with a lot of other artists, but if they keep writing material this solid, they could wind up on tour for the next twenty years. (LABEL: Justice Records 2008)

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