Joshua James: The Sun Is Always Brighter

Like the album’s artwork, Joshua James’ The Sun Is Always Brighter is composed of beautifully muted colors – from “The New Love Song” clear on down to “Commodore,” each track floats along on a quietly melancholy cloud, strung up with plaintively plucked acoustic guitars, tasteful pianos, and – courtesy of ace utility infielder Phil Parlapiano – the occasional organ, accordion, and mandolin. At the forefront is James’ high, husky voice, a deceptively fragile instrument that recalls nothing so much as Ray LaMontagne without the constant threat of suicide. Brighter offers 11 slow pitches down the middle of the plate for fans of hushed backwoods soul with a slight dash of rock – think of the more bucolic moments on early Van Morrison albums like Moondance, and you’re on the right track. Of course, Joshua James isn’t the songwriter Morrison is – hell, he might not even be the songwriter Ray LaMontagne is – but that doesn’t keep Brighter from being a wonderfully easy listen. You may be hard-pressed to remember most of these tracks after they’re done – and if you pay enough attention to the lyrics, you might worry for James’ long-term well-being – but while the record is on, you’ll wish you had a mint julep, a back porch, and a nice breeze blowing through the birches. (Intelligent Noise/Northplatte 2008)

Joshua James MySpace page

Ready Fire Aim: This Changes Nothing

Electronic rock is making a comeback of sorts, and Ready Fire Aim is surely hoping that they can catch the crest of that synthesizer wave to celebrity and success. However, while bands like Does It Offend You, Yeah?, MGMT, and the Klaxons are taking the classic synth-pop sound of the ‘80s and infusing it with everything from intelligent dance music, rave-inspired techno and even punk rock, Ready Fire Aim seems content to play it safe and emulate the stars of the past, with predictably boring results. “Wannabe You,” “Welcome Home,” and just about every track on their debut CD features programmed beats lifted straight from the garbage bin of the Violator sessions, and is full of second-rate retreads of something that’s already been done a thousand times over. Most importantly, lead singer Sage Rader’s (if that’s stage name, he’s an asshole, and if that’s his birth name, then his parents are pricks) bland whisper of a voice is obviously trying to come off as sexy, but instead is just incredibly annoying. Some advice for all you kids with computers and a mixing board: If you want to rip off Depeche Mode, or any of the other great electronic acts of the ‘80s, remember that while they often didn’t have any instruments aside from a drum machine and a high-end Casio, they usually did manage to find someone that could sing. This Changes Nothing is instantly forgettable. Talk about a descriptive album title. (LABEL: Expansion Team 2008)

Ready Fire Aim MySpace page

Toby Keith: 35 Biggest Hits

It’s hard to trash an album while also granting it four stars. There was a time when nobody could touch Toby Keith without getting burned- he was that hot. The big Okie rode an unmatched streak of eight studio releases in 11 years, from 1993’s self-titled debut through the mega-successful Shock’n Y’all in 2003. The past five years, by contract, have produced just two painfully mediocre albums of new material, and now his third greatest hits venture, 35 Biggest Hits. Everything a casual fan needs is included, yet there’s little of anything the harder fan hasn’t already heard. The obligatory new hit “She’s a Hottie” is hardly worth the price tag, but if there are timeline holes in your T.K. collection, this will more than fill those voids. Unfortunately, it’s quite clear now that Keith has chosen to trade in his artist hat for that of record label exec and talent scout. (Show Dog Nashville)

Toby Keith MySpace page

Teitur: The Singer

Somewhere between the time Faroe Islands native Teitur Lassen debuted and sounded like a young Paul Simon (circa 2003) and the time he released his third album, The Singer, he seems to have forgotten how to write songs with mass appeal. Instead of the melodic ear candy on his debut, Poetry & Aeroplanes, or even his sophomore effort, Stay Under the Stars, The Singer is far more experimental. The melodies are different, bordering on off-key, and the sounds and textures of the arrangements are going to lose more than a few of his faithful fans. The one glowing exception is “We Still Drink The Same Water,” which, despite its creepy feel, comes off like a powerful anthem. Despite the oddities, we’ll give Teitur a pass, because we know his amazing songwriting ability is lurking in here somewhere, and he just needed to explore his own depth this time around. (LABEL: Playground)

Teitur MySpace Page

You Me & Iowa: The Adventures of You Me & Iowa

If you champion indie pop with a cool alt-rock undertow, Los Angeles band You Me & Iowa deserves a chance to win a spot in your digital jukebox. The band’s second album, The Adventures of You Me & Iowa, is neatly crafted and features bouncy rhythms and more than a few melodies that will stick in your head for a while. If you remember the ‘80’s band the Housemartins, you’re going to fall in love with the song “Tommy Hall,” easily the best track on this set. But there is a lot more going on, and in the end You Me & Iowa comes off as a more upbeat Death Cab (“Dress the Stage”) or a more mature Daphne Loves Derby (“Margaret Mourning”). We’ll even forgive them for the Barenaked Ladies’ sound-alike, “Goldfish,” because most of this album is full of twists and turns, yet is very easy on the ears. (LABEL: Scrimshaw Jazz)

You Me & Iowa MySpace Page

Ghosty: Answers

The sticker on the cover of Answers, the new album from Lawrence, KS quintet Ghosty, lists the Shins, Big Star and the Wrens as the RIYL bands. And we suppose that’s true, if you culled the softest, quietest moments from those bands and nothing else. In truth, they’re closer to bands like the Red House Painters and Eggstone, combining uncanny pop smarts with a certain Steely Dan casualness. Leadoff track “Dumbo Wins Again” nets the Shins comparison all by itself, and “A Man with Answers” has a hypnotic instrumental finale (think Semisonic’s “She’s Got My Number”). It’s extremely well made, but it’s also easy to get lost in the haze from time to time. A couple shifts in tempo would have worked wonders. (Oxblood Records)

Ghosty MySpace page

Ryan Cabrera: The Moon Under Water

Poor Ryan Cabrera. You don’t remember him, but just a few short years ago, he was the impossibly coiffed half of a teen-pop power couple, introduced to viewers of “The Ashlee Simpson Show” as Simpson’s boyfriend and fellow budding recording artist. Though a debut album produced by John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls sold well, Cabrera arrived too late to take advantage of the genre’s late ‘90s explosion, and for his third release, he’s gone the indie route: The Moon Under Water arrives via Papa Joe Records, the EMI-distributed imprint helmed by Ashlee’s creepy dad, who has remained Cabrera’s manager. Despite the new logo on the album – and Cabrera’s new, carefully tousled image – these 11 songs offer more of the same immaculately produced, puddle-deep Abercrombie rock that took him to the Top 10 a few years ago. Imagine poppier Lifehouse, or marginally more rockin’ late-period Goo Goo Dolls, and you’re on the right track – which is unfortunate for Cabrera, because as easy as this stuff goes down, the ship has pretty much sailed on this type of music for anyone who doesn’t have either of those acts’ name value. The Moon Under Water is surprisingly solid, and has more than its share of sticky-sweet hooks, but that won’t keep Cabrera from playing ribfests this summer. Maybe another reality show is in order. (Papa Joe 2008)

Ryan Cabrera MySpace page

ASHES dIVIDE: Keep Telling Myself It’s Alright

ASHES dIVIDE, despite the odd spelling of band, is the debut project of Billy Howerdel, who founded or fronted A Perfect Circle and Tool, respectively. This project is more along the lines of A Perfect Circle — that is, heavy music that is more about dark, powerful feel rather than walls of guitars. And just like his previous work, Howerdel pushes all the right buttons with ASHES dIVIDE. This is music to close your eyes to and let pulse through your veins, and you don’t necessarily need augmentation from alcohol or some other recreational substance because the music will take you there on its own. A times, the songs do tend to run into each other, but as a whole, this is pretty strong work.
“The Stone” is the first single, and while that track is tailor made for active rock radio, you’ll find that material such as the pulsing rocker “Denial Waits” and the brooding, alt-tinged “Ritual” are more representative of the band’s overall sound. (LABEL: Island)

ASHES dIVIDE MySpace Page

Ferras: Aliens & Rainbows

Ferras is the first name of a dude with a last name that’s hard to pronounce. Hence, the moniker. But let’s talk about his music, because Ferras’ debut, Aliens & Rainbows, is pure adrenaline-drenched pop driven by his own keyboard playing. Ferras got his big break much the same way Daniel Powter did a few years back, landing an “exit song” spot on “American Idol.” That song, “Hollywood’s Not America,” is not just perfect for the role — it’s a brutally honest yet powerful track in its own right. But Ferras, inspired by the likes of David Bowie and Elton John, uses his knack for melody equally well on rockers such as “Liberation Day” and “Blame, Blame, Blame” as he does on ballads like the title track, or the riveting “Take My Lips.” Ferras’ nasal tenor is closer to some of the Warped Tour vocal fare, but his music bears so much substance that you won’t mind. This is definitely an artist worth keeping on your radar, if he’s not on it already. (LABEL: Capitol)

Ferras MySpace page

Kevin Ayers: The Unfairground

You wouldn’t know it from listening to The Unfairground, but Kevin Ayers is considered a pioneer of both psychedelic and progressive music (he counts Eno, Oldfield and Syd Barrett as peers). The Unfairground, however, sounds more like a slightly off-kilter Richard Hawley, singing baroque pop that’s rough around the edges. “Brainstorm” melds breezy strings with a fair amount of feedback, and the title track recalls Lou Reed’s“ Dirty Blvd.” if it were written for a carnival. The best moment bar none is “Cold Shoulder” – it is no coincidence that it plays first when you pull up his MySpace page – which would have fit right in with the songs from Hawley’s album Lady’s Bridge. Extremely ambitious stuff, to be sure, but man, could it have used a larger recording budget. Ork pop should never be given the lo-fi treatment. Still, for a 63-year-old making his first album in 15 years, The Unfairground more than holds its own. (Gigantic Music)

Kevin Ayers MySpace page

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