Wild Sweet Orange: We Have Cause to Be Uneasy

You’d think a band with a name like Wild Sweet Orange would offer up bouncy, immaculately produced pop music – you know, somewhere between Cheap Trick and blink-182 – but this Alabama four-piece draws its wild sweetness from Southern roots. This isn’t to say they sound like Skynyrd or Kenny Chesney – they’re far, far from either – but there’s a strong component of dark Southern gothic to the group’s full-length debut, reflected strongly in atmospheric, melancholy tracks such as “Land of No Return.” Frontman Preston Lovinggood has a bright, elastic voice with pleasantly ragged edges, and the band – rounded out by drummer Chip Kilpatrick, guitarist Taylor Shaw, and bassist Garret Kelly – does a fine job of building the sort of gloomy tension you’d expect from an album with a title like We Have Cause to Be Uneasy. Songs like opener “Ten Dead Dogs” hearken back to the best of the downcast mid-‘90s alt-rockers, and “Seeing Is Believing” proves they can pull off a power ballad with the best of ‘em. The album stumbles when the band shows off its dynamic range by veering into screechy emo territory, but otherwise, this is a strong opening statement from a band that – wonder of wonders! – actually has something to say. (Canvasback 2008)

Wild Sweet Orange MySpace page

Pas/Cal: I Was Raised on Matthew, Mark, Luke and Laura

Someone call the cops, because Dan Bejar’s been robbed. With I Was Raised on Matthew, Mark, Luke and Laura, Detroit’s Pas/Cal has assembled one gorgeous (but lengthy) love letter to the Destroyer and part-time New Pornographer, churning out song after song of ornate but odd guitar pop. “Glorious Ballad of the Ignored” seems to have five or six mini-suites all by itself. It’s immaculately done but also overdone, turning on themselves so many times that it’s easy to get lost mid-song. These guys clearly know their way around a melody, but one wonders what kind of masterpiece they could whip up if they forced themselves to keep it simple. (Le Grand Magistry 2008)

Pas/Cal MySpace page

Kessler: I Know Your Voice

Yes, there are a lot of bands that sound like Kessler. The Dallas quintet’s sound falls somewhere between Warped Tour and Family Values, but with songwriting chops that rival power pop industry benchmarks like Butch Walker and Fountains of Wayne. I Know Your Voice is the band’s debut and if you came to the table wanting to hate it, you’re going to walk away disappointed. Kessler isn’t doing something that hasn’t been done before, but you’ll be tapping your feet and grooving before you know what’s happening. Add to the equation producer Jim Wirt (Hoobastank, Jack’s Mannequin) and you probably already know what Kessler sounds like. But this is a strong debut, in particular the first single, “Outside Your Window,” which sounds like summer. Other standouts are the Goo Goo Dolls-ish “Dallas” and the blazing “The Missing.” (YMA Records)

Kessler MySpace Page

One Flew South: Last of the Good Guys

Much as critics tend to bellyache about it, there’s something to be said for music with a bit of cold, hard calculation behind it. Artistic purity is all well and good, but it’s also unruly – and it often doesn’t pack the same kind of punch as an album that’s been immaculately groomed and aimed at a target demographic. Case in point: One Flew South’s debut, Last of the Good Guys, a dozen tracks of hooky, harmony-drenched, kinda-country music that tosses all the most radio-friendly bits of the Eagles and CSNY into a blender, scoops in a dollop of Taxiride and the Thorns, and serves it up sweet and smooth. The band didn’t take any chances here, hooking up with producer/platinum songwriter Marcus Hummon and Nashville ringers like Kevin Welch, Billy Mann, and – nice touch – J.D. Souther. But as gritless as the results are, they’re also awfully hard to argue with; only the most hard-hearted of listeners will be able to deny the sunny vibes and tight-as-a-drum harmonies of tracks like “My Kind of Beautiful,” “It Is Good,” and “Blue Highways.” The absence of a lead vocalist might be disorienting for younger ears that have been weaned on the harmony-deficient stuff of recent years – even newer vocal groups like (shudder) Rascal Flatts don’t utilize the power of multiple voices this way – but for folks who still turn out to see Henley and Frey play the hits every summer, Last of the Good Guys will go down nice and easy. Nothing but good, clean fun. (Decca 2008)

One Flew South MySpace page

Sammy Walker: Misfit Scarecrow

“Sammy Walker is not Bob Dylan or John Prine,” says one Amazon reviewer, and though in most cases that would seem to be as pointlessly obvious a statement as pointing out that a high school quarterback isn’t Brett Favre, Walker’s music actually bears a spookily strong resemblance to early ‘60s Zimmerman. Misfit Scarecrow could be, as Nigel Tufnel might say, none more Dylan. But Walker’s no imitator – he was discovered by none other than Phil Ochs in the mid ‘70s, cut some fine albums for Warners early in his career, and this 16-song set marks his first domestic release in nearly three decades. You may not know his name, but he’s been at this for a long time, and it shows in the material – though most of Scarecrow relies on nothing more intricate than Walker’s reedy voice and a few well-chosen instruments, it’s frequently riveting; the 16 tracks stride along with the sense of purpose and easy economy that a songwriter only earns after spending plenty of time in the trenches. It isn’t going to take the place of Bringing It All Back Home in your collection, and it almost certainly isn’t going to change Walker’s status as a pop culture footnote – but it’s still a damn fine record, and probably the most authentic piece of old-school folk music we’re going to hear all year. Here’s hoping Walker’s next album arrives far more quickly. (Ramseur 2008)

Sammy Walker MySpace page

Revmatic: Cold Blooded Demon

Going by their H.R. Giger-lite cover art and the vaguely-threatening title Cold Blooded Demon, it’s obvious that Revmatic want to be taken seriously as a “real” metal band. And while the group does manage to keep things at a constant fast and loud pace on their third album, they forgot to make it good. Hyper-fast guitars chug non-stop on Cold Blooded Demon, speeding their way through at near-Motorhead intensity on the opening “Head My Way” and rarely slowing down until the slightly more subdued closing number “So Far Away.” And while the crunching riffs start out great, they quickly get old as Revmatic reveals itself to be a one-trick pony, with their one trick being slightly heavier than usual, Top 40-friendly post-grunge bullshit. They may know how to plug an amp in and crank it to 11, but they sure as hell can’t do anything past that. The recurring theme of Cold Blooded Demon is “I hate that bitch because I love her so much” with titles like “She’s a Drug,” “Lie to Love” and “Such a Disease” singing the praise of dysfunctional relationships. Even if you somehow still like crap like this, you can do better. Doesn’t Puddle Of Mudd have a new CD out? (Self-released)

Revmatic Myspace Page

Cockpit: Mission to Rock

Stepping into the gaping void left when Vixen, Lita Ford, and Pat Benatar stopped releasing new music, Los Angeles’ own Cockpit (heh, heh, heh) brings amped-up all-female rock back to whoever’s still asking for it in 2008. The size of that audience – at least outside Oklahoma, where Cockpit (snigger) performed to festival crowds last month at the second annual Rocklahoma gathering – may not be what it was 20 years ago, but the band doesn’t seem to mind; Mission to Rock is every bit as old school as its title, featuring five songs about, well, rocking. The band may use less makeup than Poison, but it’s taken all the important cues from the hair-metal warriors of yore, right down to the dumb stage names (Terrii Kiing and Alicia Blü, come on down!), and the songs on this EP provide all the loud, riff-heavy entertainment any fan of the genre could ask for. The advance promo doesn’t list any production credits, but whoever was behind the boards for Mission to Rock deserves credit for presenting the band in the most flattering light possible – the drums are dry and punchy, the vocals are high in the mix, and, most importantly, the guitars are bright and wiry. It’s easy to point and laugh at music this deliberately anachronistic, but Cockpit (they said “cock”) is a lot more fun than most other new rock bands. Best of luck, ladies. (Pedal to the Metal 2008)

Cockpit MySpace page

The Black Kids: Partie Automatic

There is a strong case to be made here for the importance of sequencing. The track listing for Partie Automatic, the debut album from Florida synth-rockers the Black Kids, paints the band into a corner before they’ve had a chance to spread their wings. Opening songs “Hit the Heartbreaks” and the title track are serviceable enough, but it’s the third track that throws everything out of whack: The weedier-than-weedy “Listen to Your Body Tonight” has no business whatsoever in the three-hole; that slot is tailor-made for lead single “I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance with You,” which would have propped up everything on either side of it. Instead, “Boyfriend” is batting seventh, behind the girl group-ish “I’ve Underestimated My Charm (Again),” which feels like an answer record to the Pipettes. Granted, those two songs work really well together, but is anyone still listening by this point? Lead singer Reggie Youngblood has a few different speeds, but his strained Robert Smithisms dominate the front half, making the album a more laborious listen than it needs to be. Our suggestion: re-sequence the album, and replace “Listen to Your Body Tonight” with their cover of Sophie B. Hawkins’ “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover.” Everyone loves a cover version, right? (Columbia)

The Black Kids MySpace page

Jon Peter Lewis: Break the Silence

Yeah, he was a contestant on “American Idol,” but don’t expect Manilow levels of showbiz schmaltz from Jon Peter Lewis’ sophomore release, Break the Silence – for better or worse, he identifies far more strongly with slightly rockin’ singer/songwriters like Richard Marx. Fortunately, he’s absorbed more from his influences than the ability to be tasteful; Silence is stacked with unexpectedly ingratiating melodies, put across by Peters’ clear, graceful vocals and abetted by a band of session ringers that includes drummer Kenny Aronoff, guitarist Tim Pierce, and studio utility infielder Charles Judge. More convincing than Clay Aiken and more entertaining than Daughtry, Lewis should be on the Top 40 instead of selling his wares on a piddling little indie label – really, the set’s only major problem is Lewis’ occasional dependence on platitudes like ”Even in your darkest hour / You’re still beautiful.” Well, that and the fact that he’s the millionth person to cover Dylan’s “To Make You Feel My Love” – but if you’ve got a weakness for soaring melodies and impeccably arranged pop-rock, you’ll be willing to forgive these minor trespasses. It’s a minor gem, but Break the Silence still shines brightly. (Cockaroo 2008)

Jon Peter Lewis MySpace page

Paper Route: Are We All Forgotten EP

The most shocking thing about Are We All Forgotten, the perky little EP from the Nashville quartet Paper Route, is the label that’s daring to release it. Apparently, Universal Motown didn’t get the memo that, as Eminem once bluntly put it, nobody listen to techno. Their “mistake,” as it were, is our gain, because this is one nifty collection of ambient electronic pop. The title song is the clear standout, armed with a skittery drum track and more jangly guitar than that entire La’s album. Lead singer Chad Howat’s tenor has a bit of Carl Newman to it at times, notably on “Empty House,” and the band is keen to balance the earnestness of the lyrics with plenty of ‘hoo hoos’ and ‘ha has.’ Gorgeous stuff. Looking forward to the full-length album. (Low Altitude/Universal Motown)

Paper Route MySpace page

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