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Pop at the Top

Richard X. Heyman

Basic Glee

I saw this New York City boy a few days ago on a Cleveland club date, and even though only 15 people showed up, he worked as if he were playing to a full house. Heyman has been making independent, original records with trophy genes since the late ’80s. In love with the British Invasion, Heyman records in his living room (“Tabby Road Studio”), building on the sounds of the Beatles, the Searchers, the Zombies—the high end of classic British rock of the early-to-middle ’60s. He performs frequent “house concerts,” and works some radio stations and the occasional club.

Basic Glee, Heyman’s wonderfully, appropriately titled fifth full-length album, is the best Beatles record of the new millennium. Not only do such tunes as “When Evening Comes,” “Waterline” and “Broken Umbrella” evoke Carnaby Street (oh, yes—another influence is the Hollies), they do so without being slavish. Released on Heyman’s own Turn-Up Records label, Basic Glee is one of the freshest discs of 2002, the kind with tunes you can’t help humming. If this sounds simplistic, it’s not: Crafting indelible pop was never easy, as Heyman’s influences (and, an artist with a similar sensibility Marshall Crenshaw) would attest. Leavening Basic Glee with darker, more Byrdsy tunes and the occasional soul track (“Wishful Thinking” sounds as if McCartney had wandered into the Stax studios) gives Heyman’s album unusual, delightful depth; his energy and affection for the many ways a guitar can sound make his work distinctive. Power pop usually condemns its creators to zero sales and runty reviews in collector magazines. In Heyman’s hands, however, the term is anything but an oxymoron.

—Carlo Wolff



Low’s continued explorations of somnambulist rhythms and enveloping quietude are to be lauded. Over the past decade their spare sound has developed ever more subtly powerful layers. Their latest, Trust, was mixed by Tchad Blake, a perfect choice that bodes well for further collaborations. Last year’s Things We Lost in the Fire (produced by Steve Albini) found the trio adding volume and propulsion previously foreign to their shores. The experience clearly pleased them, and this set’s second song, “Canada,” leaps out with high decibel glee. It’s important to note, though, that it was the second song; the opener is the mesmerizing and ethereal “(That’s How You Sing) Amazing Grace,” a song rich with Low’s characteristic open landscape and spiritual bearing.

The entwined vocals of Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk create an entity that is something different—and often more potent—than their voices alone. Also on the vocal front this time is a guest appearance that no one would’ve seen coming: Gerry Beckley from ’70s soft-rockers America. The album is almost top-heavy with great songs, each one of which has its own confident individuality, each one its own windswept short film. “Little Argument With Myself” has arrangement flourishes that evoke, in the musical library of my mind, “Shootout at the O.K. Corral.” It then gives way to the uneasy lullaby of “La La La Song.” This is an album that yields incredible rewards with each new listening.

—David Greenberger


Float Away With the Friday Night Gods

An honest reaction to Marah’s new album, Float Away With the Friday Night Gods, might be “What the hell is going on?” Anyone even vaguely familiar with the group’s muscular and eclectic roots-rock will find themselves on dauntingly unfamiliar ground. The album opener and debut single, “Float Away,” has to be the pièce de résistance, starting out with a robotic voice and a sampler sweep straight out of a London nightclub, then bursting straight ahead into a downright booty-shaking five minutes laced with funked-out guitar and overlapping vocals. As for the backup singer on “Float Away” who sounds an awful lot like Bruce Springsteen . . . well, that’s Bruce Springsteen, who also plants a sinewy guitar lead in the middle of the track. Welcome to the new roots-rock. This album is big, splashy and beautiful, and one emerges from it with the kind of lightheadedness that might accompany several bites of chocolate mousse.

Don’t be too surprised with the turn of events, though; there’s a big caveat emptor on this one, as the largely pink-and-white CD cover features a disco ball wearing headphones and shades and blowing a large bubble. As for the producer, it’s none other than frequent Oasis collaborator Owen Morris, who, among other things, memorably tethered some phat-ass N.W.A. beats to that group’s “D’You Know What I Mean?” in 1997. (And I’m 99.9-percent sure that Noel Gallagher adds an uncredited backup vocal to this album’s “People of the Underground.”) All of this is evidence enough that FAWTFNG is going to be a far cry from the group’s previous albums. In the past, Marah have displayed a lyrical sense of place and character that echoes Van Morrison and Bruce, so fans might feel a sense of betrayal at “importance” being cashed in for club-kid values. To these ears, however, it’s a whole lot of fun—and much more listenable than the bombast and borderline opportunism of the Boss’s latest. Beneath all of the window dressing, FAWTFNG is a melodically potent, spirited and uplifting rock album.

—Erik Hage

Rob Skane

“It’s a great day,” sings Albany songwriter Rob Skane midway through his latest album. “For a breakdown,” he adds in the next line, revealing that the deceptively upbeat and catchy song, “It’s a Great Day”, has more to do with the narrator’s antidepressant-fueled high than it does with anything positive about the world. Such is the sense of irony that propels Skane’s stellar new album, SelfNoise.

Though the album is generally serious, dark and deeply personal, some of SelfNoise’s bleaker moments are leavened by Skane’s sly humor. The seriocomic “$15.00 Room” finds an inhabitant of a cheap motel room visited by Jesus; the heavenly apparition shares a smoke and a drink while discussing Jimi Hendrix’s musical performances beyond the Pearly Gates. “Jennifer and James” presents a poignant, melancholic portrait of a pair of lovers, until the song is lightened considerably by the songwriter’s name check of Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley.

SelfNoise has an intimate and often sparse feel that has as much to do with the album’s production as it does with its subject matter. Skane recorded and mixed SelfNoise himself and played most of the instruments. His hushed vocals amplify the up-close-and-personal vibe, creating the sensation that the singer is sharing confidences with his listeners. Among Skane’s straightforward and serious songs, “This Ain’t Cool” and the tender “Mercer Street Breakdown” stand out, as does the bitter pill “Hard to Understand,” which shares a psychic resemblance to Grant Hart’s Hüsker Dü work.

—Kirsten Ferguson

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