Moovers and Shakers 2005

Backbeat scribes weigh in on their favorite new releases from the past year.

This year, more and more listeners beyond Colorado's borders have discovered what area fans have known for a long time: There are some damned fine performers here. But for every act that's receiving a national push, there are a lot of others making music that deserves to be heard by the masses, too, and not just their friends and family.

Big names such as Vaux and the Fray are represented in the list below, as they should be. Just as exciting, though, are entries from less celebrated but equally talented local heroes who encompass a huge range of sounds and styles. In fact, there's only one category we've skipped: recordings that suck. So listen up, Denver. You're sure to find it a mooving experience.

Across Tundras, Divides (Feeling Faint). Dividesis like a bruise: The longer you live with it, the deeper the hurt sinks in and the more vivid all those ugly colors get. Besides being one of the most gorgeously packaged local discs in memory, this four-song micro-epic has Across Tundras unleashing a drone-metal onslaught as elemental as those of Earth, sunn0))) and Ocean -- only a tad bit frostbitten. Anything to numb the pain. -- Jason Heller

Judith Avers, Strong Hands (Satire Records). This past spring, Judith Avers quietly left Denver for the hills of West Virginia. Sadly, she moved before folks really got a chance to know her, but at least she left behind this achingly beautiful disc to remember her by. Strong Hand's sparse arrangements allow Avers's beguiling voice to take center stage. If only those hands were strong enough to keep her here. -- Dave Herrera

badpenny, Special Racer (Self-released). Confidence radiates from badpenny, a brawny three-piece fronted by Sandeigh Barrett. The likes of "Half Way Gone" and "Waste of Time" (which most certainly isn't) rock in a no-jive manner that pays dividends with each repeat listen. Such a strategy only works if a band's got the goods. This one does. -- Michael Roberts

Black Pegasus, Knuckle Up (Brass Knuckle Entertainment). Representing Colorado Springs, Black P has developed into one of Colorado's more charismatic MCs. While opening summer concerts for Nas and Immortal Technique, he proved equal to the task, winning over an initially apathetic crowd with his energetic stage presence -- not to mention soulful raps from this impressive sophomore release. -- James Mayo

Blusom, The Metapolitan(Second Nature Recordings). Michael Behrenhausen and Jaime "Jme" White are an ideal match -- a singer-songwriter unafraid to give listeners a glimpse of his soul and a low-key production whiz who's equally comfortable in acoustic and electronic settings. Their bold blend of heartfelt balladry and aural adventurousness makes The Metapolitan the place to be. -- Roberts

Born in the Flood, The Fear That We May Not Be (Self-released). Born in the Flood's watermark has risen remarkably in the past year, riding a wave of transcendental performances by the four-piece. But Flood is much more than just a compelling live act, as evidenced by this latest effort. A stunning progression from its earlier work, The Fear That We May Not Be boasts the band's strongest songwriting to date. Immerse yourself. -- Herrera

Cephalic Carnage, Anomalies (Relapse). What Anomalies lacks in... Wait a second: Anomaliesdoesn't lack in anything. For the first time, the band has made an album that totally lives up to its chops, intelligence and international repute -- aided by local producer Dave Otero, who wrung some massive sounds and feverish inspiration out of the sick brain of Cephalic. -- Heller

Cession, Until the World Goes... (Mpact Records). World has uncommon depth for a debut CD, and for good reason: Exavier "Marte" Russell Swain and Terrence "Smoke" McGinnis worked together for more than a decade before dropping this batch of knowledge with the help of partner Joseph "Fuqua" Jones. Together the Cession players furnish a hip-hop production that's built to last. -- Roberts

Constellations, Sistering (Self-released). Examining the shed chrysalis of an insect can reveal a lot about what it's morphed into. Since Sisteringwas released at the start of 2005, Constellations has changed its lineup and shifted its focus, but the disc still stands as an intriguing document of Denver's most exciting and spastic post-punk work in progress. -- Heller

Dead Heaven Cowboys, Dead Heaven Cowboys (Fist Music). Dead Heaven Cowboys' self-titled sophomore release is a bleak, riff-laden excursion that bridges the gap between the sleazy underbelly of the late '80s and the Dirt-ier days of the early '90s. Immaculately recorded by Mark Obermeyer and Jim Strickler, with a guest appearance by Dick Meis, Dead is easily among the best hard-rock releases of 2005. -- Herrera

The Dearly Beloved, Strap-on Halo (Self-released). 'Tis a pity that this fun-loving fringe-folk trio disbanded last fall. But at least Jennifer Waters, Whitney Rehr and Laura Coleman hung together long enough to release Strap-on Halo, a simmering, smoky slab of blues-infused goodness that speaks to the goddess in all of us. Somewhere, Sappho is smiling. -- John La Briola

(die) Pilot, Radiation, Weather, Art (Self-released). Radiation, Weather, Art is the sprawling masterwork of Eugene Brown, a transplant from Kentucky. Instantly captivating, (die) Pilot's inaugural disc finds Brown and company infusing quietly meditative songs with interstellar bursts of ambience. If Mark Kozelek reimagined the work of Mazzy Star as filtered through vintage Floyd, it might sound something like this. -- Herrera

Doe, On the Run Gettin Money/ Big City Big Dreams (Upset Records). As co-founder of Upset, a new label, Doe flooded the market with plenty of gangsta product this year. He also established himself as a formidable producer and MC on records featuring Nyke Loc, Cavalear, E-40 and the late Mac Dre, as well as on these two confident solo joints. -- Mayo

Dojo, Adaptation (Dojo Sound). Local sound-bombers DNile, McPullish and CacheFlow, among others, recontextualize the productions of Selecta Roswell, who forms the core of this experimental hip-hop group with Analog Suspect. The result is a kind of Asiatic-influenced tone poem that connects the dots between dub, trip-hop and other electronic assaults. -- Mayo

D.O. The Fabulous Drifta, Guns...The New Watermelon (Five Points Plan Recordings). The Ground Zero Movement may add up to more than the sum of its parts, but its individual elements are noteworthy on their own. Witness D.O., whose solo effort (assembled with a little help from his friends) is smart, funny, incisive and hooky as can be. He's Fabulous, and this disc is, too. -- Roberts

Bill Douglas and Ty Burhoe, Sky (Tala Records). Ty Burhoe is the area's foremost booster of the tabla, an instrument whose unexpected versatility is effectively showcased on his new imprint's first release. His playing splashes percussive color onto a broad palette highlighted by pianist Bill Douglas, bass magician Kai Eckhardt and ex-Journey drummer Steve Smith. This is one beautiful Sky. -- Roberts

Dressy Bessy, Electrified (Transdreamer Records). Tammy Ealom has always had a way with sunny pop. This time around, however, the memorable melodies she renders with the assistance of guitarist John Hill, drummer Craig Gilbert and bassist Rob Greene are dispensed in brawnier, more substantial ways. Thanks to this tack, the fun lingers instead of dissipating the instant the CD stops. -- Roberts

Drug Under, Drug Under (Fist Music). Drug Under's self-titled disc is one of the strongest hard-rock debuts in recent memory. Driven by Eric Greenwall's muscular fretwork and the powerful, polished vocals of Chris Romero, the album brims with one standout track after another. All killer with no filler, Drug Under is a must-have for fans of heavy, melodic tuneage. -- Herrera

Tha Empire Nation, "Birth of an Empire Mixtape," 303rd Division, (Self-released). Tha Empire Nation is dedicated to helping a nationwide pool of artists get their music heard outside their area codes. This excellent sampler, mixed by DJ Chonz, is a first step. The disc features Nation co-founders L.O.C. and D-Smooth, plus a new generation of MCs (Cal-Gone, Thu-G, M.O.E., Pimpsta Mystik) who drop rhymes over blazing beats. -- Mayo

Extra Kool, Mouth Full of Stitches (Dirty Laboratory). On his fourth solo record, Kool, a member of Optik Fusion Embrace, delivers rapid-fire punches that pummel listeners with amusing titles ("Subtle Evolution of a Sock Puppet") and ironic twists ("I'm So Happy"). Satyr, who provides the bulk of the beats, creates a stark atmosphere in which Kool vents his imagination. -- Mayo

Felisa, Sacrificios (Mestisoul Entertainment). Felisa Herrera doesn't stick to a single sound. Rather, she mines a slew of subgenres ranging from pop and R&B to hip-hop and reggaeton to produce an enjoyably multi-culti hybrid. Sacrificios is advertised as a preview of a forthcoming double CD. If this sample is any indication, the final package will be an embarrassment of riches. -- Roberts

The FlashBangs, Viva La Blah Blah Blah (Self-released), Soon after issuing their stunning debut full-length, the FlashBangs imploded. Too bad for Denver. The group's purity and from-the-barrel belligerence made the rest of the world's Joan Jett-setters sound pale by comparison. Why couldn't some of the sucky bands around here have broken up instead? -- Heller

The Fray, How to Save a Life (Epic). Unsurprisingly, How to Save a Life, the national debut from one of Denver's most high-profile acts to date, is proving to be a crossover success. After all, it's bolstered by earnest, contemplative songs that are instantly relatable. If you've only heard "Over My Head (Cable Car)" and assume that's as good as it gets, you really should get a Life. -- Herrera

Fred Hess Quartet, Crossed Paths (Tapestry). Hess has been one of Denver's finest saxophonist for ages -- and no wonder, since he's blessed with impeccable taste, gorgeous tone and undimmed curiosity. Assisted by a highly skilled cast led by trumpeter Ron Miles, bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Matt Wilson, Hess turns numbers such as "On Perry St." into Paths worth taking. -- Roberts

GasHead, Knuckles Avec Sombreros (Fist Music). Instrumental thrash with an understated Latin sensibility, GasHead's successor to LandSpeedRecord takes humorous liberties by tweaking metal's big, bad, bloated sense of itself. Instead of snarling goats and inverted crosses, the Fort Collins-based trio raises Molotov cocktails in a gleeful toast to abstract science, hockey and the absurd. Shred alert! -- La Briola

The Inactivists, Disappointing Follow-up(Self-released). As self-deprecating as they are innovative, the nerd-friendly members of the Inactivists take a playful approach to pop confection. But what exactly to call it? Theremin-addled funk? Clarinet-driven spazz-lounge? Jazz-baiting excursions into the darkest underbelly of the 4H Club? It's all that and more, Poindexter. -- La Briola

Jett Black, To Hell and Back (Fist Music). Jett Black (aka Jeff Arnold) set off a flurry of Amber Alerts last winter after he and his namesake band abruptly dropped out of sight. This past August, however, the act re-emerged with a revamped lineup and an updated sound that owes a sizable debt to the Reverend Horton Heat and Velvet Revolver. Hellfire and Brylcreem, anyone? -- Herrera

Local 33, Hearts That Bend (Self-released). Eric Lowe denies being under the influence of John Mellencamp. But listening to Hearts That Bend, you have to wonder if he might be fibbing a bit. Sure, the Local 33 leader probably owes a bigger debt to Son Volt, but the wheat-whipped rusticity of Mellencamp's best work can be heard in Hearts' rugged, earthy country rock. -- Heller

The Maybellines, A La Carte (Best Friends). The Maybellines' formula hasn't changed much since their first release five years ago. But the band has gotten ever better at exploring the boundaries of its self-imposed playpen. A La Carteis as sugary and breezy as its predecessors, but within the confines of twee indie pop, the disc manages to plumb stunning depths and pathos. Now, that's a sweet trick. -- Heller

Meese, The Oh No EP(Self-released). Patrick Meese previously issued most of these songs on his solo debut, I Don't Buy It. Since then, however, he's assembled a band and rerecorded the primarily piano-driven tunes, arriving at a sound that's less precious than that of Sufjan Stevens but every bit as spectral. Keep your eye on this extraordinary talent. -- Herrera

John Nathan, Party of One (Self-released). Outlaw-country artist John Nathan might take satisfaction in seeing an old girlfriend who looks like hell. But he's more apt to buy a shot for the nerve-jangled war veteran one bar stool away. When he's seated alone, as he is here, he's at his storytelling best, spinning candid weepers capable of making Roy Orbison or Hank Williams laugh until they cry. -- La Briola

Nightingale, Nightingale (Self-released). Not for the hard of hearing or the faint of heart, Nightingale's stellar EP blends walls of deafening feedback, dissonance, buzz and hum into a swirling, psychedelic dream state. My Bloody Valentine? More like My Bloody Eardrums. But there's an odd, soothing quality to all of the melodic, tar-thick, two-chord drones, making the band (newly rechristened as Moccasin) well worth a listen. -- La Briola

Oakhurst, Dual Mono (Big Bender Records). A spirited acoustic hoedown in an overcrowded cabin near Walsenburg launched Dual Mono, Oakhurst's debut full-length. Clean and off the cuff, it's rowdy, warm and inviting. Essentially a roundup of live first takes, the rustic gem captures five veteran roots-rockers injecting bluegrass into an old-timey mountain sound. Put another log on the fire. -- La Briola

Oblio Duo, Oblio Duo (Self-released). Why hasn't Denver heard of Oblio Duo before? Because unlike legions of mediocre yet inexplicably egotistic songwriters, Steven Lee Lawson and Will Duncan don't seem to really grasp the enormity of their own genius. But they sure know how to put it into song. Pray that the first time you hear this disc, it's pouring rain outside. You'll never be the same. -- Heller

The Omens, Destroy the ESP (Hipsville). How do the Omens succeed where a half-million garage-rock pretenders over the past few years have laughably failed? Simple: by dropping the pose and clawing their fucking guts out. Trends come and (thankfully) go, but ESP's primal scream will have a half-life of forever. -- Heller

The Photo Atlas, No, Not Me, Never (Morning After Records). No, Not Me, Never, the second release from Morning After Records, is by far one of the year's finest discs. Resting on temperamental faultlines of rumbling bass runs and frenetic drumming, the act's joyously erratic rhythm section grinds together, creating fissures that vocalist/guitarist Alan Andrews soars over with his high-pitched shrills. The effect is seismic on the dance floor. -- Herrera

Rraahh Foundashun, Tha Revolushun (Shunpowa Recordings). On their third release, Keo, Shunfist, King Mississippi and the rest of the Foundashun dish out Native Tongues-like rhymes and tight production values that put the emphasis on drums and influences like Hubert Laws. Together they radiate a righteous, cosmically sophisticated vibe. -- Mayo

Strangers Die Everyday, They Have Already Defeated Us at What We Know Best (Self-released). Being moved to tears by music is the lamest of cliches. But it happens, and Strangers Die Everyday's debut full-length is proof. Stretched to the point of distortion by classical strings (cello, violin) on one side and a post-rock rhythm section (electric bass, drums) on the other, this instrumental group's tension and melody tap the deepest wellspring of emotion, all without saying a word. -- Heller

Jon Swift, Fresh Fitted (Self-released). Jon Swift, who also performs with the Chronophonic, is backed on Fresh Fitted by a stellar band consisting of keyboardist Matt Piazza (from Yo Flaco!), bassist Josh Fairman (of Kinetix) and percussionists Johnny Schmidt and Scott Mast. The result is a laid-back mix of introspective rap, smooth soul and nighttime keyboards. -- Mayo

Tarantella, Esquéletos (Alternative Tentacles). Recorded by Bob Ferbrache, Denver's most-sought-after recording engineer, Tarantella's astonishing debut not only features the studio whiz on guitar, but spotlights several other luminaries from his extended family of absinthe-swilling hicksters. A beguiling blend of ancient folk ballads and spaghetti Westerns fleshed out by the trilingual Kal Cahoone, Esquéletos intoxicates. -- La Briola

Ten Cent Redemption, Worst Plan Ever (Self-released). Fusing elements of ethereal Brit pop and Americana, Ten Cent Redemption's debut aches as much as it twangs. Led by erstwhile Carolyn's Mother frontman Rhett Lee -- who thoughtfully elegizes his previous outfit on the album's de facto centerpiece, "Somewhere in Between" -- this quartet has crafted a wholly organic sound that stands on its own. -- Herrera

The Trampolines, The Trampolines (Self-released). This summer, the Trampolines issued their eponymous debut before a sell-out crowd at Red Rocks; the release has since gone on to register as one of Twist & Shout's top sellers. With melodies and harmonies that are as sweet and seamless as braided pieces of cherry licorice, it's easy to see why. -- Herrera

Eddie Turner, Rise(NorthernBlues). An exceptional solo debut, Eddie Turner's Rise finds the Cuban exile and seasoned sideman for Tracy Nelson, Zephyr and Otis Taylor playing to his own fiery source of inspiration. Along with an experimental funeral march and a scorching acoustic-slide number, Turner pays tribute to Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Freddie King and the ultimate "Devil Boy" himself, Jimi Hendrix. Hook 'em, horns! -- La Briola

Uphollow, Jackets for the Trip(Hill Billy Stew Records). The guys in Uphollow have never truly gotten their due here or elsewhere, but as Jackets demonstrates, they keep getting better anyhow. This pop-opera on disc, accompanied by an impressive DVD, sports one charming, superbly recorded song after another, and if the story line meanders at times, the music's quality never does. What a Trip. -- Roberts

Valiomierda, Valiomierda (Five Core Records). Although their disc clocks in at under half an hour, Valiomierda's Lance Julander, Igor Panasewicz, Bart McCrorey and Val Landrum manage to squeeze a helluva lot into that span. Their debut is jammed with vicious riffing, relentless beats, menacing vocals and lyrics presented in English, Portuguese and Spanish. But this band rocks in any language. -- Roberts

Various Artists, The Life Crew Compilation, Vol. 1(Self-released). This is one large Crew: Participating artists include Ideal Ideologies, Deca, ThemeOne, Awok, Pirate Sygnl, Gunther B, (G)riot, Prana, DJs Thought and Funktion, and AWHAT. The assembled tracks constitute a progressive collection of organic music that celebrates hip-hop's essential elements. -- Mayo

Various Artists, Low Budget Soul(Self-released). Low Budget Soul is absolutely stellar from start to finish. Compiled by Dent and Solpowa (and produced primarily by the latter), the CD showcases some of Denver's finest MCs -- Apostle, ManeRok, Ichiban, Mic Jones, Brown Bombers and the Fly, among others -- in a way that's varied yet remarkably cohesive. -- Herrera

Various Artists, Still Soft (Still Soft). In the market for polished songwriting, perfect pitch and careerist pretension? Look elsewhere than this collection of energetic, imaginative underground acts. The high points: Pee Pee's drunken country stagger, Little Paia's folk-dosed dementia, teamAWESOME's bratty booty punk, Mannequin Makeout's synth-and-sylph assault and Transistor Radio Sound's brittle, electro-acoustic pop. The low point: It's over way too quickly. -- Heller

Vaux, Beyond Virtue, Beyond Vice. Like Muse in the midst of a hardcore-addled bender, Vaux continues to refine its manufacturing process, cutting bricks of jagged discord with pure melody à la Plague Music. A career-defining masterpiece, Virtue was originally slated to be issued by Atlantic, which has since inexplicably parted ways with the act. Two words for the dipshit label head who let this band slip away: Reprise and Wilco. Enough said. -- Herrera

The Verse, Domino Theory (Dojo). Son of a Vietnam vet, the newest soldier in the Dojo army reveals personal and political battle scars on this provocative set. Theory features solid production by Selecta Roswell and a guest appearance by Analog Suspect on the standout title track, which samples Noam Chomsky. -- Mayo

Ido Ziv and Friends, Assiya (Deep Tree Music). Israel-born, Boulder-based drummer and percussionist Ido Ziv leads an international lineup through almost an hour's worth of folkloric reverie and deep, polyrhythmic grooves. Integrating world genres while remaining true to the traditions of origin, Ziv turns Indian ragas, Celtic reels, Brazilian rhythms and more into a colorful tapestry fit to adorn any global village. -- La Briola

Armando Zuppa, Soup Kitchen (Avant-Acoustic). Who woulda thunk that Africa's original drum on a stick, the oft-snubbed banjo, could be applied to Latin beats or J.S. Bach's "Two Part Invention in C"? Even Greg Allman's "Midnight Rider" gets the hardscrabble makeover from ace picker Zuppa. A fresh, soulful voice in contemporary worldgrass, Zuppa stirs the pot like a culinary master. -- La Briola

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