The Halo Benders
The Rebels Not In
The Halo Benders are generally referred to in print as an indie-rock supergroup, and that tag is certainly justified: The main men behind it are Calvin Johnson (founder of K Records, leader of Beat Happening and Dub Narcotic Sound System) and Doug Martsch (currently fronting Built to Spill). But what's great about Rebels is that it sounds nothing like the efforts of most bands assembled from the best parts of other outfits. On the surface, the styles of the main twosome seem fairly incompatible: Johnson is distinguished by an affectless foghorn voice that he uses for deadpan purposes, while Martsch is all emotion, whether he's singing or pulling beautiful shards of sound from his guitar. But more often than not, the two manage to find common ground--a place where they can relax, kick back and enjoy the scenery. "Your Asterisk" illustrates this approach: Johnson creates a wonderful hook out of nonsense syllables ("Ay-ah-eeee-ay/Ay-ah-eeee-ay"), while Martsch harmonizes against a backdrop of six-string notes that recall a Jew's harp. Martsch's singing is frequently cast in a supporting role, but that doesn't mean his presence isn't felt. His sensibility suffuses "Foggy Bottom" and, especially, "Virginia Reel Around the Fountain," a stately track that somehow comes across as offhanded and elegiac at exactly the same time. Pairings like this one generally don't bring out the best of both parties; usually just the opposite is the case. But if the artists are compatible, wonderful things can happen. Things like The Rebels Not In.
Prepubescent hijinks include stuff like "swirlies" (putting someone's head into a toilet and flushing), name-calling and lunch-money extortion. Most of us recovered from that stuff, but not the guys in Marcy Playground. They got a record deal and created a whole band out of being mistreated by their peers when they were kidlets. That's where their stoopid name comes from: The group's leader, John Wozniak, went to the Marcy Open School in Minneapolis, where the sniveling little shit got hisself chased off the playground by some "real mean guys" (his words, not mine). Yet he bravely admits that he spent his childhood looking down onto said playground while listening to Free to Be You and Me, a record put together by Marlo Thomas, for crying out loud. (I guess he never found out that the freakin' REPLACEMENTS were living down the street.) Anyway, he grew up and moved to New York City (must've thought there'd be no bullies there) and formed a threesome with his old pals from grade school. Together they made an album about--you guessed it--their damn childhoods! Marcy Playground is rife with arrested development: getting kicked out of recess, a boyhood crush and, worst of all, a nursery rhyme nestled among one of the otherwise unremarkable ditties. I double dare you to blast their rendition of "Ten Little Indians" out of your car speakers with the windows down. Okay, so "Sex and Candy" is kinda catchy, but Valentine's Day is over; let's move on. The liner notes for another song on the disc say the tune is "about being picked on." But as you should know by now, boys, life's a brick. So buy a helmet. Get regression therapy. And watch your back. I'll bet I'm not the only big, bad critic who wants to give you a Melvin.
Looking for Butter Boy
This Aboriginal Australian troubadour might be the only man alive who could sing "There's nothing so sweet as my mother's heartbeat" without causing his listeners to gag on sentimentality. On Looking for Butter Boy, Roach's songs about racial freedom and family love ease into the skin thanks to a resonant voice that soothes like aloe vera on a burn. "Beggar Man," the record's opener, is almost ska-like, contrasting nicely with "Give Unto Caesar," a loud, fuzzy number with a guitar hook that Bob Mould would be proud to have written. These tracks bookend sweet, country-tinged tales like "A Child Was Born Here" and the Willie Nelson-ish "Reach for You." Cherishing one's kin has never sounded so cool.
The Dance of Heaven's Ghosts: The Music of Greece
The fourteen tracks presented here by Gerald Seligman, with help from Vangelis Yannopoulos, avoid the weaknesses that afflict the hackneyed recordings usually heard in ethnic restaurants by capturing the full range of Greece's three distinct forms of music: dimotiko, nissiotiko and laiko. The first, which fuses the chants of psaltes, or church singers, with a Middle Eastern vocal tremolo whose origins can be traced to the Turkish conquest of the Byzantine Empire, is represented by the mesmerizing "Oli Me Len Tragoudisse (They're All Telling Me to Sing)." Performed by Hronis Aidonidis, whose father once headed the Greek Orthodox church, the song brings together the lazy rhythms of the Byzantine tradition with the help of Balkan instruments such as the mournful santouri (aka hammered dulcimer) and dreamy saz pipes. Typical of the nissiotiko, an island folk music whose medieval character was left unaltered by the Ottoman occupation, is Yannis Parios's "Eho Mia Dipsa (Such a Thirst)." An almost peppy number, it uses warm guitar chords, violin and horse-and-wagon percussion to pull the listener into an exotic, Mediterranean world. As for laiko, it is spotlighted in "I Mangues Then Iparhoun Pia (No Punks Live Here Anymore)," by Haris Alexiou, a master of rembetiko (a vocal style that suggests an Eastern variation on the blues) who's widely regarded as Greece's greatest female vocalist. Laiko has made famous--sometimes infamous--inroads into the Western Hemisphere via the bouzouki, a long-necked, double-stringed instrument from the lute family, and this track demonstrates why; the dancing interplay between bouzouki and accordion is beautiful. So, too, is the disc as a whole, yet it's also overlaid with a melancholy that anyone even mildly interested in Islamic music will find difficult to forget.
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