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The Circus is Back in Town

Ah, autumn. The days grow shorter, the trees grow more bare, and local releases continue to pour in like so much sludge down a storm drain. As Denver begins to resemble Kraków more each day, it's the perfect time to hibernate indoors with a couple of records. As usual, local bands have provided plenty to choose from.

First up is Fall in Love All Over Again, from longtime area punk pranksters Pinhead Circus. The dense, 24-track release is a remastered and repackaged version of the Pinheads' first seven-inch, Gone Again (1994), and Nothing Groundbreaking, the band's 1995 LP on Denver's Black Plastic label. Released on Boulder-based Soda Jerk Records, this CD finds the boys returning to their Colorado roots after releasing two others on California's BYO label. Fast, fun and frantic, from the first chords of opener "Gone Again," this is a thorough glimpse of a band that, though not revolutionary, has the pop-punk formula down to a satisfying science. Fall in Love contains two new studio tracks, "My Confession (Unplugged)" and "Don't Wanna See You Again," a super-hyper blend of power chords and manic lyrics that ends with an unidentified Head saying he sounds like "a barking asshole." Yes, it's a pleasant image, indicative of the irreverent -- sometimes downright infantile -- humor that makes Pinhead Circus an appealing guilty pleasure. Rarities include "Frat Rock A Go Go" and "754," while live samples of the group are found in "Three" and a wonderfully bratty "Walkin' on Sunshine," two previously unreleased tracks. It's not the freshest sound in the world, but this is a fun collection for Pinhead fans or anyone who craves a good soundtrack to life's more manic moments. (Soda Jerk Records, P.O. Box 4056, Boulder, CO 80306.)

"What's Cracken?" is the name of a four-song maxi-single from rapper Sug Dad, and with the promo materials came a handwritten letter with this informative snippet: "[What's cracken?] is a term used in the ghetto, meaning what's going on for the night or when you don't have anything to do and you have to ask friends where the action is to have some fun." Though grateful for the explanation, after listening to all four versions of the song (titled -- you guessed it -- "What's Cracken?"), I think I would have gotten all of that in context. In the "Radio Cut," "O.G. Cut" and "A Cappella" versions of the song, Sug waxes about the glory days of the house party, when men were men and hos were hos, and "the cops got to pay two bucks at the door." Sug's rhyming style is slow and somewhat sedated-sounding, but the sentiments are amusing. Released on his own Greenbacks label, the single could really benefit from a more stepped-up production; this type of straightforward hip-hop is one genre that doesn't really lend itself to low-fi recordings, and the song suffers from flat beats and two-dimensional sound. Still, Sug pulls off a mellow, old-school groove that is ultimately a smooth listen, if not, well, cracken. (Available at area record stores.)

Judge Roughneck, however, doesn't fall victim to shoddy production on Skankin' Naked, an impeccable-sounding full-length from the area's most beloved ska outfit. Guitarist Chris Reidy and bassist Kyle Jones recorded, mixed and produced the studio portion of the release, while veteran local producer Bob Ferbrache recorded three live tracks (the Middle Eastern-flavored "Israel," "Hot," and "Kaveh's Ska Suit") at the Bluebird Theater. In both cases, the treatment nicely frames the variety of instruments and sounds broached by Roughneck -- from the searing horns and lilting vocals of "Moon" to the dancehall stylings of the title track. Throughout the recording, the band is at its best when it veers from a straight ska formula to a more open, loose sound; the melodic, sunny "My Moods" is a standout example of the latter. Most likely, Skankin' Naked won't wow those who aren't fans of the genre, but even the ska-phobic would be hard pressed not to appreciate the musicianship and level of performance presented here. And fans may find much to inspire the nude dance suggested by the title. Just draw the curtains, please. (Available at area record stores, or from the Sleeping Brotherhood, 2013 Emerson Street, Denver, CO 80205).

Mark Sundermeier of the Sad Star Cafe is a heck of a player with a lot of ideas, which sometimes works to ill effect on Memories From the Sad Star Cafe, a full-length released on Fall of Order Records. Sundermeier and partner Chris St. George are truly fluent players; collectively, they boast mastery of mandolin, bass, percussion, guitar and keyboards. The only problem is that they often try to play all of their instruments at once -- and we all know what happens when you mix too many colors together: You get mud. "It's Gone" opens the disc with a lovely, almost Bob Mould Workbook-era guitar web before launching inexplicably into an erratic, double-time pseudo funk tune that refuses to stay put for more than a second. The clearly talented Sundermeier might do well to consider that when a song doesn't appear to have a destination, listeners can -- and do -- get lost in all of that noise. (He might also consider that most people loathe mimes; one of the freakish mutes appears on the CD's cover.) Bright moments include "If You Only Knew," a ready-for-radio rock ballad with strains of Black Crowes and an unapologetic "nah nah nah" chorus (apparently, they weren't outlawed in the Eighties) and the harmonic, almost understated "Another Rain." This release would have benefited if Sundermeier and St. George had adopted a simple mantra of "less is more." (Fall of Order Records, P.O. Box 200025, Denver, CO 80220-0025.)

Sexy Robots is the name of the first release from e-lab, an "aggressive electronic" act that emerged from Boulder after its two members, synth player and programmer Shane Etter and vocalist Amanda, found each other through a "musicians wanted" ad. It's fortunate that they did: Robots is a sleek, adventurous full-length offering that is, in fact, both sexy and somewhat robot-like. Amanda's confident vocals at times recall the tough sensuality of Garbage vocalist Shirley Manson; other times they crouch under Etter's arrangements, which are alternately bubbly, spacey, dark and aggro -- and sometimes all of that at once. The Portishead-esque "Precious Metal" opens the disc, and it's informed as much by smooth jazz as by the dance and industrial sound running throughout the release. Unlike a lot of dance music, though, Sexy Robots contains several songs that stand on their own away from the dance floor, the schizophrenic "Nude" among them. The song pits a demonic whisper and trippy beats against an emotive, harmonic, descendant vocal melody. Clearly, there's good stuff cooking in the e-lab. (Contact soundsubs@aol.com or www.mp3.com/elab.)


Keep your enemy close: "Denver knows that Flava Flav can take all the motherfuckin' Broncos on by himself." If you were among the 500 or so who headed to the Gothic Theater Sunday night, you got to hear that one from the gold-plated mouth of Flav himself. You also had the pleasure of seeing the flavorful one adorned in everything from a full Indian headdress to a silver Viking helmet to a Packers'-style cheesehead. If there were any justice in the world, Public Enemy would have attracted the crowd that crammed the Ogden Theatre Saturday night for one of three area performances by 311. Instead, Chuck D and company played to a thin crowd of Enemy faithful. (The Gothic crowd did have a higher ratio of one type of audience member -- namely, the cops and security guards who made their gestapo-like presence felt.) But the veritable ambassadors of hip-hop didn't seemed to mind. Chuck D demonstrated why he has survived the out-with-the-old mentality of mainstream hip-hop by putting on a show that was as articulate as it was visceral. Chuck may have become a bit of a talking head lately as a spokesman for Internet awareness (and commerce), but he can still command a crowd in a way that has nothing to do with sound bites. It's nice to be reminded of how powerful a live performance can be and that even a relative hip-hop dinosaur can still rise above the commercial hype diluting the genre. Now we'll just have to wait for the day when the Broncs rise to Flav's challenge.


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