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Sound Advice

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Maia Sharp

Change the Ending

Blix Street / Crooked Crown Records

File next to: Bonnie Raitt, Jonatha Brooke

Every time Maia Sharp releases an album, the same confounding question arises: Why isn't her name on everyone's lips — or at least the lips of those who love thoughtful lyrics conveyed via intelligent, pop- and jazz-influenced arrangements and beautiful, nuanced vocals? Bonnie Raitt, the Dixie Chicks and Keb' Mo' have recorded her songs, but Sharp herself, remains below most peoples' radars. At least Raitt's trying to help change that, appearing on two tracks and touring with Sharp. But these sterling songs stand on their own: "The Middle" captures the fear of falling too fast; "Sober" is a sad reflection of being "swept back on my feet." "Standing Out in a Crowd," with Garrison Starr, tackles the pains of adolescence. Sharp expertly renders subtle shades of emotions on each track, while showcasing expert production and arrangements throughout. — Lynne Margolis

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The Classic Crime

Phoenix

Goomba Music

File next to: Switchfoot, Thrice

With so many diverse blends around, is making a solid, plain-jane rock record enough anymore? Based on the Classic Crime's Phoenix, the answer appears to be "meh." Granted, the Seattle band's instrumentation and singing are totally on-point, the guitar sounds big, and the vocals can shift from a smooth crooning to an edgy yell with subtle poise. Unfortunately, there are altogether too many "woah-oh-ohs," all the songs are pretty much the same canter, and the result is a rather homogeneous blob of just-OK rock. It's not heavy enough to be post-anything, progressive enough to be alt-anything, or inventive enough to be indie-anything. The best moments can be found on the album's final few tracks, especially "City of Orphans," which at least succeeds in conveying emotion, and "I Will Wait" with its beautifully soaring guitar tone. Phoenix may be musically impeccable, but, ultimately, it just doesn't matter. — Jeff Koch

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Gregory Pepper and His Problems

Escape From Crystal Skull Mountain

Fake Four Inc.

File next to: The Beatles, Rufus Wainwright

Gregory Pepper's 2009 With Trumpets Flaring earned comparisons to Brian Wilson, and so will Escape From Crystal Skull Mountain. Or maybe people will bring up the Beatles' Abbey Road Side 2. Perhaps the whimsically theatrical side of Rufus Wainwright. Escape segues from one tune into the next until it feels like a single 17-song suite that evokes kaleidoscopic pop melodies, with orchestral instruments augmenting the basic guitar-bass-drums sound. Most tracks clock in at less than two minutes, but are loaded with one hook after the other: "Dearly Departed" rocks, "At Least I'm Not a Musician" and "Persona Non Grata" are perfectly pop with horns adding a touch of big band accent. "I Don't Feel Like Playing Electric Guitar Tonight" sounds like it fell out of a Broadway play. Somehow, it all works. Listen in one sitting, and then hit repeat so you can take it all in again. — Alan Sculley

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