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Music Review – Indie Round-Up: Kelli Hanson, The Beautiful Girls, Darius Lux

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An unusual amount of original-sounding music has burrowed its way out of my listening pile recently. See, in particular, the first two reviews below. But first a quick note for our New York readers: punk-pop dynamo Kirsten DeHaan, an Indie Round-Up favorite, is starting a residency this Thursday at Club Midway on Avenue B. I wrote about her last year here. Do check her out if you're in town.

Kelli Hanson, Our Buildings

Contemplative but energetic, Kelli Hanson's music is a strange bird. With a few exceptions – like "Foolish Champion" and the opening track, "Doesn't Even Matter" – the songs aren't particularly hooky, and between Hanson's drawling pronunciation and the deep reverb on her voice it's hard to make out the words. But the music draws you in with a mysterious power. One can detect touches of an acoustic singer-songwriter vibe, featuring Hanson's woodsy guitar picking, as well as R&B, Europop, mystical she-magic, modernism, the obscure edges of classic rock, and other strands. There's even what sounds like prepared piano on the captivating little instrumental "Fall in Canandaigua." But Hanson is really her own animal. Her tunes might not follow you into the shower, but her thoughtful, atmospheric sounds very well might. I'm keeping this one.

Hear some full tracks at her Myspace page, or sample and purchase at CD Baby.

Mama's Cookin', Mama's Cookin'

Hip-hop beats and rap-like lyrics merge with heavy blues and strong musicianship in the third album from the young Colorado quartet Mama's Cookin'. The band has come up with a distinct sound, which is quite a rarity. Slide guitar, organ riffs, and live drums alternate with moody jangle and funk grooves, all propping up singer-guitarist Zeb Early's impassioned vocals. It's refreshing and worthwhile.

My only caveat: Early's half-sung, half-rapped style works less well in some of the smoother tracks, like "Lampin'" and "Tough Times" – this sort of music recalls authentic soul sounds like Marvin Gaye's, and, to my ear, seems to call for real singing. (Listen to Kevin So for a more fulfulling modern interpretation of this feel.)

By contrast, in the band's higher-energy rock tracks, like "Run Up Quick," "What I Am," and "Black Reign," the medium matches the socially and politically conscious message, and you can feel the power. Great stuff.

Sample the sounds of this original new band at their website or listen and buy at CD Baby.

The Beautiful Girls, Ziggurats

On their new CD, and especially on its first half, the Beautiful Girls indulge in a harsher sound than I was used to hearing from the band – more electric guitar, is what it comes down to. But they retain the precision ska-reggae feel and the sharp, straight-ahead songwriting sensibility that distinguish them from the pack of bands that take inspiration from the Islands.

The evolution works well, but still, some of the best songs come on the quieter second half of the CD: "In Love," "She's Evil," and the gentle "Dela" among them. That's not to detract from the harder tracks, like "Royalty" and "I Thought About You," with their heavy riffage. I found them to be a positive development in the band's sound, and this CD is certainly up there with the Beautiful Girls' best work, as well as a good introduction to their music for those new to the band.

Hear some of the new tracks at their Myspace page.

Darius Lux, Arise

Darius Lux, an excessively talented one-man band, weaves textured, hooky power pop into coruscating R&B with strong tenor vocals and harmonies. It's a winning musical recipe.

"Xtraordinary" and "Every Single Moment" are what used to be called radio-single worthy. So is the formulaic "You Take My Breath Away." But every song on the CD boasts skilled arrangements and hooks, from "World Keeps On Turnin" with its tasteful acoustic guitar intro to the religio-political hidden track at the end, and from the forceful power pop of "The Great Unknown" to the spirited boy-band soul of "Life Goes On."

The CD's only problem is that the words are sometimes preachy, and often very cliched. Sappy sentiment sells, of course, and for the most part the positive, powerful elements of this work outweigh the obviousness of the lyrics. The overall feel suggests Seal, or more currently, Marc Broussard, and it's right up there in quality. But my enjoyment of the CD would have been significantly stepped up if the lyrics weren't so full of platitudes and "messages." This is particularly frustrating when the music is so good.

Listen up.

The Passive Agressives, Reloaded

Liquid, almost twangy female vocals front this rough and ready dry-punk outfit. The contrast catches the ear; the funky, hard rock song constructions and Raggedy-Ann-in-the-gutter grit retain it.

"Evil Clown Song" sounds exactly like you'd think, while "Sweet Lisa" is a dark offspring of Heart's "Magic Man." I enjoyed the nearly tuneless "Casino" too. Lead singer Keren Gaiser's back-and-forths with the other musicians' shouted male vocals are fun, and guitarist Jose Santiago lays down bluesy licks over the rhythm section's punked-out pounding.

Altogether the musicianship on this five-song EP is fabulous, and the production is clever, up front, and crystal clear – I really enjoyed the sound of the CD even when I wasn't paying attention to the vocals. This is a highly promising young band. Hear and buy.

Down the Line, For All You Break

Down the Line is a warm, friendly, acoustic rock band with a soothing sound you can also bop your head to. They take a bit from the Allman Brothers' sound in "Midnight Rider," add vocal harmonies from flower-power era pop and CSNY and Jackson Browne and especially bands like America and the Guess Who, and stir it up with modern musical precision and construction. High points often come courtesy of the band's excellent four-part harmonies, especially in the rockers like "Slip On Through." But the lead vocals could use more oomph, and ultimately the CD feels rather bland, with unexceptional lyrics and tame hooks.

A couple of tracks that rise above that feel are "She Wears the Sun," where the band takes more musical chances and ends up with something that stands out, and the soul-flavored "I Can't Break Away," with its Freddie Mercury-inspired vocals and sha-la-la harmonies. The guys in Down the Line have talent and taste, but I'd like to see them hit a few more shots cross-court.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.
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