CD Reviews

THE MURDER CITY DEVILS

Thelema EP

(Sub Pop)

Seattle's grittiest rock gang wrings art out of sludge.

King County ain't nothin' but a hunk of turf to the Murder City Devils. The swaggering combo headlines in this burg. You wanna play along? Fine, opening slot's at 9 p.m. The bravado coursing through their hard-knocks rock seems more akin to Philly than to Seattle. Fittingly, MCD's tribute to all things intestinal, "Midnight at the Mutter Museum," immortalizes the City of Brotherly Love's most repugnant aesthetic highlight. Although nothing on this new EP bucks like the guitar-bites-organ action of their last two records, the rock is still there. Frontman Spencer Moody hasn't lost his gift for toxicity. "I never heard a sad song that I didn't write," he spits in lead track "That's What You Get," a triumph in that the arrangement flawlessly mirrors his complex, bitter sentiments. Dann Gallucci and Nate Manny's AK-47 guitars melt into textural fills, letting Leslie Hardy's loopy organ carry the song. For better or worse, almost every inch of sound rocked on prior releases, resulting in explosive feast or repetitive famine. This year's MCD takes swirling, drunken detours and rolls seven consistently. There's nothing like Moody's guttural, titular sneer in "Bear Away" to link these Emerald City kings' past and future in one killer migraine. Andrew D. Bonazelli

SAETA

Structure in the Void

(Recurving Recordings)

Seattle's Saeta creates moribund moods that only a heavily medicated Houdini could escape from.

There's heartbreaking and then there's heartbreaking. If you don't know the difference, check out Saeta's pain-filled, spaced-out chamber pop release. Piano notes fall like drops from a leaky faucet while a cello bow drags across your memories and a gentle acoustic guitar brings warmth. But it's the vocals that put the "break" in heartbreaking. Singer/songwriter Matt Menovcik has a voice like a chanting Tibetan monk or Eric Bachmann of Crooked Fingers (who, in turn, gets plenty of odd but deserved comparisons to Neil Diamond), all sublevel gravel and deep, unrestrained reverberation. Menovcik's rumbling delivery often obscures his words, but the resulting stream of evocative timbre becomes as telling as any articulated sentiment would be. Layered over Menovcik's baritone is classically trained cellist Lesli Wood's high and bright echo. Together, the two sound like the earth and the sky meeting for tea to discuss the departure of the sun. Really, it's that sad. Like Carissa's Wierd, Eno-produced Slowdive, or Mojave 3, Saeta creates songs that are truly the stretched-out sum of their expertly crafted and meticulously layered parts. And apparently, that calculation is what attracted the attention of famed one-name producer Kramer (Galaxie 500, Low, Luna), who heard some of the band's songs on their Web site and approached them about mixing and mastering Structure. As beautiful as it is, this album isn't for everyone. Saeta's dark aesthetic won't appeal to those who prefer happy twee over a lonely plea. But if you've got a void, chances are Saeta will fill it. Laura Learmonth

OSCAR PETERSON

Oscar's Ballads

(Telarc)

Frenetic piano genius gets in touch with his feelings and ours.

The liner notes face straight up to this essential fact about Oscar: He's known for a dazzling technical skill that is not always matched by depth of emotion. This disc aims to combat that perception by collecting some of the most tender tracks from a half-dozen recordings Oscar's done for Telarc over the last decade. And there's no arguing with the results: The 75-year-old piano giant puts in some startlingly beautiful performances that lay bare a sentimental heart beneath his usual icy flawlessness. Several of the tunes, all Oscar originals, begin in a classical minuet mode, then move into more of a jazz-trio feeling; "Love Ballade" becomes a sweet gospel-waltz, while "When Summer Comes" stays in more unabashedly sappy territory. Both of those tracks, from a 1998 release, feature the working band that will accompany Peterson at this week's Jazz Alley performances: English drummer Martin Drew, Swedish guitarist Ulf Wakenius, and Dane bass veteran Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen. While Peterson's showboat-y style turns up (ironically enough) on "Tranquille," for the most part this disc finds him playing fewer notes and giving them each more weight. With no long runs to speak of, just a rumbling embrace of the keyboard, Peterson builds the closing track, "Peace for South Africa," into a roar of redemption. Mark D. Fefer

Oscar Peterson performs at Jazz Alley Sept. 5-9. See music listings for more information.

SPARKLEHORSE

It's a Wonderful Life

(Capitol)

It's still a sad and beautiful world, just not quite as sad—and not quite as beautiful.

Sure, Sparklehorse's Mark Linkous named his third full-length after the Jimmy Stewart feel-good from 1947, but from the sound of it, he's still having plenty of days that feel like hell baked on a nightmare. Much of Wonderful Life is the same as it ever was: slow, dark, hauntingly sincere, and deceptively toylike. Since Linkous continues to employ his trademark double-microphone aesthetic—singing clean through one and using the other to filter in fuzz and obscure his everyman vocals—the signature Sparklehorse sound pervades. A Virginia backwoods boy at heart, Linkous tailors his gothic tales with plenty of fuzz and fashionable noise, resulting in a mountain-bred yet city-bound vibe. Speaking of the city, PJ Harvey shows up on a few tracks, lending a deeply evocative howl to Linkous' laid-back drawl. Clearly, misery and tightly reined hopefulness both love company; the Cardigans' Nina Persson, Mercury Rev's Dave Fridmann, and Tom Waits step in as well. The album's standout, "Apple Bed" (featuring Persson), wavers and quietly provokes like a 33 instead of a 45rpm version of the wonderful "Hammering the Cramps" off the acclaimed first record. That's a good thing; 1995's Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot was the overlooked American OK Computer. But sadly, sonic sentiments of that magnitude are difficult to replicate, and while Wonderful Life attempts, it doesn't quite clear the hurdle of what once was. Laura Learmonth

 
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