mandymooreMandy Moore’s new album, Amanda Leigh (her real first and middle name), was produced and polished to a high sheen by Mike Viola (Candy Butchers) and features Inara George (The Bird and the Bee) as a collaborator, so it arrives with some amount of indie pop/adult alternative cred. However, if Moore’s teen queen past complicates any inclination of yours to take her current music seriously, I’m not sure this album is going to be enough to change your mind. That said, this is a pretty solid Top 40-style album, though by Top 40, I mean Top 40 back in the 70’s. It’s not a retro record, exactly, but it’s strongly influenced by rock and pop from that era in particular, with Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchell, and Todd Rundgren among the acknowledged influences. I also hear some of Linda Ronstadt’s work with producer Peter Asher on yet other tracks, like the current single (and my personal favorite song from the record), the practically irresistible “I Can Break Your Heart Any Day Of The Week.” Honestly, I wish there had been more songs like “I Can Break Your Heart…” because it’s such an unadulterated slice of pop bliss, and the record could have used at least one more song in the same vein. But don’t get me wrong, songs like the opener “Merrimack River,” “Fern Dell” and the closer “Bug” are all highlights, too, and if the strongest material is weighted toward the first half, the album as a whole puts her head and shoulders above artists like Sara Bareilles, Ingrid Michaelson, Anna Nalick, Colbie Caillat and the like. Her music on Amanda Leigh puts her closer to the company of artists like Jennifer O’Connor, Laura Veirs and Jenny Lewis, all gifted musicians who expertly meld folk and country with pop. Here’s hoping that Moore can deliver on the promise of this album. (Though if it turns out she makes an album full of songs like “I Can Break Your Heart Any Day Of The Week,” I’d be okay with that, too.)

http://www.myspace.com/mandymoore

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dragmetohellDrag Me To Hell, the first horror film from Sam Raimi since Army Of Darkness, isn’t nearly as goofy as that film, though it’s been billed as a horror-comedy as well. The comedy doesn’t arrive until late in the film, and when it does, it’s unexpected and pretty perfectly timed. For the most part, though, the story of an ambitious loan officer (Alison Lohman) who finds herself cursed by a strange woman (Lorna Raver) is ultra-fast paced, tense and often very scary. As it’s PG-13, the gore is kept to a minimum, but there’s a very high ick factor quotient, with a lot of the gross out moments designed to quite literally leave a bad taste in your mouth. (As with a growing number of PG-13 releases, it’s in no way appropriate for very young audiences.) Raimi’s designed the movie to be deliberately retro, a throwback in particular to Universal horror, with its Gypsy curses and séances, but also referencing his own beginnings in horror, which longtime fans will be able to spot pretty easily. Though it’s got its tongue in its cheek much of the way, Drag Me To Hell is first and foremost determined to unsettle and scare audiences, which it does for most of its 99 minute running time. (And for you summer movie nerds, no, there is no post-credits sequence.) Horror fans, especially old school fans, will probably enjoy the movie the most, but if it’s a scary good time at the movies you’re looking for, Drag Me To Hell is just the ticket. In fact, those fans will want to adjust my rating up one demon monkey.

MONKEY RATING: TWO DEMON MONKEYS

(For a brief explanation of the Monkey Review rating system, click here.)

greatnorthernThere are a lot of songs I really like on Los Angeles band Great Northern’s second album, Remind Me Where The Light Is, in particular the opening tracks, “Story” and “Houses,” though I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why I liked them. Then it dawned on me that this is music I would have loved in the 80’s: Big, anthemic, emotional rock, which is absolutely Great Northern’s strong suit. I hesitate to refer to this record as “indie rock,” owing to the fact that if Great Northern’s music is in any way indie, it’s only by virtue of the fact they’ve not yet swept up by a major label, despite their music having appeared on TV soundtracks and commercials. They sound like Lone Justice crossed with the Killers, with a dash of U2 by way of Coldplay. If you enjoy those bands, or Vega 4 or Embrace or the like, then I strongly suggest you try Remind Me Where The Light Is, because I think you’ll find a lot to like here. Not a lot of subtlety, but a lot of pop hooks, and some strong vocals from Rachel Stolte. Standout cuts: “Story,” “Houses,” “Fingers” and “Warning.”

http://www.myspace.com/greatnorthern

samanthacrainStellar debut for Oklahoma based Samantha Crain and her band, the Midnight Shivers: Songs In The Night is charming, infectious and wonderfully confident, and features 11 songs that whiz by all too fast, all firmly in an Americana mode, with just the right mix of folk, blues and country. Crain’s vocals are reminiscent of Jolie Holland, but stylistically, her spirited music has more in common with Mary Lou Lord and Richard Thompson. Her band is first rate, and they are reportedly pretty great live (and currently on tour as of this writing). This is one of the albums I’ve played a lot so far this year, and it always puts a smile on my face. Songs In The Night should elevate Crain and her band into the top ranks of Americana and folk bands. Standout cuts: “Rising Sun,” “Songs In The Night,” “Get The Fever Out” and “Bullfight (Change Your Mind).”

http://www.myspace.com/samanthacrain

blackmothsuperrainbowEating Us, the latest album from Pittsburgh based band Black Moth Super Rainbow, is gorgeous and strange, trippy and groovy, and possibly an ideal soundtrack for at least of some of your upcoming summer nights. It’s 11 tracks (plus one bonus track) of psychedelic pop, most of them with vocals, that draw on the obvious 60’s influences, but the band also pulls in some lounge, pop, folk, and some prog rock circa the 70’s as well some modern electronica flourishes. Each track takes on a life of its own, some of them blissed out, some of them harder edged, some even somewhat menacing and disquieting, made more so by odd and eerie lyrics. It’s a testament to the creativity and impressive range of the band that though the general tone of the album is largely consistent, they never sound like they’re repeating themselves. Definitely recommended for fans of psychedelic rock and pop, and the experimental in general. Standout cuts: “Born On A Day The Sun Didn’t Rise,” “Twin Of Myself,” “Gold Splatter” and “Iron Lemonade,” though the whole album is pretty consistently good.

http://www.myspace.com/blackmothsuperrainbow

veckimestBrooklyn based band Grizzly Bear’s third album, Veckatimest, is a complex, often astonishing fusion of indie and psychedelic rock with folk and experimental pop, that starts out with an engaging beauty (“Southern Point” and “Two Weeks”) and climaxes in musical and emotional dissonance (“I Live With You”). Despite its esoteric nature, or perhaps, more accurately, because of that nature, Veckatimest is a highly listenable record, a self consciously arty album that also affords the simple pleasure of hearing music well played. It’s by no means difficult listening, at any rate, though it’s unlikely that single run through of Veckatimest will be enough to fully appreciate everything that’s been poured into it; the latter quality actually makes it a bit fun, though it’s a complicated sort of fun, to be sure. Not all of the album worked for me, i.e. the aforementioned “I Live With You,” which I found myself admiring more than liking, but in general, Veckatimest is an album indie rock and pop fans shouldn’t miss. Standout cuts: “Southern Point,” “Two Weeks,” “Cheerleader” and “While You Wait For The Others.”

http://www.myspace.com/grizzlybear

crackersunriseSunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey, the latest album from Cracker, David Lowery and Johnny Hickman’s “country band within a rock band,” finds the band expressing its rock side more so than its country side, after spending a good portion of the past few years doing the latter. There’s only one country track, in fact, the amusing “Friends,” which appears midway through the album. The vast majority of the record is full on rock and roll, starting with the opener “Yalla Yalla (Let’s Go),” one of the many songs that reference contemporary events, in this case the Iraq War, right on to the closing title track. There’s even a punkish track called “Hand Me My Inhaler,” which clocks in, appropriately, at a minute and a half. My favorite track, for the moment, anyway, is the first single, the sweetly sardonic midtempo country rocker, “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out With Me,” though their collaboration with John Doe, “We All Shine A Light,” the title track and “Time Machine” all ring my bell as well. Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey is a entertaining, sometimes exhilarating, full on dose of the keen-eyed, witty and inventive rock music that first earned them fans when they first appeared on the scene in the 90’s, and one of their most enjoyable and richly satisfying albums yet. Standout cuts: “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out With Me,” “We All Shine A Light,” “Time Machine” and “Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey.”

http://www.myspace.com/crackerhatesmyspace

furthercomplications“And if I could, I would refrigerate this moment…”

When Jarvis Cocker released his solo debut back in 2006, titled Jarvis, I found myself thinking I should be liking it more than I actually did, considering my admiration for his work with Pulp. This is definitely not the case with his second solo album, the Steve Albini produced Further Complications, which is flat out a pretty fabulous album from start to finish. It’s the sort of album that keeps finding new ways to kick your ass with every track, as Cocker runs through 60’s inspired pop, garage and punk rock, soul and even some dance numbers to boot. Much has been written about Further Complications about Cocker’s supposed “midlife crisis,” but I think it’s safe to say that to the extent that the album is about that, the midlife crisis has seldom been taken up in modern music with such ferocious wit and brutal, often cringeworthy honesty. Startlingly, it all comes to a joyous close with “You’re In My Eyes (Discosong),” which, true to its title, is a nearly nine minute disco song, on which Cocker channels a little Barry White. Further Complications is the sound of a freshly inspired Cocker reasserting himself as one of the great music makers of his generation, and you really ought to hear it. Standout cuts: “Angela,” “Leftovers,” “Slush” and “You’re In My Eyes (Discosong).”

http://www.myspace.com/jarvspace

stilllifestillnightLast year, I referred to Beach House’s album Devotion as “David Lynch movie music,” which I defined as being “beautiful, dreamily paced, sometimes eerie sounding…” Brooklyn based trio Au Revoir Simone’s first couple of albums certainly fell into that category, and unsurprisingly, they accompanied Lynch on a few of his readings for his last book tour. (Lynch has referred to their band and their music as “Innocent, hip and new.”) To some degree, Still Night, Still Life is more of the same, waif-like vocals, dream pop and folk melded with sometimes lushly produced, sometimes minimalist electropop. There are some subtle changes, however, as the band has added some hard edges to their music here and there, and lyrically, the songs are decidedly more sophisticated than innocent, concerned as they are with the hard reality of relationships, the consequences of some personal choices, and the resistance of some to face the future, owing to the past: “I’m moving on / I hope you’re coming with me…” The best material may be featured in the first half of the album, but in general, Still Night, Still Light is filled with lovely, often captivating music, and is a solid follow up to their breakthrough album, The Bird Of Music. Standout cuts: “Another Likely Story,” “Shadows,” “Knight Of Wands” and “Trace A Line.”

http://www.myspace.com/aurevoirsimone

mymaudlincareer“When you’re lucid, you’re the sweetest thing…”

My Maudlin Career, the latest album from Scottish band Camera Obscura, will sound heaven sent for fans of the band and for indie pop fans in general. Time will tell if it’s their masterpiece, but it’s certainly a career high for them both musically and lyrically. The 11 tracks included here are all lushly produced with a heavy 60’s influence, and feature a string section accompaniment on many of the songs, put to effective use on the first single, “French Navy,” as well as on “The Sweetest Thing” and especially “Careless Love.” If My Maudlin Career has a flaw, it’s that it seems to strike one very melancholy note throughout, though in fact it’s got its share of uptempo numbers. That small quibble aside, this is a pretty terrific indie pop record. Standout cuts: “French Navy,” “The Sweetest Thing,” “Swans” and “My Maudlin Career.”

http://www.myspace.com/cameraobscuraband