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CD Reviews: Modey singer takes an acoustic turn

| Sunday, March 26, 2006

'Phil Boyd & The Hidden Twin' Phil Boyd & The Hidden Twin (Frux Totem Records) Two and a half stars

A few years ago, the indie rock avant-garde embraced experimental electronic laptop composition. Then there was a swing towards its polar opposite -- pastoral, acoustic psychedelic "freak folk," like Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, Akron/Family and others. Now, this sound is starting to pop up in Pittsburgh.

Phil Boyd is the mega-talented singer and guitarist of Pittsburgh's mighty Modey Lemon. This meandering collection of less-rocking stuff is apparently something he had to get out of his system.

The songs have a warmth and a randomness to them, like the flickering light of a campfire that can't decide if it wants to go out. But the lyrics are full of spacey lines like "He's the axeman of the glass forest," that either beckon you further into their world, or just leave you cold.

-- Michael Machosky

'For Blood and Empire' Anti-Flag (RCA Records) Two and a half stars

Not only are Pittsburgh punk rabble-rousers Anti-Flag still around, they're on a major record label, RCA. No doubt some of their hardcore fans are dismayed by this apparent capitulation to corporate power, but if it gets the record in more stores, it's probably worth it.

They've been around since 1988, and nobody works harder -- constantly touring, talking and loudly objecting to the (mis)rule of the rich and powerful. Their formula hasn't changed much -- lobbing incendiary slogans over pummelling barrages of punk rock guitar. A growing melodic sensibility has crept into their recent records, but this one is all speed and agresssion.

Songs like "The Press Corpse" "The W.T.O. Kills Farmers" and "Depleted Uranium is a War Crime" hit with all the subtlety of a 2-by-4 across the face. But it's punk rock, so you've only got about two minutes to get your point across. And if you don't like it, just wait a minute and it'll be over.

With major label support, Anti-Flag may have a shot at Rage Against the Machine's long-vacant anti-war, anti-establishment, anti-everything throne. For a bunch of pierogie-fed youth from Pittsburgh, that's pretty ambitious.

-- Michael Machosky

'122 Ellsworth' Boogie Hustlers Three stars

Pittsburgh, it's time to get a re-acquainted with the funk.

Pittsburgh's own Boogie Hustlers have begun to make some noise in the local clubs -- though they're easy to miss if you're focused on the underground/indie rock scene, where most of the creative local music is coming from.

Instead, this young eight-piece crew jams under the influence of Poogie Bell, a local R&B drummer-producer who's worked with everyone from David Bowie to Roberta Flack to Erykah Badu. Bell produced "122 Ellsworth" and plays percussion.

Musically, the sound is a gumbo of murky N'awlins swamp-funk with a little Meters bounce, seasoned with some D.C. in-the-pocket grooves, mellow, jazzy trumpet interludes and a slight Philly Soul sheen at times. The vocals are especially strong -- searching, soulful, socially conscious laments in the best Marvin Gaye/Al Green tradition alternate with the expected party jams.

Jam band fans ought to love this stuff. Unfortunately, the instrumental cuts don't hit as hard as the ones with vocals. Live, however, it's a different story.

-- Michael Machosky

'Letters' Origen aka Will Stanton (Strike Two Records) Three stars

With hip-hop's good name run through the mud so many times by the pimps, the pushers and the pistoleros, sometimes it takes an outsider's perspective to remind you why you liked it so much in the first place.

Origen aka Will Stanton, aka the alias-happy Chris Miskis, grew up with hip-hop in Mt. Washington, but his family moved to Irwin, where he discovered punk rock. After years playing guitar and bass in indie bands like Tabula Rasa and The Revolvers, he came back home to hip-hop. He's also a a DJ at jazz radio station WDUQ.

Origen puts all of his influences together in non-obvious ways, and makes it stand outside time and trends.

Toronto beatmaker Adept lays the foundation -- dark, jazz-inflected piano and horn loops build noir-ish tension atop simple, head-nodding beats.

Lyrically, instead of harping on his mic-battling bona fides, Origen comes across as a streetwise philosopher seeking truth in desolate lands. In some tracks, it's a struggle, like the ominous "Through the Desert," where he admits "there's certain aspects of my character I cannot defend." In others, like "Grace," it's a strong, battle-scarred faith that gets him through. Even in a post-"Jesus Walks" hip-hop world, this still sounds startling.

-- Michael Machosky

Music DVDs

'Mike Stern Live' Mike Stern (Inakustic) Three stars

Mike Stern and his band present a great performance in this concert recorded in 2004 in Paris, But the best part of "Mike Stern Live" is "After You," recorded in Vienna in 1990. That song showcases his classic band featuring saxophonist Bob Berg, who died in 2002. "After You" shows the great Stern-Berg understanding and Stern's virtuosity in its long, solo opening. Another extra feature has a Stern band from 1996, without Berg, doing a version of the Miles Davis tune "Jean-Pierre." While the extras are outstanding, the concert date is also fine, with a band also highlighted by the work of bassist Richard Bona. His work on that and "Slow Change" comes close to rivaling Stern's quickness and solo conception. The camera work on this album gives fine looks at the remarkable fingerwork from both of them.

-- Bob Karlovits

'The Lost Tapes' Buddy Rich and His Band (Scabeba) Three stars

"The Lost Tapes" is the second volume of a gig that serves as an strikingly rich portrayal of Buddy Rich and His Band. This one contains the famous "West Side Story Medley," the drumming showcase that always was a set-closing showpiece for the group. The first volume, "The Channel One Suite," is titled after the band's other similar show-stopper. Recorded at the same date in 1985, this one contains classics from the band such as "Mexicali Nose," "Willowcrest" and "New Blues." Because the gig was done in a studio set up as a club, the sound and camera work are controlled and good, yet there is the excitement of a live crowd. It is an excellent look at a drummer and the band he led into fame at a time when big bands weren't all that popular.

-- Bob Karlovits

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