Rough Draft
11th Hour Productions

Combining engaging lyrics with indelible melodies, the Damn Rathers anxiously create complex and contagiously baroque pop. With a vintage tone, swirling organs, and layered vocals, the Damn Rathers offer eloquent sounds that hit with a warm immediacy and an eclectic cool. Full of subtle charm and sullen charisma, their first effort, Rough Draft, is an extremely gratifying record filled with lush, painstakingly presented songs.

Rooting themselves in classic pop/rock sounds, the Damn Rathers deliver their own melody-rich brand of pop that lilts invitingly and thrives on vibrant instrumentation. "Outside World" is an ebullient number enlivened by organ and handclaps. "Just Livin'" blends Andy Mason's soulful vocals with tasteful piano and guitar licks. Soothing numbers like "Bitter Waltz" and "That I Don't Know" offer a relaxed loveliness while "So Soon" and "Winter in Slumberland" shine thanks to a delicate structure and a buoyant melodic essence.

Mason has an unfailing knack for crafting memorable hooks, and the sounds he comes up with are sweet and harmonious. Like an authentic modern pop voice, Mason writes as a blunt provocateur with ambitions galore. His style is relaxed and convincing, evoking the moody guitar pop of Elvis Costello ("Fracture and Fade") and the elegantly restrained rebellion of the Kinks ("Kingdoms In a Cloud").

A great amount of time and care went into this record and it shows. Rough Draft is an alluring record of eloquent simplicity and understated pop pride. And quite obviously, it's an effort borne out of raw talent and natural creativity. -Chris Webb

Sto Cazzo!
Southern Records

"And the fine melodies!/Once/Of youthful timbre/Are notes of mud,/Percussive thuds/A skipping rock/Losing crispness/Settling on an end."

These lines from "The Fine Wrinkles; We All Have Them," the first track from Sto Cazzo!, reminded me of an all-too-common problem with musicians: usually when they get their "chops," the first thing to get it in the neck is passion, as technique becomes master instead of the almighty rock.

Not so with Sweep The Leg Johnny, whose latest album is a fine example of a band that can play well and play hard. Sto Cazzo! features complex compositions performed with hardcore fervor, with poetic but not poncey lyrics and great alto sax work from frontman Steven Sostak. Dig the opening triptych: "The Fine Wrinkles," a hard-charging tune that segues without a breath into the instrumental assault, "That Than Which There Is No Greater Than" (title taken from Philosophy 101 fave, St. Anselm's argument for the existence of God), a brutal wall of martial skronk with cut-ups and loops thickening into locust swarm madness, which then busts a move into "Walking Home On the Emergency Bed," a swingin' number with a smooth, soothing break in the middle of the chug. Awe-inspiring.

In contrast, the last two songs are in a subtler vein. "Columbus Day" is a beautiful piece about the dire consequences of the Age of Exploration, with haunting vibraphone, violin and cello. Strings also add emotional depth to "The Blizzard of 1999," which quietly builds to a blazing climax.

Armed with the inventiveness of jazz and the speed and power of punk, Sweep the Leg Johnny are at the forefront of the contemporary wave of bands out to prove that you can grow up and still rock out. The liner notes define Sto Cazzo! as meaning "Holy Dick!," and that's what you'll be crying in ecstasy when you hear this amazing album. -Bill Widener

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Songs From An American Movie, Volume One: Learning How To Smile

Everclear likes to be in your face - but not in a classic rebel pose like purebred punks. Art Alexakis and Co. can be fun-loving guys who update nostalgia themes within grunge marches, and just as often they're bittersweet pioneers who bring us into the triage tent at the front lines of modern emotional trauma. This new album, part of a planned diptych that'll be finished before year's end (although this first release is behind schedule), shows plenty of ambition in both directions.

Right up front, it has to be said that nothing here has the gritty post-punk snap of either "Santa Monica" or "Father of Mine," the trio's most well-known songs. There are several blissful looks at happy times, with either the radio or a budding romance showing up to make up for life's shortfalls. A borderline-overblown arrangement of Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl" brings together all these elements. Better than that are inventive tracks like "AM Radio," which is backward-looking but recorded with up-to-date sampling, imparting a bit of freaky time warp suitable for a band that makes commercials for TV's Sci Fi Network. "Unemployed Boyfriend" is partially put over by two female voices apparently chattering on the phone - one of whom is using the conversation to convince herself it's okay to fall in love.

The name of this album makes sense because these pieces are cinematic. The downer songs like the "Father of Mine" clone "Wonderful" and the neurotically cautionary "Annabella's Song" have less of the sweep and movement of the happier tracks. But then, maybe the group's just getting warmed up for the reputedly darker Volume Two. -T.E. Lyons

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