JOSH ABRAMS Cipher (Delmark) The quartet on Cipher first got together for a one-off gig at Lula Cafe in early 2000, and bassist Josh Abrams (a founding member of rustic minimalists Town and Country and the jazz trio Sticks and Stones) wisely decided to reconvene the personnel in a semiregular project. Trumpeter Axel Dorner lives in Berlin, so they've been able to play only a handful of shows since, but now at least we have a superb document of their work. On the album, the drummerless group--rounded out by guitarist Jeff Parker and reedist Guillermo Gregorio--displays chamberlike restraint in collective improvisations, a long-tone vehicle in which the players add overdubs without hearing the previous takes, and loosely swinging compositions that recast the multilinear jazz of Lennie Tristano's late-40s crew using a modern vocabulary.
CHE ARTHUR All of Your Tomorrows Were Decided Today (Flameshovel) Atombombpocketknife guitarist Che Arthur has performed live as an acoustic solo act, but on this recording he plays a band's worth of instruments (everything but drums), which may explain the slightly stiff feel. But the real problem is his tuneless singing. Arthur's voice sounds gawky in both roaring electric and rippling acoustic settings, and though the arrangements hint at the tightly wound intensity of Bob Mould's work in Sugar, the hooks just aren't there.
REDWALLS Universal Blues (Undertow) Brothers Justin and Logan Baren claim that they learned to write songs by listening to Beatles records, and sure enough their band's debut sounds like a collection of grade-A homework exercises: the opener, "Colorful Revolution," lifts the bass line from "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" and the guitar fills from "The Ballad of John and Yoko," and subsequent tracks suggest they took the Stones, Dylan, and Motown as electives. This Deerfield quartet--formerly known as the Pages--stays right on the line between homage and plagiarism, but the songs are so damn infectious and well crafted (and the band is so young--Justin graduated from high school just this spring) I'm inclined to cut them some slack. Universal Blues came out last month, but the band has already signed with Capitol and is set to record a follow-up next spring.
SCOTLAND YARD GOSPEL CHOIR I Bet You Say That to All the Boys (Fashion Brigade) On the song "Fan Club" Scotland Yard Gospel Choir singer-guitarist Elia sings about Belle & Sebastian, sighing, "I wish I could sound the same." He's not kidding: from his fake accent to the band's lackadaisical playing to the album's artwork, Scotland Yard Gospel Choir are shameless imitators of the Scottish group. (And with their idols sounding surprisingly polished on the new Dear Catastrophe Waitress, SYGC might be the closest thing out there to early B & S.) The album does contain a few brisk, punk-flavored blasts on which Matt Kerstein (who inexplicably goes by the name Boston) sings with a Mekon-esque charm, but these are the exceptions; otherwise it's track after catchy track of the sincerest form of flattery.
SPIRES THAT IN THE SUNSET RISE Spires That in the Sunset Rise (Galactic Zoo Disk/Eclipse) One of the strangest, most compelling records to come out of Chicago in the last few years, the debut from the all-female Spires That in the Sunset Rise actively encourages confusion. The music--a discordant strain of psychedelic folk, more spooky than pretty, that sets ritualistic melodies, whoops, and chanting to ragged hand percussion and hypnotic riffs played on guitar, mbira, cello, harmonium, Autoharp, and other instruments--can feel meandering or unresolved at times, but the band members are gutsy enough to go wherever their instincts lead. Judging from their live show, they're so committed to their own world there's little chance of their dumbing it down so outsiders can follow along.
TENKI View of an Orbiting Man (Future Appletree) On this quintet's second album singer-guitarist Jamie Toal delivers elegant, serpentine melodies in nasal tones that remind me of Built to Spill's Doug Martsch, stretching words to fit the band's stolid midtempo grooves. Layers of warm electric piano, trumpet, and strummed guitar create a density that's appealing at first, but cumulatively the material takes on an airless quality that can make the gaps between songs feel welcome. Tenki are on to something here, but a better grip on dynamics and some rhythmic variation would do them a world of good.
TILDA TORA Stifle Yourself (Tilda Tora) This band began as a recording project for singer-songwriter Reyna Larson (ex-Mabel Mabel). Producer Brian Deck, who often becomes a temporary member of any group he works with, played drums, keyboards, bass, and guitar on the record, and apparently liked the moody results enough to sign on permanently. Larson has an arresting voice--it recalls that of Everything but the Girl's Tracey Thorn, though it's lower and smokier--but unfortunately most of her songs are musically unambitious, and as a lyricist she seems overly intrigued by melodramatic lines like "Would you rather be raped than forgotten?"
RACHAEL YAMAGATA EP (Private Music) The onetime front woman for the pedestrian funk band Bumpus is now being hyped as the next Norah or Fiona, and judging from her solo debut, produced primarily by Malcolm Burn (who's put a dark luster on records by Emmylou Harris, Giant Sand, and Lisa Germano), the comparisions are apt. Her breathy, understated delivery on "Collide" (recorded in Chicago with producer Doug McBride) is set off masterfully by minimalist instrumentation and stuttering stop-time beats, and there's a husky soulfulness to the smoldering "Known for Years." But "Worn Me Down" sounds like it was designed to appeal to a focus group, with a generic soaring chorus that suggests Sarah McLachlan covering U2. Yamagata has talent, but I don't yet hear a distinctive musical personality.