Headfirst Straight to Hell

Canadian quintet Grade's second proper full-length for hardcore designer-label Victory Records is an intense, eclectic, uncompromising affair. Perhaps it's some sort of reaction to the buff and shine that A Year in the Past, Forever in the Future, the only single from 1999's amazing Under The Radar, received in preparation for its approximately two spins on MTV's 120 Minutes. Whatever the case, Headfirst is simultaneously rawer and more ambitious than its predecessor (we'll politely ignore last winter's aptly-titled odds 'n' sods anthology The Embarrassing Beginning). That said, the band's singular emotional compulsion remains intact, and the tracks are good ones. Becoming Not Being will blister paint; In the Wake of Poseidon rips off Iron Maiden with charm; the standout Little Satisfactions brings the harmony, and most everything here adeptly blends groovy, full-on pummel with inventive hooks. The disc suffers slightly, however, from a need to prove its heaviness, particularly with Kyle Bishop's vocals, which increasingly eschew melody in favor of the gut-wrenching wail. Some might find it dynamic, as in In Ashes We Lie, but it seems to detract from Grade's compositional talents more than it reinforces that they're, you know, hardcore. Still, Headfirst is an intriguing, visceral listen, more original and heart-driven than almost anything else its genre has to offer. (Victory Records, www.victoryrecords.com)
—Scott Harrell

The Paris Concert: Edition One

The CD release of Paris Concert, which first saw the light in the early '80s on the now-defunct Elektra/Musician label and was out of print for quite a few years, captures Evans' last blush of creative energy before he died in 1980. A notoriously abject heroin junkie for decades, the pianist sounds invigorated throughout this set, which was captured by French radio on Nov. 26, 1979. Part of the new juice comes from his last trio, which included bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joe LaBarbera. They are simpatico, nearly ego-less, sidemen throughout this set of mostly contemplative ballads, so much so that they completely lay out for long periods of time. Evans' playing is considerably more busy — at turns frilly, acerbic, gregarious, even a touch angry — than on his renowned early '60s work. He tends to fill up space more, but his long, fleet-fingered runs are often breathtaking, not a characteristic often ascribed to his work. While I occasionally pined for the more relaxed Bill Evans during this set, there is simply no denying his absolute command from wire to wire. (Blue Note)
—Eric Snider

Lightnin' and the Blues: The Herald Sessions

This is the kind of album that makes most contemporary blues recordings sound hopelessly irrelevant. The threadbare honesty of the songs; the gritty realism of Hopkins' voice, not to mention his buzzy, stinging guitar work (his ghoulish trills must've influenced Hendrix); the kinetic sound reproduction, full of natural echo, run rings around the whole lot of Strat-slingers and pseudo-blues-rockers. Recorded in April 1954, the session was one of Hopkins' last for the African-American race market. He went on to become an elder hero to white blues aficionado. The mostly slow and mid-tempo tunes are skeletally backed by crude drumming and barely thumping bass. A handful of lively boogie numbers are sprinkled in, foreshadowing the rise of rock 'n' roll that was just around the corner. Lightnin' and the Blues is extraordinary, goosebump-inducing music. A true blues fan would have no reason on Earth to buy a Walter Trout record over this. (Buddha/Arista)
—Eric Snider

Hot Shots II

The guys in Radiohead have said they were in a major Beta Band-listening mode during the Kid A and Amnesiac (Kid B?) sessions. Yorke and Co. should have listened more closely; this Scottish quartet brings the kind of fully realized concept to the electronica/rock nexus that Radiohead has yet to locate. Hot Shots II dispenses with much of the wanton weirdness of their self-titled debut full-length. The ethereal songs insinuate themselves; the dense ensemble voices at times evoke a chillier version of the Beach Boys, or a less bombastic Moody Blues. The mostly computer-built rhythm tracks are tasty and subtle, and on a couple of occasions the band breaks into a full-on organic instrumental freakout (san guitar solos). The worst that can be said is that the Beta Band tends to be emotionally remote; sometimes you don't get the sense that there's actual people making these sounds, or at least actual people working the machines that make these sounds. (Astralwerks, www.astralwerks.com)
—Eric Snider

Mass Romantic

This band has been called a supergroup, but it's far kinder to call it a Toronto collective: members of Thee Evaporators and Limblifter join forces with Bloodshot Records darling Neko Case and cartoonist/filmmaker Blaine Thurier to flesh out the songs of Carl Newman (Zumpano) and Dan Bejar (Destroyer). Case is known as an alt-country chanteuse, but her work with The New Pornographers showcases clear pipes that are unabashedly worthy of '80s pop, both British and American — in places, she even sounds oddly like Belinda Carlisle. The fact that Case's vocals are multi-tracked with her boy bandmates' Beach Boys-ish harmonies give glorious sun to the sullen subject matter of songs Mystery Hours, Execution Day and the Kinks-y Slow Descent into Alcoholism. Mass Romantic's irresistible first single, Letter from an Occupant boasts Superchunky energy, a tight guitar blowout and Case's endearing, not-quite-shrill lead. Other highlights include the Madness-meets-Big Star number Body Says No and the loping, Flaming Lips-ish Breakin' the Law, which includes a extra-extra-extra-multi-tracked vocal (credited with a wink to the Camp Northstar kids' chorus). (Mint Records, www.mintrecs.com)
—Stefanie Kalem

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