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Audio files: Worth a peek beneath the radar

Published September 25, 2005

With summer behind us, there are a lot of high-profile, exciting fall albums set for release. But first, here's a look at a few of the more under-the-radar albums issued in the last few months.

FRUIT BATS, SPELLED IN BONES (SUB POP) Seattle-by-way-of-Chicago pop quintet the Fruit Bats have finally perfected the Americana-tinged pop thing on Spelled in Bones, their deceptively menacing-sounding third album. Cryptic title aside, the Bats revel in shimmery, summery pop, like opener Lives of Crime with its flutter of piano and eerie slo-mo blips of drum and electronic beats. Marrying a warm groove - recalling joyful '60s-era pop (think Beach Boys, maybe) - and ingenious blips of electronica has always been the band's forte, but that union is more pronounced, and deft, on Born in the '70s, with its slide-guitar and laconic twang, or the title track, equally atmospheric and churning. B+

KINSKI, ALPINE STATIC (SUB POP) Call it experimental rock. Call it prog-rock. Just don't write off Kinski because the band writes songs sans lyrics. Yes, it's instrumental and, yes, it's impactful, epic even. Think rapid-fire riffs, snarling electric guitars, and ticking drumbeats, and that's just one song, The Wives of Artie Shaw, with its terse, competing guitar riffs playing foil to a nervy drumbeat. Things get experimental often, but it's an arresting spontaneity. And, never fear, Kinski never strays far from its melody, favoring a repetitiveness that was honed by minimalist classical composer, and Kinski influence, Steve Reich. B-

MICHAEL PENN, MR. HOLLYWOOD JR., 1947 (SPINART) Did Michael Penn and his wife Aimee Mann sit down and talk about concept albums in their house recently? It sure seems so. In May, Mann released her '70s-inspired album, The Forgotten Arm, about a Vietnam vet and his rocky romance, and now Penn has issued Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947, an excellent, folksy album set in Los Angeles in, well, 1947. Song titles - like the spooky, instrumental 18 September and the haunting opener Walter Reed - reference events and places specific to his setting. Though the album lacks an overt narrative (Penn doesn't seem to be aiming for storytelling, anyway) it does cohere musically, maintaining a hushed but quietly powerful acoustic power. Highlights include the piano-swathed You Know How, which soars into an emotional chorus with Penn singing, "you know how to captivate my interest with an answer for it all," and Pretending, which juxtaposes Penn's casual croon with surges of electric guitar and layers of harmony vocals. B

MARIA TAYLOR, 11:11 (SADDLE CREEK) You may know her from her band Azure Ray, or identify Maria Taylor with her record label, Saddle Creek, founded by and featuring indie superstar Conor Oberst (of Bright Eyes), but now comes 11:11, her stunning solo album, and easily one of the most affecting releases of the year. On it, Taylor unveils lush, literate indie pop suffused with darting strings (on the rapturous Leap Year), electronic dance beats (on the surprisingly funky One For the Shareholder) and, of course, her ethereal voice. Listen to Xanax, a quietly strummy tune that bursts with an expansive, atmospheric chorus that amplifies and echoes the quiet riff with great emotional impact. Taylor also strips down her dense approach on Speak Easy, a lithe little ragtime-inflected ditty with its stripped-down wheezy violins pasted over a Tin Pan Alley-esque piano melody. A

ROSIE THOMAS, IF SONGS COULD BE HELD (SUB POP) Rosie Thomas knows just how to straddle the indie rock and folk music scene, uniting the two seemingly disparate genres with her lo-fi, stripped down urban folk. Her excellent third album, If Songs Could Be Held, offers 11 clever and personal songs in the vein of Joni Mitchell with their gentle, warm orchestrations - twinkles of piano, chiming acoustic guitar and Thomas' sweet voice in the front of the mix. On Pretty Dress, Thomas croons in a piercing falsetto as the melody unfurls around her voice with a childlike wonder ("all the pretty princes will see you someday"). The lilting Let It Be Me, a tender duet with craggy-voiced singer Ed Harcourt, registers more adult emotion - it describes desiring somebody and wishing for love back - but with the same elegant insouciance. B+

[Last modified September 22, 2005, 11:52:04]

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