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The Strugglers

You Win

(Acuarela Discos)

Randy Bickford's world is marked by a weird sort of static metamorphosis. His protagonists are condemned to change into the same thing again and again; a film adaptation of You Win might reasonably be titled Sisyphus in Love. In "The Rejection Letter," a pair of hands alternates between folding the dreaded missive and revising the submitted text "so many times you understand your plans folding as the function of your hands." "Being Shown Blues" is rife with cyclical inertia: "Every decision" the narrator has made has "bound [his] hands in the same way: like a frame for the next thing [he] became"; none of the faces he's tried on were "ever truly taken off." And on the aching "Necrophilia," the blue-black night sky on the road from town "gives no indication that you are going away or coming back." This existential void is described by the merest gestures--tripping acoustic guitars splinter brightly, strings weep, pianos tinkle--and Bickford's voice pierces it like a beacon, croaking and cracking at the ends, smooth as velvet in the middle. You Win's understatedly philosophical, relentlessly starry fare is somewhere between Smog and Songs: Ohia, in that hallucinatory space between the banal and the metaphysical where "Your mother takes you shopping/ And your father's ghost is in the room." --Brian Howe

Day Action Band

Right on Dairyland

(Captain Cape Records)

Songwriting is seldom better than when complex subjects come explained simply, when mystifying material comes distilled by someone who's lived enough to know. Modern rock is full of those banalities, tripe about failed relationships or some other sort of misery. But it's wholly possible to express subtle, complex topics with an eloquence that relies on the vernacular and its immediacy--for starters, Dylan's "Don't Think Twice (It's All Right)," McCartney's "Yesterday," Hank's "Cold, Cold Heart."

Likely by its own admission, Day Action Band doesn't belong in that series, but brothers Matt and Nate O'Keefe successfully write about life and its oddball events in a way that's both simple and poetic. There is nothing fancy about the band's debut, Right on Dairyland, recorded in an old country workshop converted into a studio about a mile and a half from Maple View Dairy Farms, just northwest of Chapel Hill. It's played with acoustic guitars that could use better microphones and keyboards with missing keys, but its honest sentiments are charming, delivered in perfect melodies as comforting as they are gifted. These are folk songs about relationships, quizzical writings by and about folks whose ultimate goal seems to be happiness with someone.

"I don't know what I'd do with you in my life, I don't know what I'd wish for anymore," opens the album, Matt later explaining with a wishful pragmatism that the first kiss is a relationship's ultimate compass. It seems that both he and his brother have found their compass poles and are striving to follow them: The irresistible "Fixing Everything" is a rough-fi gem, Nate vowing to make a relationship right with just a little more time. Brother Matt is making wedding preparations on "Day to Get Done," hustling to make her happy above a smile-'til-you're-silly, cheerful backbeat. It finally happens, as the album's denouement, "Old Together," casts the happy couple retiring into each other through a dreamy organ and a dusty acoustic guitar, a pastoral scene for lovers.

Right on Dairyland sounds like smiling--ear-to-ear, without irony or hesitation--through the toughest period of a lifetime, driven by an instinctive allegiance to future hope or past promise, knowing it may all work. Then again, that's too complex.

Maybe it sounds like living. Or maybe it just sounds like a record I can't stop hearing.
--Grayson Currin

Southern Culture on the Skids

Double Wide and Live

(Yep Roc)

Listening to SCOTS is like slipping into an old, comfortable pair of shoes. Their sound hasn't changed much since they introduced toe-sucking geek rock back in '85. Their fried chicken-flinging backwoodsabilly still moves audiences with Rick Miller's Link Wray influenced guitar. Miller has said his intention was to take roots music and mess with it. To that effect, you get sweaty swamp rock, blues, surf and backwoods boogie all churned together into a bubblin' stew that makes it impossible to stand still once it spills over onto you.

An enthusiastic crowd at Chapel Hill's Local 506 in 2004 proves that on their latest, Double Wide and Live, a retrospective covering all the bases, from bassist Mary Huff's raucous redneck in-your-face version of Ike and Tina Turner's "Hittin' On Nothin'" to Rick Miller's surfin' ode to nocturnal emissions, "The Wet Spot," to the messy classic "Banana Pudding." The crowd shows its love for classic SCOTS. No one breaks any new ground, but that's just fine with the fans.

Preaching the doctrine of "Get your mind right and your feet will follow," Southern Culture is still greasing those skids. DW&L proves that a whole lot of people will still show up to celebrate and show their gratitude. --Grant Britt

Extreme Animals/ Various Artists

I Gotta B Me/ La Resistance, C'Est Homegrown


The Chapel Hill vinyl imprint FrequeNC represents only one face of its founders' autonomous ambitions. Their home base outside of town spans several buildings: living quarters, a recording space and a performance/studio structure known affectionately as "The Workshop." Charlie Hearon and Jon Terrell throw memorably decadent parties there, modeled after true dance club ethos. The peak party time is post-2 a.m.

Their first two records (from Chappie carousers Cold Sides and RoboSapien) spoke volumes with their lush, brightly hued screen-print covers. Since then, the FrequeNC crew recruited a favorite out-of-town group and collected local artists' takes on the state of the union.

As Extreme Animals go, picture a wall of stuffed animals, their doppelgangers and video game detritus plastered together by two art savants wearing rainbow camouflage. You've almost got Pittsburgh-San Diego duo Extreme Animals. By teasing the boundaries between vacuous pop culture and serious modern art, they've rustled up support from the latter's cognoscenti, especially through member Jacob Ciocci's visual work in collective Paper Rad and their neon music. On "Garf's Nightmare," the hyper-tweaked synthesizer overload comes with a MIDI version, in case you need background music for your next round of Atari. Playful party anthems reign here.

Protest music from the Piedmont isn't news on La Resistance, but it's worthwhile still. On Darkkhaki and Sweet RB's "Hydroponic Govt. War," there are no pleas for peace, only filtered echoes of original protest genre dub-reggae, pinched into solid granular nuggets of slap-back digital rhythm, overtones and toots of melodica floating above. Alternately, DJ Nasty Boots vs. The G.O.A.T. take on the Talking Heads' anti-imperialist statement "Listening Wind,"an electro-house mix pulling the lyrical tension of David Byrne's words taut amid clip-clopping beats.

Both serve as fine documents of this local underground label's oeuvre. --Chris Toenes

Deneen McEachern

Hard Dark Love

(Tomato Music)

You can go to church on this one, drink in hand. You'd expect to find a voice like this in gospel. It's hard to shake the feeling that you're listening to Mahalia Jackson sing the blues. Instead, this serving of heavenly blues is courtesy of local Deneen McEachern. She first sang the blues in Durham playwright Kent Cooper's musical Standing at Your Door, but she grew up singing in church and can't escape her gospel roots.

The feeling that McEachern may break into a halleluiah chorus any second is everywhere. It's heartfelt and powerful. She gets her point across without vocal gymnastics, just belting 'em with enough force to blow you back a considerable distance.

And if it sounds like an album of blues classics, in a way, it is. These blues are written by producer Cooper, who also writes for bluesman Louisiana Red. "I'm gonna build me a tree hut/ and live way up in the air/ 'Cause down here love bites and scratches/ just like a hungry bear," McEachern proclaims on "Cold Feeling."

Even if you ain't got religion, McEachern makes it accessible for the darkest sinner.--Grant Britt

Ashley Atkins

Ashley Atkins

(Carbonated Records)

On her eponymous Carbonated Records debut, Ashley Atkins gives would-be playmates fair warning: Flirting with her is flirting with disaster, and, if she flirts back, she'll fall too hard, love too much and miss you bad when you let go.

True, Atkins, a Durham six-stringer with a voice that recalls Liz Phair's agro-howl and Juliana Hatfield's melodic charms, isn't the first potential paramour to offer such imprecations, but she seems uniquely convinced of her shortcomings as a lover. Those problems all have their roots in Atkins' willingness to commit in the head-over-heels, ultra-involved way: That commitment is espoused on "I'm on Fire"--"If you'll let me die in your arms..."--and "Come into My World"--"Do you believe in me like I believe in you?"--with a near audible smile. But she knows she pushes too hard: "You might call me psycho/ Well, I am/ Just because I stalk your house/ Every night at 3 a.m." she sings on "Psycho," a track where she threatens to boil a lover's gerbil and rifle through his garbage. It's all out of love, natch.

But she has her limits, and she's lived long enough that not everyone offers companionship as steadfast as hers: On "Don't Deserve My Heart," she tells some fool that she's fallen, even though the goon doesn't know what's up for grabs. Sometimes self-respect combined with self-effacement can be read a bit banally, and sometimes Atkins is so convinced she and her able band just overstate the case. But with Ashley Atkins, at least you won't be sitting at home beside the phone, eating a tub of Ben & Jerry's, watching Blind Date, biting your nails. She'll holla if she wants to holla. --Grayson Currin

Jemima James

Book Me Back in Your Dreams

(Tomato Music)

She gets called a blues singer, but Jemima James is pure, old-school country. The lyrics on Book Me Back in Your Dreams, courtesy of producer Kent Cooper, are low-down blues, but James' vocals are rooted in country. It's an interesting mix. Guitarist Chris Berry stirs things up too, switching between flatpicking and funk on a song like "Emergency Call."

James is soft-spoken but gets her point across, sounding like a world-weary Brenda Lee without the whoop. "Girl with the Long Hair" resembles John Prine both in sound and content: "They found her in the squalor of a junkie-deserted basement/ She left here yellow-bagged/ as quiet as she'd ever been."

This woman was born in the wrong decade. "I'd Rather Say Goodbye Right Here" is perfect '60s country, the kind of stuff Loretta Lynn would have loved to have wrapped her pipes around. In fact, it would be right at home on a jukebox in the heartbreak section, right beside Merle Haggard's drinkin' songs. But "Dog Following Me"--with labelmate Deneen McEachern on backing vocals and Berry throwing tinkly, toy guitar notes around like confetti--sounds like country blues backed by a black gospel choir.

Sure, it's hard to get a label to stick, but it goes down real good. Get yourself a snoot full, kick back and enjoy. --Grant Britt

Black Taj

Black Taj

(Amish Records)

The guys in Black Taj have a long and illustrious pedigree in local music, one marked by a certain exoticism. Guitarists Dave Brylawski and Grant Tennille are veterans of Idyll Swords, a group that whipped traditional Asian and Middle Eastern music into a shimmering psych-folk froth. Brylawski and bassist Steve Popson were in Polvo, whose sound was "angular" when that still meant something and who still exert enough influence to get name-checked whenever guitars start to slither. Of the two, Black Taj is much closer to Polvo's elegant and brittle whorls than Idyll Swords' lush musical colonialism. But if Polvo is to rock as calligraphy is to block caps, Black Taj is a fluid cursive script--their self-titled debut is a meat-and-potatoes rock record with just enough stylization to preserve its lineage. Long instrumental passages punctuate the vocals. Arrangements swirl like fireflies. "Back to the Bridges" wobbles and glides as off-kilter guitar lines double back on themselves before they get too predictable. Contrapuntal riffs reverberate off one another in "Clover," then surge as one, teetering on the fulcrum of Popson's deep bass strokes. Hotted-up licks sizzle in the slurry low end of "Red Jr." Slinky and solid, Black Taj is recommended to anyone who likes their rock music with, very literally, a twist--or about a hundred of them. --Brian Howe

Feeding the Fire

Naked to the Invisible Eye


Naked to the Invisible Eye,the three-track debut EP from Chapel Hill quartet Feeding the Fire, is big on scope. Over the course of 15 minutes, the band takes modern rock's fuzzed guitars and emphatic rhythms on a Joy Division-meets-Yes tailspin. The band's ambition is impressive enough, the eight or more phases of the six-minute "Chupacabra" marked by complex rhythmic shifts, zigging from distorted Barre-chord pathos to serpentine, arpeggiated meditations, all through well-developed textures.

But the unexpected peaks and valleys flash up from beginning to end, providing a complexity that, at this point, surpasses the band's own coherence. At times, the bottom end seems to be sitting on the side of the song the guitars and keys are trying to lift, a muddling effect symptomatic of young bands new to recording together. Ken Cannon's voice is over-affected, as if he's simultaneously convincing himself and his audience of his own uneasy artistic inspiration. But the unlikely, undiluted method of it all almost works, and given time and the right incubation, it will. --Grayson Currin

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