Beirut: Gulag Orkestar

God, I love it when I pick something up just because it looks interesting, and it's even better than I hoped. I used to do this at Tower Records all the time, but usually I'd get it home and realize that (a) the music sucked, (b) I'd been bamboozled out of my hard-earned money, (c) I now had less to spend on worthwhile music, and (d) the music industry is dominated by money-grubbing pigs who don't care at all about music.

This is why the EPFL is so great. First of all, it's free. Yep, that's what the "F" in "EPFL" stands for: Free. Second, most of the music in their collection that I've checked out blindly has been, at the very least, decent.

Beirut is better than decent. Like kindred spirits A Hawk and a Hacksaw (who guested on Gulag Orkestar), Beirut is a celebration of Eastern European Gypsy music that's been filtered through the ears of a kid from Albuquerque. The instruments -- including trumpet, ukulele, accordion, mandolin, and piano -- are mostly played by Zach Condon, and he plays them all reasonably well, at least in context.

The music lacks the feel of a roomful of people feeding off of each other's energy. This flatness is particularly noticeable on the opening dirge, "The Gulag Orkestar," whose plodding tension would've benefited from the interplay of different musicians with a shared vision. "Brandenburg," which does feature several guest players, has a frantic urgency that hints at what Beirut is capable of achieving.

The biggest weakness is the singing, which generally sounds like a lackluster imitation of Smiths-era Morrissey. It's a nice idea to juxtapose mournful pop crooning with Gypsy-inspired music, but he hasn't yet figured out how to seamlessly incorporate a love for British shoegazer pop into Beirut's musical personality.

Gulag Orkestar is a strong debut that holds the promise of great things. If Condon strengthens his alterna-pop sensibilities and mixes them with old world Gypsy music, then he'll be able to stake a meaningful claim in a genre that's dominated by punk-influenced bands like Gogol Bordello. Otherwise, he's better off sticking with the old world interpretations, because on Gulag Orkestar, he rocks the hardest when he's not being a rock musician.

Music: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The instruments are played well, and the imperfections make it clear that this record wasn't made by a bunch of soulless studio hacks. The songwriting and arrangements are consistently strong, and they provide a base on which Condon will hopefully build. Occasionally, the vocals are an important layer of a thick musical canvas, but mostly they sound like the kind of third-rate mope rock that's been spewed out by wannabe Nick Drakes throughout the past three decades. The low point is "Scenic World," whose Casio-esque rhythm tracks and woeful vocals embody the worst elements of Beirut.

Packaging: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The cover photo and the photo on the back of the jewel box are eye-catching. They were apparently "found in a library in Leipzig torn out of a book," and the photographer is unknown. The photo of Condon isn't bad, but I have no idea why there's a picture of geese running across a field.

Listen if you like: A Hawk and a Hacksaw, DeVotchKa, Gogol Bordello, The Smiths

If it were food, it'd be: Pasulj (a spicy bean soup from the Balkans) with a big hunk of bland cheese in it.


Dashboard Confessional: Dusk and Summer

It's clear from the opening of "Don't Wait" that this will be an emotional ride. The dramatic chord changes -- reminiscent of the opening of U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name" -- let us know that we are in for some soul searching, and songwriter Chris Carrabba's plaintive voice describes the beautiful pain to which he must subject his eyes.

It's interesting that Dusk and Summer opens in a way that brings The Joshua Tree to mind. Both are well-produced (Daniel Lanois was involved in the creation of both), well-written albums that are accessible to a broad range of rock fans. However, U2 looked inward and found a mirror that reflected the outside world, while Carrabba looked inside and found an emotional car crash from which he could not tear his gaze. The Joshua Tree wants to change the world; Dusk and Summer wants the beautiful girl down the street.

DC comes from the post-Sunny Day Real Estate school of emo that blew up at the turn of the millennium. It's rock music for teenagers with downcast eyes who are searching for their places in love and life. Some of the songs are slow and heartbroken, while others are fast and energetic and heartbroken. But DC taps into a hopeful drama that is kind of fun. (Of course, I think Morrissey is fun, so I may not be the most objective judge.) While the lyrics are overwrought, they seem honest. They're translucent enough to speak to anyone who has ever hurt -- because of love or a lack of love. In a perfect world, "Stolen" would dominate proms the way "Open Arms" did 25 years ago, and "Dusk and Summer" would provide the soundtrack to the summer sunsets for a million kids who are feeling the pain of falling in love for the first time.

My comparisons between DC and U2 are infallible... as long as you skip "Slow Decay." It's still a song about heartbreak, but in an entirely different way. It shows that Carrabba is capable of looking into himself and seeing a mirror that reflects the outside world. It's a dark song, probably the darkest on the album, and it has nothing to do with pretty girls or beaches or sunsets. This song, more than any other on the album, makes me think that DC may surprise us next time around.

Music: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The music is very good, at least by the standards of third-generation emo. It's melodramatic and a bit ridiculous, but the songs are well-written, and Don Gilmore's production brings out DC's most accessible elements without sacrificing their bite. The songs are somewhat formulaic, and don't set DC far apart from their contemporaries. With that said, however, Carrabba is good at describing what it's like to feel as if you're loneliest person who has ever walked the face of the planet.

Packaging: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The cover photo fits the mood of the album very well, but the rest of the jacket is lacking. The close-ups are completely out of place, and the front-facing band photo is the epitome of a generically awful group shot. The other photos aren't bad, but there's nothing particularly special about them. Much like the music, they convey a mood in a somewhat unoriginal way.

Listen if you like: Jimmy Eat World, Sunny Day Real Estate, Promise Ring, Silverstein

If it were food, it'd be: saltwater taffy that's been sweetened by a teardrop


Antony and the Johnsons: I Am a Bird Now

First of all, it kicks a major amount of ass that the EPFL has this album. Secretly Canadian is hardly a big label, and vocalist Antony would certainly be controversial if anyone knew who he was.

I fell in love with Antony's voice when I first heard him on CocoRosie's "Beautiful Boyz," and his vocals on I Am a Bird Now are great. He sounds as if he's troubled by demons that torment him by night and terrify him by day. His range is perfect for a man who struggles with the boundaries of gender, and it calls to mind the finest moments of Alison Moyet.

Like the vocals, the music is rich and layered. "Fistful of Love" is my least favorite song, but its faux Motown feel would probably grow on me in time. The piano (also performed by Antony) complements the vocals perfectly, and reminds me of those rare occasions when Tori Amos stops trying to prove how interesting she is. The arrangements add emotion without being cheesy.

The music is at its best when Antony writes words that transcend his personal struggles. Loneliness and isolation are universal, and we don't need to be struggling with gender identity to relate. When Antony opens the album with, "Hope there's someone / who'll take care of me / when I die, will I go," I feel his confusion and fear, and I feel my own, too. But when he goes into, "My lady story / Is one of breast amputation," it's clear that this is Antony's album, not anyone else's. He'll let the listeners close enough to act as voyeuristic spectators, but our role is clear; we are to sit quietly in awe like an obedient little audience, instead of interacting with -- and maybe even relating to -- the performer.

I Am a Bird Now is self-absorbed. If you're okay with that, then it is absolutely worth your time. But if you want an artist to acknowledge that he is not the only human being on the planet, this probably isn't the album for you.

Music: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
It would've been higher, but the lyrics are weak. The musicians know what to play -- and what not to play. The drama occasionally outweighs the music, which seems to be purposeful but it doesn't always work. Lyrically, he tries too hard to shock the listener with gruesome words that reflect his torment.

Packaging: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
I'm not sure what the proper cover is, and different web sites feature different panels of the jacket as the cover. Regardless, both designs make for notable covers. Most of the images work well together, and the package is interesting. It's a shame the lyrics aren't included, because they're a big part of the package (even when they're weak). The image of the prison wall and the letters from the hermaphrodite children add intriguing touches.

Listen if you like: Alison Moyet, Tori Amos, CocoRosie, Rufus Wainwright.

If it were food, it'd be: Rich, delicious, and wonderfully fattening whole cream. The lyrics, however, are a couple of days past the expiration date.


Amy Winehouse: Back to Black

They say you can't polish a turd. You can, however, take something good and smear shit all over it, which is exactly what Amy Winehouse did to Back to Black. Rather than finding a unique and creative way to share her experiences with her listeners, she insults us by beating us over the head with lyrics that scream, "I'm an insecure child trapped in a woman's body, PAY ATTENTION TO ME."

The words that she's smeared all over these songs are horrible, which is a shame because the sound is a really good throwback to vocal jazz and soul of the '60s. At times, the music and Winehouse's voice are reminiscent of Nina Simone, but Simone never vomited out inane bullshit like "They tried to make me go to rehab I won't go go go," or "He left no time to regret / kept his dick wet." A good singer learns how to convey complex and difficult messages to her listeners. A good singer trusts her listeners to listen. Winehouse is not a good singer. Like Marilyn Manson and Fred Durst, Winehouse seems to thrive on the idea that listeners will be shocked -- SHOCKED, I tell you -- by her tales of addiction and unrequited sex.

I kind of feel sorry for Amy Winehouse, because she's gotten wrapped up in some bad shit. I feel more sorry for all the schmucks who bought into the piece of crap that is Back to Black, though. Just say no, my friends. Just say no.

Music: 2 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Everything about the music -- including the vocal melodies and Winehouse's voice -- is decent, but Winehouse's attempt to write lyrics is a miserable failure. There are moments when she shows that, somewhere deep in the echoing chamber of her skull, she understands what it means to be a good lyricist. "Wake Up Alone" demonstrates her potential with words better than anything on the album, but it's an island in a sea of clichéd rhymes and wasted metaphors. If Winehouse can figure out how to tell her stories in a compelling and unique way, she will be a force to reckon with. It'll be interesting to see how she grows as an artist.

Packaging: 1.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
It's a bunch of pictures of a woman trying to look sexy. It would be much more exciting if it were a bunch of pictures of a woman succeeding at looking sexy. As the cover stands now, it's awkward and uncomfortable and completely unattractive. Which actually (albeit unintentionally) fits the lyrical tone of the album perfectly.

Listen if you like: shocking your parents with adolescent lyrics about drug abuse and sex. If you are actually interested in this kind of music, go out and find copies of Nina Simone's Wild is the Wind or The Supremes' I Hear a Symphony or even The Propellorheads duet with Shirley Bassey on "History Repeating."

If it were food, it'd be: a moist and delicious cake with a strange, smelly, brown frosting.


Mika: Life in Cartoon Motion

Very few artists have the ability to appeal to both children and record critics. Most music for young people is created by soulless bastards who view music as a business rather than an art (The Chipmunks, New Kids on the Block, N'Sync), while most critical darlings are so wrapped up in being brilliant that they hold no appeal for anyone outside of the ivory tower of rock elitism.

Mika walks the line between childhood and adulthood, but he also walks the border between credible and manufactured. On first listen -- and second and third and fourth listens, too -- his music is bright and energetic and smiley. Yeah, smiley. It just makes you smile. But Mika doesn't stop with the sheen of happiness; he layers some adult themes and emotions just below the surface. At its best, Life in Cartoon Motion reminds me of Looney Tunes' ability to appeal to both kids and grown-ups for similar but completely different reasons.

At its worst, Life in Cartoon Motion is a business endeavor. Producer Greg Wells previously worked with artistically credible acts like Paris Hilton, S Club 7, and Hanson. Mika wrote eight of the 12 songs on his own -- including a few of the strongest tracks -- but his co-writer on the other four was Jodi Marr, whose past work has all the integrity of a Mallomar. (The presence of hitmaker Desmond Child as a co-writer on "Erase" is an additional black mark, and it's not surprising that this is the dullest track on the CD.) Mika's fellow musicians are studio mercenaries like Tim Pierce and Matt Chamberlain, who have four or five dubious credits to their names for every good one.

The music is good, though. "Grace Kelly" is undeniably catchy, and could be permanently ingrained in one's memory as the soundtrack to a great summer. "Lollipop" can stand next to immortal pop songs like "ABC" and "I Want Candy" (both of which I absolutely despise and never want to hear again). "Billy Brown" is a Beatles-esque ditty that celebrates the beauty of love, betrayal, confusion, and redemption. "Big Girls (You Are Beautiful)" is a descendent of Queen's "Fat Bottomed Girls," and it does a good job of paying tribute to both it's musical and physical inspirations. The crescendo of "Happy Ending" is a strong closer, and the hidden track that comes after it showcases a side of Mika that is not seen anywhere else on the album.

Music: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Life in Cartoon Motion is not a perfect album. Its strongest songs are good enough to be added to the canon of pop music, but its weak tracks are completely forgettable. It's obvious that Mika possesses an interesting creative vision. If he chooses to break away from the formulaic drones who litter every corner of the music industry, he might make some monumental records that would accompany new generations of music lovers on their journey through growing up. Otherwise, he'll probably have a long and successful career of not mattering very much.

Packaging: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
It would've scored a 5 if they'd included all of the lyrics. The design and illustration is the perfect accompanyment to the music, and I was disappointed that the booklet was only 16 pages. I would've happily given up a few photos of Mika for another drawing and/or page of song lyrics.

Listen if you like: Queen, Elton John, Rufus Wainwright, teeny bopper pop like Spice Girls or Hanson

If it were food, it'd be: A Mrs. Smith's pie from the supermarket. It's good, but it'd be so much better if it were made with more heart and less need for mass consumption.


Fiona Apple: Tidal

Ten years ago, I heard "Criminal," ran to my local CD store, and bought Tidal. I made it through about half the CD before I decided it was complete crap. Neither of her subsequent CDs did anything to change my mind, and her increasingly bizarre behavior convinced me that Fiona Apple was just another immature artist whose praise far outweighed her actual talent. Even Bettye Lavette's no-bullshit rendition of "Sleep to Dream" didn't cause me to reconsider my opinion (although it did open my eyes to the song's strength).

So when I saw Tidal sitting in the rack at EPFL, I couldn't contain my excitement. I love writing bad reviews, and this would surely be a home run in the ballpark of cynicism.

But dammit, Tidal isn't complete crap. Her voice is strong, even if she occasionally overstates her intent instead of trusting her listener. Her piano playing is interesting, and rarely oversteps its boundaries. The lyrics are decent, but her choice of words often belies her young age. Her songwriting is sophisticated and accessible, even if she's trying too hard. Tidal is not a great album, and I seriously question whether or not Apple deserves the praise that has been heaped upon her over the years, but this is a solid debut from an immature artist with an impressive talent.

Music: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
It's not a perfect album, but it deserves far more credit than I've given it in the past. By taking her voice out of its natural range in the chorus of "Never is a Promise," she adds vulnerability to a song that would be dreadfully cold otherwise. Her inflections on the sultry "Slow Like Honey" say far more than her words possibly could. Unsurprisingly, there are a few bombs, the worst of which ("Carrion") sounds like Sgt. Pepper's tour bus ran over Sade.

Packaging: n/a The original packaging got lost or destroyed, but it was really nice of the staff at EPFL to print out the cover art and the track/time listings.

Listen if you like: Tori Amos, Aimee Mann, Liz Phair. At times, she reminds me of George Michael's Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. I, and she even hints at David Sylvian once in a while.

If it were food, it'd be: young Pinot Noir. It tastes good now, but with the proper care, it could be fantastic in a few years. (Whether or not Apple aged as well as a good Pinot Noir is debatable.)


Keane: Under the Iron Sea

Wow. I just can't get enough Coldplay  Travis  Every other wimpy britpop band who tries to channel Radiohead's introspective darkness and U2's pop brilliance Keane. This is derivative  boring  crap  derivative boring crap really great. Listening to this is like repeatedly driving a screwdriver into my ears  more fun than having a total hip replacement  lobotomatastic really great. The hour I spent with Under the Iron Sea was absolute torture  cruel and unusual  the reason I'm now in therapy really great.

Music: 2 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
It's perfect music for people who hate the thorns on roses, the rainstorms in summer, and the dogshit from dogs. It's like the Britpop version of new age; it pretends to go to dark and dangerous places, but ultimately it never ventures beyond the safe, secure hopes and dreams of the privileged class.

Packaging: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Hot damn! The jacket is the best part of the album! And it's still not very good!

Listen if you like: bands who possess absolutely no originality or creativity.

If it were food, it'd be: Kraft Macaroni and Cheese with canned peas. There's nothing wrong with it, and sometimes it's even pretty tasty. But if you've tried the real thing, it just doesn't compare.


Teitur: Stay Under the Stars

There's something immediately warm and inviting about Stay Under the Stars. Perhaps it's the the wistful tenor of Teitur Lassen, or it could be the imperfectly rich production, or maybe it's words like, "Don't want you to wake up / stay under the stars / where no one can make us / change what we are."

Stay Under the Stars is not an exciting listen. It's not full of cheap thrills or dramatic revelations or emotional meltdowns. It's a simple album with a musical palette that extends beyond the pedestrian instrumentation of many singer/songwriters. I say the following without intending anything disparaging or belittling: it's nice.

Unfortunately, no matter when or where or how I listen to the album, my mind wanders. I find myself thinking about dogs that need to be walked, work that needs to be done, or friends who need to be called. Eventually, Teitur will reach out and pull me back into the music, but I often find that three or four songs have drifted by while my mind was elsewhere.

Sure, there are a few moments that grab my attention. The simple and lonely protagonist of "I Run the Carousel" is quietly disturbing (a mood that could have been suitably conveyed without the overtly dissonant chord progression and arrangement), and the darkness of "Great Balls of Fire" finds an emotional tension that is absent from Jerry Lee Lewis' performance. Other songs, like the blues-inspired "Boy, She Can Sing," are unsettling simply because they're bad. Most of the songs, however, are relatively unobtrusive snapshots -- little vignettes of the small things that fill all of our lives.

Music: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The arrangements are a bit better than most singer-songwriters, but the songs are pretty typical. A few words stand out (the album's closing line, "All my mistakes have become masterpieces," is my favorite), but most don't shine as either poetry or lyrics. He's at his best when he's quiet and introspective, like on "Thief About to Break In" and "Waiting for Mars," but his forays into the blues are mistakes that definitely are not masterpieces.

Packaging: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
It's a charming package. The simplicity of the cover sets the mood perfectly. The little drawings throughout add a warm and personal touch, and remind me a bit of Sergio Aragones' marginal drawings in Mad Magazine. The notes that are randomly scribbled in the margins add to the effect, and are a very creative way to include the lyrics to the hidden track without explicitly stating its presence.

Listen if you like: Josh Ritter, Fairground Attraction, Rufus Wainwright, Jude, Sting, James Blunt

If it were food, it'd be: homemade soup that's a little bland, but has a lot of heart in it.


El Perro Del Mar: El Perro Del Mar

El Perro Del Mar (the persona of a Swedish musician named Sarah Assbring) conjures memories of Julee Cruise. Cruise is a good singer, she has a vibe, and Angelo Badalamenti's production defintely pushed her onto the good side of creepy. Unfortunately, Cruise was always a bit over-rated, and her music just never really worked for me.

So if Julee Cruise didn't really work, El Perro Del Mar falls flat on her face. Some good elements are there: a perverted interpretation of late '50s / early '60s rock and roll, sparse production that lends itself to late nights on dark roads, and subtle melodic hooks that slither into your subconscious and reappear when you least expect them. But the good elements aren't well-defined, and they can't make up for the album's shortcomings. The lyrics are trite, which is forgivable if English is not her primary language; the instrumental performances are boring, with lots of strumy-strumy-strum guitars that inspire images of an open-mic night in Hell; and the production is bland, and never quite manages to make the jump from dull to creepy.

El Perro Del Mar has potential, but it's not realized on this album. If she can maintain the haunting innocence, while strengthening the songwriting and performances, she might make some incredibly special music. As it is, she's doomed to provide seduction music for mopey rock critics who have wet dreams of new Belle & Sebastian albums.

(A quick nod of appreciation to EPFL for stocking this. Once again, whoever is in charge of music over there is doing a superb job. Keep up the good work!)

Music: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The melodic vocal lines are the only reason this scores as high as it does. She needs to write more compelling words (or write in a different language), find some creative yet understated musicians, and hire a producer who understands the perplexing musical relationship between innocence and darkness.

Packaging: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The cover is eye-catching, and gives an idea of what to expect without giving too much away. The inside photo isn't bad, but duplicating it just looks silly. The text on the back of the sleeve is clean and nicely designed.

Listen if you like: Julee Cruise, Heidi Berry, Kristin Hersh's solo albums, Belle & Sebastian

If it were food, it'd be: Those weird little pastries you can get at the Korean market. They're kind of good, but they taste kind of off, too, as if they're missing some crucial ingredient like sugar or flour.