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CD Reviews: Art Vandalay, Grieves with Budo and more

Art Vandalay: Irresistible Americana still exists Neil Young once suggested that folk-rock dream team Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young was a well-oiled machine, while Crazy Horse, his legendary backing band, was a rusty truck you couldn't quite k...

"Dancin' with Your Demons"
Art Vandalay's "Dancin' with Your Demons" (Self-Released, 2009)

Art Vandalay: Irresistible Americana still exists

Neil Young once suggested that folk-rock dream team Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young was a well-oiled machine, while Crazy Horse, his legendary backing band, was a rusty truck you couldn't quite keep on the road.

Well, I'll do him one better: Minneapolis' Art Vandalay is a little bit of both. As in, their album "Dancin' with Your Demons" is well-oiled music to listen to in your rusty truck.

But that's not the only reason I bring "Mr. Soul" up: His fans, new and old, will find much to love here, as singer/songwriter Brandon Henry and his comrades in Art Vandalay create music that can only be described as timeless.

Not to be outdone, they also bridge the gap between dusty roads and hipster pads -- an enormous undertaking if I ever did hear one.

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Take this mini-LP's opening track "I Been Down," for example. The guitar work could easily be confused for some lost noodlings from Young's Buffalo Springfield days, but, once Henry's pleasant lyrics and Calvin Plocher's refrained drumming saturate the scene, you're immediately pushed forward a quarter-century. It all just comes together in such a pleasant way that you'll no doubt rethink your "Save for the pure farm-boy charm of Six Mile Grove, Americana is so played out" Twitter update.

A good reference point is the brilliant AIDS-awareness compilation "No Alternative," which was released in the fall of '93 -- more specifically, I'm referring to its contributions from Urge Overkill and American Music Club.

"Take a Walk" and "All Your Jeans Were Too Tight" best exemplify that period of music for me. Songs from that era were obviously steeped in the sounds of Young's golden years, but never so much that it became obnoxiously redundant.

Then again, you might not hear that at all. You could listen to "If You Love Me" (the album's best entry point) and just hear Henry's expansive, humming-down-the-highway approach to songwriting for what it is: impossibly catchy.

Art Vandalay isn't pop music per se, but the group definitely deserves its very own horde of uncontrollably emotional fans. If anyone starts a sign-up sheet looking for people to storm their performance at Beaner's, my name will be right up there in the No. 1 spot.

Art Vandalay will play a CD release show at 8 p.m. Friday, April 3, at Beaner's Central. Eric Rhame is also on the bill. Cost is $5. Visit www.myspace.com/artvandalaytunes to sample some songs.

Mac Lethal pal Grieves releases one for the ladies

A million miles away from Art Vandalay is "88 Keys & Counting," the hot new album from Mac Lethal's pal Grieves and his pal, producer Budo.

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Actually, that so-far-away-from-AV figure isn't entirely accurate. True, Americana isn't Grieves' thing, but what he peddles -- a laidback form of hip-hop that's suitable for almost all imaginable situations -- is just as genuine as any other form of music.

The new album isn't as grandiose as Atmosphere's "When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint that S--- Gold," but the emphases remain the same: varied instrumentation (Grieves lists a "$10 trumpet" as one of his secret weapons), articulate production and incredibly adept storytelling.

The fact that "88 Keys" is so full of heart and soul is somewhat surprising, as many people's first reaction to seeing Grieves in person is something along the lines of "Hey, who gave Mac Lethal's goofy little brother the mic?"

I'm not trying to knock Grieves -- though my cousin might've been when he called him a "hip-hop Napoleon Dynamite" after he saw the Seattle rapper at Pizza Luce -- but his always-the-clown stage demeanor and diminutive stature* definitely left me thinking his albums would be more Lonely Island than Luckyiam.

Speaking of that underrated Living Legends member, Lucky shines during his "Identity Cards" guest shot. Already a playful single-in-waiting, it includes what might be Grieves' best line to date ("I don't know what hyphy means, dude, and neither do my friends"). However, Lucky swoops in and all but steals the show with skillful wordplay and a been-there-done-that attitude only a scene veteran could deliver.

The song's vibe is kind of a fluke, though, as the rest of "88 Keys" comes from the same more-serious mold. As such, this one works better as a cohesive unit -- as opposed to a collection of songs (like a lot of rap albums).

That's not to say there aren't focus tracks -- "Gwenevieve," "Learning How to Fall" and the insanely addictive "Greedy B----" quickly come to mind -- but Grieves is definitely onto something here.

In this day and age of diminishing returns and people addicted to singles (iPods are now issued in the womb), this unsuspecting emcee is one to hit everyone over the head with. The album as a medium was never officially issued an obituary, but Grieves is one of a select few on a crusade to bring it back.

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*At least Grieves, 25, has a sense of humor about it. From "Identity Cards": "Every bartender that I've encountered thinks I'm a kid / And bouncers don't like me 'cause I look 16."

Grieves will be in Minneapolis June 6 for a show with Mr. Lif at the Triple Rock. Check out www.grieves.mobi for other dates.

Also released

Synthesizer enthusiast Gary Wright, best known for the massive 1976 single "Dream Weaver," is back with two EPs -- and it's almost shocking how different a taste they respectively leave in your mouth: One screams "Really?" and the other strongly suggests we shouldn't count him out just yet. "The Light of a Million Suns," God bless it, would've sounded dated even had it been released two decades ago. And, for the sake of being a nice guy, I'm not going to say anything more about that. The instrumental "Waiting to Catch the Light" EP, on the other hand, is incredibly alluring in that abducted-by-aliens way most New Age albums have about them. Seriously, if Wright ever teamed up with a visionary sci-fi director, the results would be transcendent -- or, at the very least, hypnotizing on an epic scale. Visit www.thedreamweaver.com to hear some clips.

The Honeydogs and their enigmatic frontman are so at the top of their game it isn't even funny. Seriously, what right does Adam Levy have following up his inaugural Bunny Clogs offering ("More! More! More!") with "Sunshine Committee"? This six-song Honeydogs EP is every bit as charming and instantly appealing as that solo disc: From the triumphant, horn-tastic title track to the extended jam-ready closing number "Levers, Pulleys & Pumps," these Twin Cities mainstays are making all of our other favorite bands look bad with their unfailing consistency. The Honeydogs will play alongside acts like Wilco and the Dave Matthews Band at this summer's 10,000 Lakes Festival in Detroit Lakes (where this EP's song "Stash" will undoubtedly go over quite well). See www.honeydogs.com for details.

Finally this week we have a two-song CD "45" from Pacific Phonograph Co., a promising new Zenith City indie rock outfit featuring Tony Rubin (whom you might recognize from my "expose" on one of his other groups, AM rubin) and two Twin Cities transplants: Heather Dean and Scott Millis. "Brickbats," the A-side, strikes a happy balance between Guided by Voices, the legendary Chicago outfit fronted by prolific-as-they-come visionary Robert Pollard, and Weezer-inspired groups like the Danburrys. Even more rewarding is its B-side, "What About Our Secret?" Not only do Dean and Rubin effectively pull off the when-it-works-it-works female/male vocal trade-offs (there's a reason everyone loves groups like the Pixies and Imperial Teen), but memorable lines like "I'm a sensitive artist" help separate them from the myriad alt-rock bands they might be compared to. So, while there's not a lot here in terms of comprehensiveness, this preview "45" succeeds by leaving us wanting more. PPCo. will play the Respect Your Mother Earth Day Festival at Leif Erikson Park on April 25. Visit www.myspace.com/pacificphonographco for upcoming dates.

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