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Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2006 12:38 am

Sweetness and coherence

Sample TrolleyvoxÂ’s power pop and The Memory BandÂ’s eclectic folk

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The Trolleyvox The Trolleyvox Present the Karaoke Meltdowns (Transit of Venus)
Untitled Document If you like your power pop sweet and shiny and more than a little bit silly, the Trolleyvox is the band for you. The Philadelphia-based quartet, whose ranks have swelled and contracted over the group’s decade-long career, delivers hooky, anthemic, mildly eccentric guitar rock dosed with girl-group vocals, nonsensical lyrics, and oddball instrumentation (one song, “Deep Blue Central,” incorporates the clomping of a horse’s hooves on pavement). It’s a combination that’s bound to elicit comparisons to the fearsomely great New Pornographers, which is unfortunate, because the Trolleyvox can’t help but come up short: Guitarist/songwriter Andrew Chalfen doesn’t have A.C. Newman’s genius for melody, and singer Beth Filla lacks Neko Case’s prodigious, pitch-perfect range. A more realistic, if obscure, touchstone might be Let’s Active, Mitch Easter’s whimsical ’80s-era jangle-pop outfit, to which the Trolleyvox once paid tribute with a cover of “Crows on a Phone Line.”
All quibbling aside, there’s plenty to admire on the Trolleyvox’s third full-length, the rather awkwardly titled The Trolleyvox Present the Karaoke Meltdowns. Filla’s voice has a bright insouciance that makes Chalfen’s often impenetrable lyrics (“Licorice and Dirty Bomb/ Are keeping score and flirt in semaphore”) seem more accessible, and, despite its tendency to go flat on the low notes, it’s exceedingly pleasant, especially on the livelier numbers. Chalfen’s fretwork sparkles on such cuts as “Onion Is Missing,” which boasts a bent little hook reminiscent of Television and a stunning psychedelic coda, and “Whisper Down the Lane,” which mixes intricate finger-picking with backwards piano. At times the midtempo ballads drag a bit, but fizzy concoctions such as “I Am Annabelle” and “I Know That You’re High” produce a sugar rush so intoxicating that you just might welcome the brief reprieve from catchiness.

__________________ The Memory Band is the brainchild of guitarist/songwriter/leader Stephen Cracknell, who used to play bass for Badly Drawn Boy and make electronic music under the name Gorodisch. Conceived as an English folk supergroup for the 21st century, the collective includes Nancy Wallace, Adem Ilhan, Jennymay Logan (Elysian Quartet), Simon Lord (formerly of Simian), and Al Doyle (Hot Chip). No, they’re not exactly household names — the line between “side project” and “supergroup” can get awfully blurry sometimes — but their diverse talents combine to form a winning gestalt. Apron Strings, the band’s American debut, is an interesting balancing act, a sometimes unstable amalgam of pastoral UK folk, unobtrusive computer loops, and what sounds at times like contemporary classical music of the minimalist strain. Almost half of the tracks are instrumentals, and the rest consist of radically reworked traditional ballads, Cracknell originals, and surprising covers of songs by Ronnie Lane, Carly Simon, and Rotary Connection. Despite the unlikely array of influences, the CD holds together fairly well, probably because the musicianship is consistently top-notch. Logan’s violin playing is particularly magisterial, ranging from jubilant legato runs to high, keening sobs. Equally impressive is Wallace, whose small, dry, impossibly affecting warble sometimes resembles that of Britfolk legend Maddy Prior. Granted, some of the songs sound a bit aimless, as if the band members were having so much fun jamming that they forgot to hit the stop button, but it’s easy to forgive such lapses; when everything coheres, the effect is magical, a kind of sublime shoegazer folk that’s both gentle and dynamic. The CD’s centerpiece, the epiphanic “I Wish I Wish,” clocks in at nearly eight minutes and isn’t a second too long. About midway through the song, when the strings erupt into a glorious conflagration of ascending and descending arpeggios, it’s as if time stands still and memory takes over.
Contact René Spencer Saller at rssaller@core.com.
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