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Thursday, Aug. 19, 2004 11:54 am

sound patrol 8-19-04

Time for a comfort cat

The Naysayer Kitten Time (Red Panda Records)

The Naysayer
Kitten Time
(Red Panda Records)

As anyone who has ever sobbed into soft, forgiving feline fur can tell you, there's nothing like a cat when it comes to free therapy. Take it from Anna Padgett, the Naysayer's singer, songwriter, and only permanent member: "Kitten time, kitten time/How do you know when it's kitten time? Me, I know by how much I've been crying." The title track of her third full-length might seem a tad cutesy in cruel black-and-white, but delivered in Padgett's disarming, deadpan alto, it's as funny as it is true, with no saccharine aftertaste. The fact that she can pull off a song like this one -- not to mention an honest-to-God Mr. Rogers cover -- is a testament to her peculiar genius, one that finds the ha-ha in a heartbreak and the gut punch in a punchline.

The Naysayer's previous records were studies in sparseness, strange miniatures built around droll observations and sly, minimalist guitar figures. That much is still true: Not one of the 16 tracks on the CD lasts 3 minutes, and several don't even make it to the 2-minute mark. Despite this similarity, Kitten Time comes off as something of a departure. Gone are Padgett's former comrades, Cynthia Nelson and Tara Jane O'Neil (of Retsin); in their places are a handful of new collaborators, including Karla Schickele (Ida, k.), Kendall Meade (Mascott, Sparklehorse), Rainy Orteca, and Elizabeth Venable. Padgett's deceptively simple, almost childlike songcraft receives a bit more ornamentation from the extra banjos, flutes, keyboards, pedal-steel guitars, violins, and keyboards, but the new guests don't ruin its understated charm; like good little kittycats, they sidle up at just the right moment, confer their clear-eyed solace, and then slip away in a silken swish.

The Hungry Mind Review
The Hungry Mind Review

Revisionism is a funny thing. Take the 1980s: If your grasp of the decade comes from VH-1 specials and electroclash tributes, you probably think it was all about the poufy bangs and frosty synthesizers, a nonstop barrage of Gary Numan and the Human League and A Flock of Seagulls. Trust a survivor: Mostly it was the age of gated drums and Phil Collins, that bald, bellowing buffoon who never met a Motown hit he didn't want to massacre. But fortunately, the Reagan years offered a few consolations. Largely ignored by commercial radio and the nascent MTV, bands such as the dBs, REM, Let's Active, Green on Red, and the Rain Parade made with a refreshing revisionism of their own, harking back to an idealized 1960s, when the Byrds and their 12-string guitars made a jingle-jangle morning out of the eternal night.

It's only fitting that Mitch Easter, the emperor of that other '80s, engineered, recorded, and played guitar on the Hungry Mind Review's latest, self-titled record. Although the Wilmington, N.C.-based quartet sounds more like Crowded House than any of the aforementioned outfits, the buzzy sitars, chiming guitars, Chamberlins, Mellotrons, and violins convey an overall mood that's very Athens-in-the-'80s. HMR's singer and chief songwriter, Stephan Bayley, has an uncanny falsetto, a knack for a melody, and an endless supply of glistening hooks. If his lyrics sometimes overstep the line that separates "smart" from "pretentious," the intelligence of his arrangements and the virtuosity of his bandmates more than atone for the occasional verbal clunker. Alas, like most self-released CDs, its distribution is somewhat limited. Your best bet is to order it from Amazon.com or CDbaby.com. For fans of brainy, jangly chamber-pop who prefer to remember the '80s not as they were but as they should have been, it's worth the extra effort.


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