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The Devil & His Witches— The Vigil

Let us all give praise to the artist who wears his or her intentions literally on his or her sleeve, which in this case is a plain white cardboard gatefold envelope with stark black design on stickers placed on either side. Dubbed “A Gothic Rock Record,” at the very least, the music on The Vigil delivers on its promise. And if you’re looking for charmingly low-fi ‘80s influenced songs of bleakness and despair, it’s a good thing.

Largely the creation of Damien Tavis Toman, The Vigil is on its surface a drum-machine and guitar-effects laden work of singular purpose, at once frustrating and inviting. Tavis Toman’s vocals throughout are dramatic and emotionally wrought, evoking influences like the Cure, the Sisters of Mercy, and perhaps most closely, Joy Division’s doomed frontman, Ian Curtis.

Where The Vigil really stands out is its links with folk music, something which the dreaded “goth” label has more in common with than its pale followers might care to admit. The ten songs on The Devil & His Witches' debut are at their heart stories of the common man. “Black Lung,” for example, spins a yarn of men finding their fate in Appalachian coal mines. “The Liberator,” the album’s most ambitious tale, reveals the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire through the eyes of the lover of a woman who set the fire, killing nearly 150 garment workers.

The Vigil is not for everyone, but that’s hardly the point. What it really is, is the ambitious work of a musician hell-bent on mixing his love of storytelling and the goth-rock idiom. In that regard, it succeeds without question. —Crispen Kott


The Erin Hobson Compact— Talk Radio
(Choking Chicken Records)

Perhaps the ‘90s never really left after all. The calendars have long since been recycled into something else, the tickets stubs to the Lilith Fair used as bookmarks to keep the place in a hundred solemn stories nearly faded into memories alone. But for the Erin Hobson Project, the ‘90s are where it’s really at, an era when polite female rock music ostensibly had something to say, and the radio was there to listen.

Talk Radio puts singer-guitarist Hobson up front, and why not? The singer-guitarist is a beguiling performer, a self-styled “female John Mayer” (according to the group’s website), which is a fair description, and could provide direction whether you’re a fan of Jessica Simpson’s ex-boyfriend or not. Hobson’s co-conspirator, Steven W. Ross, plays bass and co-wrote the songs. It’s a collaboration that works for the pair, as Talk Radio is a pleasant, inoffensive release. The music is delivered with an impressive level of warmth, and Hobson’s voice is inviting throughout.

If it’s possible to say the album has a one-two punch, it comes early in the proceedings with “Too Late” and “Crash,” on which the music delivers on the solemnity and introspection of the lyrics. On the former, the story is told by someone who knows they’re messing up, but still can’t help themselves, while the other is a bleak tale of one who doesn’t seem sure whether to be torn apart by lost love.

Talk Radio is a solid album, one which harkens back to an era not nearly as bygone as we might have imagined. —Crispen Kott


Hope Machine— Big Green
(Dys Records)

Hope Machine’s MySpace profile lists “the ghost of Woody Guthrie” among its members, which, while announcing the group’s mission dramatically, is also sort of presumptuous.

Yes, Hope Machine’s mission-driven themes and sing-along folk sound are clearly directed by its influences. And while the collective’s undeniable sincerity means they rarely pull an Icarus and fly beyond their scope, it also comes off a bit samey. Because even when delivering the goods on their own fine songs, Hope Machine’s album comes off as more of a tribute than a unique work.

In fairness, the liner notes immediately fess up to the album having been borne of a desire to pay tribute to Guthrie, and the album certainly manages that, both in theme and on a handful of cover versions. But the gimmick—and while it feels cheap to call it that, it’s ultimately what a tribute is—wears thin. Not because the players don’t mean it, but because their own music, even while bearing the influence of its predecessors, is a far more satisfying prospect.

While Big Green boasts eight musicians, Steve Kirkman and Fred Gillen, Jr. are its primary forces, having written or arranged the lion’s share of the album’s 12 tracks. Should the pair eventually release an album full of originals, it might make more of an artistic splash, and tracks like “Clearwater” and “Sundancer” bear that out. —Crispen Kott

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