Synth pop trio Zoot Woman return with enjoyable ‘Star Climbing’ LP

Zoot Woman‘Star Climbing’
Zoot Woman (Embassy One)
3.5 stars out of 5

British electronic synth pop trio Zoot Woman exploded onto the scene in 2001 with their “Living in a Magazine” debut and followed it up with an almost-as-good self-titled platter two years later. But the momentum stalled for school chums Stuart Price and brothers Johnny & Adam Blake and six years passed until Zoot Woman hit the studio again for 2009’s “Things Are What They Used to Be.”

Zoot Woman CDFourth full-length “Star Climbing” represents a welcome return to form for Zoot Woman. Johnny Blake’s vocals are as smooth as ever and his words are surrounded by catchy synth-fueled melodies throughout the 11-track release.

Lead single “Don’t Tear Yourself Apart” is terrific and also lifts the lid on the album. Zoot Woman further impress on keepers “Coming Up for Air,” “Rock & Roll Symphony,” “The Stars Are Bright,” “Real Real Love” and “Waterfall Into the Fire.” See you on the dance floor. (Jeffrey Sisk)

Gemma Ray shows her versatility on stellar ‘Milk for Your Motors’

Gemma Ray‘Milk for Your Motors’
Gemma Ray (Bronze Rat)
4 stars out of 5

My first exposure to British singer/songwriter Gemma Ray was her 2010 release “It’s a Shame About Gemma Ray,” in which she offered up stripped-down cover versions of songs by artists as varied as Buddy Holly, Mudhoney, Etta James and Obits. It’s a truly mesmerizing platter and prompted me to seek out her earlier work. Needless to say, I’ve been a fan ever since.

Gemma Ray CDRay’s 2012 release “Island Fire” took a little while to grow on me, but she’s back at the top of her game on latest full-length “Milk for Your Motors.” It’s quite an accomplishment, with Ray showing off her entire bag of tricks over the course of 13 uniformly strong tracks.

Blues gem “The Wheel” launches the slab, and Ray struts her stuff on keepers “Shake Baby Shake,” “The Right Thing Did Me Wrong” and lovely “Long Live This Life.” Things take a darker turn on the back side of “Milk for Your Motors” and Ray lays bare her soul on standouts “Desoto,” “Out in the Rain,’ “Rubbing Out Your Name” and “You Changed Me.” If Gemma Ray still isn’t on your musical radar, it’s high time you remedy that. (Jeffrey Sisk)

New lineup breathes new life into The Rentals’ ‘Lost in Alphaville’

The Rentals‘Lost in Alphaville’
The Rentals (Polyvinyl)
3.5 stars out of 5

Matt Sharp emerged on the indie landscape two decades as the original bassist for Weezer. He recorded two records with Rivers Cuomo & Co. (1994’s “Blue Album” and 1996’s “Pinkerton”) before leaving the band in 1998 to dedicate himself to one-time side project The Rentals.

The Rentals CDThe Rentals earned acclaim for their 1995 “Return of the Rentals” debut, but 1999’s “Seven More Minutes” failed to make much of an impact. It would be more than a decade until the next Rentals full-length (2010’s “Songs About Time”) and Sharp is at it again with the rock-solid “Lost in Alphaville.”

The 10-track release is the band’s best since the 1995 debut and the new lineup of Sharp, Jess Wolfe & Holly Laessig (Lucius), Ryan Slegr (Ozma), Lauren Chipman (The Section Quartet) and Patrick Carney (The Black Keys) work very well together. Among the popwer-pop standouts here are “It’s Time to Come Home,” “Stardust,” “1000 Seasons,” “Thought of Sound” and “Seven Years.” “Lost in Alphaville” definitely merits a few spins. (Jeffrey Sisk)

Ex-Squirrel Nut Zippers singer Tom Maxwell scores with new album, new band

Tom Maxwell‘Tom Maxwell & The Minor Drag’
Tom Maxwell & The Minor Drag (self-released)
4 stars out of 5

In the mid-1990s, retro swing music went mainstream and the Squirrel Nut Zippers were among the most commercially and critically successful bands to ride the wave of nostalgia. Tom Maxwell was the lead singer for the Zippers during their 1994-99 peak years before deciding to strike out on his own.

Tom Maxwell CDMaxwell never achieved much acclaim as a solo artist and he hasn’t released an album since 2005’s “Maxwell/Mosher.” Now, almost a decade later, Maxwell returns with a vengeance and has a new band in two. Tom Maxwell & The Minor Drag mine much of the same turf as the Zippers on this self-titled gem and his longtime fans should enjoy the nine-track, 34-minute release.

With guest vocals from Ani DiFranco and a backing band that includes members of Lost in the Trees and The Old Ceremony, Maxwell has surrounded himself with first-rate talent. The party gets started with keepers “Roll With It” and “Blow Wolf,” and Maxwell & The Minor Drag also score with “So High,” “The Funky Knuckle” and “Jacob Marley.” The only hiccup is middling closer “One Row,” but on balance this one’s a winner. (Jeffrey Sisk)

Monomyth to invade Pittsburgh’s Mr. Roboto Project on Monday, Sept. 1

090114-MonomythCanadian outfit Monomyth made a nice first impression with their “Saturnalia Regalia” debut album last month and you can check them out live at Pittsburgh’s Mr. Roboto Project on Monday, Sept. 1 at 6 p.m. They are part of a full slate of music that includes Nap Eyes, Triangle & Rhino, RJ Myato and Lucy Goubert. Tickets are $5. Mr. Robot Project is located at 5105 Penn Ave. Visit http://www.therobotoproject.org for additional information.

Nerdcore stalwart MC Frontalot wants us to ‘Question Bedtime’

MC Frontalot‘Question Bedtime’
MC Frontalot (self-released)
3.5 stars out of 5

Long live nerdcore rap! I have been singing the praises of self-proclaimed nerdcore artists like MC Frontalot and MC Lars for almost a decade and never fail to get a kick out of white guys spitting rhymes about comic books, fairy tales and Star Wars conventions.

MC FrontalotMC Frontalot, who refers to himself as the 579th greatest rapper in the world, burst onto the scene with 2005’s “Nerdcore Rising” and 2007’s stellar “Secrets From the Future” and is back in fine form on latest effort “Question Bedtime.” It’s a solid effort from one of the genre’s pioneers but doesn’t quite capture the magic of those first two records.

Eight of the 10 tracks on “Question Bedtime” feature guests artists and while there’s something to be said for the collaborative spirit, I think it ultimately takes away from the main attraction … MC Frontalot himself. Jean Grae adds some flavor to “Gold Locks” and Open Mike Eagle boosts “Much Chubbier,” but I prefer Frontalot when he’s taking care of business by himself on “Two Dreamers” and “Start Over.” Additional keepers include “Chisel Down”(with Busdriver) and “Shudders” (with Kid Koala & The Protomen). Long live nerdcore rap! (Jeffrey Sisk)

Veteran drone collective Bitchin Bajas unveil self-titled opus

Bitchin' Bajas‘Bitchin Bajas’
Bitchin Bajas (Drag City)
3 stars out of 5

Chicago drone collective Bitchin Bajas have been doing their thing for years but I’d never heard of them until their self-titled fifth album made its way across my desk last month. The eight-track release has a whopping 76-minute running time and is challenging to get through in a single sitting.

Bitchin' Bajas CDIf you are able to digest 19-minute instrumental opener “Tilang” and aren’t ready to bail on the Bajas, I’m guessing you’ll dig the remainder of the record. It’s clear that Bitchin Bajas, which started as a solo side project for Cave’s Cooper Crain, know exactly what they’re trying to accomplish with tracks like “Asian Carp,” “Field Study,” “Bueu” and “Pieces of Tape.” What’s less certain is how these songs will be accepted by the listening public. (Jeffrey Sisk)

Newcomers Wand serve up loud and fuzzy ‘Ganglion Reef’ debut

Wand‘Ganglion Reef’
Wand (GOD?)
3.5 stars out of 5

Los Angeles-based indie rock newcomers Wand landed a deal with Ty Segall’s GOD? label and offer up a blistering debut full-length in “Ganglion Reef.” Cory Hanson (vocals/guitar), Evan Burrows (drums), Daniel Martin (guitar) and Lee Landy (bass) make music that loud and fuzzy … and it is surprisingly catchy to boot. Go figure.

Wand CDThere’s very little wasted energy on the 10-track, 35-minute release as Wand score with “Send/Receive (Mind),” “Clearer,” “Fire on the Mountain (I-II-III),” personal favorite “Flying Golem,” “Strange Inertia (Ctrl Alt Death)” and “Generator Larping.”

There aren’t any radio-friendly tunes to be found on “Ganglion Reef” (though I think “Flying Golem” is worthy of such exposure), but Wand’s debut is definitely worth exploring. (Jeffrey Sisk)

Heaven’s Jail mesmerize on their ‘Ace Called Zero’ debut album

Heaven's Jail‘Ace Called Zero’
Heaven’s Jail (self-released)
4.5 stars out of 5

When I learned that “Ace Called Zero, “ the debut platter from indie folk trio Heaven’s Jail was being produced by Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck, I knew it was a record that I’d enjoy. Phosphorescent is one of the best bands you’ve probably never heard of and Houck’s involvement could never be a bad thing.

Heaven's Jail CDI’m happy to report that my assumptions were correct — and then some — as the Francesco Ferorelli-fronted Heaven’s Jail have crafted one of the year’s better first efforts. The opening tandem of “Make a Wish” and “Mother Mary Madonna” set the tone for what’s to come and Heaven’s Jail further impress with “Hunter’s Moon,” “Long Island Sound,” “Baby Ace,” “Trainwreck Hound” and “Children’s Song.”

Ferorelli and Heaven’s Jail have laid a solid foundation with “Ace Called Zero” and I can’t wait to see where they take things from here. (Jeffrey Sisk)

Not in the Face to support X at Pittsburgh’s Altar Bar on Sunday, Aug. 31

083114-Not In the FaceDynamic indie outfit Not in the Face, riding high off the release of latest EP “Brass Tacks,” invade Pittsburgh’s Altar Bar in support of legendary rockers X on Sunday, Aug. 31, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets for the all-ages show are $25 in advance and $30 at the door. Altar Bar is located at 1620 Penn Ave. in the city’s Strip District. Call 412-206-9719 or visit http://www.thealtarbar.com for additional information.