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13 Stories  (US)

FunkyPopSexyHouseRap  (2004,  50.58)  **½

With a title like FunkyPopSexyHouseRap, I was expecting a programmed, Autotuned R&B horror, so it comes as a (relatively) pleasant surprise to find that 13 Stories play a form of funk/pop/rock, for want of a better term. I can't say I'm that keen on this stuff, but at least we're hearing real musicians playing real grooves, although fifty minutes is at least ten too many (in fairness, that includes a seven-minute extended version of album opener Ride). Don McCollister allegedly plays Mellotron. Really?

18 Wheeler  (UK)

Twin Action  (1994,  45.27)  **½

Poor 18 Wheeler. Despite releasing several albums on Creation in the '90s, they're chiefly remembered for being the headliners one night in Glasgow, when their label boss Alan McGhee discovered support act Oasis. With the benefit of the better part of two decades' hindsight, the kind of heavy-yet-jangly indie portrayed on their debut, Twin Action, hasn't dated well, Beach Boys vocal referencing notwithstanding, opener Sweet Tooth being about the best thing here. Don Silver plays samplotron strings, with a background part on Nature Girl, a speedily-played melodic motif on Hotel 167 and a line on Suncrush. While Creation's more popular releases are still in print, 18 Wheeler CDs are found more easily these days in second-hand shops, assuming they actually exist any more (the shops, not the discs. Well, maybe the discs, too).

2 Foot Yard  (US)

Borrowed Arms  (2008,  51.52)  ***

2 Foot Yard are the trio of violinist/vocalist Carla Kihlstedt, cellist/vocalist Marika Hughes and drummer/guitarist Shahzad Ismaily, who make music about as eccentric as you might expect from that lineup. Strangely, though, their second album, 2008's Borrowed Arms, is almost pop in its own skewed way, its weird, klezmer-influenced melodies opening a peephole into an alternate universe where East Europe, rather than Africa, became the wellspring for the world's musical lingua franca. Ismaily plays doubtless fake-Chamberlin, although it's hard to say where; the few seconds of something indefinable at the end of Newbury Street?

200 Years  (US)

200 Years  (2011,  40.17)  **

200 Years are the acoustic indie duo of Elisa Ambrogio (Magik Markers) and Ben(jamin) Chasny (Six Organs of Admittance), whose eponymous debut is characterised by upfront gentleness and distant, squalling guitar chaos, on the offchance that the combination sounds like it might appeal to you. Both of the participants' parent bands are apparently pretty noisy propositions, so this can probably be seen as their attempt to channel their inner early '70s singer-songwriters. Best tracks? Not really, no. Chasny supposedly plays Chamberlin, but I'd love to know where; I know it can be difficult to spot, but in a mix this transparent and uncluttered, how can I miss it?

21st Century Schizoid Band  (UK)

In the Wake of Schizoid Men  (2003,  122.54)  ****½
Live in Japan  (2003,  79.45)  ****
Live in Italy  (2003,  61.31)  ****
Pictures of a City: Live in New York  (2006,  112.30)  ****½

The 21st Century Schizoid band were a bunch of early ex-early King Crimson members who decided to revisit their past, killing two birds with one stone by bringing in Jakko Jakszyk on vocals and guitar. Their first lineup was completed by the Giles brothers, Michael (drums) and Peter (bass), with Ian McDonald and Mel Collins on saxes/flutes/keys, enabling them to accurately tackle some of the original band's two-sax parts on stage. They were a fabulous live band, although as with 'regular' tribute bands (these guys were an awkward 'neither flesh for fowl' halfway stage), I'm not fully convinced of the logic behind their decision to release a series of live albums. I suppose they document the band's career, but is anything here better than the originals? No, frankly, although a few tracks have rarely/never turned up on any of the slew of Crimso live efforts, including a couple of new pieces.

Their first release, 2002's Official Bootleg V.1 is, surprisingly, a studio album of several of Crimso's best-known early material, generic string samples to the fore on The Court Of The Crimson King, although it's a decent enough listen for those who already know the original inside-out. They followed up with 2003's double-disc In the Wake of Schizoid Men (ho ho), Michael Giles by now replaced by his original successor, Ian Wallace. It sports a full set recorded (mostly?) in Japan, covering not only most of the best material from the first four Crimso albums (wot, no Mars?), but a track from Jakko's The Bruised Romantic Glee Club (Catley's Ashes), a short flute trio piece (self-confessed 'flute owner' Jakko playing number three), a self-written opening piece (Schizoid Intro), a McDonald/Pete Sinfield thing (Let There Be Light) and Birdman from McDonald & Giles' eponymous, untoured 1970 album. The playing's as top-notch as you'd expect, McDonald particularly shining on 21st Century Schizoid Man, while Jakko carries the show, doing a good Fripp throughout. On the fakeotron front, we get strings on Schizoid Intro, strings and flutes on Cirkus (although the brass is generic) and strings on Catley's Ashes, Sailor's Tale, Epitaph and Starless, although I'm not convinced (again) that the strings on The Court Of The Crimson King are anything more than generic modern samples.

2003's Live in Japan and Live in Italy contain similar-yet-different tracklistings, seeing the band branching out from their 'Crimso only' beginnings. They both combine some of the best early Crimso (not least a ripping version of Sailor's Tale on the latter) with a handful of tracks from various members' other projects, including McDonald's Let There Be Light on the former and the studio band version of Jakko's Catley's Ashes on the latter. Both discs feature the expected samplotron parts on In The Court... and Epitaph, while the former unexpectedly adds 'Mellotron' strings to Birdman, an excerpt (originally Mellotron-free, of course) from the McDonald & Giles album, while the latter does the same to the aforementioned Catley's Ashes.

2006's two-disc Pictures of a City: Live in New York is an excellent record (in both senses of the word) of the band's final tour, including not only Jakko's superb between-song banter, but also otherwise unrecorded flute trio piece (Jakko: "I'm not so much a flute player, more of a flute... owner") Spend Us Three, leading into a beautiful Cadence And Cascade. We get the obvious old faves and a ripping Cirkus, while although the only onstage musician to have actually played on the original Starless (and then only as a guest) was Ian McDonald, they tackle it as an encore. It's hard to say for certain, but I might just recommend this as THE 21stCSB album to buy if you'd like to hear 'em at their peak.

Of course, Ian Wallace's tragic death in 2007 put an end to the band; presumably either Mike Giles was unwilling to do it again, or (more likely) the heart went out of it for the remaining members. Those of us who saw them have fond memories of seeing the bulk of those first two Crimso lineups play some of their best material, while Jakko's pillar box-red suit is utterly unforgettable. It's not the same on CD (not the suit, the music), while the best live versions of most of these tracks are actually by King Crimson, funnily enough, but all of the above are worth hearing for fanatics who just can't get enough.

3 Bucket Jones  (UK)

Take These Ghosts  (2016,  44.57)  ****

3 Bucket Jones are the trio of Gitika Partington, Garry Hughes and Andy McCrorie-Shand, once of Druid, more recently a composer for TV (Teletubbies, anyone?). Their second album, Take These Ghosts, has all the hallmarks of a modern singer-songwriter record, only by a band, with both male and female lead vocals. Confused? It took me until the end of the album to spot one of the trio's chief influences: Kate Bush. Gitika's voice sounds little like Kate's; it's more that the mix of instruments and the folky-yet-not stylings have something of La Bush about them. Highlights include the gentle opening title track, You Love Me More, with reverb-drenched piano that could've been lifted from any 4AD release you might care to name, You & Me Thing hints at a less deranged Tom Waits, while closer One Day Soon seems to condense all of the band's influences into a single track, uplifting yet simultaneously melancholy.

Andy admits to playing a Memotron (although the 'Mellotron' sounds too clean to be real, to be honest), major use including the strings all over the title track, You Love Me More and Gravity and the strings and flutes on One Day Soon, while the odd choir part crops up here and there, too. Criticisms? I can't say I'm a fan of the pseudo-ethnic sequenced parts to be found on a few tracks, but what do I know? A minor quibble. All in all, a fine record. Worth a punt.

3NF  (UK)

Antbooty 7"  (2004)  **

3NF (originally Three No Fillings, according to Discogs) may never have released anything other than 2004's Antbooty 7", backed with its Matt Elliott mix. The a-side spends a minute or more in the ambient zone, before the rhythm kicks in, after which it fits somewhere into that vast area known only to me as 'dance', although the flip is more ambient, which only improves it slightly, frankly. Said flip features woozy, vaguely Mellotron strings, but I don't think are ever going to fool anyone, to be honest. Cue: an outraged member of the band telling me they're real. Pt.96.

3rd & the Mortal  (Norway)

Painting on Glass  (1996,  64.33)  ***½

The 3rd (or Third) and the Mortal started as a metal band in the early '90s, but by their second album, 1996's Painting on Glass, they had already ditched the more clichéd elements of their sound, going for more of a goth/prog crossover thing, maybe like a less heavy and immeasurably better version of the likes of Nightwish, a decade earlier. Vocals are female throughout; the wordless part that opens Persistent And Fleeting actually reminds me a lot of Dead Can Dance, making me realise that they're an obvious influence on the quieter bits of the record as, above all, this is still a rock album. Nice samplotron strings on Commemoration, from Lars Lien, with more of the same on Persistent And Fleeting and Azure.

311  (US)

Evolver  (2003,  40.17)  **½

311 are one of those bands who have seemingly been around forever, without having made any impact on yours truly whatsoever; I mean, I had the impression they were some sort of boy band, when it turns out they're an early rap/metal crossover who dip into reggae every now and again. So there you go. They apparently hit the news after some fuckwit decided that their name referred to the KKK (11th letter, × 3...), at which point they came clean and admitted it was the 'Omaha Police Department citation for indecent exposure'. Rap, reggae... Yeah, most racist... I have to admit that what they do, at least on the wittily-titled Evolver, doesn't float my boat in any way, to the point where I have no idea whether or not they're actually any good at it; suffice to say, I was bored enough to flip almost every track on before the end, though the album may be perfectly good in its own milieu. There is Mellotron, or something that sounds a lot like one to be heard on one of the album's two quieter tracks, Seems Uncertain, with a flute part running through most of the song, plus a brief cello line, quite certainly sampled.

4hero  (UK)

Play With the Changes  (2007,  67.19)  **

The London-based 4hero, under various spellings, began as a quartet at the beginning of the '90s, quickly contracting to the duo of Mark "Marc Mac" Clair and Dennis "Dego" McFarlane, becoming involved in the nascent drum'n'bass scene. By 2007's Play With the Changes, their style had broadened considerably, encompassing various dance-related genres, with guest vocalists on almost every track. A noticeable feature of the album is that every track is distinctly different, even a different sub-genre, to every other, yet each has little sonic variation within itself, probably typical for the area in which they work. Do I have any favourite tracks? Yes, actually: the late '70s psychedelic soul guitar work on Stoke Up The Fire, while Why Don't You Talk? and Dedication To The Horse's full-on fusion make them the most listenable things here. Mac plays samplotron on Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You?), with a brief chordal flute part amongst the real strings that, frankly, really wasn't worth the effort.

5a Estación  (Spain)

Flores de Alquiler  (2004,  46.39)  **
Sin Frenos  (2009,  46.49)  ***

La 5a Estación, or La Quinta Estación (the fifth season), are a Spanish pop/rock outfit who relocated to Mexico after the release of their first album, 2001's Primera Tome. Its follow-up, 2004's Flores de Alquiler, is a bland, safe, yet largely ignorable record that irritates nowhere near as much as many similar, although that really shouldn't be taken as any kind of recommendation. Armando Avila, who has worked with Mexican outfit RBD, adds alleged Mellotron flutes to Niña, with a minor, yet perfectly pleasant part, but, as with all his other production work, it's clearly sampled. 2009's Sin Frenos is, for some inexplicable reason, far better, possibly due to an upping of the 'rock' in its 'pop/rock'. Once again, an obvious samplotron flute part opening Es Cierto, but that's yer lot.

54-40  (Canada)

Fight for Love  (1989,  43.44)  **½

For a band I've never heard of, 54-40 (named for a historical Canadian territorial dispute) have been around for a while, as in 'nearly thirty years'. 1989's Fight for Love is their fourth album, largely in an 'acoustic rock' vein, clearly taking an influence from contemporary indie, tempered with a '70s vibe in places, although closer Journey is more of a proto-jamband effort, featuring some very David Gilmour slide work. If I were to say, "Best thing I've heard all year", I'd be lying, frankly; this is largely inoffensive, yet also largely dull, drifting past the synapses without impinging on them at all, until closer Journey, which, while no classic, is easily the best thing here. Unusually for the time, David Osborne is credited with Mellotron, so it's no great surprise that the handful of string chords on Over My Head and Laughing weren't actually played on one.

8x8  (US/Ukraine)

Anatomy of an Apricot  (2011,  45.40)  ***½

8x8 are the kind of band that could only realistically exist in these times of digital connectivity, as its members, New Yorker Lane Steinberg and Kiev native Alex Khodchenko have apparently "...never met, nor even spoken"! As you might expect, you can't see the joins on Anatomy of an Apricot, a rather splendid release, situated in the 'goldilocks zone' where powerpop meets psych, influences being all the usual suspects. Top tracks? Difficult to pick anything out as 'notably superior', but perhaps vaguely XTC-ish opener Fantastic Sun, Live In Dreamland and For Sure By Friday Night have the edge. Khodchenko and Gregory White are credited with Mellotron, but the strings on most tracks and flutes on Snowflake In The Rain and Everywhere And Forever are very obviously sampled.

808 State  (UK)

State to State II  (2002, recorded 1994-98,  56.40)  **½

I'll be honest and say I've never (knowingly) heard 808 State before, despite their legendary status on the UK acid house/electronica scene. As far as I know, outtake collection State to State II has only ever been available with the Opti Buk DVD, but, given my earlier admission, I've no way of knowing how 'typical' it may be of their oeuvre. The sleevenotes refer to Mellotron use on two tracks (no credited musician: Graham Massey?), with strings on Kong King and flutes on Cassius, both recorded in 1997. Unfortunately, I'm unconvinced, not just by the sound, but by the lack of detailed information (e.g. 'Mellotron M400'), unlike other listed gear. And those are strings on Cassius, not flutes...