"NO CHOCOLATE CAKE," Gin Blossoms (429)
The bloom has long faded on Gin Blossoms, and it looks like the group will never flower again if its new "No Chocolate Cake" is any indication. The Arizona-founded pop/rock band was lucky enough to score hits in the 1990s with its ordinary-guy sound, and the one thing the act had back then is largely missing now: hooks.
Charging through 11 songs with straight-ahead blandness, Gin Blossoms struggles to gain any traction. Troubles include the muddy, morose and melancholy "Wave Bye Bye," the clumsily executed "Something Real" featuring painful "vulnerable" vocals by Robin Wilson and an "I Don't Want to Lose You Now" that has one foot in country, one in rock -- and both in a sludgy quicksand of malaise.
The best the band can muster is the comfortable, toe-tapping pace of the mid-tempo "Somewhere Tonight," although there's modest appeal when the group attempts to pump up its energy on "I'm Ready," "Go Crybaby" and "Dead or Alive on the 405."
More typical is the colorless jangle of "Miss Disarray" and the cheesy melodrama "If You'll Be Mine," which tosses out lyrical gems like "We won't fall 'cause we can fly/I'll be yours if you'll be mine."
Then there's the distractingly mundane closer "Goin' to California" that truly goes nowhere as Wilson sings, "I may never leave again."
The most inviting aspect of the release is the slice of chocolate cake a model holds behind her back on the cover photo. And for a release titled "No Chocolate Cake," that's almost tragic.
Rating (five possible): 2
"ONE FOOT IN FRONT OF THE OTHER," Hayley Taylor (Hayley Taylor)
Hayley Taylor desperately needs a lyricist.
Although her full-length debut, "One Foot in Front of the Other," feels a bit too carefully produced, the songs are solid in their structure, built on an adult-alternative-friendly foundation of strings, guitars and keyboards. Meanwhile, her voice is strikingly dulcet, sometimes as bold as Fiona Apple's and as clear as Dido's.
It's odd that the former child actress would come undone with the lyrics: Many singer-songwriters only have their lyrics to fall back on, and it's the one major shortcoming here. The 33-year-old Vassar College graduate sounds like a lovesick teen fretting through cliches.
Taylor is paralyzed by the concept of a lasting relationship on "What's Going On," looks back on a busted coupling with "It felt like love ... It felt just like love" ("Felt Like Love") and tosses out a sassy "I just erased your number" on "Pretty in the Dark." Also, she humbly sings "I'm willing to be the one that you put on a pedestal ... The one you want to please" on "No More Wishing" (at least she also offers to reciprocate), and the initial poignancy of "The Orange Tree" withers under lines like "I know happiness will never come/You're so afraid to lose someone."
Then there's "Plans," where Taylor sings about trite dreams such as watching a meteor shower from the Eiffel Tower and adds, "It's not too late."
The polished and sophisticated arrangements demand more than superficiality, and her comely voice is wasted on such lyrics. It's enough to make listeners wonder if the songs were simply manufactured to be placed on soundtracks for teen-skewing TV shows and movies.
The thought alone is enough to create a sick feeling inside. And it's not love.
"THE HUNDRED IN THE HANDS," The Hundred in the Hands (Warp)
Eleanore Everdell and Jason Friedman may have a touch still to learn about songwriting and production, but they've perfected their attitude. The Brooklyn twosome behind the Hundred in the Hands frequently radiate cool sophistication on their new, self-titled release -- often with such self-assurance, the quality of their music is almost secondary.
Yet the artfully paced, well-sequenced collection is broadly appealing for its emotional range and stylistic diversity.
"The Hundred in the Hands" offers a few instantly gratifying, debonair dance songs, starting with the politely prodding opener "Young Aren't Young" that establishes an air of dreamy melancholy. Following suit are the contagious "Pigeons" with its inescapable refrain of "Saturday comes, Sunday comes, we go" and a "Killing It" that marries rattling pulses to Everdell's near-spoken, echoing vocals as she sings, "Tell me why, tell me why."
However, there's a difference between chilled and cold, and Everdell and Friedman get it. So to break up the potential monotony of beautifully detached dance songs, they scatter more heat and electricity into the mix. In so doing, they gravitate to a Yeah-Yeah-Yeahs-like rock realm with tracks such as the sprawling "Commotion" and raucous "Gold Blood," both of which are more subtle in their infection, though rewarding all the same.
The two also reconcile mod-pop with experimentalism, meshing accessible vocals into the pounding energy of "Dressed in Dresden," rolling through the retro-as-futurism dichotomy of the propulsive "Last City" ("You saw nothing with your sunglasses on") and closing out the release with an undulating electro-ballad, "The Beach."
Although that finale works, sometimes the Hundred in the Hands loses itself in overly deliberate arrangements, tethered to lumbering bass on "Lovesick (Once Again)" and strolling off course in the spacey "This Day Is Made."
Ironically, the pair may have been guilty of overthinking on their intelligent release -- a transgression that's easy to overlook.