Part of the seemingly endless stream of Southern Californian ska-punk bands, San Diego-based Buck-O-Nine tempers its joy with sadness and its anger with a bit of maturity. Grown-up ska? Yup. It's not just for 14-year-olds with too much energy anymore. By cutting back on the goofiness quotient, adding a handful of different styles and using different guitar textures and rhythms, Buck-O-Nine creates an album that's more song-oriented than the majority of third-wave ska records. Instead of sounding like a ska band dabbling in rock songs, Buck-O-Nine sounds like rockers throwing in horns and offbeat rhythms. The band hasn't abandoned ska but has made strides in the songwriting department. It's a welcome change of pace for a band like this, which has cut its share of thrash-and-burn songs.

The most impressive track is "Awkward Girl," what with its exploding hook that recalls the simple innocence and happiness of new wave. Built around a tribal drum riff and twin guitars, the song features singer Jon Pebsworth bragging of love, which he does in an endearing way. With old-school-style backup singing, as the band repeats Pebsworth on the chorus, it's as much pop as ska. The horns fill in the spaces, which prop up the song and give it depth without being obtrusive. Elsewhere, even when the horns are given more room and the rhythms are allowed to be more traditionally ska, the band is still interested in telling a story through the music. In the case of "Headlines," it's the frequently sad and unshocking current events in the media that propel the lyrical narrative. Punctuating Pebsworth's somewhat cliched "what's wrong with the world" questioning, the band's mood switches from appropriately low-key during the verses to appropriately poignant during the chorus when Pebsworth's voice sounds anguished.

Toward the end of the record, there are up-tempo ska tracks -- "Here We Go Again," "All Along," (awful vocals) and "Pigeonhole Disease" -- that don't seem genuine. But Buck-O-Nine has certainly shown itself to be more capable of reaching new ska ground than the majority of Southern California bands have.

-- David Simutis


Houston has always produced its share of musical enigmas, from the 1960s psychedelic freaks of The Red Krayola to blues/folk savant Jandek, a musical recluse who, while releasing records annually, has never revealed himself to the public. The husband-wife duo of Tom and Christina Carter, known together as Charalambides, falls right in line with this tradition, having spent the last six or so years producing an admirable and extensive body of work orchestrated primarily in the couple's living room and rarely taken beyond those four walls. Having already composed two full-length recordings by themselves, with another three joined by guitarist Jason Bill (who also joined the band during its sporadic periods of live work), the Carters return to their original two-man lineup with Houston, their third release for the Philadelphia-based label Siltbreeze. The record is a dark, often unsettling piece and further evidence that the silent, hermetic musician is far more disturbed than the glitzy shock-rock act any day of the week. If being disturbed is "cool."

Understanding the music of Charalambides requires some patience. The sound is folk music but not of the protest-singer kind. Charalambides's music is simply music made by ordinary folk, performed on traditional instruments and isolated from contemporary music's trends and ideologies. It is organic and unforced material, more representative of how musicians can use a song to make a piece of art rather than of how musicians can use a song to make a political statement. Tom Carter's guitar style could be said to bridge the gap between acoustic blues and the drug-addled expressionism of, say, 1960s fringe psychedelic groups Popol Vuh or The Godz. And Christina Carter's vocals are, oftentimes, traditionally beautiful, so much so that it's surprising to realize that of the six songs on which she sings, only one contains something decipherable as actual lyrics.

The highlight on this record is "Morning Chants," a tune on which Christina's eerily tuned guitar, which she pairs with a repetitive open-string drone often heard by blues musicians, sounds ghostly and is made even more unsettling by the off-kilter chord pattern. Slowly the sound of an organ creeps into the mix, adding a low-end drone of feedback while Christina hobbles her voice in such a way that it almost sounds as if it were being played backward. Eventually the chaos gives way to an unsettling sample from what sounds like a recording of a voice lesson, as an irritated and crazed man forcefully pleads, "Sing it! Put some spirit into it!" Such verbal snippets have become somewhat of a Charalambides trademark: The duo's last studio album began with a frantic and hysterical call left on the Carters' answering machine by a young man who mistakenly thought he had called a suicide hot line. Remember that next time someone rants about how screwed up Marilyn Manson is.

While certain elements of this recording have been heard before on previous Charalambides outings, it is the unexpected, fresh elements that really set this work apart. A standout is "Lexington," named after the street on which the group lived during the writing of the song. The tune is also the first piano composition ever featured on a Charalambides record. This revelatory piece is the recording's most introverted work and its emotional high point. Christina performs an intensely beautiful slurred piano phrase in which she allows the notes to smother each other and create even more enticing overtones. As the force of the piano swells and again subsides in a percussive cycle, a distant drum cracking slowly edges to the forefront and reverberates with all the substance of a bomb.

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