Evaluating the student body

Mr. K shakes his grade book at this semester’s Local-CD Roundup

Dearest Class:

Because of the flak I’ve received from some of your parents, I’ve decided to make my grading process more transparent this time around. I’ve come to understand that I’m an unpopular teacher here, but if you must vent, please resort to the usual graffiti. Although it offended my wife, the blow-up doll on my front yard was funnier than stapling my cat to the front door. Silly kids.

It’s my pleasure to announce that while the median grade is still a C (71.5 percent, if you must know) many of you turned in superior final projects. Among the very best is Pomegranate’s Outside of This (Drainpipe Records). Granted, the administration had to fudge the attendance slightly, since only one member of the three-piece hails from Sacramento—the rest reside in Oakland—but the dreamy pop the band offers is quite compelling, reminiscent of fellow Sacramento-to-Oakland expatriates Audio Out Send. The best material consists of slower, moodier pieces, with some emotional loss occurring when the band reaches for faster rhythms, but it’s still good.

Running in the general B range (still quite respectable) is the self-titled debut from the Noise Geniuses. This is lo-fi, basic pop music with jangly guitars that will appeal to anyone who grew up on the first wave of indie rock in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Shades of (a lighter) Pavement and (a less weird) Neutral Milk Hotel mingle in young, hip pop music. It sounds like it was recorded with a hissy boombox sometimes, but then again that’s part of the charm.

Coming from a sonic landscape way farther out in the woods is Ain’t Betty’s Porch Songs. I have to admit that the super-country look of the CD and the fact that the band is a duo named “Bonny” and “Cowboi” made me avoid this one for a long time. Bonny and Cowboi? Trying too hard, I say. Nonetheless, this is country music pure and simple, starting with the pretty “House of Cards,” an a cappella piece that calls to mind Gillian Welch. The more straightforward country-roots tunes are less effective to my ear, in part because they don’t do anything particularly interesting, circling over simple melodies too many times to hold my interest. Still, it was better than I expected.

Another project that caught my attention was the new release by the Nevada County-based Celtic Wonder Band: Small Wonder. These are folks who look and sound like they spend a lot of time at Renaissance fairs. If so, it’s time well-spent, because this is easy on the ears: traditional English, Irish and Scottish folk tunes, and originals that match them in style, performed by folks who are comfortable singing in harmony together. Not really breaking down any musical walls, perhaps, but then again, is that what we want from traditional music? Probably not.

Fading into the C stack is Downshift’s Are You Down, Self Against City’s Take It How You Want It, Cambio De Piel’s Obscuridad, and Amphora’s Iconography. Like the Celtic Wonder Band’s release, these are definitely all “genre” CDs, sitting squarely in the “modern rock” category. Unlike that CD, though, these are—at least to this teacher’s ears—lacking in general interest. Perhaps the best of the stack is Amphora’s release, mostly because Michael Grofe’s vocals are terrific. But the music itself, like the rest of the bands in this category, is unsurprising modern rock over and over again. Not to say it’s particularly bad music, but if C is average, then these certainly warrant a C. They do exactly what you expect modern-rock CDs to do, with few frills and no surprises.

There’s a stack of more labeled D, but (thankfully) no F grades this time around. But I’ll stop here, lest I risk more taunting from the student body. And so I leave you for the semester.

Platonic hugs from your favorite teacher,

Mr. K