Jake Speed is a fixture of Cincinnati's traditional Folk scene, as evidenced by a shelf heavy with awards for him and his group of Country/Bluegrass stompers, The Freddies. His latest undertaking is an ambitious collection of stories about the famous figures and folklore making up the Queen City's history. Funded by an Individual Artist Grant from the City of Cincinnati, the chronicle was inspired by Speed's discovery of a box in the basement of his Stratford Street apartment. The mysterious metal chest held postcards, photos and a journal belonging to Jeremiah Schmidt, a turn-of-the-century Cincinnatian who wrote detailed accounts of local legends and current events. Speed has carefully morphed the writings into colorful narratives in his own boisterous style. The subjects range from ghost stories ("Ghost of Henry Thomas Hunt" and "Witch in the Old Mill Creek") to Cincinnati as a haven for runaway slaves ("Cruel, Cruel World" and "Maggie Don't You Weep"). Speed matches each of his widely ranging subjects with just the right mood, whether it's celebratory ("Huzzah for the Red Stockings") or somber ("Railroad Penny"). Many of the songs are performed solo on guitar or banjo by Speed, accompanying himself with his usual harmonica or kazoo. Others include backup vocals and guest performances by Freddies and others on the upright bass, mandolin and dobro. Either way, the sound is traditional and timeless -- by necessity. The combination of Speed's fanciful and clever language, Dust Bowl delivery and the down-home instrumentation allows the listener to absorb instantly the sepia-toned eraa that is the setting for these tales. The artwork and CD booklet reinforce the archaic feel of the disc, which will soon seem like your own happened-upon treasure.
(freddiesmusic.com) -- EZRA WALLER
· FUDGIE AND FUFU -- VAMPIRE VIKING VOLUME V
Like Monty Python meets They Might Be Giants and cheap electronic equipment -- but funnier and nastier -- the electronic duo Fudgie and Fufu are near the top of the Cincinnati's Most Infamous list, with their notoriously riotous live performances drawing reactions ranging from cult-like reverence to rancorous irritation. Their costumed, performance-art/concert appearances are where the words "novelty act" would enter your mind, but the twosome's recorded work allows for a better understanding of the crafty, imaginative abilities they bring, both in a musical and comedic sense. Vampire Viking follows the re-release of their 2001 album, Bukkake, a countrywide tour and the wild book/remix CD project, The Biography of Libby A. Miller, making 2003 an immensely prolific year for the entertainers. The duo avoids some of the genre-surfing of their earlier work -- perhaps inspired by the remix collection, they stick to chintzy, mischievous Electronica throughout the album's course, which sounds somewhat contemporary with the recent Electro-Clash revival. But, while Vampire Viking gains some accessibility with its slanted danceability, the disc is most unlike anything you've heard before, outside of earlier Fudgie and Fufu. There's still little that is linear about VV. Affected, garbled or accented vocals and harmonies deliver warped lyrics that might have been stolen from some incoherent, unstable street person. But there's some cunning wordplay dropped into the lysergic streams-of-consciousness, like "If this is not your cup of tea/Why is your lipstick on it" ("Look Out Down Under") and "God said to Abraham/Wanna really let your love show/Then kill your only son/Hey, I'm just kidding, yo" ("God Bless America, Especially Florida & Texas"). Vampire Viking is an eccentric TechnoPop cartoon formatted for audio. The downside is its length -- Fudgie and Fufu's acerbic songs have enough going on in them that a collection of 12 or so tracks would keep you busy for months absorbing the lunacy. Even though there's a lot of quick bits (including that electro-burble that used to be heard at the start and end of a cassette release, cleverly matching the cassette-inlay packaging of the CD) and it's only about an hour long, the twisting adventures through the hyperactive minds of Fudgie and Fufu can wear a little thin after 27 cuts. Also, too much Fudgie, not enough Fufu. (tokyoroserecords.com) -- MIKE BREEN
· DENIAL -- THE WORST YEARS OF OUR LIFE
If anything can top the impressive tour schedule that Denial embarked on this year (including U.S. military installations in the Pacific), it is the release of an album that plants their flag on the Rock map. Tighter and more polished than their 2001 debut, Worst Years sums up Denial's straight-ahead Pop-Punk perfectly. While definitely attempting to keep this energetic genre alive in the new millennium alongside bands like Simple Plan and Sum 41, Denial's music also borders on power-balladry with tracks like "Self-Destruction Override" and "Loose Ends," showing their Our Lady Peace side. Gleaming production allows their penchant for hooky writing and solid delivery to show through, with the same in-your-face intensity the band delivers live. The guitars and vocals are particularly well recorded and mixed. This band definitely knows how to wring the Rock out of every last note. Lyrically, the songs are pretty typical first-person Pop, maybe even a touch Emo. One recurring theme on the album is the band's defiance in the face of record label courting, promising they won't sell out in order to further their careers. "War" and "The Revolution" are particularly scathing. The problem is, because Denial's music could not be more targeted for airplay, this kind of bite-the-hand posturing comes off like an anorexic rebuffing Jenny Craig. Case in point is their inclusion on several high profile compilations, including A&R Network Vol. 4 and the AMP Music Circuit comp. The summation of this discontinuity is "Cliché," with (hopefully) tongue-in-cheek lyrics about the contrived sentiments in popular music, presented in a song with a radio-ready riff and tight adherence to Pop Punk formulas. If it's not a parody, well then ... Glass Houses is not just a Billy Joel album, guys. (denialmusic.com) -- EW