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Matty Wise takes us to the limit with a new review of Valerie Chang’s extended play.

Valerie Chang, extended play EP, Indie Rock

Valerie Chang’s EP is a four piece effort that sounds as if it’s trying to find a niche. I like that none of the songs sound particularly similar to each other so you get a good sense of what she and the band are capable of. That being said, the band is clearly better at certain sounds than others.

Chang’s EP starts off pretty sweet, opening with “I’ve Got”. The song is nicely layered with some good hooks from the electric guitar. The band sounds much more like a cohesive band than Valerie’s band. Her voice is somewhat pushed into the background by the growls of the guitar, and comes off as a catchy accompaniment rather than the centerpiece. I could see myself giving this song another listen occasionally. It’s when her voice becomes the focal point that I’ve got a problem. Even in “I’ve Got” there were definitely occasions when she was just flat, but it was forgivable because the electric guitar helped distract me. But when I listened to the next song, “The Goodbye Kiss”, I was simply annoyed when I heard a wrong note or her voice flatten.

Now if my calculations are right, she is only nineteen so I can attribute some of it to her voice simply not being fully developed yet. But being a choir boy (yes, I was in church choir, and no, I can’t sing. Ask Pat for my rendition of “Lady Marmalade”) (vooley voo mocha-choco-latta-MARMALADE. -ed.) I know that all she needs are a few voice lessons that will help her sing from her chest rather than her head. What I mean by that is when she goes into her higher register it sounds like the voice is straining, and often flattens or gets scratchy when maintaining a high note for more than a second. But Valerie can sing. When she’s using her lower register, like in Cold Jeans, she sounds sexy as hell, crooning a strong and more mature sound. She just needs to get a little tune up.
As for the content of what she sings, the lyrics are relatable, but I can’t say there was anything awe-inspiring, life-altering, or even particularly interesting about them. If she were to make a full length, I could not imagine it going very far if she simply writes about love as she has here. Oftentimes, and I can’t believe I’m going to say this given my track record, she’s not personal or introspective enough, and I’m devoid of any empathy when I hear something that’s supposed to be full of emotion like “so one last thing don’t you ever forget, goodbye, goodbye”.
I found “Note From Jailbird” to be an interesting attempt at her being bad ass, and I really like the kinda pop punk sound. The guitars deliver a nice grinding noise, but the lyrics and her voice don’t quite back up the edginess of the guitars the way I hoped it would. And that was how I felt about the EP in general. Everything didn’t feel quite together. I’m curious if this band will grow, or if this is the last we’ll hear of Valerie Chang as even she describes herself as “[having] trouble staying focused on one thing too long.” That certainly fits the EP and its many directions.

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Matty Wise takes UnderDawg and runs with it:

Surprise SurpriseUnderDawg (2007), Hip Hop

I will preface this review by pointing out that when I used to listen to rap I was familiar with classics like “Dog Shit” by ODB and “Back in the Day” by Biggie. That was back when I was in seventh grade. Things done changed.

Surprise Surprise’s UnderDawg is a self produced piece, and its first real song, the album’s namesake, starts off epically enough. I imagine it would have been something I listened to before a swim meet to pump me up as it is littered with cool synthesizer sounds like trumpet. At least, I think it’s trumpet. It even has awesome rhymes like “I would rather be hungry and poor / Than be someone else selling my soul.” … Uh yeah, so I wasn’t too into this album. I think it’s because Surprise Surprise doesn’t know what it wants to be. That, or they’re not very talented. I would prefer to think it’s the former.

It’s hard to tell if this group is trying to be underground or mainstream. Composition-wise, this resembles a lot of your mainstream conventional not so good stuff. There’s bass, beats, synth, and some piano that I’m pretty sure I could play. Rhythms hardly stray into anything complex, if ever at all. But then you have the lyrics which promote an underground movement. They talk about not selling out, being true to one’s self, yet then they make a crap ass song like “MaryAnn” that sounds like one of those songs no one dances to at a party. They even have the random annoying girl voice spliced into the song, and it just makes me shake my head wondering what urged them to make such badness with lines like “Hot so who’s that girl / hot she rocks my world / hot she be playing games / hot messing with my brain.” Perhaps they were trying to be funny, but in the end it just doesn’t work and comes off as another mainstream piece of garbage.

Unfortunately, that’s how a lot of the album goes. There are many more misses, and the skits almost always sound like poorly dubbed voices from Godzilla. Just listening to “WTF” was cringe worthy, yet it was kinda funny in that “Walker Texas Ranger” sorta way. The best songs are the ones that sound most conventional. “Music” is good sounding and a good look into Surprise Surprise’s passion, yet I can’t help but feel like I heard something like this before. I almost want to say this album is a case study in irony as a lot of what they say undermines their own work, but perhaps I’m being too harsh. It’s just that I can’t help but scratch my head that a band like this could say “hip hop ain’t dead, it’s right here y’all.”

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Jay Legaspi – The.Tale.And (2005) – Indie singer-songwriter/acoustic rock

All I gotta say is New Jersey! That automatically gives Jay Legaspi five points. “Jersey Made, Jersey Fresh.” Damn right! Sorry, but I always take pride (and more often indignation) when my home state is mentioned, and in this case that is where Jay produced his second EP, The.Tale.And.. The EP is rather short, as most EPs are, tailing off at six. Recorded in the span of seven days in 2005, The.Tale.And. is a mix of acoustic guitar, beats, and Jay’s voice. But while this is a New Jersey product, I cannot altogether say I’m proud that it is.

It’s not that Jay’s an untalented musician or writer. It’s just that, well, to be frank, I was bored. Granted, two of the four times I was not in the best of moods – once I was noobing it up in Counterstrike (if any are interested my screen name is LemMdAwG, and I suck), and the other time I was stuck in “stupid drivers” traffic – but each listen through I was focusing more on what I was doing than the music. Now judging from Pat’s description of Mr. Jay, it seems like he’s quite passionate of his work and cares about what he’s doing – but then I suppose most every aspiring musician does – so I wanted to give as positive of a review as I could. But alas, time to put on my heartless, jackass reviewer face.

You see, part of the reason I am not so keen on the EP is simply the topic Jay sings about. I’ve already voiced my opinion about introspective/relationship lyrics in other reviews, and I guess that’s just my own personal dislike, so I won’t hold that against Jay. In truth, I write some of the cheesiest introspective crap in my journal so I can understand why people would want to sing about that sorta thing. It’s just that I wouldn’t. Really though, the bigger problem is that the vocals don’t really take any interesting turns. When you expect the hook that you’d hum along to, Jay instead maintains an almost monotone tune, or when you expect inflection in his voice it remains consistent. Part of the reason for his lack of hooks and timely inflections is because Jay has so much to sing about, and he’s running his mouth continuously with new words. He doesn’t really follow a verse chorus verse scheme, and I swear some of his songs are just one long verse. And perhaps this lack of formula, which some might consider a good thing, just never really could catch the attention of my simple mind.

Not everything was negative. I found the guitar strumming of “Try Wait” and “Time” to be catchy. In fact, when the songs strayed more away from the soul-like sound and more towards the acoustic rock I found the songs to be a lot easier to listen to. I like the hint of optimism in Jay’s lyrics, even when he sounds unhappy. Considering this is just an EP, the album is very tight and focused with perhaps the exception of the last song, “Ghost”, which I consider the best song of the album. “Ghost” takes a much different sound than the others, almost venturing into a whole ‘nother genre. It’s definitely the catchiest, and the lyrics transcend just the tale(tail) end of a relationship, talking about moving on, not being trapped by other’s expectations, and even some Asian American context. There’s so much more meaning in this one song than the others combined, and I personally like songs that have more than one meaning since it makes me feel more sophisticated than I actually am. This EP feels like a work in progress, like someone still trying to find a sound. Hopefully in the next EP or full length that Jay works on he will put more liveliness behind the many words he has to say, and that this is just a stepping stone for something more concrete and meaningful.

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Matty Wise takes it to the limit (page limit, har har) on Kiyoshi Graves’s 2006 release, Chase.

Kiyoshi Graves, Chase (2006), Indie Rock

Things looked good when I read under Kiyoshi Graves’s myspace account that Radiohead was one of his influences, since lyrically and musically few have ever garnered more respect from me than that band. Perhaps that last piece of information went to my head a little because for the first two listens through of Graves’s Chase I decided to play Counterstrike on my recently returned sexy machine of a computer. Bad idea. Aside from “Fag”, “God I’m so drunk”, and “Fire in the hole!” taking over the guitars and vocals, I was much too focused on the game to actually pay any attention to the fact that the album had repeated twice through. It finally occurred to me during the map change that maybe two hours was a bit too long for an album. Moral of the story: Don’t listen to Kiyoshi Graves while playing Counterstrike.

The album Chase was released in 2006 and it is Kiyoshi Graves’s first full length. It delivers a conventional rock sound that is neither particularly challenging nor too simple as it is layered with sonics and an organ. A lot of songs start off with some nice guitar riffs that sound extremely promising, but then they pull back, playing background to Graves’s voice. An unfortunate decision. While Graves does have a strong and pretty nice sounding voice, it just doesn’t seem unique enough to be the focal point of the music. The guitars seem to go into autodrive once his voice enters, strumming uninteresting chord progressions. The vocals themselves sound somewhat monotonous, very rarely rising into another registry, and when they do the sound is predictable.

Kiyoshi Graves is a bit of an enigma to me. I’m not a big fan of his musical styling, but after listening to and reading the explanations of his lyrics, I really like the content. In “The Greatest Thing” Graves sings about an imaginary conversation that a daughter and her recently deceased father had encompassing everything they wished they could tell each other. “Reckoning” shows the humanist that he is, and while not explicitly political, it helps to show his feelings about the state of things in our world right now. “Finish Line” writes of the importance of others pushing him to succeed. And so on. The problem, I think, is that there is no real focus. He leaps from one topic to another. It’s really strange to listen to all these uplifting songs, and then suddenly get slammed with an ending like “Letter” that is pretty damn bleak, albeit one of the better and less conventional songs.

I wish that what he did was stick with one of the concepts he had in two of his songs. In the songs “Chase” and “Found” Graves sings about an imaginary movie playing in his head, all inspired from a dream he had where the villains weren’t really villains, and they were pursuing something like the meaning of life, and were lovers (possibly gay? It was hard to discern the gender of the two, though he referenced them by guys), and were being chased. If that explanation was confusing, you can just read it for yourself on his website. The songs are more about the interaction of these two characters, and I think it would have been awesome if he had spread it into a full length album (after all, his album is named after the theme song of his “movie”). So while I wasn’t particularly a fan of his music, I’m hoping in the future he will focus more on one of the many ideas running through his creative head, and expand upon it. Just like Radiohead, the first album was anything but perfect, but from it evolved an amazing sound, and I think with a little more creativity from his instruments, a little less emphasis on his vocals, and a solid focus Graves can make something great.

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Matty Wise, apparently insulted at that last dig on Ninja Pants writers, made it a point to get his review of Thao Nguyen’s Like the Linen in on time. Yay Matt!

Thao NguyenLike the Linen (2006), Indie Rock, Trust Me Corporation

I’m sad.

I’m gonna miss it. The cloudless blue California skies, the rolling green Mounds, the red cups full of amber and foam, the inevitable gray billows that float above the countless red eyes as they gaze upon a sexy lady and her guitar. She will be performing in front of not just a small niche of black haired onlookers, but an array of different people all coming together with the common interest of listening to good music. Damn, I miss Pitzer College. Instead I’ll be at home in little New Jersey teaching swimming lessons. Indoors. In overbearing toxic smelling air. Thankfully Thao Nguyen has created a little gem in Like the Linen that will get me through these cold, bleak days.

Like the Linen was released in 2005, and while the review is a couple years coming, it is an album well worth the attention. Thao Nguyen’s compilation of ten songs is anything but complex, and this includes her lyrics. They tend to be rather romanticized, often talking about unrequited love, relationships, themes of that nature. But at the same time, though I usually cringe when I hear that sorta thing, Thao does it in such a playful way that I found them pretty entertaining. Often she takes the self deprecating route like City Sky’s “I fan your cigarette smoke / I wipe your mirrors clean / I am the asshole / Who falls for your routine” versus the painfully emotional end-of-the-world routine (though there’s nothing wrong with that when done right). And she has fun quips sprinkled throughout her songs like Moped’s “Take me to a scenic lake / I will skip your heart of stone”.

Thao Nguyen does not do anything special, and most of her songs simply are a guitar, bass, and drum playing background to her voice. The guitar is bouncy, upbeat, but not overwhelming, and it carries the songs through. But what really shines is Thao’s voice. She does not have a commanding presence like a Celine Deon or some American Idol wannabe (I don’t know why I used that reference since I don’t watch the show. I swear). Her voice is more satisfying; it is delicate, laid back, with a whimsical sort of nature. In a lot of songs she will occasionally shift into a falsetto airy coo that is pleasing to listen to. The album is very consistent in carrying a similar sound throughout all the songs without making them boring. There are a couple of “eh” sort of songs, but on the whole I thought this a pretty sweet album. If you’re like one of the many who will not be at Pitzer College, this is a great substitute to enjoy on those sunny or not so sunny days, with or without glazed red eyes, while lying on grass or on your bed.

Matty Wise brings us the scoop on Ken Oak Band’s latest, Vienna to Venice.

Ken Oak Band, Vienna to Venice (2006), Indie Rock, Cello Rock Records

Unlike my normally ridiculously long reviews, I’ll make this short and to the point. Yawn. The end. Ok, I’ll be a little bit fairer. Ken Oak Band’s Vienna to Venice is pretty, very clean, and has strong vocals and decent harmonies. That’s it. I’m done. Over. Catch y’all later. Nah, I’m just kidding, but I apologize if my review feels half assed or unmotivated, and I’d almost prefer to go on a tangent about why the Archos G-Mini is the biggest waste of two hundred dollars ever, but I won’t. It’s just that Vienna to Venice did very little for me. But here’s my review anyway.

Ken Oak Band has two members, Ken Oak (cellist/vocals/guitar) and Ed Gorski (vocals/guitar). Their newest release, Vienna to Venice, was released October 2006 by Cello Rock Records, and like its label is described as “cello rock”. Ken Oak Band plays slow, very sweet sounding songs. I can picture hundreds of girls swooning over his lyrics (and I apologize for my gender normative stereotype). His lyrics are very introspective, which is fine, except I think I’ve come to the conclusion I’m not too keen on introspective lyrics. Especially when bands start singing about their relationships. Seriously, why, why must people always write about their relationships with their significant other? Maybe I’m just bitter because I’m not in one, but God, is that your only motivation for writing songs? Gah! So many bands have already done this that anything anyone says pretty much comes off as clichéd. But maybe that’s my own problem I have to deal with so I won’t hold it against them.

The truth is, Ken Oak Band’s lyrics are best when they are writing descriptively about their relationships. And to be honest, there were even times when the lyrics really touched me. In the song, Hey Andrew, Ken Oak talks about someone he knows who died. The lyrics really hit home since Andrew’s the same name as my dead brother. Oak sings “I see you up ahead, and I’m not far behind / I cherish the times locked in my mind / Cannonballs off the top in the warm sun of May” is eerily reminiscent of my own brother who’d do crazy big cannonballs off the diving board. The song finishes with Oak singing “But I swear I’m fine” a few times as if he’s really trying affirm it as truth, and the sad moans of the cello, which I’d normally consider cheesy, work somewhat well here.

Musically I thought Ken Oak Band sounds kind of like Dave Matthews Band or John Mayer, and it comes as no surprise that they are in fact some of the band’s influences. However, Ken Oak Band has not quite reached the musicianship of either. The cello’s a pretty cool instrument, and it is my favorite of the classical strings, but I felt like there was not enough diversity in sound coming from it. The same goes for the guitar and vocals. Every song is relatively slow, and there was nothing that made me want to really bounce in my seat or nod my head as rock normally does. The thing is, I could see any one of these songs being a single on the radio. Then again, I don’t listen to the radio. If the songs were heard on their own I’d at least be able to tolerate them, if not enjoy one or two, but when they are combined there is not enough variation that it gets pretty boring after the first five songs. To be fair, I’m not a big fan of this sound. I once loved clean sounding musicians like DMB and John Mayer, but now I’m more inclined to the more experimental sounds of bands like Animal Collective or Radiohead. While cello rock is a pretty cool concept, I’m afraid that Vienna to Venice will just become another one of those lost albums that my goddamn G-mini decides to delete.

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Asobi Seksu (2006), Indie Rock

Matty Wise gives another hella long review, this time on New York-based indie rock band Asobi Seksu.

Now I’ve never been a big fan of female musicians. This is probably because for the first twenty years of my life I fostered misogynistic notions; for example, that all women are inferior to men. In everything. Singing was no exception, except for that one brief period when I was in love with TLC. Because of such silly notions, I rarely listened to female singers. Even today, as hopefully my sensibilities have changed, I still have only a small number of bands with women that I like. New Pornographers, Jem, Bjork, Sleater-Kinney, Frou Frou, and Arcade Fire, if you count the screeching lady. The same amount as a six fingered hand. I know, the list is pathetic, and I’m working on making it bigger. But that is why, given my history, you should understand how serious this is when I say Asobi Seksu’s Citrus is unfrigginbelievably amazing. It also helps that I’m in love with the lead singer’s voice (Yuki, if you ever read this, I’m 23, single, live with my mom). How good is this album? So good that right after work, my hair still soaked in chlorinated water, I rolled down my windows in below freezing weather and blasted it, as how all good albums should be listened to. And I swear because of rolling down the windows (or the immense cold) the music left an aftertaste in my ears adding a whole ‘nother level of awesomeness.

But I’ll stop being abstract. Asobi Seksu, roughly meaning Playful Sex in Japanese, debuted with their self titled album in 2004. The band is comprised of four members: Yuki Chikudate – keyboard/vocals, James Hanna – guitar/vocals, Haji – bass, and Mitch Spivak – drum. Yuki and James split the songwriting. Citrus is their second full length album, released May 30th, 2006, under the label Friendly Fire. When reading descriptions of Asobi Seksu, comparisons to My Bloody Valentine seem to be inevitable. But after listening to Citrus I realized that to compare it to Loveless, MBV’s best album, would be unfair. First off, Loveless is so brilliant that all you have to do is move your volume control up or down for the songs to evoke different emotions. More importantly, though, Citrus is too good and too original on its own for it to be hindered by comparisons.

While there are similarities in sound between Asobi Seksu and MBV, I would assume it’s because they are of the same “shoegazer rock” (yes, I never heard of the genre before either, and I’m the reviewer…). The guitar’s distorted, the vocals are often used as another instrument instead of being the centerpiece, and there’s a lot of noise, a lot of friggin’ noise bombarding you repeatedly. By that description, it might sound like Asobi Seksu is one loud, harsh sounding group, and they are, kinda. But they are also incredibly beautiful (and if you know me, that’s not normally in my vocabulary). Part of this is because of Yuki’s vocals. In the first few songs, Strawberries, New Years, and Thursday you hear her rich what-I’m-assuming-is-a-natural-alto voice carrying through even as the cymbals crash on your head, as layers of guitars screech and ripple at your ears. All during this time, the notes you expect Yuki to hit never happen, but you should be more than satisfied with the ones she chooses. Then comes Springs, the first song to test her upper registry. Her voice comes off as fragile, at times even flat, and that’s what makes her voice so special to me. Even when the notes sound grossly flat like in Red Sea, they are in fact just the right notes. Asobi Seksu’s music is an oxymoron of my music sensibilities.

It’s not just Yuki’s voice though. Hanna’s guitar creates the noise at all the right times. At first a song like Strawberries will start off with a nice guitar trill, and then add a flat swerve, then a loud feedback noise, revert back to nice guitar trills, and then slam you with crazy distortions. Yet the progression through the song is perfect. And that is how a lot of the songs are. Rightly timed effects from the synthesizer like tinkling chimes or long spacey sweeps make it even better; during Nefi and Girly I could close my eyes and feel like I was flying (a bad idea when driving). Haji and Spivak add great noise in their respective instruments as well. There are no bad songs, and perhaps the most plain would be the slow Exotic Animal Paradise, but even that song progresses nicely. The only song that really surprised me by its cleanliness was the very last song, Mizu Asobi, which sounded more than anything like Japanese pop ending with an emphatic, happy guitar strum which, though great, better not be the direction they’re going. My one rap would be that at times when Hanna sings his voice goes flat which doesn’t work like Yuki’s.

The lyrics, written in both English and Japanese, when sung, are at times understandable and other times not, can be melancholic like Thursday’s (one of my favorite songs of the album) English “the autumn wind feels / as if it were you / and swayed through the fields / where I once held you”, and even deep and abstract where I’m not even sure what they mean but am moved by it like Strawberries translated Japanese “like a red sky / the plants stretch on / when you’re in the strawberry fields / listen you can hear it: / with loud voices they are calling / ‘don’t forget me’ they scream”. But while lyrics are usually very important to me, they are much more of an afterthought in this album. You see, what I think makes a great album is when the music can be a metaphor for my life, my state of mind. Like no matter how discordant, loud, wracking, unbelievably fucked up things might get, there is always something, maybe a subtle twang of the guitar or Yuki’s echoing voice, that pierces through and makes all that noise beautiful (cue maudlin violin).

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titofelixAll Good Things… (2006) – The Good Guys Dojo, Indie Rock

As I plugged my Gmini (the indie mp3 player) into my car, I was happy to say that I was going to listen to music I had not obtained through nefarious means. Yes, that’s right, the music I was going to listen to was free. You see, titofelix has decided that for their latest album they will allow anyone to download it for free off their website – a gutsy move. The album, All Good Things…, was released Fall 2006 under the “The Good Guys Dojo” label. It is titofelix’s third iteration, and the album has superlatives like “musical genius” and “catchy lyrics” tagged to its name. As described on their web page “for over five years, Marc Cordon, P.J. Sobremonte, Robeen Dey and ‘BabyJay’ Jay Opalia have entertained fans nationwide with their infectious brand of rock. With the recent completion of their third full-length album, ‘All Good Things…’, titofelix is set to take their music to the next level!”

So as I turned on the music at 5:30 in the morning I was hoping for some of their self promotion to be true, if only to keep me awake. The first song, A Way To Everything, did not strike me as all that compelling. The intro was uninspired, the lyrics pedestrian (you can call me Mr. Pompous), and on the whole the song was rather formulaic. It was your generic pop punk sound. Granted, the production was clean, but the song did little to make me want to nod my head, unless to sleep. Not the best song to base your first impressions on, but I continued. The next song, Lie Apart, fortunately was much more to my liking. They had a cool sonic flowing in the background and musically sounded better than the first song. The vocals were a bit more challenging, occasionally hovering into higher registers. However, the lyrics still were a bit stale.

And that is probably my biggest issue with this album. Cordon’s introspective lyrics, though relatable, are too simple, and come off as unoriginal rather than sincere. At titofelix’s worst, a song like Something Strange comes off as wrist-slittingly cheesy with lyrics like “I try but something strange about you / Says I should die than live without you / I try to make my own decisions / But somehow you choose to keep me living on” which is only compounded by the horrible decision to add melodramatic dissonance at the end. Thumbs down. At titofelix’s lyrically best such as What Went Wrong, lines like “So here I sit and think if ever I went wrong / It was the times when I wasn’t a servant to myself / So I recommit to believing what resides inside / Is all I need to get by so I won’t think about that” are ordinary, but at least uplifting. It also helped that the song sounded alright.

Musically, the first half of the album is more yawn-inducing than head-banging. Even in one of the better songs, On Your Shoulders, the lines “When outside, we turned inside out, To us its all relative” are sung so many times that I began to think, what the hell does that even mean? (though in their defense I’m stupid) I gotta say though, I totally dig the harmony in that song. Of course, I’m a stickler for harmony so it could sound terrible and I’d still be like sweet, I’m gonna pretend to be the back up singer (but I digress). After the sweeping funkalicious sounds of BobDey Vs. Rubox Interlude, a totally random track, the album starts to pick up. They stray away from their pop punk sound a bit, and start to play slower, more experimental songs. Things really get going with What Went Wrong which adds sonic effects as well as a cool rhythm sound effect. My only issue is when Cordon’s voice sings by itself which sounds too weak (especially when you’re wearing headphones) without the band backing him up. I liked the feedback sound in Keep You Alive which reminded me ever so slightly of Smashing Pumpkins (and only for a brief moment), and I think their last song, Anak, is their best, adding sonics that give the music a better atmosphere. But once again the repetition of the last line was a bit too much for me.

All Good Things… definitely has some singles worth listening to. I hope the second half of the album will be the direction that titofelix goes on their next album. But for now, enjoy the fact that it is free.

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