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The Daily Tar Heel

The Frogs Make No Artistic Leaps; Depeche Mode Ignores Trends

The Frogs
Hopscotch Lollipop Sunday Surprise

My best friends used to have a band in high school called Chunky Chuck and the Low-Fat Dieters. I learned a very important lesson from this band, whose hits included famous lines like "I'm so much cooler than you" and "Playin' sharks and minnows, yes I'm pimpin' in the deep end."

I learned it is possible to combine music and goofing off.

The Frogs, a Milwaukee two-piece that originally called itself a Gay Supremacist Folk Duo, are the grown-up version of Chunky Chuck.

Only these buffoons have a lot more time on their hands for fiddling with electronic sounds and for writing lyrics which are often more nonsensical than clever.

Sunday Surprise is the duo's first full-length album (after a slew of EPs and lo-fi recordings). After one listen, I hoped it would be their last. But, just as it took my high school teachers a few weeks to get used to Chunky Chunk's antics, it was only the second time through this album that I was ready to give these rabbit-costume-clad chums a chance.

The songs on Sunday Surprise are careful mixtures of keyboards, bass and vocal effects. Most of the tracks feature an assortment of random noises from distorted guitars, keyboards, percussion and drum machines.

The main thing this CD has going for it is its uniqueness.

Conceptually, it reminds me of Pavement. Melodically, though, it falls short by any standard and fails miserably compared to the brilliance of anything upon which Stephen Malkmus has laid his hands.

"The Longing Goes Away," one of the few half-serious songs on the album, showcases a catchy acoustic guitar riff and a decent, thought-out melody.

But some of the songs are just annoying -- like "Better Than God" and "Know It All," which feature more repetitive moans than melodies and plenty of awkward dead spaces between the lyrics with no purpose other than offensiveness.

Other lyrics -- well, they aren't funny and they don't really make any sense. For example, "Here comes Rover the pit bull" and "I want sweet daddy, not bad mommy" are two lines whose functions I can't quite grasp.

Overall, Sunday Surprise is a creative gesture but a musical flop. The experimental sounds are somewhat interesting, but chances are they won't keep your attention for long -- at least not like Chunky Chunk and the Low-Fat Dieters did.
By Jason Arthurs

Depeche Mode
4 Stars

It is rare that any band can survive 20 years of passing musical trends simply by refusing to bow to the fickle desires of public taste.

But Depeche Mode has done exactly that, recording unique albums drenched in blues, soul, goth, synth-pop, electronic, industrial and rock stylings.

The band's 11th studio album, Exciter, signals a solid return to form with its intricate arrangements and sequence of top-notch songs.

Exciter, produced by Mark Bell (Bjork), feels peculiarly sparse during its first few spins, especially for a Depeche Mode album -- the band is known for its rich, multi-layered arrangements.

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The stark melodies allow little for the listener to grab on to, and apart from an occasional electronic blip or thudding bass, arrangements seem mostly absent.

It takes a third or fourth play for the melodies and intricate textures of Exciter to reveal themselves.

But the mainstays of Depeche Mode's sound are firmly intact on Exciter.

Martin Gore's soulful compositions remain the focal point of the album, and David Gahan -- always rendering a deft interpretation of Gore's poignant lyrics -- outdoes himself with a vocal range and nuance only hinted at on previous efforts.

In one sense, Exciter sounds comfortably fleshed from pieces of Depeche Mode's dazzling past.

"Dream On" echoes the band's 1989 hit "Personal Jesus" with its blues-funk guitar riff, syncopated rhythms and Gahan's haunting vocals, while "Comatose" feels like an update of Depeche Mode's classic 1986 anthem, "World Full of Nothing."

But Exciter also plays like a fresh, new chapter in Depeche Mode's history, with the band sounding uncharacteristically mature and at ease on Exciter's 13 tracks.

The album floats hypnotically through gorgeous sequences of obtuse lyrics, creamy harmonies, bizarre keyboard effects and dreamy guitars. "Freelove," with its sexy, undulating groove, supplies Gahan with some of Gore's most sensual lyrics ever.

In "The Sweetest Condition," Gore and Gahan duet over silvery guitar and luscious keyboard accompaniments for a staggering effect -- their harmonies during the bridge bring rapturous chills: "What chance did I have/ With the silver moon/ Hanging in the sky/ Opening old wounds."

Only the raucous electro-stomp nightmare that is "Dead of Night" jars the listener from Exciter's somnambulant glow.

The end result is that Exciter is much more than the sum of its parts, for when it ends, you feel as if you've been taken someplace.

It's one of those rare albums that as soon as it ends, you want to play again -- not just to hear it, but to re-experience it.

With each listen, Exciter reveals another layer of understated emotion previously unrecognized. And that is the greatest gift one can ask of any album.
By Michael Abernethy

Slimm Calhoun
The Skinny
3 Stars

As Slimm Calhoun can attest, being a protege is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, he benefits from OutKast's aid in production and the additional press his first release has received simply because of his association with the Dungeon Family.

On the other, Slimm will inevitably be compared to what many feel has been the finest hip-hop duo of the last decade.

What has made OutKast so successful is an integration of infectious beats and surprisingly meaningful lyrics. While The Skinny delivers a number of memorable beats thanks to OutKast, its lyrics fall short. The result is an album which shows a great deal of promise, but ultimately fails because too many of the tracks seem like empty shells of vaguely familiar OutKast songs.

The highlights of this album are definitely the beats provided by OutKast's production. It's becoming abundantly clear that few can deliver a better funky beat than Big Boi and Andre 3000. Calhoun detracts from the album's appeal with too many boastful songs about female conquests and outsmarting cops.

Slimm is at his best when he introspectively raps about his upbringing in the Dirty South on tracks such as "Red Clay" and "The Skinny." He's at his worst on "It's OK," where he brags about getting "all up in them guts" of "all these lonely girls" who "just wanna fuck." Although stupid lyrically, this song offers a beat and chorus that stick in your head like superglue.

"All Da Hustlers" and "On Tha Grind" fall somewhere in between, showing an obvious influence from the Ruff Ryders and other glossy mainstream rap.

The beats on The Skinny recall OutKast's earlier work, garnished with a twist of DMX. Slimm's voice sounds like a mixture of his parent figures, Andre and Big Boi, but there's something missing. Both members of OutKast have distinctive voices that ooze charisma. Slimm doesn't.

After listening to any OutKast album, you're left with the feeling you understand what Big Boi and Andre are about. Big Boi sounds like the world's greatest pimp with a heart, and Andre sounds like a maniac with a poet's heart. The greatest failing of The Skinny is that Slimm characterizes himself as "Slimm Calhoun -- OutKast lackey" and does little to define himself as an individual.
By Trafton Drew

The Incredible Moses Leroy
Electric Pocket Radio
4 1/2 Stars

The Incredible Moses Leroy is a pop Jack-of-all-trades, blending elements from easy-listening to drum'n'bass with one-man-band panache on Electric Pocket Radio.

Moses Leroy is the alter ego of Ron Fountenberry, taken from his grandfather. The "Incredible" part comes from Leroy's affinity for comic-book superheros.

Electric Pocket Radio is Leroy's second album -- he recorded his first in 1998 -- and it's amazing he's managed to escape a flurry of indie buzz thus far. No track here is bad, and many of them are uncommonly good.

While the album takes its cue from the Casiocore school of lo-fi electro-pop, Leroy's music is much less elementary than the toy-piano jingles of that genre.

Leroy infuses an indefinable emotional appeal into his songs. And he has the Midas touch no matter what sound he's trying to achieve, from rousing pop anthems to beautiful, sad songs like "Song for Erin" and "Treble" ("I read a book on teenagers/Says they're never really happy/'Cause when you're 14 and older/Everything's a tragedy").

While Leroy's technique is based in electronic knob-twiddling, he incorporates an array of styles to excellent effect on Electric Pocket Radio.

The album kicks off with the funky disco track "Beep Beep Love" (covering a '70s Dutch new-wave group), before moving into the Moogy synth-pop of "Anthem" and "Best Friend." "Our Onemillionth Customer!" pairs a driving drum'n'bass beat with a happy chorus. "Tomato Soup" is a relaxing jazzy track with a trumpet solo, while "Roscoe" weaves around a sinuous sitar groove.

But even with the variety on the album, only one song incorporates a sample (and you can actually hear the popping and crackling of the record in the background).

Leroy's lyrics are of the warm-and-cuddly (and occasionally infantile) variety, delivered in a little-boyish voice: "You are soft and fuzzy/And you are truly lovely/You are my itchy sweater."

He's also fond of doo-doo-doos and ba-ba-bas, but clever phrasing saves his songs from what could be overwrought cuteness.

The Incredible Moses Leroy could be destined for indie-rock stardom, or the fickle fancies of music scenesters could condemn him to anonymity. Either way, he deserves his share of credit -- I'd even agree that he's pretty incredible.
By Ashley Atkinson

Special Print Edition
The Daily Tar Heel's 2023 Year in Review Issue