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Midtown Dickens
Oh Yell!
(307 Knox Records)

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Midtown Dickens is neat. And K Records is neat. And so are banjos, cowboys, The Murmurs and Kimya Dawson. Pretty much everything is neat as long as Oh Yell!—the debut from Durham duo Midtown Dickens—is playing. Borrowing just as much from the gleeful, tweeful land of Olympia as it does from the N.C. dustbowl the band calls home, Midtown Dickens relies on banjos, guitars, washboards, kid vocals and a huge sense of wonder. Something like, "'Gee, isn't it great we get to play songs together, Catherine?' 'Sure is, Kym!'"

And, really, it is. More often than not, all that's at work on the album's 17 tracks is a few steel strings and close Hailey-Grody harmonies. The fun, in all of its simplicity, is disgustingly infectious, whether the band is trying to win you over with breakfast ("Eggs & Toast"), Tetris ("Tetris") or surprisingly less-than-depressing stories about waking up lovesick ("Saturday Morning"). Of course, like most things inspired by the bouncy, pastel Pacific Northwest, Oh Yell! nearly overstays its welcome over 53 minutes. Just in time, "A.M. Dial"—an ode to Durham and living/loving life without a rudder—swoops in to save the album's home stretch. Fantastically neat. —Robbie Mackey

Midtown Dickens plays Duke Coffeehouse Thursday, Oct. 11, at 9 p.m. Full disclosure: Band member Catherine Edgerton is News Clerk at the Independent Weekly.

Median's Relief
(Halftooth Records)

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On his long-awaited debut LP, Median's Relief, Hall of Justus member Median levies a personal manifesto over 13 tracks: He was the laughing stock in school, the kid whose mom kept him off the street and who realized his jump shot would never make him money. He fell for hip hop—"I was raised by women so I can relate to women/ Raised by hip-hop culture I related to the rhythm"—and it became his impetus. To that end, he talks more about his life—bright North Carolina mornings, mom's lessons, dancing, soul food, "the gift of giving/ the pleasure of receiving"—and his enthusiasm for hip hop rather than presumptuous ownership.

Smartly, Median keeps the guests to a minimum, inviting only four singers (Real Love, LaDehra, Mark Wells, Louisha) to add soul hooks and fellow Justus League associates Chaundon and Joe Scudda to trade brash verses on "Choices," a track that builds from a slinky, manipulated keys beat from 9th Wonder into a proclamation of work ethic and attitude. Indeed, Median's sense of cultivated collaborators comes with a central aesthetic for breezy beats, where the arcs in the rhythm open at wide angles for Median to fill. Median's distinctly aware of his limitations and his strengths, keeping the beats airy so his thin, reedy voice can stay near the top. "Brenda's Baby"—the hyper-descriptive story of a girl named Rose, the orphan daughter of a prostitute who becomes a drug lord's runner—is the hardest track here, but Netherlands/North Carolina emissary Nicolay (The Foreign Exchange) plants his sharp snare in intertwining strings and wailing vocals. The combination pushes Median's flow without submerging it. 9th's spry guitar and snare bounce through early highlight "Collage" are bright enough to tip heads but loose enough to let Median shine as he loses himself in a stream of seven end rhymes that parallel breasts, fests and stress. A married father who seems content to steadily find his place in hip hop, Median's Relief is just that, mostly for better—a relaxing, intimate invitation, where the emcee is more about expression than impression and totally glowing when he rhymes "Love makes everything so vibrant and so bright/ Who cares if I'm blinded by the light." —Grayson Currin

I Was Totally Destroying It
I Was Totally Destroying It

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Any band that claims John Booker and James Hepler can hardly avoid lengthy former-members-of lists. But getting familiar with I Was Totally Destroying It—rounded out by Martin Anderson, Curtis Armstead and Rachel Hirsh—is something like signing up for a recent Triangle rock history lesson. Past projects, in alphabetical order: Anderson's Alvarez Painting, Hirsh's AOK, Anderson's Auxiliary House, Hepler and Booker's En Garde, Hepler and Booker's Erie Choir, Booker's io, Armstead's Places to Live, Hepler's Sorry About Dresden, Booker's Strunken White. Get all that?

Despite the rangy list, though, it's the cavity-pop sweetness of En Garde that wins out on the IWTDI's self-titled debut. Over its overbearing one-hour run-time, that can be good and bad. It's actually fantastic when the sweetness serves Totally's knack for power-hook writing (see: palm-muted Cars nodders like "Sugar Coated Lullaby") but just good when the sweetness is tempered by a bit of shade (see: woozy, Rocking Horse Winner-esque "My Favorite Haunt" and the stark "Conrad"). Things are most disappointing when the pop revelry obscures the Rainer Maria angst of AOK, the chunky Cursive thwamp of Alvarez Painting, the sloppy, Cap'n 90s emo of Places to Live or the cranky grumble of Sorry About Dresden. IWTDI is a totally promising "debut," all the same. —Robbie Mackey

I Was Totally Destroying It throws a CD release party at Cat's Cradle Saturday, Oct. 6, at 8 p.m. Red Collar, Sorry About Dresden, Hammer No More the Fingers and Aux House join the 8 p.m. bill. Tickets are $6.

Bustin' Loose

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Chapel Hill quintet Saunter has been playing Triangle halls on and off for nearly nine years: Across two EPs and an LP, the band's tightened its funk-heavy Southern brew around classic rock forms. Their saucy Southern thump works against bombastic breaks of dirty horn and guitar-based funk, but—most importantly—Saunter refuses to play its alchemy too straight. That's the biggest payoff here: Frontman Matthew Davis mixes love and worrying about it, often delivering his songs with a sarcastic punch that points to the joie de vivre of Barenaked Ladies and Southern goofballs The Gourds. During the up-tempo "Three Faces" and the noodly "Buttered Rolls," the band murmurs about getting high before it chants about its own insanity.

But even when Bustin' Loose moves into more eclectic arenas and the sarcasm seems overwhelming, there's still a common thread of sincerity that pulls all of these songs together. "Champagne" is burning funk, a lover expressing adoration, while the piano-pouncing, vaguely Spoon-ish opener "I Know Everything" hinges on the same man being jerked around by a cruel woman. The funk of love: Saunter understands how you get down. —Kathy Justice

Tony Low
Time Across the Page

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The Cheepskates are the kind of band that's known mostly by melodic rock historians—or, as they're known in euphemism-free zones, power pop geeks. Tony Low was a founding member of that New York City-based band, but these days he calls Kernersville home. That move South seems to inform the introspective tone of several songs on his second full-length post-Cheepskates record, Time Across the Page. After all, can there be a better time to ruminate on "the empty hallways of our lives"—as Low does on the swelling, swirling opener "Winter of Black Ice"—than when you're surrounded by your boxed-up belongings? Low should be quite comfortable in a region that hosts or has hosted such pop/rock maestros as Chris Stamey, Mitch Easter, Jamie Hoover, Parthenon Huxley, Mike Nicholson and Michael Slawter, too, based on the dozen songs here. There's a chiming, Windbreakers-ish revisiting of the Cheepskates' "Where Are They Now?" However, the artist that Low most brings to mind is a guy from his former stomping grounds: historian favorite Richard X. Indeed, they share a knack for seasoned folk-pop that's built idea by idea, layer by catchy layer. —Rick Cornell

Lou Ford
Poor Man's Soul
(Look Out Mabel! Records)

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Lou Ford: solo artist, band, car dealership? Answer: a band; a resurrected Charlotte-based four-piece named after the small-town sheriff in Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me, to be exact. So what kind of band are they: rock, pop, honky-tonk or country-soul? Yes, all of that and a little more.

The band asks a question of its own with Poor Man's Soul's opener: "What Am I to You?" It' a fitting one. Across two previous releases—1997's Sad, but Familiar and 2000's concept-ish Alan Freed's Radio—Lou Ford proved themselves tough to nail down. Area musician John Chumbris once described the band as sounding something like the Stones or the Faces when they tried to play country music. Sure enough, "Get Out/In" is full of bar-band-extraordinaire gusto a la the Faces. But it's the country part of that description that really takes hold this time out. The occasional pure country feel ranges from "Shallow Ground"—a new song that you'd swear has been sung in the mountains for 100 years—to the two-speed, Buck Owens-as-aphrodisiac number "Country Or." Still, "Don't Tell Me Now" is the kind of crossover song that, say, Sammi Smith might have taken to the country chart while William Bell or Bettye Swann hit with it on the soul chart.

But if you really want to pin down and preserve what Lou Ford is most about, consider "Imaginary Friend," "Empty" and closer "Last Call." All three tumble along at mid-tempo with a yearning and a grace that gets your attention and then holds your stare. The songs sport too much closet crunch not to be rock, too many hooks not to be pop, too many bottles and rivers and too much North Carolina in the vocals not to be country, and too much keyboard shimmer in the shadows not to be soul. Best to just call it the sound of Lou Ford. —Rick Cornell


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