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Byline: Sam Gnerre Staff Writer

Every year, for whatever reason, the public overlooks certain music releases. Here's a few worth catching up on.

A major label issued it, but Susan Cagle's ``The Subway Recordings'' (Columbia) is still the hands-down winner of the 2006 award for best underground album. Literally.

Cagle was plucked from among the musicians who perform frequently in New York City subway stations by an alert record company executive, who heard the spark in the hook-filled pop-soul songs that ended up making up her delightful debut.

The record company chose to record the album live in the subway, ambient commuter train noises and all. Cagle transcends the potential gimmickiness of the idea with fine songwriting and performances; her follow-up album due early this year -- this time, recorded in a studio -- will merit a close listen.

Singer/songwriter Todd Snider has been recording his earthy, Southern-tinged rock songs for a decade now, and his latest album, ``The Devil You Know'' (New Door/UMG), is among his best. Standouts include ``Thin Wild Mercury,'' based on a 1960s incident between then-rival folkies Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan, and the wonderful low-key ballad ``Unbreakable.''

The Rewinds of Birmingham, Ala., revisit the bare-bones melodic rock style that initially put neighboring Georgians R.E.M. on the map in the 1980s with its consistently excellent self-titled debut (Livewire Records), wholly avoiding hoary hard-rock clich(hrt)s in favor of low-key jangling.

The veteran power-pop outfit Blue Cartoon dials down the intensity and ramps up the gorgeousness on ``September Songs'' (Aardvark), a splendid collection for fans of shimmering midtempo ballads that's well worth seeking out.

The album is available from power-pop specialists Not Lame at

Singer-songwriter Michelle Anthony follows her unjustly neglected 2004 gem, ``Stand Fall Repeat,'' with the seven-song mini-album ``*Frozenstarpalace'' (Merctwyn), another solid effort that at times recalls the livelier Aimee Mann of a few years ago.

Mary Karlzen had a brief major-label fling with the underappreciated ``Riding With Mary'' (Atlantic) in 1995 before returning to a lower profile. Her fourth album, ``The Wanderlust Diaries'' (Dualtone), mixes piano balladry with the occasional rocker. ``Oh My'' and the caustic ``Stupid or Something'' are standouts, along with lovely covers of The Replacements' ``Skyway'' and Tom Waits' ``Heart of Saturday Night.''

Portland's The Village Green follows up on the promise of its self-titled 2005 EP with the full-length ``Feeling the Fall'' (spinART). Harder-rocking than its Kinks- influenced predecessor, the album mines late-1960s Brit-pop styles with accuracy and fervor.

Los Angeles band Simon Dawes also draws from the Kinks and a number of other 1960s influences on its debut, ``Carnivore'' (Record Collection), but turns them into unconventionally structured reworkings instead of mere slavish imitations.

The band's innovative songwriting and the album's densely layered production make ``Carnivore'' fascinating listening.

The tracks on ``Mix Tape'' (Vapor) from Los Abandoned, another new L.A. band, surge with throbbing old-school synthesizers, churning guitars and drums placed high in the mix.

``Van Nuys is nice/But it's not paradise,'' intones lead singer Lady P. drolly on ``Van Nuys (Es Very Nice).'' This Spanglish-flavored pop-rock album ``es very nice'' also.

L.A. trio The Oohlas also debuts with ``Best Stop Pop'' (Stolen Transmission), which sets its bright pop-rock songs against a Jesus and Mary Chain-style wall of guitars in a most accessible and pleasing manner on tunes such as ``Gone'' and ``Small Parts.''

With its three-disc ``The Mother, the Mechanic, and the Path'' (Drive-Thru), the youthful New Jersey quintet The Early November led the trend of releasing multialbum sets of new material taken up later in the year by Tom Waits and Vince Gill. In this case, the collection includes a rock album, an acoustic album and a ``concept album'' (listed here in order of their relative strengths). The end result may have been uneven, but the band's ambitiousness is praiseworthy.

Texas' Riverboat Gamblers have been around for several albums now, but this year's ``To the Confusion of Our Enemies'' (Volcom) added just enough melody to the band's fierce punk drive to make it rise above the usual such fare. Best song: ``Don't Bury Me ... Im Still Not Dead.'' Best song title: ``The Gamblers Try Their Hand at International Diplomacy.''

Bluegrass veteran Yonder Mountain String Band enlisted rock producer Tom Rothrock to help enliven its self-titled fourth album (Vanguard). Drums also were added, and the resulting album nestles happily between traditional bluegrass and country rock, an area where not many albums are being made these days.

Virginia quintet Carbon Leaf might be the most overtly commercial act here. Its sixth album, ``Love, Loss, Hope, Repeat'' (Vanguard) contains polished mainstream rock whose generally upbeat themes could serve as a more palatable alternative to the school of dour recent megasellers working in the Nickelback vein And, regardless of your musical preference, ``The War Was in Color'' is an epic brilliant song.

The Irish band La Rocca's debut, ``The Truth by La Rocca'' (Dangerbird), is another commercial-sounding rock effort that contains one terrific song, ``Sketches (20 Something Life)'' and several others that are nearly as high in quality.

Newcomer Alice Smith chose a cartoon portrait of herself for the cover of her debut album, but ``For Lovers, Dreamers & Me'' (BBE) reveals a multidimensional singer-songwriter who is about as authentic as they come. There's a retro, '70s soul vibe to Smith's sound, but she's not just another neosoul neophyte: actually, she's not just a soul singer, period. There's a bit of rock and smooth funk infused into these smart grooves, and the snarly vocals she delivers when her vocals are at full tilt can recall Janis Joplin -- most notably on the excellent commentary on our world, ``Fake is the New Real.''

The 25-year-old singer-songwriter Gran Bel Fisher from rural Ohio has a sound that's all-at-once cutting edge and familiar ``Full Moon Cigarette'' (Hollywood). He's clearly a product of the 1980s, offering glimpses of British New Wave bands such as the Cure and Depeche Mode in songs such as ``Indelible.'' But Jim Morrison and Jeff Buckley would've reveled in his big, grand pop creations such as ``Full Moon Cigarette,'' the album's best track, and ``Dazey Day.''

Midway through ``Bloom, Red & The Ordinary Girl'' (YepRoc), the latest album from Tres Chicas, comes the song ``Sway.'' And they do exactly that. Singers Lynn Blakey, Caitlin Cary and Tonya Lamm take the word in the title and caress it for 12 beats, dancing with the image in lovely three-part harmony as the melody rises and falls.

``Bloom'' was recorded in London, but Tres Chicas' roots are in North Carolina. In the '70s, this music would have been described as country rock. The more recent label would be Americana -- or simply call it one of the year's standout discs.

A throwback to the glory days of the big, sweeping anthem, the self-titled debut (Geffen) from Aberdeen, Scotland's six-piece Driveblind is just the cure for those in need of a good old-fashioned jolt of mainstream rock. With a finely tuned sound that's matured over years of relentless touring, Driveblind's bluesy psychedelic rock is drenched with deliciously catchy hooks and soaring vocals. They're not breaking any major new ground here, but they inject the classic rock of bands such as The Who and The Band with a freshness and enthusiasm that's contagious.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.


7 photos


(1) Susan Cagle truly has an underground album; ``The Subway Recordings'' were recorded live in a New York City subway.

Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

(2) Los Angeles band Simon Dawes' innovative songwriting and layered production make its album ``Carnivore'' a fascinating listen. The group draws from 1960s influences.

Scott Gries/Getty Images

(3 -- 7) no caption (CD covers)
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 7, 2007

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