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Now Hear This: local music

Dragstrip Syndicate, River City High, Denali, Carbon Leaf, Modern Groove Syndicate


The Syndicate (what a cool name for a band) charges right out of the proverbial gates with the rockin' anthem "Pull My Strings," which would easily be my first choice if given the opportunity to choose a single from the record. A number of other tracks stand out, most notably "She's Alright," but a couple of the songs on "Volume" run longer than they should. The overall production of the album is squeaky clean, complementing the group's sound.

Not a bad effort for a band that started out doing covers of Elvis songs. What's the best way to listen to the new Dragstrip Syndicate record? With "Volume" turned way up. —Angelo DeFranzo

River City High "Won't Turn Down" (Doghouse Records)

Richmond's very own pop punk superstars/media darlings, River City High, certainly doesn't turn down any amps on its latest effort. We see the band still walking the fine line between traditional melodic punk and bubble-gum guitar pop, but luckily the high wire act seems to be doing well. Mixing a dash of the old school (a la The Descendents or All) and the new (Blink-182 comes to mind) definitely helps the already catchy hooks of River City High appeal to a cross sampling of alternative rock lovers. The group isn't necessarily groundbreaking, yet exudes a likeable charm with both its lyrics and airy musical compositions. Great writing and musicianship, plus a clean production job, help carry this record further than it might otherwise have gone. Possibly too uneventful for the more jaded music fan, "Won't Turn Down" will surely rock the socks off the high school set with driving numbers such as "Belle Said," "Runaround" and "No Free Rides." River City High may not be taking its listeners on a leap into the musical unknown, but instead it sticks to what it knows best: polished pop punk for the masses to enjoy. —A.D.

Denali "Denali" (Jade Tree)

Though named after a mountain, Denali falls short of those dizzying heights on their first CD, if only because their eponymous outing mostly rehashes material released well over a year and a half ago.

There's one drastically different song with Mark Linkous' fingerprints all over it. That one sounds as out of place as a guest-written chapter in a novel would read, but the rest of the CD will not surprise anyone familiar with Denali's work.

Instead of making a fresh batch of mournful tracks, the Denali crew decided, "Have formula, will travel." If the broken heart works, don't fix it. That's just fodder for the disaffected Richmonders bored by hearing the same songs over and over again, but there's a big world of people out there who haven't received their dose of rock 'n' roll despondency.

Denali could be the house rock band for one of David Lynch's dark and nearly barren hotel lounges. Maura Davis would mourn over her piano keys, singing her odes to the end of joy as the rest of the band sulked in the background, making the occasional energetic outburst that would disturb the dusty furniture and chipped paint. No clapping between songs, just someone clearing their throat and the scratching of an old man's broom.

You might call her band depressing, but one of Maura Davis' gifts is to convey emotions that have depth and to avoid the maudlin, immature stuff of high-school diaries. Even though the girl's pain sounds inborn and permanent, her songs have a sweetness to them, kind of like romantic numbers for those in love with sadness. — Wayne Melton

Carbon Leaf "Echo, Echo" (Constant Ivy)

This album may be the answer to today's candy-coated, overly-manufactured pop music. The Celtic-spiced rock is reminiscent of early U2 ,but with more bounce and less anthem.

Recent recipients of the first annual Coca-Cola New Music Award, the group landed a live performance at this year's American Music Awards. After that. the Richmond-based quintet was picked up by a national publicity company that works with Dave Matthews and The Strokes, and they have concert dates lined up all season. That's nothing new— these guys have been touring constantly for close to 10 years.

"Echo Echo's" blend of Irish folk tune riffs with crisp acoustic rock sound that resonate in every song, from their latest single "The Boxer" to lively but emotional tracks like "Desperation Song" and "Lonesome Pine." Carbon Leaf brings a medley of instruments into their music on this album — with guest musicians playing accordion, Hammond organ, bells and piano — which is to be expected since each member of the group plays at least two instruments. This time, the medley is delivered with a more polished sound than ever before. The refined, soft sound still has enough energy to rock. Lead singer Barry Privett's smooth voice commands a heartfelt in-car singalong session on every song. Imagine: Blues Traveler meets Train, and they feast on Irish whiskey and Lucky Charms for 10 days straight — the result: Carbon Leaf's "Echo Echo" (minus the hangover.) — Hank Leber

Modern Groove Syndicate "Modern Groove Syndicate" (Courthouse Records)

The loose jazz and jangling funk of MGS will get your head bobbing and feet tapping. The group's mainly instrumental songs keep the listener engaged with a rhythmic theme while giving the musicians plenty of room to improvise. Gifted keyboardist Daniel Clarke can't possibly sit still during the band's live performances — they recently opened for John Scofield in Charlottesville — while tapping out a Meters-like organ line. Saxophonist J.C. Kuhl, formerly of Agents of Good Roots, is the newest member of the group and the icing on the cake: His intuitive sax solos never become self-indulgent. And that goes for the rest of the group as well. These experienced musicians know how to keep the pace; they won't bore you with selfish solos. "Chewin' The Fat" wanders into slightly spacey territory with its stop-start sound and whiny guitar line breaking out into an organ solo that'll have you praising the Lord. This short album's got only six songs, but they're all winners, and it'll leave you wanting more from these guys. Check them out during their regular gig at Cary Street Cafe on Tuesday nights. — Carrie Nieman

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