Whether he's playing his own original material or singing songs that are 200 years old, there's no denying the ruddy, sparkling voice of Matthew Sabatella. His recently released Ballad of America takes a look at the American folk music of the 1800s, Sabatella's nimble guitar and brassy, tremolo-laced vocals accompanied alternately by banjo, fiddle, accordion, and hoop drum. Older albums A Walk in the Park and Where the Hell Am I? show his knack for catchy, yet brainy, songwriting and interesting chord changes on his laid-back acoustic guitar. But Sabatella's best asset is easily his voice, urgent but unforced, sweetly melancholy in telling personal stories and powerfully evocative in rendering antiquated songs intimate again. It's a great gift, and Sabatella wields it with exceptional talent.

When a documentary film about the Yoko Theory was shown at the 2004 Palm Beach International Film Festival, things certainly looked up for the four ambitious groove-makers. However, a few months after the film debuted, the band split up, relegating its intriguing mix of reggae, jazz, and hip-hop to the film and a lone CD. Once a staple of clubs like Respectable Street, the Lounge, and Dada, the Delray Beach-based foursome performed around town like clockwork, never falling into inactive lulls or taking long breaks -- or letting girlfriends mess things up as they did in the band members' previous groups (hence the Yoko Ono reference). This, of course, begs the question: Was an unhappy girlfriend responsible for their breakup? Not this time. The band had simply run its course, dying of natural causes and proving that the theory was, well, just a theory -- albeit one that made some damned fine music.

"Is it skipping?" asks one wide-eyed newcomer, taken aback by Schirach's glitchy laptop IDM. Intelligent or not, who could dance to this South Florida electro-head's brain-bouncing beats? A seizure-spazzed monkey? With album titles like Global Speaker Fisting, Petroleum Peep Show, and Chopped Zombie Fungus, you know this German/Cuban wild man's music ain't gonna be your standard fare. No, brave listener, Schirach's digitized audio freakshow won't go over with the Yanni fan in your fam-damily. So totally twisted and tweaked is the mind of this young technophile that his deviant electronica puts even deranged acts like Aphex Twin in the shade. An October 2004 performance in Fort Lauderdale revealed his oscillating shades of unrestrained beauty and menacing mechanical chaos to a crowd drunk on $6 bottles of beer and Schirach's mind-bending imagination.

The follow-up to five six six five's self-titled debut, America's Idle isn't only the best local electronica review of 2004 -- it sits solidly near the top of local releases of any genre. Expanding on its loose, bedroom laptop session feel, the height-fixated duo of Seth Brody (the short one) and James Allen (the tall one) keeps a playful mood of experimentation, digging into low-fi ambient beats and barely there atmospherics. But there's also a distant focus to these ten songs, sort of the aural equivalent of watching a smudgy shooting star flash and fade. Live drums snap against wispy digital breaks, faraway sax and flute waft over twinkling keys and acoustic guitar, and voices surface from low in the mix to murmur about "the real truth." The drama evoked by all these minimalist elements builds into a surprisingly visceral impact, track by track, until the end of the album leaves you feeling strangely fresh and free. Word is that Brody is no longer with us, having escaped (as the best ones often do) to the grittier pastures of New York City. The fact is, five six six five measures up to anything the Big Apple can dish out. Here's hoping for a musical long-distance relationship.

It's sort of embarrassing to admit you actually liked Dashboard Confessional (anyone remember Chris Carrabba?) or the misbegotten emo genre. But for better or worse, all those heart-emblazoned-on-sleeve songs made folks start to pay attention to lyrics again, and when it comes to Keith Michaud, the rewards are nearly endless. With his genteel band Maypop and now with the equally genteel Summer Blanket, this Boca Ratonian has gradually unveiled a literate, thoughtful, and increasingly complex style. "I douse myself in alcohol to cover up the smell of funerals," like most of his best lines, doesn't come from the happiest of places, and his voice (think a slightly less-ragged Jeff Tweedy of Wilco) carefully ekes pleasure from the pain. The primarily acoustic Charm Wrestling (2003) and its more energetic follow-up, the aptly named Whisper Louder (2005), show that, even when he's annoyingly self-referential and more than a little hard on himself, he somehow forces the rank of legendary singer-songwriters to make room for a new South Florida sad sack.

Undoubtedly one of the hardest-working groups in South Florida, Secondhand Outfit wins the prize through sheer presence on the scene. Other bling-eyed rappers might aspire to the big time through infrequent singles and strategic guest appearances, but MCs Dirty Work and Keenan Smith and DJ/producer Palmeto hit the bricks every damned weekend, hosting underground hip-hop nights and rocking stages from West Palm Beach to Miami. The group's self-produced, self-released, self-distributed CD Clean Gloves Hide Dirty Hands is a collection of creepy break beats and dense, self-referential rhymes, a waltz through the darker side of suburban living. Influences range from DJ Shadow and Atmosphere to Sonic Youth, and a follow-up is due this summer. Blue collar, introspective, and understated, these guys are the essence of anti-bling. If you're trying to find the flourishing, independent hip-hop community in South Florida, try on the Secondhand Outfit. You'll be glad you did.

Show promoters are often thought of as being in it only for the money, and it's a reputation that's largely deserved. Most couldn't give two shits about the bands they book, as long as the kids pay through their teeth. And worst of all, they bring the same ten bands back every six months. That's why New Art School Booking exists. Formed in 2004 by Dominic Sirianni and Mark Pollack, New Art School proves that a little elbow grease can pay off. Needless to say, Sirianni and Pollack aren't in it for the money (they both have day jobs) but because they love the music. Oh yeah -- and the art. You know all those Rock vs. Art fliers you've seen around town and on MySpace? Now you know who's behind them. Who else can get punk legends like the Angry Samoans to fly out from California? Or up-and-coming Canadian metal acts like Cursed to play at Hollywood's Club M? But it's not just rock bands; local hip-hop acts like the Secondhand Outfit are regulars at New Art School shows. At this point, just about every local band is.

For four years, this South Florida outfit leaked home-brewed mini-albums to local radio, press, friends, and family; performed infrequently in public; and fought, broke up, lost members, and finally regrouped. When the choicest of their orchestrated electro-tropicalia songs were collected in one place -- Hard Times for Dreamers, released last spring on New York-based March Records -- the entire indie-pop world finally heard what we'd been raving about for so long. Fawning reviews followed. The album got played on the BBC. The band's femme faux-Francophilia creates a Möebius strip in which the 1960s meet the 1990s and beyond, inviting comparisons to everything from Stereolab to Brian Wilson to modern-day bossa nova. Adorable singer/guitarist Rocky Ordoñez and her multi-instrumentalist cohorts have (typically) laid low since Dreamers hit the bins, but at least we have one band that sounds just the way sun-drenched South Florida feels while handily throwing off the amateur trappings of a "local act."

While the most talked-about and eagerly awaited outdoor show was probably the return of the Pixies a few months after this extravaganza, that reunion had the rancid stench of opportunism and greed all over it. Sure, it made folks happy -- but at what cost? Kind of hard to feel good about a band getting back together just to pad its droopy bank accounts. The Cure, on the other hand, just threatens to quit. Of course, it never does, and last year, the band put out a halfway-decent album and toured behind it. But to its credit, the lovable old eyeliner-lovin' blokes put on a helluva show and brought a whole cadre of cool bands with 'em. With hot vixen Melissa Auf der Maur, Scottish dream-rockers Mogwai, sharp-dressed Interpol, disco-punks the Rapture (you've got to admit, a pretty good lineup) the daylong Curiosa Festival made up for the fact that Lollapalooza got canceled. And while it wasn't cheap, at least your cash wasn't going to line the pockets of four overweight phonies who once swore they'd never be seen together outside of a courtroom.

So you're at the neighborhood music store, browsing the local band section, and reading the production notes on the back of each CD. You're curious -- where do bands record around here? Noticing that Band A laid down its tracks at the posh-sounding Imperial Megalith Studios, you assume it's got its shit together more than Band B, which recorded at some place called the Farm... in Davie. You snicker, laughing at the thought of some yokel running a reel-to-reel recorder while stopping every 15 minutes to give ol' Bessie a good milking. But despite its bucolic location, the studio is a high-end, independent facility catering to local bands that don't have the megabucks to spend on a recording. And it's owned and operated by Larry Burlison, a guy who digs modern indie music and isn't bent on making his recordings into grandiose prog-rock orchestrations or overproduced pop-rock crap; the sound he aims for is vintage rock, though he knows how to tweak the digital software (ProTools) to get it. Just ask bands like High Times Lounge or film-score musicians like Adam Grabois. At the very reasonable rate of $30 per hour, it's no wonder they travel out to the boonies to cut their tracks.

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