Cook's Corner 28

By: Dennis Cook

Wintertime always finds me embracing the imponderable and rhetorical. Is Jack Frost a foot fetishist? Is all that dairy and processed sugar good for a man Santa's age? Does anyone else think "yule log" is a filthy expression? Were frankincense, gold and myrrh really what the newborn Jesus wanted? For the most part, there are no answers, so I turn on the stereo and drift away. 'Cause when my mind is free you know a melody can move me...

Album of the Month:
Johnny Lunchbreak: Appetizer/Soup's On (Asterik)

God bless the Numero Group, hands down the best archival label to emerge in the past few years. What makes them stand out is an unerring nose for virtually unknown but truffle tasty wonders (not to mention their always superb liner notes, vintage photos and classy packaging). Asterik is their new subsidiary dedicated to full albums rather than anthologies, which are Numero's bread and butter. Johnny Lunchbreak is the opening salvo in what looks to be an exciting reissue series. Recorded in 1974-1975, this rattles and hums like Connecticut's answer to Big Star and Simply Saucer rolled into one. There's something raucously right and aerially charged from opener "A Very Papal State" to heartbreaking closers "Not A Dry Eye In America" and "The Best That I Had" – a span that encompasses raw, hip shaking garage rock, miniature freakouts and delicately sculpted pop. These nine cuts are the only output by this short-lived group and they'll make you instantly wistful that they didn't stick around. Johnny Lunchbreak is hellaciously alive, focused rock that bears the earmarks of its time but really exists in a larger continuum where it rubs shoulders with The Sonics, '60s Bee Gees, The Troggs and other greats. In the liner notes, bassist/engineer Michael Clare says, "It all went very fast, one or two takes, vocal overdubs, mixed it, and then listened out in the car on the AM transmitter that the studio had. There was no real purpose for the recording other than we could." Never officially released in their time, Appetizer/Soup's On is a past blast ready for the future.

Angels of Light: We Are Him (Young God)

Everyone has different ideas about what constitutes "spiritual music." For some it's gospel all the way, for others it may be Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan or the Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares series. What's essential in each instance is the music touches some part of us that most other assemblages of notes and words don't. It sends our thoughts winging outward to Big Questions and Broad Ideas or inward towards some greater understanding of ourselves. For some dumb reason, the vast majority of rock has acquiesced any claim on spirituality despite the innate rough and tumble of the genre. Not so with Michael Gira, who's only gotten deeper and more unerringly thoughtful and moving with each passing year since The Swans pulled up stakes in the late '90s. Since then Angels of Light has been the shell for Gira and a constantly shifting list of collaborators. We Are Him is his most expressly spiritual effort ever, a work as profound AND playful as Nick Cave's recent albums. Electric guitars and Congo drums slap us around while a sharp mostly female choir pushes soprano needles into our flesh. Right down in it is Gira's tombstone baritone, inciting us to awake and react. He's never programmatic, recognizing his own weakness, ego and sloth, and thus avoids lecturing us. Still, his level of engagement with the cosmic be-all-and-end-all is such that it convicts our own spirits to rise up and grab hold of something real and true. Gira is aided greatly by Akron/Family, who laid down the basic tracks which were later augmented and warped by cellist Julia Kent (Antony & The Johnsons), multi-instrumentalist Bill Rieflin (Robert Fripp, Ministry, R.E.M.), drone-violin from Eszter Balint and others. To borrow an endorsement from Wooden Wand, "We Are Him is an intimidating great album and a highlight in a career of highlights." Yeah, what he said.

(New) Classic Rock Joint of the Month:
Dirty Sweet: ...Of Monarchs And Beggars (Seedling)

As hungry as a back street beggar, San Diego's Dirty Sweet are mutton chopped, denim sporting bad asses in the making. One hesitates to go too far with a debut album but Monarchs does remind one of the first outing by a little Georgia band named The Black Crowes. There's a nasty growl in their music's undertow, something versatile and nakedly confident lead singer Ryan Koontz readily dips into. It's a safe bet there's some Free, Grand Funk Railroad and, yes, the Crowes lurking in their vinyl collections. Opener "Baby Come Home" struts like the best early Robinson Brothers, "Come Again" is tambourine slapping boogie with some red meat in its teeth, "Delilah" could be Gregg Allman on a good day and closer "Red River" gives Deep Purple a run for their money. While their influences are fairly obvious, Dirty Sweet transmutes them, sifting out the seeds and stems for a smoke of their own. And don't forget the boffo facial hair, fine enough to give Spinal Tap's Derek Smalls enough wood to not need that zucchini. Hail, hail rock 'n' roll indeed.

Vintage Stash Pick of the Month:
Various Artists: The Very Best of Ethiopiques (Manteca)

It's amazing what most of us in the West don't know about music in the rest of the world, especially anything from earlier time periods. Luckily there's anthologies like The Very Best of Ethiopiques to school us. Concentrating on what's largely regarded as Ethiopia's creative golden age (1969-1978), this two-disc collection is like an audio banquet stuffed with wonders seasoned with spices our ear's tongue has never before encountered. Slinky and sensual, sorrowful and melancholic, this music moves by alien turns. While we might assume the influence of early reggae or Motown or gypsy music or '60s San Francisco rock groups, there's no concrete evidence that any of this didn't just spring forth fully formed with a DNA structure completely unknown to any outside Ethiopia's borders. The vocals turn with an utterly different phrasing than most Westerners are accustomed to while the guitars slide and contort with hypnotic grace. If I struggle to convey the sound contained on these 28 tracks, distilled from the 23 volume (and counting) master series, it's because Ethiopiques is an utterly foreign tongue for even seasoned audio explorers. That alone should stir you to action. I mean, how often do you get to visit another world?

Jesse Dayton & Brennen Leigh: Holdin' Our Own and Other Country Gold Duets (Stag)
Country music loves a duet, especially if it's a man and a woman barkin' sad bitterness or cooing 'bout smoochin'. Sadly, these days mainstream country gives us Reba McEntire and Toby Keith singing with Kelly Clarkson, Jon Bon Jovi and Kid Rock. Ick. Enter Jesse Dayton (known to some for his work as Banjo & Sullivan in Rob Zombie's Devil's Rejects) and his fair-haired accomplice Brennen Leigh, the closest thing to George Jones and Tammy Wynette to fall off the haystack in many ages. Their adherence to '50s/'60s popular country conventionalities is rather sweet, and while country radio may not appreciate what they've done, Holdin' is full of the craftsmanship and songwriting that were once the genre's standards. "Let's Run Away," "We Hung The Moon" and "Somethin' Somebody Said" could slide right in next to Merle Travis, Lefty Frizell and Webb Pierce and you'd be none-the-wiser. There's too much sincerity here to mistake it as some snarky but skilled homage. Their love of traditional country music has resulted in a treat for anyone who looks back with the same fondness.

The Flail: Never Fear (KNT Editions)
Sometimes playing it straight is good, and in the case of The Flail it's very good. This is the kind of jazz that put Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan on the map and keeps Wynton Marsalis in shiny new trumpets. Despite a name that suggests spastic movement this is measured, gorgeously executed and warm. "Butterscotch" by bassist Reid Taylor rivals the best Vince Guaraldi piano-driven meditation, and the Cubanismo of trumpeter Dan Blankinship's "Once" is full of sultry heat and satin curves. Taylor, Blankinship and drummer Matt Zebroski, saxophonist Stephan Moutot and pianist Brian Marsella move with seamless, telepathic grace, each accenting and lifting the other's contributions splendidly, particularly on the title tune, which sweeps from exquisitely bowed bass into churning modal waters and out into something akin to early '60s Miles Davis. Woof! There may be more experimental jazz ensembles but I bet few of them get as many repeat spins as The Flail, a quintet of quiet strength and compositional excellence.

Butane Variations: Butane Variations (Achord)
This sparkling delight sidles up to you, grinning with warm mischief, then sweeps you off your feet with a single-finger push. Genuine charm has that kind of power. NYC's Butane Variations have created the stranger, darker, funnier cousin to Wilco's Sky Blue Sky, irresistible even as it drops its drawers and exposes their very human backsides. Mixed by Bryce Goggin (Phish, Dinosaur Jr.), this debut goes down easy but tucks away electric guitar forays and odd syllable strings to tickle your fancy on return visits. They describe themselves as Americana but it's a cosmically charged, weird-seeking version. Don't push play and expect Uncle Tupelo. Butane Variations have played with Akron/Family and their music shares some of their candy stripe swirl of pop and weird, not unlike early Robyn Hitchcock who I think Butane's "Skyward Upward" would make smile. There's just so much to like here.

Litmus: Planetfall (Rise Above)
Everything about England's Litmus screams esoteric space rock. There's the artfully ambiguous cover art, analog synths, lyrics written in elaborate code and plenty of rocket-fueled bombast, all of which they celebrate without embarrassment. What their second release does is lather liquid steel on the hull while letting a maniacal robot loose in the ship's sound system. There's not many heavy metal records in 2007 that are as relentlessly hard as Planetfall. It's as if they're trying to break loose of Earth's gravity and slingshot somewhere far, far away. Besides the basic trio of guitar, bass and drums, the instrument credits include one player devoted to Mellotron, synthesizers and gong and another obliquely credited with "devices and magic hands." By embracing heavy sounds Litmus avoids being another Ozric Tentacles or other U.K. retro-astronaut. If you can handle the g-force all the way to the finish you'll be pleasantly surprised what a cool, if rocky, journey you've just been taken on.

Spider: The Way To Bitter Lake (Storyboard)
Initially this seems like another backwoods girl with an acoustic guitar, but take a deeper listen and Spider (Brooklyn's Jane Herships) reveals a young songstress with the preternatural maturity of early Janis Ian and the shaking vulnerability of Sandy Denny. Herships' songs are equal measures of sorrow and soft smiles, bittersweet goodies we snuggle close because they comfort and calm us. While a hushed folksiness dominates, there's unexpected bursts of eloquent electric guitars and windblown changes to shake our branches. "Cold Eyes" offers up quality cosmic country, while "I Don't Know If She Had Any Teeth Because She Never Smiled" is a curious musical mouthful to go with all those syllables on this notable debut well worth leaning into.

Earthling Society: Plastic Jesus and the Third Eye Blind (Nasoni)
"Psychedelic" is easily one of the most overused words in music criticism. It's the go-to shorthand for anything trippy, exploratory or remotely like late '60s fare. But, like Frank Zappa's question about whether a poncho was real or a Sears' knockoff, genuine psych aficionados can smell a true freak a galaxy away. The blood splattered currency on the cover of this sophomore album suggests a U.K. version of Funkadelic's America Eats Its Young, and what's inside is a skewed but certain gloss on power and how we use it. Earthling Society excels at capturing the splendid mind-fuckery and sweet disorientation of recreational drug use like a grinning flashback for your ears. Plastic Jesus crawls out of a Hades deep dub to board a Jefferson Airplane style raga. From there they dip into Soft Machine funk, almost straight pop, cobalt heavy rock, and all wrapped up in ancient keyboard bubbles, wah-wah guitar and whispered vocals. At unexpected junctures they burst forth like Secret Machines or the nastier end of Pink Floyd, yet this is no recreation Society. Far from it, these gents steadily and surely ply the same spaceways as Sun Ra and Can once did, taking their ancestors into altogether new quadrants.

We'll be back the last week of December with the Corner's picks for the Top 10 Albums of 2007 and a few other thoughts on the year that's been...

JamBase | Endlessly Bewildered
Go See Live Music!

[Published on: 12/10/07]

Take full advantage of all JamBase has to offer by signing up for an account!

You'll receive

show alerts

when your favorite artists announce shows, be eligible to enter contests for

free tickets

, gain the ability to

share your personalized live music calendar

and much more. Join JamBase!



flowwmasta starstarstarstarstar Wed 12/12/2007 09:05AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


Thanks for the recs, Dennis! I will definitely be checking some of these out that i hadnt already heard. Glad to see the Angels of Light getting some love.