Albums of the Week: March 5 - March 11 Jimi Hendrix, Gorillaz

JamBase Albums of the Week | March 5-March 11, 2010

Dennis' Pick of the Week
Free Energy: Stuck On Nothing (Astralwerks)

Getting the fundamentals right is sometimes more satisfying than truckloads of innovation. Philly's Free Energy is a gang of guys dedicated to carefully honed pop rock in the tradition of Cheap Trick, Badfinger, Buddy Holly, early Beatles and '80s pure pop like The Outfield and The Knack. The rainbow adorned black and white high top sneaker pulling on street bubblegum on their debut's cover is a succinct hint at what's inside. Casual listeners may dismiss this as fluff, but, like the difficulty of writing a comedy versus a tragedy, really nailing non-ironic, positivity infused music like this is more challenging than the naval fixated mope more common to today's young acts. It's a bloody shit storm out there and music that makes us crack a smile and shuffle happily is a real gift. The first verse of opener and theme song "Free Energy" is a kind of manifesto for letting loose:

We're breaking out this time
Making out with the wind
And I'm so disconnected
I'm never gonna check back in
We're gonna start a new life, see how it goes
Before we're tired and too slow

Produced with real punch and clarity by James Murphy (LCD Soundsystem), Stuck On Nothing (arriving March 9) feels like this millennium's Seconds of Pleasure, the beloved music dork classic by the woefully short-lived Rockpile. There's a purity of purpose to this band that kisses us with cherry lips and makes us run like an extra in A Hard Day's Night. Stuck On Nothing is packed with the chutzpah of smiling live wires out to make the world a smidgen brighter. And they have. (Dennis Cook)

Ron's Pick of the Week
Jimi Hendrix: Valleys of Neptune (Experience Hendrix-Legacy)

When the rights to Jimi Hendrix's music reverted back to his father Al and half-sister Janie in the mid-90s, it brought forth a plethora of new Hendrix titles that aimed to right the wrongs implemented by the questionable handling of the late guitar legend's posthumous cache of studio material by his former label, Reprise Records. And though it's true that much ado has been made about Janie Hendrix - who was just a little girl when Jimi was alive - taking over the Hendrix estate following the death of their father in 2003, she continues to do an excellent job with marketing her half-brother's nuggets-rich archives. However, her latest creation, Valleys of Neptune (arriving March 9), could very well be the family's most anticipated collection to date.

Released in the year that marks the 40th anniversary of the Seattle guitar great's untimely passing and produced by Janie, Hendrix biographer John McDermott and Jimi's longtime engineer Eddie Kramer, this set - the first under the Hendrix family company Experience Hendrix, LLC's joint venture with Sony Legacy - is the closest we have come to the 1969 studio album that never was. It contains 12 entirely unreleased cuts predominantly culled from the last studio recordings of the original Jimi Hendrix Experience, which went down during a four-month period in 1969 when the trio of Jimi, bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell were attempting to craft a follow-up to their 1968 psychedelic magnum opus Electric Ladyland. Seemingly bored with the style the group developed over the course of three albums, these final Experience sessions serve as a quintessential showcase of Hendrix's initial intentions to push the envelope of his group's sound into something more organic and earthbound.

Included here are three previously unreleased songs - "Ships Passing Through The Night" (an early template for "Nightbird Flying"), "Lullaby for the Summer" (a song that would soon become "Ezy Ryder") and "Crying Blue Rain" (featuring "Sympathy for the Devil" percussionist Rocki Dzidzornu on bongos) - as well as a rare electric version of "Hear My Train A Comin'" (an acoustic 12-string rendition was featured on the soundtrack to the 1973 film about Jimi Hendrix and the 1994 compilation Blues, not to mention a grossly re-recorded version on producer Alan Douglas' notorious 1975 album Midnight Lightning, which saw Hendrix's singing and guitar playing overdubbed atop hack session musicians barely talented enough to borrow a pick from the man, let alone jam with him), and a studio take on the Experience's loving cover of Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love." You also have expanded arrangements of Hendrix classics "Fire" and "Red House" in addition to an updated rendition of the 1966 standard "Stone Free" taken from Hendrix and Mitchell's first studio sessions with Band of Gypsys bassist Billy Cox in 1970. And it was that very trio who were also responsible for the full band version of this album's coveted title cut, long considered to be the Holy Grail of commercially unheard Hendrix (a demo of the track was included on the now-defunct 1990 biographical box set Lifelines). Meanwhile, fans of 1997's South Saturn Delta, a compilation of material originally featured on such out-of-print Reprise titles as Cry of Love, Rainbow Bridge and War Heroes, will recognize tracks like a cover of Elmore James' "Bleeding Heart" and a studio version of concert staple "Lover Man," also previously heard on such seminal live albums as the hard-to-find Hendrix In The West and Live At Woodstock. Then there's "Mr. Bad Luck" (later known as "Look Over Yonder" on the Delta set), which is the earliest cut on Neptune, having been recorded in 1967 during the Axis: Bold As Love sessions. Any fan of Jimi Hendrix's last two years walking the earth, which saw him undoubtedly at the peak of his skills as a guitarist and taking great strides towards a more soulful, funkier style, needs to pick up Valleys of Neptune as quickly as possible. That goes double for those of you who may have stepped away from your Jimi stash for a while and need to rekindle your love for the greatest player known to rock 'n' roll, both on and off the stage. No Hendrix collection would be complete without it. (Ron Hart)

Great American Taxi: Reckless Habits (Thirty Tigers)
Simply put, this is some first rate country rock. Anyone sweet on the Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram, Poco, early Eagles, et al. will scuff up their boots and run up a hefty bar tab to Great American Taxi's sophomore effort (released March 2). Though perhaps heresy to Leftover Salmon fans, I think Vince Herman has more grit 'n' dusty character in this setting, and the whole dang band can play and sing real well. GAT manages to nestle in fine with their ancestors but also inject a timely, observant thread that keeps things fresh and relevant. This is what you want blaring as you pound whiskey and expound on the putz you work for and life's other workaday woes. And props for conjuring the spirit of old Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show ("Fuzzy Little Hippie Girl," "Get No Better"); these boys need to dig into Shel Silverstein's tunes like "I Got Stoned And I Missed It," "I Call That True Love" and other early Hook and Bobby Bare classics he wrote and make 'em their own (a task they may be uniquely qualified for). By turns frisky and thoughtful, the Taxi's second serving builds on the promise of their debut (JamBase review) with an increasingly developed sound that's hard to refuse. (DC)

Gorillaz: Plastic Beach (EMI)
At long last, the greatest animated band since The Banana Splits returns from a five-year exile with their excruciatingly anticipated third full-length release. Here, the enigmatic brainchildren of artist Jamie Hewlett and UK rock wunderkind Damon Albarn (who also serves as the album's producer this time out) transplant their cartoon alter egos - singer 2D, bassist Murdoc Niccals, guitarist Noodle and drummer Russel Hobbs - onto Plastic Beach, a metaphor for what oceanographers are calling "The Great Pacific Garbage Patch." It's a clever name for a massive, continent-sized layer of plastic fragments gathering in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that serves as one of our planet's most dire environmental concerns (though on the album, the Gorillaz recycle the plastic bits to create newfangled gadgets). From there, they utilize an island-kissed variation of their hip-hop/dub/soul/pop hybrid to receive transmissions from such collaborators as Snoop Dogg, Lou Reed, Bobby Womack, Mos Def, De La Soul, Mark E. Smith of The Fall, the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble and, playing for the first time together since The Clash, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, to craft their most socially conscious, inventive album yet. (RH)

Antioquia: My piano ate the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle (self-released)
You gotta love a band that's impossible to pigeonhole. Antioquia is stewed from feisty rebel music from many continents, flavorful social consciousness with a hot pepper zest, sexy and smart and waiting to be slurped up in a hungry rush. Latin and African rhythms skip with guitars that wouldn't be out of place in Captain Beefheart's Magic Band or headier live Talking Heads. There's also the New World Order shattering, quasi-future thrust of prime Devo or Pere Ubu, plus the charged, earthy poetics of Patti Smith to boot. If it seems I'm throwing a lot at the wall, well, you kinda have to with Antioquia. There's some profound shit going inside My Piano… but you could also fuck like a beast to it. Politics and social inquiry are rarely so mouthwatering, and it's a safe bet Fela, Gil Scott-Heron and Sun Ra would LOVE this. Crank this up LOUD and just see if you don't crumble a few internal shackles toot suite. Not going to be real surprised if this winds up on some of the hipper, more truly open-minded "Best of 2010" lists. (You can order this release directly from the band here). (DC)

Gonjasufi: A Sufi and a Killer (Warp)
The term "Sufi," when stripped of all its Islamic mysticism, simply means "man of wool." And much like the abrasive fabric at the root of this powerful, ancient word, the music on this brilliant debut album from a dreadlocked yoga teacher/MC/singer from Nevada's badlands is both coarse and comforting all at once. Excellently produced by a trio of Los Angeles' brightest hip-hop visionaries - The Gaslamp Killer, Flying Lotus and Mainframe - A Sufi and A Killer (arriving March 9) is a globetrotting, psychedelic headtrip of an album that could come from the likes of HR from Bad Brains if he ditched hardcore and punk altogether, signed to Warp Records and defected to California to creatively crash on Madlib's couch for a spell. Equal parts Tom Waits' Bone Machine and J. Dilla's Donuts, it doesn't take a wise man to see that Gonjasufi is a key ingredient to the future of West Coast hip-hop in the 21st century. (RH)

Past Lives: Tapestry of Webs (Suicide Squeeze)
A gripping rumble revealing surprising sunshine spikes, Past Lives' debut full-length builds high on the cornerstones of modern prog-rock, hardcore punk and the Velvet Underground. Ex- Blood Brothers Jordan Billie (vocals, lyrics), Morgan Henderson (multi-instrumentalist), Mark Gajadhar (drums) and original BB guitarist Devin Welch exhibit no shortage of ambition on Tapestry of Webs (released February 23), but don't expect the Brothers' tumultuous, chalkboard screech. This undulates with greater sensuality and Billie reveals a flexibility and warmth previously unheard. Considerably less claustrophobic or manic than earlier efforts, this presents a band exploring where their sizeable talents and sharp observational skills will take them, willing to slow down and simmer until the right flavors emerge. Open possibilities abound and listeners will find much to explore and interpret within this promising, genuinely seductive new group (DC)

Ruby Suns: Fight Softly (Sub Pop)
From the sandy, organic beaches of New Zealand comes the third album from Los Angeles-by-way-of-Auckland indie pop auteur Ryan McPhun and his band The Ruby Suns. Fight Softly (released March 2) finds McPhun doing away with guitars and drums in favor of laptops, synthesizers and effects pedals. Yet somehow this creates the same organic feel of earlier Ruby Suns' via digital means, enhancing their unique pastiche of American art pop, Brazilian Tropicalia and Pacific island vibes. Fight Softly is essentially Merriweather Post Pavillion served poolside in a coconut shell with a little umbrella. Not to mention a much better album, arguably speaking. (RH)

Portugal. The Man: American Ghetto (Equal Vision)
Slinky as hell, a loaded title and a captivating experimental yen reminiscent of My Morning Jacket's Z, Portugal. The Man's sixth album coalesces and expands on the many subtle, hard-to-pinpoint elements that made a lot of ears lean their direction the past four years. Everything about American Ghetto (released March 2) welcomes in-depth inspection, so as seductively easy as it is to just press play and float on their hip lubricating current here, there's a great deal going on above & below the surface. Like MMJ, Portugal. The Man welcomes in soul/funk touches, including lover man falsetto and overdriven sleaze guitar lines, which makes the album dance up to one like a pheromone dripping, glowingly perspiring cutie that smells fantastic but also like loads of trouble. Take their wet-lipped kiss and you instantly realize how many secrets and how much quiet ache lies on their darting tongue. American Ghetto is an album fraught with the confusion and excitement of present times, executed with the group's highest level of sophistication and charm to date. (DC)

Method Actors: This Is Still It (Acute/Carpark)
Early '80s post-punk duo the Method Actors might not have garnered the kind of accolades fellow Athens natives R.E.M., the B-52s and Pylon received in the first wave of new rock to emerge from the seminal Georgia college town, but as Peter Buck puts it in the R.E.M. guitarist's extensive liner notes to this excellent collection of early recordings from singer/guitarist Vic Varney and drummer David Gamble, the Actors' Southern strain of jagged, Gang of Four-meets-Captain Beefheart new wave was a crucial aspect to the "secret history of the Athens scene." At some points in listening to this 19-track set, it's hard to believe only two guys are creating this sharp, aggressively precise music. This is definitely recommended for any new wave fan out there. (RH)

John Hiatt: The Open Road (New West)
The road song is a long, revered tradition, especially in American music. There's a love affair with asphalt under our wheels and the promise of what lies on the other side of a mountain range. Hiatt, the definition of a musician's musician, has taken his touring band into the studio for 11 road-focused ditties that readily remind one why he's a go-to songwriter for the likes of Nick Lowe, Emmylou Harris and many more. The Open Road (released March 2) isn't particularly complex, choosing to be accessible and understandable in a pure folk sense. The music is smoothly delivered roots rock played by guys who've been loading gear in & out of vans for many decades. Hiatt's voice is ragged-right, tattered in all the right ways, and one of the keys to this set's success, lending a beautifully lived-in character to tunes about getting out there and experiencing life. (DC)

Balmorhea: Constellations (Western Vinyl)
When Austin, TX-based dark acoustic ensemble Balmorhea planned to follow up All Is Wild, All Is Silent, the group's 2009 concept album based on the desolation experienced by the settlers wandering the American frontier, it seems like they figured the only place to go from there is up. With Constellations (released February 23), they take their sound to the cosmos, crafting a haunting love letter to the night sky that connects us with those very souls wandering the Old West way back when. Balmorhea's sound, which suggests a late night jam session between Bill Frisell, Keith Jarrett and the Dirty Three at their most solemn, makes for the quintessential soundtrack to counting the stars that hang so calmly above us. (RH)

Randall Bramblett: The Meantime (Blue Ceiling)
Though known to most as a saxphonist/multi-instrumentalist sideman extraordinaire with folks like Levon Helm, Steve Winwood, Widespread Panic and many others, Bramblett dives wholeheartedly into an intimate, personal set focused on his lead vocals and piano and organ playing. The Meantime (arriving March 9) sits close to Bruce Hornsby's trio work, and here Bramblett is subtly bolstered by Gerry Hanson (drums) and Chris Enghauser (upright bass). Captured with airy grace by Athens, GA legend John Keane, this sensitive, romantic offering is clearly a labor of love. While a touch sugary at times, The Meantime suggests the candlelight crooner crowd has some strong new competition. (DC)

Robert Pollard: We All Got Out Of The Army (Guided By Voices, Inc.)
Since his emancipation from the indie rock industrial complex in 2008, former Guided By Voices svengali and middle school teacher Robert Pollard has released 11 titles under his own accord, including solo albums, a third volume of the GBV Suitcase rarities box series and LPs from his three (yes, THREE) new bands - Boston Spaceships, Cosmos and Circus Devils (and not a dud in the bunch). In 2010, Dayton, Ohio's favorite drunk continues the onslaught of quality with his 14th solo album (released March 2). Any fan of such late '90s GBV gems as 1997's notorious Mag Earwhig! (where Pollard replaced the classic Bee Thousand line-up with members of Cobra Verde) and 1999's TVT classic Isolation Drills should instantly fall in love with the crisp, crunchy post-UK Jive of We All Got Out Of The Army. (RH)

Morris On: Morris On (Fledg'ling)
Original released on Island Records in 1972, the Morris On LP is a lost British folk classic from a supergroup (of sorts) comprised of members of the Fairport Convention, namely the core threesome of drummer Dave Mattacks, bassist Ashley Hutchings and guitarist Richard Thompson. The music on here might be a little too Olde English for some; so much so, in fact, that you might feel as though you are standing in line for a yard of mead at the Renaissance Faire. But the combination of Hutchings, Thompson and Mattacks (who should have recorded together more often as a solid trio based on this set), joined to the stellar squeezebox work of Fairport associate John Fitzpatrick, produced a ragtag quintet that combined centuries-old English Morris dance music with rock rhythms, creating one of the most intriguing and sought-after gems of its time. This is an elegant, alluring piece of music that will instantly appeal to your inner British nobleman. (RH)

Reptar: Reptar EP (self-released)
The fictional green dinosaur named Reptar is viewed as a hero who helps save the world. Perhaps that's why this Athens, GA quartet decided to name their band after the character. The EP is a four song set giving the world its first look into the kaleidoscopic, infectious synth-pop world of Reptar. Lyrically, it's self-reflective and mature beyond the songwriter's years until the comical rap "Track 4," a dirty, confused little narrative that I'm glad made it onto the EP. Although only four songs, the range of influences is notable. The band channels the more pop-oriented Modest Mouse's canonical stylings on "Houseboat Babies," a pummeling drums-and-synth rock song. "Context Clues" has the swirling, repetitive clutter of "Summertime Clothes" as the singer repeats, "You came to see the good things," in a hypnotic fashion amongst sitar-ish keys, bird calls, a ticking clock and other dissonant sounds. Comparisons to fellow psych-synth pop artists like Animal Collective and Passion Pit fit, but I promise you these tracks are worthy of a listen. This is neither 2008's synth pop [MG MT] nor last year's [Passion Pit]; Reptar manages to create yet another nook in the ever-expanding genre. The only thing seeming to hold these youngsters back is a full class load and geographical separation amongst band members (they're still in college at UGA, Dartmouth and UNC-Asheville). Like Animal Collective ("Four walls and adobe slats for my girls"), Reptar's demands aren't much ("All we want from life is big boy beds and a climax in our heads"). I implore any indie A & R label head to scoop these guys up before it's too late. Remember, at this point last year, Passion Pit was just a little band with an EP, and look where they are now. (Wesley Hodges)

Oops, We Missed It!
Killer Releases From 2009 That Somehow Slipped By Us

Vince Guaraldi: The Definitive Vince Guaraldi (Fantasy-Concord)
Anyone who ever made the viewing of A Charlie Brown Christmas a holiday tradition in their household is very well aware of the music of Italian-American jazz maestro Vince Guaraldi and his trusty trio. But, there is so much more to the catalog of this genius of the piano, whose life was cut short at the age of 47 in 1976, than "Linus and Lucy," as this two-disc anthology covering his 11 groundbreaking years on the Fantasy label (1955-1966) so righteously testifies. Just do yourself a favor, if The Definitive Vince Guaraldi moves you, don't stop here. Make sure that you celebrate this man's entire catalog, to paraphrase downsizing consultant John Slydell in Office Space. For all you funk fans out there, I would personally start with Oaxaca, a killer 2004 compilation of late 60s/early 70s recordings that finds Guaraldi rocking the Fender Rhodes. Also well worth checking out is 1965's From All Sides, his stunning collaboration with Brazilian guitar great Bola Sete. This is, of course, already assuming that you own A Boy Named Charlie Brown, which every respectable jazz fan should have in their collection. Dig it! (RH)

[Published on: 3/6/10]

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