Grasshoppers – Chirps
Easy to forget the Grateful Dead started as a jug band. The honest soil of folk and jazz and drug-addled rock ‘n’ sweet soul music produced a shambling, tub-bass slapping spirit that permeates their 1967 debut. That same joyous, free-range feel runs through San Francisco’s Grasshoppers' newest release. Their sound is their own, clearly inspired by String Cheese and other roots jammers, but still possessed of its own unique bounce. From the relentlessly sing-along opener of “Like This” straight through to the hidden surprises at the end, Chirps is a freakin’ blast. One of those records you keep slipping on despite all the other music piled up next to the stereo. Repeated listens find neat bits tucked away in every song – the “Estimated Prophet”-esque guitar solo and sterling piano fills on “Cryin,” the hop head gospel of “Big Fat Joints” and the wind in the hair breeze of “Broken Record.” In the end it is a refrain from the luminous “In ‘B’” from the album that stays with me: “I knew right then that a song would save my soul.” Amen to that.
Ten Ton Chicken – Just Like In The Old Country
Slinky stuff this is. It’s a sweet, sultry breeze on a hot night that sticks to the skin, makes the body ache and stirs the blood in the nicest of ways. This is the kind of funk that groups like Little Feat or Tower of Power used to harness in tight, languid jams beneath a “Spanish Moon.” TTC (as the Chicken is called) groove along infectiously, making stops along the way to show off their tight-ass vocals and oddly philosophical lyrics (which might well appeal to Phish fans. now that I think of it…). A few tunes feel a bit too light, like a Better-Than-Average-White-Band, but then they whip around and lay a monster like “Goblin/Daddy’s Lower Half” on a brother. A dead-on beat and visceral sax punches (from Jamison Smeltz, a gifted player who reminds me of personal fave Gary Bartz) spar perfectly with icy pinpricks of guitar. With its rolling keyboard line, it has all the markings of classic funkathon like “Superstition” rendered as an instrumental. Plus mad props to the band for recording much of the album live at great small venues like iMusicast and the Boom Boom Room. Solid evidence of a band well worth keeping an eye on.
Aimee Mann – Lost In Space
It’s to be expected that after hitting the heights of one’s songwriting career, the next one out of the chute pales by comparison. Between the Magnolia soundtrack and her Bachelor No. 2 album, Aimee Mann produced close to 20 perfect pop gems. There’s usually not much left on the shelves after you put that much out into the world at once. This time she still sounds like the female member Badfinger never mentioned but there’s a sameness that bogs everything down. Maybe it’s the mid-tempo shuffle of it all or how self-conscious her reflections sound in spots. Using Humpty Dumpty as a metaphor feels tired to me, and to open the record with such a song doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Its very blandness in places makes me think this will be the one to propel her back into mainstream stardom. More than anything I miss the brilliant guitar work, clever arrangements and restless studio twiddling of Jon Brion, her main collaborator on the previous two records. This time it’s Mann and her touring band behind the boards, and sadly I think they’ve made just the kind of record that commercial radio wanted from them. A song cycle that’s not really all that good but it is good enough to be marketed to death to people who never bothered to listen to this wonderful singer-songwriter before.
Robyn Hitchcock – Robyn Sings
Dylan, Dylan, Dylan. And I ain’t talking no Dylan Thomas either. I’m talking about Bob or Booooob if you prefer to stretch a single syllable into moaned assonance like the master himself. It’s a name so ubiquitous in the music world that one almost tires of hearing it. Yet still, he is a genius and that’s one of those words I use as cautiously as a surgeon uses a scalpel. It’s sharp and dangerous if used carelessly. He’s literally inspired generations and now he’s gotten a hold of poor Robyn Hitchcock. The schoolboy-voiced madcap has given us two discs of him rolling around in some of Bob’s best stuff. The first is series of acoustic performances from 1999-2000 and includes dizzying versions of “Visions of Johanna,” “4th Time Around,” and a “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” that’ll make your hair stand on end. The second disc is a recreation of Bob’s legendary 1966 Manchester, England show where he went electric with the boys in The Band. Like Dylan’s own bold choice that night, Hitchcock has chosen wisely and bravely. Done in the exact same sequence as the original, but in fully different ways, it gives the faithful a new set of ears for the staggering oeuvre of one of this lifetime’s real greats. Robyn states in the liner notes, “I’m not interpreting these songs. I’m just singing them – as only someone who’s been saturated in them can. They all came out of Bob Dylan, but they've spent a lot of time in me, too.” It is a gift to Dylan and Robyn listeners alike released in a fanlike exuberance by Hitchcock himself through his own record label. Catch it while you can.
Beth Orton – Daybreaker
You’ve been up all night, stirred up by the dance floor or a stupid call from your boyfriend. Light begins to peek over the inky black horizon. This is the record you put on at such times. Like Dusty In Memphis or Fred Neil’s Sessions, Ms. Orton’s Daybreaker exists in between the dark and the light. Call it a transitioner for displaced spirits. Still possessed of the same folksy trip hop of her earlier discs but pared down to just the beautiful essentials. In an angel’s warble she sings of hopelessness giving way to cautious optimism and what could be finer at the starting edge of a new day:
And nobody can keep you from the one you know you are
Nobody to steer the way you sway, the way you walk
May there never be a time
That you don't live through
May there never be a time
That you don't walk through.
Jean Grae – Attack of the Attacking Things: The Dirty Mixes
This stunner, her full-length debut, appears after many years of setting off tracks as a guest artist with likes of The Herbalizer, Mr. Len and Masta Ace. Hip-hop album of the year. The only thing that even comes close is Blazing Arrow by Blackalicious, and I think Attack takes the race by a nose. It is a city record in the tradition of Gil Scott-Heron’s Pieces of a Man and like that classic it is cruelly honest AND amazingly tuneful. Grae is whip smart and unapologetic as she rides the raw, distinct production. Often lumped in Lauren Hill or Queen Latifah, Grae flows with a knife-edge sureness those ladies would kill to possess. Her blackly funny observations and muscular delivery bring to mind the mighty Del Tha Funkee Homosapien. This is THE album for all those hardcore b-boys and b-girls who’ve been hungry for a bit of righteous estrogen in their head nodding.
Subtle – Autumn
Yet another unpredictable sonic sleigh ride from the minds inside the Anticon collective, a posse with a delightfully vulgar independent streak. They make one expand their definition of what constitutes a hip-hop recording. Yet the beats and basslines, the mics and dope rhymes still simmer on a low heat, making for an intense taste when the mutha is done cooking. This 20 minute EP continues the seasonal cycle Subtle began last year. A voice at the start repeatedly mutters “I’m sick” while someone forces old tape drive computers into service as reluctant musical instruments. Whispers and screams float everywhere while malfunctioning robot breakbeats get the body moving in a twitchy quasi-futuristic rhumba. Nimble, perfect bass from Dax Pierson anchor you down so you are in no real danger of floating away. These are the new operators of my pocket calculator, and I’m content to roll on any headphone autobahn they want to drive.
moe. – Warts & All Vol. 2
In the original Grimm’s fairy tale (the dark German one, not the sanitized American one we heard as young sprouts), the princess does not kiss the frog to make him into a prince. Instead she refuses to kiss his slimy hide and throws him against a wall. Bloodied and battered he then transforms into his graceful human form. Beauty and violence wrangle to produce a fable of enduring potency. The same could be said for moe. and their ongoing adventures in live performance. The characters of their songs hunger for adventure, longing to be free of the mad drama of workaday life. This second release in the band’s new concert archive series tells a story of a “Happy Hour Hero” who lives with the weight of decisions made and chances missed. It’s the kind of setlist on paper that might not make me seek out the show in trading circles, but having heard it I can see exactly why the band picked this one for wide release. From the rocking “Okayalright” and “She Sends Me” opening to the ridiculously exploratory “Timmy Tucker” -> “Kids” opus, this is a pleasant reminder that moe. continues to put on shows that defy the expectations of even their staunchest fans. If it loses steam in the third disc with a too futuristic sounding “Rebubula” or a silly version of Hendrix’s “Fire,” then it can be forgiven. After all, this is presented as warts and all, an expression dear to me. It bespeaks volumes about the honesty and bravery of a band to not fiddle with their show before they present it to us. This is how it happened on 2/23/02 at The Tabernacle in Atlanta, GA. The only thing that would make this live set better would be a Skynyrd cover and a vinyl release so we could sort out the seeds and stems on the fold-out sleeve while we scored “Spaz Medicine” in “Mexico” with five guys named moe.
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