A few new features this month in honor of the sixth installment of this column. Each edition will now include a Record of the Month, something that stood out above and beyond for whatever peculiar reasons motivate this writer. And just as these reviews look at the present and future of music, I wanted to start looking back at some releases from the past that might inform your listening, thicken it up, add some density and history. Thus, at the close of each month there will be a Vintage Stash selection. All done in an effort to keep the conversation lively, children. Keep those ears wide open.
Record of the Month:
Tim Bluhm: The Soft Adventure EP/Colts
This is not happy music. But then again, life isn’t all sunshine and lollipops and having the proper soundtrack for the gray days can make all the difference. Bluhm, the primary writing voice for the recently disbanded and ever amazing Mother Hips, drops a pair of world weary wonders on us. The Soft Adventure is like a sparkly smooth piece of bottle glass and Colts, a previously unreleased album, feels like a jagged, dark stone. Both come off like something found just outside the cover shot of Neil Young’s On The Beach. There’s honest sadness in these grooves that hold a tremendous understanding of day-to-day disappointment. The tired thump of barroom piano and the steel guitar winds only add to this sense of perfect aloneness with one’s thoughts. In lesser hands, this would all come across as merely glum but Bluhm is a high plains, big ocean troubadour who’s beautifully lonely voice blows through us with a gentle breeze. As spare and lovely as an acoustic guitar heard being strummed far off in the distance, a song we do not yet know calling us forward along the sand.
Buck 65: Square
Some folks make albums, others create a body of work. Buck 65, the great whitey hope from the upper section of North America, has diligently proven he’s in it for the long haul. With each new set, my faith in him only grows as THE shining light in hip-hop. Square is no exception. Drawing inspiration from baroque string sections, Alfred Hitchcock records and an unidentifiable rainbow of samples and scratches, the self-described Honkey Deluxe develops ever so slowly into the Tom Waits of broken beat culture. He has the long-fingered reach of the Beastie Boys but his mothership is from another galaxy altogether. This is one of those works you want to sit and study like a poem, spend days walking in this Wasteland singing its Cantos pound by pound. The four suites that make up the building blocks of a square contain men with their hearts on the outside and roses that smell sweet but the stem is even thornier. It’s life on the surreal tip but not so you wouldn’t recognize it in the mirror. It reminds us, as he says, that all this pain will be worthwhile. Buck 65 makes us reevaluate our definitions of music, forces us to expand upon the comfort zones we may have, all while singing out the pleasures and pitfalls of getting through the day.
Al Rose: Gravity of Crow
Rose is a strong, clever wordsmith that I’d put in a camp with folk stalwarts like John Gorka and David Wilcox, though Rose is considerably more earthy than either of those two artists. Unfortunately, the production is the same kind that harpoons a lot of modern AOR records, too punchy, too big for the delicacy of the material. It doesn’t help that the arrangements don’t make the tunes stand out. The words are there and he sings in bright tones but there’s something missing. His work might appeal to new grass revivalists that enjoy Leftover Salmon, String Cheese or Yonder Mountain. It’d be nice to hear other acts take a crack at this material. The Gourds, one of the unsung joys of American music, would pummel the living daylights out of “Rummy And A Slave.” Perhaps with a subtler touch and a greater awareness of the fragility of many of these tunes Al Rose might find his audience. It isn’t on mainstream radio and it’s a pity this record’s sound seems aimed at that particular sight.
On the short list of things to take along to a desert island should be a copy of Kruder and Dorfmeister's K&D Sessions, a stoned out masterpiece of remixes and gently trundling tone poems that sets the benchmark for all downtempo music. While the Austrian electronica duo has yet to follow up this work we do get a few tasty crumbs from Richard Dorfmeister’s alter ego, Tosca, from time to time. Teamed with longtime collaborator Rupert Huber, this double disc is a study in contradictions. While the first disc is like some dubby, blaxploitation infused version of what Lee "Scratch" Perry wrought in his Black Ark, the second is akin to Satie’s Gymnopedies, full of minimalist piano rainfall. There’s always been a flirtation with classical music with Dorfmeister but it’s given full play here. Even amongst the throaty voices and frisky Latin shuffles there’s a graceful hint of the beauty to come. While not a masterpiece it sure is interesting. One should always pay attention to the man who introduced the phrase "Chocolate Elvis" into the vernacular.
Brian Jordan: Dawn
As a member of Karl Denson's Tiny Universe and the SF Funk Allstars, axeman Jordan has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is a baaaaaad mama jamma. Frankly he’s one of the most gifted guitarists, hell, most gifted musicians out there. To hear him play guitar is to be reminded of all the things one loves about the instrument. What hasn’t been apparent up till now is his chops extend to composition and arrangement. This EP has the manic one-man-alone-in-the-studio vibe of early Prince. There’s funky stuff that smells familiar but it’s the differences that catch your attention like the tabla and phased keys on “Milk and Honey” or the peels of spaghetti western guitar sneaking in at the edges of some pieces. In a brief space it announces new spiral galaxies outside the tiny universe. Strap on your seatbelt and enjoy the sunshine.
Velvet Crush: Soft Sounds
The Velvet Crush have generated one of the most consistently great catalogs in all of pop music. In a just world they’d have two greatest hits collections and Britney would be some girl who spurned your attentions in high school. But that’s not the world we live in. So, the bastard offspring of the Beatles and Todd Rundgren keep at it in there own way, dropping off a terrific album every couple of years like some musical stork. This lives up to the title and comes off like a warm, welcome peck on the cheek from an ex-lover. Compared to their last release, the tremendous Free Expression, this is far more gentle and reflective. Besides their own typically top rate compositions they continue to mine cover tunes only record store clerks might entertain. This time they have the brass balls to take on Fleetwood Mac’s “Save Me A Place” and make it work. Elsewhere there are Bacharachian touches that only intensify the poppish purity of Paul Chastain’s voice. They show good sense in inviting pedal and lap steel whiz Greg Leisz, the secret sauce of studio musicians, to add his soaring accents to a few numbers. They even split the album into Side One and Side Two. Vinyl purists to the end even if the record is only available on CD. This is music for all those “wasted hours not being where you are” as they put it on “Forever For Now.” Soft Sounds even ends on a stirring note with “Late In The Day” sounding like a Radiohead watching the sunset along Abbey Road. Glorious stuff, highly recommended.
Antipop Consortium: Antipop Vs. Matthew Shipp
A conversation across a divide, layers of dissonance woven into bright melody. Hip-hop machine men, Antipop, take a hand to Matthew Shipp’s latest release and emerge with a surprisingly original collaboration. There’s genuine respect for the source material that shines through. Guillermo E. Brown’s exquisite drumming and Khan Jamal’s vibes emerge intact over a framework of splintered piano, fluttering trumpet and frazzled white noise. The few times they step to the mic they rock it with great abandon. All in all, this takes some of the chill out Antipop’s future shock and tips us yet again to the reality that the same mother birthed hip-hop and jazz.
Waylandsphere: Salt Works Meditation
Man, this is just so Widespread. Same smoky vocals as John Bell, same burbling New Orleans flavored keyboards, same super serious sense of conviction. These boys wear their influences on their sleeves and there’s no denying their enthusiasm. Yet, there’s not a lot that makes this a Waylandsphere record, whatever that might be, and not a heartfelt tribute to the musicians that have inspired them. Besides the Panic there’s a bit of String Cheese sticking to things especially on “Stretch” and “Vamoos.” They sound like they’d be a dynamite band as the noon starter at a festival but if they want the big stage under the stars they’re going to need to find their own distinct voice.
Cowboy Junkies: The Radio One Sessions
Listening to the Junkies is like sitting in a strange hot tub. Deliciously comforting but then you realize carrots and onions surround you and that you’re being boiled alive. There’s a dark dark dark undercurrent to their muse that Michael Timmins, sterling guitarist and songwriter for the band, dips into with gusto. Regret and consequences, murder and heartbreak, these are the poles of their world. They can snarl with rage or they can bring on slow and sleepy like Neil Young’s “Helpless.” This trio of sessions for BBC Radio finds them jet lagged and off guard. That opens the players up to pure expression, a dialog with their material that’s both dangerous and delightful and even a bit too loose at times. If the last time you heard this band was their cover of “Sweet Jane” then you’re missing most of the pieces of the puzzle. A thickening has occurred over the years and this set showcases the kind of naked intimacy they’re able to muster in a live setting. They are a rare bird, one that may take some time before it reveals all its plumage but the wait is more than worth it.
Chico Hamilton: Thoughts of…
A drummer’s drummer, Hamilton returns to the game with a solid album that at its best breaths an air of unforced cool. Guitars have a stinging understatement that showcases the players with all the tasteful economy of vintage Joe Pass. Larry Coryell, Joe Beck and Rodney Jones have a lot to be proud of. At times it feels like you’re listening to the Pacific Jazz albums of Gerry Mulligan without so much horn. A few attempts to modernize are stillborn but when they play it straight as Bob Crane it’s a thing to behold. This traditionalist vibe is clearest on “Thoughts of Trane,” an elegy in every sense, accented by a lilting, gentle tenor solo from Evan Schwam. As a rumination on one’s influences, Thoughts of… succeeds admirably and reminds us that an old dog may not need to learn any new tricks in order to make us play fetch.
Vernal as fuck. A brush of seasonal breezes a la Air’s Premiers Symptomes but far less vulnerable to feeling dated than the French duo’s work. There’s even some of the same orchestral dabbling one associates with Chris Bowden and 4 Hero. An EP full of whispered suggestions, hints of pain expressed and the chitter chatter of the modern mind. Subtle translates raw emotions into art and sound and stumbling motion. An icy sort of truth telling that avoids easy definitions. What is this stuff? Each of us would answer that differently and that, my friends, is the heart of subtlety.
Kerosene Brothers: Choose Your Own Title
What a bloody enjoyable record! Just the ticket when you’re hittin’ grass that ain’t all that blue and you brought your own 6-pack. The opening cut rides the primal “Not Fade Away” groove into fresh territory. Liquor and ladies abound on this long player. Their take on the traditional staple “Shade Grove” is rockin’ good news, on par with both Leadbelly and Nirvana’s variations. These Brothers have the same bare-knuckled punch as The Gourds. Watch this band, they've got a moonshine fueled pick-up truck and it’s barreling your way now.
The GoodandEvil Sessions
Thirsty Ear Recordings, purveyors of an endlessly cool assortment of sounds, kicks off their new Blue Series Continuum with a studio session called out by the production/remix team of GoodandEvil. Gathering their label family together and letting the great groove in the sky take them where it will, this set crackles like Miles Davis’ On The Corner band jamming with Bill Laswell and the Squarepusher. There’s also a cinematic sweep to some cuts that feels like tintinabulous Bollywood fare or maybe Bernard Hermann and Henry Mancini on primo ecstasy. It’s a big bite of sharp cheddar sliced off by William Parker, Danny Blume, Matthew Shipp and the others, dedicated to unconventional getting down on the get down. Only quibble, I just wish there were a fuller taste than the 40 odd minutes served up here.
Forest Fires Collective: You Can’t See…
Underground hip-hop often equates with abstraction and seriousness. Where’s the fun? I’ll tell you, right here! The clunky funky flow and buoyant tracks expand and better the Collective’s 2001 debut. A few of the Fire fighters work at record stores and that day to day exposure to varied musics shows itself in their samples. An absurdist bent often dominates the rhymes making for some of the loopiest MC battling to date. Threats to turn you AND your family into beef stew bounce against stoopid epic posse cuts in the Anticon mold. For those that think there’s nothing different happening in the realm of beats and basslines or for those that miss the playful spirit of Third Bass, this is a fire you ought to catch.
Vintage Stash selection for the month
Some art exists outside the continuum where it remains endlessly present and endlessly futuristic. Released in 1976, this live set, captured during only three performances the band ever gave, remains a vibrant moment. Ostensibly led by Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera, this is an initiation into music beyond category, equal parts space jammin, pop ditties and loose-wristed percussion saunters. Brian Eno smudges the edges with electric squiggles and sings in clear, proper English diction about babies on fire and third uncles. Blips of machines fence with metallic guitars, while the whole time everyone keeps their eyes on a speck somewhere out beyond the Milky Way. From the cloud obscured Pink Floydism of “Diamond Head” to utterly unique renditions of “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “You Really Got Me,” this holds up like gangbusters. The sheer joy of playing together resonates still. A wonderful reminder of a band that might have been. Their influence resonates far beyond its few days of existence.
JamBase | Oaktown
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