COOK’S CORNER 7: EMBIGGENED FOR THE PEOPLE

Welcome to the largest installment to date, super duper sized for your listening needs. There’s deep dark blues, crackling modern pop, twang for your thang, a spot of glam and more, more, more. Anyone who says there’s no good music happening today just isn’t looking hard enough. The proof lies in the rich, creamery pudding below. Grab a spoon and open wide.


Records of the Month (a tie that could not be broken):

Record of the Month 1:
Thea Gilmore: Songs From The Gutter

This is the poetry of everyday existence. Gilmore evokes the stream of consciousness flow of Leonard Cohen, but sung with the phrasing of Sandy Denny and the shiver inducing truth telling of Lucinda Williams. It can be as raw as punk without all the discord or bounce along a breakbeat shuffle. There’s even a spot of gentle front porch charm on “Mud On My Shoes” where she giggles several times. It’s a neat thing to hear honest laughter enter a studio. Lines break from the pack and sit in your head for days. Bits like “such pretty little failures” and “one groove short of the record” offer a kind of dark humor and reflective honesty, handy tools for the world most of us live in. Watch this singer-songwriter closely. She’s got places to take us.

Record of the Month 2:
Otis Taylor: Truth Is Not Fiction

Taylor sings in a hard, heavenly wail, a double-barrel blast of righteous fury that the blues have needed for longer than anyone would care to admit. With each passing release Otis Taylor and his gifted collaborators extend their vision, crafting the kind of music you’d gladly wait five long years to find. The absence of drums gives the rest of the instruments room to establish clear identities. As guitars and enveloping bass weave a spell, ghostly voices linger on the edges. Moments recall the psychedelic blues of ‘60s San Francisco, all color splatter vibrant and rough as a workman’s hand. The guitar sounds range from an evocative Indian flavor similar to V.M. Bhatt all the way to a curdled ‘lectric scream similar to Buddy Guy. Producer/arranger Kenny Passarelli deserves a lot of the credit. He’s created a space for a natural talent like Taylor to shine, shine, shine. Nothing is too gussied up yet they hit all the right accents, adding in an eviscerating saw-tooth solo from Eddie Turner in one spot and a whisper of otherworldly cello from Ben Sollee elsewhere. The brightest damn thing to smack the blues upside the head in a decade.

Thomas Denver Jonsson: Then I Kissed Her Softly EP
Topeka Twins: I Never Heard Her Sing

After hearing a song on the late night radio, I had to know more about this young folksy artist from Sweden. Jonsson sings in a hypnotically thick, warm drawl that can make a simple line like “I fell in the muddy water” reverberate. There’s a relaxed depth to his music that infuses each tune with small details that make short films in your head. The acoustic underpinning of the songs meets a full, beautiful, uncluttered accompaniment by his band, The September Sunrise. He also has a lovely countrified EP with fellow singer-songwriter Bjorn Kleinhenz; also a fine new voice based on this brief glimpse. Recording as the Topeka Twins, they prove the Scandinavian answer to the Will Oldham’s Palace Brothers. It is a snowy afternoon talk, spoken in worn, slightly broken voices warm with memory. Much of it reminds one of early troubadour-era Bob Dylan. May all the womanly muses who’ve inspired Jonsson continue to work their spell. We’re the lucky ones for all their caresses and lingering good byes. Look for Thomas Denver Jonsson’s full-length debut, Hope to her, in late August.

Lotus: Germination
Very reminiscent of STS9 or Particle with a fuzzier kind of navel gazing. There’s heavier percussion but like a lot of instrumental acts the tunes themselves frequently come across as just platforms for riffing. It’s dead solid riffing though. Their musicianship serves them well and an affinity for dissonance livens up odd corners. Recorded live, Germination showcases a band that’s probably a ball live but fails to make the transition to the living room.

Various Artists:
Velvet Tinmine: 20 Junk Shop Glam Ravers

Break out your mascara, boys! England’s ever fab Cherry Red label gives us a stack heeled romp from bands with names like Iron Virgin, Tartan Horde and Stavely Makepeace. Ziggy clearly wasn’t the only one who learned how to play guitar in ‘70s Britain. And man alive what a blast this is! All mohair suits and electric boots, this pack of deeply obscure offerings will make you want to stuff your ass into something ugly and polyester to go out and feel the noise. The bright thin voices will force you to dust off your T-Rex and Bay City Rollers singles. Slip this on when you need a flashback to the roots of such contemporary lighter lifters as Tea Leaf Green and RANA. Dynamite liner notes fill in the rest of these long lost stories. Goofy, non-ironic good times.

Peter Bolland: Frame
If mainstream country fans had more taste than the bumps on their tongue then Peter Bolland would already have hits galore. His work is polished but maintains a barroom rock kick. That is when he isn’t quietly breaking your heart. Hearing Frame for the first time I was reminded of my first tastes of Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith. With many of the tracks clocking in over six minutes, there’s plenty of room to explore. That makes for great touches like the harmonica solo on “Losing You” or the silky slide solos at the tail end of several pieces. Bolland sings in a thick voice that he wraps around his words with obvious care. He even shows Dylan’s gift for wit in a tight framework on “It’s Hard.” That’s a rare skill and just one highlight on this excellent debut.

Jack West & Curvature: Around About Now
For anyone who’s lost whole evenings flipping over Al DiMeola records, there’s a new kid on the fretboard named Jack. Curvature, along with its limber fingered leader, makes progressive instrumental music. There’s a bit of jazz, a sprinkle of ambient, dashes of country and a goodly dose of closet cult guitar gods like DiMeola and Eric Johnson. It manages to be left of center without being avant-garde. Their distinctive instrumentation does stand out. The wholly original combination of 8-string acoustic guitar, marimba and 14-string pedal steel over the hot rhythm bedrock gives the ear a lot to grab onto. It’s a rarified kinda thing, but given the consistently kick-ass nature of this band live I think the jam community might be just the spot for West.

SpaceTruck: Night Rider
A black leather New York daydream by way of Austin, Texas. A whirling ‘80s feel, like New Order jamming with the Spacemen 3, prevails. A lot of what I listen to doesn’t hold enormous commercial potential but one spin of SpaceTruck convinced me they could slot in as the psych cousin to The White Stripes and other so-called rock revivalists. Will Rhodes has a sneer of a voice that makes the words sharp and prickly, especially when he’s ripping into tunes like “Don’t Lie To Jesus” (song title of the month). If there’s one ancestral touchstone that rings truest it’s the Boomtown Rats. Let’s hope one day they craft an album nearly as stupendous as The Fine Art of Surfacing. There’s hints they’ve got it in ‘em on Night Rider and that’s a whole lotta rosie indeed.

Dark Star Orchestra: Thunder and Lightnin’
July 12, 2002 was a very good day for DSO. The great thing for the rest of us is the tape decks were running. It's easy to be dubious of Dark Star’s schtick but being honest I’d much rather listen to them instead of the reunited members of The Dead. They are becoming their own band even as they give life to a song cycle beyond compare. As fine as their recreations of specific Grateful Dead shows can be, it’s their original setlist gigs where one knows DSO is different from the band that spawned them. Whereas would you hear both “St. Stephen” and “Terrapin Station” in the same set? And what a “St. Stephen”! Done in a slow, loose groove with a powerful tail section. It's precisely what The Dead wouldn’t do, which is to reject nostalgia and allow the music to go where it will. There’s no doubting the profound respect DSO holds for the source material. Thankfully that respect doesn’t prove a straightjacket. There’s also the full-blown female energy of Lisa Mackey, who sings a dang sight better than Donna Jean ever did. Like me, you might be surprised how cool and right her voice sounds woven into material that’s been all too boy oriented since Jerry gave up the ghost. So, it’s the same but in a deliciously different way. Chew on that for a bit.

James William Hindle: Prospect Park
One doesn’t get to compare a new artist to a monster talent like Neil Young too often. Hindle conjures up both the heart of gold love warrior and the raw, slashing leader of Crazy Horse on his second release. A major growth spurt has taken place between his eponymous debut last year and this splendid platter. This time he gets some beefy musical backing from members of Ladybug Transistor and Essex Green while he sings in a Dixie Cup reverb that brings to mind the bedroom recordings of Elliott Smith. He achieves a pleasant balance between yearning cogitation and blissful pop. This makes some tracks a bit like the Monkees doing spirituals, sad and low yet oddly hopeful. Prospect Park is a refrain for the wasted days that still anticipates a celebration like we have never known.

Highway 61 Revisited:
The World’s Only Bob Dylan Tribute Band

The Dylan of Don’t Look Back and the roaring 1966 electric explosion is a creature of legend, as real to the generations born afterwards as Bigfoot or a living wage for working Americans. Highway 61 Revisited, a Southern California ensemble, dares to wrestle with that legend, pulling down the Holy Ghost spirit of that strange, Al Kooper fueled time. Their Bob, Joel Gilbert, spits Dylan’s words with the rat-a-tat-tat gusto of the young buckskin coat wearing folkie that turned Greenwich Village on its ear. It’s a strangely foreign sound after the past two decades of Froggy-Went-A-Courtin’ grumble. The rest of Revisited plays like a new formation of Hawks, soaring along the sturdy wings of these songs. They dip their toe into later periods, most pleasurably on “Gotta Serve Somebody” (a great reminder of the untapped richness of Bobby’s Christian period) but their main thrust, on this release at least, is ‘60s Bobness. They succeed in raising that ghost and get him to rattle his bones for our entertainment. I’d personally like to see a moratorium on anyone doing “Just Like A Woman” except for the master himself, but their “Tangled Up In Blue” reminds us why that one endures. It is a National Anthem for life after the sexual revolution and a signpost on the road that tells us Dylan and his legacy are still out there headed for another joint. It’s enough to make you pull that leopard-skin pill-box hat out of mothballs. A fine tribute and a swell gift to Dylan fans.

And speaking of Bob Dylan…

Barb Jungr: Every Grain of Sand
There’s a special pleasure in hearing women sing Dylan’s words. It snatches the male thunder out of them, finding nooks and crannies hidden in seemingly familiar territory. Britain’s Barb Jungr savors the lyrics like aged scotch on her tongue. It burns a bit going down but it hurts so good. She invites 15 terrifically chosen Dylan songs to spend some time in her small cabaret. And not unlike the transformation from Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories to the musical Cabaret, the shift in setting gives freshness to the material not previously guessed at. There’s sweetness in sour spots, hardness where Bob goes soft. Jungr slows ‘em down, holding each syllable up to a jazz club light. Pianist Simon Wallace forms the heart that moves this beast across the floor. His ear for the singer and his nuance in the short instrumental sections rivals John Hicks’ work with Betty Carter. “Things Have Changed” becomes a Tom Waits broken bottle tango. “Forever Young” sheds its maudlin skin to emerge as a Cajun fast waltz full of wordless joyful scatting. Purists will hate this. It’s too far away from the originals to appeal to zealots, but anyone who understands the flexibility of Bob’s catalog will delight in the care and intelligence Jungr puts into this fine, sincere effort.

Prince Paul: Politics of the Business
“This shit is blazing like a muthafucka, man. Got my palms itchin’, nigger!” These words, spoken by Dave Chappelle, open producer extraordinaire Prince Paul’s assault on the record industry. Politics un-apologetically spits in the eye of the hypocrisy and ass-kissing marbled into the fat of big record labels. Unfortunately, the pervading vibe of sour grapes gets old real fast. Easy to empathize with anyone who bemoans the paltry state of mainstream rap, but it might go over better if Politics weren’t itself a thinly veiled stab at greenback feedback. Guest turns from Ice-T, Chuck D, The Beatnuts, Guru and Chappelle help ensure that fans of their mainstream work will at least consider checking out Prince Paul’s joint. There’s even a big hit no one’s heard in “What I Need.” The misogyny and constant belly aching about getting paid don’t help things either. Make no mistake, this is good shit, as bangin’ as anything Dre has dropped for 50 Cent and that gifted white kid in recent years. Good to see such underground all-stars as Jean Grae, MF Doom and Masta Ace were invited to the party. Still, there’s just not much here much to warrant revisiting. Might be better to just let his talent shine and see where the Creator takes him on future outings.

Neal Casal:
Maybe California: An Introduction to Neal Casal

Casal is one of the finest songwriters going today. If the airwaves hadn’t been overtaken by the mediocrity (i.e., half talents like Dave Matthews, John Mayer and Sheryl Crow) Casal would already be a household name. A few short decades back the kind of rootsy, confessional rock he makes dominated the charts. His albums are every bit the equal of California stalwarts like Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne, and a damn sight better than anything either of them has produced in decades. This anthology cherry picks 19 songs from his deeply moving catalog. Trust me, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Each record has an end to end intensity that rewards repeat spins. But this set will get you started nicely. Just listen to his voice, a pure thing that slices down to the real stuff, the things we hide under our armor and keep from the light. His guitar playing, both acoustic and electric, is spooky good, just so melodic and right on and a lovely reminder that six-strings and some wood really can make an utterly beautiful sound. There’s only about seven or eight artists I always count on to rock my world. Neil Casal is one of them. Seek this one out. Might be a bit tough outside of Europe since it’s being released on France’s Fargo Records. Lots of good snaps of the photogenic kid, lyrics to all the tunes and solid liner notes, if you can read French.

Various Artists: Straight From The Sixth Ward
As one of the tunes on this compilation of New Orleans brass boogie bands says, “Bring it, don’t sing it.” Tipitina’s Records has put together a fun, fun, fun set and you can keep the damn T-Bird. I won’t need it. I’ll be second lining around my apartment to the sassy, political bomp of the Lil' Rascals. There’s also the wild ass funk of the Rebirth Brass Band and the Louis Armstrong style hot jazz of Treme, who also do a mean jump blues in the Wynonie Harris mold. There’s room for girls with jerri curl and big foot stompin’ boys. By giving us bands that utilize many of the same tools, we get to hear what very different things can be made using them. Lined up side by side, the individual personalities actually come through more clearly.

Drive-By Truckers: Decoration Day
It took a sprawling hellfire stoked epic to get folks to notice the Drive-By Truckers. There’s no denying the magnitude and even the importance of Southern Rock Opera, but it does suffer from being too much of a good thing. That’s where the deliriously rockin’ Decoration Day comes in. This is what I’ll hand people when I want them to understand. The Truckers fit into the pantheon of Southern rock royalty by sounding like their own men. None of their forebears ever sounded this pissed off. Moments find them hammering it like the Replacements fed on a diet of cornbread and collard greens. The broad sweep of moods here does bring to mind Skynyrd’s illustrious Second Helping, but heck, if you’re gonna get compared to another band’s record I think you’d be hard pressed to find a better one. There’s plenty of workingman’s blues. Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell may well be the best friends the blue collar set has had since Bon Scott slipped off this mortal coil. They get just how freakin’ hard it is to get through a shift and still find yourself broke-ass broke. Everything from the snarling vocals to the screaming blue guitars sticks to your ribs. It’s nourishing in a way rock ‘n’ roll largely abandoned a while back. Their gift for dirges leavens the anger and disappointment. Sometimes this life just makes you weary. That this band keeps finding new ways to stand up and hold its ground is inspirational. The Drive-By Truckers is a great band. This is a great record. I’ll leave the last word to the album’s centerpiece, “Outfit”:

Don’t call what you’re wearing an outfit.
Don’t ever say your car is broke.
Don’t worry about losing your accent;
a Southern man tells better jokes.
Have fun but stay clear of the needle.
Call home on your sister’s birthday.
Don’t tell them you’re bigger than Jesus.
Don’t give it away.

Ejectrode: Accident Theory
Breakbeat culture slams grill-first into blue-eyed Caucasian funk. Ejectrode, despite a somewhat silly name, manage to stutter step along a similar path to Beck's ballyhooed Midnite Vultures. The build up over a dozen tracks proves nicely groovy, capturing the senses playfully with Kraftwerk-style repetition and synths dueling with slide guitars. Not as smart as Devo in its own attempts at New World anthems, though. “1, 2, 3 I hit you with some accident theory” may not be Shakespeare, yet they do manage to plant a seed or two.

Radiohead: Hail to the Thief
Zeitgeist. I’ll wait while you look it up. Radiohead is the band of a floating moment that’s lasted nearly a decade. Looked at in pieces it’s impossible to comprehend how a band this glum, this difficult, this English homely, continues to fill amphitheaters in every country. Yet we wait impatiently for the sound of Thom Yorke’s tremulous, troubled voice. And when he pipes up it’s always an idea simple enough to hit everyone and brilliant enough to have eluded others before he got to it. “Just ‘cause you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there.” That’ll haunt you. Each album since O.K. Computer has been a knotted, sonic puzzlebox, a poem written in a different English than the rest of us use. In 2003 this is what an angel choir sounds like. With Hail to the Thief they take their finger off the big red EXPERIMENTAL button that predominated on Kid A and Amnesiac. There’s room again for suffragette rockers like “Go To Sleep” along with friendlier trundles down electronica lane. A limitless embrace of fractured soundscapes makes each minute glow. There’s the usual pervasive certainty that the witching hour is upon us, where the walls will tumble and the genies leave their bottles. Radiohead is endlessly fascinating, beloved despite its attempts to alienate us, and a fine old band to boot. They’ve made another really good record. Go figure. Zeitgeist.


Hayseed Dixie: A Hillbilly Tribute To AC/DC
Hayseed Dixie: Kiss My Grass: A Hillbilly Tribute To Kiss

The first time I put on the AC/DC tribute a friend was puttering away on my computer and stopped to say, “This isn’t happening. I’m not hearing this.” He then broke into hard, delighted laughter. Hayseed Dixie is the coverall wearing hick alter ego for the great Kerosene Brothers (reviewed in Cook’s Corner 6). There’s such a good-natured, hay-in-your-teeth feel to these sets. How often does music actually make you happy just because? This does that. It don’t hurt that they can play the hell out of their instruments or that the words sync up with the bluegrass medium WAY better than you can possibly imagine. Heaven, Hell, doing in your lover, having big balls, yep, it’s all here. “Love Gun” done as a ballad is a hoot AND a holler. The exaggerated drawls makes sure tongues remain firmly planted in cheeks but there is some truth to the flexibility of this material. To hear “Cold Gin” or “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” done in this fashion is to hear them anew. Guaranteed to put some giddy-up into your hop-along.

Vintage Stash Selection for the Month:
David Crosby: If I Could Only Remember My Name...

Crosby’s finest hour with 22 minutes to spare. And he’s been working that remaining time for the past three decades and not come anywhere close to this masterpiece. Yeah, I said masterpiece and I ain’t taking it back. Recorded shortly after the chart-busting, visionary debut from Crosby, Stills & Nash, this solo debut combines all of David’s best traits in one gorgeous package. This pairs his new harmonic strengths from the collaborations with Nash and Stills with the raw, soaring psychedelic gifts he showed in The Byrds. 1971 at Wally Heider’s Studio in San Francisco must have been quite a time. In addition to his pals Graham and Neil Young, Crosby is helped out by Joni Mitchell, Santana’s Michael Shrieve and Gregg Rolie, Jorma Kaukonen, David Frieberg and Jerry Garcia. The rhythm section throughout most of the album is Phil Lesh and Bill Kreutzman. A photo of Crosby inside the sleeve has him holding an American flag, folded to look like a gun, to his head. The sixties were over and this was one of the first records to stare down the disappointment and regret. The gentle joys and pleasures of the previous decade still linger in the harmonic quiver, but the overall feeling of confusion and sadness clings like a dew to even the leafiest hippie free-flights. He sings lines like “Hard enough to get through another silly day without thinking about getting out.” I have no doubt he meant every word and the life he lived afterwards gives proof to this growing nihilism. “Cowboy Movie” is a thunderous rocker to rival Young’s “Down By The River” or some of the feedback frenzies on Tonight’s The Night. It’s also a thinly veiled account of further romantic dramas in the CSN camp down-up Old West style. The first time you hear “Laughing” will prove to you that rock ‘n’ roll can indeed be holy. Garcia’s crying pedal steel, David’s languid bittersweet words, the very thickness of the piece is like almost nothing else in rock. The moment when Joni’s voice rises like a howl near the end will raise hairs on your neck. It is a lament for the failure of our faith in people. If you don’t already hold this one dear, then you cheat yourself for not running out and getting it today. This will fill those candlelit nights alone when nothing feels right and all your music feels like an enemy. This is a friend that gets your pain.


Next month, a look at new releases from David Sylvian, vintage BBC recordings from the Soft Machine, a new Johnny Cash tribute and Gongzilla’s latest release with the fantastic David Fiuczynski.

A leben ahf dir!

Dennis Cook
JamBase | West Coast
Go See Live Music!

Find rants, writing, ramblings and an archive of music articles at denniscook.com.

[Published on: 7/20/03]

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