Tradition and experimentation thumb wrestle under a strobe light in this month's assortment.
Record of the month:
Hairy Apes BMX: Beautiful Seizure
Balls out brilliant. A swirl of chopped notes and buzzing keys, it's three tracks in before this begins to sound like anything Mike Dillon or Brad Houser have done previously. Julius Caesar, rainbows missing stripes, laid back political ditties about scared little men and crackled Latinismo. This is a Merrie Melodies score done up in bright flashes by Karlheinz Stockhausen and Les Baxter. One minute they're on a static punk run that'd do the Beastie Boys proud and the next finds them playing gamelan on the moon. Tofu and Thai food nourish the body while a nursery rhyme sing-song heralds a Kubrick-like change in consciousness. They sail by a peculiar pelorus. Spittin' mad logic, flailing wildly against bluster, they spill color out in giant size drums, Tiki Lodge vibes and bent electronics. They are a unique specimen and the primate family is lucky to have 'em.
Martina Topley-Bird: Quixotic
It starts with a boner-inducing coo and then dips heedlessly into a Zep-esque riff dragged dazed into the 21st Century. Most of us first encountered Topley-Bird as the simmering, feminine Ying to Tricky's sputtering, male Yang on '95s landmark Maxinquaye. A few clicks shy of a decade later she's gotten around to a solo debut and it's as fine a coming out party as these ears have ever heard. This is soul music. As in immaterial essence, Jung's hovering collective substance, an animating principle lush as bejeezus, spooky smooth like Marvin's wah-wah seventies. Her voice is possessed of the same Olympian sexuality as Sade but with more character, more piquant flava and a varied imagination that spans everything from an Earth Kitt purr to slashing, hip-hop pitter-patter. Martina also produced the majority of these tracks, harnessing an arsenal that includes strings, flabby beats, finger light echo and lonely trumpets. At times, it's perfecto-loco as the best Siouxsie or Bjork. Other bits find her spanking Macy Gray at her own game. The Tricky Kid pokes a head up on the delicious "Ragga" reminding us what a peanut-butter-and-chocolate taste this pair makes. Downtempo? Electronica? Bah, screw labels. Like the lady herself told us in 1995, when there's trust there'll be treats, when we funk we'll hear beats. She's earned my trust with this silken treat.
North Mississippi Allstars: Polaris
If you need a break from the new Ben Harper or John Mayer tripe in heavy rotation, then the Allstars have the platter for you. Polaris manages to miss nearly all the charms of the band live and moves them more than a country mile away from their earlier rootsier albums. This isn't bad per se but it does settle for a middle road clearly aimed to jumping the gate into mainstream success. Already a staple on the jam circuit, NMAS focus their songwriting on featherweight radio fare here. For every psychedelic front porch blues like "Conan" there's three others that wet kiss AOR standards. There are even hints of Coldplay in their 'new' sound that might just land them a cozy niche on VH1. I find it sad that Luther Dickinson feels this is the "best stuff we have ever done." Put simply and directly, this is mediocre on nearly every level-melodically, vocally, lyrically. Nothing shakes with much gusto. It's safe and careful and likely to lift them from small music halls up onto outdoor sheds with the temporary grace of any pop sensation. That gig rarely lasts but try telling that to anyone with stars in their eyes.
Feller Quentin: cat in a tree with a mouse in his teeth
One-man sessions are fraught with the danger of self-indulgence (to wit 75% of Todd Rundgren's output). Thankfully there's none of that navel gazing myopia with Feller Quentin, who offers up a perfectly chilled glass of Baby Lemonade. Coming off like a new dawn Syd Barrett, Quentin takes time off from his hip-hop collaborators the Forest Fires Collective and comes up with a nutty, eerily lovely work. As stripped down as much of the acoustic driven melange feels there's still plenty for the ear to grab onto every moment. Jesus and God come up like characters in old blues tunes, exploring territory Beck left behind when he got his first Lear Jet. Feller's vision feels more complete than Hanson's fragments on such LP's as One Foot in the Grave. There's a gem about a pair of pants, folksy bebop beat science, a Sun Records style ode to Nostradamus. Glimpses into a restless mind full of thick, never dull vistas.
Gongzilla: East Village Sessions
Plugged in, powered up and brimming with health. Gongzilla proffers a hirsute, heterodox take on electric jazz spiced with hashish ambiance and eastern percolation. Anchored by Hansford Rowe's undulating basstasstics, Gongzilla marries Gary Husband's muscular drumming with the lighter touch of percussionist Phil Kester, the tintinabulous marimba and vibes of Benoit Moerlen and the guitar and loops of Bon Lozaga. It fits well with an alternative stream of jamming epitomized by '80s recordings on the ECM label, where an expansive stretch let rock and jazz tumble playfully in sun dappled fields. There's a few hints of namesake Gong, those hookah burning staples of any acid lover's college days. This is possessed of a more distinct texture that often lets feel override composition. David Fiuczynski sits in on "The News" laying down a Rushy stomp that's a great counterpoint for Lozaga's crystal water slide. Clean, confident stuff that's attracted a few admirers including moe.'s Chuck Garvey who sat in with the band in early September. These sessions were recorded in real-time using analog gear. As the bands says, "No synths, no clicks, no sequencing, no syncing, no DSP and no BS."
Various Artists: Johnny’s Blues-A Tribute To Johnny Cash
Northern Blues is a label to watch. Closely. Their track record this year is stunning. Now they manage to avoid the train wreck nature of most tribute releases. They keep it simple, acoustic wood and electric spank behind voices caked with miles and miles of road. Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown comments in the liner notes, "Johnny Cash understands the secret of simplicity. Simplicity is the hardest thing to achieve." This collection achieves that hard thing in stellar versions from Harry Manx, Maria Muldaur, Alvin Youngblood Hart and producer Colin Linden's own spin on "Big River" that'd make any fan of Johnny's original or the Dead's concert staple grin. Maybe Linden paid attention to Cash's American Recordings series because there's a similar vibe here. Play the good song and play it well. Seems simple but few know how to restrain excess especially when attempting to honor an influence. Not a dud in the bunch, they've gathered thirteen tracks that will appeal to fans of Cash or those interested in true blues music happening today.
Radio Active: BMMNM Vol. 1-Breakbox
As a regular feature of Spearhead's live shows, Radio Active has shown a knack for moving a crowd and livening up the familiar. He proudly proclaims on this solo effort, "This is a BEATBOX album" and therein lies the problem. An hour of basic beats and mouth music has a tough time being more than oddity outside of purist circles. Hip-hop has gone back in recent years to expand on the importance of graffiti, break dancing and the other branches including beatboxing. It's not just about the rap anymore, though it never was to anyone paying attention. Everything about this record screams DIY and I admire the spirit behind it. Unflinchingly political and motherland-centric, BMMNM tries for a Last Poets directness but falls short because neither Radio Active or any of the guests possess the cerebral bravado or linguistic agility to elevate the material above simple anthems. The revolution may lie within, as it points out, but it also has to bear up to return visits on the stereo. This doesn't.
Soft Machine: BBC Radio 1967-1971
Outside of England and other places where one still speaks of Moby Grape, Caravan and National Health, the Soft Machine is largely a footnote in the minds of rockers. This sterling anthology of radio performances from their first heyday (unlike many I regard their mid-seventies fusion work with fondness) reminds us that they were once as significant to the psych scene as Pink Floyd. Whereas the Floyd drifted towards epic statements, this Machine wandered into jazz, but a jazz punctured by prickly guitars, an intoxicated warble and a drummer one part Mickey Dolenz to two parts Buddy Rich. They could sing with a straight face lines like "We could have a good time drinking all the sky wine" and even make you thirsty for a sip with their dimpled charm. By 1970 they'd shed most of their tie-dye leanings and put their shoulders into an electric jazzism possessed of a careless creativity. To hear a complex run like "Mousetrap/Noisette/Backwards Mousetrap Reprise" (included in two very different versions) is to hear the roots of Phish, Raq and many curdled improvisers making their trade today. A few bits dip into a Spinal Tap freeform jazz odyssey but that might just be a stripe of the era. That this experimentation got a showing on state run radio is the cherry on top. It was a different time to be sure but not so very different from our own. Ace bunny killer. Pick it up and get schooled.
Aphrodesia: Shackrobeat Vol. 1
Anyone feeling their musical tummy grumbling for some Fela style fare should grab a fork. Aphrodesia blenderizes high life sunshine, clinky chunky percussion, super thick horns and a vocal assault that does Fela's own Egypt 80 proud. What sets this apart from simple, sturdy homage is the living engagement with Nigerian funk and other African music. As with Ezra Gale's Latin rompers Mas Cabeza, this band complicates genre. They can be cooking along into some groovetastic pocket and out of that will rise a solo pretty as pie and damn near as sweet. Or in the midst of all this rhythm slink they'll slide in a number like "Step Into Your Life" which evokes Cesaria Evora. A few cuts feel almost too traditional; a bit hot on the high end especially vocally but that too is interesting in recreating the precise feel of '60s African popular sounds. The Bay Area's fab Myles Boisen outdoes himself again behind the boards, recording and mixing up another sumptuous album in his Guerrilla Studios.
David Sylvian: Blemish
Sylvian is never less than intriguing. At his best he's a marvel, an artist that the word singular was created for (and here I'm thinking Japan's "Ghosts," his Secrets of the Beehive album and the icy honesty of "Pop Song"). Blemish finds him standing largely alone, playing and singing everything except for contributions from out-music guitar great Derek Bailey on three tracks and some languid electronics from Christian Fennesz on the closer. Much of it sounds like Eugene Chadbourne sparring with Autechre, plinking strings and crackling dangling participles. Though a blemish is by nature concerned only with the surface of things, a flaw or imperfection others can see I think the scars here go far deeper. The gentle orbit around a woman in the title cut speaks to the gravity others hold in our lives. Familial ties are touched upon in "The Good Son" and "The Only Daughter." Every last minute is compelling despite being thoroughly angular. Scattershot in the moment but it hangs together as whole. Maybe like a life it makes sense only when viewed in its entirety. Disorienting, dense and spare, full of mantras sung in a voice like sex. As chilly as much of his lines ring, it is the hope that resonates especially in refrains like "There is always sunshine above the gray sky. I will try to find it. Yes, I will try." Rarely has anything this challenging made me smile so broadly. I can't wait to hear what comes next.
Tea Leaf Green: Slim's-San Francisco, CA 6-6-03
Listening to this slab of rockin' good news, a line from Virginia Woolf, a longtime favorite, floated into my head: "No need to hurry. No need to rush. No need to be anyone but one's self." Despite how hard they play or how catchy their riffs can be Tea Leaf never seems rushed. They lay it out with the easy sensuality of bell-bottoms and lying in the grass. This night in the life set has fuzz all over everything like a ripe peach or the bronze skin of a well constructed blonde. Like the Small Faces before them they mix equal parts rock and soul, finding the groove in the grunge time and again. There's a couple of clunkers but the soaring delights of "Earth and Sky" and "Been So Long" erase any serious reservations. The protest-lite of "Gasaholic" is nifty, too, especially when wedded to "Panspermic De-evolution." I still believe Tea Leaf is headed on up to where the beans don't burn in the kitchen and the view is sweet. Their music is earthy and inviting and their Tiger Beat good looks and winning voices aren't going to hurt their chances. This live set makes you wish you'd crammed your ass into the flat floor dungeon of Slim's back in June. At least we can relive a good one in the privacy of our living rooms thanks to this recording.
Alex Wise: Front Porch
An awful nice record that lives up to its title, it feels like music made for friends, picked out over beers and sunsets. Wise is a hayseed Cat Stevens who talks about the dance within. His voice is a bit flat but hums with conviction and book smarts. Not every folkie can deliver lines like "May the wilderness of discourse not eclipse the truth." The arrangements show an attention to detail, hiding tiny lights in unexpected places. Earnest as all get out and possessed of a light humor, Front Porch will carry listeners from the tail end of summer right into fall. Pop it on and watch the leaves drift down easy.
Jennifer Hartswick: Fuse
If your only exposure to Ms. Hartswick is her pivotal role in Trey Anastasio's band then you're in for a surprise. This debut recording comes off like a demo reel, doing a style shuffle that paints bittersweet pictures. The music runs a finger around the edge of your ear, beckoning you with dirty, flirtatious Hammond organ and insinuating trombone, tuba and sax. If I had to guess I'd wager most kids hearing her sing wouldn't believe a white girl had this much blues-in-the-bone soul. There's an urgency that brings to mind Rusty Bryant and George Duke yet she has the guts to include a dewy-eyed ballad "All Along" that she delivers with deep effectiveness. Seeing her compositional skills free from Anastasio highlights what a big part of his sound outside Phish she really is. This is an auspicious debut. Maybe next time she might make a more succinct statement that doesn't hop around quite as much. Easy to understand the urge to show all your plumage at once though.
Jim Lauderdale with Donna The Buffalo: Wait 'Til Spring
This is what country music should sound like. Neither artist has ever sounded better and the pairing produces a fantabulous sound that's hick holy, jubilant, packed with effervescent tunefulness, swinging and swaying on boots worn down in a hundred boogies. Lauderdale has always written good tunes but these 11 must have been hidden away for just the proper occasion. He belts it out with a Presley/Orbison verve, all whiskey slow and twanging right. And the Buffalo is right there with him every second, punching a back-up line, peeling out a fiddle or grungy 'lectric heel lift. Love and rebirth are celebrated in this vernal affair. It scratches an itch for roadhouse country that's been bugging me all year. It puts the hickory switch to Nashville, reminding me of all the great country artists who plugged in and played hard and right between 1940 and 1975 (when the hat acts and jingoistic sloganeers first began to overtake the medium). They even conjure up the flavor of Van Morrison's Street Band and Choir on "Georgia Peach," which is twelve kinds of all right. This grand album is like getting flowers for no reason, an unexpected gift so good it'll make you spin around until you fall breathless and grinning.
Vintage Stash selection for the month:
Steely Dan: Katy Lied
The ugly step child of the Dan's catalog also happens to be one of their finest. What hits it produced have been forgotten by radio yet this is primo Steely Dan from when they made a record every year and sounded like a band rather than an assortment of sessions patched together. Before the stupid money, before the Truman Capote-like aloofness, before the myth of this band grew out of proportion, they played with a sneer, packing the notes with bitchin' guitar, mesmerizing jazz ivories and a voice like a weak howl above the me, me, me cry of the mid-seventies. What Katy lied about is anybody's guess. That ambiguity at the center of every song is part of what keeps bringing you back. Trying to souse out what's being said is the pleasure and pain of devotee. Here we meet some of their best characters including Dr. Wu and Rose Darling. Pretzel Logic, the album that precedes this one, ends with a monkey in your soul only to find the boys visiting a "Black Friday" where one throws out their gold teeth just to see what will happen. This is as much the merger of jazz and rock as anything Miles Davis ever produced except it's a damn sight more wistful. Fagan has rarely shined so brightly as either a singer or an astute, unpredictable lyricist. The only Michael McDonald I can stomach outside of South Park's "In The Eyes of a Child" is his perfecto back up singing here. His mic munching heaviness puts oomph behind Donald's strained soaring, a man drinking his dinner from a paper sack trying to figure out how to get out this thing inside him. All this density is lightened by a flip, sarcastic humor that continues to this day. Without a hint of hesitation, Fagan sings, "All I ask of you is make my wildest dreams come true." If you're waiting for the heat of summer to fade and the cooling fog of autumn to roll in then Katy Lied is just the E-ticket you need.
Next month a look at the latest from Atmosphere, David S. Ware, My Morning Jacket, Thea Gilmore, Sex Mob, Twilight Circus Dub Sound System and Paul Weller's b-sides and rarities collection Fly On The Wall. Come on back now, you hear.
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