This installment is dedicated to Federico Fellini and all the other mad, mad, mad artists who live their peculiar visions. Without the iconoclast we'd never know the limits and scale of what humanity is capable of.

Record of the month:
My Morning Jacket: It Still Moves
This is as good as rock gets. Soaring, elegiac dimestore hymns nuzzle up against a horny rumble that the Stones left behind when they stopped hanging out on Main Street. Pitch perfect and brilliantly paced, It Still Moves shimmers with a greatness you don't have to wait to discover. It's there on the first listen. Awash in dreamy reverb, much of it is hold-your-breath beautiful ("I Will Sing You Songs"). Lyrically it strives hard against specificity yet still manages to ooze real passion. While I'm not exactly sure what kind of garment a 'Morning Jacket' might be, thematically it's a one-size-fits-all deal, able to tap into our secret desires and pre-dawn musing. "Run Thru" may have the best opening line I've heard all year and a tail section that evokes the swirling gigantism of shoegazers like Slowdive or My Bloody Valentine. Elsewhere they echo a Sun Studios act working ballads like proper Wichita Linemen ("Golden"). There's a fragment of a lot of groups floating in this stream yet none of it feels forced or pilfered. They simply share a similar brilliance with heavyweights like Radiohead, Pink Floyd, and Big Star. Yes, Virginia, they're that bloody good.

Transcendental Hayride: Things are going just the way they should
Tripped out, fire spewin' metallic punk hick-a-delica! On their second record, San Francisco's genre-splicers come out of the gate with a take-no-prisoners bravado full of ghosts and shadows, alien transmissions, and government secrets. They rock ferociously like torn jeans '70s yahoos, yet still manage to feel thoroughly modern. A hayseed futurama unfolds on some cuts, reminiscent of the grand Jim White, a mixture of old blues idioms and production kung-fu. "Another Day" would have been a major AM-radio hit in 1974. They balance that soft step by transporting to today's pop sensibilities on the next tune, "Bide My Time," a breeze-in-your-hair nugget longing to blast from windows everywhere. I love their energy, their gentle California drawl, and their killer-diller hooks full of unforced humor. A superb band that deserves more listeners, this just might be the platter to ring earholes holy and long.

Derek Trucks Band: Soul Serenade
The opener is jaw dropping, a salute to inner revolution and soul across seemingly great divides. More than anything else, the cult of D. Trucks may be the product of his ear for placing disparate elements together in a single shell. For him the slide guitar doesn't end in Memphis but reaches out to Ali Farka Toure in Africa and V.M. Bhatt in India. Unfortunately nothing on this record reaches the same dizzy heights as "Soul Serenade/Rasta Man Chant." It's perfectly decent but lacks the distinctive personality that their run of shows in late 2001 hinted at. That may be because a key factor in that sound is missing, singer-percussionist Javier Colon (now just "Javier" on a lifeless soul outing also out on Columbia Records). Or maybe it's the adherence to tradition that's getting in the way. Their much ballyhooed take on Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue" pales by comparison with many other cracks at it, including the band's own live versions. "Oriental Folk Song" is syrupy and soft compared to Wayne Shorter's version of this traditional. Album closer "Sierra Leone" is far too brief but hints at an acoustic side full of possibilities. Trucks is one of the best things to hit slide guitar in decades. Of that there is no doubt. It'd be nice to see those golden fingers harnessed to stuff that's worthy of his gift.

Twilight Circus Dub Sound System: The Essential Collection
Titans playing pots and pans, echo like a canyon, yeah, Twilight Circus is in town playing for the kiddies in the just right half-light. Ryan Moore, the one-man Dub Sound System, ranks in my little green book as a peer of King Tubby and other major stranger dub scientists (Lee Perry, I'm looking at you...). He avoids the homogenous taint of the genre by welcoming in contemporary electronic crackle, an Aphex Siamese-twin doing solos on the water pipe while Sergio Leone scrapes acoustic guitar all over a "Horsie." This cherry picker whips out his big 12-inch dub plates of the riddim and bloop. Its highlights inspire you to explore this Circus' dark, organic roots. I was already infatuated with Moore's oeuvre before. This reminds me why all over again.

Thirsty Ear Presents The Blue Series Sampler
Let's start with the dopetastic name, Thirsty Ear. That's a need I understand. Thirsty Ear blends acoustic and electric jazz sounds with pioneering production. Trance meets up with trad and drops a freestyle over a buggy b-boy breakbeat. In the past year not many can claim as many unqualified successes artistically as Thirsty Ear. President and founder Peter Gordon expresses it well: "I always felt that when you strip away all the empty heroics of the music industry and its grab for fleeting fame and glory, our job on this side of the desk is ultimately to serve musicians with a channel to express their deepest yearnings and to serve the public with creative yet challenging music which furthers the joy and discovery of music." Makes me want to hug him. This taster represents a healthy glimpse at this vision in action including contributions from DJ Wally, label mainstay and pianist deluxe Matthew Shipp, and Spring Heel Jack. But it's noted hip-hop producer El-P that blows the doors of expectation off with "Sunrise Over Bklyn," ten minutes of urban beauty scooped up by a powerful hand. Hearing it is like the first time you encounter Radiohead's "Everything In Its Right Place" or Don Pullen's "Gratitude." The scale is humbling. Elsewhere DJ Spooky, the Subliminal Kid, whittles away at reality and horn provocateur Tim Berne teaches us "Jalapeno Diplomacy" with his Sciencefriction cohorts. Difficult stuff at times yet also surprisingly lyrical and even funky (in both the Clintonian sense and in the what-the-hell-was-that dynamics). They are adding new shades to the overall tonal palette with their well-chosen pairings. If you're the kind of cat who sucks the marrow from their music then you better add Thirsty Ear to that list you carry around in your wallet for record store visits.

And speaking of Thirsty Ear's output...

David S. Ware String Ensemble: Threads
If you've listened to jazz with any kind of seriousness in the past decade then you know about tenor sax-wunder Ware. Since 2001 he's had a quartet that will one day be sung about in song and legend. Bassist William Parker, pianist Matthew Shipp and drummer Guillermo E. Brown channel Ware's music in a pure, holy way that begs comparisons to Coltrane's legendary quartet (though Ware has always reminded me more of Sonny Rollins or Albert Ayler than Saint John). While much of Ware's catalog could rightly be described "out there on the edge," there has been a modal smoothness creeping in since 2000's amazing Surrendered LP. On Threads, he allows that humming beauty to entangle his entire ensemble, this time joined by five-string viola player Mat Maneri and violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain, lending that natural ooh-aah that strings bring to any affair. Shipp sets aside his piano to work out synth textures on a Korg Triton. Some of it feels like you're soaking in salient waters, other bits feel like a man struggling to keep from going under those same waters. A mood piece, a semi-Silent Way, Threads is the most accessible album Ware has ever produced. That in no way diminishes the density of what he conjures. This will snare those who've steered clear of his music, afraid of the squonk and undiluted emotion. Ware and his gang are torchbearers for jazz in the new millennium and I've little doubt it's safe in their capable hands.

Paul Weller: Fly On The Wall: B-Sides and Rarities
If you stopped paying attention to Weller after The Jam split or pigeonholed him as the suit wearing lite-soul fop of his Style Council years then you've missed his best stuff yet. This three-disc collection of odds and sods from the Go! Discs and Island Records years is the ideal jumping-on spot for his solo work. His full-lengths can get a bit thick emotionally for neophytes, but this is just good music, period. His exploration of classic rock stylings never feels mothball-ridden or archly cynical (I'm looking at you, Strokes...). There's also a smattering of acid jazz instrumentals tasty enough to make you bust out your dust covered Totally Wired comps. The acoustic ditties are Beatles-grade lovely, pretty throwaways lacking all premeditation. The remixes are choice enough to renew your faith in the concept, especially Portishead's subtle reimagining of "Wild Wood." The capper for most will be the "Button Downs" disc full of cover tunes. Weller's influences hang right out there on his sleeve for all to see – John Lennon, Neil Young, Bobby Bland, Tim Hardin. One thing this collection does (besides saving y'all the small fortune I spent on the original import singles) is bring into crystal focus what a stirring guitarist Paul has become. He was always good, now he's a top 5 all-timer for me. So much feeling is packed into each solo and he's got a knack for letting notes hang in the air long enough to make us ache. Just a little but ache we do. Bang-on packaging and scads of notes by the man himself and others offer further illumination.

Atmosphere: Seven's Travels
First four cuts announce that Eminem has some competition for snarly radio-ready hip-hop (that's not a dig. I have tremendous respect for Marshall's craft and his gift for bringing anger into the light). And then "Gotta Lotta Walls" jumps up and everything warps into hyperdrive. Ant does the beats, Slug delivers the rhymes. Hard to imagine a more subtlely salacious come-on than in "Reflections," where he states, "It'd be my pleasure to sing a song that'd remove your shoes and your sweater." This fourth record builds on their tireless touring and already substantial indie cred. The underground sound often feels a bit thin, not something you can crank as you pull into a bodega and still get a smile from the tattooed love boys hanging out front. Atmosphere proves the exception to that rule with Seven's Travels. This is a rump shaker with brains that harks back to the early '90s heyday of Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. Slug's voice has the tangible authority of someone like Jurassic 5's Chali 2na. You WILL pay attention when this kid is on the mic. Muddy electronics and new-century beats make for nasty, nasty sonics (exemplified by "Suicidegirls," possibly a bent homage to the delightful erotica website?). "Shoes" and "National Disgrace" are the mix tape killers, the kind of tunes you grab your friends and make them listen to because they're just SO DAMN GOOD. Hell, the same could be said of this whole record.

Patrick Park: Loneliness Knows My Name
This goes down real easy. Park doesn't bring a lot new to the singer-songwriter table but he does set a good spread. Singing about sad days and smiles found under rocks in a berry-sweet voice, Park is all wet eyes and pretty acoustic guitars. Like his earlier EP, he plays nearly every instrument himself, though I do like the cello chasing him on a few numbers. Having recently seen him hold an audience captive all by his lonesome as an opener for My Morning Jacket, it's clear that these tunes stick. What the album does wrong is let his influences show a bit too much. "Your Smile's A Drug" is Tim Hardin, "Honest Skrew" is electric Neil Young and "Something Pretty" is Young's acoustic side. He should lose his Dylan-brand-harmonica-neck-rig and explore what makes him his own man. He's got a lot going for him already and anyone who can write a ditty that sticks in your head for days like "Nothing's Wrong" is worth keeping an eye on.

Vintage Stash selection for the month
Richie Havens: Portfolio
1973 can't have been an easy year for Richie. This album is redolent with questions with very few answers. The opening reading of "It Was A Very Good Year," a standard turned upside down in his hands, is ironic given the content that follows. That one of Haven's most enduring originals, "Dreaming My Life Away," is up second makes it clear he's not above irony. Maybe it's more an unfulfilled wish for a good year that resounds. Even Jesus needs to be held in this song cycle. The music is immaculate, gentle and strong despite all the disappointment. Eric Weisberg's pedal steel flutters through like butterflies amongst the weeds. There's a funereal take on Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" and a great version of the Leon Russell staple "Tight Rope." As perverse as it sounds, this makes me feel better about my own troubles. I know I am not alone in my black thoughts and that they are not the only ones I will have in this life. As Richie himself sings, "I know it's not good here but it could be colder." Long unavailable, Stormy Forest has just reissued this on compact disc. Highly recommended.

Next up: reviews of fresh platters from Greg Loiacono of the Mother Hips, Cosmic Rough Riders, Tim Berne, Jay Farrar and a new tribute to Gordon Lightfoot.

Aufenthalt frostig, Kinder!

Dennis Cook
JamBase | Bay Area
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[Published on: 10/28/03]

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