Opening rhetorical: Would you really want someone to bang a gong while you were trying to get it on?
I never cease to be amazed at how uplifting music can be. This month's crop is rejuvenating not only for the high quality of so much of it but also for the music that lies ahead of many of these acts. Listening to the top draws, I felt my spirit swell, blown away all over again that people are capable of such beauty, such power, such emotional honesty. Creation is an antidote to the destructive spirit ravaging our collective soul. Subtle, The Steepwater Band, and Sunfire Pleasure not only make me like the letter "S" better but also our chances for making something good with our time here rather than tearing down what we've inherited. Some may say I'm over-reading things but maybe they just don't have the same ears as me...
Album of the month:
Subtle: A New White
Technology is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it democratizes the ability to make records with all the dazzle and layers previously possible only in an expensive studio. But technology can also rob music of its human heart. Subtle, a six-piece future-forward act from the San Francisco region, take today's processors and shiny objects and make a sound that's always informed by flesh and blood and rambling mammalian logic. After a series of cloudy, fascinating EPs focused on the yearly season cycle, this full-length debut is far more upfront. The whispered, twitchy voices heard only in the distance now jump out as vocalist Adam "Dose One" Drucker blasts us with a scatological surreal diary of fiery images and razor thoughts. Frequently sounding like a beatnik version of that robot in the ice cave in Logan's Run, Dose One explores the "no place of an ache" in this "time of gold and uncertainty, noise and expensive genetic victory." The settings for his observational vignettes includes Alex Kort's electric cello, inspired synth and melodica playing from Dax Pierson, and compelling distant horns from Marty Dowers. This stuff is difficult but it also bumps, ready at a moment's notice to step out on a good foot from their science faire experimentation. A New White is a humming seduction, a cybernetic penny arcade slowly coming to life, a tweaked dance around a power line maypole. It also happens to be an inspired work that owes very little to the past and looks eagerly to a future they are forging with their own hands.
The Steepwater Band: Dharmakaya
Grade-A, eyes-closed-foot-on-the-amp rock and freakin' roll! These boys bleed the liquefied vinyl of old Faces albums and any other denim-wearing four-piece who understands that the Stones' real power lie in their "Stray Cat Blues" and not with jittery "Jumpin' Jack Flash." Hailing from Chicago, Steepwater draw out the southern roots of every blues man who ever called their town sweet home over the course of a dozen shake dancers and back seat love letters. Guitarist/singers Jeff Massey and Michael Connelly recall Steve Marriott when his face was still small. The album's title comes from a Sanskrit word dealing with wisdom that transcends, the underlying laws that unite the universe and ultimately the realization of one's thusness. In short, they strive for what is true. This is apparent in their attitude and execution. "Dead Horse" is a shouter, snotty and chuggin' as anything Angus Young ever wrote, and their cover of Free's "Oh I Wept" goes toe-to-toe with one of rock's greats. "Jammin' Down Southern" and "Waiting On The Devil" could be Little Walter Chess Records singles, all hot breath harmonicas and lived-in blues. Anyone who's fallen for MOFRO or the Drive-By Truckers recently will find good company here. And the Worcestershire on this blood red treat is that it all gets even better live. A trio of live shows that accompanied my copy of this album announces a band capable of finding all the wonderful side roads waiting within these songs. Steepwater are, as they sing on the Dickey Betts-worthy title tune, "bigger than any mountain, way beyond the sky, always within your reach, just beyond your eyes." They play large in the days where so much is small. It's an understanding that greatness is not given, it is taken, made, built one chord at a time. They are on their way to it and these are some mighty fine steps in that direction.
Sunfire Pleasure: self-titled
Unfurling bass and itchy string stroking signal their rise from somewhere deep. Then, with a splash, they flip into a super slinky tributary. There is such flow, such unhampered movement, to Sunfire Pleasure's debut. One is reminded of Fear of Music Talking Heads with Peep Show Sioxsie leading them; punkish but professional, accented everywhere by an insistent need to add spice and scope. Emily Pitcher's voice gives you a good sweat, streetwise and knowingly libidinous, a self-possessed trench fighter who "don't give a damn who you think" she is. There's something in their music that's voluptuous, worldly, wise but not in entirely wholesome ways. They say hard things but never spare themselves the same honesty. At times, they rock it like Sleater-Kinney with greater control and texture, often elevated by Hawk West's creative flute. The rhythm section (Mark Schuh, bass and Adam Perry, drums) is tight white funk akin to Gang of Four or the bunker-busting bigness of Pere Ubu. But all the strong playing would be for naught if the songs weren't up to snuff, and that, kiddies, is what makes Sunfire burn brighter than a lot of their indie-esque peers. "Down The Basement" is an agoraphobic response to life during wartime. "Breathe Through The Error" takes the dub punk of the Ruts and languidly morphs into jazzy freak funk. For my money, "If It Comes In A Pill..." is THE one; modern man's brain candy hunger for distraction and anesthetized security fueled by Noah Reid's Quaalude guitar and a pretty piano fade. This album beckons with swinging hips and tousled hair, producing a smooth, dilated pupil buzz with repeated ingestion. If anyone has been wondering when jam might hit the Pavement, they have their answer in this band. Auspicious is the word one uses for such a first outing.
Paul Weller: Studio 150
What a mess. Few people could have wanted a cover tunes record from Paul Weller (Jam, Style Council) more than this writer and few could be more disappointed. Having stuck with Weller through brilliant solo records (Wild Wood, Stanley Road) and sub-par meandering (Heliocentric, Illumination), hopes were high for this set, a rock standby when one is fresh out of new songs of their own (as Weller has confessed in several recent interviews). Finally, we could hear the man pay tribute to his influences and shine a light on his northern soul for us. Instead we get a naff, random collection that ignores anything from the Small Faces, Marvin Gaye, or many of the other touchstones one hears in his work. Only Dylan is represented and sadly by a weak, overwrought "All Along The Watchtower," a song that MUST be retired; Jimi and Bob have this one covered so it's time for everyone to discover one of the 18,000 other songs in Dylan's catalog. There's equally daft covers of the Carpenter's "Close To You" and Sly & The Family Stone's "Family Affair." Only his lively take on Gil Scott-Heron's "The Bottle" and the Lovin' Spoonful's "Coconut Grove" (included on a bonus EP with initial pressings) have anything new to say that the originals didn't already take care of. The best thing you can say about the rest is it isn't too bad. Pedestrian is not a word I like to use in relation to an artist I've admired for over two decades, but if the shoe fits then so be it.
O-Type: Western Classics
A noir shuffle on interstellar delay, seven slow churning aural poems, particles caught in the arc light glow of a projector. Each of these in some way describes the wordless, though hardly emotionless, music of O-Type. Some may know Bruce Anderson (guitar, bass), Dale Sophiea (narrative flow, bass, samplers), Jim Hrabetin (guitar, bass) and Marc Weinstein (drums) from their work with cult band MX-80 (known to many for once being on Ralph Records with underground giants The Residents). This is their instrumental persona, sans MX-80 singer Rich Stim, which dispenses with the poke-in-the-eye jesterism and angular rock of their other band and instead explores texture and mood in a kind of philosophical way. Given the highly cinematic quality of their earlier recordings, Western Classics' naming of tracks after classic American films comes as little surprise. They've always made movies for our ears and this time we have specific references to guide our listening. "Mean Streets" is a jittery score for urban collapse full of snarled guitar and strangled notes. "3 Faces of Eve" welds battered horns to decomposing machinery, utterly beautiful in a wasted way. "Point Blank" whips around with more machismo than usual but still filtered through their peculiar engine. "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" sounds like the idea of a Western, open range occupied by drifters, especially in the lovely acoustic sections of the "deleted scenes." Throughout it is Anderson's inspired, irregular guitar that propels things along. If he ever decided to play it straight, conform to 12-bar blues standards and just rock, well, he'd melt a lot of lesser guitarists. Instead, he stubbornly and beautifully sticks to his guns. Like all O-Type releases, this one has to grow on you, a little green fuzz on your white bread, a sheen of moss that keeps the damp in. Never simple, always compelling, this is music worthy of carving out a slice of time to explore.
ThaMuseMent: Silver Seed
"I know a song can be a prayer. I know a song can be a sword." ThaMuseMent have hammered out a great collection of both. Dropping the drums and strapping on the strings, the band reunited after a three-year break to produce this set of wandering tunes that feels like an acoustic version of Bob Dylan's Desire. Much of it is sad and plaintive in the way gypsy music can be; each smile hard won, every mile felt beneath bad shoes, happiness, if it comes at all, "sweet as the wind blown through" the lips of your love. They find new meaning in well-worn phrases, further proving that Nathan Moore is a songwriter to be reckoned with. His vocal foil, Aimee Curl, may remind you of Edie Brickell or Victoria Williams, capital "Q" quirky but in a way that adds a nice twist. The longest piece, "Protest Song," is a smart, lonely outcry for the common folk, something in the true spirit of that sandal-wearing Jew who got nailed for speaking up. The tone of Silver Seed is similar to '80s Loudon Wainwright albums with Richard Thompson, an acoustic rustle befitting the thoughtful lyrics. In addition to Moore's guitar and Curl's upright bass, there's Enion Pelta on violin and David Tiller on mandolins and banjo. After Moore's strong showing with The Slip earlier this year on Surprise Me Mr. Davis, this comes as a double pleasure, back country folk for city dwellers, the shining germ of something newly mined with old tools.
David Jacobs-Strain: Ocean Or A Teardrop
Close your eyes and you'd never guess that David Jacobs-Strain is only 21. Nothing about his voice betrays his youth. His thick woodsy singing places him in the same camp as John Martyn and J.J. Cale, hobo bluesmen with a bit too much on their mind. Also unexpectedly, this is his sixth record since 1998. His finger picking is pure roots blues but some lessons picked up from Bob Brozman, Martin Simpson, and others at a 1999 guitar workshop bring African and Indian elements into his playing. Ocean starts with his version of Fred McDowell's "Kokomo Blues" and he further offers his respects to Sleepy John Estes and Blind Willie Johnson later on. Of his originals the best is the title track, which works in the same new blues territory as Otis Taylor. That's not entirely surprising given the presence of bang-up producer Kenny Passarelli, who has worked with Taylor. Passarelli gives everything a clean, direct feel, using bass, played by him, to drive the music rather than the drums. He proves himself a producer with marvelous instincts that more artists should avail themselves of. Jacobs-Strain's other songs can sound like old Bonnie Raitt ("Sleepless Dream") or less appealingly, '90s Bonnie Raitt or Johnny Lang when he goes pop. More effective is "Shoot The Devil" with its pared-back edge and layered six- and 12-string guitars. He's awfully talented for someone so young, but one hopes all the praise and high-profile festival appearances don't go to his head. The talent is there but it remains to be seen if he'll stand next to his forefathers or leave them behind searching for wider recognition.
Black Dice: Creature Comforts
A whimsical Texas Instruments science calculator that's developed sentience waves at us. The next cut sounds as if the soundtrack to an amusement park ride has decided to play a different tune today, one full of contented birds and sighing electronics. This is ambient music for a generation that's grown up in places that are never quiet. They hear the music in slammed doors and the 4 a.m. roar of a poorly mufflered motorcycle. A few decades back one could only have heard this kind of overt experimentation from John Cage or another electro-classical composer. Now, this is the backdrop of jean wearing, lousy wage having, no suit-and-tie owning common folk. Technology has become accessible, inexpensive, and thus the noises in our heads can be laid down on hard drives everywhere. Black Dice have carved out a nice little niche for themselves, a moss covered cave in the woods where the Animal Collective and other like minded playmates frolic (that is, of course, when they aren't staring mindlessly at the rainbow pouring from their buddy's flip top skull...). Live, the band is like a tie-dye Kraftwerk, the three members hunkered behind wire-tangled stands full of buttons and dials, which they use to make a hellacious, abstract noise. In the studio, they are somewhat more elusive. They give up no secrets quickly but as 21st century environmental records go Creature Comforts is a fine one. This is the absence of most melody, the enjoyment of sound for sound's sake, uneasy listening that may be far more indicative of the age we live in than many of us might care to admit.
Thomas Denver Jonsson & The September Sunrise: First In Line EP
Forget Nicolai Dunger or Sondre Lerche, if you're looking for a sterling singer-songwriter from the northern tip of Europe then it's Thomas Denver Jonsson you want. After releasing his superb debut album last year, Jonsson has been touring heavily with the likes of Rosie Thomas and Damien Jurado, honing his sunshine-infused songs with his remarkably intuitive band. Clearly influenced by American underground idol Will Oldham (Bonnie Prince Billie, Palace Brothers), he manages to borrow the spirit of lonesome indie folk without the need to emulate the sound. Jonsson addresses the darkness without the mannered moodiness of his peers; life is a mix of light and shadow and the sooner one accepts that the better. This EP offers the Harvest-period Neil Young-esque album take of "First In Line" followed by a lovely, stripped back live version with Rosie singing harmonies and Jurado on piano. This is followed by two gorgeous acoustic tracks, with some particularly nice pedal steel ornamentation on "The City and the Outside World." And "24 Seven" is a respite from the go-go pace of today that still understands why we move as we do. It's easy to fall for Jonsson's quivering English and rough-carved voice. This young Swede is going to be around far longer than the proverbial 15 minutes most of the others coming out of his scene will enjoy. These five tracks just further my belief that he's the real deal, a special artist who's just waiting to find his audience. It's only going to take a lucky appearance on a hit soundtrack like Garden State or an opening slot for an established American folkie before the doors open for him. Why not invite him in now rather than waiting until your friends start telling you about him?
The Sadies: Favourite Colours
After the first few notes you may swear you've found some wonderful lost Byrds or Manassas recording. The pedal steel wind on "Translucent Sparrow" that follows the opener will only intensify this feeling. Only the Cosmic Rough Riders are this good at this kind of soaring California pop rock, but where the Riders go bright the Sadies go dark. "Song Of The Chief Musician (Part 2)" could slot seamlessly onto the Byrds' Younger Than Yesterday. The non-verbal passages invoke '80s Paisley Underground acts like Rain Parade and Galaxie 500, expanding the boundaries of their music well. Robyn Hitchcock sings on "Why Would Anybody Live Here?" which he co-wrote as well. The production is killer, beefy drums and serpentine bass permeating everything as brass howls like a coyote in the distance. The number of times this has revisited my CD player tells me it's what the Brits call a grower, one of those releases that with time becomes a favorite without fanfare or fuss.
Various artists: The Q People – A Tribute To NRBQ
The New Rhythm and Blues Quartet (NRBQ) have been at it since 1967, quietly amassing one of the most rabid fan bases any group has ever enjoyed and carving out a slice of great American songcraft that, in its own quirky way, equals that of the Grateful Dead. Here each contributing band grabs freely from country, blues, jazz and anything else that strikes their fancy. Tribute collections are a dime a dozen these days where anyone who burps out a hit gets a String Tribute and major labels showcase their lineups on the thinnest of pretenses. The Q People is different. First off, it's safe to say this is the only tribute album with an epic-length medley performed by SpongeBob SquarePants, backed by a freakin' orchestra! "Little Floater's Wild Weekend" exemplifies the wacked adoration NRBQ inspires. It makes no sense except that it makes perfect sense if you know the Q. This is a band that can slide from a jump blues like "Rocket 88" straight into a Sun Ra composition and make you understand why they belong together. Executive producer Danny Bernini states, "When I was a teenager I loved to crank up NRBQ records and turn my friends into fans. I still love to turn people on to NRBQ and that is why I wanted to make this album." What we have here is a primer in what makes this band tick, fabulous songs performed with care and a smidge of abandon. Yo La Tengo kick it off with "Magnet," proving again they possess an unerring facility for other's work, laying in lazy steel guitar and a vocal that oozes attractively. Protestor poet-laureate Steve Earle does a fine job with "A Girl Like That." King Radio, Los Lobos, and Ron Sexsmith tap NRBQ's lounge band vein, going Philly soul on their versions. J Mascis gets some mess on his thing with "I Want You Bad" and Widespread Panic taps the casually weird vibe lurking within this music (and WSP's presence illuminates an influence on that band one might have missed before). R.E.M.'s Mike Mills sounds like Phil Lesh jamming with the Q on "When Things Was Cheap." Best of set goes to Bonnie Raitt, who absolutely destroys "Me And The Boys" in a rendition worthy of the boys themselves. Funny liner notes from Penn Jillette further add to the fun, and that is what NRBQ is all about. For close to 40 years this Quartet has been manufacturing good times the way Keebler makes cookies. This is a fitting salute to their spirit that should tickle their fans and maybe snare them a few new ones.
Vintage Stash selections of the month:
Judas Priest: Metalogy box set
Anyone looking for a concise history of the past 30 years of heavy metal would be wise to add this mammoth four-disc retrospective to their collection. Singer Rob Halford, guitarists K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton, bassist Ian Hill, and a series of drummers (the likely inspiration for Spinal Tap's percussion woes) have been "Keeping The Faith" for a bloody long time, and finally they have a worthy document of their contributions to rock's dark subset. Priest is woven into the history of metal and there's so much to discover if all you've ever heard is "You've Got Another Thing Coming." They were contemporaries of Black Sabbath, precursors to operatic stylings of Iron Maiden and King Diamond, and largely responsible, along with Motorhead, for the great Brit Metal onslaught of the '80s (well represented here by a bonus DVD concert from 1982). Besides all the key album tracks there's new fabo live cuts, notably a fierce "Victim of Changes" and a previously unreleased take on Fleetwood Mac's "The Green Manalishi (With The Two Pronged Crown)." The twin amphetamine guitar assault predates Megadeth and other '80s speed metalers by better than a decade. They also understood the wisdom of kicking down a ballad long before Def Leppard made bank with their power crooning. Halford, one of metal's all-time best vocalists, may be one of the least closeted closeted men in rock history. His early '90s travails with the band, when Ripper Owens replaced him for a few years, were the inspiration for the film Rock Star. Anyone with any kind of gaydar picked up on this leather lad's leanings long before he let the proverbial cat out of the bag. There's plenty of prickly hindsight in the dominance-and-submission lyrics, including Rob down on his knees for a priest in 1977 and "all the pressure that's been building up" on "Jawbreaker." First three discs are all killer, no filler, and even the last disc covering 1988-2001 doesn't drop off as precipitously as most career spanning anthologies. The faux leather and genuine metal stud packaging is simply one of the coolest designs in ages. The booklet is packed with photos that should have you alternately pumping the air and gasping for it due to laughter. The utter seriousness with which Judas Priest approaches their music is infectious and fun. Metalogy neatly sums up their story to date and sets the stage for their first new album with Halford since 1991's Painkiller arriving in January 2005. I, for one, will be "Hell Bent For Leather" to hear if the lads still have what it takes to "Ram It Down" like days of yore.
Rockin' Horse: Yes It Is
Listening to these Beatles-worthy sparklers is like hearing Rubber Soul for the first time, like it'd been tucked away in a time capsule waiting to remind us of all the virtues of Merseybeat and Liverpool and THAT England. This collaboration between British cult songwriter Jimmy Campbell and Billy Kinsley was first released in 1971 and has been rescued and expanded by Rev-Ola with non-album tracks and swell mono mixes. Rockin' Horse never quits messing with pop formulas in a constantly infectious way. How "Don't You Ever Think I Cry" and "Delicate Situation" didn't destroy the charts in their day is a great mystery. "You're Spending All My Money" could be Village Green period Kinks, while "Stayed Out Late Last Night" is just a nasty bit of goodness about a cheating partner. It's not much of a stretch to call this a rediscovered classic. So I will.
And if you still have a minute, a rant inspired by the passing of Rick James...
Everywhere I go in the past month folks are playing Rick James. From car windows, I hear the squiggly strains of "Super Freak." In clothing boutiques and record stores, the hipster staff grooves to "Give It To Me Baby." Most of these people probably hadn't listened to, let alone owned, a Rick James record before his recent death by heart attack on September 6. Or maybe it was Dave Chappelle's amazing comic walk through James' wild days on his Comedy Central show earlier this year that brought the father of "punk funk" into their consciousness. But, if not for these two events, most of them wouldn't have bought Rick a sandwich if they'd encountered him on the street. James had all but been forgotten except for "Super Freak," which had descended into over-play cliché long ago. When your mom quotes a counter-culture anthem you know it's done. What's happened since September is another example of the easy, quick deification of the recently departed. America loves you but they love you more when there's no more air in your lungs.
One of the defining characteristics of the television age has been the loving montage that each celebrity or public figure receives upon their death. Networks have producers prepare these things far in advance and just update them when the day arrives. I can only imagine how many times they had to go back to Bob Hope's segment to keep it current. Frankly, it's fucking ghoulish. I'm not averse to having someone's life celebrated but why not do it while they're alive? Why wait until they have no say, no chance to respond to what's being said about them? Well, one answer lies in the never-ending hunger of Capitalism to sell and resell every little thing. With the individual out of the picture, record labels and movie studios can reap all the rewards of posthumous sales without the pesky artist asking for a taste. Sure, their heirs get thrown a bone but let's be honest about who's really benefiting from these momentary spikes in public consciousness. A musician like James long ago had their royalty deal set in stone and was likely to receive only a fraction of this newfound wealth. If the dead truly can look down on the Earth and see what we're up to, I have to believe this burns their biscuits. I suspect Vincent Van Gogh would fart in the general direction of the super wealthy who spend stupid money on his paintings today. Their ilk never gave him so much as a glance while he walked among us, when their excess might have kept him from starving or the endless want for enough materials to feed his muse. And part of me believes Rick James would let one rip right along with him.
From his mighty inspired beginning with 1978's Come Get It! right through the landmark funk of Street Songs and even his underrated '97 comeback Urban Rapsody, James went his own way and the sheer power of his vision was sufficient to pick up a lot of admirers and imitators over the years. But he liked the nightlife far too much and a combination of drugs and a bad temper ended most of his working relationships and landed him in jail in the early '90s. He was an enormously talented but hugely flawed person. In the month since he shuffled off this mortal coil, James has been presented with glowing accolades he would never have received while alive. There's a rosy tint to all the looking back that chooses to ignore his misogyny, the way he screwed a lot of fellow musicians, and all the other dark stuff hiding in his walk-in closet (along with his many fly-ass outfits and purple boas...).
I'm not saying they are the same, but this echoes what happened when Richard Nixon died. In an effort to respect his family and friends, the media tap danced around Watergate and his racism, the illegal bombing of Cambodia and his potty mouth. Might it not be better to present a balanced portrait, a life closer to how it was lived, one that acknowledges the good and the bad? It's what I'd want for my own epitaph. I've been an asshole in my time. I have an ex-wife that I'm sure would have little positive to say about me when they toss dirt over my head one day and she's not alone. Everyone has a few moments they are less than proud of, people we've wronged that may delight in our passing, decisions we would like to take back. Controversial Bush biographer Jim H. Hatfield, author of Fortunate Son, called it horns and halos, something we all wear at different times in our walk.
But a balanced overview of someone's life doesn't sell units. By focusing only on the halo glow, modern marketing sanctifies people like Rick James but they do it for reasons that have nothing to do with giving someone dignity. My boy Lars calls it "media-necrophilia," where the dead are pimped out for the last few shekels that can be wrung from them. James' reemergence after the Chappelle Show episode may well have contributed to his passing. Having partied for days prior to his heart attack, the autopsy discovered no fewer than nine drugs in his system including cocaine and methamphetamine. He was once engaged in a lifestyle that had nearly done him in several times before and it was a life he'd largely left behind in recent years. Fame is a strange thing and in many ways it may be the most addictive drug of them all once it's been tasted. Rick James' return to celebrity may well have speeded him on his way. That fact is glossed over in most of the press that's occurred since the beginning of September. Instead, his former labels hurry out new editions of his albums, fresh anthologies for store shelves before the Christmas season arrives. What's sad is that James won't be here to enjoy any of it. I come here today not to praise Rick James but to bury him. I've long had enormous respect for his artistry and for just as long been dismayed by his choices outside the studio. I will miss him, though I never knew the man. He was the original super freak, for good and for bad both.
Coming up in next mont's edition, a spot of punk spirit with looks at the new Stiff Little Fingers album and the fab 25th Anniversary Edition of the Clash's London Calling. We'll also take a listen to Cul de Sac's collaboration with Damo Suzuki and the new ones from Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and DJ Krush. And we'll have a very special Vintage Stash for Can's Tago Mago featuring new comments from Holger Czukay, bass playing instigator behind that groundbreaking release, who spoke with me recently about an album that changed a lot of people's listening habits.
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