COOK'S CORNER 21: THE VIRTUE OF VIGILANCE

Increasingly, what gets heard is being dictated by people whose agenda has little to do with truth, beauty and soul – the triptych behind most great music. More than ever, the burden falls on individual shoulders to seek out the truly good stuff. Don't just take what they shove in your face. Don't just consume because it's easy. I'm reminded of Frank Zappa asking "How will you know if you like different kinds of music if you never hear them in the first place?" Commercial radio, and the even more pervasive - music television, are games of diminishing returns. If that's music's future, then we'll all be living in a 24-hour commercial by 2020. Don't let it happen.

Poke around. Taste a bit of this and a bit of that. The exploration itself is valuable, and the ultimate reward is music that informs your life in profound ways. One thing I can tell you with absolute certainty is that there are wonderful records you haven't discovered yet that will inform your life in profound and profane ways.

Case in point, this installment's top picks. Both products of careful construction and passion for something deeper than notoriety and riches, they prove there's much to be gained from constant vigilance in our listening.

Pick of the litter:
Salvatore: Fresh (Rocket Racer)

A call to prayer for digital children - a muezzin beckoning us inwards. Norway's Salvatore is a six-piece instrumental unit that sounds like what might have happened if someone sent a copy of the Boards of Canada's Music Has The Right To Children through time to say Amon Duul or Can. Recorded in Morocco, these notes are planted in foreign soil, redolent with ancient history translated by modern instruments. It unfolds on an eternal loop, swallowing its tail while simultaneously growing new coils. Even on repeat, the album never arrives in the same way and gives one the feeling that the music continues on in another realm long after you push stop. The U.S. edition extends the original album with remixes, including one by Pall Jenkins of Black Heart Procession, that expand things by sounding very little like the source cuts. The liner notes say "the Humble and Constant beat squeeze the orange" which is indicative of the poetic snapshots here, images not fully defined that haunt you with a friendly ghost. Beginning with "Get The Kids On The Streets It's A Party" and winding through sandy corridors like "100 Camels In The Courtyard" (a nod to author Paul Bowles), Fresh is the open-ended promise of contemporary instrumental music. It recognizes few boundaries in its evocation of dust-swirled dawn light and burnished electric evening glow. In this way, it splits us open, leaving us exposed to new things.

Runner-up:
Magnolia Electric Co: What Comes After The Blues (Secretly Canadian)

"Something held me down and made me make a promise." With that pronouncement, the best work of Jason Molina's career (Songs:Ohio) begins. What the exact content of the promise was and who forced it from him is never specified, just part of the dangling mystery behind his new band, which recalls a plugged-in Fairport Convention transported to a Midwest flatland. Molina's voice is heavy and oddly shaped - a blown glass vessel full of human breath and particulate matter. Jennie Benford, the Linda on his Richard Thompson-esque reveries, gives his pipes winning counterpoint, and her lead vocal turn on her own "The Night Shift Lullaby" is mesmerizing. There's grit and muscle to every cut, beautifully captured in soot-smeared glory by the ever-amazing Steve Albini. Much of this sounds like a sad sibling to the "Tennessee Waltz" – graceful, timeless, and full of lines that snare like "No one should forgive me, I know what I stood to loose." That it doesn't succumb to melancholy and paints in such bold, colorful strokes make this pretty life-affirming but in ways that don't diminish the struggles on the way to the light.

Adam Green: Gemstones (Rough Trade)
Welcome to vintage AM radio with a modern chemical twist. Green, one befuzzed half of the Moldy Peaches, comes out swinging - a present day mutation of Glen Campbell and Neal Diamond. Green's potty mouth and gaily warped humor are just plain off but in a catchy way. Much of this sounds like Elvis' film work but with WAY more prescription drugs flooding the system. Songs like "Choke On A Cock" will have you muttering "What the hell?" but you may well jump in line when he sings, "Everybody do the hokey pokey to the crack house blues!" A true eccentric, Green is also a naughty kid dead set on provoking a reaction, good or bad. It's a bit desperate in a sick way, but it's hard to resist on a musical level.

Daybreakdown: Make Me Wiser (Dirt Road Records)
An instantly likeable heaping of southern rock that plays with the rude elements of the Allman Brothers and marries them to something not dissimilar to the North Mississippi Allstars, except Daybreakdown writes better songs and delivers them with a lot less self-importance. There's the hard piano spank of Otis Spann and a bubbling percussion undertow that pulls you down into their Mississippi mud. They challenge themselves with ambitious arrangements, interesting mood shifts, and harmony parts that may eventually echo the vocal-finesse of the Black Crowes. The title tune is full of catchy couplets that suggest they may be venting the same spleen as the Drive-By Truckers, and the chugging tail section elevates the track above the merely good. "Dirty Sanford" is a 20-minute instrumental dragged from another corridor in Elizabeth Reed's memory, and while a lengthy drum solo feels a touch overlong, it again speaks to a band playing just outside their abilities in order to grow substantial. If radio success were based solely on a song's merit, then "The Ante" with its refrain of "the guitar don't give a damn" would be nuzzling up against FM replays of Skynyrd, The Who, and others. For a debut, this is awfully satisfying and surely a harbinger of good music ahead.

Fannypack: See You Next Tuesday (Tommy Boy)
The trio of three pop culture-saturated Brooklyn babes (Cat, Belinda, and Jessibel) and their beat-savvy backline (Matt and Fancy) poured out a most winning flagon of undiluted fun on their 2003 debut. Pairing a Liquid Liquid electro-hump to early Beastie Boys rhymes, Fannypack came across like Beck skipping rope with the Sugar Hill Gang. Sad to report, their sophomore release misses most of the first album's bubblegum snappin' charm. Much of this could be confused for Gwen Stefani or the Black Eyed Peas. Instead of witty, girlish verses, there's Crunk-like anthems and witless catchphrases repeated ad nauseam, and the music is often generically minimal to aid in the inevitable remix process. It may make them famous, but it's not very satisfying. This is content to live in club land, but the first one was far more engaging because it came out to play in the streets.

The Church: El Momento Descuidado (Liberation Music)
Like middle-aged cocksmen in adult film, the Church keeps on keepin' on, and they do so in a way that makes us smile approvingly at their visible talents. Despite only briefly breaking into the general public consciousness with "Under The Milky Way" in 1988, they've released nearly 20 albums, all of which are well-crafted and quite listenable. El Momento Descuidado, or "The Careless Moment," finds them working acoustically, using imaginative arrangements to give new clothes to familiar tracks and a fresh look at lesser-known pieces. Steve Kilbey's somnambulant drawl remains a seductive pull that moves us closer, while Marty Wilson Piper's lovely straining-at-the-edges crooning adds a nice contrast. Much of this is just lovely. You can hear their DNA in popular modern artists like Franz Ferdinand and The Killers, though the Church are much better songwriters. It's unlikely more than a handful of bands charting today will ever record so long or so well. Buffeted by mandolin and piano, one hears the calm of survivors. They figured out long ago how to make their music and worry about little else. That assured awareness emerges loud and clear.

Kan'Nal: Dreamwalker (Physiks)
These new age Sturm und Drang-ers are going to be big. How big is still a question, but having seen them whip High Sierra audiences this year into a swaying, visceral trance, my guess is there's a promising future for Kan'Nal in the touring circuit, especially as a festival fixture. Grinding pieces of art metal, flamenco, and percussion ensemble rumble in their Aztec mortar and pestle, they come up with a propulsive, mostly English language variant on world music. Combined with their Jungian dream imagery, comely dancers, and, uh, bombastic flair, it's easy to be swept up into their cosmos-lovin' ritual. The liner notes credit two members with "theatrics," and one of them does costume design, which is given the same weight as any other "instrument." Best of the lot is "Desert Flower" where the singer invites invisible powers to "shake my bones 'till they shatter, shake my bones like a rattle." That one is a real monster live, too. The problem is the majority of the lyrics, which more than border on silliness and frequently descend to hoary clichés like "people come and then they go and that's just the way it goes." Shouting things like "We don't need your lost religions to tell us who we are" is a tough go at the best of times, and listeners are best to focus on their mood rather than their content. While one can admire their attitude and aims, the manner in which they execute their muse has a global village softness that's sometimes at odds with their rockin' playing. If they can bring their lyrics up to the same level as their musicianship they might tap into an even larger audience than they're already set to capture.

Cyro Baptista: Beat The Donkey Beat (Out Of My Mind Music)
Alive, fleshy, exuberant – percussion eccentric Cyro's music is all of the above. On this second foray with his band Beat The Donkey (a Brazilian phrase loosely meaning "to get things moving"), he broadens his focus to include political prodding, a Zeppelin cover, and savory echoes of reggae, hard rock, and gypsy jazz. The accordion in the opening track evokes Astor Piazzola given winged boots and a rattling drum pulse. This band is always foraging for new sounds and expressing their endless joy in noise making in fresh, clever ways. It's a wild man's carnival with the conga line starting in Brazil and snaking through downtown New York City. Guitarist Viva Deconcini gives Baptista's buddy Trey Anastasio a run for his money on "Olivia – Step On The Roach," which the Trey Band performed. Also shining throughout are multi-instrumentalist Peter Apfelbaum and percussionist Ze Mauricio, but it all stems from the vigor and crazy invention of the fur hat wearing Baptista. In service of stronger compositions and a more unified sound than their debut, this latest pounds with the heart of a lion.

Also doing Brazil proud...

Hilton Raw: Musica Pra Ver (Artistown)
A whirligig of flagrant mood shifts – alien show tunes giving way to Batucada-inflected metal, Persian fog dissipating to environmental field recordings taken on the moon. Raw is sincerely and brilliantly experimental. His sonic miniatures are strange without really trying to be, a foreign tongue the rest of us haven't caught up with yet. The 29 tracks here are like skipping across neurons in an inspired epileptic's brain. Fellow travelers include Sergio Leone, Aphex Twin, '60s bossa nova, Fantomas, and early '70s Brian Eno. He's said his music is "looking for strange beauty, different sonic combinations, non-passive, anti-lounge Brazilian electronica music." Surely a descendant of Caetano Veloso and Os Mutantes, Hilton Raw's latest also makes him a peer to Brazil's best of the past.

Subarachnoid Space: The Red Veil (Strange Attractors)
Instrumental rock is a tricky business. Usually it leans too heavily towards either mathematical dispassion (I'm looking at you, Tortoise) or an abusive psych storm (I'm looking at you, island nation of Japan). Subarachnoid ably dodges these pitfalls to land heavy blows. They do this without aping other's moves, moving slow in near darkness, building a heady, immersive environment. There's much to be said for seduction in things sonic, and this ingratiates itself rather than bludgeoning us into submission. The quartet is comprised of Chris Van Huffel (drums), Melynda Jackson (guitar), Chris Cones (guitar, pulse generator), and thrillingly musical bassist Diego Gonzalez – the charged third rail that much of this runs upon. "Recorded live and naturally as possible to one inch tape... with minimal overdubs or massaging," their 10th (!!!) album is also their strongest yet. Sometimes suggesting what Galaxie 500 might have sounded like if they listened to more Deep Purple or Tony Iommi's meta-riffing on Sabbath's Vol. 4, Subarachnoid Space compels where many instrumental rockers repel.

Josh Rouse: Nashville (Rykodisc)
This de facto tribute to singer-songwriter Rouse's adopted hometown feels pretty featherweight next to his last album 1972 - a gorgeous, funny homage to Carole King-era soft rock. Continuing along those lines, this time we get solo Gerry Rafferty instead of Stealers Wheel, Brendan Benson instead of Badfinger. A good chunk of Nashville is dreamy teen girl bedroom music – pleasant enough but lacking in the substance exhibited on his previous four releases (and '99 collaboration with Lambchop's Kurt Wagner). Opener "It's The Nighttime" panders in a most endearing way, but there's nothing nearly as charming afterwards. While usually a pedal steel junkie, I found the instrument forced into the arrangements here. Much as King never came up with an equal to Tapestry, the worry is Rouse unloaded his best shot on 1972. That may not be the case, and one hopes the next one will renew nearly a decade's faith in this artist.

Vintage Stash will return next time. Just too much brand spankin' new tuneage to explore this month! Coming up, we'll have reviews for Aphrodesia's Front Lines, a Son Volt retrospective, a Bread tribute, the latest from the Scott Amendola Band, and the boffo new album from Drunk Horse. Happy listening in the meantime...

Dennis Cook
JamBase | Everywhere
Go See Live Music!

http://denniscook.com/

[Published on: 8/3/05]

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