COOK'S CORNER 22: STRANGE ANGLES UPWARDS

By Dennis Cook

Fall is a season when many delectable fruits fall from the vine. It's true for films, and increasingly, it's true for the music. This is one of the better batches of new releases (with one obvious exception) covered in the Corner this year. And next month will bring more of the same. Take a bite of these apples...

Pick of the litter:
Six Eye Columbia: Judy At Carnegie Hall (self-released)

If radio sounded like this, one might be tempted to listen all the time. Six Eye's sophomore effort (or third if you count their bang-up, vinyl-only covers set Frowny Frown) is jam-packed with chiming pop chops and sublime, unexpected digressions. Some of the underlying infrastructure comes from Guided By Voices and Pavement, but this holds its own against the best work of those '90s stalwarts. Leader Josh Pollock is every bit the angular guitar wrangler as Stephen Malkmus or Robert Pollard, and a damn sight more compelling as a vocalist – maybe because his elegantly bruised slow ones like "She's Crying Diamonds" and "When Trains Ache" moan with the sincerity of vintage Zombies singles. With several cuts clocking in near the 10-minute mark, you might fear aimless rambling, but one never feels the length because the flow is so natural, so fittingly full - the journey is as rewarding as the chorus-hook sections. The manic charge that begins "New Age Teen" never hints at the deep sigh in the tail section, but once you hear the beautiful transformation, you'll understand how well they hang together. This happens a lot on Judy, where the compositional grace smacks you and leaves you smiling and impressed. Six Eye incorporate a lot of influences including Teenage Fanclub (who get a nice nod here), Elliott Smith (though far less tormented), and '70s John Cale (for whom Pollock recently played guitar at London's Meltdown Festival). They do so without really copying anyone. It's their nifty arrangements, carefully chosen instrumental colors, and fully formed pop sensibility that refuse homogenization. This is distingue post-modern rock at its finest.

Runner-up:
Scott Amendola Band: Believe (Cryptogramophone)

A minute's build and we're flying - off the ground, drifting over old haunts, away from gravity's pull. That's what comes of genuine belief, something this faith-filled, genre-defying outing possesses in spades. Drummer Scott Amendola hand-picked a dream ensemble comprised of Nels Cline (Wilco, Carla Bozulich) and Jeff Parker (Tortoise) on guitars, ever-brilliant violinist Jenny Scheinman and sinewy bassist John Shifflett. Some might file this with jazz, but that diminishes the scope and ambition of Amendola's juicily melodic, tonally barbed compositions. Played with an all-in ferocity, this breathes like a newly minted life form. Bill Frisell has explored this vein, but this is less gossamer than Bill's work. Amendola's self-deprecating description is the "usual mélange of what's going on in my nutty head." Well, thanks for sharing, screwball! From the fairyland reel of "Shady" to the perfect evocation of Neil Young and Crazy Horse on "Buffalo Bird Woman," this sways between delicacy and straight razor menace. It's a wonderfully troubled seduction painted up with lonely mountain folk forms, jazz's interplay, classical grace, and rock's refusal of straightjacket definition. Realized by some of the best players alive today, it rewards our attention at every turn. One minute it's the exhilarating range in Amendola's percussion that catches you – his subtlety and humility shared only by greats like Brian Blade and Jacob Fred's Jason Smart. Elsewhere it might be Scheinman's violin - a heart-swelling sound that's equal parts Scarlet Rivera (Bob Dylan), conservatory trained genius, and backwoods fiddler. The carefully articulated flurry of strings merely reaffirms Cline and Parker as two of the best cats pouring electricity into their instruments today. Beautiful and unyieldingly complex, this awaits lovers of music who reject easy categorization the same way these musicians do.

2nd Runner Up:
Drunk Horse: In Tongues (Tee Pee)

Fourteen seconds from engines firing to full-swing takeoff – that's how the Horse does it on "Strange Transgressors," an opener that pours high-octane '80s punk moonshine down the Allman Brothers' throats, twin guitars sliding like razors through fear and small-minded buffoonery. Singer-guitarist Eli Eckert roars, "Is there no way to save our home?" It's the same perfectly ragged voice that totally sells a line like "I've seen the dark universe yawning" with a bleak ferocity rampant on their fourth release. The Oakland quartet specializes in nasty boogie - the classic ripped jean, flailing hair kind of hell-yeah rockin' that once filled stadiums for Grand Funk Railroad. What separates them from GFR, Thin Lizzy, pre-Dickinson Iron Maiden, or any of their other leather-clad ancestors is a sonic and political sharpness that refuses idiot bliss. Their aim at authority figures like the Catholic Church and lunkhead government is true. Every cut contains several punishing windups that set up a satisfying skull smack. And curveballs like the closing instrumental "Skydog" (which sounds like Herbie Hancock jamming with Funkadelic) hint at further unexpected turns in the future. Their lyrical savvy and tough chug make them the hard rock band to beat. In Tongues is their best yet.

Acid Mothers Temple & The Cosmic Inferno: Just Another Band From The Cosmic Inferno (Important Records)
Blistering rawk onrush, one might mistake this for Boris with Electric Apricot keyboardist Herschal Tambor Brillstien mining analog squiggliness. You can practically see the mohair suits and electric boots. Track one is a demure 20-minutes, while the second takes up the remaining 40-minutes, which hum with cumulative motion and the raw energy of waves rushing into a focused tight corridor. It's sort of space rock but space that's dark, smothering, and diamond-hard. Around halfway through "They're Coming From The Cosmic Inferno," you begin to question how they can sustain their intensity. Surely they will relent, jam languidly just for respite's sake. Nope. Two drummers brutalizing their kits, new member Tabata Mitsuru (bassist of Zeni Geva) laying down a primordial ooze under Higashi Hiroshi's crazed electronics, all while Acid leader Kawabata Makoto offers further proof that he's the cosmic love child of Hendrix and Sonny Sharrock. Mountains crumble to sounds like these. Raise your devil fingers to the new Temple.

Hot Day At The Zoo: Cool As Tuesday (self-released)
Hard to believe a band with so much cracked-corn soul is from Massachusetts. Precedents include the Hackensaw Boys, pre-electric Gourds, and Uncle Tupelo with more moonshine in their engine. This is deeply affable string music played by pros, but with more fists and boozy bonhomie than most. "Mama" is something Old & In The Way might have recorded, a sighing sawdust kicker sung with unvarnished heart. "Anna Maribel" boogies like an old Sun Studios 45. The harmonica-fueled Tin Pan Alley ditty "Bid You Goodnight" and Latin tangents like "Cuando Me Vaya" hint at a Sir Douglas Quintet or NRBQ range waiting in the shadows. A nifty fun house, devil woman lament hidden at the end puts a pleasant stain on the album's title. There's home-brewed magic here, and returning for more swigs has only convinced me further of its kick. Take notice, Hot Day is gonna be around for a while.

Aphrodesia: Front Lines (Full Cut)
There's no end of worthy targets on this Afrobeat assault. George W. Bush, pharmaceutical companies, and the just plain lazy all get a well-placed rhythmic kicking. And while it would be easy enough to bask in the long shadow of Fela Kuti, Aphrodesia drops in all manner of strange bits on the fringes. They've got Fela's full lung sing-a-long thing down but woven together with a '70s funk-soul thread reminiscent of Donny Hathaway, Lonnie Liston Smith, and Fred Wesley's Horny Horns. They also kick up dust similar to modern African artists like Tinariwen, showing this large group has their collective ear on the Serengeti's contemporary developments. So many politically charged bands end up teetering off their soapbox pretty quickly (I'm looking at you Spearhead). Not so with Aphrodesia, who jangle our bones and let the ideas seep into the bloodstream through active transport.

Sean Smith: self-titled (Isota)
"The first act of the long uncoiling." So reads the poetically perceptive liner notes for opener "Silver Ships On Plasmic Oceans." Instrumental solo guitar is rarely this aromatic, this quiveringly emotional, notes bursting with images and suggestions, campfire sparks trailing behind the stately movement. Never busy or bludgeoning, this is a natural-born storyteller's seduction. That Smith achieves this without the hefty crutch of words is a testament to his talents as a composer and steel string acoustic guitarist. His debut has the soft magic found on old ESP-Disc and, of course, John Fahey's Takoma records. Smith walks shoulder-to-shoulder with heralded six-stringers like Jack Rose, Glen Jones (Cul de Sac), and Ben Chasney (Six Organs of Admittance). You can hear the long line of pickers that live in the wood of all guitars, but what elevates Smith above his peers is a welcoming bardic soul, ripe with tales we have not heard before.

Joe Bataan: Call My Name (Vampisoul)
I want to wave this in faces of all the so-called "soul" artists out there today. Alicia Keys, John Legend, and D'Angelo could learn a thing or twelve from a veteran like Bataan. Back on wax after a 20-year absence, Joe throws the same dynamite that blew up Latin Soul in NYC in the early '70s. Teamed with stunning young producer-arranger Daniel Collas, this both recalls Bataan's early merger of Latin rhythms and rock inflection and echoes the bands he influenced like War, Santana, and Gil Scott-Heron. There's astral ballads, spiked salsa, and dance-floor burners like "Chick-a-Boom," which opens with the winning line, "This is a hold up, everybody on the floor!" before diving into some revolutionary polemics. Bataan's thick, still-vital voice floats like creamy dream over Rhodes piano and wah-wah reverb - a potent reminder that some things truly do improve with age.

Josephine Foster: Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead You (Locust)
The word "alien" is used a bit too freely, but with Foster it fits. She offers us folk music from a land on no map. This drifts in like the soundtrack to a fantastical morning ramble in golden, wooden tones that fly towards Heaven with a "nee-noonah noonah-nay." Foster is nearly the oddity that Kate Bush once was but so much warmer. Maybe it's Steeleye Span's Maddy Prior after a cup of mushroom tea or a spliff-becalmed June Tabor that she truly recalls. There's a woodsy, green, earthy fragrance to her gently tangled notes. This is sparer than Foster's electrified release with the Supposed last year or her earlier work with Born Heller and the Children's Hour. Here she goes it alone, accompanying herself on guitar, flute, kazoo, wooden spoons, a black cat, and more. Dig in and you'll find an artist facing God directly, weaknesses and fears intact. She sings, "Are you of muscle or of love? Give me an answer you are sure of! Are you an eagle or a dove? Are you blind to god above?" Challenging yet ultimately uplifting, Foster has crafted druidic hymns that slip the bonds of time and place.

Backyard Tire Fire: Bar Room Semantics (O.I.E.)
This is like getting a really good mix tape and discovering that all the songs are by the same guy. Chicago's Backyard Tire Fire, led by Ed Anderson (vocals, guitar, keys, harmonica), plies down-in-the-cut rock so smeared with real life you'll instantly recognize yourself in their verses. Accompanied by the versatile rhythm team of Tim Kramp (drums) and Ed's brother Matt (bass), this walks the same line as a citi-fied Drive-By Truckers or a less quirky Violent Femmes playing with the way-bigger-than-a-trio firepower of the James Gang. The poppier stuff is slow climbing Americana with a yearning ache. Semantics takes time for all the whiskey wisdom and gentle creativity to sink in. First impressions will be good, but over time you'll realize you've taken home a real winner, one you'll want to keep around for sunrises and heavy talks long after you sober up.

Judas Priest: Angel of Retribution (Epic)
If you can get through this without cackling uncontrollably then you're made of sterner stuff than I am. Metal is known for embracing clichés, but this goes too far. The first record with singer Rob Halford in a decade, it makes one wonder why they bothered. Virtually indistinguishable from any early '90s heavy metal act, Priest coasts on their good name, offering little to compare to their '80s heyday. Sections have them mimicking Megadeath, others it's Guns 'N' Roses, and most disturbingly, there's the stink of Dream Theater to parts. The lyrics are so terrible it made me wish I was listening to Queensryche, and I hate Queensryche. There are more than a few spots that sound like what the show Walker Texas Ranger uses when they visit a biker bar or a meth lab. Yes, just exactly that silly.

The Tom Collins: Daylight Tonight (Terminus)
Meat 'n' taters rockin' out of Atlanta with a little less starch and a bit more carnivorous glee than most. Sounding like Cheap Trick if they'd been more influenced by Free than Terry Reid, the Tom Collins don't bother reinventing a wheel that rolls plenty fine. No less an authority than the Drive-By Truckers' Patterson Hood gave them a praise-filled quote that says they "tap into that particular nether region groin thing, making you feel prettier than you are." It's a fair amount of fun, though I think both Super 400 and the Steepwater Band work the same territory with greater success. It comes down to the songs, which are sturdy if a lil' unmemorable and tend to blur together. With the stereo blasting and the top down, this would go over plenty fine, and with this kind of rock, context is everything.

Ed Jurdi: Longshores Drive (Red Fez)
He calls his sound "cosmic American soul," and it's a fitting catch-all for his home-cooked hot pot of twangy rock and black water soul. One major touchstone is Tony Joe White, another might be Doug Sahm. Opener "Keep On Trying" suggests primo '70s Joe Cocker hanging at Van Morrison's old backwoods cabin. This leads to "Walking And Talking," which shuffles like Leon Russell, and "Catch Me If You Can" is a radio hit waiting to happen. It's the odd edges to Jurdi's voice that insinuate themselves over time, a natural comfort factor that permeates this very nice release.

Caroleen Beatty: You're Only As Pretty As You Feel (Black Beauty)
A sunny morning companion that makes love to us, showers, and then goes out to fight "The Man." After giving an estrogen lift to Brian Eno last year on the tremendous revamp of Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Beatty returns with her interpretations of songs by Ginger Baker, Pentangle, Jefferson Airplane, Bill Withers, and the musical Hair. Without sounding retro this set palpably evokes the mood of a bygone era, one where possibilities for lovin' and peace seemed more tangible than today. Beatty possesses a knowing voice and proves herself an interpreter on the level of the young Linda Ronstadt or early Aretha Franklin. She's backed by supremely smooth conjurers Mushroom and an aggregate called "Heavy Friends," featuring Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate) and Chris Cacavas (Green On Red) on "Sally Go Round The Roses." This is as plush as all the velvet vintage clothing people wore when the original tracks appeared. By turns, world weary and hopeful, this pushes the sleep from our eyes and livens our limbs.

Anders Parker: Tell It To The Dust and The Wounded Astronaut EP (Baryon Records)
"Dance across the room. I saw a certain light in you." This is the potent emotional shorthand former Varnaline frontman Parker proffers on his first solo outings. He stirs up wide-open rock vistas full of storm clouds, haunted drones, electric lightning. Moments recall Richmond Fontaine, the Beatles, and a befuzzed Bob Mould (Husker Du). His husky, thickly round voice savors back-road poetry that will compel you to read along with the lyric sheet. The EP's title cut is a grand rock wind-up cracked with feeling - Neal Young guitars with Radiohead soft-loud dynamics. This music lets you feel sorry for yourself but then gives you verses to sing as you pull yourself back up - a recuperative sadness that doesn't refuse the sun when it busts through the haze.

Robbie Fulks: Georgia Hard (Yep Roc)
Plenty honky and pretty tonky too. Fulks's sixth album finds him closing up the honky tonks, mopping up your loose teeth and spilled beer to tunes that might have spilled from Hoyt Axton, Glen Campbell, Merle Haggard, or in the jokier moments, David Alan Coe. If you like your grits done right, then that's mighty good company to keep. It's always heartening to find an artist who rejects Nashville's current models for country - have you heard recent hits like Montgomery Gentry's "Something To Be Proud Of" or "Kerosene" by country's answer to Avril Lavigne, Miranda Lambert? There is no more terrible music out there than the stuff from mainstream Music City. Fulks has a couple maudlin weepies, but shit howdy that's real country too. And Jewish cowboys finally have an anthem in "Countrier Than Thou." Personally, I'm fonder of Fulks's creepier, moodier fare like Couples In Trouble, but for a return to the world of traditional twang, this is mighty fine.

Vintage Stash Selection:
Shel Silverstein: The Best of Shel Silverstein – His Words, His Songs, His Friends (Legacy)

Dr. Seuss may be more omnipresent, but there's never been a cooler children's writer than Silverstein. While he was paving his famous sidewalk, Shel was also crafting earthy cartoons and dirty limericks for Playboy (not to mention getting his shiny dome polished at the mansion). What those only familiar with A Light In The Attic or The Giving Tree (and you cheat yourself if your bookshelf doesn't contain the insane Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book: A Primer for Adults Only), then you may not know what a songsmith Silverstein was throughout his life. He penned the ubiquitous Irish Rovers sing-a-long "The Unicorn" (included here) and worked for 30 years as country singer Bobby Bare's main foil. His words are the ones that got Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show on the "Cover Of The Rolling Stone," and in his own voice he got us "Freakin' At The Freakers Ball" and gave the early '70s one of the finest odes to blissful short-term memory loss, "I Got Stoned And I Missed It." This boffo collection brings together passages from Silverstein's readings of his books with choice bits of his song catalog - some performed by him, some by Bare, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson. It's a 25-track sick smile bomb full of wisdom you can really use. He taught many of us the value of irreverence tempered by compassion, and he never forgot to stop and smell the roses, especially if they were curled into the flaxen hair of a comely coed. This collection helps us remember just how rare a bird he was and how much we lost when he shuffled off in 1999.

Vintage Stash runner-up:
Bob Seger: Smokin' O.P.'s (Capitol)

Ironically, the man who told us "rock 'n' roll never forgets" didn't count on a couple generations with the attention span of a squirrel on double espressos. Otherwise, folks would already know that Seger did a lot of his best work long before the Silver Bullet Band. This welcome reissue of his 1972 album offers a revealing glimpse into Detroit's prolific uber-rocker. The set consists of just two originals, but the seven cover tunes show a vitality that rivals Aretha Franklin's reworkings. Seger puts his husky pipes to work on double-time versions of the Bo Diddley theme and Stephen Stills's "Love The One You're With." At its core, this is primo bar band shufflin' - work boots moving fast through a cloud of whisky and pheromones. Maybe now Capitol will get off their keester and reissue Ramblin' Gamblin' Man, Mongrel, and his other early killers.

Keeping our ear to the ground for next month's heaping stack of goodness, which includes new solo releases from Greg Loiacono and Tim Bluhm of the Mother Hips, the Elizabethtown soundtrack, The Espers' Weed Tree, Jenny Scheinman's new solo effort, a kickin' Dirtbombs anthology, and of course, more, ever more.

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[Published on: 10/28/05]

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