By Dennis Cook
If this crop is any indication, 2006 is going to be a monster year for thoughtful, enjoyable sonic surprises. I've never had a harder time choosing the top picks. Really. This is the good stuff, and depending on the day and one's mood, any of these albums might just make you glad to be alive.
Album of the month:
Howe Gelb: 'Sno Angel Like You (Thrill Jockey)
No matter what name one ascribes to the divine, love is almost always at the core. It's something that Giant Sand's Howe Gelb and Canada's Voices of Praise gospel choir demonstrate with shivering beauty on 'Sno Angel. There's a wrong-headed idea that rock doesn't engage with spiritual or philosophical matters except in a navel-gazing manner. Like Nick Cave's Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, this takes a stalwart of alternative rock and plops him down in the mercy seat. The results are more moving and potent than anything labeled 'Christian' or 'Religious.' Gelb embraces doubts and contradictions en route to hope that sounds real. The massed human energy of Voices of Praise has undeniable power, their interlaced unity uplifting and accenting every line they sing. There's a rough-hewn magic to Gelb's burnished pipes – an echo of latter day Lou Reed and Chris Whitley – coming in contact with primal gospel whomp. Much like Cave's meeting with the London Community Gospel Choir, one feels old blues spirits smiling down upon the proceedings. There are never too many elements going on at once, so each hard plucked string and heavenward question stands out. Listen for the laughter at the end of the first cut, a snippet from the studio atmosphere that befits something this joyful, this honestly positive, this engaged. There are no placebos here, only humble thanks for the blessings of an examined life. It's enough to raise happy tears if you let it.
James Carter/Cyrus Chestnut/Ali Jackson/Reginald Veal: Gold Sounds (Brown Brothers Recording)
This gives jazz a good kick in the standards. As certain elements attempt to calcify the genre, boldly declaring what is and isn't jazz, it's exhilarating to find four of the most talented players in the field forging in fresh soil, namely the bursting-with-possibilities compositions of Pavement. Yes, that Pavement - the mainstay of '90s indie rock culture and unintentional parent to the current crop of oddly angled popsters. This has the wildness and playfulness of Thelonious Monk and Ben Webster spiced with well-chosen dissonance and youthful sass. Pavement's tunes provide superb post-bop high dive platforms. Saxophonist extraordinaire James Carter blows like a cross between Charles Gayle and Ellington veteran Paul Gonsalves – a powerhouse romantic with a straight razor in his back pocket. Bassist Reginald Veal's mojo's been rising ever since he started blowing minds on Wynton Marsalis' Soul Gestures In Blue series in the late '80s. Here, Veal plays with supple mastery that incorporates more than a little of the breathless grooving one associates with Motown's James Jamerson. Pianist Cyrus Chestnut has all the hard-fingered smack of Oscar Peterson but leavens things with bubbling Fender Rhodes and organ swells worthy of Amina Claudine Myers. The relative youngster in the quartet, drummer Ali Jackson, plays with rugged rightness, the only real echo of the original versions. Jackson, in his gift for quirks AND power, is a kindred spirit to celebrated Captain Beefheart percussionist John French. What's amazing is how little they follow the vocal lines, which is a common pitfall in adapting song-oriented pop into instrumentals. Freed from jazz's straightjacket, the players frolic in virgin territory that tickles the impulse that first sent them on the road to Birdland. Since Stephen Malkmus is himself a superb integrator of disparate elements, it stands to reason (albeit only in hindsight) that jazz musicians would thrive in his worlds. In these very capable hands, Pavement gets done the way Debbie once did Dallas – resoundingly and unashamedly fucked with in the best ways. Highly impressive, highly recommended.
Agent 23 & Bski Rocks: The Road Less Traveled (Just Be Records)
Somewhere Robert Frost bobs his head and grins at this update of his culture-saturating expression. While the masses kneel before Kanye West and his progeny, a pair of truly independent spirits from North Carolina has crafted something as liquidly funky and lucidly insightful with the added bonus of an MC who can wreck a mic with punishing consistency. GFE's Agent 23 cold rocks the party and still French kisses your mind - a cerebral vibrator that WILL get you off. Road is all about manifesting dreams into reality without sacrificing character or conscience. "Talk About It" with verbal ninja Adam Strange updates Mobb Deep's "Shook Ones Pt. 2" with Dr. Dre key squiggles and a dark atmosphere. "Be A Man" betters (and then some) Will Smith's "Just The Two of Us" as a Daddy anthem where Agent 23 examines his own weaknesses and kinks but hopes he'll rise above them for his kid. Album closer "Keep The Family Tight" has the bounce and pop culture savvy of the best Beastie Boys:
You'll never penetrate our inner circle
We're underground like some Ninja Turtles
Keepin' it tight like women's girdles
I break bread with about eight heads to stay fed
'Cause we keep on truckin' like the Grateful Dead
Other parts recall vintage Beatnuts, Black Sunday-era Cypress Hill and Blackalicious jamming with Augustus Pablo. Super funk diva Jen Durkin guests on several tracks, her boner-inducing crooning livening up hooks and injecting intoxicating estrogen. This is the modern equivalent to Pete Rock and CL Smooth's landmark Mecca and the Soul Brother. Everything is right on time and more fun than a 72-hour vacation in a convertible full of drugs and free money.
Pearls and Brass: The Indian Tower (Drag City)
From the Village of the Damned doo-wop intro to the stone-crumbling riffage that follows, Pearls and Brass roar out of Nazareth (Pennsylvania, that is) with bong-burbling righteousness. Like Phil Lynott (Thin Lizzy) and Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath) double teaming Mudhoney, this trio cuts deep like British Steel with a bigger boogie quotient. Not too fast nor too slow, this is perfect heaviness. They join the shortlist of groups like Drunk Horse and Rose Hill Drive who are redeeming hard rock one thick lick at a time. Guitarist-vocalist Randy Huth actually sings instead of the screaming and gurgling so common in metal these days. Pearls and Brass share some of Sabbath's Catholic obsessions, but never in a way that's derivative or unappealing. For those who've flipped for Black Mountain, here's something equally dense but flavored with more beer-chugging directness. And don't let the acid folk digressions throw you. Just because they can eerily cook up the same backwoods haze as Devendra Banhart doesn't diminish any of their hell-bent-for-leather cred. It just makes them more interesting, showcasing one of many intriguing aspects on this sativa-scented outing.
Jackie-O-Motherfucker: Flags Of The Sacred Harp (ATP Recordings)
No one genre can contain this long-lived, utterly underground Portland, Oregon collective. Like some ESP-Disc album that fell from the sky, Jackie-O's latest marries the free form saunter of Albert Ayler's Spirits to independent label Beck. Howling gospel spirits claw their way out of the fog, a soul cry from within a metallic whale's belly, the landscape alive and twitching with unknown purpose. There's the flavor of other wonderful, unhinged voices – Sunburned Hand Of The Man, Mike Heron, Linda Perhacs, and other primal oddities. Four of the seven tracks are based on traditional material in the Sacred Harp style, which is non-denominational community singing that emphasizes participation by all. Psalms, early American folk tunes, and 18th century odes make up the Sacred Harp songbook, and this well-rooted foundation provides ample inspiration for Jackie-O. Instruments melt into raw thumping percussion while gossamer voices fly with doves. Waters rise, and we barely hold our heads afloat above the garbage and sea scum. Guitars like hash-laced espresso coarse through its veins, Bill Frisell twirling with John Fahey on the deck of a wobbly ship. Flags Of The Sacred Harp is as bracingly adventurous as recent work by The Mars Volta but possessed by a quieter soul. If not their finest hour to date, this is far and away their most emotionally potent and listener-friendly set yet.
Rosie Thomas: If Songs Could Be Held (Sub Pop)
The pervasive tenderness of Thomas' latest begins with the title, which draws softer things close. A touch more VH1 than Sub Pop usually gets, this nods towards Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro as well as Tanya Donelly's '70s-influenced Whiskey Tango Ghosts. Much of this is powerful and tender without straining to combine the two forces. It's a sound Fiona Apple and Alanis Morrisette have been chasing their whole careers but never achieved as surely as Thomas. Her cover of '60s pop chestnut "Let It Be Me" reminds us of the staying power and sturdy comfort that radio once provided. "Say What You Want" is a new panel for Carole King's Tapestry, and "Clear As A Bell" is just the right amount of everything – tears, stringed things, and open space – filled with aching lines like, "Someday some boy will fall in love with all my flaws." If Joni had ever gotten around to a proper sequel to Blue, it might have sounded like this quiet, soft rock marvel.
The Magik Markers: A Panegyric To The Things I Do Not Understand (Gulcher)
This ain't easy listening. In fact, this blasted and bruised trio is as uneasy as anything I've ever heard. You stand in the Markers' path and let them ravage and scald you, a lover that leaves scars. It's Ivo Perelman behind the wheel of the Minutemen's van, careening wildly as hemlock hits his bloodstream. Somewhere a cuckoo clock breathes high noon, the toy bird chirping in aspic trills. Guitars are stretched on a rack, fingers and frets breaking entrancingly. Long distance calls reach you through a Dixie cup and string telephone, outbursts from a tree house gone full-nut squirrelly, a bouquet of dead flowers laid by the rope ladder by children who ran away in tears. This eulogy for the end of days is something that might have dropped from Patti Smith's yearning loins if she were a few decades younger and staring down the barrel of a Bush-crafted world. It is possessed of the carnality, the anger and shotgun rage of Diamanda Galas channeling an LSD-addled Melanie. It's rambling and wise, scathing and unwieldy, brave and unyielding.
Tristeza: A Colores (Better Looking)
Tristeza: March of the White Lies (Rocket Racer)
Instrumental music can reach inside emotions and ideas with poetic inquisitiveness, and these two new slabs from San Diego/Mexico-based Tristeza are saturated with that probing, leaping imagination, a new vernacular with a rich, curved glossary for yet unnamed things. Portions evoke a hypothetical blend of Cul de Sac and later-period Joni Mitchell, ornate but touched by a child's mind full of tiny ballerinas spinning on lotus flowers. A Colores is full of repetition and release, lovers in a pool of sunlight, guitars like a slow breeze blowing up dust and vegetation, sparrows kept aloft by the sure but gentle force of the music. The journey winds through burbling analog streams and blissed-out nights touched by a Latin moon. "Aereoviones" brings Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" into the new century, beefy trap drums now providing cloud cover for the sky church. March of the White Lies is a limited edition EP with a darker character. The feel is Tangerine Dream and Jean Michel Jarre sheared of all baroque elements, a futurist post-midnight score for feet walking in the wrong neighborhood. Both should be played outdoors at high volumes for full effect. Nature creeps and murmurs in Tristeza's bountiful, subtle conversation with the world at large.
Drew Emmitt: Across The Bridge (Compass)
This appealing sophomore release from the former Leftover Salmon mandolinist is a solid stride forward from his solo debut, Freedom Ride. While he's still searching for his own voice, there's a great deal of appealing pickin' here. Boffo trucker song "All Night Ride" opens things with a bang and is followed by one of the finest Dylan covers ever (an elongated "Meet Me In The Morning"). Tunes like "Big Ice" recall early String Cheese Incident, and "All That You Dream" is a string band version of "Midnight At The Oasis." The playing is top-notch, but Emmitt's lyrics could use a boost. Maybe he should befriend Jim Lauderdale or Robert Hunter, both word doctors that would fit nicely with his style. Emmitt sings like a huskier Del McCoury (who guests here with son Ronnie), and the whole affair has the feel of the Country Gazette or Ricky Skaggs, making for a very nice album. If Emmitt can add more details that help define it as his work and not that of another bluegrass explorer, then the next one might really be something.
The Clientele: Strange Geometry (Merge)
This is an inverted sonic creamsicle – the creamy on the outside and the tart waiting unexpectedly inside. Clientele make soundtracks to Godard films yet unmade. It's an emotional landscape that's one part 4AD drift, one part Boston's "More Than A Feeling," and one part Robyn Hitchcock on mood-altering chemicals. You float in their string-laden atmosphere, and then the words start to sink in:
All my senses sharp
My hands are fists
I'm pretty tired of making lists
It's just this emptiness
I can't chase it away
That something this bleak can be so catchy, so breezily terrific, is the Clientele's genius. As other scribes have pointed out, they might be the best pop craftsmen to emerge from the UK since Belle and Sebastian started pouring tiger's milk. Only their second record Stateside, Strange Geometry gets all the angles right.
The North La Brea All Star Conquistadors: Live At Room 5, May 23 05 (Kufala)
Four top-flight L.A. area singer-songwriters band together for something that sounds like the Rat Pack with tattoos and piercings, spiced self-deprecating banter, and sibling-like cajoling. Gabriel Mann, Garrison Starr, Jay Nash, and Adrianne are the next generation of SoCal pop-crafters, nicely following in the footsteps of Aimee Mann, Jon Brion, and Michael Penn. In the Conquistadors, the quartet is joined by fantastically intuitive percussionists Billy Hawn and Adam Marcello. The group takes turns performing their songs, and the shared enthusiasm for each other's work is palpable. Within a few tracks, it's clear we'll be hearing a lot from these folks as they crop up on anthologies and in movies. Each is primed with mass appeal that doesn't surrender a genuine dedication to craft. Songs like Mann's "Someone Else For One Day" and Nash's "Mirabelle" suggest a kinder, gentler Randy Newman. That sense of old souls in new sneakers permeates this concert. You can hear the diligence and seriousness with which they approach things, and to their credit, they're doing all their growing in plain sight. While their studio efforts are often too polished, the live setting lays open the heart of these songs. The closing pair of well-played covers (Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" and Peter Gabriel's "Washing of the Water") provides a clue to the company they'd like to keep. While FM radio and Hollywood music advisors will surely pick up on these four soon enough, it's this stripped-down format that most fully reveals their potential.
The Beautiful Girls: We're Already Gone (Cornerstone R.A.S.)
A new millennial take on roots reggae expansive enough to incorporate trippy psych and Tropicalia experimentation into an infectious, exceedingly catchy concoction. A bit of a thing in their native Australia, The Beautiful Girls have moved away from their earlier, more orthodox recordings. By adding thick, irresistible rhythms and surprisingly heavy guitars to good-natured experimentation, they've taken their deceptively simple songs and given them weight. The placement and tone of each tune is spot-on, and the cumulative effect is a record you'll listen to on repeat. These Girls (all of whom are boys) carry elements of Finley Quaye, The Specials, early Black Uhuru, Maktub, G. Love and Special Sauce, and New Zealand's The Black Seeds. Unlike the too-hailed Matisyahu, nothing here seems forced or laughable as so much Caucasian reggae-influenced music can be. The kids that flipped for Sublime are gonna freak for them, but it's substantive and honest enough to work for Bob Marley purists and indie kids wanting to reacquaint themselves with their groove thing. Beautiful Girls create a sweeping, positive internationalist vibe, and I can't think of a single reason to resist being swept up by it.
Vintage Stash Selection:
Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series Vol. 7 – No Direction Home: The Soundtrack (Columbia Legacy)
Whole barrels of ink have been spilled for Martin Scorcese's challenging, exhaustive 2005 documentary about Dylan, but the music he used was often heard only in snippets. Thankfully, The Bootleg Series, like some Zimmerman-centric Dead Sea Scrolls, marches on with a double disc selection of stellar unreleased material inspired by the mercurial structure of No Direction Home. So it's not a soundtrack in the strictest sense but a further gloss on key moments in Dylan's early development and swift rise to fame. The first disc opens with rare home recordings from the late '50s, which are mostly curiosities that offer insight into Bob's roots. From there, you'll find primo live takes and alternate versions of now signature tunes like "Masters of War" and "Mr. Tambourine Man." The second disc is particularly illuminating, showing how his compositions lend themselves to myriad interpretations - some strikingly different, some hinting at his youthful listening habits and the influence of Sun Studios, the blues, and Woody Guthrie. Dylan, especially during this legend-making period, is a fascinating figure, and any new refraction of his work is to be welcomed, studied, and embraced. As always, there's universal truth and humor waiting for us in these newly freed bits from the Bard of Greenwich Village.
In our next slice of time together, we'll give a listen to the latest from San Fran pop master Kelley Stoltz, Nickel Creek's Sean Watkins, Essex Green, and a bang-up new collection of songs for kids with original material by Sufjan Stevens, Broken Social Scene, and more. Toodle-loo, children.
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