By Dennis Cook
Took a little break, but we're back to our monthly antics with a very full plate, including a special thread focused on albums just right for the summer months. Let's dive in with two of the best damn things to brighten ears this year...
Album of the month:
The Court and Spark: Hearts (Absolutely Kosher)
This dazzling trip begins with a cry of "Let's get high" and concludes with the breathy lament, "As a man, I fade away." Around since the late '90s, SF's Court and Spark have a slow gravity that pulls us towards the earth without clipping our wings. They draw inspiration from different wells than other rockers, leaning towards John Martyn over Bob Dylan, Traffic instead of the Byrds, Terry Reid over Springsteen. There's a whiff of Neil Young when the high-octane guitars kick in, but they always emerge from their unique oceanic spaciousness. Hearts moves with poetic logic, using evocative language, entrancing melodies, and a ceaseless sonic curiosity that one doesn't usually associate with song-based rock. It is the small touches like the chiming toy piano that accompanies the line "A crier ringing his bell" that elevate this above the pack. Equally adept at catchy romps ("Your Mother Was The Lightning") and oddly textured instrumentals ("The Oyster Is A Wealthy Beast"), the band has never sounded more sure-footed or engaged. Chief songwriter and vocalist M.C. Taylor has a rough-hewn, world-weary vibe that infuses everything with a bittersweet sheen. When he sings, "I've got a wolf in my yard, and I've got a gun in my chest, but I don't care," you feel the impending doom but also the freedom such surrender can bring. Hearts has bewitched me. Allowed some intimacy, it provides a remarkable echo chamber for our own hearts, wrestling with doubt on a long walk towards hope.
Coach Fingers (with Friends and Family): No Flies On Frank (Locust)
Bite down on this glistening wad of metallic bubblegum and watch your teeth change color while you dance around in your undies. "Coach" Jason Meagher - on furlough from NYC's stellar No Neck Blues Band - has created a pop marvel full of thick groovers with dark fringes. It's the sloppy yelp of the Stranglers rogering the Kinks while John Fogerty chain-smokes in the corner. It boogies like the days when men were Burt Reynolds-hairy and put their music out only on vinyl. Every cut is addictively tuneful yet lathered in well executed distortion and peculiar instrumentation – a withering flute there, a haunted dobro here, a busted organ lifted from Levon Helm's garage over there, and was that a sackbut on the chorus? They channel the dead well, dragging Jim Morrison ("Evil") and George Harrison ("One For RBM") from beyond the veil to good effect. There's the warm flush of a red wine buzz to the proceedings, which start raw as a Billy Childish rehearsal and grow denser and more relaxed by the end. With bullhorn wails, splashes of switchblade surf, and even hints of prog ("Late Night Westtown"), the Coach Fingers play the hell out of their instruments, especially guitar discovery George Devoe. Crammed with punkish invention and finger-snappin' tunes, No Flies On Frank is a grand debut.
The Moore Brothers: Murdered By The Moore Brothers (Plain Recordings)
In 20 years there'll be a major rediscovery of the Moore Brothers – deluxe reissues, rabid testimonials, the whole Nick Drake-esque shebang of car commercials and all-star tributes. It makes me sad for everyone missing out today. Thom and Greg Moore shimmer with the indestructible beauty of early Joni Mitchell and Tim Hardin. Murdered By, their third full-length, is carefully sculpted from bright acoustic guitars, piano blocks, and the occasional drum rumble. Without a doubt, it's their most subtle, individual set to date, full of haunters like "Bury Me Under The Kissing Teens," "Wish You'd Say," and "At Terror," a clever jab at color-coded scare tactics. As always, the focus is their sweet, stirring voices. They may be the finest harmony singers since Graham Nash first grew a beard, and when they fall together it'll give you a happy chill. The new songs reaffirm the joys of hand-holding and daydreaming but not without a cautionary wink. They understand how love can sometimes smell worse than cancer as it dies. Romantics to be sure, the Moores are also card-carrying weirdoes who pepper their misty reveries with open-ended language and nicely ambiguous imagery. Greg and Thom unearth endless inspiration from daily life, illuminating things with observational grace. They find you like a breeze that sneaks in through the cracks before coming to rest close to the skin. Don't wait 20 years to find them when they're searching for you right now.
Sounds of Summer 1:
Steve Dawson: Sweet Is The Anchor (Undertow)
Steve Dawson's music is a tonic for the heat, the welcome cool that saunters in as day gives way to night. The first thing you wonder is "Where has this voice been hiding?" In Chicago's long-running country rockers Dolly Varden with his wife Diane Christiansen is where. On his own, he croons with the wounded charm of Nick Lowe or Pete Ham (Badfinger) about pornographic cowgirls who pull all the gray hairs from his head. Without histrionics or overworked clichés, he plucks heartstrings with unabashedly sentimental gems like "Temporary" and "Love Is A Blessing." Dawson makes self-loathing cool again on "I'm The One I Despise" and "The Monkey Mind Is On The Prowl." And kudos for reviving Tyrone Davis' 1970 shuffle, "I'll Be Right Here." Musically, the vibe is slowed-down soul-pop akin to really good Bill Withers or Hall & Oates, with Dawson playing most of the instruments with some effective mixing help from Centro-matic's Matt Pence. Sweet Is The Anchor is refreshingly cheerful - cynical enough to be wise but mostly wrapped up in the slow dawning that loving compassion is the only true balm for a heart-sore life.
Mushroom: Really Don't Mind If You Sit This One Out (Four Zero)
A circular breath takes us inward and outward simultaneously as our third eye opens with a moan. These live recordings from '97-'98 are like a rare discovery from some lost Fillmore band that once rounded out a bill with Miles Davis and Blood, Sweat & Tears. In more modern terms, it's like the Boards of Canada with a heart transplant and more dexterous hands. The brass grumbles as Fender Rhodes creates a swelling rise the mercury guitars ride. Everywhere Pat Thomas' drums swing big like Can's Jaki Leibezeit possessed by Art Blakey - relentless and always deep in the pocket. By "The Reeperbahn," the freak-out is in full effect. On "My Brain Hurt Like A Warehouse It Had No Room To Spare," they've transformed into a strip club band in a William Gibson story, bleeps and sputters perverting innocence and sobriety. There's the fragrance of incense and peppermints as they romp like a more psilocybin Ventures In Space. Quality, high-energy strangeness presented by musical heavy-hitters.
Sounds of Summer 2:
The Essex Green: Cannibal Sea (Merge)
"I stare at maps all day, a charade in the sunset," laments Essex Green at the beginning of this sparkling traveler's soundtrack. Jeff Baron with golden singers Sasha Bell and Christopher Ziter hit their stride on their third release. Something spikier, more instantly ear-catching has replaced their earlier psychedelic murkiness. In fact, this is as polished and assured as Belle & Sebastian's recent The Life Pursuit, though a good deal more stylistically varied, throwing their arms around country warblers like Marty Robbins with the same gusto they show for Velvet Underground and the Left Banke. The alternating male and female currents engage us in sunny laments full of big thoughts and small moments. Where Ladybug Transistor (Baron and Bell's other band) once seemed the stronger outfit, Cannibal Sea evens the score. Take a tug or a train but do come along. A green and pleasant land awaits you.
The Why Because: Musicshapes (Musicshapes)
Totally improvised - and amazingly taken from their very first session together - this jammy debut has a merciless head charge. The Why Because fascinate with idiosyncratic chutzpah that seduces the ear. A free-jazz dappled descendent of Krautrockers like Can and Amon Duul II, these Bay Area instrumentalists (including members of Subtle) draw us forward in real time as their explorations awaken interesting new corridors. Listen hard and you hear a highly interactive language being forged. The eclectic ensemble remains fluid, switching instruments and members frequently, never resting in one spot for too long. There are strains of befuzzed '70s Miles Davis, the percussive chatter of Art Ensemble of Chicago, and Four Tet's pastoral electronics, but the cumulative groove is something freshly picked, the thick roots coated with dirt and an earthy musk. Drink this in over headphones to analyze in hookah-stoked ecstasy or blast it loud and move your junk in a most peculiar way. Space brass and balmy drums call, and our only choice is which direction we follow in this unusually hypnotic environment.
Dion: Bronx In Blue (Razor & Tie)
The blues are a tough gig, especially for a white boy from New York. On the surface nothing makes sense about a back-to-basics crawl through Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rodgers by this '60s pop star. Best known for "The Wanderer" and "Runaround Sue," Dion DiMucci exposes his blues roots on this clean, uncomplicated outing. His well-aged voice has lost its youthful torment, but time has actually made him more formidable. It takes real skill to reinvigorate familiar fare like "Who Do You Love." This is the magic trick of the blues, where standards live anew if somebody is willing to fully inhabit them. Dion does this again and again here, pumping life into "Statesboro Blues" and "Crossroads." He charges these classics with New York flair and a very healthy libido. You know he ain't lying when he rumbles, "I'm built for comfort, I ain't built for speed. I got everything, all that you little girls need." DiMucci says, "I've been carrying around these blues and country gems in my head for the last fifty years. I recorded this CD in two days. No tricks. No vocal overdubs. Just me, my trusty cutaway black Martin, my baby 0021, and the Hurty Gurty man (Bob Guertin) on some percussion." Every bit the equal of Buddy Guy's last couple albums with Jimbo Mathus, Bronx In Blue is one of the purest blues albums in ages.
Sounds of Summer 3:
Mr. Tube and the Flying Objects: Listen Up (Sweet Nothing)
There's an elaborate back-story involving a lost genius in a TV repair guy named Freddy Feelgood, but all you really need to know about this new project from Paulo Zappoli (Black Heart Procession) is it's a jittery rump-shaker of the first order. Slurred brass and decomposing electronics teeter atop thick junkyard percussion and bedroom dub. It's a rougher version of the last Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros album, and a few cuts (especially "Lost Days" and "Tryin'") suggest a more laidback TV on the Radio. Playful as all get out, Mr. Tube slips his subterranean philosophizing into the bloodstream, converting the body before the brain has anything to say about it. The guitars stay tough throughout, a sharp counterpoint to the humping beats and tweaked synth accents. This is the soundtrack for nights too hot to sleep, where the road calls and strange delights wait around each corner.
See You On The Moon: Songs For Kids Of All Ages (Paper Bag)
This is like an alien music box discovered in the woods. Flip the lid and a tiny dancer inside skips and wiggles like there's a worm in her leotard. It's a kid thing, but you're instantly up on your feet to shake and giggle along with your new pal. Paper Bag has corralled a who's who of indie rock heavyweights (Sufjan Stevens, Mark Kozelek, Kid Koala, Rosie Thomas, and more) to create exclusive songs intended for the children of good-natured freaks. Fun is the operative word, and it's refreshingly free of hipster over-thinking. Low's Alan Sparhawk contributes "Be Nice to People with Lice" and comes across like a tipsy Johnny Cash playing a rowdy kindergarten. Neat! Sufjan Stevens' "The Friendly Beasts" is a ragtime dreamland filled with banjos and theatrical choirs. Detective Kalita's "Baby Brother" has the best opening line – "I like staying out way past after dark, just like my old man and my mother." Teaches 'em healthy rebellion early and gives 'em a nose for hypocrisy too. Kozelek is at his gentle best on "Leo and Luna," and Rosie Thomas' closing "Faith's Silver Elephant" capitalizes on her childlike qualities on a tune as delicate as a dissipating dandelion. Broken Social Scene trot out the Peter, Paul, and Mary dinosaur "Puff The Magic Dragon" with such sincerity, it's impossible to not sing along. There's a pile of lesser-known artists that give as good as any of the names too. See You On The Moon is the perfect primer for anyone wanting to raise young ones with broader ears than what PBS, Raffi, or Disney tells them to buy.
Mike Therieau: Living From A Suitcase (Well Worn)
Anyone who's ever blackened their fingers digging through stacks of old vinyl can attest to the resounding joy of discovering an album by a completely unknown quantity that knocks your dick into the dirt the first time you play it. It's the semi-secret reason we look and listen with such zealotry. Such undiscovered countries are harder and harder to find, but lucky for us a contemporary musician has made one of those magical out-of-time stunners. Therieau plays bass in the equally timeless Dave Gleason's Wasted Days, but here he takes the lead, reshuffling his band mates to excellent effect on this beguiling merger of rock & soul. Freed to wail as a lead guitarist, Gleason is a poetic shredder that seamlessly blends mod, country, and Beatles licks. What really tugs at you is Therieau's flexible and perfect '70s vocals, which compare very favorably with Terry Reid and Allen Toussaint protégé Frankie Miller. But there are greater depths still, like "I'm Sorry," in which he gives Al Green a run for his money or "Tomorrow's Woman," which could be a lost track from Van Morrison's Veedon Fleece. There's an indestructible groove to everything, like the slow building barn-burner "Midnight Apt. #9 Blues" and "Devil Make My Bed," which suggests Skynyrd if they grew up near Chicago. With its analog-y production, impeccable playing, and not-a-dud-in-the-bunch material, Living From A Suitcase is a dark horse for many Best Of 2006 lists.
Function: The Secret Miracle Fountain (Locust)
Children's voices, blurred horns, distorted blues, and cartoon snippets sully the air as dusty Commodore computers crackle and spark in the smoky twilight. This pop culture ghost dance led by modern shaman Matthew Liam Nicholson is painfully gorgeous. Organic, slow-tumbling, and thick as memory, Function journey through chill-out ambiance on the way to crunchy, emotionally saturated big rock that nods to Felt, Japan, and Massive Attack. Unafraid of drifting, environmental sway, dirty break-beats, or lyrical electric guitar, Nicholson took years to painstakingly piece together this lush album with the aid of dozens of players from around the globe. In hypothetical terms, Fountain flows like early Pink Floyd playing Neil Young's On The Beach. In a thin, yearning voice, Nicholson sings lines that should falter but perversely succeed ("Well freedom doesn't care what I do/ But I must care for freedom/ In this freaksome hullabaloo"). Slow opening, through persistence this blossoms into something pretty interesting.
Sounds of Summer 4:
Sean Watkins: Blinders On (Sugar Hill)
The powerhouse drums and fluttering loops instantly distance Watkins' third solo effort from his better-known acoustic work in Nickel Creek. On his own, Watkins is a kindred spirit to Matthew Sweet and Jon Brion. Actually, this marvelously melancholy set evokes James Taylor's 1968 Apple Records debut (JT was the first artist the Beatles signed). Both are clear-eyed romantics who favor a nifty mix of the baroque and the bare in their arrangements. Just when you get comfortable, Watkins complicates things with dissonance and inventive instrumentation, a constant mingling of the sweet and sour on all fronts. On "Happy New Year" Watkins single-handedly builds a strummed guitar into what sounds like the Aphex Twin fronting a smoking-hot quartet. "I'm Sorry" and "Run Away Girl" are radio hits from another time when high quality tenderness slipped onto airwaves. The album reaches a bittersweet pinnacle on "Coffee," where he sings, "I need a funeral or a revival. Both ways I'll smile, but I can't pretend I don't have a crush on you." The softly gnarled instrumental coda "The Sound Of My Crush" just makes sure this one stays with you. Guests include Wilco's Glenn Kotche, Sara Watkins, Benmont Tench, and fiddle monster Gabe Witcher, but the main attraction is Sean Watkins himself, a marvelous pop craftsman who's quickly moving from journeyman to master with albums like this.
Fazzini: Sulphur, Glue The Star (Locust)
While the new generation of long hairs discovers Vashti Bunyan and the Incredible String Band, there's a whole host of star children making quality pastoral rock today. A Small Good Thing's Tom Fazzini is one of the better Aquarian folkers out there. This gently mutating solo debut is Skip Spence (Moby Grape) blended with a devolved Roy Harper, and topped off with a flavorful layer of keef. There's the hiss of old poetry recordings on these lazy mixtures of water, lunacy, and animal energy. It's all kept tenuously in check by Fazzini - a budding madcap that warrants further investigation.
Sounds of Summer 5:
Kelley Stoltz: Below The Branches (Sub Pop)
Is it too much to call a relatively new artist "a classic" or to suggest their albums are "nigh perfect?" San Francisco's Kelley Stoltz inspires this kind of hyper-enthusiasm. I can easily imagine listening to him in 25 years and still feeling the abiding warmth his pocket marvels generate. His Sub Pop debut is his most cohesive, breezily enjoyable album yet – hook-heavy but underscored by book smarts that hark back to early '70s Beach Boys and Hollies. "Ever Thought of Coming Back" is a supplicant's direct appeal to God anchored by doo-wop harmonies and sandy guitar. "The Sun Comes Through" is the finest bit of low-orbit psych in ages, and "Memory Collector" equals solo Paul McCartney in his prime. There aren't enough fingers and toes to count the bands that merely ape the moves of their ancestors, but Stoltz possesses the same bubbling creativity, the same knack for indelible songwriting as anyone to whom he's compared. Just try and crowbar "Wave Goodbye" from your mind after you've heard it a couple times. That addictive solidity runs the entire length – from the sunlight craving "Little Lords" to the Eagles of Death Metal-esque stomper "Birdies Singing" and "Words," a note-perfect evocation of cosmic-minded Steve Miller Band. Stoltz plays most of the instruments with a little help from Bay Area friends like John Hofer (Mother Hips). You'd never know this is one man's vision based on the colorful and varied production. And it's green-e certified, so it's good for the environment! Give this a listen while it's still warm enough to leave the windows and doors open long into the evening.
Eef Barzelay: Bitter Honey (SpinArt)
Clem Snide's main man is one of the best lyricists alive. That's no lie, and lightly warped baubles like Soft Spot and last year's End of Love testify to the brilliance of his hummable yet wholly unpredictable wordplay. Stripped down to his skivvies and a battered acoustic guitar on his first solo session, Barzelay's talents shine in a rough, painfully intimate way. He can be funny and heartbreaking in the space of a single verse like on the opener, "Ballad of Bitter Honey," which peeks inside the head of an aspiring music video dancer. Barzelay could just play her for laughs as she announces, "That was my ass you saw bouncin' next to Ludacris. It was only on screen for a second, but it's kinda hard to miss. And all those other hoochie skanks, they ain't got shit on me. And one of Nelly's bodyguards totally agreed." It's strange enough to hear those words coming out in a crackled white dude's voice, but Barzelay turns our assumptions inside out just a few lines later: "They all think I'm stupid. I can see it in their eyes. But I know what's inside their hearts. I can penetrate their lies. Sometimes it gets me crazy, but I keep my feelings hid. 'Cause I know deep inside they're only frightened little kids." That one song sets the tone for this brief, character-driven stroll through the human condition that concludes with a shaking, trembling-knee version of "Joy To The World." It's something you can imagine Vic Chesnutt playing in a less cynical moment. Eef Barzelay is surprisingly tender, humanizing even, and all the more so because he embraces our kinks and warts. He sees us for the wounded, ridiculous creatures we are but still has hope we might be better than our past.
Sounds of Summer 6:
Archie Bronson Outfit: Derdang Derdang (Domino)
Some things you like instantly. Rather than a slow seduction, some music takes us by force, pushing our head into the pillow with a grin. Wolfmother did it to me earlier this year, and now a chuggin' blues-psych trio from England has done it again. The Archie Bronson Outfit is Sam Windett (guitar, vocals), Dog Hobday (bass), and Mark "Arp" Cleveland (drums, lyrics). This is what you want blasting as you spend a lost weekend with someone very bad for you. You can almost taste salty sweat as opener "Cherry Lips" plants one on your neck, eagerly working their way around your chakras. A snap-tight rubber band feel dominates. Call it "harnessed looseness." They're a rough and tumble mixture of Thee Headcoats, the Chocolate Watchband, and heavy-breathing Yardbirds. Luke Garwood joins them on "mad horns" on three cuts, including "Rituals," which was specifically written as a vehicle for his stellar clarinet playing. A moist heat rises off ABO, their music all hands and desperate howls, clawing at you - modern lovers who want to put it in you. What exactly "it" is, well, that's for time to tell.
Vintage Stash Pick-of-the-Month:
Judee Sill: Dreams Come True (Water)
Judee Sill's music was a jubilant engagement with fear and joy. The two albums she released in the early '70s remain folk-rock touchstones. Unabashedly spiritual, Sill fought against the disappointed malaise that clung to her peers after the '60s youth movement failed to make the '70s golden. Though she struggled with drugs throughout her short life (she was 35 years old when she died from an overdose in 1979), her songs have a unique brightness that cuts through dark places. Water (always a source of great reissues) has lovingly assembled Sill's unreleased third album and insightful home recordings. The care lavished on this extension of Sill's legacy is obvious - from the testimonials by family, friends, and musical compatriots to the archival photos and complete lyric sheets inside, and especially through the stunning, intuitive mix by Jim O'Rourke. Dreams Come True strips her sound of the strings and heavily-layered arrangements that dominated Sill's Geffen albums. O'Rourke, building on the original production by bassist Bill Plummer, reveals the interlocking nature of each part, letting the voices and instruments converse in a lively way. One is reminded of Paul Simon's band on One Trick Pony or Carole King's Tapestry studio aces. The ingenuity and creativity of these tracks makes them Sill's finest hour. Hearing the largely unadorned demos on Disc 2 reveals the traditional roots and tentative steps Sill took in forging her sound. Though her demons tore her down much too young, for a time Sill was able to inject pure sunshine into the human spirit. This collection shows that 30 years on, she's lost none of her potency or relevance.
Vintage Stash runner-up:
Eccentric Soul: The Big Mack Label (The Numero Group)
This'll make you brush up on your Hairspray dance moves! The Mashed Potato, Swim, and everyone's favorite, The Jerk, will all come in handy when this all-killer, no-filler anthology spins. What the latest entry in this wonderful new reissue label's series proves is good '60s/'70s soul wasn't exclusive to Motown. Tracks like the Performers' "Mini Skirt" speak to the ephemeral novelty of some cuts, but a marvelous (and marvelously titled) kiss off like Edd Henry's "Your Replacement Is Here" or the Grand Prix's Coasters-esque "You Drive Me Crazy" jump with enduring life. Ms Tyree "Sugar" Jones' "If You Feel It" rivals Diana Ross' '70s solo singles, and Essence's atmospheric reading of "Fever" will crawl right up your spine. The Soul President (how great is that name!) works it "hippy style" on the Haight-Ashbury-focused "Got To Have It" while Mae Young's "The Man Puts Sugar In My Soul" shamelessly (and effectively) works a James Brown groove. Informative, well-written liner notes and archival photos bring further depth to the jewels of the long lost Big Mack label, which ended under two feet of standing water and a collapsed roof. Thankfully these 19 truly soulful gems have been rescued from obscurity.
Next month we'll check out Tool's 10,000 Days, Mark Fosson's Lost Tokoma Sessions, T-Bone Burnett's career-spanning anthology, and the Easy Star All-Stars follow-up to Dub Side of the Moon on which they explore the reggae possibilities of Radiohead. Until then, listen to something new every week. It'll make you live longer...
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