Albums of the Week: April 2-April 8 John Butler, Erykah

JamBase Albums of the Week | April 2-April 8, 2010

Dennis’ Pick of the Week
Flowmotion: Ghost Pepper (Flowmotion Music)

Of late, rock has gotten a bit inelegant. There’s edginess, aloofness, ginned up loft, experimentation and angst aplenty, but there’s a real dirth of quality melodies and un-syrupy romance and hopefulness that don’t resort to clichés. Part of the reason ’70s classic rock endures is the abiding craftsmanship and real savvy of its best exponents at creating sonic spaces with lots of room for people to inhabit. There’s a real art to creating rock that’s primed to connect across a wide spectrum AND doesn’t feel like some gross, lowest common denominator ploy. In Ghost Pepper (released March 17), Flowmotion delivers a song cycle that’s as skillfully wrought and artfully sculpted as “classic” forebears like Traffic and early Journey and Doobie Brothers, while managing to work in nuances in keeping with peers like The Mother Hips and ALO. If you dream and stumble and love and struggle, well, there’s plenty to grab onto here, and the music carries one along with a deceptively easy flow. This is not simple music but in keeping with their name, Flowmotion makes things seem easy, never showboating or strutting, letting the quality of their tunes, lyrics and musicianship speak for themselves while maintaining a distinctively organic feel, where one senses the players in the room together chasing something big & true and capturing it with their bare hands and nakedly passionate vocals. Oh sure, there’s blistering guitar solos and crazy, time changing turnarounds but all of it serves the songs, which are uniformly excellent and show that the whole damn band has real compositional acumen. Captured largely live in the studio in a whirlwind session with relentlessly great producer Scott Colburn (Arcade Fire, Animal Collective), Ghost Pepper hums with life – hard won happiness and sorrowful moments distilled into a very useful tool for our own living. There’s real focus here, though one can hear all the jazzbo-technical, jam-ready bits lurking in the curves, making this an extremely satisfying home listening experience that also stirs high hopes for the live counterparts to come. Ghost Pepper is the work of real pros more than ready for AOR airplay and a much wider audience beyond their fervent Pacific Northwest following, and more simply, a lovely album packed with muscular, graceful rock ‘n’ roll of the very best kind. (Dennis Cook)

Dennis’ Runner-Up of the Week
Rotary Downs: Cracked Maps & Blue Reports (Rookery/Reapandsow)

A propulsive, infectious urgency informs this latest bumptious, captivating offering from one of New Orleans’ emerging rock joys. There’s more than a whiff of Pavement at their hooky, quirky, inventive best here, particularly press-repeat-then-repeat-again opener “Ragna Rok” and dissolving pop melt of “Vampires/Werewolves.” But the Downs’ reach is wide and wisps of late ’70s Bowie, Camper Van Beethoven, The Specials and other tasty ancestors dangle off this set, though they never seem bent on copying anybody; there’s just the same sort of smarts, catchiness and creative intent to these cats ‘n’ kittens. Each cut is lovingly layered, harmonically stretched and played with palpable affection, but unlike many contemporaries, Rotary Downs doesn’t come off as too busy or trying too hard. Other than a strong rhythmic sensibility, there’s not a lot that pins this to New Orleans specifically. Like a lot of quality modern rock, Cracked Maps & Blue Reports (released ) is a soundtrack for the rush-rush anywhere we hectic beings find ourselves living in today, a bouncing rumination on crying angels and random digs with layers galore to peel away by & by. (DC)

Ron’s Pick of the Week
Earl Greyhound: Suspicious Package (Hawk Race)

Grizzly Bear drummer Chris Bear’s first band returns with a monster of a replacement for the indie rock wunderkind behind the kit. Thanks to an introduction courtesy of Roots guitarist Kirk Douglass, drummer Ricc Sheridan said that he “knew [Earl Greyhound] was my band” after seeing them a few times live. Together, this power trio delivers a second album that stands as one of the finest hard rock albums to emerge from Brooklyn since Anthrax’s Persistence of Time. The interplay between Sheridan, frontman/guitarist Matt Whyte and bassist/singer Kamara Thomas is harmonious and crushing all at once, with the crisp production of Dave Schiffman, the man behind Mars Volta’s De-Loused in the Comatorium and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ One Hot Minute, demands maximum volume. Suspicious Package (arriving April 13) is the album I hoped Living Colour had made for their comeback. (Ron Hart)

Ron’s Runner-Up of the Week
Erykah Badu: New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh (Control Freaq-Motown)

“Erykah’s got a bubble!” exclaimed the recent text message my friend sent me after he finally got to watch the controversial video for “Window Seat,” the hit single from Ms. Badu’s new album where she strips naked in Dallas while walking the same path the JFK motorcade took on that fateful day in November of 1963 (for which she was recently charged with disorderly conduct). But just because ‘E’ freed her ass (and a mighty fine one at that), it’s still her mind that we continue to follow. And on Part Two of her New Amerykah project, that brain takes us on her most soulful and sexy audio journey since Baduizm. Beaming with post-Obama positivity and gathering together an absolute wrecking crew of a studio team – including Madlib, the late J. Dilla, Sa-Ra Creative Partners, avant-R&B sista Georgia Anne Muldrow and Soulquarians mastermind James Poyser – Return of the Ankh (released March 30) is everything weird and wonderful about this next level “Southern Gul.” (RH)

John Butler Trio: April Uprising (ATO)
Change can be a very positive thing. In John Butler’s case, it’s produced his single best, most decidedly rocking album to date. While his longtime rhythm section was much beloved – by fans and the man himself – bassist Byron Luiters and drummer Nicky Bomba inject coursing new blood into Butler’s music, which rattles like never before on April Uprising (arriving April 6). While his earlier work sometimes carried a hippie-musk-meets-Pearl Jam vibe, Butler is sharply defined on this set, which not only cranks up the electric guitar but also shows an increasing acumen at earthy roots material and power pop. His conscious, message oriented stripe remains but he shows off some darker facets, too, and combined with his broadest, most interesting musical palette ever, Butler is proving a more and more interesting artist with each passing year. (DC)

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion: Dirty Shirt Rock ‘n’ Roll: The First Ten Years (Majordomo/Shout Factory)
While much ado has been rightfully made about the reunion of Pavement, we shouldn’t forget to notate the existence of their influential Matador Records labelmates the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, whose uncanny sound was almost the major presence on the ’90s indie circuit as their Stockton slacker brethren. And though Matador doesn’t seem to deem the downtown NYC, maximum R&B trio’s catalog cool enough to give such classic albums as Extra Width, Orange and Now I Got Worry the deluxe treatment its giving Malkmus and the boys, Shout! Factory subsidiary Majordomo is picking up the slack with a promising reissue campaign that refurbishes the majority of the JSBX canon with choice bonus material, new packaging and other enhancements. Kicking things off, however, is this 22-track collection jam-packed with some of the most quality noise frontman Spencer, guitarist Judah Bauer and drummer Russell Simins crafted with their unholy union of Brooklyn hip-hop, Memphis rockabilly and D.C. punk fury. Dirty Shirt Rock ‘n’ Roll (released March 30) is a great starting point for anyone who has yet to feel the power of the Blues Explosion, while also serving as a thrilling mixtape meant to remind longtime fans why these cats were in heavy rotation on stereos back when. (RH)

Trampled By Turtles: Palomino (Banjodad)
Just based on the evidence of this chugging, potent album, Trampled By Turtles is one of the most gifted young string bands today. Having seen them live, I know there’s plenty of satisfying fireworks to their concerts, but Palomino (arriving April 13) allows listeners an intimacy that illuminates their skill as pickers and the glowing artistry of Dave Simonett‘s insightful, gently wise songwriting. The only really apt comparison in the current string band crop is Chatham County Line, who share a similar ability to, by turns, break one’s heart and make one sway contentedly. There are licks of flame on the instrumentals here, but it’s Simonett’s enticing oak-cask-aged voice (bolstered by his pal’s sweet harmonies) and the things it says that crawl inside you. “Again” and “Bloodshot Eyes” are tenderness and beautiful yet unsentimental delicacy personified, while “Help You” has a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band pop feel and “Gasoline” is just plain haunting. In fact, it’s when they ease off the accelerator that one really sees what a fine, fine band Trampled By Turtles is. (DC)

Brad Mehldau: Highway Rider (Nonesuch)
Brad Mehldau, the rightful heir to the throne of piano giant Bill Evans, once again pairs up with art pop super-producer Jon Brion for their first collaboration since 2002’s mesmerizing Largo on this epic two-disc set. Highway Rider (released March 16) finds the 39-year-old Jacksonville native branching out into entirely new territory beyond his piano trio formula, incorporating electronic beats, horns, vibraphones and full-on sweeping orchestral arrangements with strings that pull from his recent classical work as prominently as it does his trio material. And who better to bring it all together than the mighty Brion, who offers the same sense of adventure and imagination he delivers with his soundtrack work for such films as Punch Drunk Love and Synecdoche, New York on what should be considered to be Mehldau’s career-defining masterpiece. (RH)

Elliott Smith: Roman Candle/From a Basement on the Hill (Kill Rock Stars)
Though he recorded for about eight labels over the course of his career, Kill Rock Stars will always considered to be the true home for the late, great Elliott Smith. And now two key orphaned titles in the ES canon find a good home alongside such KRS classics as his 1995 self-titled LP and 1997’s masterful Either/Or. Roman Candle, Elliott’s 1994 solo debut on the Portland-based Cavity Search imprint, has been beautifully remastered from the artist’s original mixes by Smith family archivist Larry Crane and engineer Roger Seibel, and has never sounded better. Meanwhile, From a Basement on a Hill, originally released on Anti- in October of 2004, sadly suffered from the stigma of Elliott’s shocking suicide a year before. So, this KRS edition of the singer’s unintended swan song gets another opportunity to present itself as a collection of the richest and most electric tunes in the ES songbook (although it would have been cool to see it get reissued as the double LP it was initially intended to be). (RH)

Dum Dum Girls: I Will Be (Sub Pop)
If the Go-Go’s recorded an album as lo-fi as that party tape that was going around with the girls all high on coke and coaxing one of their male crew members to jerk off on camera, it would sound like this outstanding debut album from Brooklyn’s Dum Dum Girls. Featuring guest turns by Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and former Vivian Girls drummer Frankie Rose, as well as production from Richard Gottehrer (who coincidentally produced Belinda and the girls as well as Blondie), I Will Be (released March 30) is a tighter, more concise version of the Spector-aping squall-of-sound girl-group post-punk that’s all the rage in their neck of the King’s County as front-gal Kristin “Dee Dee” Gundred (formerly of Grand Ole Party) sings sultry/paranoid odes to her husband Brandon Welchez (Crocodiles). This album is so Brooklyn hip, it should come with free drink tickets at the Turkey’s Nest. (RH)

Black Tambourine: Black Tambourine (Slumberland)
The vast majority of bands signed to the highly in vogue Slumberland Records owe a shot and a beer to label chief Mike Schulman’s first band, Black Tambourine, whose melding of the best moments on their favorite albums by The Pastels, Galaxie 500, Phil Spector and the Jesus and Mary Chain between 1989-1991 gave this Silver Spring, MD-based quartet a unique and powerful sound that can be heard over the din of such popular modern day groups as Crystal Stilts, the Vivian Girls, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Dum Dum Girls. This 16 track set upgrades the group’s 1999 Complete Recordings collection with gorgeous new packaging, revised liner notes and six more tracks, four of which were recorded during the summer of 2009, including covers of Buddy Holly’s “Heartbeat” and a version of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” to rival the Boss’ take. (RH)

Mulatu Astatke: Mulatu Steps Ahead (Strut)
Mulatu mania continues to sweep the tastemaker nation as the father of Ethiopian jazz makes a grand return to the studio with this amazing new album (released March 30). Backed up by members of Either/Orchestra and The Heliocentrics – England’s premier live instrumental hip-hop band, whose collaboration with Astatke last year remains the crown jewel of Strut Records’ Inspiration Information series – among others, this globetrotting gem of a record melds the traditional and high life vibes of Mulatu’s motherland with a mellow mood of modality in line with classic performances by Chet Baker and late period Duke Ellington. Also worth checking out is the Mochilla label’s recent DVD release of Astatke’s sold-out performance at Los Angeles’ Luckman Fine Arts Complex featuring such West Coast legends as Bennie Maupin, Azar Lawrence and the great Phil Ranelin sitting in with Mulatu and The Heliocentrics as they waltz through 40-plus years of Ethio-jazz genius. (RH)

The Plimsouls: Live! Beg, Borrow and Steal (Alive)
Los Angeles’ finest act from the New Wave era were certainly a force of nature on the clubland stage, as this scorching soundboard of Peter Case and co. in their prime clearly indicates. Recorded on a particularly fiery Halloween night in 1981 at the legendary Whisky A Go Go, the high gloss sheen of the quartet’s out-of-print eponymous debut (released that year) is completely washed away amidst the heat of overdriven amps on songs like “Hush Hush”, “Zero Hour” and a rowdy version of the old rock standard “Hey Hey Hey Hey” sizzle with a rawness on par with the punkers panhandling on the Sunset Strip. (RH)

Elephant9: Walk The Nile (Rune Grammofon)
As a member of the Norwegian ambient group Supersilent, keyboardist Ståle Storløkken pushes the boundaries of quiet with sinister skill. But playing alongside drummer Torstein Lofthus and bassist Nikolai Eilertsen, Storløkken plugs in his Hammond and just kills it the way John Medeski did on The Dropper, only the end results yield as much Jon Lord (Deep Purple) as they do Keith Jarrett circa Live-Evil. This is seriously heavy organ trio shit that any fan of good instrumental bump music should recognize. Walk The Nile (released March 30) is 21st century Viking jazz at its finest. (RH)

Mugstar: …Sun, Broken… (Important)
Heavy psych, krautrock and NYC art ghetto noise come together to create something entirely unique and transcendental on the second full-length from Liverpool, England-based Mugstar, who gained notoriety across the U.K. and parts of the U.S. as the last band to log in a session with John Peel before the BBC legend passed away. …Sun, Broken… (released March 23) could have been the sound of Pink Floyd and electric Miles Davis jamming with special guest Holger Czukay of Can had organizers of the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival been adventurous like that. Any fan of space rock in its purest form must give Mugstar an orbit in your stereo. (RH)

Mimicking Birds: Mimicking Birds (Glacial Pace)
From the opening notes of “Home and Somewhere Else,” the opening track off the sublime debut by the home recording project of Portland’s Nate Lacy and his one man show Mimicking Birds, it’s easy to see why Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock is amped enough about this kid to have taken him under his wing, so to speak. And it seems all the tutelage, touring and tinkering with Brock, who produced the Birds’ eponymous debut for his Glacial Pace label, has paid off in spades for Lacy. Mimicking Birds (released March 9) is full of the kind of minor-key, looping melodies that Modest Mouse made their calling card since their EP debut on Sub Pop, Blue Cadet-3, Do You Connect?, albeit stripped to the bone, exposing a lucid Leonard Cohen afterworld underneath. Also worth checking out is the home demos Lacy made available on Virb. Check it out. (RH)

Vintage Stash Pick of the Week
The Runaways: The Mercury Albums Anthology (Hip-O Select)

They were the original Bad Girls Club: a group of flaming schoolgirls from Los Angeles whose fiery, provocative blend of punk-infused hard rock served as the missing link between KISS and The Germs in the mid-to-late 1970s and harbored more of a bite than the music of men twice their age. For four whirlwind years, The Runaways reigned as the most dangerous band in America as they were all under the age of 18 and elicited the kind of attention from their sex-and-sin-fueled lyrics that by today’s standards would have landed more than a few of their adult male fans in front of a camera with Dateline‘s Chris Hansen. By now most are aware of the critically acclaimed biopic featuring Twilight‘s Kristen Stewart as rhythm guitarist and eventual frontwoman Joan Jett and a suddenly matured Dakota Fanning as original lead singer Cherie Currie currently in theatres. And just in time for its release at the box office comes this long-overdue reissue of the girls’ four-album catalog, the entirety of which fits gamely into this jam-packed, beautifully packaged two-CD set. In listening to this anthology, especially The Runaways’ pair of 1977 studio albums, Queens of Noise and the Jett-led Waitin’ For The Night on the second disc, you come to realize who the real star of this jailbait squad truly was. Turns out it’s the new film’s most vocal critic: lead guitarist Lita Ford, whose Blackmore-like ferocity and Frehley-esque precision on her axe – especially for someone so young at the time – was the real scene stealer of the band. Her solos on songs like “Neon Angels on the Road to Ruin”, “Johnny Guitar” and “Trash Can Murders,” as well as a scorching version of their staple “Cherry Bomb” from their Live in Japan concert album are just sick and will give you a newfound respect for her six-string skills, especially if you grew up with the image of her romping around in that “Kiss Me Deadly” video on MTV. It’s no wonder she wants nothing to do with the movie. (RH)

Check out Dennis’ 2008 interview with Joan Jett!

Sandy Hurvitz: Sandy’s Album Is Here At Last (Collector’s Choice)
Hey Zappa fans, ever wonder where the term “Uncle Meat” originated? Well, before it became known as Frank’s challenging 1969 album of experimental fusion (and subsequent film of the same name) it was the moniker the late guitarist bestowed upon Essra Mohawk during the then-barely legal Philadelphian singer’s short-but-storied stint as the only official female member of the Mothers of Invention. However, Mohawk, who as introverted teenager Sandy Hurvitz was an aspiring songwriter in the mid-60s, whose tunes were recorded by the Shangri-Las and Vanilla Fudge, is an incredible performer in her own right, as the reissue campaign of her first three albums indubitably signifies. Mohawk believes that her beautifully raw and intimate 1969 debut, recorded under her given name and “under-produced” by fellow Mother Ian Underwood, was the subject of sabotage on the part of Zappa, who had turned on her because she made one suggestion too many when FZ was the original producer and employed the Mothers to back her up. But the stripped-bare nature of Sandy’s Album Is Here At Last (reissued February 23), with many songs featuring just her on piano with minimal accompaniment from such notable jazz sidemen as Bill Evans, bassist Eddie Gomez and acclaimed journeyman flautist Jeremy Steig, backfired on ol’ Frank, as Essra/Sandy’s gorgeous voice and immense talent on the piano shone brightly through the production’s lo-fi din. This is a lovely sidebar to the Zappa Universe that will certainly appeal to fans of Joni Mitchell as much as it does to more liberal-minded Mother lovers. (RH)