Sunday, May 24, 2015

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2014: A-B

Sheezus (Parlophone/WEA)

Allen’s her own woman and all, but she has precursors: Julie Brown (who she’s as funny as), Tracey Ullman (who she sings as well as), Millie Jackson (who she’s working on being as dirty as) and chick flicks, for which this album, like her other two, could be a soundtrack if R-rated chick flicks were the norm.  All but foregoing timelessness and universality, she sets herself the challenge of remaining up-to-the-minute and more or less succeeds, tweaking Kanye West in the title cut, bitching up “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” and mentioning Instagram and Wordpress.  The catchiest song is the Abba-gone-zydeco “As Long As I Got You.”  The sincerest is “Insincerely Yours,” which goes “Let’s be clear, I’m here ... to make money.”

The Rite of Spring (Sony Masterworks)

Why not a top-flight jazz trio’s interpretation of the twentieth century’s most inflammatory work, what with jazz’s comprising the twentieth century’s most inflammatory musical innovations and all?  Well, there are no dancers (Le Sacre du printemps was a ballet after all), and no jazz trio, no matter how gifted or well intentioned, can evoke riotous pagan spirits as convincingly as an orchestra.  In short, there’s no way that this skeletal, one-dimensional recreation of a fully fleshed three-dimensional experience won’t have twenty-first-century ticket buyers feeling as if they’ve been had.  Still, the sole surviving dimension hath charms to roil the savage breast.  And there’s something to be said for leaving something to the imagination--and for giving the drummer David King room to strut his overcompensatory stuff.

3rd (YepRoc)

3rd improves this indie supergroup’s already impressive slugging percentage.  Coming in for admiration and-or sympathy this time are Luis Tiant, Dale Murphy, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Larry Yount, and every beloved player with a lousy personality (“They Played Baseball”).  Coming in for disapprobation and-or sympathy: Lenny Dykstra, Alex Rodriguez, and Pascual Pérez.  The music ranges from folk-rock to power-pop, the singing from Scott McCaughey’s and Steve Wynn’s sports-nerd whimsy to Linda Pitmon’s ball-girl charm.  Best of all is the Dock Ellis tribute “The Day Dock Went Hunting Heads,” which recounts the time that Ellis jump-started the slumping Bucs by hitting every Cincinnati Red batter that he faced before getting pulled in the first inning.  Thirty years later, the incident still possesses inspirational properties.

Underneath the Rainbow (Vice)

Who’d’ve thunk that an impassioned Atlanta combo would’ve been just the thing to drag the Black Keys’ preoccupation with anachronistic garage rock kicking and screaming into the twenty tens?  And who’d’ve thunk that, having succeeded, the combo’s results would sound so unexceptional?  “Don’t Die” is good advice, of course, but Chuck Berry, Alice Cooper, Brownsville Station, and Pink Floyd have done better schoolhouse rock than “Waiting.”  As the soundtrack to a water-treading refusal to mature, most of this album passes muster.  None of its sentient fans, however, will be rocking or rolling to it in five years.  Maybe the jazz-fusionists, classical revisionists, every talented musician who’s not Jack White, and Yogi Berra are correct: The past ain’t what it used to be, and, what’s more, it never was.

Talkin’ Christmas! (Sony Masterworks)

Clarence Fountain is still MIA, Paul Beasley’s falsetto is still too squeaky, and Taj Mahal is content mainly to pick and strum instruments.  But someone (Ricke McKinnie?  Ben Moore?  surely not the nonagenarian and sole original member Jimmy Carter?) is doing a pretty-good Fountain impersonation, Beasley’s solo mic time is limited, and Mahal’s deep black-diaspora roots are a perfect complement to the more circumscribed but equally deep roots of the Boys.  Of the half-dozen originals, “There’s a Reason We Call It Christmas” has the makings of a bonafide holiday standard, and “What Can I Do?” could’ve improved Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy.   As for the gospel-rocking album-opener, “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” it’s so radically re-arranged that you’d swear it was an original too.

Flesh + Blood (Vanguard)

Don’t let the “jam band” tag that’s attached itself to this Australian band put you off.  Although the songs tend toward the five-minute mark, there’s a concision to the execution that brings the riffs to the fore, making them and the lyrics (not superfluous), the singing (adequate at worst, sing-a-long-ish at best), and the titles to which they’re attached (“Devil Woman” is not a Cliff Richard cover) feel rootsy without giving off excessive patchouli whiffs.  “Livin’ in the City” even manages to bring Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” overground while honoring the titular echoes of Stevie Wonder.  Live, of course, matters might get out of hand.  Flesh + Blood, however, is a studio album.  Why, “Bullet Girl”’s parts are practically greater than its metaphysical whole.

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2014: C

Badlands (The End)

What kind of chicks are these leather-clad revivers of good-ol’ hard rock trying to seduce?  The kind who like being called “little woman,” being dragged “back to hell,” and being reminded that since those who gave them what they want find them “so fucking beautiful”, they should simply “handle it.”  And that’s just Track One (of 13).  In short, boilerplate bad-boy misogyny lives or at least refuses to go gentle into that good night.  Call it the daze of Guns ’N Roses.  No, the title cut isn’t a Springsteen cover.  (Would that it were.)  No, “Falling” isn’t a LeBlanc & Carr cover.  (Ditto.)  Only “Bruce Willis” (“I wake every morning with a feeling I’m getting too old for this shit”) justifies the effort.  (Hey, Looper wasn’t that bad.)

The Essential Eric Carmen (Sony/Legacy)

What makes this thirty-track, “essential” collection better than the eighteen-track, 1997 “definitive” one with which it shares sixteen cuts?  Not the obscurities--neither the pre-Raspberries “Get the Message” nor 2013’s “Brand New Year” goes all the way, and the studio version of “That’s Rock N’ Roll” on The Definitive is more essential than this album’s live 1976 run through.  Meanwhile, “I Wanna Hear It from Your Lips” remains vanished down the memory hole, and 1997’s not-bad I Was Born to Love You might as well never have happened.  Still, Carmen’s sixteen definitively essential/essentially definitive moments really are pretty great.  And then there’s the heretofore uncollected “Love Is All That Matters,” the most beautiful melody that Carmen ever lifted from a nineteenth-century Russian composer.

Carter Girl (Rounder)

The latest album by June Carter Cash’s daughter replants the Carter Family’s musical roots in twenty-first-century alt-country soil--seven of the dozen songs were written by the family’s paterfamilias, A.P. Carter (eight if you count “Lonesome Valley 2003,” an A.P. classic updated by Carlene and NRBQ’s Al Anderson).  Rife with gospel-music archetypes, they’ll apprise newcomers to the “first family of country music” of the fact that Christianity used to be cool.  But it’s the Carlene original, a re-recorded “Me and the Wildwood Rose,” that sets the tone: “In my Grandma's house her children would sing, / guitars a twangin' and their laughter would ring. / I was little, but I was the biggest kid. / I wanted to do what the grown-ups did.”  At fifty-eight, she finally has.

The River & the Thread (Blue Note)

In interviews, Cash has related the fascinating backstories of these eleven songs (fourteen in the deluxe version) with so much detail that they almost overshadow the songs themselves.  She also lets on as how, at fifty-eight, she now regards the music of her hit-filled youth as rather lacking in gravitas.  Well, given the alt-country heaven from which she’s channeling the meditative melodies of her maturity and the autobiographical richness of her Deep South lyrics, it’s easy to see (and hear) what she means.  Still, there are a river and a thread running through her entire impressive oeuvre, and they’re worth listening for--especially when they unite her with her daddy’s old-time religion and thus unbreak the circle bye and bye, Lord, bye and bye.

Hotel Valentine (Chimera)

Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori haven’t recorded as Cibo Matto since Bill Clinton was president.  But shuffle these ten new tracks among the nineteen on 2007’s Pom Pom: The Essential Cibo Matto and you’ll be hard pressed to tell which are which--that is, unless you’re one of the relatively (and obviously) few consumers who pushed 1999’s Stereo*Type A (the band’s previously highest-charting release) all the way to 171 on Billboard and therefore have an unfair advantage.  The partly rapped, partly sung lyrics still sound like hijacked playground chants, and the largely electronic, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink instrumentation still sounds like pop art for pop art’s sake.  Only the minimalistic (and maybe racist) “Housekeeping” justifies the formula--hence (no doubt) Hotel Valentine’s debuting at 168.

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2014: D-F

Ultraviolence (Universal)

Well, whaddaya know?  The pre-fab tabular rasa of Born to Die is a real human being after all--one capable of feeling used and abused by the Industry that she strove so long to be a vital part of and of hating herself for having gone along for the ride.  Not for nothing did she light up Baz Luhrmann’s soundtrack for The Great Gatsby.  In the chain-smoking interviews that she has given to promote this follow-up to her overhyped debut, she expresses the desire to die young and beautiful.  This album explains why, in grittier verbal detail and in scarier soundscapes than you might want to know.  It’s really too bad that Lou Reed died on the day of his scheduled collaboration with her.  Edie Sedgwick lives!

Allergic to Water (Righteous Babe)

Unless you belong to the politically correct choir to which DiFranco has long preached, she’ll still strike you as somewhat obnoxious—the atheistic equivalent, say, of a (talented) contemporary Christian musician.  But she’s less obnoxious than she used to be, maybe because, in an irony worthy of Oedipus, she finds herself, as a married mother of two, face to face with the very inevitabilities from which she once fled.  A maturity as musical as it is verbal is one of them—her folk-jazz ferment has never sounded more organic.  A sense of humor is another.  Her humble 1999 declaration that she wasn’t “angry anymore” was just a straight-up confession.  Her bemused 2014 realization that she’s “happy all the time” grounds an entire song’s worth of ace atheistic jokes. 

Stupid Things (self-released)

At a time during which the Frozen soundtrack is the most popular album in the world, these ten quirky coming-of-age songs are a tonic.  The bouncy piano, chipper melodies, and detailed lyrics cultivate the same feminine turf but at a deeper level, and Dooley sings almost as well as Demi Lovato, Idina Menzel, and Kristen Bell.  In fact, by singing “worse”--i.e., with less regard for the niceties of professionalistic perfectionism--she could be said to sing better.  If only she weren’t so nasal.  Her piercing tone and helium-huffing range do her occasionally overripe cuteness no favors (“Watching Goonies at My House”).  But when she eases up and meets her sentiments halfway, she sounds as if she could give one-woman, off-Broadway shows a good name.

Holiday (Legacy)

On 2013’s Now, Then & Forever, Philip Bailey, Ralph Johnson, and Verdine White strove mighty mightily to recapture EWF’s peak-period glory but failed.  With Holiday they succeed.  (Well, Bailey and White anyway.  Johnson is absent from the credits.)  Granted, given the subject, they didn’t need new material—the “September” rewrite “December” aside, “Happy Seasons” is the only original.  But, lest the project feel perfunctory, they did need EWF-worthy arrangements.  And to that challenge they’ve risen.  It’s not so much that they imbue “Joy to the World,” “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” and “The Drummer Boy,” et. al. with funky pizzazz as that they make doing so sound as natural as trimming a tree.  And the shining star at the top?  An irresistible rendition of the Japanese favorite “Snow.”

Boy Cried Wolf (BMG)

These pop-rocking Brits scored four Top-10 U.K. hits in 2006 and 2007, so they could be forgiven wanting to milk their formula.  Instead, they’re deepening and broadening it until the occasional sophistication of their gentle hooks and introspective lyrics becomes a pleasure in itself.  And although the softness at their sound’s core (Ciaran Jeremiah’s piano, Dan Gillespie Sells’ high-pitched, McCartney-esque voice) still makes the sentiments sound treaclier and callower than they are, often enough they just seem carefully thought out.  “The Gloves Are Off,” for instance, neatly balances the literal and figurative similarities between romance and boxing.  And the tolerance anthem “When I Look Above”--the only cut in which Sells’ homosexuality matters at all--seems more like self-examination than a plea for special treatment.

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2014: G-K

50 St. Catherine’s Drive (Rhino)

No, you’re not foolish to wonder whether this posthumous solo opus from the Bee Gee with the weirdest voice could possibly be any good.  Yet “any good” it is, and had it been trimmed to its 10 best tracks instead of padded out to 16, it would’ve been even better.  Hooks and baroque-pop filigrees abound, effectively neutralizing Gibb's apparent pride in never having met a cliché that he didn’t like.  The Bee Gees oldie “I Am the World” gets redone to stunning effect.  “Days of Wine And Roses” doesn’t embarrass itself by sharing a title with a Henry Mancini-Johnny Mercer classic.  And the late-Aussie-DJ tribute “Alan Freeman Days” is so irresistible that opportunistic Americans would be foolish not to record a cover renamed for Casey Kasem.

Brotherhood (Alligator)

This septuagenarian trio’s soul-gospel-blues mix is as generic as ever, but the longer they stay at it, the less pejorative “generic” seems.  More than ever, in other words, they sound less like some spark-seeking soul singer’s ideal backing band (guitar, bass, drums--and they sing!) and more like a Three Dog Night for the roots crowd.  “Stayed at the Party” is nothing if not a long-overdue sequel to “Mama Told Me (Not to Come).”  Also like Three Dog Night, these guys can do small wonders with the right material: Popsy Dixon’s falsetto adds the ideal note of vulnerability betrayed to Ted Hawkins’ “I Gave Up All I Had.”  If they’d resisted bloating Brotherhood to fourteen tracks, maybe such highlights wouldn’t seem so few and far between.

Sweet Talker (Universal Republic)

“I’ma do it like it ain't been done,” declares Jessie J repeatedly at the outset, although what “it” is remains ambiguous.  If it’s, you know, “it,” then good luck with that.  If, however, it’s high-impact hip-hop R&B circa right now, then she has a chance.  She did, after all, get top billing on “Bang Bang,” the explosive single that she recorded with Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj and that’s also this album’s most combustible song.  Second-most combustible is “Masterpiece,” which doesn’t so much do it like it ain’t been done as borrow Martika’s “Toy Soldiers” hook for the refrain and use it to express this accurate review of Sweet Talker as a whole: “You haven't seen the best of me. / I'm still working on my masterpiece.” 

Lexington (Industrial Amusement)

Top--indeed only--billing though Wayne Kramer gets on this engagingly rambunctious free-jazz excursion, the erstwhile MC5 guitarist is only one of nine noisemakers who collectively go by the name of the Lexington Arts Ensemble.  And the most arresting composition, the film-noir atmospheric “13th Hour,” isn’t even rambunctious.  So an electric guitarfest Lexington is most definitely not (although the last two-and-a-half minutes of the second-most-arresting composition, “The Wayne in Spain,” come close).  A trombone, tenor sax-and-oboe, and double drummerfest with electric-guitar filigrees is more like it.  There are also two bassists (upright and electric) and a pianist (who might or might not be the organist on the shuck-and-jivey “Elvin’s Blues”).  Do the jams get kicked out?  Oh yes.

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2014: L

Runaway’s Diary (Archer)

A real-life runaway episode from LaVere’s teenage years inspired these songs, eight of which she composed or co-composed, four of which she chose (from Townes Van Zandt, Ned Miller, Mike McCarthy, and John Lennon).  The reason that they comprise her best album to date, however, has less to do with their through line than with such oddball aural touches as Sam Shoup’s mellotron and their sheer catchiness.  Consider, for instance, “Self Made Orphan.”  Its jaunty syncopation and the way that LaVere’s sleepy morning-after voice rides it would be their own rewards even if the lyrics didn’t include this concise elucidation of why people love pop music in the first place: “I daydream every song’s about me. / I daydream every song’s about you too—especially the sad ones.”

Nostalgia (Island)

Lennox is a good soul and no doubt means well, but her takes on these 12 staples of the Great American Songbook diet are rather boring.  Blame it on the Nina Simone effect—slowing songs unnecessarily down in the mistaken belief that slow equals soulful or deep.  Optimists will call the results “lush,” and they’ll have a point.  Every now and then the husky richness of Lennox’s alto voice intersects with her backing orchestra in ways that suggest new possibilities.  And the arrangements are not bereft of imagination.  But not even the audacity of placing Screamin’ Jay Hawkins alongside George Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael, and Duke Ellington will distract skeptics from wondering what a Scottish ex-Eurythmic could possibly know about what Billie Holiday knew about strange fruit circa Jim Crow.

Jetpack Soundtrack (Weathermaker)

If this Maryland-based trio/quartet (more on that confusion in a second) has never made a bad album, it has never made a great one either, but it’s getting closer all the time, and Jetpack Soundtrack is the Lionize album to get if you’re going to get just one.  Once a reggae act, the band is now a hard-rock act whose main influence would seem to be Deep Purple thanks to Chris Brooks’ answering every call of Nate Bergman’s guitar with Jon Lord-like organ.  Meanwhile, why the drummer Chase Lapp isn’t listed as a member on the band’s website is a mystery.  Without him, not even Bergman’s impassioned enunciation of lyrics giving Wolf Blitzer, Rupert Murdoch, and (especially) Alex Jones their due would feel sufficiently pounded home.

Harmony Is Real: Songs for a Happy Holiday (Vanguard)

Imagine a soft-focus Andrews Sisters-Roches hybrid plus a fourth-part harmony and the talent to assemble a dozen-song holiday album with only two standards (“Silver Bells,” “Jingle Bells”) and one carol (“Little Drummer Boy”), and you’ll have a fair idea of Eleni Mandell's, Becky Stark’s, Inara George’s, and Alex Lilly’s collective charm.  As befits their droll unsentimentality, the mood stays light and even somewhat ecumenical.  (Hanukkah gets a song all too itself.)  But “Unsentimental” plus “light” plus “ecumenical” in their case equals “buoyant” more often than not and “cute” only a little.  And, anyway, their cutest songs (the tourism-committee-worthy “Kadoka, South Dakota,” the Santa-baiting “Skip the Sugar [Good Girl], and the Beach Boys-worthy “Christmas in California”) are also their most detailed and catchy. 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2014: M

Wig Out at Jagbags (Matador)

Malkmus has never sounded more word drunk or happy to be so than he does on these twelve freely associating excursions into whimsy for art’s sake.  As he sings in “Independence Street” and “The Janitor Revealed” respectively, he’s “just busy being free” (not unlike this album’s many malleable melodies) and “in a constant tizzy” (ditto).  About “Independence Street”: The guitar could pass for slow-groove Hendrix, the voice for happy-to-be-sober Alex Chilton.  Unplug ’em, and you’d have the Incredible String Band.  Ditto for “Surreal Teenagers.”  But what’s most impressive is that Malkmus and the Jicks don’t seem to be trying to achieve or to say anything particularly important, even (especially?) when they are--about outmoded music-industry paradigms, for instance (“Chartjunk”), or self-defeatingly hypocritical Christians (“Shibboleth”).

A Very Maysa Christmas (Shanachie)

Maysa Leak’s list of accomplishments includes singing backup for Stevie Wonder and lead for the British acid-jazz outfit Incognito.  But a familiarity with her résumé is no prerequisite for enjoying her ability to oversee these transformations of mostly pop favorites into tastefully sumptuous Christmas fare.  What is: a sweet tooth for every popular American black musical style short of the blues and an openness to the possibility that Chris “Big Dog” Davis is the R&B producer most capable of synthesizing those styles into a meaningful whole since Quincy Jones.  Even the not-necessarily-about-Christmas “Pray for Peace” and the token concession to hip-hop (Jigz’ brief rap on the medley of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “The Night Before Christmas”) feel as if they belong.

Hold It In (Ipecac)

The wheels turning in King Buzzo’s brain are worth attending to, but they grind rather than roll without such grease as bass, drums, and electricity.  So think of Hold It In as a reward for anyone who patiently endured the solo-acoustic This Machine Kills Artists earlier this year.  Hold It In’s first song is called “Bride of Crankenstein,” and it lives up to its title.  The second is the hooky, vocoder-sung “You Can Make Me Wait,” which Neil Young could sneak onto Trans‘s no doubt upcoming thirty-fifth-anniversary edition without anyone’s blinking.  Next comes “Brass Cupcake,” replete with intimations that welfare mothers make better lovers, and it’s hooky too.  Elsewhere it’s mainly grease for grease’s sake—except for “Piss Pisstoferson,” which also lives up to its title.

Summer Number Seventeen (Legacy)

By the time he scored with “It Was Almost like a Song” in 1977, Ronnie Milsap had pretty much become the Barry Manilow of crossover country, pushing obvious sentimental buttons with equally obvious string sections and background chorales.  But Milsap also had a big, likable voice and an inspirational backstory that inclined one toward slack cutting.  That he still has both makes this album, on which he sings his favorite oldies, a pleasure.  What makes the pleasure a guilty one is that his favorite oldies are lots of other people’s too, so obviousness does kick in--as does the realization that Milsap’s no Wilson Pickett (“Mustang Sally”) or Russell Thompkins, Jr. (“You Make Me Feel Brand New”).  Tommy Edwards, however, is right up his alley (“It’s All in the Game”).

For Pops: A Tribute to Muddy Waters (Severn)

Now officially fifty-nine or sixty, Morganfield (a.k.a. “Muddy Waters, Jr.”) is just four or five years shy of the age at which his legendary father jumpstarted the final phase of his career by recording and touring with a band that included Johnny Winter, James Cotton, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, and Pinetop Perkins.  The stunning Hard Again and some fine live performances ensued.  For obvious reasons, Mud couldn’t tap the same supporting cast to record these fourteen Muddy-identified songs.  But his harmonica-player (Wilson), his guitarists (Rusty Zinn, Billy Flynn), his pianist (Barrelhouse Chuck), his bassist (Steve Gomes), and his drummer (Rob Stupka) aren’t exactly slouches, although they could be tighter and rock harder.  As for Mud, he probably couldn’t sing more like his dad if he tried.

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2014: N-P

Friday, May 22, 2015

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2014: N-P

Rivers in the Wasteland (Atlantic)

Five albums and three EPs in, Bear Rinehart hasn’t quite earned the right to sing like an intensity-prone Southern cross between Adam Duritz and Eddie Vedder, but he has come far enough to justify the risks that he’s taking as a songwriter.  The substantial Christian portion of NEEDTOBREATHE’s audience will respond most readily to “Wasteland” (“If God is on my side, / Who can be against me?”) and “Multiplied” (“God of mercy, sweet love of mine, / I have surrendered to Your design”), but most of the songs will resonate with folks of all persuasions, mostly because the band sounds as comfortable calming a storm (“More Heart, Less Attack”) as it does rollicking one up (“State I’m In”).  Album Number Six (or EP Number Four) should be out of this world.

Tribute (Universal/Island)

This youthful blue-eyed-soul singer has bypassed Simon Cowell’s fast-tracking talent shows and climbed the U.K. charts the old-fashioned way--by giving Opportunity his business cards and opening the door every time she knocks.  So it’s hard to begrudge him his success.  It’s also hard to mistake for hubris the rapid-fire recitation of rock-and-soul greats that introduces this album’s title cut: Newman doesn’t presume himself worthy of following in his heroes’ footsteps so much as he feels obligated to keep their blazed trails smoking.  Unfortunately, he rains on their parades instead.  The similar-sounding melodies are short on hooks, the overproduced backing tracks long on bombast, and vocally he mistakes reach for grasp and rasp for depth.  Come home, Paul Young.  All is forgiven.

I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss (Nettwerk)

Maybe it’s the way that the line about always having to be the lioness (“How About I Be Me”) recalls her first album.  Or maybe it’s the way that nearly each of these songs—from the raucous (“The Voice of My Doctor,” “KIsses like Mine”) to the primally screaming (“Harbour”) to the Princely (“Your Green Jacket,” maybe “James Brown”)—recalls her chronic inability not to want what she cannot have.  Whatever.  The music that O’Connor makes by wearing her multiply broken heart on her sleeve as proudly as she wears that Jesus tattoo on her sternum is still something special.  It might even justify her suffering, much of which, as everyone knows, has been self-inflicted.  Too bad that none of the deluxe-edition extras is a Miley Cyrus cover.

Wester Easter (Cloud)

These guys take neither themselves nor their lack of seriousness seriously.   Their jokes include sounding like Mumford & Sons (banjo) trying to pass themselves off as a Klezmer ensemble (clarinets) and including the word “Transylvania” in the titles of three of the seven instrumentals.  “The Transylvania Effect” could almost pass for a Smile-era Beach Boys outtake.  There are also seven songs with words, hence seven songs with singing (of varying quality).  The catchiest is called “All the Way Slow,” which is fast (get it?), and sounds like the Association appropriating “Tequila.”  As sung, its titular refrain sounds like “I’m going on with school” or maybe “I’m going home with Snoop.”  It’s the kind of happy accident that can only happen to bands this committed to kind musical acts of randomness.

Blood Oranges in the Snow (Great Speckled Dog)

The husband-wife duo Over the Rhine has achieved something rare: original Christmas-themed songs that also work as stand-alone singer-songwriter introspection.  As Christians, Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist aren’t content merely to take their emotional pulses.  Both “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” show up as codas.  But they don’t deny their emotions either—or how mixed those emotions can become over decades of adulthood.  They do not, in other words, disentangle what they believe happened in Bethlehem from what they’ve learned of human frailty, especially their own, whether visiting a parent in a cemetery, hoping that they can still believe that the Christ child holds a gift for them, or making Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December” their own.

EP2 (self-released)

EP2 follows the template of last year’s EP1, sequencing four stylistically distinct, fat-free, and sharply engineered songs for maximum wallop.  But whereas on EP1 the loudest song came at the end, the loudest song on EP2 (“Blue Eyed Hexe”) comes at the beginning.  And whereas on EP1 the prettiest song was inspired by an “Andro Queen,” the prettiest song on EP2 (“Greens and Blues”) seems to have been inspired by Frank Black’s friend, the late Jesus rocker Larry Norman.  Pixies being Pixies, of course, neither “loud” nor “pretty” means what it would ordinarily mean, not with genres meshing and mashing, Black singing with as many levels of intensity as the lyrics demand, and predictability never rearing its head.  EP3 is in the pipeline.  Here’s hoping for a hat trick.

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2014: Q-R

Avalanche (Vested in Culture)

You know who might’ve just been able to make something of this insubstantially slinky, electronically over-cushioned pop-R&B?  Gino Vannelli.  Melodramatic though he was, he could sometimes create the illusion of significance no matter how slight his material.  Denmark’s Coco O., on the other hand, half-coos her sweet nothings as if she’s two drinks past her limit and trying to remember what says “Get your freak on” means before she passes out.  Robin Hannibal does what he can to accommodate his bandmate, thoughtfully subduing the energy and beats per minute lest they overwhelm.  (Even the dance-floor-targeted “Hey Love” feels tame.)  And, on occasion, his thoughtfulness works small wonders.  But Kendrick Lamar’s gauche stab at gentlemanly suavity on “Better Off” is pure date-rape drug.

Live at the Rainbow ’74 (Hollywood)

The Lot (Omnivore)

In the May 1977 issue of Creem magazine, Brian May was asked whether Queen would ever release a live album.  “It would have to be really good,” he responded by way of implying that the possibility was dim.  

What’s weird is that two years later Queen released the multi-show, cut-and-paste job Live Killers, much of which fell far short of May’s stated standard.  Weirder still, and unbeknownst to the masses at the time, Queen had already recorded four LPs’ worth of live killers that were actually slated for release but got back burnered when Sheer Heart Attack and A Night at the Opera caught fire.

Unsurprisingly, that material, culled from the band’s two 1974 shows at the Rainbow, a prime London venue, was bootlegged out the wazoo.  Now, forty years later, Hollywood Records presents it in official, sonically refurbished editions, some of which include equally refurbished video.  If nothing else, they prove that, before Queen began purveying hits in stadiums amid exorbitant light shows, they were a thunderous, low-frills purveyor of endearingly silly flights of heavy-metal fantasy.   

As for where the comprehensive twelve-disc (thirteen including the DVD) box The Lot by Queen’s drummer Roger Taylor fits into this picture, an argument can be made that it doesn’t.  Neither his albums and singles nor those with his band the Cross sold well, and it’s hard to imagine that they’ll top the charts now in a lavish box that’s going for between $100 and $150. 

Riffs, however, if not hooks, do abound.  And the intermittent entertainment value of the degree to which Taylor—now sixty-five and the recipient of honorary music doctorates and yacht-racing trophies—sounded like a better-than-average Rod Stewart the older and the mellower he became should not be summarily discounted.

Magical Dirt (Alive)

Various Radio Moscow lineups of which the guitarist and singer Parker Griggs has been the only constant have been sprouting in the cracks dividing Blue Cheer from the Stooges (or is it Small Faces from MC5?) for over half a decade now.  The Dan Auerbach-produced Lineup Number One was pretty good; this Griggs-produced Lineup Number Whatever is even better—maybe because a real in-studio drummer has now freed Griggs from having to overdub the drums himself, maybe because Griggs was born to perpetuate rather than to innovate (and he’s good at it).  Not that evolution is beyond him.  “I ain’t got the time to get hooked on you,” he sang in 2011.  This time he has titled a song “Got the Time.”  Is that progress or what?

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2014: S

The Spirit of Christmas (Sparrow/Universal)

Despite his contemporary-Christian-music reputation, Michael W. Smith doesn’t slight Santa or other secular aspects of the holiday’s cultural components.  Indeed, he leads with them (“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” “Happy Holiday/Holiday Season.” “White Christmas”).  Even the special guests (Vince Gill, Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town, Martina McBride, Carrie Underwood, Amy Grant, the Nashville Children’s Choir, and the London Symphony Orchestra) signify broadmindedness.  But from the mid-disc medley of “Deck the Halls,” “Good King Wenceslas,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful” onward, it’s sacred all the way.  And unifying the halves, and tethering the whole to the past, is a prayerful recitation of the 17th-century Irish carol “The Darkest Midnight” (a.k.a. “On Christ’s Nativity”) by Bono. 

Still on the Levee (Signature Sounds)

Chris Smither is an American treasure.  At his sonic core are his nimbly picked acoustic guitar, his stomping foot, and his baritone voice.  At his emotional core is a world-weary drollery that stares less into the abyss than at mystic shores just a leap of faith away.  With Still on the Levee, he marks his seventieth birthday by re-visiting twenty-four of his most enduring compositions with the occasional assistance of like-minded collaborators.  Most of the material, however, he approaches solo, as if too much help would deprive it of its powerfully lonesome conviction.  And by concluding each of the set’s two discs with a different new version of “Leave the Light On,” he makes hoping to get old before one dies seem like a worthy goal indeed.

Meridian (Audiotree)

The Polyphonic Spree meets U2 meets Iron And Wine meets Justin Vernon meets Sufjan Stevens—or something like that.  Fairy airy at their best, airy fairy at their worst, the problem isn’t that these Christian Michiganders use their precisely layered vocals to distill biblical quotations into introspective journal jottings.  It’s that they do so with an oversensitivity that only a wimp’s mother or girlfriend could love.  Not until the middle of Track Five, “Samyaza,” do the drums that barely besmirched the group’s first two even more unnecessarily incorporeal albums make their presence felt.  It could be argued, of course, that, as a tonic to the religion-driven beheadings that hog the headlines these days, such blissed-out music serves a purpose.  But music for crusaders might be more useful still.

Partly Fiction (Omnivore)

On this soundtrack to the 2013 documentary of the same name, Stanton doesn’t sing “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33,” the Kris Kristofferson song that inspired the title.  But he does sing--and sometimes add poignant harmonica and insightful commentary to--“Danny Boy,” “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” “Everybody’s Talkin’,” “She Thinks I Still Care,” “Blue Bayou,” “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” “Canción, Mixteca” (the theme from Paris, Texas, in which he starred 30 years ago), and five other songs close to his weather-beaten, 88-year-old heart.  Stanton’s sweet tenor voice, meanwhile, sounds at least three decades younger, and it’s as pliant as a well-used baseball glove.  Jamie James accompanies on acoustic guitar, Don Was on occasional bass.  Casual, beautiful, autumnal, and frail, in that order.

To Be Kind (Young God)

There are two kinds of people in this world: the 99% who say that life’s too short to spend two hours trying to decide whether this latest double-disc Swans opus is the best album-to-get-rid-of-party-guests ever or only as effective as the Shaggs’ debut, and the 1% who say that repetitive, nihilistic overkill is a spiritual purgative and-or a good joke.  (No Wave they used to call it.)  To determine where you fall, listen to Disc One’s penultimate track, “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’ overture.”  Its thirty-four minutes will have you either exhilarated by the manifold ways in which the eighteenth-century liberation of Haiti led to the heart of darkness or thinking that maybe the Frozen soundtrack wasn’t so bad after all.

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2014: T-Y

Septagon (Stiff Hips)

Veruca Salt fans will note that the hook of this four-track EP’s second song, “It Could Be,” echoes the hook of Nina Gordon’s “2003.”  And why not?  Dismissing Gordon’s 2000 solo debut as a pop sellout, lots of people didn’t give it time to sink in.  So Thornley is doing them and any listeners who’ve grown up since then a favor.  The hook is gorgeous, and, by slowing it down and attaching it to a more mysterious melody than Gordon’s on the verses (and by singing it in her more-luminous-than-Gordon’s voice), Thornley gets more out of it.  Why there are only three additional songs when the EP’s title means “seven-sided object” is anyone’s guess.  But all four will have you wanting three more at least.

Tell ‘Em I’m Gone (Legacy)

No matter what you think of the religion of Mohammed or the decision of Yusuf/Cat Stevens/Steven Georgiou to embrace it thirty-eight years ago, listening to him still trying to explain himself is interesting.  The best of this album’s six gnomic originals (“I Was Raised in Babylon,” “Editing Floor Blues,” “Doors”) tell his conversion story from different angles, and their consistent use of “God” for “Allah” invites even Christians and Jews to relate.  Further evidence of broadmindedness: The covers include Procol Harum, Jimmy Reed, and Jimmie Davis.  The one that cuts to the quick, however, is Edgar Winters’ “Dying to Live.”  “Why am I fighting to live if I’m just living to fight?,” it asks.  It’s a question that Yusuf’s more militantly inclined brethren would do well to ponder. 

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2013: A