Sunday, January 16, 2011

My 2010 Illinois Entertainer Reviews, p. 1

Bryan Adams: Bare Bones (Decca)--This live, unplugged album could’ve been a disaster, but it isn’t. Adams accompanied only by a pianist and his acoustic guitar is sonic light years away from Adams with full band in a studio helmed by Mutt Lange, but he makes up in nice-guy, between-song patter and a winsome un-self-consciousness what he lacks in radio-ready wallop. He comes off so comfortable within his obvious limitations that he could give guilty pleasures a good name. On the other hand, this album could’ve been better than it is. It could’ve included “One Night Love Affair,” for instance, instead of the one-too-many “deep album cuts” that inexplicably take its place. And surely Adams could’ve resisted steering “Summer of ’69” into the gutter by making explicit the sexual pun of its once-innocent title.

Afro-Rock Volume One (Strut)--Subtitle: “A Collection of Rare and Unreleased Afro-Beat Quarried from Across the Continent.” Sub-subtitle: “Includes Music by Geraldo Pino, Steele Beuttah, K Frimpong, the Yahoos, and Dackin Dakino.” The continent, of course, is Africa; the decades: the 1960s and ’70s, when U.S. funk and soul were becoming well-enough known in the Motherland to inspire competent and sometimes inspired imitators. Ironically, the most inspired were sometimes the least competent. Geraldo Pino, for instance, may have been the “Nigerian James Brown,” but his “Heavy Heavy Heavy” remains fresh precisely because it doesn’t sound like the work of Soul Brother Number One (Eleven or Twelve maybe). And while several of these combos could pass for the Meters, at least one--Mercury Dance Band--seems to have beaten Fleetwood Mac to “Tusk.”

Badly Drawn Boy: It’s What I’m Thinking Pt. 1--Photographing Snowflakes (One Last Fruit)--“The Age of Romance is dead and gone,” sings Damon Gough on “Too Many Miracles.” But, he adds, “There may be a chance I’m wrong.” So he takes that chance and in so doing comes up with an album so hauntingly baroque that the woman to whom he sings in “I Saw You Walk Away” must surely be named Renee. Meanwhile, the Age of Romance was also the Age of Self-Flagellation, a fact of which Gough seems aware when he sings about crucifying himself and being thrown to the lions. That it was also the Age of Romeo and Juliet may explain why “You Lied” sounds like a metal-free “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” That Gough knows romance might be dead and gone anyway may explain why he sounds sad even when he’s happy.

My 2010 Illinois Entertainer Reviews, p. 2

Big Audio Dynamite
This Is Big Audio Dynamite: Legacy Edition

Ah, what might have been! The year was 1983, the Clash were the Most Important Band in the World, and Bernie Rhodes, the group’s Iago-like manager, had convinced Joe Strummer to expel Mick Jones--who had only composed and sung the Clash classics “Lost in the Supermarket,” “Train in Vain,” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” Strummer, disoriented after five psychologically claustrophobic years of non-stop writing, recording, and touring (and never the most humble of front-men to begin with), acquiesced, thus putting Jones in the position of having to form a new band and to come up with an album’s worth of material if his run as a rocker of consequence were to continue.

Big Audio Dynamite--or B.A.D., as Jones, Don Letts, Dan Donovan, Leo Williams, and Greg Roberts came to be known--was the band, and This Is Big Audio Dynamite was the album. With dub-wise production enhancing rhythm-driven songs, the music might’ve been a harbinger of future goodies coming from a rookie act. But coming from the seasoned veteran Jones they felt like a step backward (or at best sideways), suffering as much from the absence of Strummer’s political directness and urgency as the Clash’s 1985 album Cut the Crap suffered from the absence of Jones’ pop instincts.

It’s tempting to wonder whether Strummer’s snarling vocals and brash guitars could’ve given a semblance of meaning to lyrics like “Ritual ideas relativity, / only buildings, no people prophecy” (“E=MC2”) and “Newspapers sell disaster and sin, and when the dust storm comes, they say the devil rides in” (“Sudden Impact!”). It’s less tempting to wonder whether anything could’ve saved the stupid and-or petty “Sony,” in which Japan belatedly wins World War II by taking over the West one corporation at a time, and “Stone Thames,” in which Jones bemoans his bad luck over having become a groupie-magnet rock star during the age of AIDS.

As for “BAD,” it bundles Christ’s crucifixion, Reagan’s landslide election victory, and the fact that people eat at McDonald’s and KFC into a list of “things that drive [Jones and Letts] crazy” and “make [them] bad.”

But this is the twenty-fifth-anniversary Legacy Edition. Surely the seventy-minute extra disc of twelve-inch and dub versions gives forth its share of beats? Yeah, but the last word in the group’s name was “dynamite,” and only the “seven-inch non-LP B-side” title track lights a fuse.

My 2010 Illinois Entertainer Reviews, p. 3

Duran Duran
Duran Duran (Special Edition) (Capitol)
Seven and the Ragged Tiger (Special Edition) (Capitol)

So Red the Rose (Special Edition) (Capitol)

“[T]he music of Queen,” wrote Robert Christgau in 1992, “has accrued the high gloss of committed kitsch, where that of Journey, say, has assumed the dull shapelessness of utter crap.” In 1984 Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone that he’d released Self-Portrait as a double album because “it wouldn’t have held up as a single album--then it really would’ve been bad, you know. I mean, if you’re gonna put a lot of crap on it, you might as well load it up!”

What do those statements have to do with Capitol Records’ Duran Duran reissue campaign? Well, like the music of Journey, Duran Duran’s has assumed the dull shapelessness of utter crap. And, in keeping with Dylan’s Self-Portrait rationale, Capitol has decided that three crap-laden discs are better than one.

Each set’s first disc is the original album, expanded with four non-LP B-sides in the case of Duran Duran and four alternate mixes and two non-LP tracks in the case of Arcadia’s So Red the Rose. (Arcadia, in case you’d forgotten, was what Simon LeBon, Nick Rhodes, and Roger Taylor called themselves when Andy and John Taylor formed the Power Station with Robert Palmer and Tony Thompson.)

The second discs contain more alternate versions and mixes (live and studio) and, in the case of Seven and the Ragged Tiger, non-album singles and B-sides too. The third discs are DVDs containing not only every video for the respective albums’ singles but also every performance by Duran Duran of those singles on such British equivalents of American Bandstand and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert as Top of the Pops and Old Grey Whistle Test.

Seven and the Ragged Tiger’s DVD even includes a twelve-song concert film, As the Lights Go Down, that captures the painstakingly coifed quintet in all their stadium-packing glory and in so doing proves that almost every one of Duran Duran’s several-million fans was a teenaged girl.

Capitol is obviously hoping that the majority of those girls have grown into soccer moms who won’t mind paying for the privilege of listening to and-or watching six versions of “Election Day,” eight versions of “Planet Earth,” eleven versions of “Girls on Film,” etc. So consider these discs an ideal Mother’s Day Gift--and Duran Duran’s “uncensored” “Girls on Film” video as good a reason as ever for their teenaged sons to feign interest in the music.

My 2010 Illinois Entertainer Reviews, p. 4

Burton Cummings: Above the Ground (New Door/UMe)--Released two years ago in Cummings’ native Canada, Above the Ground is the first album by the former Guess Who frontman in over thirty years to receive a major-label push in the U.S. It’s also his first album of new material since 1990. And, boy, does he have a lot stored up (nineteen songs, seventy-seven minutes). It’s too much, of course, but patient listeners can edit from the overabundance a pretty good vinyl-length LP. Where to start: “TSOP” (finally, he revisits the “Clap for the Wolfman” riff), “Rollaway” (finally, a couch-surfing lullaby), and “We Just Came from the U.S.A.” and “Look Out Charlie” (finally, more anti-U.S. animus where “American Woman” came from). And, by all means, watch the making-of documentary DVD (the reason the cover has a parental-advisory-explicit-content label).

Eminem: Recovery (Interscope)--If you care about the one-man reality show known as Marshall Mathers, you’ll enjoy Recovery. The lyrics address serious issues (the death of friends, the struggle of addicts to stay clean, divorce and its aftermath), the hooks and beats creatively incorporate samples and guest vocalists (Rihanna, Pink), the good-taste jokes are funny (“I’m the bees knees, his legs and his arms,” “They’ll never ketchup to all this energy that I’ve mustered”), and the bad-taste jokes (about Michael J. Fox, Ben Roethlisberger, David Carradine, Elton John) will drive the oversensitive nuts. But nothing will make you care about the reality show if you don’t already--not its relentless profanity, its scatological and violent images, or its main character’s obnoxiously hectoring voice. You can shut up now, Mathers. We get it.

Roky Erickson & Okkervil River: True Love Cast Out All Evil (Anti)--This long-awaited album from the driving force behind the 13th Floor Elevators and one of rock-and-roll’s most legendary acid casualties begins and ends with lo-fi recordings he made during the early 1970s while incarcerated in a Texas hospital for the “criminally insane.” The first is called “Devotional Number One” and implores the help of Jesus; the last is called “God Is Everywhere.” In between Erickson visits (and in some cases revisits) material he accumulated in the ensuing decades during periods of relative lucidity. The B-movie horror-fantasies that dominate his 2005 anthology are nowhere in sight. In their place is what might be called a white-knuckled sanity set to country-rock grandeur and sung in a voice that at its most intense still sounds like a cross between Mick Jagger and Janis Joplin.

My 2010 Illinois Entertainer Reviews, p. 5

The Everly Brothers: Reunion Concert: Live at the Royal Albert Hall (Eagle Rock)--First released on VHS in 1984, this concert marked the first performance by Phil and Don Everly, 44 and 46 respectively, since their notoriously acrimonious breakup midway through a California show ten years before. Older and wiser, and their tenor harmonies none the worse for the wear, they revisited their classic catalog (“All I Have to Do Is Dream,” “Cathy’s Clown,” “Devoted to You”) and then some (“Barbara Allen,” “Step It Up and Go,” “Lucille”) as only they could. They even wore tuxes. This DVD includes the documentary Rock ’n’ Roll Odyssey, thus allowing fans to bone up on the Brothers’ back story (up to ’83 anyway). But the real treat, of course, is the performance of a lifetime by an act the likes of which we’ll never see again.

Giant Sand: Blurry Blue Mountain (Fire)--Two themes run through Howe Gelb’s latest project: the way the passing of time wreaks existential havoc and the way one’s favorite songs function as signposts along roads less traveled. In “Fields of Green” Gelb marvels that he’s now “over fifty” and a “pathfinder” to “young, fresh folk,” in “The Last One” he paraphrases Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, and in “Time Flies” time flies. Along the way, he quotes or otherwise refers to Herman’s Hermits, Billy Joe Shaver, Thunderclap Newman, and Leo Sayer. It may not look like much on paper, but as channeled by music appropriate to a spaghetti-Western set in the Twilight Zone and narrated in song-speech that’s equal parts Raymond Chandler and Leonard Cohen, it whispers of a mortality that’s every bit as seductive as it is inevitable.

Good God! Born Again Funk (Numero)--Forget what you think you know about ’70s black gospel, crossover or otherwise. At least in terms of their music, these eighteen songs, most of which were recorded by or before 1976 in or around Chicago, have as little to do with the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ “Oh Happy Day” or Andrae Crouch’s “Jesus Is the Answer” as they do with the James Brown implications of “Good God!” and “Funk” in the title. This music is soul, pure and simple. Only it’s neither pure (there’s grit aplenty in both the singing and the production) nor simple -- the tug of war between the lead and background singers is the easiest one to hear, but the ones between the elements of the various rhythm sections are the easiest to feel.

My 2010 Illinois Entertainer Reviews, p. 6

Herbie Hancock
The Imagine Project

If, as Robert Christgau once wrote, “Amazing Grace” is the “Send in the Clowns” of roots music, then John Lennon’s “Imagine” is the “Amazing Grace” of hippie utopianism, and Herbie Hancock doesn’t do it any favors by distending it to seven minutes and twenty seconds, entrusting the singing to Pink, Seal, and India.Arie, and nimbusing the resulting vapor with his downy-soft piano. Even Jeff Beck’s solo lets sleeping dogs lie. And similarly otiose arrangements of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” (eight minutes) and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” (nine) only compound the effect. Not for nothing does Hancock close the album with a track called “The Song Goes On.”

See, when bromidic protest anthems work, they do so by getting things over with as quickly as possible. Hancock, on the other hand, luxuriates in them, knocking out walls and hiring feng shui experts to choose and arrange both the furniture and the exotic carpets, then inviting guests and rendering them all but inert by saturating their senses with the incense of communal uplift. Or, as Susan Tedeschi and a gospel choir intermittently emote during the actually lively seven-minute version of Joe Cocker’s “Space Captain,” “We’ve got to get it together, / it’s getting better and better.” Gee, I wonder whom Hancock voted for in 2008!

When The Imagine Project works, it does so by revealing why Hancock has been a jazz and funk (as opposed to a hope and change) legend for over thirty years. True, he should’ve enlisted Sade for Vinícius de Moraes and Baen Powell’s “Tempo De Amor,” but the Brazilian singer Céu does a decent enough Sade impersonation to make you overlook the oversight. And on the medley of Tinariwen’s “Tamatant Tilay” (featuring Tinariwen) and Bob Marley’s “Exodus” (featuring Los Lobos because, you know, Marley’s dead), Hancock digs deep into his bag of fusion tricks for a hot Blaxploitation-soundtrack groove even non-ganja people can imitate Soul Train dancers to.

As for the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows,” it survives being sung by Dave Matthews--if only by burying him up to his receding hairline in audio psychedelics.

Actually, in the cover of Peter Gabriel’s Kate Bush duet “Don’t Give Up,” Hancock’s dreamy side yields a dividend too. In fact, with John Legend and Pink in the Gabriel and Bush roles, it sounds almost exactly like the original, thereby rekindling hope if not exactly change (or imagination) during these dark recession-shrouded times.

My 2010 Illinois Entertainer Reviews, p. 7

Hot Chip: One Life Stand (EMI/Astralwerks)--Bouncy, bubbly, and electronic through and through, these British popsters will nevertheless have to do better than they have on this album before fans of Erasure, Pet Shop Boys, and Depeche Mode, to name just three, will be waxing sentimental over Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard. Why? Because the majority of these songs seem aimed more at clubbers who’ll dance for hours to anything once you get a few drinks and some Ecstasy into them than at lovers of sharp tunes. So even though Taylor seems to have put considerable thought into both his lyrics and his singing, we’ve heard their like before. The exception: “Take It In,” a glittering example of the Moody Blues and Alan Parsons as remembered imperfectly by an emo teen with a heart of gold.

Alan Jackson: Freight Train (Arista Nashville)--The problem with most of these songs isn’t that they celebrate heartland verities. Even people who don’t believe “True Love Is a Golden Ring” sometimes wish they did. The problem is that Jackson is so accomplished at rendering heartland verities in song that he seems to have forgotten what makes them special to those who love them (and controversial to those who malign them) in the first place. Somehow the “God bless the working’ man” refrain of “Hard Hat and a Hammer” packs a lot less of a wallop than any of the workin’-man blues that Merle Haggard has sung over the centuries. Not surprisingly, it’s when Jackson acknowledges life’s little downs (“Tail Lights Blue,” “After 17,” the title cut) that he still seems like someone with something to say.

Galactic: Ya-Ka-May (Anti-)--As of this writing, the New Orleans Saints are one week away from playing in their first-ever Super Bowl. If they win, it’s a cinch their hometown’s infamous French Quarter will explode into revelry the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the last Cops episode devoted to Mardi Gras. And when the partying starts, these songs or something like them will be heard blasting all up and down Bourbon Street. Similar to 2007’s From the Corner to the Block, Galactic’s first album without lead singer Theryl DeClouet, Ya-Ka-May finds Galactic collaborating, this time with a Crescent City Who’s Who (Big Chief Bo Dollis, Allen Toussaint, Walter “Wolfman” Washington, Irma Thomas, the Rebirth Brass Band) for whom ratcheting up the funk would be second nature if it weren’t their only one.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

My 2010 Illinois Entertainer Reviews, p. 8

Jimi Hendrix
West Coast Seattle Boy: The Jimi Hendrix Anthology
(Sony Legacy)

It’s fitting that half the title of this latest Hendrix box is redundant (anyone know of any East Coast Seattles?) because at least half the music is redundant too. Although each of the forty-three songs on Discs Two through Four is “previously unreleased,” a lot of them (“Purple Haze,” “Stone Free,” “Foxey Lady,” “Star Spangled Banner,” et al) are merely alternate versions, mixes, and takes of songs that Hendrix fans have loved lo these many years. And while with Hendrix “alternate” is often still pretty impressive, a déjà vu effect does accumulate.

But it’s also fitting that the other half of the title is The--not A--Jimi Hendrix Anthology because what it does better than any other Hendrix omnibus so far is trace the creative evolution of one of the very few rock stars who actually evolved creatively as opposed to sashaying from one style to another in an increasingly unbecoming attempt to maintain commercial viability.

Take, for instance, Disc One. Everyone knows by now that Hendrix spent years backing early-’60s R&B stars, but having fifteen examples of his woodshedding in one place, only one of which even dented Billboard’s Top 40 (Don Covay & the Good timers’ “Mercy, Mercy”), makes for one funky alternative-universe Chitlin’ Circuit jukebox. Lesser-known workouts from the Isley Brothers (“Have You Ever Been Disappointed”), Little Richard (“I Don’t Know What You Got but It’s Got Me”), and King Curtis (“Instant Groove”) join cuts by lesser-known performers (Ray Sharpe, Jimmy Norman, Frank Howard & the Commanders [not to be confused with Frank Howard & the Senators?]) and in so doing provide glimpses into not only Hendrix’s early licksmanship but also his penchant for opposite-sex nomenclature (the Icemen’s “[My Girl] She’s a Fox”).

Then there’s Disc Five, a DVD containing all one hundred minutes of the Biography Channel’s Jimi Hendrix--Voodoo Child documentary. Chockfull of the vintage performance and interview clips you’d expect and some you wouldn’t, it also emphasizes the importance Hendrix placed on his family and that you could die by making a drinking game out of every time he said “you know.” (Speaking of drinking games, the doc never even alludes to his reliance on intoxicants and therefore--plot spoiler alert!--makes his death at the end seem like an act of random randomness.)

As for the aforementioned Discs Two through Four, much of what they contain isn’t redundant at all.

My 2010 Illinois Entertainer Reviews, p. 9

Jon Langford & Skull Orchard: Old Devils (Bloodshot)--This album is almost too subtle. Even the instantly grabbing “Getting Used to Uselessness” has lyrics so opaque that the more you listen, the less you understand. The other songs do the opposite. You have to listen past the unremarkable first impression made by the folkish melodies and slightly less-folkish instrumentation before you notice a special musical or verbal detail. Eventually, something like a theme accumulates: “I tried religion, but it wasn’t any good at all”; “They started using sex / like pills and cigarettes”; “I’d do anything to please her, / so I bought that brand-new freezer, / and I climbed inside.” Disillusionment rules? Maybe. What’s certain: For someone best known as a Mekon, a Waco Brother, and a Pine Valley Cosmonaut, Langford sure sounds a lot like Joe Strummer these days.

La Strada: New Home (Ernest Jenning)--If it’s hard to believe that an entire generation has come of age since the death of Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon, the singer whose range and timbre La Strada’s James Craft’s most resembles, then it’s downright bizarre that three generations have come of age since the big-screen debut of La Strada, the Fellini film after which these Brooklyn musicians named their band and whose inexorably itinerant mood they sometimes capture, from its emotional complexities to its forebodingly otherworldly atmosphere. The secret: melodies that flirt but don’t bed down with mere catchiness, a soundtrack-worthy interplay of intimacy (quietly plucked guitars, Devon Press’s accordion) and grandeur (Daniel Baer’s violins, ascending background-vocal harmonies), and lyrics that don’t seem to have been written just to give the aptly named Craft something to sing.

Los Lobos: Tin Can Trust (Shout! Factory)--Nearly three decades after going national, these troupers still write humble and play proud, etching vignettes for the common man that even the uncommon man can relish. Their boycott of Arizona has earned them recent headlines, but only two of these eleven songs (“Yo Canto” and “Mujer Ingata”) are in Spanish, and in none of them, not even the impressionistic blues called “27 Spanishes,” do they pity the poor immigrant. So listeners put off by Big Statements needn’t worry, especially when the jauntiest workout has no lyrics at all (“Do the Murray”), the funkiest is a cover of an apolitical Reagan-era Grateful Dead song (“West L.A. Fadeaway”), and the serrated junkyard production makes Louie Perez’s clattery percussion and Steve Berlin’s dirty sax seem as American as the twilight’s last gleaming.

My 2010 Illinois Entertaner Reviews, p. 10

Scott Lucas & the Married Men: George Lassos the Moon (G&P)--Like the songs, the jokes are subtle. The album title, for instance, comes from a wall hanging in It’s a Wonderful Life, but none of the songs allude to ringing doorbells, angels getting their wings, or defaulting banks. The song titles are funny too (“You Put a Spell on Me,” “Get Up! You Damn, Dead Horse”), and one of the Married Men, the violinist Rebecca Brooke Manthe, is a woman. Meanwhile, speaking of marriage, there’s something borrowed (Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street”), something blue (lyrics that intensify the pun on Robin Hood’s Merry Men by sounding distinctly unmerry), and a sound that, for better and for worse, is as quiet in its ’til-death-do-us-part introspection as the sound of Scott Lucas’s former band--Local H--was loud.

Chico Mann: Analog Drift (Wax Poetics)--There’s a lot of genre-mashing going on in this fifty-four-minute party record. For starts, several of the fast songs borrow the paisley-funk grooves of Sheila E.’s “The Glamorous Life” before losing them amid the percussive noise of what sounds like a block party thrown in a futuristic barrio on the outskirts of a gated neighborhood inhabited by slum-Chihuahua millionaires with good taste in bells and whistles. The exact location is unclear, but if the global positioning suggested by the synth riff running through the final minute or so of “Hay Que Correr” is accurate, the nation is definitely under a groove. Do they still play Caucasian classics like Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” in the future, you ask? Oh my, yes. And same as it ever was it isn’t.

Marillion: Less Is More (Eagle)--As none of the eleven listed instruments used on this album (twelve if you count “strings”) uses electricity, the title obviously should’ve been Unplugged. So why wasn’t it? Probably because unplugging was mainly a 1990s fad and, as the title of Track Eleven proclaims, “This Is the 21st Century.” Then again, progressive rock, the genre of which these Brits are a prime latter-day example, was mainly a 1970s fad (1960s if you count pre-Ian Gillan Deep Purple), so why should these twenty-first-century men slog through this de facto best-of at all? That they do so at volumes apparently intended not to wake the baby only points up the pretentiousness of the lyrics (big surprise) and the similarity of lead singer H’s voice to David Pack’s. (Whatever did happen to Ambrosia?)

My 2010 Illinois Entertainer Reviews, p. 11

Nellie McKay: Home Sweet Mobile Home (Verve)--McKay may have intended the “rainbow” and “closet” in “Bruise on the Sky,” the organized “haters” in “Caribbean Time,” the declaration in “No Equality” that there’s no equality, and the declaration in “Please” that “I just love being me” to put to bed rumors about which sex she prefers, but because they’re too coy by half, they might just fuel the debate. One thing, however, about which there’s no argument is that no one else--male, female, straight, or LGBT--is currently writing, singing, or recording songs this rich in creative tension. The pleasures are as deep and the thoughts as heavy as the several decades’ (and continents’) worth of pop-musical eclecticism is breezy and the lyrics are effortless. Verdict: both a Jill and a mistress of all trades.

The Morlocks: The Morlocks Play Chess (popantipop)--Great title, and if anyone could make pondering an opening gambit sound like the essence of rock ’n’ roll, it’s these So. Cal. garage legends. But, seriously, the “chess” the Morlocks “play” is the greatest hits of the Chicago-based label of the same name responsible for putting Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, John Lee Hooker, and Sonny Boy Williamson on the map. And the Morlocks don’t so much play them as strip them to their roots then reassemble them after losing the directions on purpose. Imagine the Rolling Stones vs. the New York Dolls in a Battle of the Bands that ends with both acts joining forces and, instead of making nice, making really mean. Or imagine the Who’s Magic Bus driven full-speed DUI-style into a Windy City jukebox.

Cyril Neville: The Essential Cyril Neville 1994-2007 (M.C.)--Allowing for the licensing complications that precluded M.C. Records’ including anything from the Neville Brothers’ pretty good 2004 Walkin’ in the Shadow of Life, these eleven songs from the youngest Neville’s five solo albums may very well represent his “essential” recordings from 1994 to 2007, but by no means do they represent his essential recordings--he made those between 1975 (when he joined the Meters) and 1991 (the year the Neville Brothers’ Brother’s Keeper proved that 1989’s Yellow Moon was no fluke). Having gotten that straight, the salient observations are that his greatest strength (vocal intensity) is also his greatest weakness (he never really lets up), his Dylan cover (“The Times They Are A-Changin’”) drags but his Hendrix cover (“Foxy Lady”) doesn’t, and, all things considered, Perfunktory would’ve been a more accurate title.

My 2010 Illinois Entertainer Reviews, p. 12

Mark Olson: Many Colored Kite (Rykodisc)--Mark Olson sings like a combination of Tom Verlaine and the Incredible String Band’s Robin Williamson. And if those allusions (both of them compliments) evoke long-forgotten memories, Olson’s adding of wind-swept strings to his acoustic starkness creates a meaningful melancholy worthy of Nick Drake and Sister Lover’s-era Alex Chilton. Elemental images abound (birds, a beehive, a snake, a dove, rivers, rain, a fountain, water that Olson’s “loved one” walks on), as do religious ones (the Tree of Life, milk and honey, being still and knowing, a song titled “Scholastica” and apparently inspired by the seventh-century saint of the same name, water that Olson’s “loved one” walks on), resulting in an irresistibly luminous mysticism somehow summed up by this proverb from “Wind and Rain”: “Empty pockets are a part of love.”

Carl Palmer: Working Live--Volume 3 (Eagle)--With all due respect to Keith Emerson’s organ stabbing, the highlight of every peak-period Emerson, Lake & Palmer concert was Carl Palmer’s drum solo (especially the seven-minute one during “Tank” circa 1977). On this latest installment of live re-workings by Palmer’s current trio of the music of ELP, there’s only one such solo (the first seven minutes of the eight-minute “In A Moroccan Market”), and its intensity isn’t quite up to the bash fests of yore. But it does earn its keep. As for the remakes of “Peter Gunn,” “Pictures at an Exhibition,” “Nutrocker,” “Bitches Crystal,” and “Romeo and Juliet,” the replacing of Greg Lake with a bassist who keeps his mouth shut (Simon Fitzpatrick) is genius. As for replacing Emerson with the electric guitarist Paul Bielatowicz. it’s, um, interesting.

Sabbath Assembly: Restored to One (:Ajna:)--Bob Marley’s popularity among non-Rastafarians is proof that, if the music is good, one needn’t identify with its religious impetus in order to enjoy it. On the other hand, if the music is as quirkily hermetic as Sabbath Assembly’s, even the group’s co-religionists might wonder whether it couldn’t make like Aquarians and let the sun shine in. For the record, the sect to which Sabbath Assembly’s five members belong is the Process Church of the Final Judgment, a Scientology offshoot that worships Christ, Lucifer, Satan, and Jehovah. Dirge-like and pseudo-mystical, none of their songs would seem out of place in a Spinal Tap set. But those guys, obviously, would play them for (and get) laughs. These guys (and gals) play (and sing) them as if laughter were the unpardonable sin.

My 2010 Illinois Entertainer Reviews, p. 13

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

“Well poor Tom Jefferson, / he loved the little maid out back,” sings Tom Petty at the outset of his most natural-sounding album ever, “midnight creepin’ out to the servant’s shack.” That’s “servant” as in Sally Hemmings, the black slave with whom Jefferson is believed to have procreated. Jefferson, on the other hand, in case you haven’t seen a nickel lately (we’re in a recession after all), was white. As a snapshot of Mojo--as in “got my mojo working’,” as in the “blues”--the image of a white man losing himself in a rich, dark mystery would be hard to beat because, in the best parts of this album, lose himself in the blues is exactly what Petty does.

“Runnin’ Man’s Bible,” “Let Yourself Go,” “Candy,” “Takin’ My Time,” “U.S. 41,” and the afore-quoted “Jefferson Jericho Blues” are blues from their Delta structures to Scott Thurston’s mouth harp. They’re also Mojo’s musical lynchpins, making the album as a whole feel more rooted in deep feelings than the sleek, free-flowing surface of the Heartbreakers’ ace chopsmanship on the other nine songs might at first suggest.

The main motif--clinging for dear life to the one you love because you’ve passed life’s halfway point and are aging faster everyday--emerges in increments, seeping through the cracks in Petty’s pared-to-the-bone lyrics so slowly you barely notice it until maybe the half-dozenth listen. But when you do, it can knock you for a loop, especially if, like the narrator of “The Trip to Pirates Cove,” your days of partying all night with waitresses in strange towns are further behind you than you’d like to admit. What keeps the self-pity at bay is the occasional other-directedness of Petty’s empathy: Coming from a guy who watched his former bassist, the late Howie Epstein, die an addict’s slow death, the cautionary “High in the Morning” knows whereof it warns.

Only the slow-reggae “Don’t Pull Me Over” comes off superficial, sung as it is from the perspective of a paranoid mary-jane trafficker whose self-justifications (“I’ve got mouths to feed … they depend on me”) don’t really wash. Even libertarians who agree with him that pot “should be legalized” don’t believe legalization “won’t hurt anyone,” just that it’ll hurt fewer people. The schmuck--it never dawns on him that feeding his “mouths” might be so hard because they have the munchies.

Friday, January 14, 2011

My 2010 Illinois Entertainer Reviews, p. 14

Robert Plant
Band of Joy

For the second album in a row, Robert Plant, who was once the favorite target of anti-rock evangelists everywhere owing to his band’s alleged sympathy for both the devil and pescatarian groupies, has put himself in the hands of a Christian producer. Last time it was T-Bone Burnett, who oversaw Plant’s 2007 album with Alison Krauss, Raising Sand. This time it’s Buddy Miller, who when he steps out of his role in Emmylou Harris’s band and records with his wife Julie, has been known to put his name on some very bare-knuckled roots- gospel indeed.

So maybe it was inevitable that, just as Raising Sand included the implicitly gospel “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us” and “Your Long Journey,” Band of Joy would include something along those lines. But who’d have thought those lines would’ve intersected at ninety-degree angles to form a crossroads where Plant would stand and deliver a spooky, deeply heartfelt, banjo-accompanied rendition of “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down” suitable for the midnight hour? “I’m gonna pray ’til they tear your kingdom down,” he sings, and even played backwards it contains nothing more subliminally sinister than “Numb knee yum yuck is.”

Every bit as spooky is Plant‘s version of Low’s “Silver Rider.” And it’s almost every bit as gospel too if the Mormon faith of the song’s composer, Alan Sparhawk, counts (and if the Silver Rider is a Christ figure and not a Fantastic Four character). Amid evanescing clouds of numinous electric guitars, Plant and Patty Griffin (who is at least adequate as an Alison Krauss understudy) compress their yearning to be raptured into hushed whispers that will send shivers down the spine of anyone who has one. Even “Cindy I’ll Marry You Someday” has a line about getting religion.

But Band of Joy isn’t all eerie otherworldliness. A jaunty, rumbling take on the Los Lobos lullaby “Angel Dance” kicks the album off while simultaneously establishing the project’s spiritual tone (even if the dancing angel is the singer’s child and not a cherubim or seraphim on the head of a pin). And the transformation of Barbara Lynn’s “You Can’t Buy My Love” into a ramshackle hoedown will have tattooed chicks who reek of patchouli shaking what their mamas gave ’em.

For the most part, though, a subtly menacing somberness entirely appropriate to a Buddy Miller production predominates. The payoff is that it sounds entirely appropriate to Plant as well.

My 2010 Illinois Entertainer Reviews, p. 15

Spoon: Transference (Merge)--As demonstrations of how far recording technology has come since, oh, the Pousette-Dart Band, these eleven songs deserve whatever acclaim comes their way. The lower frequencies feel especially three dimensional (Jim Eno’s kick drum in particular), although the percussive and-or atmospheric effects of various electric instruments, whether strung or keyed, ain’t bad either. And, even if at almost forty he really should be aiming higher, Britt Daniel’s vocals achieve a delicate balance of tenderness and reproach appropriate to lyrics-for-lyrics'-sake like these from “The Mystery Zone”: “There goes the rider / at gates of dawn. / He takes no prisoners at all.” (“The Mystery Zone”)--as if composing were as easy as paraphrasing Pink Floyd and Lou Reed (or Pat Travers [“Out Go the Lights”] or Hank Williams [“I Saw the Light”]).

Tindersticks: Falling Down a Mountain (4AD/Constellation)--Although the hype surrounding this album emphasizes what’s new about it (the group’s first for 4AD, its first with Earl Harvin on drums and David Kitt on guitar), the songs and sound are pretty much business as usual. Singer Stuart Staples still emotes elliptically suggestive lyrics in a hushed, slightly tortured baritone atop the hushed, slightly tortured lounge jazz of David Lynch’s nightmares or maybe those of his characters. Fans who don’t cotton to Staples’ singing get the instrumentals “Hubbard Hills” and “Piano Music,” lush nocturnal moodscapes that Marianne Faithfull could do a lot worse than sing over, and “Peanuts,” in which Staples is joined by the far more dulcet-voiced Mary Margaret O’Hara to sing the praises of Charles Schultz’s long-running comic strip or maybe George Washington Carver’s favorite legumes.

Jon Troast: Living Room (Jon Troast Music)--Troast (rhymes with “Toast”) is a Wisconsin-based singer-songwriter becoming increasingly well known not only for his gently philosophical folk-pop but also for his “living-room tours,” cross-country itineraries during which, for $100 a gig, he performs in the homes of his fans. His fourth and latest official release comprises songs reflecting his uniquely nomadic domesticity, and, not surprisingly, some are quite funny (especially “Living Room Tour,” which goes “I fell in love with your daughter, / but I couldn’t tell her / ’cause your neighbor had too many questions”). The more serious ones combine insight and sentimentality at least as efficiently as Jim Croce (especially “They Call Her Mama,” which reminds us, without ever actually saying so, that there are far worse things than being needed by those we love).

My 2010 Illinois Entertainer Reviews, p. 16

Walter Jr.: Standing on the Word (The Road to Emmaus)--As if this album’s specs weren’t weird enough--fifteen original songs of gospel blues and soul from a philosophy major who’s currently pursuing a Masters Degree in pastoral counseling and “plays his Vinetto Artifact #121 Telecaster featuring an El Dorado Alligator Pickguard and Strap through a Carr Rambler covered by Studio Slips”--things get weirder. Randall Bramblett plays sax and does Spooner Oldham impersonations on keyboards, Bonnie Bramlett sings and sings some more, and two songs, “The Weight of the Cross” and “Won’t Be Long,” sound like not-bad outtakes from Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming. Elsewhere Walter Jr. pays similar (if less obvious) homage to Van Morrison and Sam Cooke. The high point: “Dark As Death,” which wouldn’t have sounded out of place coming from Blind Willie Johnson.

Kathryn Williams: Relations (One Little Indian)--This album by the Liverpudlian folkie Kathryn Williams has been available in England, and as an import here, ever since it came out on Williams’ own Caw label in 2004. Now that it’s being released stateside, it’ll be, you know, cheaper. It will also put you to sleep, not only because the all-covers track listing is already familiar to anyone with good taste (vintage Byrds, Jackson Browne, Big Star, Bee Gees, Neil Young, Velvet Underground, with Pavement and Nirvana thrown in for the under-forties) but also because Williams slows every song down (even the ones that were slow to begin with) and doesn’t so much sing as whisper. Give her this much: You don’t see the Mae West cover coming. Hold this against her: another version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”