The release sheets continue to fatten nicely, so there’s plenty to talk about this week. In fact, upcoming Tuesdays are so ripe with CD fruit I might have to push a few titles off until the weeks when things are a little bit lighter.
Very few people on the planet have made or will ever make music that is as inherently intelligent, as accessibly infectious or as confoundingly cryptic as Robyn Hitchcock. Whether it’s his brilliant output with the Soft Boys in the late ’70s/early ’80s (and new millennium reunion), his subsequent band work with the Egyptians or the solo work that has peppered his catalog, Hitchcock remains one of music’s most unclassifiably original artists, mixing hallucinogenic lyrical content with a soundtrack that jangles with Beatlesque naiveté and swarms with XTC-like intensity and diversity.
Hitchcock’s newest band venture, The Venus 3, is a league of crafty Indie gentlemen, as guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Scott McCaughey and drummer Bill Rieflin coalesced under Hitchcock’s twisted baton to create a sonic miasma every bit as compelling as the best of his Egyptians output or their 2006 debut together, Ole Tarantula. The quartet’s sophomore effort, Goodnight, Oslo, is at the very least the equal of its predecessor and may nudge the bar just slightly higher.
Oslo finds Hitchcock and the Venus 3 settling down into a comfortable groove of their own and establishing a unique identity within the context of Hitchcock’s odd oeuvre. “What You Is” motors along at a slinky, funky pace, while “Your Head Here” swings with a horror Pop shimmer that suggests a collaboration between Bob Dylan and Squeeze. And with tracks like “Hurry For the Sky” and the horn-driven “Up to Our Necks,” Hitchcock marries his longstanding love of The Beatles with the mellowing maturity that has marked the last few Nick Lowe albums. Most musical careers with three decades of history behind them have settled into predictable patterns of faux creativity, but Robyn Hitchcock is clear evidence that an artist can fashion a truly unique sonic persona while still operating within some fairly broad parameters to shake things up.
Morrissey is another grand old man from Old Blighty with a long, illustrious musical history that requires him to live up to and live down a sizable reputation simultaneously. Wisely enough, Moz chose to distance himself slightly from his edgy early work with The Smiths to pursue something a little less pointed in his subsequent solo work, some of which found him crooning with romantic abandon. Of course, the greatest problem that Moz has had to contend with over the course of nine solo albums is the tendency of a good many journalists to sacrifice his bandless work on their overly adorned altars of Smiths worship.
On Years of Refusal, his tenth solo album, Moz kicks things up a notch or two, giving this album the adrenalized drama Pop sound of his Smiths legacy coupled with the hard fought maturity he has accrued in its wake. Years of Refusal’s opening cut, “Something is Squeezing My Skull,” shivers with Smithian reverie and Moz’s trademark theatrical presentation, while “Black Cloud” finds guest guitarist Jeff Beck channeling his inner Johnny Marr by filtering it through his inner Duane Eddy. “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris” features Moz’s standard detached perspective (“In the absence of human touch/ I have decided I’m throwing arms around Paris/ because only stone and steel accept my love...”) above a gorgeous little Pop melody that belies the melancholy sentiment conveyed in the lyrics, which is a gentle lead-in for the propulsively muscular “All You Need is Me,” the flamenco Pop of “When I Last Spoke to Carol” and the Smiths-absorbing-Lust-For-Life-era-Iggy churn of “That’s How People Grow Up.” And he still manages to slip into crooner mode on the Indie Rock Sinatraisms of “You Were Good in Your Time.”
Years of Refusal has already been cast in a lesser light by UK reviewers who continue to yardstick Morrissey’s recent accomplishments against the impossibly high standard of the Smiths’ catalog.
If good reviews were the coin of the realm, Tommy Keene could hire Donald Trump to be his cabana boy. And yet, for some unfathomable reason, radio has stayed away from Keene’s compelling melancholy power Pop melodicism while critics continue to anoint his every new album as the one that will finally offer him the breakthrough and subsequent rewards that he so richly deserves. This passion play has been going on since Keene’s 1984 EP Places That Are Gone nabbed the top spot in the Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll a quarter century ago.
So the question looms: Will Keene’s eighth studio album, In the Late Bright, be the one? Like all its predecessors, the album bristles with the potential to kick Keene to the next level, packed as it is with some of the best material he’s ever collected on a single album. His guitar playing has never been better, his lyrics have never been more incisive, and his range of influences (The Who, The Beatles, The Byrds) have never been in sharper relief.
The moody brilliance of “Late Bright,” the jangling wonder of “Tomorrow’s Gone Tonight” and the muscular Pop brevity of “Goodbye Jane” are all further reminders of Keene’s mastery at his unique brand of reflective Pop. If there is a surprise on Late Bright, it’s found in Keene’s first recorded instrumental, “Elevated,” a psychedelicized workout that bows to Pete Townshend and Ronnie Montrose with equal reverence. The fact that Tommy Keene has spent the past three decades perfecting a sound that only a narrow segment of the public recognizes as brilliant should be proof enough that he’s more concerned with craft than commercial success. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt if someone snuck one of In the Late Bright’s songs into the soundtrack of a skadillion dollar blockbuster movie, either.
On Gurf Morlix’s fifth album, Last Exit to Happyland, the sideman/producer-turned-artist combines the lessons learned behind a band with all the knowledge he’s accrued as an artist in his own right to craft a work that is both visceral and timeless. Morlix has a weary voice that recalls early Tom Waits and James McMurtry at his most reflective, which lends itself well to his loping and contemplative story songs. The tunes bear at least a passing resemblance to those of his former musical partner Lucinda Williams.
Once again, Morlix plays nearly everything on Last Exit, other than the drums provided by Rick Richards. As a guitarist, Morlix plays with a slinky, swampy attitude and adds appropriately atmospheric organ fills, giving Last Exit’s musical foundation a particularly Band-like vibe. Perhaps most effectively, Morlix’s dusty vocals are accented here by three stellar female accompanists; the angelic Patty Griffin, the bluesy Ruthie Foster and the earthy Barbara Kooyman. Griffin absolutely soars with Morlix on “She’s a River,” staking a claim for herself as this generation’s Emmylou Harris, while Foster moans with hellhound intensity on the mournfully seductive “Drums From New Orleans.” Kooyman (ex-Timbuk 3) makes her presence felt on Last Exit’s highlight, “Music You Mighta Made,” Morlix’s syncopated and shuffling tribute to the late and underrecognized Blaze Foley, a Texas singer/songwriter who befriended and worked with Morlix before his tragic death in 1989.
Last Exit to Happyland clearly stands as the pinnacle of Morlix’s work as a solo artist and may well rise above much of this year’s Americana crop.
This week’s edition of my vinyl burning project featured a couple of albums by the same band (sort of) from very different eras. My old college buddy Donrad called last week and was asking about my Manfred Mann vinyl, which has thinned considerably since I’ve acquired the CDs. But I still have a handful of Manfred Mann albums so I pulled a couple of them out to burn for Radley.
The first one was The Mighty Quinn, the 1966 album that was the showcase for the hugely successful title track. In fact, this particular album was actually a collection of tracks that was cobbled together for the U.S. market to capitalize on the single’s immense success. I think I found it at Everybody’s or Shake It, and I picked it up since it looked like it was in fairly decent shape, but it had obviously been a while since I tracked it, because when I dropped the needle on “The Mighty Quinn” it was noisier than an Irish pub on St. Patrick’s Day.
Even so, there weren’t any major pops or snaps so I went ahead and finished the recording. So many great songs, from their rousingly infectious Folk-meets-beer hall version of the obscure Dylan song that helped cement their popularity in the mid-’60s to the Move/Kinks/Hollies Pop bolero of “Ha Ha Said the Clown” to the similarly influenced “Semi-Detached Suburban Mr. James,” where a jilted beau takes a shot at his lost love for her choice to be upwardly mobile. Manfred Mann was largely identified in this period by their single success, but they assembled strong albums that generally featured a couple of supremely catchy chart hits but were bolstered by a supporting batch of songs that rarely included anything that could honestly be labeled as filler.
The more I listen to my burn of The Mighty Quinn, the more distracted I am by my copy’s surface noise. I might give the album a dirt-removing treatment I saw on the Web (coating an album with a really thick layer of Elmer’s Glue, letting it set for 24 hours and peeling it off; the glue apparently settles into the groove and sticks to dirt that can’t be cleaned with Discwasher solution and brush), but my longer range goal will definitely be to pursue a better copy.
The second burn was also a Manfred Mann title, but this one dated to 1980 when M2 was in his Bruce Springsteen-covering Earth Band days. Chance is clearly a product of its time, awash in synthesizers and just slightly too shiny from a production perspective. Through it all, I still have a great fondness for this album, featuring as it does two of my favorite Earth Band tracks: the propulsive technology vs. social conscience guitar/synth anthem “Lies (Through the ’80s)” (with lead vocals from the incomparable Chris Thompson) and the moody love gone wrong balladry of “This Is Your Heart.” And I’ve always liked the lopingly breezy instrumental “Fritz the Blank” and the MMEB treatment of Springsteen’s “For You” (with Thompson’s great pipes again; oddly enough, Chance featured a variety of lead vocalists, Mann himself among them).
As a whole, Chance isn’t one of the great Earth Band albums — Solar Fire and The Good Earth rank slightly higher for me personally — but it still hits me in all the right places.