Neko Case, Justin Townes Earle, Soundtrack of Our Lives, Ian McLagan and Much More

This is the biggest week for releases since the first of the year, at least in terms of sheer quantity. I check out new CDs from Neko Case, Justin Townes Earle, Soundtrack of Our Lives, Buddy & Julie Miller, Wild Light, Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan, Eri

This is the biggest week for releases since the first of the year, at least in terms of sheer quantity. When release weeks stack up like this in the future, I might have to push a few titles to weeks when there is slightly less to cover, just to relieve a little of the stress of trying to include too much in a single posting.

These columns are already pretty lengthy because, well, I’m a verbose son of a bitch and in this context I’m not subject to any of those pesky print word counts that limit my natural propensity to use five words where one would suffice. Enough of the prologue ... it must be time to get our review on.

Canadian pop chanteuse Neko Case has charted a fascinating career path, from punk drummer to acclaimed Roots Pop singer/songwriter to prominent component in a potent Pop collective, the latter two of which she has largely pursued simultaneously. With the New Pornographers, Case has provided many memorable vocal moments and likely a similar amount of creative input. Where Case has excelled is in her impeccable solo work, which reached its zenith on her third studio album, 2006’s brilliant and broadly brushed Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, an almost impossible melding of classicism (Dusty Springfield, Patsy Cline) and contemporary translation (Emmylou Harris, Kate Bush).

For her latest solo effort, Middle Cyclone, Case has retained the elements that made Fox Confessor infinitely listenable (linking rootsy tradition with Pop modernity, lyrics that engagingly blend head scratching obfuscation with mountaintop wisdom and clarity) and folded in an extra level of sonic exploration, moving from pure Roots Pop purveyor to slightly more esoteric musical provocateur. That said, it’s worth noting that Middle Cyclone’s epic finish, “Marais La Nuit,” a half hour of dead-of-night cricket calling, is perhaps better suited as a foundation for an Eno/Fripp freakout.

But the remainder of Cyclone is pure Case with interesting new twists, as though she recently discovered the Van Dyke Parks catalog, particularly on the Nilssonesque sigh of “Don’t Forget Me,” the off-kilter, Tom Waits-on-estrogen sly swagger of “Prison Girls” and the laconic take on Sparks’ “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth.” Even on the tracks where Case channels her own estimable past (“This Tornado Loves You,” “People Got a Lotta Nerve,” “Vengeance is Sleeping”), she still manages to work in some new jazzy, folky filligrees to tastefully appoint her surroundings. Middle Cyclone is clear evidence that Neko Case is less interested in recreating her past triumphs and more invested in their expansion and evolution.

On his debut album, 2008’s The Good Life, Justin Townes Earle overcame the stigma of famous father syndrome by turning away from Papa Steve’s Alt.Country/Roots Rock range in favor of a straighter Country direction that still sought and found new corners to explore. For his sophomore album, Midnight at the Movies, Earle taps into even deeper veins of musical expression, veering from Country Blues (“They Killed John Henry”) to Van Dykes Park great American songbookism (the title track) to Bakersfield honky tonk swing (“Poor Fool”). Earle tackles the issue of his lineage head-on in “Mama’s Eyes;” “I am my father’s son,” he sings in laconic Lyle Lovett/Loudon Wainwright tones, “I never know when to shut up.” And then, after the brief interlude of “Dirty Rag,” Earle shows another side of his musical heritage with a gorgeous mandolin-appointed take on the Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait.”

While he’s well on his way to proving that he is a distinct creative talent, Justin Townes Earle shares a couple of important characteristics with his father: A nearly obsessive avoidance of hanging around in any one genre for too awfully long and the simply inspired talent to translate his musical gifts into any style he chooses.

In 1994, Sweden’s punk-scorched, jazz-edged Union Carbide Productions reinvented themselves as the anthemically prog popped Soundtrack of Our Lives and vaulted from the shadows of respectable obscurity to Grammy nods, overseas commercial success and feted openings for the Rolling Stones, U2 and Oasis. Amazingly, this heightened reality hasn’t had a deleterious effect on the band’s sound or philosophy, and consequently their catalog is awash in exceptional output, from their 1996 full length debut, Welcome to the Infant Freebase, to their last stripped back effort, 2004’s Origins Vol. 1.

The sextet initially began working on Origins Vol. 2, but abandoned it when a completely different album presented itself in the process. Any other band may well have run in the opposite direction when realizing they were veering toward the dual death kiss of a conceptual double album, but SOOL is clearly in a class apart. The resulting album, Communion, is a stunning achievement, its concept loose but lucid, its execution both subdued and spine-tingling. Quite simply, Communion’s two discs represent day and night, containing 12 songs each, a song for each hour. The day disc is the frenetic culmination of everything SOOL has done well from the start; expansive pop psychedelia (“Babel On”), proggy melodicism (“The Ego Delusion”), pinwheeling guitar rock (“RA 88”) and, for jangly counterpoint, a lilting cover of Nick Drake’s “Fly,” all of it as authentic as the ’70s stoners that invented it and as contemporary as a download. The night disc is slightly more subtle, relying on acoustic atmosphere and reflection to make its points, from the Eno-fronts-the-R.E.M. hymnal power of “Everything Beautiful Must Die” to the space rock Dylanism of “The Fan Who Wasn’t There” to the Stones-channeled Nick Lowe demoitis of “Lost Prophets in Vain” to the throat-catchingly gorgeous “Lifeline.” If Infant Freebase was the Soundtrack of Our Lives’ sonic mission statement, Communion is the ecstatic realization of their creative goals.

Roots/Country doesn’t get any better treatment than when Buddy and Julie Miller double team its unsuspecting ass, and that fact makes the relative scarcity of Buddy and Julie Miller albums all the stranger. The songwriting couple met and married over two decades ago and while their collaborations have yielded a half dozen albums for Julie and five for Buddy, their only work under a joint banner came eight years ago with their eponymous debut.

Oddly enough, the pair’s sophomore album together, Written in Chalk, was originally supposed to be another solo album for Buddy, but his production/performance schedule (including a gig playing guitar for Alison Krauss and Robert Plant on their Raising Sand tour) forced him to suspend work. Julie, who hasn’t released an album of her own since 1999’s astonishing Broken Things, moved into Buddy’s work vacuum and wrote nearly an album’s worth of songs, eight of which appear on Chalk. Other than a co-write on the chugging Roots rocker “Gasoline and Matches” and picking a trio of perfect songs to cover (including Mel Tillis’ “What You Gonna Do, Leroy”), Buddy’s contributions to Chalk consist of vocals, guitar and production while Julie generally takes the lead.

In music as in life, Buddy and Julie Miller make amazing partners. His clear twang is the perfect complement to her raspy drawl, her songs are wonderful vehicles for his guitar sensibilities which range from straight Country to atmospheric Roots Pop (he played guitar for Emmylou Harris — who duets with Buddy on Chalk’s emotive closer, “The Selfishness of Man” — in her Spyboy band). On Chalk, Julie moves beyond simple Country/Americana to embrace an almost Tom Waitsian approach on the jazzier “A Long, Long Time” and the stripped down slow burn blues of “Smooth.” Everything the Millers do well is represented by their absolute best work on Written In Chalk, an album that is destined for Top 10 status come 2009’s conclusion.

It’s not particularly surprising to learn that the Arcade Fire awarded the opening slot of their UK/European tour and select dates on their U.S. circuit to New Hampshire quartet Wild Light. More than just the bands’ previous acquaintanceship — Wild Light guitarist Jordan Alexander and Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler were college roommates — the pairing spoke to the complementary colors in Wild Light’s sonic presentation and the way they caught and reflected the similar and divergent shades and hues in Arcade Fire’s own sound.

There is a certain sense of dichotomy in Wild Light’s debut album, Adult Nights, a shimmery division between simplicity and complexity, stripped back performance and layered arrangement. At their heart, Wild Light is a melodic Pop outfit with a cerebral edge, much like Dan Wilson’s Trip Shakespeare/Semisonic evolutionary path. But then they offer up a galloping Americana Pop anthem like “Heart Attack” or an electronic-touched downcast John Cale/Brian Eno swinger like “Canyon City,” or a jangly combination of the two on the Spoonesque “The Party (Oh, My God!)” and the infectious “My Father Was a Horse,” and it becomes slightly more problematic to assign a specific sound to Wild Light. And that, as far as I’m concerned, is about the best endorsement one can bestow upon a band.

Of the five components that once comprised the Faces, keyboardist Ian McLagan may be the least known comparatively (Rod Stewart, international star; Ron Wood, Rolling Stone; Kenney Jones, Keith Moon’s Who replacement; the late Ronnie Lane, Pete Townshend duo partner). Ironically, it’s McLagan who almost singlehandedly keeps the Faces’ legacy alive, spearheading the last two Faces collections (the Nice Boys...When They’re Asleep collection and the Five Guys Walk Into a Bar box set) and tirelessly campaigning for their Hall of Fame induction. (“It’s time for a reassessment,” he said five years ago when we were discussing the Five Guys box. “I mean, for Chrissake, if the Four Seasons can get in, surely we can.”)

Just as tirelessly, McLagan has pursued a career as solo artist and session keyboardist, releasing albums under his own name and as leader of his bluesy Bump Band while lending his skills to anyone who could benefit from his rollicking ivories. And Mac’s become a local fixture since relocating to Austin, Texas; singer/songwriter Gurf Morlix wrote “Voice of Midnight” from his new album for Mac and his late wife Kim. On his latest Bump Band album, Never Say Never, McLagan follows the trend of his more recent material, blending the boozy swagger of his Faces experience with the rootsy, bluesy swing of his new home, the former coming to the surface on the fist shaking rockers and the latter taking the lead on the gentler and more subtle tracks. Until the Faces make good on their threat to reform (which is again rumored to be happening this year, but we’ve heard this almost as many times as “Maggie May” gets spun on classic Rock radio), Ian McLagan’s Bump Band is the next best thing to it.

The evolution of the solo studio wizard has taken a few interesting turns with the rise of technology and the natural progression of the form itself. Todd Rundgren set a fairly high bar with his work in the category, and guys like John Vanderslice, Mark Everett (eels) and Jonah Matranga (onelinedrawing) have advanced the flag a little further up the DIAY hill. Say Hi’s Eric Elbogen is yet another guy to create a quirky and engaging little Pop universe all by his lonesome in the confines of his home studio.

Elbogen has been at this me-and-my-Mac music thing for over seven years, starting as Say Hi to Your Mom and self-releasing a quartet of fascinating albums before shortening his moniker to simply Say Hi for his last album, 2007’s The Wishes and the Glitches. Elbogen has often cited the Beatles as an early influence and the last Radiohead as one of his favorite albums, and if you tossed that sonic salad with some Shins and dressed lightly with Pavement, you’d have Elbogen’s delicious and nutritious Barsuk debut, Oohs & Aahs. There’s nothing jaw-dropping or heart-stopping about Oohs & Aahs, but it definitely burrows into the listener’s consciousness with successive listens, especially the eels-tributes-Devo reverb shimmer of “Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh,” the Neil Finnish basement demo of “November Was White, December Was Grey” and the cinematic spy/surf thematics of “Dramatic Irony.” Like the best of the contemporary crop of truly solo bedroom recordists, Eric Elbogen’s Say Hi succeeds because he never seems the slightest bit limited by his singular creative viewpoint and clearly has a broad internal pallete to draw upon.

Marty Wilson-Piper still likely has more fans because of his long tenure as The Church’s guitarist than from his equally longstanding solo career. Although he has some notable entries on his resume (including producing and playing on Jules Shear’s excellent 1989 album, The Third Party), his last solo studio album was 2000’s Hanging Out in Heaven, and for someone of Wilson-Piper’s enormous talent, that is far too long. Nightjar, his first album since 2004’s Live From the Other Side, proves that patience is a virtue; this may well be the finest album in Wilson-Piper’s impressive solo catalog.

Combining The Church’s evocative and melancholy Rock edge with a Folk bounce, a Pop melodicism, a Country lilt and a reflective lyrical focus on the despair of loss and the triumph of hope, Wilson-Piper comes through the funnel sounding like Chris Martin without the self-conscious stardom and post-Catherine Wheel Rob Dickinson without the artful bombast, which is to say a lot like Nick Drake had he survived his overdose, got the help he needed and thrived through his therapeutic songwriting. Nightjar is quietly powerful proof of the full range of Marty Wilson-Piper’s numerous musical skills and the amazingly effortless way he applies them. (Note to fans: A new Church album is slated for release this year.)

I’ve managed to burn a few things this week, among them the sophomore solo album from Dave Edmunds, Subtle as a Flying Mallet, for my old friend and inveterate Edmunds fan Donrad, and the debut Dave Mason solo album, Alone Together, both of which I found recently down in Shake It’s vinyl vault. But the most important transfer this week goes to the heart of my Rock obsession, seeded over four decades ago and still bearing fruit today, and nods to the friends who have helped feed (some might say enabled) my musical garden.

When Jimi Hendrix died in September 1970, I was a month shy of my 14th birthday. At the time, I was more of a 45 collector, owning a very few full length albums, and so my interest in Hendrix to that point had been limited to “Foxey Lady,” “Purple Haze” and his spine-tingling and transformative version of “All Along the Watchtower,” which I dearly loved. That all changed in the wake of Jimi’s death.

My friend Kevin found a beat-to-shit copy of Are You Experienced? and we proceeded to beat out whatever shit remained in it. By the time Cry of Love — cobbled together out of pieces of the last Jimi Hendrix studio sessions — came out in 1971, I was well on my way to an unwieldy album collection, and that became my first purchase of a brand new Hendrix album. Many more would follow after that.

When I moved to Cincinnati in 1982, I had a pretty healthy Hendrix collection, which included the legitimate releases and a number of fairly dodgy bootlegs. Although my new girlfriend Melissa and I shared an intense fascination for Iggy Pop (for several similar as well as wildly divergent reasons), Hendrix was definitely a point of departure for us. She never had and has yet to develop an appreciation for his technique and genius, and I’ve never held it against her. Much.

One evening, somewhere around the mid-’80s, Melissa and I were having dinner with our friends Karen and Mark in their Hyde Park home. Karen and Melissa had been best friends in college, and I came along just after their graduation, about the time Karen and Mark started dating. We all took to each other quickly and became fast friends.

Of the four of us, I was clearly the only one with a music obsession. Karen and Mark both had artists they really loved (The Beatles and Joe Cocker, respectively), and others they followed intermittently (Dylan, Van Morrison, the Doors, etc.) but not to the extent that I was hooked. I was constantly playing them new things that I had gotten or old things from my collection that I would offer up as something of a divining rod to chart the flow of their tastes.

On this particular evening, I discovered that their album collection was housed in a built-in bookcase that served as a room divider between their living room and dining room. Karen had always kept a long thrift store curtain draped over the bookcase and I’d never actually seen their albums. For some reason, the veil was lifted (I think one of their five cats had chucked a hairball on it and she had laundered it), and upon seeing the spines I immediately asked if I could have a look.

As I fingered my way along the bookcase, I came across the familiar sights of a couple of the Hendrix albums that I already owned and I skated past them, basically just noting that Karen and Mark had them for future reference. But I hadn’t gone much further before my brain caught up with my fingers and said, “Hit the brakes, Speed Racer, I think you missed something.” Something in the Hendrix section.

Wedged in with the legit albums was a simple white spine with black lettering: Guitar Hero — Jimi Hendrix. I pulled it out slowly and was astonished to find a bootleg that I had read about but had never seen or heard. The recording had been done in 1967 for BBC’s Top Gear program on Radio One and featured a number of early oddities, including covers of Dylan’s “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window,” Willie Dixon’s “Hootchie Cootchie Man” and a ferocious spin on The Beatles’ “Day Tripper” among the revved up versions of Jimi’s studio tracks of the era (“Stone Free,” “Foxey Lady,” “Hey Joe,” etc.). I think I was actually trembling a little as I looked at the track list on the back cover, when Karen noticed what I had in my hands. “You like Jimi Hendrix?” she said with almost comic understatement.

Trying not to babble, I asked her if she would be OK with me taking the album home and making a tape of it for my cassette archive. She nonchalantly looked at the album and said, “I don’t even know when we got that and I don’t remember the last time we played it. If you want it, you can have it.”

That was pretty much when the blood rushed to my ears and all I could really hear was that internal fire station bell that seems to drown out all auditory stimulus that humans typically experience. I was grateful beyond my meager ability to convey it and probably played it 10 times in the week after I got it home.

After a dozen years of spending the majority of our free time with Karen and Mark, kids and jobs took their toll on our leisure time. For a few years, Melissa and Mark worked together and we sort of kept in touch that way, punctuated by infrequent dinners or whatever. We eventually kept in touch by phone and Christmas cards and little else.

This past Christmas, Karen let us know that Mark had been battling cancer for some time, an unsettling revelation. Melissa called immediately to get more information from Karen, and she seemed guardedly optimistic; then I talked to Mark and he seemed more resignedly realistic yet hopeful for a turn toward better news or a breakthrough treatment or the thing we all hope for in the shadow of adversity’s sheer cliff — a miracle.

A little over a week ago, Mark’s sister called to say that family and friends were getting together the following Saturday to belatedly celebrate Karen and Mark’s 50th birthdays, which had actually been notched in 2008. I said we would absolutely be there. And then I went and dug out the copy of Guitar Hero that Karen had given me over 20 years before and put it on the top of my burn pile.

Like a lot of my Hendrix vinyl, much of the material on Guitar Hero eventually has come out on CD; in this case, the 1998 double disc release BBC Sessions covered a good deal of it. But there is at least one song on Guitar Hero — a track listed as “Getting My Heart Back Together Again” — that does not appear on BBC Sessions, and besides the vivid and cherished memory of Karen giving me the album overrules my current objective to thin out my collection. More than anything, I wanted them to have a copy of the album they'd so generously transferred to me long ago.

We got to the party before Karen and Mark and caught up with Mark’s family, Karen’s dad and the handful of friends of theirs that we had previously known and met a whole lot of new people. When Karen and Mark arrived, I’d be a liar of Bush administration caliber if I said I wasn’t shocked by Mark’s appearance. Always a broad-shouldered, rugged outdoorsy guy, he was gaunt and sallow and, even though he had told me on the phone he'd lost 50 pounds, I still wasn’t prepared for the reality of it.

I hugged him for as long and as hard as I thought he could stand it and handed him the bag of CDs I’d burned for him. He said he’d check them all out later, and I said, “There’s just one I want to show you now.” I pulled out the burn of Guitar Hero and said, “Remember the Hendrix bootleg that Karen gave me out of your collection like 20 years ago?” He smiled when he saw the cover (I actually found a jpeg of the cover and back cover art on the web) and said quietly, “Yeah, I remember ... this is great, man. Thanks.”

I hope Mark gets his miracle. He’s an amazing husband, father and person. If he’s allowed a miracle commensurate to just half of the miracle of the friendship he and Karen have bestowed upon Melissa and me over the years, that would be more than enough to heal him completely and restore him to the health and vigor he so richly deserves. Fight hard and get well soon, my brother.