Holy crap on a communion cracker, when the sheets fill up, they get full in the proverbial New York minute. A month ago, I was digging though last year’s forgotten stacks for some titles to cover, and now I’m pushing things to next week in order to work around the wealth of material to cover and my general behindiness. You see what it’s come to? I’ve resorted to making up words; thankfully, English is a melting pot language and really good for that kind of randomized wordsmithery.
So, as I carefully consider what new words to introduce into the Rock lexicon, I’m simultaneously deciding which titles to push to a subsequent week so I can get this posting done in a slightly less fashionably late manner. So, as I ponder which reviews to hold for a week or two, dig into the ones that made the cut.
Dan Bejar’s reputation as Canada’s resident sonic oddball has been established with his wonderfully strange contributions to The New Pornographers and his eclectic solo/band catalog as Destroyer. Bejar’s previous Destroyer outings have been fascinating Indie Pop excursions that weld his lyrical pretzel logic to a compellingly quirky soundtrack, giving him a mad studio scientist tilt akin to Robyn Hitchcock and Brian Eno.
With Kaputt, Bejar ventures into weird soundscapes of ’80s Dance Pop synths and jazzy rhythms that nod in the direction of Simply Red, Spandau Ballet and Prefab Sprout (especially on the quietly powerful “Savage Night at the Opera” and the slinky “Song For America”). But he maintainins his schizophrenically entertaining sense of wordplay, exemplified by this couplet from “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker” — “Enter through the exit and exit through the entrance/When you can, you consort with your invisible manhole/Fool child, you’re never gonna make it/New York City just wants to see you naked and they will.”
Bejar weaves sinewy guitar into the smoky melancholy of “Poor in Love,” a track Bryan Ferry could easily ride into chart history, and the mix of late night Jazz fog, romantic synth Pop chill and Ambient background textures on “Chinatown” and “Blue Eyes” is a fascinating construction, as is the Ambient/Soul-drenched 11-minute drift of “Bay of Pigs (Detail).”
But Kaputt is very different musical territory for fans expecting the same old Destroyer. The saving grace for Bejar is that anyone open enough to follow him as far down the musical rabbit hole as he’s gone to this point in his career shouldn’t be too terribly put off by Kaputt’s smoldering Dance Pop/Jazz synthesis.
Music, like magic, can benefit from a bit of misdirection. Consider the case of Fujiya & Miyagi. The band is a British quartet, not a Japanese duo, and they’ve translated their love of Krautrock avatars like Can and Neu! and contemporary Electronic provocateur Aphex Twin into a fairly successful career over the past decade. The band’s first album, 2002’s Electric Karaoke in the Negative Style, established the band’s modus operandi — propulsively programmed beats and sugary synth walls from Steve Lewis (Fujiya) and punctuating guitar and bloodless singing from David Best (Miyagi) — which was augmented in 2005 by bedrock bass from Matt Hainsby (who was christened Ampersand) and again in 2008 with addition of drummer Lee Adams (who sadly must remain Lee Adams).
For their fourth album of original material, Ventriloquizzing, F&M ostensibly shake things up by bringing in outside producer Thom Monahan (Pernice Brothers, Vetiver, Devandra Banhart), a new wrinkle for the typically self-produced band. Monahan certainly helps to provide a sparkly sonic atmosphere for F&M, but the band doesn’t bring the same compelling level of songs to this album as they have in the past. The beats and tempos rarely move beyond the pace set on the album’s opening title track (although “Cat Got Your Tongue” shimmers a little brighter than the rest and “Taiwanese Roots” sounds like a British spy theme) and the live rhythm section plays the bottom straightforward when it should be slippery.
Ventriloquizzing is by no means a bad album for Fujiya and Miyagi, just not a particularly engaging one.
Gang of Four emerged from 1977’s Punk scene as one of Great Britain’s most musically mature and politically aware bands. In stark contrast to The Sex Pistols’ gobsmacked tumult, GOF was erudite and restrained, adding spiced Funk, Dub Reggae and Ambient minimalism to its Post-Punk recipe. The band’s left wing sloganeering on blustery singles like “At Home He’s a Tourist” and “I Love a Man in a Uniform” was often censored or banned, selling better as American club tracks than English rallying anthems.
GOF has reformed twice since their untimely 1984 demise, with Content just their third album in the last 15 years. Time has not diminished the band’s musical integrity and political/social commitment. Jon King’s raspy pronouncements and Andy Gill’s juddering guitar spikes remain as potent as ever, particularly on the propulsive “I Party All the Time,” the Punk lockstep of “You Don’t Have to Be Mad” and the martial melancholy of “I Can’t Forget Your Lonely Face,” while the relatively new rhythm section (bassist Thomas McNiece and drummer Mark Heaney) provides a malleable yet sturdy foundation. The band continues to prove, an amazing 34 years after they lurched into the public consciousness, that it’s perfectly acceptable to dance while you think — for example, “Who Am I?” swings like mad while asking the enigmatic question, “Who am I when everything is me?”
As for the album’s title, the emphasis is placed firmly on the first syllable — Gang of Four will thankfully never be content.
If there was any justice in the wide world of music, Wanda Jackson would be a star of incomprehensible proportions, with gold records covering every wall of her unmortgaged mansion and solid gold patio furniture surrounding her champagne-filled, treble clef-shaped swimming pool. Jackson is one of the most influential Rockabilly artists to emerge from the ’50s — she had her own radio show at 19, briefly dated Elvis Presley at the dawn of his career, employed Country legend Roy Clark as a guitarist when he was unknown and scored minor hits like “Let’s Have a Party,” “Fujiyama Mama” and “Mean, Mean Man.” But Jackson never attained the iconic status of her male contemporaries because of the gender bias of the era.
Not that it’s made an atom’s worth of difference to Jackson; she’s maintained a fairly consistent touring presence over the years, sustained by her faith, the love of her husband/manager of 50 years and her loyal fans around the world.
Now 73, Jackson is finally garnering the respect she deserves. Her 2003 album, Heart Trouble, featured guests/fans Elvis Costello, The Cramps and Rosie Flores and she he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008 in the Early Influence category. But her biggest break may come with her new album, produced by Jack White and aptly titled The Party Ain’t Over. While White assembled a stellar band for the album — including Greenhornes/Raconteurs rhythm section Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler and My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel, among others — Jackson is still the queen of this prom, her energy unstoppable, her voice every bit as playful and engaging as it was when she toured with Elvis in the mid-’50s.
Purring and growling over an absolutely freewheeling Rock tumult, Jackson puts her own distinctive mark on early classics like “Shakin’ All Over” and “Rip It Up” and Bob Dylan‘s “Thunder on the Mountain,” as well as on the Country carnival arrangement of Harlan Howard’s “Busted” and her soulful turn on Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good.” Nowhere is Jackson’s range more evident than on the 1-2-3 punch of Eddie Cochran’s revved up Rockabilly anthem “Nervous Breakdown,” a reverent yet funky Gospel spin on “Dust on the Bible” and her slinky Country/Pop stroll through the Gene De Paul/Sammy Cahn hit “Teach Me Tonight.”
White is clearly a loyal fan of Jackson and her style — he chose the material for her to cover here — and he has perfectly framed her on The Party Ain’t Over. But the picture in that frame is most assuredly Wanda Jackson, a picture that should be hanging in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame proper. Maybe The Party Ain’t Over will help rectify that oversight.
With his eponymous 2005 debut, singer/songwriter Amos Lee was immediately elevated to the rarified status of opening for the likes of Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Merle Haggard and Paul Simon. After his third album, 2008’s Last Days at the Lodge, Lee contemplated whether or not he would ever record again. Extremes don’t get much more extreme than that. Thankfully, Lee took over a year off and continued to write, his songs reflecting advice from longtime hero Bill Withers to shake up his style, followed by a decision to accept a years-old invitation from Calexico’s Joey Burns and John Convertino to record at their Wavelab studio in Arizona. The result is the expansive and atmospheric Mission Bell, Lee’s most deliberate and mature album to date.
With Burns at the console, Calexico in his band and tons of guests (including Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams, Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam and legendary R&B drummer James Gadson), Lee has realized the purest expression of his Roots, Soul and Pop influences on Mission Bell. The emotional Folk/Pop gem “Stay With Me” and the Ambient Gospel “Jesus” quiver with wide-angle Brian Eno-meets-Gram Parsons desert intensity, while “Hello Again” and “Cup of Sorrow” sway with the late night cantina sound of Withers singing Marty Robbins and Louvin Brothers songs from a dusty old jukebox.
The threads connecting Mission Bell’s gentle diversity are Lee’s supernaturally soulful vocals, a caramel cross between James Taylor and Ben Harper, and evocatively eloquent and casually beautiful songs that are equally informed by loss and redemption.
John Vanderslice has worn many hats in the course of his career — band member, solo artist, sideman, producer, studio owner. In a good many of those roles, one of Vanderslice’s most prominent traits has been his meticulous work ethic, a dedication to getting his Indie Pop sounds right without overworking them into an indistinguishable mush. With his latest solo endeavor, White Wilderness, Vanderslice chose to work with less deliberation and more spontaneity over a mere three days. The counterintuitive element to this plan was that he utilized Minna Choi’s Magik*Magik Orchestra as his band, the inference being that anything orchestral would necessarily spark Vanderslice’s perfectionist tendencies.
But with Choi handling the arrangements and writing the orchestrations, Vanderslice was free to strip his songs down to an incredibly simple structure and rein in his impulse to twiddle knobs, thereby allowing his performances to take on an immediacy that Choi navigated with a masterful grace and elegance. As a result, White Wilderness sounds like an impromptu jam between Elvis Costello, Scott Walker, Burt Bacharach and Radiohead, a stark sonic core appointed with swirling strings and winds that drift and swell with touches normally associated with Jazz and Classical arrangements.
White Wilderness is low key but powerfully affecting, a perfect winter album that is equally blessed by John Vanderslice’s austere Pop beauty and the delicately powerful presence of Minna Choi and the Magik*Magik Orchestra.
Pete Anderson’s Roots/Americana/Country reputation was built on his longtime association with Dwight Yoakam as producer/guitarist and their spin on the Bakersfield sound, as well as his aggressive support of Lucinda Williams, Rosie Flores, Michelle Shocked and Jim Lauderdale, among many others. The lesser-known aspect of Anderson’s career, after three albums under his own name, is that his first love is the Blues.
The Detroit native fell under the genre’s spell after his first Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1968 and, in addition to his well documented and fairly staggering career highlights, he’s been both devotee and practitioner ever since.
On his fourth and latest solo album, Even Things Up (his first recording in seven years, following 2004’s Daredevil), Anderson offers up a sinewy Blues/Roots concoction that incorporates healthy doses of Tex Mex heat (“That’s How Trouble Starts”), Cajun spice (“Stop Me”), Jazz texture (“Wes’ Side Blues”), Soul seasoning (“Still in Love”) and even a pinch of traditional Blues (“One and Only Lonely Fool”). There are moments on Even Things Up that are reminiscent of Brian Setzer’s rootsier catalog (“Honky Tonk Girl”), but Anderson is clearly a stylist that hits a lot of familiar notes without slavishly following anyone’s particular lead. One of Anderson’s most potent weapons on this album is composer/producer/keyboardist Michael Murphy, whose Hammond organ fills are the perfect accompaniment to whatever Blues mood Anderson chooses to project.
While Pete Anderson’s Blues excursions may never eclipse his Country/Roots career, Even Things Up is more than ample proof that they should be considered in an equal light.
For nearly a decade and a half, Hot Club of Cowtown has been wowing fans and garnering critical praise with an eclectic mix of Bob Wills-steered Western Swing, the hottest of hot Jazz from the ’20s and ’30s and gems from the Tin Pan Alley era. After learning a few set lists worth of covers, HCOC took the next logical step and put that learning to work toward composing originals that were so authentic it would take a peek at the writing credits to tell one from another.
Like the group’s debut album, 1998’s Swingin’ Stampede, HCOC’s latest release, What Makes Bob Holler, is an album of covers. But this time the band is focused on a single theme, paying tribute to Bob Wills, the cornerstone of their musical education. The band made its set list selections from Wills’ repertoire as it was presented on radio shows during 1946-47, culled from recordings known as the “Tiffany Transcriptions.”
On What Makes Bob Holler, Wills is more than a simple inspiration, he’s a mentor, spirit guide and musical sherpa and HCOC is the vessel for his accumulated wisdom. In a little over 40 minutes, Hot Club of Cowtown (fiddler Elana James, guitarist Whit Smith, upright bassist Jake Erwin, vocalists all) translates 14 brilliant nuggets from this narrow slice of Wills’ monumental career. On the slinky “It’s All Your Fault,” the laconic “Maiden’s Prayer,” the jaunty “Big Ball in Cowtown” and the freewheeling “Osage Stomp,” the band is showcasing not merely the debt that they owe to the godfather of Western Swing. The album also show exactly what the band singularly brings to stage and studio every time they pick up their instruments, step up to their mics and make a payment to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.
BRIAN BAKER can be heard Fridays at 4:30 p.m. on Class X Radio. Tune in on 88.9 FM or at classxradio.com.