Drivin' N Cryin', Kent, Califone and Six Finger Satellite

Although Drivin' N Cryin' never officially went away, its work over the past decade has definitely taken a back seat to Kevin Kinney's solo career, which has yielded four discs since the band's last full album of new material in 1997. 2003's 'Detroit Roc

Dec 6, 2009 at 2:06 pm

It’s becoming a saga, isn’t it? I think I’ll call it My Left Kidney. Chapter 5: The lithotripsy was successful in breaking up my poor kidney stone, but now the pieces have settled into the low part of the kidney, well below the opening that will allow me to pass the fragments before they coalesce into — that’s right — another kidney stone.

So I am forced to do yoga-for-dummies exercises that involve drinking a rain barrel full of water, lying at a 30 degree angle with my head down and my ass up and pounding gently on my left kidney in order to circulate the pieces so that they will pass. So far, nothing. This is nowhere near the end I envisioned for this story, most pointedly because it’s not the end. I really can't wait for this to be over, once and for all.

At any rate, this posting begins my look back at releases from weeks and months past. Given the fairly desolate release sheets from now until the end of the month, it seemed like a good idea to comb through the stacks in the Bunker, retrieve a few titles that didn’t get the proper love the first time around for whatever reason and shine a little light on them. Obviously, I’ll work in new releases wherever possible but there really isn’t a whole lot going on in the realm of the new at the moment, so here’s hoping you’ll enjoy the next five weeks of reviews as much as if I’d written them when the albums were hot off the press.

Sweden’s Kent has been around in one form or another close to 20 years and has run the creative gamut from Shoegaze distortion to dance-fueled Electronica. The quartet is arena-huge at home, Scandinavia’s version of U2, but its attempts to connect globally have typically been unsuccessful.

In 1997, BMG released an English version of Kent’s album Isola and sent the group off on a high-profile US tour opening for their countrymen, The Cardigans. The album and tour were generally well received (as was a second, lower-profiled jaunt with Papa Vegas) but the attention didn’t translate to sales and a proposed English version of their next album, 1999’s Hagnesta Hill, was shelved. Since then, Kent has kept their focus on the Swedish market, where they have scored massive radio hits and album sales and, over the course of their career, have collected more Swedish Grammys (17 total) than any other artist in the country.

The band’s new album, Rod (Swedish for ”red”), has no domestic release scheduled at the moment — the band hasn’t had an American label for some time — but is readily available as an import at Amazon and other online retailers (and probably easily ordered from Shake It and Everybody’s Records). Either way, Rod is well worth seeking out for anyone who has an affinity for swelling Coldplay balladry and the more commercial aspects of Radiohead’s expansive, rafter-rattling Poptronica and who happens to dig foreign language vocals and lyrics as a musical texture rather than understood word passages.

Kent frontman Joakim Berg has a Chris Martin charisma that transcends the language barrier; you may not have the slightest idea what he’s singing about but the passion with which he does it is undeniably appealing. Rod is destined to dominate Swedish airwaves and charts in the foreseeable future and Kent would be wise to make room in the trophy case for a few more Swedish Grammys as a result.

From the outset, Drivin’ N Cryin’ has been steeped in the musical history of their Atlanta environs. The band’s second drummer came from a seminal version of The Black Crowes and the guitarist that expanded the band from trio to quartet in 1988 was R.E.M.’s touring guitarist at the time. But the thing that made Drivin’ N Cryin’ one of the area’s favorite bands was the almost heartbreaking honesty and passionate conviction of the band’s primary songwriter, Kevn Kinney. From the gentle keyboard driven Folk of their early indie work to the guitar-heavy Rock bluster of their initial Island albums (particularly 1989’s Mystery Road and 1991’s brilliant Fly Me Courageous, the centerpiece of DNC’s sound, whatever it happened to be, has been Kinney’s magnificent skills as a heart-sleeved songwriter.

Although the band never officially went away, its work over the past decade has definitely taken a back seat to Kinney’s solo career, which has yielded four discs since DNC’s last full album of new material, 1997’s Drivin’ N Cryin’. 2003’s four-song EP, Detroit Rock City, signaled renewed activity but it took another six years for DNC to unleash their first full album in a dozen years, Whatever Happened to the Great American Bubble Factory?.

Seldom has an album been so worth the long wait. The ominously insistent Southern Rock-meets-AC/DC riff that opens “Detroit City” is a harbinger for the smoking, shrieking, soulful Rock that follows on Bubble Factory, from the Crazy Horse-does-Glam swagger and sway of “I See Georgia” and the Ramones-of-the-South snarl of “Get Around Kid” to the Zevonesque fist pump of “Preapproved, Predenied” and the joyous, horn-drenched tent revival of the title track. Even when DNC dials back (“Midwestern Blues,” “Don’t You Know That I Know That You Know”), there is a muscular undercurrent that rumbles through the band’s quietest attempts.

Bubble Factory is a blistering reaffirmation of the needle-pegging power that Drivin’ N Cryin’ churned out with regularity two decades ago when they routinely lived up to their reputation as the American Stones.

Califone began 12 years ago as a home recording project/diversion for vocalist/guitarist Tim Rutili in the wake of the breakup of Red Red Meat. With the assistance of multi-instrumentalist Ben Massarella and a shifting roll call of additional players, Califone has crafted a distinctive sound that rolls Folk, Blues, Pop and electronic experimentalism into a singular hybrid that suggests Tom Waits, Beck, Captain Beefheart and other similarly toned avantists with an outsider’s perspective and odd melodic appeal.

The other interesting aspect of Califone’s canon is Rutili’s penchant for placing his songs in a conceptual context. 2004’s Heron King Blues was a song cycle based on a recurring dream that Rutili has had since childhood, an image of a half-man/half-bird creature that turned out to be (accidentally, presumably) an actual historical reference to a terrifying Druid god from ancient British mythology, while the Deceleration series featured instrumental scores inspired by silent film soundtracks.

The latest Califone album, All My Friends Are Funeral Singers, follows the conceptual arc to an exceptional degree. The album’s musical backstory concerns a psychic woman who lives in the woods with ghosts who are bound to her home. The album serves as the soundtrack to a film that Rutili wrote and directed. Strictly as an album, Funeral Singers sports the dusty esoterica of Califone’s previous catalog, cemented by Rutili’s dry vocals, an approximation of what Kurt Cobain would have sounded like if Nirvana had been a Roots Folk trio.

“Bunuel,“ a tribute to the avant Spanish filmmaker, sounds like a collaboration between Tom Waits, Jay Farrar and Brian Eno, while “Ape-Like” jangles and jitters Folk Blues crossed with gypsy Jazz, as envisioned by Jeff Tweedy and Radiohead. The pervasive quality of Funeral Singers is Rutili’s almost pathological need to shift sonically, from song to song and within songs. By contrast, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot seems static and narrow.

Califone in general and All My Friends Are Funeral Singers specifically aren’t intended to appeal to every taste. But those with a particularly well-honed sense of musical adventurism will be enthralled with both.

From the very start a decade and a half ago, Six Finger Satellite has gone its own way with a shrieking vengeance. In the mid-’90s, the Rhode Island quartet’s blend of visceral guitar howl and Synth Pop blast brought to mind everything from The Stooges and Devo to The Buzzcocks and Krautrock. 6FS signed to Sub Pop based on demos that presented them as a new Nirvana — the label was non-plussed when the band’s first album, 1993’s The Pigeon is the Most Popular Bird, was an all-synthesizer affair. Guitars were an increasingly pervasive element on subsequent albums, but by 1998’s Law of Ruins, 6FS had returned to a synth-centric space Punk sound swirling with references to Can and Hawkwind and funneled through a modern Rock perspective. Law of Ruins proved to be 6FS’s last album — the band splintered, reassembled under founding members J. Ryan and Rick Pelletier and continued to tour until 2001 when they called it a day.

Last year, Ryan and Pelletier put together a new lineup of 6FS, released the shelved 2001 Half Control album and hit both the road and the studio. The resulting album, A Good Year for Hardness, finds the reconstituted 6FS returning to the guitar Punk direction of their mid-’90s albums with a good deal more Stooges snarl than Krautrock cool permeating the band’s first new material in over a decade. Synths bubble and curl their way into a number of tracks (“Hot Food,” “Don’t Let Me’), but for the most part, Ryan is content to howl with unrepentant Soul Punk volume on thumpers like “Rome From Home” and the scorching “Wilson P.”

A Good Year for Hardness steams along like a Post Punk tribute to Black Sabbath, which might be slightly disconcerting for fans who fell in love with 6FS’s spacier personality in the late ’90s. And yet Hardness still exhibits the monumental characteristics that made Six Finger Satellite an amazingly cool ’90s presence and a band that had a discernible impact on Electronic Rock in the new millennium.