Elvis Costello, The Greenhornes, Rory Gallagher, Kanye West and new Jimi Hendrix

It's been a while, boys and girls. Sorry for going dark — it's been a wildNovember, what with the mid-term elections, a trip to Michigan and the excellent Music CEAs event. Let's check out new releases from Elvis Costello, The Greenhornes, Rory Gallagher

It’s been a while, boys and girls. Sorry for going dark — it’s been a wild November and, as usual, I’m a little behind (my wife would tell you that I’m a huge behind, although not in those words necessarily).

I had big plans for this month and next, reviewing things that I’ve missed this year and generally catching up to a weekly pace again. It didn’t work out that way; I was undone by a variety of tasks and incidents, including the standard deadlines, a suspicious kidney stone-like attack and a broken toe, plus an absolutely necessary and awesome trip to Michigan. Before we hit the reviews, I am compelled to offer a few thoughts on a variety of related and unrelated subjects:

• The mid-term elections were just slightly depressing, as a majority of the population was taken in by Republicans and their marginalized Tea Party offshoot, a populism developed by a Republican consulting firm that’s been greatly enriched by the movement’s grass roots donations; don’t forget that one of the most famous Tea Parties of all time was overseen by a Mad Hatter.

Here’s my proposition to the House majority, particularly new Speaker John Boehner, my own Contract for America, if you will: Fix everything. You have two years. Fix Bush’s tar pit and fix Obama’s fixes, wherever you think they might require fixing. And if you can’t make everyone’s life better in that time (and I’m talking everyone, not just the guys with that Haliburton bar code tattooed on their necks below the collar line), then we get to shove LSD-laced jalapeno peppers up your ass, shave your body baby smooth, let Shepard Fairey paint a Jane Fonda tribute mural on your chest and airdrop you into Ted Nugent’s bazooka practice range. Deal?

• My trip to Michigan was primarily planned in order to see family and friends, but the timing was arranged to accommodate the best concert I’ve seen this year, a rare tour stop in Ann Arbor by Stew and the Negro Problem (hold your outraged e-mails: Stew is African American and the name of the group actually refers to the philosophical differences between Black separatist Marcus Garvey and Black assimilist Booker T. Washington). Stew has few peers in the twisted baroque Pop genre (one early review referred to him as “Burt Blackarach,” but I prefer to think of him as “Jimmy Webony”), whether in his Negro Problem band guise or in his solo context, all of which have been creatively enhanced by his professional (and until recently personal) partner, bassist Heidi Rodewald.

Their new songs and newly arranged old songs showed the Negro Problem to be infinitely talented, resourceful, quick witted and creative; the new songs in the set and on the disc bode well for the next official Negro Problem album, whenever it may come. The band’s jauntily loose yet amazingly tight performance style and Stew’s masterful storytelling and compelling stage presence all combine to make the Negro Problem’s current (and relatively limited) tour a don’t-miss ticket. Drive any distance to see it; you will not be disappointed.

• At this year’s Cincinnati Entertainment Awards, every performance was top notch (particularly Kim Taylor’s affecting set, No No Knots’ careening Art Pop brilliance and The Pinstripes’ short but arresting stage time), but there was no greater evidence of a nominee earning an award than Foxy Shazam’s breathtaking Rock & Roll circus just prior to the band winning the award for Best Live Act. Foxy’s quick set was highlighted by keyboardist Sky White stomping on the keys looking like a cross between Rasputin and Godzilla and frontman Eric Nally vaulting onto the shoulders and wildly humping the back of the head of guitarist Loren Turner and generally commanding the stage with an acrobatic showmanship that combined the best of Iggy Pop, Freddie Mercury and James Brown.

The nominees were all deserving, the winners were all the top acts in solidly stacked categories and there was little argument about who took home some bling for their wall. My favorite quote of the evening came from Mad Anthony frontman/dervish Ringo Jones, who made this observation while witnessing The Pinstripes’ jaw-dropping set (and after MA’s win in the Punk category, including Jones’ emotional hat tip to late drummer Tony Bryant): “We’re just guys who play music. Those guys are musicians.”

The after-party at the Mad Hatter was a blast, with a roiling, ripping set from The Cincy Brass (some of whom sat in on a couple of Foxy Shazam numbers during the CEAs) and a blistering shower of sparks from The Lions Rampant after midnight.

It was a magical night all around, the perfect reward for having driven five hours back from Michigan that very afternoon to make the ceremony. This might seem like a lame cliché, but it was pointedly true last Sunday night: There were no losers at the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards. We are unbelievably lucky to have such an astonishingly diverse talent pool in the local scene.

OK, at last, back to the reviewage. Scroll, read, enjoy:

Elvis Costello’s greatest quality is his unerring ability to shift sonic directions like he’s changing from a thrift store overcoat to a Saville Row dinner jacket without compromising his artistic vision or his core creative philosophy. Whether blustering about with angry young New Wave angst above the din of the Attractions, crooning with serious musical intent accompanied by the Brodsky Quartet or Marian McPartland or duetting with Burt Bacharach or Allen Toussaint, Costello graces every extreme with brilliant lyrical twists, wry humor and an incisive understanding of the human condition, not to mention the inhuman consequences experienced by those that are blithely untroubled with his level of insight.

Amazingly, Costello has maintained a consistency over the past three decades that must be the envy of fellow stylistic chameleons like David Bowie and Neil Young, artists who have taken similar chances within their own unique constructs and who have suffered a much higher failure rate as a result.

Costello’s latest, National Ransom, comes just two years after the Jenny Lewis-inspired racket on the patently excellent Momofuku and a year after the mesmerizing Secret, Profane & Sugarcane. On National Ransom, Costello returns to Starbucks’ Hear Music label and reteams with veteran boardsman T Bone Burnett (who produced 1986’s King of America as well as last year’s Sugarcane) and packs the studio with his Imposters/Sugarcanes, not to mention a stellar guest list that includes Buddy Miller, Marc Ribot, Vince Gill and the inimitable Leon Russell.

The album lurches to life with the title track, a searing, careening song that wouldn’t have been out of place on Imperial Bedroom but immediately takes a left turn with the Tin Pan Alley Jazz plink of “Jimmie Standing the Rain” and the smokey lope of “Stations of the Cross.” The Country aspects of National Ransom, reprised from Sugarcane, are equally on display, particularly in the chugging reverb of “Five Small Words.” But in typical fashion, Costello manages to bend the genre to his will rather than following formulaic convention. Even oddities like the bouncy Jazz Rag of “A Slow Drag with Josephine” and the Waits-meets-Sinatra balladry of “You Hung the Moon” seem strangely of a piece in the sonic quilt that Costello has sewn together on National Ransom, the latest quirky triumph in his storied catalog.

When The Greenhornes burst onto the Cincinnati scene in the late ’90s, the southern Indiana quintet opened up a psychedelic garageful of snarling kickass and were an immediate sensation. Pushing out a sound that combined the maximum R&B amplitude of early Who and The Pretty Things with the sneering sophistication of the earliest Kinks, The Greenhornes attracted a local, regional and national fanbase with a handful of studio releases and an incendiary live presence. (Remember when they nearly wiped the stage with The Strokes at the Southgate House?)

Ultimately reduced to a trio, The Greenhornes went on indefinite hiatus five years ago, sparking an incredible talent split — keyboardist Brian Olive had already begun his solo career, bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler formed The Raconteurs with Jack White and Brendan Benson (Lawrence also plays bass with White in Dead Weather and banjo with Detroit Roots Rock outfit Blanche) and vocalist/guitarist Craig Fox formed garage vaudevillians Cincinnati Suds and psychedelic bluesmasters Oxford Cotton.

With The Raconteurs and Dead Weather on breaks, Lawrence and Keeler reconnected with Fox, revived The Greenhornes and are finally able to release the 12 blazing tracks that comprise **** (just say “four stars”), the trio’s first full-length of new material in nearly eight years, which they’ve been working on sporadically for close to three years. The album snaps to attention from its first track, “Saying Goodbye,” a reverbed shot of R&B whiskey that burns like raw Who and warms like early Guided By Voices. And therein lies the fascinating advance for the Greenhornes on the new release — the trio has grown and evolved and play with infinitely subtler shades than on their previous works while still offering the undercurrent of intensity that is the hallmark of their first three albums.

“Better Off Without It” and “Cave Paintings” almost sound like the Hornes covering lost early Dylan nuggets, although the latter gives way to a little Blue Cheer at its conclusion. But just as “My Sparrow” offers touches of Beatlesque melodicism and “Get Me Out of Here” finds the trio channeling their inner Davies brothers, the ’hornes don’t forget their Yardbirds’ roots on the blistering “Need Your Love.” Given the spotlight that has been focused on Keeler and Lawrence because of their Jack White connection, **** could give The Greenhornes the wider audience they’ve deserved all along.

Even the most casual browser of this space has surely run across some slavishly gushing reference to Rory Gallagher. My love of the Irish string strangler began in the dawn of the ’70s and shows no sign of abating any time soon, perhaps growing even stronger in the wake of his tragic passing from liver failure in 1995. Since then, occasional retrospective packages or unreleased live sets will make their way to Gallagher’s fiercely loyal fan base, reminding us joyously of what was then and sadly what came to an untimely end 15 years ago.

The latest live testament to Gallagher’s fluid greatness is contained in the separate releases of The Beat Club Sessions on CD and Ghost Blues on DVD, a documentary that also includes the televised version of Rory’s appearances on the German music program Beat Club, which ran from 1965 to 1972.

The CD version of The Beat Club Sessions offers up a dozen tracks of Gallagher’s blistering Blues brilliance culled from his three Beat Club engagements in 1971 and 1972, when he was just beginning his solo career away from Taste, the band that had made him relatively famous in Europe and a cult hero in America. The set is packed with visceral reworkings of songs that would ultimately become set highlights as Gallagher’s career progressed over the subsequent two decades, from the straightforward thump of “Laundromat” to the scintillating slide scorch of “Sinnerboy” to his incendiary signature, “Messin’ With the Kid.”

This collection shows Gallagher at his inspired best, a time when the guitar sensation’s powers were ascending at an exponential rate, each successive solo more face-melting than the last. The Beat Club Sessions is the distilled essence of him in the early ’70s, a blazing set of performance that show his commanding power in both electric and acoustic modes. The DVD version of The Beat Club Sessions adds a quartet of additional songs, including Gallagher’s other avowed classic, his rollicking take on “Pistol Slapper Blues.”

The real appeal of the DVD is the title disc, Ghost Blues, a fantastic documentary that details Gallagher’s rise and subsequent (and long-lasting) influence through interviews with The Edge, Johnny Marr, Bill Wyman, journalist/director Cameron Crowe, Rory’s brother Donal Gallagher and his former bandmates Gerry McAvoy (who played bass with Rory in Taste and in his solo configuration) and Ted McKenna (who drummed with Rory later in his solo career).

Eagle Rock has proved to be a magnificent caretaker of Gallagher’s legacy, releasing a string of excellent CD and DVD titles that have further cemented his reputation as a dedicated guitarist and consummate entertainer. The Beat Club Sessions and Ghost Blues may well be the best of an already stellar collection.

Concerning Kanye West, two things are abundantly clear. First, he is an unrepentant and shameless self-promoter cursed with an ego that matches the size and gravitational pull of a collapsed star. Second, he is supremely talented, which feeds the voracious furnace of his self-involvement.

When assessing West’s artistic achievements, it’s difficult to separate the showman from the shaman, the guy who has healthy teeth pulled in order to replace them with diamond replicas from the almost mystically gifted R&B/Hip Hop conjurer. So when West hangs a banner/target on his latest work by titling it My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, you know you’re in for a wild ride.

Fantasy’s opening track, “Dark Fantasy,” sets an interesting mood, combining an Annie Lennox-in-electric-church vibe with West’s pulsing beats, atmospheric musical arrangements and bravado rhymes, this time with perhaps an uncharacteristic shade of reflection (“The plan was to drink until the pain over/But what’s worse, the pain or the hangover?”). On “All of the Lights,” West applies his laser-focused Hip Hop style to a soundtrack that sounds like an amalgamation of The Temptations’ and George Clinton’s psychedelic Soul Pop circa 1970 in service of some of West’s most socially conscious lyrics, inserting himself casually into the new iconography (“Is Hip Hop just a euphemism for a new religion?/The Soul music of the slaves that the youth is missing?/But this is more than just my road to redemption/Malcolm West had the whole nation standing at attention.”).

But West can’t contain his unrestrained id for too long and when he releases it, the result is a Hip Hop Krakatoa, a bedrock-rattling explosion of apocalyptic proportions. How many rappers would have the pure brass balls to assemble an album that combines Hip Hop and Prog (the King Crimson references on “Power”) to create an expansive genre hybrid? Perhaps West included high wattage marquee guests like Jay-Z, Elton John, Fergie, Kid Cudi and Chris Rock, among many others, in order to inspire him to even higher and more outrageous levels of musical accomplishment. Or maybe his roller coaster year made him realize that now was the time to go for the creative jugular rather than quietly acquiescing to his more even-tempered peer group.

Against all odds, West has put together a career defining work in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, with the punch line right up front. No fantasy in his overstimulated cranium could ever compete with the hallucinatory reality he’s crafted for himself.

Jimi Hendrix’s legacy as one of the greatest Rock guitarists of all time has never been in jeopardy. Even the market flood of inferior recordings released as bootlegs in the years immediately following Hendrix’s tragic passing in 1971 failed to tarnish his image as a trailblazing innovator whose best work was likely (and scarily) still down a path he would sadly never get to travel. But because Hendrix was an almost pathological recordist, a vast trove of documentation exists detailing the brief and brilliant tenure of one of Rock’s most compelling figures.

In the aftermath of the legal wrangling that surrounded Hendrix’s estate, the victory of the Hendrix family has resulted in a steady stream of legitimate releases that have served to enhance the guitarist’s legacy, the latest being the weighty four-disc/one DVD box set, West Coast Seattle Boy. For casual Hendrix fans, Seattle Boy might be more than they can process and even those more than peripherally aware of his vast posthumous catalog could find the amount of material contained in the box somewhat daunting. For the diehard completist, however, Seattle Boy’s four discs are a fascinating partial history of the guitarist’s world-altering journey and an absolute necessity.

The box’s first disc is also the first time that Hendrix’s apprenticeship on the so-called “chitlin’ circuit” has been documented outside of poorly recorded and pressed bootlegs, including his stints with the likes of The Isley Brothers, King Curtis, Little Richard and Don Covay. Clearly, Hendrix is more or less in the background on these tracks; it was his flashy and charismatic playing that initially attracted and ultimately alienated his employers and his irrepressible style shines brightly even as a sideman.

The subsequent three discs contain a wealth of alternate recordings of Hendrix’s most famous material featuring subtle differences in vocals, solos and arrangements, some finished versions, others clearly early work tapes as Hendrix and his collaborators figure out a song’s direction. A case in point is the seminal instrumental version of “Are You Experienced” as a tightly structured jam. Still others are unreleased recordings finding their way out of Hendrix’s seemingly endless archive for the first time, like the propulsive and roiling “Calling All the Devil’s Children” and his gripping version of Bob Dylan’s “Tears of Rage.”

The DVD contains a new Hendrix documentary, Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child, a 90-minute film that details the guitarist’s phenomenal rise in his own words through rare and never before seen footage and photos.

While it’s true that much of the Hendrix material released since his death has been superfluous and non-essential, Hendrix’s family (his late father and his half-sister Janie) has done an astonishing job of mining some jewels from his voluminous recordings and assembling some truly powerful collections. This has been a banner year for Experience Hendrix, first with the release of Valleys of Neptune, the closest we may ever come to a “new” Jimi Hendrix album, and now the more familiar but still bracingly unique and appropriately enormous West Coast Seattle Boy. They dig, we dig. You dig?

The Russian Futurists might not have a huge presence below the Canadian border but up north the Electronic Pop band (primarily singer/songwriter Matthew Hart) straddles the line between sensation and deity. Hart is a producer/arranger who has sonically manipulated the likes of Stars, Shout Out Louds and Sloan and finds influences for his own work in diversely similar sources like Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, Stephin Merritt, The Beatles, AM radio and Hip Hop. With a trio of albums to his credit, the last being 2005’s Our Thickness, Hart finally returns with The Weight’s on the Wheels, his first album of new material in over five years.

Any fan of the synth-driven, lo-fi bedroom Pop of Owl City, Never Shout Never and Caribou will find much to love in Hart’s Russian Futurists. The Weight’s on the Wheels finds the Futurists veering even farther into pure Pop territory, a course that Hart set solidly on Our Thickness. Wheels’ opener, “Hoeing Weeds Sowing Seeds,” rides the delicious tension between Hart’s methodology (Electronic Pop with a ’60s sensibility) and message (let’s get back to the farm), an interesting introduction that spills into the majestic melody of “Golden Years,” which displays Hart’s amazing propensity for making songs that are monumentally powerful and yet somehow intimate and vulnerable.

“One Night, One Kiss” sounds like a collaboration between Todd Rundgren and Ivy — the Toddisms continue on the brightly pessimistic “To Be Honest” and the acid waltz of “Walk With a Crutch ” — and “Tripping Horses” exudes Hart’s dual devotion to Magnetic Fields and ElectroPop beats.

Hart’s abundant musical gifts have been apparent from the very start, but with The Weight’s on the Wheels he presents them with a focused exuberance that, in a perfect world, would gain him easy entry to every Pop playlist on the planet.

The Sights might have welcomed three new members into the fold, but frontman Eddie Baranek’s concept of a Detroit-slanted version of dirty, sexy British Garage R&B remains intact on the refurbished quartet’s new album, Some of What Follows Is True. And even though it’s relatively simple to trace The Sights through their sounds, from the early Kinks rave-up of “Hello to Everybody” to the ’67 Who-ville whomp of “How Do You Sleep?” and “Happy” to the Country-flecked Beatle-esque rhythms of “I Left My Muse” and “Taxman” urgency of “Guilty,” there’s more to the band’s creative ethic than mere retro revivalism. “Honey” has the mini-epic sound of U2 if they’d started five years earlier, “Take & Take” channels the gritty garage psychedelia that marked The Pretty Things’ passage into the ’70s and “(Nose to the) Grindstone” closes the album with a loping ’70s British Blues-meets-Garage Glam slam.

The Sights aren’t doing anything particularly groundbreaking on Some of What Follows Is True, but everything they do is heart and soul Rock & Roll, perhaps one of contemporary music’s most neglected qualities.

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