Fleet Foxes, Beastie Boys, Emmylou Harris and Todd Rundgren

Robin Williams used to have a great line in his act, back when he was coked to the gills for most shows: “If you remember the ’70s, you weren’t there.” Unbeatable as a drug reference, the phrase makes even more sense on a musical level, with many current

As you’re reading this, I am relaxing on a shore in northern Michigan. There is some form of alcohol within easy reach and I am serene. I will likely write a review every day that I’m here, if not more, but it won’t seem quite like work. It’s the pine forest-and-lakefront version of those slightly annoying Corona commercials (although I think I have a bug up my ass about those spots because Corona used to be an idiot client of ours back when I was gainfully employed as a graphic designer). The two weeks will pass much too quickly, but between the gin and the margaritas and the Bloody Marys and the beer, I should slow time down to an acceptable crawl.

A good many of the reviews I write in Michigan in this slightly altered state will be featured over the next few weeks in this very blog, so grab a satisfying beverage (it doesn’t have to be alcoholic, just so long as it soothes your soul) and join me in my reverie.

Next week.

This week’s reviews were written under the duress of multiple deadlines and the hard won knowledge that writing and drinking is a great idea when it’s done two weeks out of the year and counterproductive when it becomes a lifestyle. Thankfully, I’m pretty good under duress, so enjoy these non-alcoholic musings on recent musical offerings while I compile a few completely alcoholic musings to accompany them soon. Cheers.

Robin Williams used to have a great line in his act, back when he was coked to the gills for most shows: “If you remember the ’70s, you weren’t there.” Unbeatable as a drug reference, the phrase makes even more sense on a musical level, with many current bands effectively channeling that wrongly-maligned decade’s best elements even though they literally weren’t even born when their influences were plying their trades.

Robin Pecknold certainly fits that bill. The Fleet Foxes frontman may be a dead ringer for Graham Nash in voice and creative temperament, but he was a squalling newborn in 1986. To put it in context, that year, David Crosby was holster deep in drug, alcohol and weapons problems and Nash was hawking his less than scintillating fourth solo album, Innocent Eyes.

Thankfully, Pecknold has no interest in emulating that period of CSNY, preferring to steer Fleet Foxes closer to the gold-spinning days of Deja Vu. The Foxes’ 2008 debut full-length (and EPs in 2006 and 2008) married their baroque Folk/Pop shimmer to impeccable vocal harmonies to create the irresistible sound of Crosby, Stills, Nash and the Wilson brothers in the 21st century. For their sophomore album, Helplessness Blues, Pecknold wanted to avoid the debut’s deliberate precision, preferring to inject a little visceral immediacy into the proceedings. Even as the Foxes continue to draw inspiration from respected giants of the ’70s — marvel at the Beatlesque/Crosby & Nash/Middle Eastern cross-currents in “Bedouin Dress,” delight in the British Folk filligrees of the gently swelling “Sim Sala Bim,” absorb the Folk/Blues/Prog expanse of the title cut — they’re never slavishly retro, maintaining a shambling contemporary connection to sonic brethren like The Shins and My Morning Jacket.

Fleet Foxes’ debut exhibited the band’s expertise, but Helplessness Blues is a potent display of their passion, which may just make it the better of the two.

It might have occurred to more than a few people that Adam Yauch’s 2009 cancer diagnosis and treatment might have given the Beastie Boys pause to reflect on their place in the great cosmic plan, somber contemplation that would be displayed on the sleeves of their long delayed Hot Sauce Committee Part Two.

Screw dat.

HSCP2 might just as well have been titled You Gotta Fight for Your Right to Piss Down Cancer’s Back as Hot Sauce bumps and belts with crackling intensity and trademark humor hearkening back to the psychotically excellent Paul’s Boutique.

The Beasties hit for the cycle on Hot Sauce; pure Funk extract (“Make Some Noise,” “Funky Donkey”), deep Dub with a Ska/Pop sheen (“Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win”), blistering Indie Rock (“Lee Majors Come Again”), atmospheric Rap (“Too Many Rappers,” “Nonstop Disco Powerback,” “Here’s a Little Something For Ya”), New Wave Electropop (“Ok”) and some crazy-ass shit (“Crazy Ass Shit”).

Hot Sauce is no cancer survivor after-school special, it’s a full bore mixtape circus and the best thing the Beasties have dropped in a decade.

It might be tempting for the uninitiated to lump The Airborne Toxic Event with similarly toned epic Modern Rock outfits like 30 Seconds to Mars and their ilk. In some respects, the shiny boot fits, but TATE is cut from a very different cloth than their peer group, starting with their formation. Frontman Mikel Jollett was writing essays and a novel when he was slammed by a week from hell in 2006 that included his mother’s cancer diagnosis, the unceremonious end of a relationship and his own autoimmune issues leading to alopecia and vitiligo.

The totality of it moved Jollett to explore his inner dialogue in musical rather than literary terms, and his songwriting led him to form TATE with friends and acquaintances, naming his new band after a chapter in Ron DiLillo’s novel White Noise. The quintet’s 2008 debut was an indie sensation, ultimately scoring them an Island contract, slots at SXSW and Coachella and placements on high profile TV shows like Gossip Girl and NCIS.

After a rigorous three years of touring (and the subsequent 2010 documentary DVD/live CD All I Ever Wanted: Live from Walt Disney Concert Hall), TATE finally returns with their all-important sophomore album, All at Once. As on their debut, comparisons to Snow Patrol (“Numb”), Magnetic Fields (“All I Ever Wanted”) and U2 (the title track) are warranted, but don’t quite capture the cinemascopic splendor that TATE exhibits here. There’s a grass roots Rock populism reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen (perhaps Southside Johnny is even more appropriate) via The Gaslight Anthem’s youth prismatics on “The Kids Are Ready to Die” and the Muse-like “Welcome to Your Wedding Day,” while there’s a touch of the Dropkick Murphys on “It Doesn’t Mean a Thing” and more-than-direct references to The Cure on “Strange Girl.”

The beauty of the Airborne Toxic Event’s sonic quilt is that they’re never actively seeking to channel anything other than their honest emotions and that wins the day on All at Once.

Lewis Black once noted that the best job to have is being a weatherman in San Diego.

“What’s the weather going to be like, Lew?”

“Nice … back to you!”

The equivalent of that for a music writer would be to review anything new by Emmylou Harris. Her voice is a gossamer wind, she can write a song that will shatter your heart beyond repair and she can inhabit other peoples’ songs with a conviction that will make the writers believe that their versions are the covers. Harris recorded her first album over four decades ago and, while it is certainly true that not every album she has done since then has been great, it is equally true that every album she has done since then has had elements of greatness. When she brings all of her gifts to bear on a single project, the result almost transcends music. The mesmerizing and brilliant Hard Bargain is one such project and quite possibly Harris’ masterpiece.

The album opens with “The Road,” perhaps the most autobiographical song Harris has ever written, an aching, electric ode to her relationship with Gram Parsons, without whose stewardship the young Harris might never have experienced and understood real Country music. Her lyrics are part narrative, part prayer, as she ruminates on the brief but life-altering period she spent with Parsons before his unfathomable death. If the song doesn’t moisten your eyes even slightly, your 21-gram soul has abandoned you.

Equally effecting are Harris’ other close to home ballads. “The Ship on His Arm” is a slightly fictionalized version of her parents’ long love story and “Darlin’ Kate” is her bittersweet farewell to her dear friend and frequent collaborator Kate McGarrigle. Hard Bargain sways easily from strength to strength after its astounding opening, from a quietly desperate hymn to the homeless (“Home Sweet Home”) and an awful episode from the civil rights struggle from the viewpoint of a murdered teenager (“My Name is Emmett Till”) to a melancholy lullaby to Harris’ first grandchild (“Goodnight Old World”) and a defiant post-Katrina Roots Rock tribute to the Crescent City (“New Orleans”).

“Lonely Girl” is a shimmery, reverbed slice of heart-on-sleeve confession worthy of Jimmy Webb, while Harris’ version of Ron Sexsmith’s “Hard Bargain” is a shambling Folk/Pop hybrid that bristles with a weary joy. Perhaps the most incredible aspect of Hard Bargain is the fact that only three people created this expansive and captivating soundscape; Harris and multi-instrumentalists Jay Joyce (who also produced) and Giles Reaves.

Hard Bargain is the culmination of Emmylou Harris’ life and career in a song cycle that is celebratory and mournful, respectful and raucous, and satisfying from beginning to end, which is pretty apt description of Harris’ whole career.

A dozen years ago, Explosions in the Sky began concocting wordless epics, blending Prog’s swelling bombast with Post-Rock’s edgy energy in a true approximation of soundtracks with no movies.

It’s an apt description, as the Texas quartet spent their first practice discussing films and their second actually rehearsing. With that mindset, EITS has created swirling cinematic suites on their four studio albums, with the big surprise coming in 2004 when the band provided the soundtrack to television’s Friday Night Lights. Since doing actual score work, EITS has become even more enamored of atmosphere, beginning with 2007’s All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone and continuing with their latest, Take Care, Take Care, Take Care.

TC3’s half dozen tracks — the shortest at three and a half minutes, the longest just breaking the 10-minute mark — are marvels of aggressive ambience, as concerned with texture and mood as tempo and melody. To that end, EITS employs a variety of unusual instrumentation on Take Care, including Japanese singing bowls, Classical guitar and percussive vocals, sculpting sound like it was a physical medium and crafting a gallery of powerfully emotive compositions.

Todd Rundgren has always marched to his own musical drum, first by establishing the gold standard for Pop music (“Hello It’s Me,” “I Saw the Light”) and then immediately abandoning it in favor of a twisted and wonderful Rock experimentalism (A Wizard, A True Star, Todd), a wildly veering path that he has more or less followed throughout his storied career. But lost in the mist of time is the reality that much of Rundgren’s early Pop work was deeply informed by his earliest experiences with Woody’s Truck Stop, a Philadelphia Blues outfit that was his apprenticeship as a budding young teenaged guitarist. In that light, Rundgren’s homage to Robert Johnson, cheekily titled Todd Rundgren’s Johnson, makes perfect sense.

On Johnson, Rundgren channels some of his earliest influences, namely the electric British Blues translations of The Who, The Yardbirds and Cream. The album has already invoked wrath on both sides of its targeted demographic — traditional Blues fans have little interest in Rundgren’s full-blown Prog/Rock translations of Johnson’s spare Delta Blues classics, while Rundgren’s diehard fans are largely put off by the album’s “contractual obligation” origin and his one-man-and-a-laptop (plus Kasim Sulton and a bass) recording methodology, which admittedly leaves a bit to be desired.

The draw at the end of the day is that Johnson is a pure evocation of Rundgren’s earliest musical expression and teenage influences. If these renditions of Robert Johnson’s bare bones Blues nuggets smack of bombastic arena-rattling, it would be wise to remember that another of Rundgren’s early influences was The Move, masters of the perfectly overblown musical statement. Rundgren perfected his concept of that style in the ’70s and he’s been comfortable within its context for three and a half decades.

The best news of all is that Rundgren’s guitar is front and center on Johnson, and it doesn’t really matter that it’s recorded directly into a laptop as an elaborate demo. Rundgren’s sinewy and muscular guitar playing has always been his highest profile talent, and that jaw-dropping skill is all over Johnson, from his choogling roadhouse take on “Dust My Broom” and the Prog Blues slowburn of “Stop Breakin’ Down” to the slinky swagger of “Love in Vain” and “Last Fair Deal Gone Down.” And Rundgren really does deserve props for finding some new grooves and rhythmic possibilities in hoary and overly traveled chestnuts like “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Crossroad Blues.”

If you truly love Rundgren’s mancock guitar strangling, experimental streak and fascinating ability to marry his style to any other, you will be more than satisfied by his Johnson.

To categorize Holly Golightly’s fascinating career path as eclectic is to understate with a politician’s skill. After fronting Billy Childish’s girls-in-a-garage annex group Thee Headcoatees in the early ’90s, she embarked on her solo career, collaborated with The White Stripes and recorded 2003’s Truly She Is None Other with Cincinnati’s Greenhornes. In 2007, she and Dave Drake (aka Lawyer Dave) released their debut as Holly Golightly and the Brokeoffs, cleverly titled You Can’t Buy a Gun When You’re Crying, which found the duo charting an Americana/Country/Folk course. That was followed by 2008’s similarly inclined Dirt Don’t Hurt.

Both albums were assembled in the scant days that Golightly and Drake could set aside when there was an ocean between them, with Drake in the States and Golightly in London. Right after Dirt, Golightly relocated to America when she and Drake found a tumbledown Georgia farm to serve as home and studio, resulting in 2010’s excellent Medicine County, their first work done while living in the same locale.

Presumably, we can expect fairly regular releases from the Brokeoffs, now that the principals are shacking up … in an actual shack.

No Help Coming is par for the course that Golightly and Drake have established on the last three Brokeoffs projects. The title track opens the album with a jaunty Rockabilly beat, while “The Rest of Your Life” hearkens back to Golightly’s garage days in Thee Headcoatees with a thunderous beat and “Burn, Oh Junk Pile, Burn” channels Southern Culture on the Skids at their slinkiest and most Middle Eastern. The rest of the album adheres to those parameters, from the chugging thump of “You’re Under Arrest” to the mournful “Get Out of My House” to the roadhouse singalong of “Leave It Alone.”

There’s nothing groundbreaking on No Help Coming but given the Brokeoffs’ catalog to date, experimentalism is hardly in order. Golightly and Drake mine a rich vein of quirky Americana and Country-tinged Garage Rock and their success in that regard hardly warrants a change of direction.

There is a certain anonymity associated with Dennis Coffey’s illustrious career. As the guitarist for The Funk Brothers, Motown Records’ house band, Coffey’s distinctive wah-wah sound was prominent on much of the label’s legendary output in the late ’60s and early ’70s (think The Temptations’ incendiary “Psychedelic Shack” and “Cloud Nine”). As a solo artist, the Detroit resident’s lone megahit with his Detroit Guitar Band, 1971’s “Scorpio” (which has been sampled by Public Enemy, Rage Against the Machine, Queen Latifah and dozens more), was followed by a handful of regional hits with similar sonic potential that didn’t quite pack the same widespread commercial punch.

Thankfully, Coffey does not toil in obscurity. He gigs fairly consistently, around Detroit and beyond; and played and sat in on several shows at this year’s South by Southwest Festival.

Coffey’s recent eponymous solo album is his first album of new/newly recorded material in five years. For this potent new work, Coffey attacked an interesting collection of freshly written songs, then eventually reworked a few timeless classics he had contributed to back in the day, including Funkadelic’s “I Bet You,” 100 Proof Aged in Soul’s “Somebody’s Been Sleeping” and Wilson Pickett’s “Don’t Knock My Love.” While most of Coffey’s solo catalog is comprised of funky, soulfully slinky instrumentals, he peppered the new album with several vocal numbers and enlisted young talents to provide the words, including Mayer Hawthorne, Paulo Nutini, the BellRays’ Lisa Kekaula, the Detroit Cobras’ Rachel Nagy, Orgone’s Fannie Franklin and the Dirtbombs’ Mick Collins (Kings Go Forth occasionally appear as Coffey’s backing band).

The vocal and musical collaborations are a fascinating combination of timeless classicism and contemporary verve, with Coffey wisely following the stylistic lead of his studio guests, who themselves symbiotically understand Coffey’s iconic importance. As a result, the album doesn’t come off as Coffey’s desperate attempt to attract listeners through formulaic trend absorption. Instead, it reveals his uncanny knack for finding the commonalities between Dennis Coffey’s groundbreaking work in the ’60s and ’70s and the compelling contemporary sounds that he helped to shape with that same work, the influence of which will continue to ripple through music for many years to come.

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