I Shall Be Released: New Music Reviews

Reviews of new and recent releases from Beth Jeans Houghton, Nada Surf, Grace Woodroofe, The Pinstripes, Stew & The Negro Problem and others

Feb 2, 2012 at 1:22 pm
click to enlarge Beth Jeans Houghton & The Hooves of Destiny's 'Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose'
Beth Jeans Houghton & The Hooves of Destiny's 'Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose'

Sometimes I feel like that scene in Seinfeld where Newman talks himself into a state of bug-eyed crazy as he describes the endless stream of mail that the Post Office is forced to deal with every day. I feel his fictional pain as I look about the Bunker and realize the stacks keep stacking regardless of my efforts to review them. I’m also reminded of an offhand comment made by my glass-half-empty pal Sean Daley when we worked together at Wizard Records way back in the weighty ’80s. One afternoon, Sean started looking around the store with a vacant gaze that suggested either the onset of a stroke or the Percocet kicking in. I asked him what was wrong and he said, “It just occurred to me that my new favorite album could be in here somewhere and I’d never know it because I won’t hear it, and no one I know will buy it and turn me onto it.” That’s how deeply philosophical it got in the store when we were short on customers. Of course, my dilemma doesn’t quite drip with that level of O. Henry irony. I might hear something quite good long after its release, but I have this forum to cover it, regardless of when it was actually hot off the presses. —-

And so the drill continues. Reviews of newer releases follow; the older-yet-still-good-stuff is further down. Go find your new favorite album.

The impossibly young and talented Beth Jeans Houghton and her band, The Hooves of Destiny, are like Indie Pop food processors, chopping up bits of way-back-when and right-bloody-now into easily digestible and hugely flavorful bites without pureeing them into an unpalatable mush. Houghton released a single and an EP and became a critics darling in her native U.K., securing feverish invitations to festivals all over the continent before sequestering herself in Los Angeles to record her quirky and magnificent full-length debut, Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose.

It’s not difficult to draw a line between Florence kknd the Machine (“Sweet Tooth Bird”), Kate Bush (“Veins,” “The Barely Skinny Tree”), Sparks (“Carousel”), Annie Lennox (“Dodecahedron”) and Bow Wow Wow (“Atlas”) on Yours Truly as Houghton, the Hooves and producer Ben Hiller perfectly cross-pollinate orchestral swells, tribal drums, operatic cathedral choir vocals and psychedelically-tinged Pop that veers madly between expansive grandeur and whispered intimacy, often within the same song.

On “Nightswimmer,” Houghton swoops and warbles over a clattering harpsichord, blippy synths and Eno-modified guitar while “Lilliput” gallops along like a Gypsy Pop opera with a ’60s complex and “Franklin Benedict” mixes Chamber Pop and Glam Rock to indescribable effect. With Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose, Beth Jeans Houghton & the Hooves of Destiny may just divert attention away from the Lady Gaga vs. Madonna discussion by way of real musical diversity and originality.

Youth may well be wasted on the majority of the young, but Australian Blues chanteuse Grace Woodroofe has been spending hers quite productively, thank you very much.

Four years ago, 16-year-old Woodroofe sent out a couple of demos as entries to Australia’s prestigious Unearthed competition and wound up attracting some high-powered support when fellow Perth native Heath Ledger heard the recordings and brought her to L.A. to help cultivate her sound. Singer/songwriter Mark Eitzel helped produce Woodroofe’s version of David Bowie’s “Quicksand” and Ledger directed the song’s video, then introduced her to good friend Ben Harper, who ultimately produced her debut album, Always Want, featuring back-up from Harper’s own band, the Relentless 7. After garnering almost universally positive acclaim at home, Woodroofe’s astonishing debut has at long last secured release here in the States.

Woodroofe’s noirish Folk/Blues atmospherics nod in the aggressively Ambient direction of Laura Viers with songs that Tom Waits would be proud to call his bastard children, from the cinematic dread and dark beauty of “Battles” and the blistering Jazz-smoked roadhouse rumble of “Transformer” to the whispered regret of “I’ve Handled Myself Wrong” and the Nina Simone-tinted “Oh My God.” Whether Woodroofe is channeling her inner Blues or Jazz child, her expression is filtered through her amazing vocal instrument, a husky, evocative croon that suggests Johnette Napolitano, Erika Wennerstrom and a two-pack-a-day smoker. Always Want is an incredibly mature work and frighteningly may only hint at the potential that Woodroofe could explore from here.

In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that I provided The Pinstripes with the liner notes for their new album, I. It should also be noted that I can’t even see my objectivity in the rear view mirror when it comes to The Pinstripes; their official bio is culled from slobberingly complimentary things I’ve written about them over the years. I’ve loved this band since they gave me a quick four-song concert in their rehearsal space when we convened there for an interview just over three years ago. Since then, the ubertalented Cincinnati Reggae/Soul/Ska outfit has systematically built their fan base, won some CEA World Music mantle bling and toured far afield from the Cincinnati market, while still remaining completely committed to their local fans.

In that time, they also worked in some writing and recording time while enduring a few growing pains in the personnel department. Trombonist supreme Chap Sowash moved to NYC (he joined Izzy and the Catastrophics) and was replaced by similarly gifted Leonardo Murcia. Guitarist Matt Kursmark took a job with Adobe in California and, most recently, drummer Casey Weissbuch decided he’d only make the trip from his Nashville home for extra special shows and was replaced by Losanti drummer John Bertke. Still, the Pinstripes’ semi-original iteration was in place for the recording of I, the band’s second or third full-length (depending on how you count).

I finds The Pinstripes at the pinnacle of their Studio One power, blowing through the 13-song set with a razor-sharp precision that could shave structural steel like a deli salami. My review of I is largely found in the album’s notes, so you can (and should) read that as an adjunct. But to reiterate, The Pinstripes’ most potent advantage over most other straight-up Reggae shufflers is their use of Soul.

Vocalist/saxophonist Mike Sarason is a veteran Soul singer in a white kid’s body, a force of nature that pushes The Pinstripes to the next level, whether the hypertalented outfit (Kursmark, Weissbuch, Murcia, bassist Chris Grannen and trumpeter Ben Pitz, who has also flown the coop to do an AmeriCorps stint in Colorado) is working a Reggae vamp or a Rocksteady eruption or a Ska groove. The Pinstripes can write about heartbreak and poverty or true love and perfect joy with the same captivating energy and infectious danceability and I is the indisputable evidence.

The band’s CD release show at Bangarang’s of Covington, with the incomparable JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound as well as Shadowraptr and Sassafraz, is Friday night. Dress for a combination dance party/sweat lodge.

Nada Surf has basically hit for the cycle, beginning 20 years ago as a scrappy melodic Indie Rock trio, hitting big with an Elektra contract, an excellent album in High/Low and a summer radio hit in “Popular,” hitting the skids when Elektra refused to release their equally great follow-up, The Proximity Effect, and their foray into true independent status when they reclaimed the album from the label and released it themselves to a hugely positive response (if less than platinum sales).

Since then, Nada Surf has been content to be a sterling Pop/Rock band. The proof of that assertion is that their sixth album of original material, The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy, may stand as their best release, an astonishing feat for a band celebrating its 20th anniversary.

Guitarist/vocalist Matthew Caws, bassist Daniel Lorca and drummer Ira Elliot have always infused Nada Surf with a bristling Rock energy that mixes effusive melodicism with muted melancholy and that formula is amplified to an unbeatable needle peak on Astronomy, their first album of new songs since 2008’s fabulous Lucky. “Sometimes I ask the wrong questions but I get the right answers,” Caws sings in his nasally effective voice on “Teenage Dreams,” in a blistering blend of Fountains of Wayne’s sense of Pop and the Foo Fighters’ frenetic vision of Rock. That sonic effervescence is frequently channeled on Astronomy, from the insistent thump of “Looking Through” and the Sugar-like rush of “Clear Eye Clouded Mind,” but there are moments of exquisite reflection as well, particularly on the acoustic-quiet-to-electric-squall of “When I Was Young,” the Byrdsian nod-and-shake of “Jules and Jim” and the gentle Pop prayer of “Let the Flight Do the Fighting.”

On The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy, Nada Surf shows once again that they’ve earned a place among the best bands of the last two decades without cheaply demanding it.

The biggest nutshell imaginable couldn’t contain the Reader’s Digest version of Stew & the Negro Problem’s story. Singer/songwriter Stew formed the Negro Problem in L.A. in the early ’90s and released a trio of compelling and hyperliterate discs that were amalgams of ’60s Chamber Pop, experimental Jazz/Pop and contemporary Indie Rock. Stew eventually shelved the Negro Problem in favor of an equally fascinating (but less chaotic) solo direction; his brilliant 2000 album Guest Host garnered almost universal praise (one reviewer referred to Stew as “Burt Blackarach”). Stew and collaborator/girlfriend Heidi Rodewald moved to New York where they fine-tuned a musical production they’d begun in California; Passing Strange enjoyed a two-year Broadway run and even won a Tony for best libretto, but the rigors of daily shows and the intersection of professional partnership and personal commitment conspired to drive a wedge between Stew and Rodewald. After the end of Passing Strange and their romantic relationship, the pair began a song cycle called Making It that ran in Brooklyn. It resurrected the band concept and became the basis for the fourth Negro Problem album of the same name.

Making It is an often uncomfortably incisive reevaluation of Stew and Rodewald’s disintegrating relationship delivered in brutally frank terms. The opening verse in “Curse” could serve as the Making It manifesto: “It’s a love-and-pain thing, a no-one-can-explain thing, it’s simply complicated, folks/The wee hour excursions, the seven different versions of who got fucked and who hurts the most.”

But in typical Stew fashion, some of the most inflammatory sentiments on the album are couched in the most angelic melodies, a lead pipe wrapped in lush velvet that connects upside the head. Rodewald takes the lead on one of the album’s highlights, the sardonic Pop sigh of “Love is a Cult” and duets with Stew on the ’70s Soul/Rock shimmer-and-squawk of “Leave Believe." But there are also a few sidebar tracks on Making It, including the insightful Indie Pop waltz of “Black Men Ski,” the New Pornographers-meet-Roxy Music amphetamine tribute “Speed” and the artful political intrigue of “Suzy Wong.”

Making It was actually available in an only slightly different form as an untitled, show-only release on Stew and Rodewald’s limited 2010 tour; the official self-released version replaces the terrorism-at-home balladry of “Pastry Shop” with the infectiously bittersweet horn-driven Power Pop headkick of “Therapy Only Works If You Tell the Truth.” There are very few songwriters that could make heartbreak as gorgeously palatable as Stew and Heidi Rodewald; Making It is their sensational pas de don’t.

For the past decade and a half, John K. Samson has fronted The Weakerthans, the hyperliterate Canadian Pop Punk unit, racking up four amazing albums and tons of deserved acclaim in that time. Beginning in 2009, Samson dipped his toe back into solo waters (he released his first solo album, Slips and Tangles, in 1993 while still a member of his first band, Propaghandi) with a pair of EPs, City Route 85 and Provincial Road 222, conceptual examinations of his Manitoba home. For his full-length debut, Provincial, Samson revisits and re-imagines tracks from those EPs as well as a handful of newly written odes on the same overarching theme.

Samson’s greatest gift has always been his uncanny ability to write specifically detailed lyrical short stories that evoke universally personal connections. That gift continues unabated and grows exponentially on Provincial, as Samson writes quiet Chamber Folk odes and not so quiet Indie Rock anthems about his home province that perfectly frame its melancholy expanse and magnificent georgraphical and emotional desolation (from “Grace General;” “Cruel snow, cracked lips, lost sun by 4:00...”) while making it incredibly familiar and irresistably melodic. Utilizing musical and lyrical devices that often seem drawn from the playbooks of Randy Newman (the quietly majestic “Highway 1 East”), Loudon Wainwright III (the rollicking “When I Write My Master’s Thesis”) and Ben Folds (the delightfully observed “Cruise Night”), Samson crafts an achingly beautiful sonic travelogue in Provincial, a literal and figurative colour tour of the great gray souls populating the Great White North with the glory of a Canadian sunset, the grace of a non-denominational hymnal and the power of love on its myriad and complex forms.

Just over two years ago, Gabe Dixon dissolved the quintet he’d led under his own name for a decade in order to pursue the challenges of a solo career. Given the success Dixon achieved over the course of his band’s run, particularly with their eponymous 2008 album - nearly every track was licensed for television use and the song “Find My Way” was the title theme for the Sandra Bullock/Ryan Reynolds film, The Proposal - the bar was set relatively high. After all, how many piano players field an offer to join Paul McCartney’s band?

Teaming with producer Marshall Altman (Kate Voegele, Matt Nathanson) and writing with a veritable who’s who of collaborators (ex-Snow Patrol Iain Archer, Starsailor’s James Walsh, Semisonic’s Dan Wilson, ex-Danny Wilson Gary Clark, among others), Dixon fashioned One Spark, a minor Pop masterpiece that accomplishes the unlikely feat of bettering his previous work.

Dixon kicks off One Spark with “Strike,” a giddy Pop call to action that could easily straddle the Top 40/Indie Rock charts and be a total hit in both camps. Dixon’s exhilarating odes to love, the Power Pop verve of “My Favorite” and the gentler, Alison Krauss-harmonized “Even the Rain,” hew closer to the purer Pop side of the equation but even when Dixon sprinkles a shade more sugar into the mix, it’s always done with a deft and judicious touch. When Dixon works a more atmospheric Indie Rock angle, he shimmers with the vibrant swell of the best of Snow Patrol and Semisonic. “Running on Fumes” has the loping groove of Jason Mraz and the soulful glide of Michael McDonald while “I Can See You Shine,” co-written with and featuring Starsailor’s Walsh, offers a lightly burnished Americana glow without straying too far from the album’s main flow. Some of the greatest Pop artists of the modern era have found a way to make commercially appealing music with uncompromising heart and soul; Gabe Dixon deserves to be counted in their number.

Ana Egge’s career is defined by remarkable accomplishments. She built the guitar she plays when she was 17 and within two years, Egge secured a record contract, co-wrote with Jimmie Dale Gilmore, released her 1997 debut album, River Under the Road, and scored Austin Music Awards for Best Singer/Songwriter and Best Folk Artist. Since then, Egge has toured with the likes of Ron Sexsmith, Joan Armatrading, Richard Thompson and Lucinda Williams (who called her a “Folk Nina Simone”) and released six acclaimed albums.

Egge’s seventh album, Bad Blood, is something of a song cycle, partially detailing her family’s struggles with mental illness, most potently on the electric twang-and-ramble of “Driving with No Hands,” the Bluegrass ache of “Hole in Your Halo” and the insistent pulse of the title track. Egge writes about love with equally laconic fervor (“Motorcycle,” “Chestnut Tree”) and sometimes intertwines her two subjects with brilliant simplicity (“Shadow Fall,” “Your Voice Convinces Me”).

Produced by Steve Earle, Bad Blood is further evidence of Ana Egge’s towering Roots/Country gifts and a signpost of her potential direction from here.

Forty years ago, sisters June and Jean Millington hit the charts with the thumping Rock of their all-girl group Fanny, and while there’s nothing as compelling or invigorating as Fanny’s signature single “Charity Ball” on the Millingtons’ recent, self-made Play Like a Girl, guitarist June and bassist Jean expand and deepen their band’s stylistic explorations, exhibiting all they’ve absorbed and translated in the intervening years.

“Let Love Linger” bumps and glides with funky authority, “Endless Lies” marries a jazzy lope to a nice guitar bite, “All the Children” is a gentle Folk Pop nugget, “When You Bottom” bops along on a jangling riff and the title track churns like ’60s hot-rod Rock with an appropriate girl power message borne of the Millingtons’ long industry battle after being devalued as rockers because of their gender.

Play Like a Girl is the maturation of a better than average boogie band into a quietly powerful and even more diverse unit. And June and Jean Millington aren’t good for girls, they’re just good. Damn good.

Pat Grossi is a song stylist of the first order, weaving musical genres together with the skill and passion of a Navajo woman working a loom. Under the banner of his “group,” Active Child, Grossi has crafted a quietly powerful debut with You Are All I See, an album that sighs and shimmers like a cool breeze over a placid lake.

Grossi juxtaposes elements of haunting Indie Pop, cool R&B and chilly Electronica over a moody Ambient Pop soundscape and populates it with songs that are both contemplative and danceable, adding the indescribable beauty of a plucked harp to give everything an inferred divinity. “Ivy” pulses with an ’80s synth Pop melancholy, “See Thru Eyes” quivers with the ecstatic power of Brian Eno producing Snow Patrol, “Playing House” lopes with Auto-Tuned modernity and the title track thrums with the ethereal ache of Grossi’s choir-trained voice. It’s all very listenable and engaging to a certain extent, but the polish and sheen that Grossi applies with his ultra-clean production sands off the rough edges that might make the sound and songs a little stickier and more memorable.

Make no mistake, Active Child/Grossi has delivered a well crafted and icily beautiful album, but in some ways, You Are All I See is like a painting of a gorgeous landscape of rolling fields, serene rivers and majestic mountains; it’s a beautiful evocation of the scene that is wonderful to witness but it’s still just an impression of grandeur.