Jarvis Cocker, The Oxygen Ponies, Chuck Mead and John Vanderslice

Man, this is shaping up to be an excellent year for music. As we approach the halfway point of 2009, I’m amazed at the quality of tuneage that’s been released so far this year. My only regret is that I can’t cover all of them, but I will continue to tilt

Man, this is shaping up to be an excellent year for music. As we approach the halfway point of 2009, I’m amazed at the quality of tuneage that’s been released so far this year. My only regret is that I can’t cover all of them, but I will continue to tilt at musical windmills nonetheless. Tilt along with me, won’t you?

Jarvis Cocker’s greatest challenge at the beginning of the new millennium is making people forget he was the poster child for Brit Pop at the end of the old one. Cocker’s accomplishments with Pulp in the ’90s thrust him uncomfortably into the limelight (not to mention tabloid copy), so he has spent the last seven years of his band’s open-ended hiatus involving himself in a variety of fascinatingly diverse projects (fronting The Weird Sisters in the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire film, collaborating with Marianne Faithfull and Nancy Sinatra, starting a new band called Relaxed Muscle) in an effort to distance himself from being pigeonholed.

Cocker’s debut solo album, 2006’s Jarvis, was largely seen as a return to Pulp’s early Indie Pop form with more darkly complex and deeply felt lyrical concerns. With his latest solo effort, Further Complications, Cocker gets back to a big guitar sound and Brit Pop swagger without completely abandoning the subtlety of Jarvis. The album’s title track jumps out of the gate with a tribal guitar fury and a visceral simplicity, as well as Cocker’s longstanding Bowie fascination, while the understated and delicately dissonant “I Never Said I Was Deep” shows that Cocker is never far from the gifts that vaulted him to the peak of the Brit Pop heap a decade ago. Elsewhere, “Pilchard” finds Cocker channeling his inner Robert Plant without uttering much more than moaning syllables and “Leftovers” plays out like a very English spin on Lou Reed. Further Complications may not make the critics swoon like This Is Hardcore or even Jarvis, but Cocker seems infinitely more interested in conjuring up some musical mayhem here than in padding his already impressive press kit.

Paul Megna has followed a pretty colorful path so far, from budding childhood musician (he quit piano after the death of his step-grandmother) to teenage sports star to promising actor. A neck wound from a sniper led to Megna’s role in the Off-Off Broadway production of Coffee with Kurt Cobain, for which Megna bought a black Fender and took guitar pantomime lessons from Jeff Buckley. As an acting exercise, Megna wrote songs to understand his character, but ultimately found himself writing subsequent songs as a release from the anxiety he was experiencing. The songs he documented on answering machine tapes while working as a pig nanny eventually became The Oxygen Ponies’ acclaimed eponymous 2006 debut.

The Oxygen Ponies follow-up, Harmony Handgrenade, reverses the polarity of the first album, with Megna replacing the narrow internally reflective focus with a broader externally observational viewpoint to shine a light on the evils of corporate America. If that seems like an easy target, consider that Megna accompanies his lyrics with a soundtrack that suggests Jeff Tweedy and Van Dyke Parks collaborating on an album of co-writes with the likes of Leonard Cohen (“Love Yr Way”), Greg Dulli (“The War Is Over”), Eef Barzelay (“Fevered Cyclone”), John Cale (“Finger Trigger”) and Tom Waits (“Smile”). With a weary voice as dusty as the attic in a condemned house, a unique guitar style and an organically intuitive sense of songcraft, Paul Megna and the Oxygen Ponies have appointed their acidic indictment of contemporary America with sounds that captivate and howl, putting them in a class with some of music’s most creative purveyors.

Solo albums from the frontmen of successful bands don’t come with any guarantees of corollary success (see Mick Jagger). But if anyone could be considered a shoo-in for quality work apart from their main gig, it would have to be Chuck Mead, the voice of BR549. With the Nashville AltCountry standouts on indefinite hiatus, Mead has kept himself almost pathologically busy, touring with the Hillbilly All-Stars, co-producing tributes to Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash, staff writing for a Music City song publisher and taking the position of Musical Director for a production based on the night that Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley jammed at Sun Records. The only question is when Mead had the time to come up with his debut solo album, Journeyman’s Wager.

Mead could easily have followed the BR549 blueprint and been just fine, and while he doesn’t stray too far (they have clearly been one of the most stylistically diverse bands in Nashville), he does expand his parameters with his own unique applications of Rockabilly (“Out on the Natchez Trail”), Country Blues (“Gun Metal Gray”), hillbilly spins on Rock (“After the Last Witness Is Gone”) and Pop (“She Got the Ring”) and traditional Country (“Albuquerque”). And one of the album’s coolest moments is when Mead cranks out a twanged-up version of The Beatles’ “Old Brown Shoe,” the George Harrison obscurity on the flip of “The Ballad of John and Yoko.” If this is how Chuck Mead is going to spend his busman’s holiday away from BR549, here’s hoping he can push out a couple more solo deals before the boys are back in town.

On their 2007 debut, First You Live, Dusty Rhodes and the River Band crafted an amazingly diverse set of songs, drawing on improbably disparate elements, from the 100-proof Celtic roar of The Pogues to the reeling Punk chaos of The Replacements to the Indie Folk carnival Jazz of Camper Van Beethoven, with Prog, Country and ’60s Pop coloring the proceedings. On their sophomore album, Palace and Stage, Rhodes (the alter ego of SoCal vocalist/accordionist Dustin Apodoca) wisely narrows the focus just slightly. Or maybe he and the River Band do a little better job of integrating all their varied sonic elements into a more cohesive whole. Whichever the case, they continue to take aim in a number of directions, a bit like the similar differences between the scattered coolness of CVB (“Fire in the Sky”) and the channeled power of Cracker (“W.W.M.D.?”). And while the turns on Palace and Stage aren’t nearly as hairpin as on First You Live, Dusty Rhodes and the River Band remain every bit as committed to the proposition that no band should be locked into any one groove.

Over the past nine years, John Vanderslice has championed a visceral analog studio sound in his San Francisco facility Tiny Telephone — as both performer and producer — that he has christened “sloppy hi-fi.” If you’ve ever heard one of Vanderslice’s albums or one of his productions, you know that sloppy means shambling, loose and intuitive and not slapdash or ill-conceived. His own Pop constructions are just about as elaborate and exquisite as home recordings can get and still be considered lo-fi.

Vanderslice’s latest album and debut for Dead Oceans, Romanian Names, is a slightly more sparse affair than his past efforts as he attempted to streamline his process by reducing his concentration on crafting a lyrical narrative. That simplification led to a similar approach to the music in the studio; instead of piling sound upon sound and orchestrating a lo-fi epic, Vanderslice was content with letting his songs be songs first and foremost. As a result, Romanian Names is typically gorgeous but without Vanderslice’s typical trickery, particularly on the quietly majestic “Too Much Time” which shimmers like Ron Sexsmith produced by James Mercer, and “Oblivion” which sounds like Vanderslice’s moody tribute to Sparks and My Morning Jacket. Although it’s a safe bet that Vanderslice will be back to his standard methodology by the time he assembles another set of songs, Romanian Names shows that he can do just as much as he normally does with considerably less.

In the two years since White Rabbits unleashed their modestly expansive debut, 2007’s Fort Nightly, and its dazzling array of Pop acrobatics, the Missouri-to-Brooklyn quartet has toured relentlessly and networked with an impressive range of musical peers (The Walkmen, White Denim and Spoon, among them). One such connection was Spoon frontman Britt Daniel, who agreed to make White Rabbits’ sophomore album his first non-Spoon production job. And what a job they’ve done together.

The cover of White Rabbits' new album, It’s Frightening, depicts a collision between keyboardist and percussionist and it’s a fair assessment of the music within. The band has clearly narrowed their stylistic focus considerably while maintaining their cinematic scope and never losing touch with their unique spirit, exemplified by the compelling and beautifully chaotic “Lionesse.” The album’s opener, “Percussion Gun,” finds frontman Stephen Patterson pounding his piano with a pummeling rhythm that matches the tribal thunder laid down by drummer Matthew Clark, an atmosphere accentuated by Daniel’s production and renowned engineer Mike McCarthy’s mix.

It’s Frightening is definitely a more thoughtful and deliberate set of songs than Fort Nightly, much more reliant on nuance and texture than it’s more immediate predecessor. With It’s Frightening, White Rabbits has crafted a headphone album that unfolds with successive listens and creeps into the listeners’ consciousness with an ultimately irresistible charm.

This week’s vinyl burn grew out of a conversation I had with my friend Rob on the phone last week. We were reminiscing about shows we had seen in Detroit and Lansing and my mind drifted to one of the rare concerts we had actually experienced in our hometown, namely James Gang at our very own Sports Arena in 1974.

By that time, guitarist Joe Walsh had split for his soon-to-be-enormous solo career, but bassist Dale Peters and drummer Jim Fox wanted to continue so they recruited guitarist Domenic Troiano to replace Walsh. He stuck around for one album. After Troiano’s departure, the remaining Gang brought in Tommy Bolin, a polar opposite of the players before him. Walsh and Troiano were straightforward players with a definite flair and style while Bolin was a flash player, applying an array of pedals and boxes to his almost jazzy yet lightning fast touch. Bolin had already impressed with his work in Zephyr in the late ’60s and his numerous session credits (he played guitar on Billy Cobham’s Spectrum) and he brought an interesting new sensibility to the James Gang.

When we saw them in ’74, the trio’s first album together, Bang, had just come out and we were anxious to see the live translation. Bolin didn’t disappoint, playing like a man possessed for the entire show. At one point, he had his guitar run through an Echoplex, allowing him to chord and solo and bounce the sound to astonishing effect. We were slackjawed at Bolin’s technical and technological skills at a time when very little of that kind of thing was going on.

The following year was probably the biggest of Bolin’s short career. 1975 saw the release of Bolin’s final album with the James Gang, Miami, his move to Deep Purple to replace the recently exited Richie Blackmore, his first album with them, Come Taste the Band, and the release of his debut solo album, Teaser.

Within a year, Bolin had left Deep Purple to continue his solo pursuits with his sophomore album, Private Eyes. His first label, Nemperor, had dropped him when his problems with substance abuse began hampering his performances (he was signed to Columbia for Private Eyes). In many ways, Bolin’s work on Private Eyes was an extension of the Jazz/Fusion direction that he had contributed to on Cobham’s Spectrum, but it also featured the Hard Rock crunch of his James Gang/Deep Purple interludes (“Post Toastee”) and a decidedly Pop angle as well (“Bustin’ Out for Rosey,” “Sweet Burgundy”). “Gypsy Soul” showed a purer Jazz side of Bolin’s playing and was a hint at the Jazz/Pop direction he might have taken in the future.

Sadly, Bolin’s future was cut short on December 3, 1976, just after the release of Private Eyes. On a promotional tour where he was opening for Peter Frampton and Jeff Beck, Bolin died in Miami after copious amounts of alcohol and drugs. He was 25 years old. His brother has periodically released demo and live tapes from Bolin’s extensive archive over the years, but the two best examples of his work are still found on Teaser and Private Eyes.

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