Luka Bloom, Cursive, Oh No Not Stereo and Chris Cornell

The march through March Madness continues. As I suspected might eventually happen, this week was so rife with new releases I was forced to push a couple titles to next week to avoid being slammed this week. Here's the latest from Luka Bloom, Cursive, Oh

Mar 25, 2009 at 2:06 pm

The march through March continues. As I suspected might eventually happen, this week was so rife with new releases I was forced to push a couple titles to next week to avoid being slammed this week. All things considered, not a bad problem to have. Without any further ado, then …

If you’ve been listening to acoustic music for the last 30 years or so and have somehow managed to escape the charms of Luka Bloom, there is a serious gap in your collection. As Irish as the Blarney Stone, Bloom doesn’t play what could be strictly classified as Celtic music, although it certainly contains elements of the style. Bloom has always been more interested in the infinite variety that is possible at the crossroads of two or more genres; Celtic, Folk, Country, Pop, Gospel and anything else that presents itself. The end result has always come out uniquely identifiable as Bloom because of his percussive acoustic guitar style and his intensely personal songwriting.

For Bloom’s eleventh album, Eleven Songs, the singer/songwriter wanted to return to the spontaneous live feel of his earliest recordings. Inspired by the visceral immediacy of Allison Krauss and Robert Plant’s Raising Sand, Bloom and former Frames guitarist David Odlum decided to record the album with that same one-room, analog feel. It turned out to be the right decision, as Eleven Songs shimmers with the kind of urgency and energy that has marked some of Bloom’s greatest works, particularly 1991’s The Acoustic Motorbike.

And yet Eleven Songs is a much bigger album than Bloom’s earlier output, with a full band, choirs and big arrangements. As always, Bloom shines when documenting the vagaries and triumphs of love, represented here by the Country-tinged “I’m On Your Side,” the Jazz-shaded “When Your Love Comes” and the bittersweet Irish Folk farewell of “See You Soon.” Bloom revisits his rhythmically stunning guitar style on “Fire,” a song about the isolation inflicted on humanity by technology (“Living in your headphones, can you hear your dreams?/Give me some new ideas, let me hear your screams”), but all of Bloom’s gifts come together in the album’s anthemic and inspirational closer, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Light That Shines Within You,” reminiscent of Van Morrison’s emotionally uplifting contemporary hymns. If you haven’t yet experienced the wonder and beauty of Luka Bloom, there’s no wrong place to start and Eleven Songs is as good as anything he’s ever done, because they’ve all been his best.

Cursive’s Tim Kasher is one of America’s great obscure musical geniuses, routinely exploring and reinventing sonic borders with the courage of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and The Cure’s Robert Smith. By all rights, Kasher should be every bit as renowned and rewarded as Tweedy and Smith, but Cursive’s profile remains considerably lower, and maybe Kasher prefers being under the radar; he’s spent as much time on side projects and assisting the likes of Bright Eyes as he has on Cursive.

At any rate, whenever Kasher has concentrated his efforts on Cursive, the results, while widely varied, have always been compelling.

With Mama, I’m Swollen, Kasher seems to be folding all of Cursive’s previous adventures into a single set, combining the Punk-fueled fury of their earliest work (the frenetic beautiful noise of “Mama, I’m Satan”) with the moody string driven atmosphere of Burst and Bloom and The Ugly Organ (the jazzy swirl of “We’re Going to Hell”) and the horn drenched cool of Happy Hollow (the swinging Americana howl of “Caveman”).

Musically, Kasher, guitarist Ted Stevens, bassist Matt Maginn and drummer Cornbread Compton craft a sonic tapestry that veers madly from sound to sound but always remains anchored to a spot that is uniquely Cursive. Lyrically, Kasher is an amazing storyteller with a literary range as spiky as his band’s musical spectrum — fablist, short story writer, social commentator, fire and brimstone preacher — and the full complement of Kasher’s gifts are displayed on Mama, I’m Swollen. In fact, the album references so much of the band’s previous triumphs, it’s literally a Cursive career retrospective made up of new songs.

Taken literally, Oh No Not Stereo’s name would seem to indicate a desire to return to the days of single speakers and no need for sonic separation. Nothing could be further from the truth. ONNS wants to return to a time when music was loud and fun and not so bloody serious that it threatened to crawl up its own ass and expire from the angst of it all.

Comprised of multi-instrumentalists Sky Nielsen and Mykul Lee, ONNS pumps their sophomore album, 003, full of effervescent Pop/Rock that would be lumped in with Emo if it were drearier and humorless. Which is not to say that 003 is filled with goofy novelty songs that don’t amount to anything because of a pointed lack of substance. Nielsen and Lee address any number of issues with a certain amount of sonic and lyrical gravity, they just use a lighter touch not unlike the bands they’ve opened for over the past couple of years — Bayside, the Matches and Sugarcult, whose Airin Older provides bass on a couple of tracks. Oh No Not Stereo isn’t the next big thing by any stretch of the imagination, but if Dave Grohl can steer the Foo Fighters into platinum waters, there’s got to be some dock space for ONNS in a similar if slightly smaller marina.

Roxy Epoxy’s previous outfit, The Epoxies, found the perfect blend of Punk fury and New Wave melodicism, channeling the mid-’70s/early ’80s point when when Punk and Pop went together like dark chocolate and glittered peanut butter. The band broke up a couple of years ago, but frontwoman Roxy Epoxy had a batch of songs started for a possible solo project. Shehooked up with new guitarist Drat to create a new band which they christened Roxy Epoxy and the Rebound.

Epoxy and the Rebound haven’t missed a beat on their debut, Band-Aids on Bullet Holes, streamlining and intensifying everything that made the Epoxies irresistible and engaging. A good deal of that comes from Epoxy herself, an amazing mindmeld of Siouxie Sioux’s dark passion, Lene Lovich’s quirky charm and Chrissie Hynde’s compelling command, but the Rebound is clearly equal to the task of creating a soundtrack worthy of framing her persona. While Epoxy prowls through the proceedings, the band crafts a New Wave playground for her that touches on Gary Numan, Wall of Voodoo. The Pretenders and everything that was ever appealing and attractive about New Wave in the first place.

Chris Cornell has been rewriting musical history since he burst into the public consciousness in the early ’90s with the grunge-defining howl of Soundgarden. He continued with the Cock Rock resurrection of Audioslave. Cornell’s first solo attempt, 1999’s Euphoria Morning, yielded a Grammy nod and his second, 2007’s Carry On, offered up the groundbreaking theme to Casino Royale and the arrangement of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” that shoved American Idol winner David Cook to the front of the pack.

To date, Cornell’s range has vacillated between loud and louder, so when his third solo album arrives with the title Scream, the content seems a foregone conclusion. Leave it to Cornell to strip his sonic gears by making a Hip Hop/R&B album at this juncture in his long Rock career. Produced by Hip Hop icon Timbaland, Scream is a beat-driven, club-pulsed dance-a-thon, and a departure sure to drive a wedge right down the middle of Cornell’s headbanging fan base.

To be sure, Cornell’s amazing voice works well within the context of the genre, and his Rock roots simmer just under the surface of Scream, particularly on the guitar-punctuated “Get Up” and “Climbing.” But he’s clearly not afraid of diving into Hip Hop’s deep end, as evidenced by the Timbaland/Timberlake-directed “Ground Zero.” And Cornell’s soulful croon is the perfect foil for beat-crazy R&B like the title track, “Never Far Away” and “Long Gone” and the sitar-flecked Middle Eastern techno swoon of “Take Me Alive.” Chris Cornell may well attract a whole new fan demographic with Scream, but it could be a straight trade for the longtime Grunge fans who won’t follow him down this particular career path.

This week’s trip through the vinyl collection was steered by a couple of different triggers. The first was my recent look back at Rory Gallagher and the influence my cousins exerted on my early teenage listening habits, and the second was a quick assignment from the Cleveland weekly that occasionally runs my stuff. The assignment was to do a quick preview of Kim Simmonds, Blues/Rock guitarist of some renown and the only constant throughout the long and tangled history of Savoy Brown, one of the many late-’60s Blues bands that had been introduced to me by my cousins.

When I flipped through my Savoy Brown albums to doublecheck a date, the simple act of pulling out my copies of Street Corner Talking, Blue Matter and the rest resulted in a response not unlike a portkey in a Harry Potter novel. I was instantly transported back to my first exposure to the simple majesty of Savoy Brown.

The scenario was pretty much the same as my previously documented introduction to Rory Gallagher. Cousins, joints, headphones, bliss. The difference with Savoy Brown is that they weren’t quite as frenetic as Gallagher’s Taste. There was a subtler, Jazz-flecked vibe about Savoy Brown, a delicacy that ran concurrent to their inherent power.

Once I determined that Savoy Brown would be my next burn project, I decided to just do a couple of albums which led to the natural choice: Which two? I ultimately chose to stick with the two that defined my introduction to the band, 1969’s Blue Matter and 1970’s Raw Sienna. As much as I love the rest of the Savoy Brown catalog — particularly the storming Street Corner Talking and its big hit, “Tell Mama” — I remain most endeared to this period in the band’s history because of the presence of lead vocalist Chris Youlden, who was on board for four albums, three of which I own (I had A Step Further at one time, but it was a deeply damaged placeholder and I finally tossed it because it was singularly unplayable).

Blue Matter is a half studio, half live affair that actually introduced Savoy Brown’s other lead vocalist. Youlden sang on the studio portion of the album, wrapping his versatile Jazz/Blues rasp around a quintet of memorable tunes, including the jazzy “She’s Got a Ring in His Nose and a Ring on Her Hand,” and the Gospel/Blues chug of “Train to Nowhere.” The live side was a three-song document of a gig that the band had planned to record that nearly came to naught when a flu bug dropped Youlden.

Lonesome Dave Peverett, at the time serving as second guitarist and foil for Simmonds, stepped up to the mic and saved the live recording session. Peverett’s passionate presentation was nearly the equal of Youlden’s and the positive reviews of his three tracks here — “May Be Wrong,” “Louisiana Blues” and “It Hurts Me Too” — may have been contributing factors to his eventual defection. Not long after Youlden departed for his solo career (ooh, those two might be next to burn), the rest of Savoy from this period — Peverett, bassist Tone Stevens and drummer Roger Earl — followed him out the door to form the ultimately huge Foghat.

Blue Matter is often looked upon as a transitional album for Savoy Brown as it evolved from a straight Blues/Boogie bar band to a slightly more complex and interesting aggregation. In that context, Raw Sienna is the completion of the transition, as the band’s sonic ambitions come to fruition, from the almost Pop direction of “A Hard Way to Go” to the cautionary drug tale “Needle and Spoon” to the horn-fueled Blues/Jazz swing of “That Same Feelin’” to the bracing workout of the nearly eight minute “Is That So.”

Raw Sienna marks another turning point for Savoy Brown as the aforementioned personnel turnover left Simmonds as the sole surviving member of the band, a scene that would be played out again and again over the life of Savoy Brown. Simmonds eventually shifted toward a harder Rock version of the Blues (closer to what Foghat had attempted on their earlier albums), but it was this brief time in the band’s long history that I found most interesting and compelling.

But it all appealed to me at some level; hell, I loved Jack the Toad. I might be doing a little more Savoy burning in the near future.