Looks like another light week, not for lack of titles to cover but lack of time to cover them all. But even as I transfer another handful of discs from the “Review This Week” stack to the “Better Luck Next Week” pile, the calendar reveals a couple of light title weeks coming up very soon. So eventually everything will get its chance in the drawer and in this forum. Until then, there’s no present like the time. Read on, reader …
In the earliest days of my record collecting, I had an unofficial rule of thumb that I could generally apply with a decent success rate. It was my contention that an album where three or more songs featured the word “love” in their titles was bound to be crap, and more often than not, I was right. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and today that exemption is reserved for Paul Carrack’s latest solo album, I Know That Name. It would be hard to imagine that the voice of Ace, Squeeze and Mike and the Mechanics — not to mention a couple of decades of solid solo work — could manage a truly bad album. I Know That Name, even with its four “love” songs, is proof that Carrack simply isn’t capable of junking an album.
Carrack’s forte has long been well produced Pop iced with his honeyed, soulful voice and I Know That Name follows the pattern well. A trio of tracks co-written with Chris Difford — “Stay Awake (I’m Coming Home),” “Love Is Thicker Than Water,” “Am I in That Dream?” — exude the unmistakable sound of Squeeze when Carrack lent his keyboard and vocal talents to the band for 1981’s East Side Story. “Just 4 Tonite” finds Carrack exploring his Pop Reggae heart.
Guest vocalists are a significant presence on I Know That Name; Don Henley and Timothy B. Schmit sing back up on “I Don’t Want to Hear Anymore,” the song that Carrack wrote for the Eagles for their Long Road to Eden album, and iconic Soul shouter Sam Moore teams up with Carrack on the rousing “Love Is Thicker Than Water.” Through it all, I Know That Name is defined and shaped by Carrack’s patented Soul-drenched vocals and glass-smooth Pop groove, resulting in an album that may not challenge the way you look at music but will definitely provide the proper soundtrack for a glass of wine and the right company.
There are bands that have been around a fraction of The Church’s near 30-year history and accomplished half as much that are considered by some yardsticks to be legendary. Here’s a fairly good rule of thumb — a band is not legendary when they influence bands within their own scene, but rather when their influence ripples through time like the aftermath of a cosmic explosion. That has been The Church’s legacy since they emerged from Canberra in 1980.
The problem, of course, is replicating that feat consistently over the course of a career and The Church, like any great creative entity, has never shied away from the specter of failure in the pursuit of art. On the aptly titled Untitled #23, the Church travels a hushed path with an almost ambient blend of their patented Indie Pop psychedelia with paisley dashes of delicate Folk and Prog for color. While there are clearly glimpses of the forcefully visceral band that dropped jaws with “Under the Milky Way” in 1988 (recently voted the best Australian song of the past two decades in a Melbourne newspaper reader’s poll), for the most part the band creates lovely sonic moods that drift with a gentle purpose, from the ambient Prog of “On Angel Station” to the ebb and flow of the whispering Rock of “Anchorage.” There are fleeting moments of the trippy Church of old but overall, Untitled #23 is powerfully sedate. Although it isn’t necessarily a Church work of great influence, it is most assuredly a work that is the culmination of influence across a three-decade history of steering trends rather than chasing them.
Hanne Hukkelberg’s musical journey has been both interesting and dichotomous. The native Norwegian began singing and playing instruments at age 3, sang Jazz and Rock as a child, joined a Metal band in high school and eventually earned a degree from Oslo’s Norwegian Academy of Music. Her musical explorations on her first two solo albums — 2004’s Little Things, 2006’s Rykestrasse 68 — have exhibited Hukkelberg’s penchant for found sounds, everything from plucked bicycle spokes to typewriters to kitchen utensils and all without a trace of traditional percussion. Her quietly powerful work and quirky artistic persona garnered comparisons to Bjrk, Johanna Newsome and even Billie Holiday and Tom Waits, but luckily, Hukkelberg has not toiled in obscurity; her sophomore album scored a Norwegian Grammy two years ago.
For her third album, Blood From a Stone, Hukkelberg decamped to a small village well north of the Polar Circle to write in relative isolation, and just as the chaos of Berlin resulted in the hushed, esoteric vibe of Rykestrasse 68, the serenity of Senja inspired the noisy and poppy Blood From a Stone. This time channeling musical influences from her teenage years, Hukkelberg has made a more traditional Pop album utilizing her own unique methodology.
“Mascara Tears” has the melancholic melodicism of P.J. Harvey woven into the basement clang of Tom Waits, while the title track offers the pretty atmospherics of the Cocteau Twins with the dissonant undercurrent of the Pixies. “Salt of the Earth” follows a sonorous Bjrk tangent with a light black streak of Siouxie Sioux for counterpoint. On paper, Blood From a Stone might seem like an off-putting art project, but Hukkelberg balances warmth and chill and art and Pop, making sure that her expression is never lost in layers of impenetrability but is every bit as magically listenable as it is unconventionally structured.
The Datsuns came out of the gate like gangbusters seven years ago with their acclaimed eponymous 2002 debut. The New Zealand Pop/Punk quartet was championed by everyone from the UK’s most influential DJ John Peel to Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, and they were a sensation at subsequent Ozzfest and Big Day Out appearances. Then the bottom rather dropped out; their sophomore effort, the John Paul Jones-produced Outta Sight, Outta Mind, was an uneven affair that generated so-so press while 2006’s Smoke & Mirrors fared better critically and was hailed as a return to form but was modestly distributed and suffered accordingly.
The Datsuns’ revitalization on their anagrammatic fourth album, Head Stunts, could be traced to the addition of new drummer Ben Cole, who joined three years ago when Matt Osment quit on the eve of a major tour. Or it could be the translated energy of recording the album in Sweden where Garage Rock is worshipped like a palpable deity. Whatever it is, The Datsuns (Cole, vocalist/bassist Dolf DeBorst, guitarists Christian Livingstone and Philip Somervell) are back with a vengeance on Head Stunts (released last October in their homeland), shouting and swaggering like a Pop-fueled blend of The Ramones, Dictators and Jane’s Addiction, with contemporary Garage Punk nestling right up against ’70s razor guitar riffage.
From the martial Punk rhythms of “Your Bones” to the old school NYC slash and burn of “Yeah Yeah Just Another Mistake” to the Black Sabbath/Ramones/Gary Glitter swing of “Highschool Hoodlums,” The Datsuns feel refreshed in every conceivable way. The one change of pace is Head Stunts’ eight-minute closer, the psychedelic Punk jolt of “Somebody Better,” which swirls and sways with modern energy and period conviction. At either extreme, the Datsuns are in top form on Head Stunts.
It’s not easy to pin a tail on Jeremy Enigk’s sonic donkey. His catalog runs the gamut from the Emo-launching bluster of Sunny Day Real Estate to the visceral Indie Rock of the Fire Theft to the chamber Pop orchestrations of his solo work. His latest solo effort, OK Bear, is a relatively sparse affair that seems to coalesce at the crossroads of all his creative endeavors, incorporating the passionate delivery of SDRE and Fire Theft with the nuanced melodicism of his previous solo albums.
On OK Bear, Enigk forsakes the chamber strings that have come to define his solo output for a more stripped -ack but no less evocative approach. Enigk remains a powerful, emotive vocalist and songwriter, as evidenced by the quietly gorgeous “Sandwich Time” and “Just a State of Mind,” the Folk/Pop lilt of “Same Side Imaginary” and the noisily dreamy “Late of Camera.” In a set salted with highlights, “Restart” rises above them all as Enigk glides through a compelling Pop track that plays like a songwriting summit between Bob Mould and Michael Penn. Jeremy Enigk has been many things in his various musical incarnations but OK Bear displays the brilliant and emotional Pop thread that has consistently run through all of them.
It seems that long before Andrew Kenny nailed the lid down on American Analog Set, his renowned Indie Rock collective, he was writing vaguely thematic songs and setting them aside for some nebulous project to be ideated later. The opportunity to realize this finally presented itself after Kenny began playing bass with David Wingo’s Ola Podrida outfit (and a brief tour stint with Kevin Drew and Broken Social Scene). Kenny turned his footloose demos into actual songs and assembled a band that he’s christened Wooden Birds.
Heavy on percussion, bass and Folk /Pop consciousness, Wooden Birds’ debut album Magnolia lopes along on a vibe that suggests Freedy Johnston and Eef Barzelay at their most nakedly vulnerable, particularly on the shimmery “Never Know,” the ominous “Sugar” and the slinky “Believe in Love.” One of Magnolia’s high points is the brilliant “Choke,” an anti-love song sung by Kenny with tremulous heartbroken venom (“On the coast with your names in the sand/I hope you choke/With his hand on the small of your back/I hope you choke”). The track is played with a laconic menace that perfectly frames the song’s fervent wish for an ex-lover. AmAnSet’s stylish, spacy Indie Rock earned Andrew Kenny a boatload of rabid fans; the unvarnished emotion and coiled passion of Wooden Birds will easily pull them into his new venture.
While fact checking my review of Scott Miller’s new disc last month, I came across a reference to a completely different Scott Miller, namely the former frontman of the late and greatly lamented Game Theory. My search had turned up the interesting factoid that Game Theory’s flat-out brilliant and long-out-of-print fourth album, Lolita Nation, was fetching big dollars in online auctions. That got me to thinking that I hadn’t played one of my favorite albums in a very long time and just that quick, the chase was on.
My first exposure to Lolita Nation was through a promotional cassette that I’d gotten from Enigma Records in 1987. The tape hit me with unusual immediacy and I played it endlessly, to the extent that I was afraid that I was going to ruin it. I eventually found a vinyl copy at Mole’s and relegated the cassette copy to the car where it was stolen in 1990.
Game Theory in general and Lolita Nation in particular seemed to push all of my musical love buttons at once. I appreciate dichotomy in music and Game Theory definitely satisfies on that count. Musically and lyrically, Lolita Nation veers madly from straightforward accessibility to obtuse experimentalism punctuated by insanely infectious guitar Pop that sounded like a time-folded nexus of the ’60s and the ’80s. The presence of producer Mitch Easter had drawn me in — I’d been and remain a big fan of Easter’s band Let’s Active — but Miller and company kept me coming back again and again.
The enigmatic opener “Kenneth, What’s the Frequency?” (the cryptic message delivered by a mugger who attacked CBS news anchor in 1986) segues directly to the hypercaffeinated Pop of “Not Because You Can,” which leads to “Shard” and “Go Ahead You’re Dying To,” song snippets clocking in at 22 and 37 seconds respectively. Either could have been expanded into dazzling songs. The majestic Pop of “Dripping With Looks,” the stabbing piano pulse of “Exactly What We Don’t Want to Hear” and its smilingly cynical message (“It’s been a decade of record stores/Hordes of falling new wave careers/What lengths we’re going to just to find/Exactly what we don’t want to hear/With all our well-trained ears”), the ’60s twisted Psych Pop lilt of “We Love You Carol and Alison” which gave the album its title (“When the shoulder upstairs gets cold/If he had his way we’d all be old/And he’s got nerve/Asking this Lolita nation to bow and serve”) and the warped melodic dissonance of “The Waist and the Knees;” are the first eight compelling tracks of an album that maintains that visceral breakneck pace over the course of the subsequent 19 songs.
Twenty two years later, Lolita Nation still captivates me from beginning to end. More than a few music blogs have crowned this one of the greatest albums of all time, and that’s not a hard ring to hit with any available hat. You got my vote.