The Black Lips, Tom Rush, K’Naan and Shemekia Copeland

We're reviewing now, boys and girls. Look at these Tuesday release sheets filled with fabulous prizes. The titles are beginning to stack up like cordwood and I'm going to be humping like I'm going to be humping like Hugh Hefner at a sorority mixer to kee

Feb 25, 2009 at 2:06 pm

We’re reviewing now, boys and girls. Look at these Tuesday release sheets filled with fabulous prizes. The titles are beginning to stack up like cordwood and I’m going to be humping like Hugh Hefner at a sorority mixer to keep up. Plus I’m trying to stay a week or two ahead so the pile doesn’t teeter too precariously along the way. Let’s venture off into the review forest.

The amazing thing about nearly every recording by The Black Lips is the almost defiant way the band refuses to play the same kind of song consecutively. Utilizing an almost haphazard method of sequencing and pacing, Black Lips albums are like no-fi demos made by a dozen different bands for a themeless mix tape.

The Atlanta quartet’s new album, 200 Million Thousand, follows faithfully in this schizophrenic tradition. While the band has self-described their sound as “flower Punk,” that phrase may be a loose translation meaning “the history of anarchic music filtered through whatever we feel right now.”

200 Million Thousand opens with the tribal thump of “Take My Heart,” sounding like the bastard crawlspace-hidden children of The Stooges who learned their sound through the floorboards and damp osmosis. It is immediately followed by the almost spritely “Drugs,” a surf-tinged cage match between Camper Van Beethoven and The Replacements, which itself is left behind by “Starting Over,” a Byrdsian janglefest that suggests Paul Westerberg channeling The La’s. “Let It Grow” howls like vintage Alice Cooper (“Ballad of Dwight Frye” comes to mind), “Trapped in a Basement” is garage Horror Pop inflected by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, “Big Black Baby Jesus of Today” blends — quite against their will — The Afghan Whigs, The Amboy Dukes and The Cramps, and “Old Man” gives a similar treatment to the Velvet Underground and The Doors.

Like Reese’s experiment with peanut butter and chocolate and Victor Frankenstein’s body parts, The Black Lips have emerged from their garage studio lab after mutating the co-existence of dissonance and melody, Pop and Punk, reeling improvisation and calculated deliberation. 200 Million Thousand is their lurching, flower-picking, child-mauling creation.

If you’re unfamiliar with Tom Rush, it’s at least partially excusable; his last studio album came out around the time that Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon. Chinese Democracy is a whirlwind affair by comparison to Rush’s What I Know, his first album in 35 years and debut for Appleseed.

Rush had been a fixture in the Boston Folk scene in the early ’60s and had recorded a number of albums for a variety of small labels before signing with Elektra. His 1968 release, The Circle Game, was notable for the appearance of songs written by Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and James Taylor before any of them had recorded their own material. A switch to Columbia further raised his profile and broadened his exposure, but after releasing Ladies Love Outlaws in 1974, Rush decided to take a break from the studio/road grind. A couple of live albums eventually followed, but Rush’s concentration on touring kept him from the studio for an astonishing three and a half decades.

On What I Know, Rush does what he’s always done so very well, which is write a handful of wonderful Folk/Country-flecked tunes, pick another handful of brilliant songs by other songwriters and translate it all with a group of hypertalented sessioners, leading the pack with a supernatural ability to inhabit a song and inform it with his unique sense of purpose, humor and wonder.

Rush kicks off with the original “Hot Tonight,” a tune worthy of John Prine and featuring harmony vocals by the incomparable Bonnie Bramlett, setting the bar high for the rest of the album. He maintains the standard throughout, with great song choices (Eliza Gilkyson’s “Fall Into the Night,” A.J. Swearingen’s “You’re Not Here with Me”) and well-crafted originals (“River Song,” “Silly Little Diddle”), as well as assistance from some high profile friends (Emmylou Harris harmonizes on “Too Many Memories,” Nanci Griffith does the same on “Casey Jones,” Fats Kaplin plays mandolin and pedal steel throughout).

What I Know is a marvelously relaxed and self-assured return for Rush, a guy who self-admittedly displays neither of those traits when he enters a studio, which is one of the reasons he’s stayed away so long. Here’s hoping he realizes how great this album is and gets back to the studio before 2043.

The sophomore album from Somali/Canadian rapper K’Naan is amazing and engaging and powerful in all the ways that Kanye West is calculating and self-absorbed and narrow. A little history: K’Naan grew up in war-torn Somalia, then moved with his family to Harlem when he was 13. He learned the rhythm of Rap from a Rakim album, imitating it perfectly although he understood none of the English he was mimicking. He eventually moved to Toronto where he launched his music career in earnest, releasing his debut album, The Dusty Foot Philosopher, in 2006, which earned him Juno and BBC Radio 3 Awards that year.

His new album, Troubadour, has an equally colorful path. After touring and making friends with Damian Marley — son of Reggae icon Bob Marley — two years ago, K’Naan accepted an invitation from Marley to record in Jamaica at his father’s home studio and at the legendary Tuff Gong Studio. And while a lot of that Reggae vibe is all over Troubadour, K’Naan is clearly not content to pursue any single direction on his musical path. Troubadour is a startling blend of every facet of K’Naan’s life experience as he weaves Afro Pop, Rock, Hip Hop, Reggae, Funk and Soul into his music and a journalist’s objective eye for the truth in his lyrics.

From the thundering tribal Afro Pop magnificence of opener “T.I.A.,” a potent upbraiding of urban rappers whose childhood challenges pale in comparison to street kids dodging Somalia’s civil war, it’s obvious that K’Naan is bringing something extra to the Hip Hop discussion. Sure, there are great guests to drive home his Rap cred, from Chubb Rock (“ABC’s”) to Mos Def and Chali 2NA (“America”). But K’Naan also offers equal amounts of Reggae (Damian Marley on the anthemic call to arms “I Come Prepared”), swinging Pop (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine on “Bang Bang”) and balls to the wall Rock (Metallica’s Kirk Hammett on “If Rap Gets Jealous”).

While K’Naan is not above the standard Rap braggadocio, he is simultaneously capable of funky Soul like “Dreamer,” an engaging Pop joint that nods to Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz work, and absolutely gorgeous and captivating interludes like “Fatima,” maybe the most beautiful Afro Pop Hip Hop love song that will come out this year. In fact, given the right exposure, Troubadour could easily be one of the breakout hits of the year and K’Naan could be adding a 2009 Grammy to his mantle this time next year.

Koko Taylor may still be the undisputed Queen of the Blues, but Shemekia Copeland is clearly next in the line of succession. The daughter of the late, great Texas guitar champ Johnny Clyde Copeland began performing with her father at age 16, released her debut album at 18 and has spent the past decade accepting glowing critical acclaim (and comparisons to Taylor, Aretha Franklin, Etta James and Ruth Brown) and a mantle full of Blues awards for her subsequent albums.

For her fifth and arguably best album, Never Going Back, Copeland leaves the comfortable confines of her longtime label, Alligator Records, for Telarc Blues, and the title of her album may speak to whatever journey she feels she’s on right now. Copeland pulls out all the stops on Never Going Back; her crack band variously includes guitarist Marc Ribot and keyboardists John Medeski, Ike Stubblefield and Kofi Burbridge.

The result is an album filled with every kind of Blues, liberally laced with gritty south Chicago menace (“Never Going Back to Memphis”), soaring Gospel (“Sounds Like the Devil”), funky Soul (“River’s Invitation”) and even a potent flirtation with Jazz (a stirring take on Joni Mitchell’s “Black Crow”).

In a fitting tribute, Copeland and guitarists Oliver Wood (her producer and co-writer of a half dozen of the album’s songs) and Arthur Neilson close Never Going Back with a spare but powerful Delta reading of “Circumstances,” her father’s song of perseverance in the face of life’s adversity. Copeland is more than a woman who sings the Blues, she is a transcendent Blues singer, and her potential to be the kind of world-renowned artist like the women she is frequently compared to is only just beginning to be tapped. Prepare to be amazed by Shemekia Copeland.

One look at The Old Ceremony’s wide array of gigmates — Polyphonic Spree, Cake, Chuck Berry, Mountain Goats, Avett Brothers — should give a clue as to the broad diversity in the North Carolina quintet’s sound. On their third album, Walk On Thin Air, the band has the expansive vibe of electric Celtic Folk, Baroque Pop and atmospheric Americana, a fascinating confluence of the Waterboys, Poi Dog Pondering, Ryan Adams and T-Bone Burnett.

Led by frontman/songwriter Django Haskins, the Old Ceremony kicks off Thin Air with “Til My Voice is Gone,” which starts like Irish Gospel and incrementally builds to a blazing Rock hymn at its rousing finish. The band’s range is most evident on the Celtic Dylan Rock of “Plate Tectonics” and the hushed melancholy of the title track and its arresting opening line, “I woke up dead again.” Just when you think you’ve got the Old Ceremony pegged, they turn another musical corner in such an engaging and infectious manner that you have little choice but to follow.

There’s a fair chance you’ve heard something by the Alternate Routes without knowing it. Subscribing to the new paradigm that television is the new radio, the Routes licensed a bunch of songs from their 2007 debut, Good and Reckless and True, for small screen evocation (Army Wives, October Road, The Ex List, The Hills) and big screen profile (Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj).

On their sophomore album, A Sucker’s Dream, the Alternate Routes sport a big jangly sound that suggests a songwriting summit between Ryan Adams, Bobby Bare Jr., Jim James and Jeff Tweedy, with the express purpose of each of them writing a song that sounds like R.E.M. doing a Beatles song in the songwriters’ own style. Frontman Tim Warren sings with a warm rasp and a clear sense of what constitutes a rootsy Pop song while injecting a soulful ache into the proceedings as well, as evidenced by the shuffling thunder of “On and On We Whisper,” the shimmering and anthemic “Ain’t No Secret,” the raucous “Toe the Line” and the hook-laden charge of the all too brief title track. For fans of blazing and balladic Americana with a contemporary sheen, the Alternate Routes offer much to love.

This week’s vinyl burn once again took me back to some of my teenage explorations of Rock’s less traveled corners. As an only child being raised by grandparents in the ’60s, my exposure to music and youth culture came through television (The Ed Sullivan Show, The Smothers Brothers, Laugh-In, The Monkees, etc.) and randomly spinning around the radio dial, which led to an initial interest in the Top 40 (which was a lot more diverse then) and then my ultimate discovery: late night FM radio.

It was around the time that I chanced upon the thrill of commercial and college radio after dark that I was introduced to Taste, an Irish Blues trio featuring guitarist Rory Gallagher, by my cousins. My cousins, on my father’s side, had generally either benignly ignored, passively disliked or actively tortured me for most of my life, but for a brief window in the early ’70s — when they found out that I loved music and smoked pot — there was an almost joyful detente as we finally had something in common.

Danny and Kevin were into hardcore Blues and Jazz, and they introduced me to both. I took more to the Blues, particularly the British version that they preferred and the American roots from whence it sprang. They played me Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf and all of the forefathers of the genre, as well as the English boys who absorbed and translated it so well; Cream, the Yardbirds, Savoy Brown, Humble Pie and so many others.

On one of my infrequent visits to their home, we slipped out back for a smoke then headed to their bedroom where they handed me the headphones and cued up a live import album by Taste. It was raw, gritty and visceral and not the least bit mannered, a perfect blend of rootsy Blues and blustery electric Rock and I was completely floored by it. Imports were not readily available in our hometown; a trip to Ann Arbor was typically necessary to find them, and that part of my collecting experience wouldn’t happen until I got my driver’s license.

Amazingly, they let me borrow the album so I could tape it, a recording I eventually wore out before finding my own copy years later. Well before that happened, my cousins abandoned their Blues pursuits in favor of a straight Jazz diet and considered my continued appreciation of Blues and Rock to be immature and parochial and I was again and forever out of their favor.

I no longer have the aforementioned live Taste album; it was in marginal condition and I may have sold it for grocery money in leaner times. As circumstances got better, I acquired Taste’s eponymous debut as well as their second studio album, On the Boards. By the time I picked up the Taste albums, I was already a confirmed Rory Gallagher fan, having collected up a fair amount of his catalog, from his early post-Taste Polydor albums to his mid-’70s-to-mid-’80s Chrysalis output.

Most importantly, I had experienced the power of Gallagher live in a most unusual fashion. He was scheduled to play a midnight show at the end of January in 1976, and two of my best friends, Kevin and Rob, and I made the road trip to Lansing. We lined up outside the old movie theater where Gallagher was scheduled to play at around 11:30 p.m., close to the front in order to get good seats for the general admission performance.

Nearly 90 bone-chilled minutes later, we were still on the sidewalk waiting to get in when the crowd got restless. They began to push from the back, and we felt ourselves being lifted off our feet and propelled back and forth as the people behind surged and the people ahead resisted. Finally the momentum from behind matched the latecomers’ swelling numbers and we heard the sick squeal of the theater’s plate glass window as it cracked across the middle, the bottom half shattered from the pressure. By sheer luck, a handful of people pushed into the opening and the crowd stopped pushing before the top half of window slid down in its largely unglazed channel like a giant guillotine blade and shattered upon impacting the bottom of the frame.

The remainder of the crowd poured in through the now empty window frame and took up space in the theater. As was explained by the show’s apologetic promoter once we were all seated, the sound company had bailed on the gig and he had spent the last hour and a half calling friends in an effort to round up the necessary equipment to pull off the show. Gallagher didn’t come out until close to 1:30 a.m., and by then, he was ready to go. He thanked us for our extreme patience (perhaps unaware that the lobby was filled with shards of the front window, evidence of the very opposite) and informed us that he was going to give us an extra special show.

For the next three hours, Rory Gallagher and his divinely touched band conjured up some of the most incendiary and jaw-dropping guitar Rock I have ever witnessed in a live context. Gallagher’s playing seemed effortless and yet he was clearly expending energy like the white-hot flame at the top of an oil well as the natural gas is burned off. He pounded on his battered Stratocaster like it was the last show it would ever see, and he wrung sounds from it that were beyond anything I’d ever heard any guitarist produce to that point in my young life. When Gallagher finally stopped around 4:30 a.m., the 500 or so in attendance were utterly drained of all lifeforce. It seemed unfair to want more, but we screamed for it anyway, and Rory gave us one last blast to complete the melting process that he had begun on our faces nearly three hours earlier and sent us into the -5 degree early morning air as astonished as if we’d discovered King Tut’s tomb.

We spent the night on the floor of Rob’s brother’s roommates’ dorm room at Michigan State and left the next morning in a blizzard of epic proportions; there was 6 inches on the ground when we left, and it came down an inch an hour for the next six hours. We bought a six-pack of Dow’s Black Horse Ale at the only party store open on a Sunday morning and drove the 40 miles back home with barely a clue as to the location of the side of the road as the snow blew horizontally across the highway.

We cranked Kevin’s battered 8-tracks of Gallagher’s Blueprint and Tattoo albums at top volume and recounted the holy event we’d seen just five or six hours before. Whenever I listen to Taste or Rory Gallagher, this is the memory that pops most vividly into my mind. When I came across my two Taste albums the other evening — as usual, on a hunt for something completely different — I knew that they would have to be the next pair to make their way to CD. Although the band was slightly more subtle in the studio, often exhibiting more of their Irish Folk roots with acoustic songs and a more subdued — particularly on some of the almost Jazz-tinged qualities of On the Boards’ jammy longer tracks — they were still a fiery Blues Rock force of nature.

As Irish as St. Patrick, Gallagher was a hard drinker who eventually had to sober up when his liver began failing. He put out his last albums in the early ’90s and died in 1995 from complications from a liver transplant.

To this very day, when I think of Gallagher I can hear the guy sitting five or six rows behind us at the Lansing show, likely fortified against our communal long wait in the cold with a liberal supply of Irish whiskey, shouting “Send the boy!” at the bleeding upper register of his voice. What a night. What a show. What a band. What a guitarist. I continue to thank God that I lived in Rory Gallagher’s time.