The National, Hoodoo Gurus, Kris Kristofferson, Sage Francis, Otis Taylor and Marco Benevento

Before I push on to this week's album reviews, I feel compelled to add my condolences to the many thousands being offered in the wake of Ronnie James Dio's passing. As a teenager discovering FM radio in the '70s, I came across a sound one night that was

If this column was my home, I wouldn’t be in foreclosure but I’d definitely be explaining to someone why I was late. I’m about a week off the pace at this point, and it looks as though work will be keeping its boot on my neck well into next month.

Not that I’m complaining: I’ve been through more than my share of fallow periods since shifting gears and becoming a full-time writer type, so I celebrate those rare occasions when the in-box is full for a sustained stretch and the money coming in is greater than the money going out.

This has just been one of those intense blocks of time where life is a vertical sand dune and every hard fought step forward seems to result in two or three sliding steps backward. A more hectic work schedule means more interviews — I’ve done eight in the first two and a half weeks of the month — which means more features, more reviews, more peripheral work, more research. Getting up at 5:30 a.m. to fix my daughter breakfast and push her out the door in time to make her 6:30 bus has been good for my productivity in the morning, but I’m exhausted in the afternoon and I’m lucky to make it past midnight, a time that used to signal my second wind.

Right now, I’m staring down the barrel of a bunch of deadlines, and there are about a dozen home/office matters that require my attention but need to be backburnered to accommodate these assignments.

But before I push on, I feel compelled to add my condolences to the many thousands being offered in the wake of Ronnie James Dio’s passing. As a teenager discovering FM radio in the ’70s, I came across a sound one night that was unlike anything I’d heard before: blazing hard rock guitars, thundering bass, hall-of-the-mountain-king drumming and, rising above it all, that soaring, otherworldly voice. The DJ announced it as a song from the new Elf album, and I had a new favorite band.

Not long after, Ritchie Blackmore took his leave of Deep Purple and created a new band called Rainbow, installing Ronnie James Dio, the diminutive yet supremely powerful former Elf frontman, as his vocalist. The rest is, as they say, history.

Dio’s tenure with Rainbow was amazing, his resurrection of Black Sabbath was nothing short of miraculous and his catalog with his own various Dio projects ranged from solidly entertaining to jaw-droppingly great. Dio’s most recent work with the remnants of Sabbath, rechristened Heaven and Hell to avoid backlash from old-school fans, was among the best of his career, and it was a fitting way for the Metal frontman’s career and life to close. And yet, his loss is still a shame, because at age 67, it seemed as though he might well have had a couple more classics in him.

I had the opportunity to interview Ronnie a decade ago, when he was doing publicity for his Magica album, and he couldn’t have been more accommodating or easier to talk to. When the subject of his illustrious career came up, he had this to say: “I’ve only been as good as the bands I’ve been in, including all the Dio bands. Just because it says Dio doesn’t mean that it’s Ronnie Dio with his ego on top and everyone else is a hired employee. They’ve never been solo albums, I’ve just been lucky enough to write some great songs with some great people, and to play in a band as the singer. That’s what my job is when I’m on that stage. And that’s why I’ve never said, ‘Well, you’re really something, aren’t you, mate?’ Because as soon as you do that, you lose your edge, and then you believe your own press notices and your own ego, and that’s when your feet turn to clay and it’s over.”

Rock on, RJD. I’m sure they heard your voice in heaven as it rose up from the silver mountain and I’ll bet it’s all the more impressive over those classy harp guitars they play up there.

After the almost excruciating emotional impact of Boxer, The National’s 2007 breakthrough hit, the stakes for its follow-up couldn’t be higher if they were bundled with a science experiment bound for the next shuttle flight to the International Space Station. Because of those rather inflated expectations, the greatest danger for either diehard fan or casual listener (or inattentive reviewer) at this juncture would be to use Boxer as some sort of template or sonic road map by which to navigate the decidedly darker, moodier and more complex High Violet. Given Boxer’s almost suffocating desolation, that truly is saying something.

High Violet begins with the trembling shiver of “Terrible Love,” a song with a sonic evolution every bit as conflicted as its title. As Matt Berninger delivers an almost hymnal reading of the lyric, “It’s a terrible love and I’m walking with spiders” in his mesmerizingly sonorous baritone, the band quietly stirs up the distilled spirit of The Smiths produced by T Bone Burnett and Steve Albini and guitar chords shimmering in the air like heat lines rising off summer pavement or the steam escaping from a witch’s cauldron — or perhaps both, a strangely appropriate convergence of science and magic. But as the song builds to its conclusion, the shimmer gives way to waves of squalling shoegaze chaos and Berninger works even harder to maintain some sense of sanity in the face of love’s seemingly unwelcome advances while the band offers up sweet Beach Boys vocal harmonies just above the churn. It is an unsettling and perfect way to launch The National’s latest epistle of beautiful doom.

In some ways, High Violet finds The National maturing in an amazingly strange fashion, with a sound that rests comfortably but disturbingly in the Bermuda Triangle created by Leonard Cohen, Magnetic Fields and Radiohead. “Bloodbuzz Ohio” somehow manages to sound epic and intimate simultaneously, while “Runaway” has the baroque Indie Rock sound that Nick Drake might have evolved into had he survived to confront the new millennium.

There are moments of absolutely gorgeous melodicism, and they’re generally matched note for note by a disquieting undercurrent of discord and dread. With High Violet, The National have proven more than their maturity, musicality and stamina; they’ve produced a work of lasting impact that shows their incredible diversity and their ability to balance immediacy and classicism.

The National has always hinted at the possibility that they're the kind of band that could produce an illustrious catalog over a long period. High Violet is the next step toward a first ballot Hall of Fame induction.

For well over a quarter of a century, Hoodoo Gurus have been one of Australia’s most revered Rock bands, playing a visceral mix of Power Pop, Garage and Surf Rock and building a rabid home audience that propelled them into the rarified superstar stratosphere down under. By the same token, the Gurus haven’t gotten quite the same love here in the States beyond an equally rabid but considerably smaller cult fan base; the band’s entire catalog was reissued in Australia to much fanfare and acclaim, while only the Gurus’ first album, 1983’s Stoneage Romeo, was given a physical release in the U.S., with the remainder of the catalog available only as digital downloads.

But let’s not push Hoodoo Gurus’ cult status in the States into the forefront here. Americans have perfected the art of ignoring amazingly talented musicians, both domestic and imported (Tommy Keene, Jules Shear, Bill Nelson and hundreds of others should be living in mansions surrounded by hedge animals, but that’s another story), so one more is hardly newsworthy. The headline here is that Hoodoo Gurus are nearly 30 years into a career that has found them existing at both ends of the success spectrum and they’ve never sounded as fresh, relevant and energized as they do on their ninth studio album, Purity of Essence.

Ripping through a set that's as energetic, gritty and fun as anything by bands half their age and experience, the Gurus peel off one glorious track after another in a perfect confluence of visceral Garage Rock, infectious Power Pop, muscular Psychedelia and blazing Surf Rock, keeping the pace across a 16-song set and for just over an hour. Take “Burnt Orange,” for example; here’s a song that’s hot enough to raise blisters, a horn-fueled rampage that sounds like the Stones as envisioned by a Punk/Pop band spiked on a heart needle full of gorilla adrenaline and featuring a couple of Dave Faulkner’s most deliriously unhinged solos in a single song. They could have built an album of B-sides and crappy demos around this one song and it would have been a triumph.

And yet, there’s more; the Clash-like Pop verve of “A Few Home Truths,” the Garage Soul revivalism of “Only in America,” the insistent ’60s thump of “Let Me In,” the Kinks-at-the-beach swing of “Why So Sad?,” the ’70s Power Pop anthemics of “Crackin’ Up.” There isn’t a duff track in the bunch, which would be a bold accomplishment for a band working with the stupid energy of youth; it’s unheard of from a group of geezers whose first single came out less than a year after MTV’s launch.

The Hoodoo Gurus have always been the realest of real things, and Purity of Essence swaggers and shakes and stomps with ironclad evidence of their continuing guilt in that regard.

It’s hard to remember a time when Kris Kristofferson wasn’t a singing/songwriting icon and ubiquitous entertainment presence, parlaying his musical fame into a prolific if somewhat scattershot acting career. And even as Kristofferson’s film and television work devoured more of his time and attention, the songs that he conceived and birthed in the turbulent ’60s and ’70s grew in stature, claiming a rightful place among the most influential and affecting songs of the 20th century.

But long before his work as both a songwriter and performer was recognized for its inherent greatness and his songs were translated by some of the most potent voices in musical achievement (Johnny Cash, Janis Joplin, Ray Price and Bob Dylan among them) Kristofferson was a struggling songwriter with an astonishing résumé: football and boxing standout at SoCal’s Pomona College, Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, Army captain and Airborne Ranger. He traded all of that for menial jobs in Nashville for a shot at Music Row’s brass ring. That’s the period that is celebrated on Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends: The Publishing Demos 1968-72, a time when Kristofferson was, as singer/songwriter Kinky Friedman describes him in the collection’s liner notes, the most talented janitor in Nashville.

Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends offers 16 of Kristofferson’s rough cut gems, recorded on his own or with a handful of Nashville buddies with the express purpose of exposing his work to the city’s publishing movers and shakers. The collection begins naturally enough with Kristofferson’s most renowned song, “Me and Bobby McGee,” a song he wrote on something of a dare from Nashville music exec Fred Foster, with whom he split the songwriting credit for giving him the idea. And while a good number of Kristofferson’s classics are absent here, Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends is packed with engagingly raw versions of some of his best songs, including the tremulous guitar/voice Country hymn of the title track and “The Lady’s Not for Sale,” the loping Country/Blues of the stripped but powerful “Border Lord,” the naked take on the then-shocking musical roll call on “If You Don’t Like Hank Williams,” the vulnerable heartbreak ode “Enough for You” and the oddball swing-and-stomp of “Getting By, High and Strange,” with two flubbed starts punctuated by Kristofferson’s stoned profanity.

The charm of the songs on Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends is precisely in their unpolished state; Kristofferson’s directions to his backing band, production cues, do-overs and offhand comments all combine to make this a wonderfully unadorned compilation. At the conclusion of “Enough for You,” Kristofferson notes with succinct pride, “Was that just perfect?” And the resounding answer is “Yes.”

Over the past decade and a half, Providence, R.I. rapper Sage Francis has been carving a unique niche for himself within the context of his Hip Hop direction. Francis has been not just a prolific recording artist — with three full lengths (including two for Anti-/Epitaph, 2005’s A Healthy Distrust and 2007’s Human the Death Dance), six mixtapes in his “Sick” series and two live albums — but also an influential label owner as the founder of Strange Famous Records.

As a Hip Hop artist, Francis has never been content to parrot the genre’s money/bitches/party clichés, preferring to shine a lyrical light on society’s ills and quirks with his rhymes. His debut full-length, Personal Journals, was hailed as a breakthrough in Hip Hop. A Healthy Distrust, released just after Bush’s re-election, was a diatribe against rampant corporate greed, the administration’s rush to war and the American tendency to look the other way. And Human the Death Dance took an inward turn as Francis examined the perils of relationships on his most personally invested album to date.

Francis’ latest album, Li(f)e, finds the rapper taking on his biggest subject to date: organized religion and the web of hypocrisy that often surrounds it. And while Francis insists that Li(f)e isn't a concept album, since not every song deals with the overarching theme, several of the album’s songs (“Love the Lie,” “I Was Zero,” “Diamonds and Pearls”) address the topic with a direct and brutal honesty. But for the most part, Francis tends to approach his chosen subject from a more subtle perspective, from the bleak view of new life in a shitty world in “The Baby Stays” to the every-problem-has-a-solution-for-a-price mindset of “Worry Not.”

Where Li(f)e gets additionally interesting is in the music that accompanies Francis’ often uncomfortably illuminating lyrics. He enlisted the assistance of an incredible array of Indie Rock collaborators to provide him with a soundtrack, with the caveat that they wouldn’t know how their music would work with his words and with the clear instruction to not write in what might be construed as a Hip Hop style.

As a result, Francis adapts his rhymes to an amazing range of musical adventurers, including Tim Rutelli and Jim Becker from Califone, ex-Grandaddy frontman Jason Lytle, Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla, Joey Burns and John Convertino from Calexico, members of DeVotchKa, the sublime Tim Fite and the late and much lamented Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse. The musical and lyrical themes of Li(f)e come together with Francis’ autobiographical opus, “The Best of Times,” set to a gorgeous and evocative score provided by film composer Yann Tiersen.

Once again, Sage Francis has transcended his chosen genre with Li(f)e, concocting a dizzyingly marvelous work that is challenging on every creative level and may well stand as one of the best albums of 2010.

Words are unreliable friends when it comes to describing the sound and emotion and impact of Otis Taylor. When Taylor writes a song, it’s more of a short story with a Blues soundtrack, and yet none of those descriptions are completely accurate. His creations are songs because they have words and music, they’re short stories because the words set a specific and evocative scene and there is often a discernible narrative and Blues is the genre tag that most closely resembles the style of music he inhabits. But, like Captain Beefheart or Tom Waits, Taylor ultimately defies most attempts to quantify and define exactly what it is he does.

On his latest album, Clovis People Vol. 3 (for the record, there are no previous volumes), Taylor lays out another dozen tracks of his atmospheric take on the Blues, a spare soundscape where cornets, violins, banjos, pedal steels, theremin and anything that makes appropriately cool sounds drift in and out of the sound that Taylor describes as Trance Blues. Clovis People is something of a departure from last year’s Jazz-tinged Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs, as Taylor steers considerably closer to traditional Blues textures while simultaneously maintaining contact with the musical periphery. “Hands on Your Stomach” is a jazzy Blues that tells a tale of a dream/séance over a soundtrack that could have been a collaboration between Taj Mahal and Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. “Harry, Turn the Music Up” slinks and shuffles like a Ben Harper shuffle bleeding into a bar playing Tom Waits on the jukebox, “She’s Ice in the Desert” has the gentle feel of Taj fronting Poi Dog Pondering, and “Lee and Arnez” is the softer side of latter period Beefheart with the dada lyrics transposed into the real world.

With Clovis People, Otis Taylor manages to craft a sonic environment that is hypnotic, compelling and dreamy while telling stories that possess the very same qualities.

When you think of inventive Indie Pop keyboard/bass/drum trios, Ben Folds Five and Keane probably spring to mind, but pianist/experimentalist Marco Benevento has something completely different in mind. Utilizing a barrage of physical keyboards (baby grand piano, Mellotron, Farfisa, Moog, Optigan) and running them through a variety of prismatic devices (amplifiers, guitar pick-ups, circuit bending toys, pedals), Benevento and his rhythm section (bassist Reed Mathis and drummer Andrew Barr) shape a wordless sound on their third album, Between the Needles and Nightfall, that triangulates a weird position in the area between Ben Folds, Philip Glass and Radiohead.

Benevento clearly created Between the Needles and Nightfall in a creative environment that neither he nor producer Bryce Goggin imposed any limitations. As a result, the album veers from Prog/Jazz-tinged majesty (“Numbers”) to Indie Pop brilliance (“Two of Us”), synth Pop carnival grandeur (“It Came From You”) and ominously giddy piano Metal (“Wolf Trap”) to Todd Rundgren-meets-Tom Waits Blues/Jazz/Pop exploration (“You Know I’m No Good”), Van Dyke Parks baroque Pop melodicism (“Music Is Still Secret”) and Eastern flecked Jazz freakout soundtracking (“Snow Lake”). The varied sonic roads intersect at Benevento’s expansive conceptualism, embracing all genres and ideas as simply music.

Between the Needles and Nightfall is intriguing and engaging, a dizzying mix of grounded Pop riffs and flights of experimental fancy, but in Marco Benevento’s skilled hands it all comes out accessible and magnificent.

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