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Danko Jones, Amy Millan, Os Mutantes and Yo La Tengo

By Brian Baker · September 11th, 2009 · I Shall Be Released

This is always a strange time of year for me. Summer’s over, for all intents and purposes, my daughter is back in school, the pool’s closed and my schedule begins to return to some semblance of normalcy. We’re just a couple of weeks away from MidPoint, which is always cause for excitement and anticipation, but I’m also mapping my calendar towards the end of the year.

I’ve already extended my review grid into November. So here I sit, sweating balls in weather hot enough to want to hang by the pool, which is now padlocked until Memorial Day 2010, thinking seriously about what I’ll be covering two weeks before Thanksgiving. And that thought leads inexorably to thoughts of Christmas and decorations and gifts and plans and parties and arranging schedules and — by the time I’ve talked myself down off the Christmas ledge — my panicked brain has already raced ahead to the new year, the end of winter, spring break, end-of-school loose ends, the unpadlocking of the pool, graduation, the beginning of summer, planning for vacation, cramming my work schedule into the weeks leading up to vacation, a gloriously relaxed stay in Michigan, gearing up for MidPoint upon our return, a couple of weeks of dead solid craziness in preparing my end of our MPMF coverage, getting ready for the start of school, the end of the pool season on Labor Day weekend and … I’ll be having these same thoughts almost exactly a year from today.

I’ve just skipjacked through an entire year — nothing left to do at this point but live it. And now I’ve got two MidPoints to look forward. This could get tiring.

Toronto’s Danko Jones has always brought an interesting melodic element to the Hard Rock arena, a touch of Pop lightness to leaven the Rock density. The approach has clearly worked; Jones and his Power Garage trio have become arena-sized heroes in Europe, they’ve received numerous home-country Juno nominations, The Raconteurs have covered them, Motorhead personally tapped them as tourmates and The Rolling Stones gave them the opening slot for their Toronto show.

For their latest album, Never Too Loud, Jones and company — bassist John Calabrese and new drummer Dan Cornelius — continue to push the Hard Rock needle to red while experimenting slightly with the Pop levels, preferring to hew closer to the louder, harder end of the spectrum. “Code of the Road” howls like GNR, the riff-heavy epic “Forest For the Trees” taps into Jones’ inner Black Sabbath, and the thunderous title track sounds like a ouija conjuring of the spirit of Bon Scott. The album’s quietest moment is the melodic love ode “Take Me Home,” a paean not to Jones’ distant lover but to his record collection.

The band’s Pop persona returns to a degree on “Something Better,” which is reminiscent of long-gone countrymen Max Webster, while Jones eulogizes Rocket from the Crypt with the appropriately frenetic “R.I.P. RFTC.” Danko Jones may have sacrificed a bit of subtlety on Never Too Loud, but who needs subtlety when the rafters have never been cleaner?

When Amy Millan isn’t offering her glittering jewels of brilliance to Broken Social Scene or Stars, she’s utilizing them in the service of her beautifully rendered solo work, a process that began with her 2006 debut, Honey From the Tombs. Millan’s sophomore solo set, Masters of the Burial (are we looking at a funereal triptych here?) covers a good deal of the same ground as its predecessor, sounding like Suzanne Vega-like Folk/Pop as arranged and directed by Burt Bacharach and influenced by Gram Parsons.

Masters of the Burial finds Millan sprinkling her originals with a number of covers, but nothing so recognizable as to spark compare/contrast conversations (with the notable exception of her winsome Country/Folk take on Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Follow You Into the Dark”). Whether originals or covers, Millan applies the same gorgeous Country-flecked veneer to everything she does, with an atmospheric undercurrent of the Indie Rock she explores so effectively with her day job bands. Her spin on Jenny Whiteley’s “Day to Day” is a sparse voice-and-drum rendering, “Finish Line” is a dusty Chamber Folk jewel and “Towers” is an absolute stunner, blending Millan’s Country/Folk leanings with the ethereal ambiance of her work with BSS and Stars.

Some shortsighted critics might find too much similarity between Honey From the Tombs and Masters of the Burial, but considering Millan spent close to eight years working piecemeal on Honey, it’s probably not too much of a stretch to think that Masters would be a natural extension of that long process. And since Honey was extraordinary, comparing Masters of the Burial to it hardly seems like criticism.

Axl Rose, stand down. A new benchmark for gaps between albums has just been set by a true musical legend. Haih or Amortecedor is the first album of new material by iconic Brazilian collective Os Mutantes in three and a half decades. How important is this band? They were ’60s contemporaries of Gilberto Gil, who welcomed them into the Tropicalia fold, and they’ve been cited as an influence by Beck, David Byrne, Flaming Lips, Devendra Banhart, Sepultura, Of Montreal and Kurt Cobain, who lobbied unsuccessfully to get the band to reform and open for Nirvana on their 1993 Brazilian tour.

On Haih or Amortecedor, Os Mutantes start with the foundation they established over 40 years ago: a psychedelic take on Brazilian rhythm Pop that also happened to be poking fun at the country’s military rulers at the time, earning them government threats. On the new release they reimagine that formula for the 21st century. The resulting sound is a whirlwind of past triumphs and fresh evolution.

Os Mutantes are mad cultural monks whose hymns are stitched together from their longstanding Beatles influence, bubbling Bossa Nova, Tropicalia with Hendrixian flash, sonic collage techniques that they devised in the ’60s (and are considered cutting edge today), epic Prog touches and a Zappa-like affinity for ridiculously appropriate counterpoint. They've crafted the rarest of all possible musical works — Haih or Amortecedor fits perfectly in the context of OM’s catalog and is as vibrant and relevant as the music being made by bands of their grandchildren’s generation, almost a decade into the new millennium.

Has it really been 25 years since the momentous birth of Yo La Tengo? Across the past quarter century, the eclectic trio (guitarist Ira Kaplan, drummer Georgia Hubley, bassist James McNew) has become most things to most people, blurring the edges between Punk, Folk, Electronica, shredding Shoegaze and Noise Pop, perhaps most effectively on 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, where all of the band’s considerable gifts were on display in a seamless whole.

For Popular Songs, the band’s twelfth studio album, Yo La Tengo returns to a similar mindset as Heart Beating as One, where they Frankensteined genres together into a massive sonic construction encompassing all the things they’ve done previously. Beginning with the hallucinatory, ’60s Psych Pop-with-strings swell of “Here to Fall” and its Mitch Easter-ish follow-up, the ethereally melancholic “Avalon or Someone Very Similar,” YLT establishes its intentions. The dreamy Eno soundscape of “By Two’s,” the mondo-distorto guitar-and-Farfisa Garage blast of “Nothing to Hide” and the Lee Hazelwood Folk Pop lilt of “I’m On My Way” map out the album’s parameters.

Popular Songs’ last three tracks account for nearly half of its length — the nearly 10-minute bubblingly moody, passively aggressive “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven,” the almost 12-minute Ambient Folktronica of “The Fireside” and the atmospheric 16-minute feedback shredfest “And the Glitter is Gone.” Like Heart Beating as One, Yo La Tengo gives everyone a taste of what they all prefer on Popular Songs, but unlike Heart (or perhaps because of it), the trio sounds just slightly more unified in its widely scattered approach.

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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