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Monsters of Folk, Living Colour, Mike Kinsella, Guy Clark and Matt Baumann

By Brian Baker · October 2nd, 2009 · I Shall Be Released
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Monsters of Folk was spawned in post-show jams between Bright Eyes, My Morning Jacket and M. Ward earlier in the decade. Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis, Jim James and Matt Ward actualized a tour in 2004 (which was dubbed Monsters of Folk by their tour manager) but it’s taken the quartet five years to translate the structured jam atmosphere of their tour into a studio experience. The foursome assembled early last year with the barest ideas for songs with plans to lay down demos, hammered the material into shape as a group and emerged with a nearly completed version of their self-titled debut album.

They may be the Monsters of Folk, but the quartet has clearly colored outside of genre lines on their debut album. There is a Marvin Gaye-meets-Moby Ambient Soul texture on “Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.),” which is followed by the Jeff Lynne-flavored “Say Please,” the Wilbury/Beatlesque Pop/Rock of “Whole Lotta Losin’,” the Everly Brothers twang Pop of “Magic Marker” and the MMJ reverb shimmer of “Temazcal.” The Monsters don’t skimp on the Folk, though, from the George Harrison Country romp “The Right Place” to the Wilco-at-a-Bluegrass-festival protest song “Man Named Truth” to the ambient Gospel of “Goodway” to the Tweedy-channels-Guthrie contemporary classicism of “The Sandman, The Brakeman and Me.” Considering the band’s spontaneously collaborative approach to writing, the album is understandably diverse and unexpectedly cohesive.

Living Colour’s Funk-fried Metal was one of the high points of the late ’80s and early ’90s and the band’s failure to absolutely dominate the musical dialogue beyond their brief existence remains a mystery worthy of Leonard Nimoy’s investigative powers. The diverging paths found in the solo directions of vocalist Corey Glover and guitarist Vernon Reid give some clue as to Living Colour’s eventual and premature demise, with Glover veering toward Pop/Hard Rock and Reid pushing his Jimi Hendrix/Miles Davis muse into Hip Hop and sonic collage. But it was in fact the band’s celebrity status — perhaps fueled by their connection to Mick Jagger, who financed their demos and helped secure their Epic contract — finally forced Reid to dissolve the unit. Living Colour’s 2003 reunion album, Collideoscope, was a welcome return after a long hiatus, sparked by a desire to work together and galvanized by the 9/11 attacks.

The Chair in the Doorway is only Living Colour’s fifth studio album in the past 20 years but it’s a fascinating example of influence begetting influence. Living Colour’s swinging Metal Funk of the late ’80s clearly had an impact on the Nu Metal purveyors of the ’90s and into the new millennium. With The Chair in the Doorway, Living Colour taps into their own past glories with Glover’s absolutely perfect Rock voice, Reid’s incendiary and still fresh guitar phrasings, both in perfect harmony with the Funk Metal thunder of bassist Doug Wimbish and the Jazz-nuanced, Rock-powered pulse of drummer Will Calhoun.

At the same time, the band recognizes the advances that have been made by those they have influenced and aren’t afraid to absorb, retool and reflect those influences in their own sound, which was always intended to be a melting pot of styles. “Burned Bridges” exemplifies this synthesis, cooking along like classic Living Colour while nodding to the new generation of Funk Metal kids, while “The Chair” is even more steeped in the roiling dark Metal scene, leavened with Living Colour’s patented sense of evolution/revolution and blistering melodicism.

If Living Colour has learned anything in the intervening years, it’s a sense of economy. In the old days, The Chair in the Doorway would have been nearly twice as long and unnecessarily so, but Living Colour has discovered the wisdom and the effectiveness of fitting their musical and lyrical statements in three- and four-minute increments and resisting the temptation to pad every song into an epic anthem. The howling indignation of “Decadence” would easily have tickled the six-minute range back in the day, but Reid and company rein in their Prog inclinations and get the message across in an almost breezy three-and-a-half minutes. Living Colour has invested The Chair in the Doorway with the evolutionary verve of their original work, a respect for contemporary music and a passion for finding that place where they intersect comfortably in a style that still fits their stated manifesto of musical inclusion.

On the title track of New Leaves, the first new solo album in three years from Mike Kinsella — guitarist for Joan of Arc and Cap’n Jazz and doing business on his own time as Owen — he sings, “I’m tired of sleeping on the couch/Like a guest in my own house.” That line is one of many that address Kinsella’s questioning of his transient lifestyle and that tee up his newfound sense of maturity and responsibility in the wake of becoming both a husband and father since his last album, 2006’s At Home with Owen. Kinsella’s early Owen outings tended toward Nick Drake-like simplicity and expanse, but his latter work has exhibited a more elaborate Baroque Pop identity, which is the path that Kinsella explores more deeply on New Leaves.

More importantly, New Leaves finds Kinsella is examining the complexities of life and love while expanding his lyrical and musical palette into plainspoken autobiographical honesty and richer arrangements. Combining the melodic power of James Taylor with the atmospheric angst of Grant Lee Phillips, Joe Pernice, Morrissey and Eef Barzelay, Kinsella weaves in the angular Post Rock touches that have appointed his band endeavors. There are passages of gorgeous Folk Pop sensitivity counterpointed by moments of ambient chaos and Jazz-like phrasing, like Clem Snide co-produced by T Bone Burnett and Jimmy Webb. At the same time, Kinsella retains the simple beauty that has characterized all of his Owen output from the beginning, giving his longtime fans plenty of reason to rejoice over his new penchant for disarmingly honest personal reflection and examination.

Guy Clark is the very definition of the songwriter’s songwriter, a guy whose craft is so engaging and beautifully wrought that even people who write their own material will leave one of their own compositions behind to accommodate one of Clark’s proven winners. Like so many of his Texas-and-beyond songwriting contemporaries — Townes Van Zandt, Butch Hancock, Joe Ely, John Prine — Clark is a master storyteller with a novelist’s eye for detail and an uncanny knack for universal observation.

On Somedays the Song Writes You, Clark’s 13th studio album and second for Nashville indie Dualtone, Clark sticks to the template he established on his last album, 2006’s Workbench Songs; collaborate with a handful of likewise gifted songwriters on a set of relatively stripped down songs that just about any Country/Folk artist in Nashville would be glad to cover straight to the upper reaches of the chart (folks like Johnny Cash, Brad Paisley, Alan Jackson, Vince Gill and Ricky Skaggs have done just that). The ostensible title track, “Somedays You Write the Song,” sounds like classic Willie Nelson describing the songwriter’s life, “The Guitar” has the feel of a Waylon Jennings song and an episode of The Twilight Zone and “All She Wants is You” has the slinky feel of a Steve Earle Country/Blues ode.

On an album filled with highlights, one of the biggest is Clark’s tribute to best friend Townes Van Zandt — Clark has covered one of Van Zandt’s songs on nearly every album since his untimely death in 1997 — this time represented by one of Van Zandt’s greatest love songs, “If I Needed You.” The second major highlight is the album’s closer, “Maybe I Can Paint Over That,” a wonderful musical analogy on the futility of trying to whitewash life’s mistakes, played with Bluegrass delicacy and sung with Clark’s craggy yet somehow hopeful resignation. It is a fitting finish to Somedays the Song Writes You, one of the best albums in Guy Clark’s nearly 40 year history.

In the late ’70s, Brian Eno gave a name to tone music that operates under the level of consciousness: Ambient. Eno’s theory was to create music that could manipulate the listener’s mood without activating the listener’s awareness. Since then, a good many people have emulated Eno’s lead while adding a bit more color to the sonic canvas and putting the listening experience much more in the foreground.

One such Ambient tweaker is Cincinnati saxophonist Matt Baumann, whose recent and impressive body of work — alone and with drummer Jim Feist and guitarist Eric Barnett (together and in duos) — surfs the tension between active and passive listening, ultimately leaning well toward the former.

On their latest collaboration, Late Nights/Early Mornings (released earlier this summer and available at Shake It and on the Web at www.mattbaumannmusic.com), Baumann and Barnett create a brief but potent soundscape that nibbles at the edges of serenity but seems more invested in a sound that is simultaneously calming, sometimes slightly unsettling and yet always engaging. The album’s opening track, “Theme (Eternal),” offers an expansive six-minute soundtrack with Baumann’s sax drifting along a moody path while Barnett provides a wash of guitar texture as accompaniment, creating an effect that is hypnotic but far from Ambient. “Fallout” has an almost Kraftwerk-like feel, “For a Moment” is a less than two minute foray into more traditional Jazz structure, and “Farmhouse” finds Barnett lilting along on a lovingly reverbed Pop riff which Baumann appoints with an appropriately melancholy passage of his own.

Like the album title suggests, Baumann and Barnett have crafted a short set of songs (the eight-song album clocks in under 25 minutes) that matches the reflection and portent and stillness and anticipation that bubbles up through the consciousness in the blackest night or the blurriest dawn.


 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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