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Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Frightened Rabbit, Ted Leo and Even Some New Jimi Hendrix

By Brian Baker · March 12th, 2010 · I Shall Be Released

There’s just a bit of errata to clean up from last week before we dive into this week’s pile of digital gumdrops. In my John Hiatt review, I mentioned Sonny Landreth as the guitar guru on a pair of Hiatt’s greatest albums, Slow TurningBring the Family. That was an error on my part; Landreth is, of course, the brilliant guitarist of record on Slow Turning, but it's the inimitable Ry Cooder who tears shit up on Bring the Family (which was, in fact, the recording that launched the short-lived Little Village, comprised of Hiatt, Cooder, bassist Nick Lowe and drummer Jim Keltner).

Considering that I survived the ’70s and can still find my way back home when I leave for extended periods of time, it’s quite amazing that I don’t forget more than I do. Still, I'm sorry for the inaccuracy in a review I otherwise stand behind wholeheartedly.

The other slight misstatement in last week’s posting was not entirely my doing. If you’ll recall, I was bemoaning the end of Pop Culture Press, a magazine that was on my contributor list for over a decade, and their wonderful Saturday afternoon soirees at the Dog and Duck Pub on the last day of South By Southwest. Mere hours after my blog was posted, I received an e-mail from a publicist informing me that one of his artists was indeed playing at PCP’s Saturday afternoon food-and-music orgy at the D&D at this year’s SXSW. Apparently the guys running PCP have transformed the print mag into a blog and are still mounting their final day extravaganza, so please don’t take it off your list of things to do at SXSW based on my inaccurate information.

And if you do go down to Austin this year and wind up at the Dog and Duck Pub on Saturday afternoon and happen to run into the guys who assemble the PCP blog/D&D fest, you might ask them how long someone is required to write for them (pro bono, in fact) before they actually remain in active contact with them, because I'd think that 11 years would warrant an occasional e-mail, particularly as concerns their SXSW plans. But, like Rick Blaine’s errant enlightenment about the waters of Casablanca, perhaps I was misinformed.

At any rate, if you’re going to Austin, have a fantastic time, drink several dozen Shiners for me and enjoy some great music. I’ll be doing the same thing here, but I'll be largely sober, rested and coherent. And I won’t be having as good a time as you. Damn it.

When Black Rebel Motorcycle Club formed a dozen years ago, they were the poster trio for the new glammy Garage Psychedelia, equally enamored of Classic Rock titans and spaced out Psych Pop. With restrained abandon, guitarist/vocalist Peter Hayes, bassist/vocalist Robert Been and drummer Nick Jago hybridized their influences into a cool, trippy and crunchy offshoot on their 2001 eponymous debut and beyond.

On Beat the Devil’s Tattoo — featuring new drummer Leah Shapiro — Hayes seems intent on stripping things back while maintaining the basic construct of BRMC’s earlier sonic persona. The title track kicks off the album with an almost Delta Blues simplicity, veering from stomping acoustic hymnal to electric church choir wail. Simplicity remains the order of the day with “Conscience Killer,” this time taking the form of a Stooges-like free-for-all, which gives way to the more sinewy, seductive and atmospheric racket of “Bad Blood” and the ominously ponderous “War Machine,” with its squealing acid washed rhythms and relentless riff rockery playing like a gene splice of Kula Shaker and Black Sabbath.

Whether they’re dialing back (the acoustic balladry of “Sweet Feeling,” the gorgeous ache of “The Toll”) or amping up (the slow paisley burn of “Evol,” the Move-in-the-’90s sheets of Shoegaze in “Mama Taught Me Better,” the roiling Psych Blues of “River Styx,” the T. Rex rumble of “Aya”), BRMC shakes and shivers with the intensity of early Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin when they recognized their unique identity within the Blues that inspired them. Thankfully, the band never completely forgets their Glam/Noise Pop roots on Beat the Devil’s Tattoo, so their debts to The Verve and Jesus and Mary Chain are equally evident and welcome.

Beat the Devil’s Tattoo might not plow any new ground, but it certainly finds BRMC growing some fascinating new crops in a familiar plot.

Frightened Rabbit began seven years ago as a pseudonymous identity for guitarist/vocalist Scott Hutchison’s solo shows but expanded to full-band status with the arrival of Hutchison’s brother/drummer Grant and bassist/guitarist Bill Kennedy. The first two releases from the Scottish trio — 2006’s Sing the Greys and 2008’s The Midnight Organ Fight — were acclaimed for their energy, atmosphere, Pop melodicism and lyrical honesty and earned them a press kit bulging with praise and some plum opening gigs, including warming up UK audiences for Biffy Clyro and Death Cab for Cutie, which had become outspoken Frightened Rabbit fans after their sophomore album.

With their latest effort, The Winter of Mixed Drinks, Frightened Rabbit has expanded to a quartet with the addition of multi-instrumentalist Andy Monaghan. As a result, the band’s third studio album is their most complex and atmospheric work to date, bristling with a palpable energy that drives every song regardless of tone. Whether darkly melancholy (“Not Miserable”), relentlessly upbeat (“Nothing Like You”) or navigating the tension between (“Skip the Youth”), Frightened Rabbit pulse with an Indie Rock intensity that is irresistably catchy, unpretensiously stylish and endlessly fascinating.

There’s enough evidence on The Winter of Mixed Drinks to bestow Scott Hutchison with the title of Scotland’s Andy Partridge, as the two share a penchant for Pop psychedelia and Beatlesque classicism, from the gorgeous Pop waves of “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” to the anthemic “The Loneliness and the Scream” to the exultant “Living in Colour.”

Where The Midnight Organ Fight was Frightened Rabbit’s break-up masterpiece, The Winter of Mixed Drinks is their surviving-the-break-up triumph, rife with the band’s emotionally wrought atmospherics and blazing musical and lyrical integrity.

Most importantly, there’s a tremulous undercurrent of strength that drives Frightened Rabbit, a bruised confidence that informs its most raucous celebrations and its quietest reflections. The Winter of Mixed Drinks is a brilliant benchmark of the band’s inherent power.

Six years ago, Miles Kurosky was debating the end of Beulah, leaning to the “pro” side with his opinion that their fourth album, 2003’s Yoko, was the San Francisco band’s best and they should go out on the highest possible note. Kurosky was good for his word; after Beaulah’s 2004 Yoko tour, they called it a day. There have been hopeful rumors of a Kurosky solo album ever since, and those rumblings have proven blissfully true with the release of The Desert of Shallow Effects.

It’s hard to separate Kurosky from Beulah (he once noted that it was easy for him to identify Beulah’s clichés since he wrote them all), and it doesn’t get any easier with Shallow Effects, given the contributions of former band members Patrick Noel, Eli Crews, Danny Sullivan and Pat Abernathy. But one would be hard pressed to pick them out of the nearly 30 musical contributors listed in the liner notes, as Shallow Effects is a swirling, baroque Pop collaboration between Kurosky (humbly listed alphabetically in the middle of the pack) and his assembled orchestra.

Still, the connective tissue between Beulah and Shallow Effects is Kurosky’s songwriting and musical imperative (the last of his listed contributions in the liners is “Iron Fist”). In a 2006 interview with Prefix.com, Kurosky noted that he was looking at his first solo project as the fifth Beulah album, which may be the most logical way of considering Shallow Effects. There is a certain Indie-Rock-Sgt.-Pepper feel to the album, not in an overtly thematic way, but in the context of the album’s expansive sonic atmosphere. From the baroque Pop symphonics of the album’s opener, “Notes from the Polish Underground” to the moody tango of “Dead Language Blues” to the Robyn-Hitchcock-fronts-Roxy-Music controlled abandon of “I Can’t Swim,” Kurosky touches and expands on sounds and directions that might well have bubbled to the forefront of a subsequent Beulah recording.

At the same time, there’s a legitimate point to the perspective that The Desert of Shallow Effects is a Beulah recording in every way other than the name above the title. However one chooses to look at it, fans of his work will be pleased to know that Miles Kurosky has definitely created a solo album that pushes all the right Beulah buttons.

Jimi Hendrix was a guitar god and a musical innovator of nearly cosmic proportions, evidenced by the fact that we’re still vitally interested in every scrap of recorded ephemera that emerges from the seemingly bottomless archive of recordings that Hendrix made in his tragically brief but unbelievably productive life. Forty years after his untimely death and we are still haunted by and hungry for more of Hendrix’s divinely inspired guitar explorations, enigmatic lyricism and magnetic songcraft. And we’ve been so intent on reliving the Hendrix experience, we’ve been drawn in and then burned by badly dubbed live shows and fourth generation recordings of meandering sessions sold in well-packaged but ultimately unsatisfying bootlegs and more than a few legitimate yet half-assed releases.

With the Hendrix family’s triumph over the corporate vampires who threatened to drain the life from Jimi’s legacy, the archives were properly inspected to reveal a wealth of officially releasable material. Valleys of Neptune is the latest high-end release in what promises to be a decade of gems from the vault. Although very little of Valleys of Neptune is unknown to any Hendrix fan with a decent bootleg collection, this set has been polished to a brilliant turn by Eddie Kramer, the guitarist’s original engineer.

The appeal of Valleys of Neptune for the dedicated Hendrix fan is the fact that none of these songs have had an official release in these versions. Much of Neptune consists of Hendrix reworking and reimagining staples of his catalog; he had a restless creative spirit and was always looking for new ways to interpret his own work. To that end, Neptune offers a slinky, sensual version of “Red House” that won’t seem essential to the casual Hendrix follower but is fascinating to the archival fan. A similar vibe emanates from the loose takes on “Fire,” “Stone Free” (featuring soon to be Gypsy bassist Billy Cox) and “Hear My Train a Comin’,” which all show Hendrix‘s willingness to look for new wrinkles within his acclaimed style.

On Neptune’s newer end of the spectrum, there’s a rare studio take on Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love,” a longtime live standard, as well as the much bootlegged but never officially released title track, a gorgeous full-band spin on the demo that appeared on 1990’s Lifelines collection.

Not everything is a complete success; “Ships Passing Through the Night” is an unfinished sonic sketch that could have been developed into greatness later; it’s still worthy of inclusion as it shows Hendrix’s experimental streak, channeling his rhythm track through a Leslie speaker for an organ-like sound. And there are familiar moments as well, particularly “Lullaby for the Summer,” which ultimately morphed into “Ezy Ryder,” and “Crying Blue Rain,” previously heard as “In From the Storm,” the former illuminating Hendrix’s skill at utilizing effects pedals, the latter showcasing his ability to wring a variety of moods and emotions from a single performance.

Jaded music critics may ho-hum over the release of Valleys of Neptune but true believers will never cease to be amazed at the evocative rainbow of sound that Jimi Hendrix produced over the most tumultuous and formative four years in the history of Rock music.

Take a good look and listen, boys and girls: Social/cultural/political commentator Ted Leo might be among the last of the old school anthemic Pop/Punk activists still shaking a fist and tilting at the windmills of injustice with well-aimed guitar chords and songs that howl with righteous indignation. And honestly, doesn’t Leo’s one-man crusade about the state of the world seem infinitely preferable to a whole cadre of Emo kids tweaked to unbearable levels over a broken heart?

Leo’s latest sonic broadside with the Pharmacists, The Brutalist Bricks, finds the intensely political singer/songwriter in something of a spritely mood. Perhaps Brutalist Bricks represents the light at the end of an eight-year tunnel for Leo, but you can hear his Pop-fueled enthusiasm in “Ativan Eyes” when he proclaims “I’m so sick of cynics and I want something to trust in.”

Leo has always been a master of wrapping the most acidic observations in engaging Pop melodies, but he takes his gift to new heights on Bricks, with the glorious and visceral Pop lilt/Punk blister of “Woke Up Near Chelsea” and the anthemic rise and fall of “Even Heroes Have to Die.” Of course, Leo never forgets his Punk roots, trotting them out on the double-clutched, shouted chaos and anti-melodicism of “The Stick.” On the brilliant “Bottled in Cork,” Leo begins with a resolution on the floor of the United Nations, ends with the spiraling declaration of “Tell the bartender I think I’m falling love” and soundtracks it all with a combination of furious Pop/Punk and bouncy Clash-like white Reggae.

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists have already assembled one of the best track records for consistency in all of Indie Rock — Hearts of Oak, Shaking the Sheets and Living with the Living being a trifecta of near perfection. The Brutalist Bricks is simply more fodder for critics who are beginning to suspect that Leo and the boys don’t have a bad album in them.

There has always been something of a disparity between Aloha in the studio and Aloha on stage. The Brooklyn-based band has seemed considerably more intent on their bubbling Ambient vibe in the isolation of the recording process and perhaps a little more willing to ratchet things up a notch when presenting that material to an audience. With Home Acres, the band’s third release, Aloha takes a big step toward bridging that gap.

While there is still a certain amorphous lilt to some aspects of Aloha’s sonic profile, it is largely overwhelmed by a much more distinct forcefulness to the songs on Home Acres. With a greater presence afforded to guitars and drums, Aloha steams along like a proper Rock band, as on the Math Rock-like “Microviolence,” which shimmers and shakes like Adrian Belew examining his musical dichotomies in a single composition or “Everything Goes My Way,” a Psych Pop marriage between early Kinks, The Doors and Pavement. “Blackout” is a moody thumper that could pass for a Spoon/Shins collaboration and “Ruins” closes the album with the expansive Pop anthemics of the New Pornographers if A.C. Newman had been mentored by Al Kooper.

Given Aloha’s compelling Radiohead-ish atmosphere in the live arena, it’s gratifying to hear the band turn up the volume on Home Acres as well as incorporate so many more fascinating influences into their total sound.


The term Punk has come to encompass a great many sonic directions and in the process has become a word that is more philosophically descriptive than musically accurate. Punk as it was espoused early in the genre’s evolution during the ’70s was an uncompromising cacophony of sonic abuse and lyrical acidity, a physically confrontational presence that combined the dirty Blues aberration of the earliest Rolling Stones with a healthy disrespect for any standard music conventions and a need for speed, volume and disgust.

In New York, that sound came front-loaded with a dose of big city cool, but the vibe that was emanating from Cleveland at the same time was shot through with a tangible sense of Rust Belt desperation and indignation over the betrayal of Summer of Love promises. The blistering indictments handed down by Peter Laughner and Rocket from the Tombs (who morphed into the dark theater of Pere Ubu) and a host of other seminal area Punk progenitors still resonates three and a half decades later.

Continuing this tradition in the new millennium is This Moment in Black History, a virulent heart-and-soul Punk quartet with a serious case of the Deads (Kennedys/Boys) on their third full length, Public Square. Perhaps just slightly less frenetic than its predecessor, It Takes a Nation of Assholes to Hold Us Back, Public Square finds This Moment in Black History rocking old, loud and snotty like their Cleveland heritage (“Theophylline Valentime,” “MFA”) stirred up with a helping of soulful Detroit Punk circa 1968 MC5 (“Forest Whitaker (in an uncompromising role),” “Pollen Count”) with just a shade of northwestern Ohio Devo/Tin Huey weirdness (“Panopticon”) thrown in for counterpoint.

If you’re looking for pure Punk for right-now people, Punk that’s committed to honoring the past while shredding into the future, Punk that pisses with and on authority, you’re looking for This Moment in Black History. Coincidentally, they‘re looking for you.

Note: This Moment in Black History perform with Sun God at the Down Under in Covington March 13. Get details here.

 
 
 
 

 

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