Another week, another teetering pile of releases to consider. I’ve already run seriously short on time again for this posting due to accumulating deadlines and last-minute assignments from a variety of sources. Good for my bottom line, bad for my schedule.
But before we get to this week’s reviewage, some quick points.
• I had the opportunity last Friday night to witness the initial steps of the making of an album, as singer/songwriter David Wilcox turned his recording time at Ric Hordinski’s Monastery Studio into a pair of intimate shows, playing a batch of new songs — some of which will wind up on Wilcox’s next release — and allowing 50 or so fans to sit in on his combination studio session/small club gig.
The new songs Wilcox presented that night (he offered the same session/show package Saturday night as well) are among the best material he’s ever written, and he was clearly delighted by a good many of them, as he unleashed several of his trademark cackles while introducing and explaining each one to his rapt audience. Highlights for me were songs about a guy whose job is to dynamite the iced-over Cuyahoga River in the winter and a fortune teller who tells clients what they want to hear, one of whom is a painter who wants to be understood by future generations.
The overall quality of the new stuff as a whole ensures that the next Wilcox record might well be among his best work to date. Stay tuned.
• We received a letter last week from Mr. Bruce Bennett, deriding our coverage of Foxy Shazam as a legitimate contender for national success and using their major label signing as a barometer of the music industry’s decline. For the record, Mr. Bennett, Foxy Shazam is most assuredly not the canary in the music industry’s coalmine, as the biz troubles actually predate the birth of Foxy Shazam’s members. We love Noctaluca, too (a band Bennett proclaimed to be "good") and have covered them in the past, and we know that neither they nor any other band in the city that strives to achieve their musical dream would deny the Foxys their shot at the brass ring, even if they don’t particularly care for their sound or presentation.
And as a big deal negotiator and manager in the ’80s (when music was soooo much better), you should know that it’s unwise to make an assessment of any band’s talent quotient based on limited exposure and in this day and age — which especially includes a cell phone video clip from five years ago posted on YouTube.
In a bygone era, there once was a Decca executive who couldn’t hear any potential in a demo by a bunch of scruffy, long-haired freaks from Liverpool, and I’d venture a guess it was several decades before Decca stopped using that guy’s personnel photo as a dartboard and/or toilet paper. You gave Foxy Shazam a slim chance, and they let you down. That means they’re not worthy of your time and attention. How about letting the rest of the world make up its own mind?
• If anyone wants to hear how Wussy sounded at the Cake Shop in New York City on their recent visit, point your browser toward www.nyctaper.com and give a listen to the band’s crackling 75-minute set. Wussy was in really good form, and this is a fairly decent recording of their performance; the site posts shows they've attended and recorded with the bands’ permission, so don’t feel bad about downloading the files therein. And they have a ton of stuff posted, so check out the archives (which include shows by Ted Leo, The Hold Steady, Wilco, Nada Surf and many more) and click away — there’s something there for every taste.
OK, back to our regularly scheduled blog. Reviews below … you know what to do.
Roky Erickson’s back story has enough exhilaration, drama and tragedy to make an epic Rock film. An icon of Texas Psychedelia in the ’60s with the 13th Floor Elevators, his tenuous hold on reality (after a longstanding LSD regimen) was pushed to the breaking point when he was committed to a barbaric mental hospital after a ludicrous pot bust in 1969. Although he continued to play music after his release, he was seriously damaged by the experience and his work (and life) were erratic at best. This story is effectively if slowly detailed in the 2005 documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me.
The good news is that, after years of legalities that diverted his royalties to industry vampires, Erickson’s family won back the rights to his early work and Erickson himself has slowly returned to recording and performing new material, ultimately resulting in True Love Cast Out All Evil, Erickson’s first album of new material in nearly a decade and a half.
With the amazing accompaniment of Will Sheff and Okkervill River, Erickson blazes new trails in a rootsy Americana direction. Bookended by raw demos with atmospheric appointments, True Love is primarily made up of songs that Erickson had written but never recorded over the entire course of his long career and tumultuous life. “Please, Judge” is a slow Gospel Blues that finds him pleading for legal mercy in the third person as Sheff and Okkervill River provide stately back-up that morphs into a cacophonous melodicism, perhaps a metaphor for Erickson’s long unchecked inner demons.
“Goodbye Sweet Dreams” pounds with quiet Psych/Folk intensity, highlighted by squealing feedback and Erickson’s vocals in a spiraling rain dance. “John Lawman” mines a similar vein as Erickson indicts heavy-handed authority and the band howls in Psychedelic agreement, while the title track plays like a Dylanesque Nashville hymn.
There is a craggy, primal beauty to Erickson’s songwriting and delivery on True Love Cast Out All Evil, as his lyrics and vocals serve as a therapeutic scrapbook, and Okkervill River supply an appropriately emotional soundtrack.
There’s nothing particularly new or singular about simultaneously tributing and contemporizing the better aspects of ’70s Hard Rock and Pop. Nash Kato did it to excellent effect on his solo busman’s holiday away from Urge Overkill, and Cobra Verde frontman John Petkovic does it equally well on Love & Desperation, the debut of his well-stocked side project, Sweet Apple. The band is, in fact, distinguished by a couple of factors. The group was spawned from Petkovic’s grief after his mother’s death, and it’s something of an Indie supergroup, comprised of Petkovic and Cobra Verde bandmate Tim Parnin, Witch bassist Dave Sweetapple and Dinosaur Jr. frontman J. Mascis, who plays both guitar and drums here.
The first hint that a bygone musical epoch is about to be homaged is Love & Desperation’s cover art, a deliciously skeevy hat tip to Roxy Music’s Country Life. Sonically, Sweet Apple bobs for influences a little earlier in the decade; “Blindfold” and “Crawling Over Bodies” sound like a gene splice of The Doors with Love It to Death-era Alice Cooper, “Never Came” suggests Blue Cheer as produced by Mick Ronson, “I’ve Got a Feeling (That Won’t Change)” soars with the Indie abandon of Velvet Crush with a Classic Rock obsession and “Flying Up a Mountain” swaggers like a similarly steered White Stripes.
The album’s opening and closing numbers, “Do You Remember” and “Goodnight,” bristle with the Hard Rock anthemics, crunchy guitar fury and Power Pop melodicism of a Motorhead/Big Star summit.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Love & Desperation isn’t that Petcovic and Sweet Apple have handily updated the roar of the ’70s, but that Petcovic’s natural mourning could have inspired something so joyous and life affirming and gloriously loud.
Latino Rock has a long and illustrious history, from Ritchie Valens and Little Willie G. & Thee Midniters in the ’50s and ’60s to War and the legendary Santana in the ’70s to Los Lobos and Alejandro Escovedo in the ’80s, all with long lasting consequences well into the new millennium. Contemporary stylists like Punk-fueled Voodoo Glow Skulls and pan-genre Ozomatli clearly owe a great debt to their forefathers; with Fire Away, their fifth full-length and debut for Mercer Street/Downtown, Ozomatli seems prepared to pay that debt forward with a polyrhythmic vengeance.
Forming a decade and a half ago in East L.A. and named after an ancient Aztec dancing god, Ozomatli has always been a melting pot in membership as well as musical sensibility, their incorporation of Salsa, Samba, Funk, Hip Hop, Dancehall and a dozen other influences filtered through the band’s collective love and respect for Carlos Santana. On Fire Away, Ozomatli seems to be embracing an even broader rainbow of styles, resulting in the most diverse and exciting album in the band’s catalog. Take opener “Are You Ready?,” for instance; mixing Latin tradition with a careening Indie Rock vibe, the track sounds like an ass-shaking summit meeting between Los Lobos and XTC.
From the heavy Funk/Hip Hop swing of “Elysian Persuasion” to the ’60s Stax groove of “45” to the brilliant ’60s Latin Pop stroll (and lyrical tolerance) of “Gay Vatos in Love” to the gorgeous ballad “It’s Only Time” to the G. Love-as-vato Hip Bop of “Nadas Por Free,” every song on Fire Away exudes an infectious dancefloor energy, whether slow or fast, that is over way too soon. If Ozomatli has a message on Fire Away, it’s got to be “get up, get out, get real, get rhythm.” Heed the call.
From the very beginning, Robert Schneider has been a master of shaping Apples in Stereo into a form that's familiar without being derivative. His early affiliation with the Elephant 6 Pop collective became the Apples’ defining characteristic, even though their sugar Pop buzz had almost nothing in common with Psych/Folk labelmates like Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control. Schneider’s prime directive has always been to defy expectation, even within his fan base; admirers of the Apples’ studio sweetness were often dismayed by the garage Rock rawness on stage.
The Apples’ latest album and second for Elijah Wood’s Simian imprint (distributed by Yep Roc), Travellers in Space and Time, continues in the vein their 2007 triumph, New Magnetic Wonder, with an even greater emphasis on Electric Light Orchestra-flecked synth Pop as envisioned by Mitch Easter (“Strange Solar System,” “Dance Floor”). There are still plenty of references to mad Pop geniuses like Todd Rundgren (“Dream About the Future”), The Hollies (“Dignified Dignitary”), shades of Robyn Hitchcock (“Next Year About the Same Time”) and Schneider’s avowed hero Brian Wilson (the soulful “No One in the World”), but even when the Apples (now featuring the Sunshine Fix’s Bill Doss and Deathray Davies’ John Dufilho as semi-permanent members) stray from their ELO-strewn path, the result still sounds like it’s been shellaced with a shiny layer of Jeff Lynne and polished with oil of Burt Bacharach (“Floating in Space,” “Wings Away”).
Longtime Apples in Stereo fans may be slightly confused by Travellers in Space and Time’s synth-drenched Lynneguistics, but one would think that, at this point, they’d be at least somewhat tolerant of the band’s fascinating stylistic shifts and shimmies.
Shelby Lynne has definitely hit for the Country music cycle. She started as a standard issue Nashville ingenue, shaped and steered by industry hitmakers (which yielded little in the way of hits but garnered Lynne a 1990 ACM award for New Female Vocalist), but she experienced a taste of self-determination on 1993’s edgy Western Swing experiment Temptation.
After a five-year hiatus and a move to California, Lynne reinvented herself as a smoky R&B crooner on her definitively titled 2000 comeback album, I Am Shelby Lynne; ironically, the album earned her a Grammy for Best New Artist a dozen years after her debut album. After the slick, non-descript and label-directed Love, Shelby in 2001, Lynne took the reins and hasn’t let go as she’s relished in the Blues/Rock blister of 2003’s Identity Crisis, the modern traditionalism of 2005’s Suit Yourself and the Dusty Springfield tribute of 2008’s Just a Little Lovin’.
On Tears, Lies and Alibis, her 11th studio album, Lynne takes the next logical step in her evolution by creating her own label, Everso Records, and crafting an album that draws on a lot of the styles she’s examined over the past decade. Like much of her output since her 2000 re-emergence, the self-produced Tears, Lies and Alibis finds Lynne staking out territory somewhere between the twang of Country and the shimmer of Pop. There’s Dusty-flecked Soul (“Like a Fool”), Southern-fried R&B (“Why Didn’t You Call Me”) and soulful Pop (“Alibi”). On an album of highlights, a couple of the best have to be the uptempo brooding on the album’s first single, “Rains Came,” which bounces along at a Countrypolitan-meets-Chrissie Hynde pace, and the lilting and sparsely appointed Country Pop of “Loser Dreamer.”
Shelby Lynne has had a difficult time finding acceptance in the Country hierarchy over the years, but if the genre has grown to embrace the bouncy sugar Pop of Taylor Swift, they should make a little shelf space for the mature and patently amazing accomplishment of Tears, Lies and Alibis.
For the past dozen years, Philadelphia native Matt Pond has been working a fascinating musical corner as the frontman of a rotating Indie collective that bears his name as well as his home state’s abbreviation. The band’s 1998 debut, Deer Apartments, earned Matt Pond PA comparisons to a spartan and Pop-flecked take on The Cure and The Fall but since then, the band — which has shifted members nearly two dozen times — has settled into a wonderfully melancholy baroque Chamber Pop atmosphere that has hinted at Pond’s Punk roots while imagining an alternate future where Nick Drake survived to be influenced by the tumult of the late ’70s and the dark wave of the ’80s.
On Matt Pond PA’s eighth full-length album, The Dark Leaves, Pond, longtime multi-instrumentalist Chris Hansen and an Impossible Missions Force of new and former MPPA members have crafted an exquisite and dusky Pop gem. Once driven to explore the edgier elements of his influences, Pond finds his muse in slightly more melodic territory on this set; The Dark Leaves’ opener, “Starting,” is bleakly jaunty, like Harry Nilsson produced by Van Dyke Parks, immediately followed by the expansive and evocative “Running Wild,” a baroque vision of a collaboration between A.C. Newman and James Mercer, “Specks,” a twangily similar interpretation that begins with a Jeff Buckley-meets-Brian Eno introduction before building into an Indie Rock hoedown and “Brooklyn Fawn” ebbs and flows with the emotionally tangible power of Peter Gabriel.
Pond and Hansen clearly understand the value of building moods, as “Specks” and “Remains” (and a good deal of the album, for that matter) benefit from the tension between ethereal calm and propulsive yet scuffed exuberance. The Dark Leaves might be Matt Pond PA’s most accessible and brilliant work over the past decade, but there’s no indication that Pond and his revolving band of Indie Rock rangers are incapable of doing the same thing even better next time out. In fact, as good as The Dark Leaves is ultimately, it might be just the beginning of a new and fertile creative direction for Pond and the band.