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Cake, Edie Brickell, The Decemberists and Social Distortion

By Brian Baker · February 4th, 2011 · I Shall Be Released
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Meet the new year, same as the old year. What, me behind? How could it be otherwise? As far as my planning calendar is concerned, I’ve got all the time in the world to get everything done. In its practical application, my planning calendar might just as well be written on toilet paper. In the real world, time evaporates like glaciers under a coal-clouded sky. Take this week’s assignment calendar, for instance. On paper, it looks like I should be done early in the week, with a couple of days to work ahead on next week’s work, and maybe even the week after that. In reality, I’m a couple of unexpected assignments and inevitable life snags (last week’s contenders — the King holiday and two snow days for my daughter) from pushing current deadlines into next weekend and leaving the subsequent weeks to fend for themselves.

And yet it beats the living hell out of being bored. I’m never so alive as when deadlines are looming like the black obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey and I find myself behind the unsnortable eight ball, scrambling with the intensity of a mad omelet chef. Dad loves his work, I like to say.

At any rate, as you must be thinking at this very moment, writing up here takes away from writing down there, so it must be time to gently shift gears and concentrate on the reviews at hand. There are more than enough titles deserving of the attention; let’s see how many sneak under the limbo bar of this week’s obstacles.

Cake has always been a musical conundrum and their latest album, Showroom of Compassion, is another fascinatingly quirky charm on John McCrea’s compelling bracelet. Coming after the longest gap between albums in the band’s history, Showroom of Compassion sold less units in its first week than any previous Cake release which, on the surface, might suggest that the Sacramento quartet has run its course even with its fans. The weird punchline here is that Cake’s weak sales were better than everyone else’s weak sales and, as a result, ShowroomBillboard’s Top 200 album chart (setting the record for lowest-selling No.1 release in Billboard’s history). Which, on the surface, might suggest that it’s the best Cake album to date. As is typically the case with most Cake albums, the truth about Showroom of Compassion lies somewhere between two extremes. debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top 200 album chart (setting the record for lowest-selling No.1 release in Billboard’s history). Which, on the surface, might suggest that it’s the best Cake album to date. As is typically the case with most Cake albums, the truth about Showroom of Compassion lies somewhere between two extremes.

Showroom of Compassion is easily the most straightforward and accessible album in Cake’s odd catalog. From the outset, McCrea made clear that this would be a very different piece of work for the band and he’s been true to his word; Showroom deals in the trappings of traditional Rock in ways that the band has shunned in the past, from conventional instrumentation (including the first piano sounds that have ever graced a Cake album) to time signatures to lyrical directness. Take the faux Americana/mariachi waltz of “Bound Away,” McCrea’s paean to touring. Beneath the odd confluence of styles, the song imparts its message in a literal manner that has only rarely been a part of Cake’s arsenal. “I’m an unknown individual in an untended car/Hey, welcome to Chicago, or wherever you are,” McCrea sings in a plaintive, nasal twang. “New York to London, Barcelona to Berlin/Sacramento, California, we are leaving again.”

On the album’s first single, the bona fide hit “Sick of You,” McCrea hasn’t simply named the song and then populated it with cryptic allusions to be translated by his adoring fanbase. Following a Beatlesque Indie Rock intro, McCrea throws up a flare to illuminate his message: “I’m so sick of you, so sick of me, I don’t want to be with you … I want to fly away.” Simple as that, and so it goes. With reverb aplenty and a sound that hearkens back to Rock in the ’70s (with a hat tip to Robyn Hitchcock’s loopy weirdness), “Federal Funding” is about … federal funding, while “Got to Move” lilts like ’60s Pop in its grooviest incarnations as it tells a tale of a lover who can’t be pinned down by culture, trends or relationships.

And what are we to make of the Bob Gaudio-penned “What’s Now is Now,” popularized by Frank Sinatra on his 1970 album Watertown? Ultimately, McCrea may well have tired of dazzling Cake fans with complexity and, with Showroom of Compassion, has instead opted to dazzle them with simplicity.

There aren’t many bands that can resurrect themselves decades after their greatest successes without bowing to some sort of compromise in the process. Whether it’s a simple case of revisiting past glories in a contemporary context or adjusting their musical style to better reflect the prevailing zeitgeist, it’s an admission that a band’s best days are behind them and the only road back to relevance goes through the hot producer du jour with a quick stop for an image makeover and a sonic scrubbing at the AutoTune car wash. Thankfully, Wire doesn’t subscribe to this ridiculous modern paradigm. On their latest album, Red Barked Tree, they maintain their longstanding tradition of staying two steps ahead of current trends, making a nostalgia trip physically impossible.

The bracing Punk singularity of 1977’s Pink Flag and the icy atmospheric experimentation of 1978’s Chairs Missing and 1979’s 154 easily cemented Wire’s place in music history. While their impact on the charts was minimal, their rippling influence across the next three decades can hardly be overstated. The long gaps between albums in the ’80s and ’90s were filled with solo and side projects that found Colin Newman, Bruce Gilbert, Graham Lewis and Robert Gotobed (now Grey) stretching the limits of what could be classified as music. When Wire reconvened, their moonlighting experiments blossomed in the band setting and set them off down new and wildly eclectic paths. Gilbert left before the recording of 2008’s Object 47, a compendium of the sounds and slightly sinister messages that Wire has conveyed in their post-154 years.

Red Barked Tree is similarly Gilbertless, leaving Newman, Lewis and Grey to their own abrasively delightful devices. Wire’s standard lyrical directness features prominently on Red Barked Tree, opening with this polite command from “Please Take”: “Please take your knife out of my back/And when you do, please don’t twist it.” As on Object 47, the reconfigured Wire dip into their various sonic guises while cattle-prodding them to another level, particularly with the slamming Avant Punk jitters of “Two Minutes,” the brutally insistent thump and brawl of “Moreover” and the Art Pop cool of “Bad Worn Thing.”

Antennas up, all you young dudes — Wire has just given you ironclad proof that you can exist for over 30 years and still come up with a career album. You merely have to be great.

From the beginning, Tapes n’ Tapes has exhibited an affinity for adrenalized Indie Pop with a slippery lockstep groove and a certain sonic similarity to Pavement’s artier inflections and the agitated effervescence of the Pixies and Wire. Some of TnT’s subtlety was overwhelmed on the Minneapolis quartet’s sophomore full-length, 2008’s Walk It Off, partly due to the band’s natural evolution following its debut, 2005’s The Loon, and partly due to David Fridmann’s commercially-friendly wall-of-sound production.

For the band’ third album, Outside, TnT wanted to get back to a more elemental approach as songwriters and as players, a goal clearly achieved.

Frontman and primary songwriter Josh Grier spread writing duties around to the rest of the band (keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Matt Kretzman, bassist Erik Appelwick, drummer Jeremy Hanson) and made a conscious decision to be less fussy and more immediate in his studio craft. In that regard, TnT succeeds in creating a more visceral set on Outside, not as bristled or jangly as their debut nor as cerebral and considered as Walk It Off, landing somewhere in the middle ground between those ends of their sonic spectrum.

While some may bemoan TnT dialing back on the manic energy of The Loon, there is a David Byrne-meets-the Shins-with-a-side-of-Spoon vibe on Outside that intermingles freewheeling enthusiasm with deliberate restraint, melancholy with joy and power with finesse, particularly on opener “Badaboom” and the raucous “Freak Out.” For those who latched onto Tapes ’n Tapes’ nervous amplitude on The Loon, the thoughtful jitters of Outside may seem tempered on first listen. But rest assured that the album will reveal its quiet charms in subsequent and focused listenings.

The overwhelming platinum success of Edie Brickell’s 1988 debut with the New Bohemians, Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars, was well deserved but the relative failure of its follow-up, 1990’s Ghost of a Dog, doomed the New Bohos in the early ’90s and set the stage for Brickell’s 1994 solo debut, Picture Perfect Morning. The album followed her marriage to songwriting icon Paul Simon and the birth of their son and Brickell was still unnerved by the massive attention focused on Rubberbands, so she was more than satisfied with releasing Morning on her own terms and retreating to the life of a mother and homemaker.

When Brickell comes back, she doesn’t dick around. After nearly a decade of musical inactivity, she returned in 2003 with the rootsy yet expansive Volcano, followed by the 2006 semi-reunion of the New Bohemians on the well-received Stranger Things. The following year, Brickell and her stepson Harper Simon released an album as the Heavy Circles, while this year sees two Brickell projects — a new band dubbed the Gaddabouts (featuring drummer Steve Gadd, bassist Pino Palladino and guitarist Andy Fairweather-Low) and her eponymous third solo album.

On her new solo excursion, Brickell continues down the broader evolutionary path she established on Volcano, infusing her rootsy Folk Pop with an occasional jazzy undercurrent that nods in the direction of Rickie Lee Jones and Bruce Hornsby (“2 O’Clock in the Morning,” “You Come Back”) as well as a purer Pop ethic (the jaunty “Give It Another Day,” the gentle “It Takes Love”) and a flash of Harry Nilsson (“Always”). As Brickell’s expands her boundaries, she brings those new sensibilities to her standard operating procedure (“Pill,” “Been So Good”), giving old fans something to love.

Edie Brickell’s output over the past eight years has been both a welcome return to form and an interesting growth spurt. Her third solo album bodes well for that dual process.

Six years ago, on my inaugural trip to Austin for South by Southwest, I ducked into a smallish Sixth Street bar called Rockstars to investigate British Sea Power, which at the time was being hailed as the point band for the next British Invasion. With all the advance hype, the place was already packed beyond capacity and the only spot to stand even close to the dance floor was behind a column that, while allowing peripheral peeks at the stage (BSP was using camouflage netting on stage ala Echo and the Bunnymen, along with a bizarre menagerie of plastic birds), totally obscured any view of the band. Visual contact was hardly necessary, however. The music that poured out of the amps had the concussive force and the physical presence of an open fire hydrant. I only stayed for three songs but when I walked out of the club I felt like I’d just walked through an automatic car wash.

The key to BSP’s studio success is that the band drifts through a variety of familiar benchmarks without ever being any one of them alone for very long. In BSP’s world, Prog bombast from the heart of the ’70s stands alongside Shoegaze, Glam, Space Rock, Psychedelia and paisley-patterned Pop to create an eclectic and densely decorated sonic canvas exploding with color and vibrating with intensity (when they’re not experimenting their asses off, that is).

Valhalla Dancehall, BSP’s fourth full-length, pushes all those buttons while maintaining the band’s prior philosophical conceits (militaristic themes, liberal banner waving, nudge/wink leg pulling equally aimed at the industry and media), resulting in an album that bridges its stylistic gaps with the aplomb of a seasoned diplomat.

“Who’s in Control?” lurches Valhalla Dancehall into high gear with a recruiting stance that mixes the Punk vocal aesthetic of Jim Carroll with the arena-swelling Psychedelia of Echo and the Bunnymen and The Cure. Elsewhere, “Stunde Null” imagines a festival pairing of Lloyd Cole and Mott the Hoople and “Georgie Ray” evokes the balladeering of Edwyn Collins and the noisy Post Rock atmospherics of Radiohead.

Like many archly inspired artistic entity, BSP has a tendency to drone on a bit too much — “Cleaning Out the Rooms” and “Once More Now” are fairly inspiring until they pass the halfway point of their respective 7 and 11 minute lengths. But with Valhalla Dancehall, the band somehow manages the tricky wirewalk of being nearly as entertaining in its excesses as in its restraint.

With the reformation and consistent working mode of the Allman Brothers Band, there has been an increasingly narrower space in which Gregg Allman has been able to wedge in his solo career. That’s a particular shame, as Allman’s side projects have always been interesting departures from the Brothers’ Blues/Jam ethic, from the Folk/Pop lilt of 1975’s Laid Back to the Southern Pop success of 1987’s I’m No Angel and 1988’s Just Before the Bullets Fly to the formulaic Blues of 1997’s Searching for Simplicity. As the past decade and a half has played out, Allman has kept his nose to the Brothers grindstone, outside of a trio of unreleased tracks on No Stranger to the Dark, the third Allman solo hits compilation that came out nine years ago.

For his first solo album in 14 years, Low Country Blues, Allman has enlisted the able assistance of producer T Bone Burnett (who has overseen his share of these kinds of projects in the past few years) and turned his creative clock all the way back to his earliest Soul and Blues influences by covering some of his favorite artists. More importantly, the album shines an intense spotlight on Allman’s almost supernatural voice, an instrument that has often been equaled or overshadowed by the Allman Bros.’ Southern Rock tumult and is too often shamefully underwhelming on his solo albums.

On Low Country Blues, Burnett supports Allman’s vocal stratospherics with a band every bit as impressive as the Brothers — guitarist Doyle Bramhall II, upright bassist Dennis Crouch, drummer Jay Bellerose, piano legend Dr. John and trumpeter/horn arranger Darrell Leonard. Burnett allows Allman to inhabit these tracks, both classic and obscure, with the raw ferocity that he typically brings to his live presentation. As impressive as Allman is at breathing new fire into these decades-old songs from masters like Muddy Waters, Skip James, Bobby “Blue” Bland and Otis Rush, his most amazing accomplishment may be slipping a new song into the deck — “Just Another Rider,” written by Allman and longtime ABB guitarist Warren Haynes — and dealing it back out as an authentic ace that completely works with songs that predate it by 60 years.

Gregg Allman has had a great deal of success with his solo albums over the past 35 years, but Low Country Blues is the first time since his Laid Back debut that he’s had one so astonishingly good.

On The Decemberists’ last album, 2009’s sprawling and wildly eclectic The Hazards of Love, frontman Colin Meloy combined his avowed affection for Morrissey and The Smiths with a newfound appreciation for the British Folk revival of the ’60s, as embodied in the work of Anne Briggs and Nic Jones. Hazards was an astonishing concept album that expanded on the band’s existing propensity for grandiose storytelling and musical diversity. The album was an amazing achievement and earned The Decemberists a place on a number of year-end lists and their broadest exposure to date.

For their follow-up, The King is Dead, Meloy and The Decemberists wisely avoided reprising Hazards with another conceptually-based work or by attempting to mimic the album’s schizophrenic musical personality for the sake of continuity. From their self-released and indie label beginnings through their Capitol catalog, The Decemberists’ albums have succeeded as stand-alone creative statements and as singular links in a diverse but consistent musical chain.

Coming on the heels of the band’s most ambitious and well-received album to date (although 2006’s The Crane Wife can’t be far behind), the challenge for Meloy on The King is Dead is in finding the common ground with Hazards to make the new album relatable while defining and highlighting the points of departure to appease his own creative curiosity. The King is DeadKing is directed more by the genre’s American Roots/Country elements than the British troubadour Folk that informed Hazards.

Meloy also cited R.E.M. as a major force in steering the songs on King and it’s not hard to connect those dots, particularly with Peter Buck providing guitar on a handful of tunes (the transitional album opener “Don’t Carry It All,” the Murmur-tinged “Calamity Song” and the R.E.M.-tributes-Neil Young “Down by the Water,” which also features harmony vocals from Gillian Welch). There are also elements of Bruce Springsteen’s populist Roots Rock evocation of Dust Bowl Folk on the stripped back “June Hymn” and the insistent “This is Why We Fight.”

Where Meloy and the Decemberists go from here is anybody’s guess but, as it has been from the start, their journey is every bit as important as the destination.

A new album from Social Distortion is like a four-way from Skyline — a reliably good product from a recipe that hasn’t changed significantly from its beginnings. That formula remains largely intact on Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, the first new Social D album in close to seven years and its debut for Epitaph, as frontman Mike Ness continues to blend Punk energy with Roots Rock passion as an anthemic soundtrack to songs about society’s luckless and downtrodden (and the occasional outlaw) who can still find fist-pumping redemption with life’s jackboot on the back of their necks. But even as Ness and company revisit the longstanding sonic philosophy that has made them fan favorites, Hard Times also bristles with a few little adjustments that distinguish the album from the rest of Social D’s catalog.

In the long run-up to the album (it was delayed for a variety of reasons, including writing, touring and solo projects), Ness invoked a number of disparate but appropriate names in discussing the evolving Hard Times, from Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to The Grateful Dead and Johnny Thunders. Some of that talk pertained to a proposed acoustic Social D album that never materialized, but wisps of those references drift through the songs on Hard Times, from the Stonesy Rock swagger and Gospel backing vocals of “California (Hustle and Flow)” and “Can’t Take It With You” and the noirish Classic Punk/Rock set piece “Machine Gun Blues” to the Dylanesque Punk balladeering of “Bakersfield” and the adrenalized and electrified Springsteen/Cash reworking of Hank Williams’ “Alone and Forsaken.”

All of it remains firmly in context with the sound and stance that Ness has established for himself and for Social Distortion over the past three decades, from the band’s earlier hardcore Punk perspective to its eventual penchant for Rockabilly and Country. At the same time, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes shows that Ness, Social D’s constant spark plug since 1978, isn’t afraid to mix things up, at least a bit, to spice up the recipe.

The Jayhawks’ 1991 breakthrough Hollywood Town Hall and 1994 masterpiece Tomorrow the Green Grass were brilliant hints at where the Americana scene was headed and the newly expanded editions of both albums offers the purest evidence of the Minneapolis quartet’s lasting influence on the bands and sounds that were to follow. That Town Hall and Green GrassGreen Grass and its exquisite shoulda-been hit “Blue” failed to generate any significant impact, leaving Gary Louris to guide the band by his own unique light. are likely to be bigger hits in this incarnation than when they were originally released simply points up the grave injustices that The Jayhawks suffered in their own time. Co-frontman/songwriter Mark Olson departed after Green Grass and its exquisite shoulda-been hit “Blue” failed to generate any significant impact, leaving Gary Louris to guide the band by his own unique light.

Both Town Hall and Green Grass are appended with bonus tracks. “Leave No Gold” is the highlight of Town Hall’s extras, while Green Grass offers several non-LP B-sides, including the album’s title track, “Sweet Hobo Self” and a quartet of interesting archive nuggets, including the rattling Roots-and-Glam stomper “Sleep While You Can” and the Burt Bacharach-does-Roots-Pop ballad “You and I (Ba-Ba-Ba).”

Green Grass may draw a few more fans with its second disc of widely bootlegged but officially unreleased demos, a beautifully unvarnished set of familiar Jayhawks classics and rare new finds that shows The Jayhawks’ Country influences in slightly sharper relief, particularly in the plaintive twang of “Pray For Me,” the Bluegrass lilt of “Bloody Hands,” the Dylan-in-Nashville waltz of “Precious Time” and the Country Folk reel of “Poor Michael’s Boat.” But both reissues are clear justification for the long-held critical praise regarding Minnesota’s favorite Americana sons.


BRIAN BAKER can be heard Fridays at 4:30 p.m. on Class X Radio. Tune in on 88.9 FM or at classxradio.com.


 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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