The air seems sweeter here in the front of the website, the sun a little brighter and the deadlines a little more immediate, but as Uncle Ben once reminded Peter Parker, with great power comes great responsibility. So here we are in relatively short order with a batch of new reviews and a few more older titles in my continuing quest to revisit the deserving releases from the not-so-waning months of 2011. We’re getting there, slowly but surely. Read them while they’re hot; there’s more where they came from.
After a trio of relatively acclaimed albums — particularly 2005’s Back to Me, which spawned a clutch of great soundtrack songs and a pair of Juno nominations — Kathleen Edwards must realize that she’s found her niche. Her penchant for observing gritty little slices of life, setting those quirkily universal stories to a brilliantly melancholy melody and delivering the package in a contemporary Folk/Americana atmosphere accompanied by her tremulous north-of-the-border Suzanne Vega-tinged voice has garnered her a fiercely loyal audience and a press kit packed with confidence-boosting reviews.
Given all that, Edwards didn’t need to tweak her presentation on Voyageur, her fourth full-length, and while she and co-producer/Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon don’t stray impossibly far from her core sound, they do inject interesting new textures into the proceedings. There are moments that lilt with Edwards’ standard shimmering beauty (“Empty Threat,” “House Full of Empty Rooms”), others that bristle with Crazy Horse intensity (“Mint”) and still others with haunting crystalline filligrees that cling to her songs like frost on a windowpane (“Chameleon/Comedian,” “A Soft Place to Land,” the noisily quiet seven-minute closer “For the Record”).
As always, Edwards laces it all together with lyrics that are incisive, revealing and heartbreakingly true (“You don’t kiss me not the way that I wish you would/Maybe I don’t look at you in a way that makes you think you should/So I been thinking about how it’s gonna be, years of giving up your dreams”), the difference being that she turns her focus inward this time, particularly in the wake of her divorce from husband/collaborator Colin Cripps and her new relationship with Vernon.
There was never any doubt about Voyageur’s potential goodness, but with Vernon’s able assistance, Kathleen Edwards has achieved greatness.
Who says guys don’t like soap operas? Biohazard’s long-running story line comes front-loaded with its own hyper Punk/Metal soundtrack and features elements that would sound fictional if they weren’t true. Launched in Brooklyn a quarter century ago, Biohazard were tagged as a fascist band (even though half the group was Jewish), had to be sneaked into clubs to play because promoters wouldn’t book them due to violence concerns and saw their barely publicized first album bomb and their sophomore album, Urban Discipline, notch platinum numbers.
Generally credited with being among the first Hardcore/Metal bands to introduce Hip Hop into their sonic mix, Biohazard has rotated members for reasons both banal and dramatic (they broke up in 2006 and reformed in 2008), but the core lineup of Billy Graziadei, Danny Schuler and Bobby Hambel has remained relatively intact, even through various side projects and periodic breaks. Evan Seinfeld has provided the most colorful copy, pursuing an acting career both legit (Oz) and not so much (porn), while playing in a variety of outside groups.The most recent headline also belongs to Seinfeld; Biohazard’s original lineup began playing shows in 2008 and working on the new material that would become Reborn in Defiance, but before its release, Seinfeld once again broke ranks, leaving his bandmates to audition new vocalists.
Reborn in Defiance finds Biohazard returning to the classic Hardcore/Metal stance of its early work, continuing the direction of 2003’s Kill or Be Killed and 2005’s snake-bitten Means to an End. “Vengence is Mine” is indicative of the whole; grinding buzzsaw guitars from Graziadei and Hambel, double clutched hammer-and-tong drumming from Schuler and my-fist-your-face vocal shredding and pummeling bass from the now absent Seinfeld.
The good news is that Seinfeld is not so indelibly unique in his role as to be irreplaceable, but it would have been nice to see him on at least one tour of this material that nicely hearkens back to Biohazard’s glory days.
Just when you think Robert Pollard has no surprises left beyond finding new ways to refract his adoration of the Who through his prismatic lyrical and musical absurdism and establishing new benchmarks for how many releases he can pound out in a calendar year, the Dayton duke of Pop reconvenes the classic lineup of Guided By Voices and concocts Let’s Go Eat the Factory, a return to the band’s lo-fi roots and the first recording with this roll call since 1996’s Under the Bushes, Under the Stars.
Reaction to Let’s Go Eat is likely to be predictably split between the naysayers who are simply exhausted by Pollard’s output (well, he has churned out nearly three dozen albums since shuttering GBV in 2004) and those of us who welcome each release like the denizens of Cheers greeted Norm Peterson.
Reuniting with Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, Greg Demos and Kevin Fennell has clearly energized Pollard in the studio. To be sure, GBV was always the group extension of Pollard’s creative mania and while Let’s Go Eat doesn’t necessarily color very far outside of Pollard’s solo lines, there is a band-of-brothers feeling about the new album. The album finds Pollard painting on a slightly more varied sonic canvas than his recent solo work, from the noisy Psych Pop clatter of “The Big Hat and Toy Show” and the Pop/Punk actualization of his Townshend fixation on “The Unsinkable Fats Domino” to the Doors-via-’60s-Pop quietude of Sprout‘s “Who Invented the Sun” and the Psych fuzz shimmer and slam of “Imperial Racehorsing” and “How I Met My Mother.”
Let’s Go Eat fairly well hums with a sense of rejuvenation as Pollard taps into the four-track verve of GBV’s earliest excursions (particularly on the acid-washed interludes provided by Sprout on “The Things That Never Need” and “Old Bones”), effectively combining it with the mountain of experience he’s amassed over the past two decades. There’s no telling how long this restored version of GBV will remain intact, but Let’s Go Eat the Factory is the potent physical evidence that its resurrection was real. We can only hope that it will survive to record again — given Pollard’s prolific methodology, perhaps several times over the next six months.
Justin Robinson is a clear example of someone who has
made rampant ADD work to his benefit. He’s returned to college to study
forestry, he’s created and marketed a line of frozen yogurt, he’s an
accomplished embroiderer and for five years he was one-third of the
acclaimed Carolina Chocolate Drops, the champions of early 20th century
African-American string-band Bluegrass which earned a 2010 Grammy for the sterling Genuine Negro Jig album.
But Robinson was raised with a love of R&B, Classic Rock and Country and he acquired a passion for Hip Hop, tired of the relatively singular direction of the CCD and broke off to form The Mary Annettes, a group that allows him to do what he does best, which is to explore a dozen genres simultaneously.
Using the early Americana instrumental trappings of the CCD, Robinson
and the Mary Annettes use Bones For Tinder, their debut full-length and
follow-up to the Precious Blood EP, to touch on dusty and portentous
Folk/Pop (“Nemesis Like Me”), Tin Pan Alley novelty (“Thank You Mr.
Wright”), classically-tinged Chamber Pop (“Butcher Bird”), moody
Appalachian melody (“Bonfire”), hillbilly Blues (“Devil’s Teeth”) and
haunting banjo Pop (“The Phil Spectors”), an eclectic musical grouping.
Robinson sings with the artful nonchalance and casual energy of David
Byrne in the service of songs that in other hands might have come off as
scattered and disconnected if not for Robinson’s obvious love for every
musical style he and the Mary Annettes (pardon the pun) string
together on the disparate mixtape brilliance of Bones For
Eleven years might seem like an inordinately long gap between releases, but given the fact that Jeff Bridges has been rather preoccupied making some of the greatest and most enjoyable movies in recent memory during that time (The Contender, Seabiscuit, The Amateurs, Iron Man, his Oscar-winning role as Bad Blake in Crazy Heart and his Oscar-nominated turn as Rooster Cogburn in the Coen brothers retooling of True Grit, among many others) should earn him a pass concerning his musical pursuits. Bridges was more interested in music as a teenager, learning guitar and organizing a mid-week jam session that he maintained for a decade and a half. He hesitantly went into the family acting business with father Lloyd Bridges and older brother Beau; perhaps that reticence and his effortless style are the qualities that inspired The New Yorker to cite him as “the best actor alive.”
Bridges probably won’t get those kind of accolades for his musical output, at least partly because of the bias against actors with guitars. His 2000 debut, Be Here Soon, co-produced by Michael McDonald, was a more Pop-based affair, but his eponymous sophomore album is steered by his work in Crazy Heart and the atmospheric production of Americana icon T Bone Burnette.
The album jumps to life with a spirited cover of Stephen Bruton’s shambling “What a Little Bit of Love Can Do,” then settles into a languid groove that rarely rises above a shuffle, from the ephemeral delicacy of “Falling Short” and the Tom Waits textures of “Tumbling Vine” (both penned by Bridges), to the slow regret of Bruton’s “Nothing Yet,” the bluesy twang of Greg Brown’s “Blue Ca,” and the reverbed sway of John Goodwin’s “Maybe I Missed the Point.”
An argument could be made that Bridges could have injected a shade more vigor into his song choices and picked up the pace on Jeff Bridges, but there’s an equal case to be made for the album’s quiet elegance, ruminative waltz-like arrangements and weary sweetness with the subtle kick of dark buckwheat honey.
The past decade should be footnoted as the era of the musical drummer. And Darren Jessee could be the period’s poster child.
After co-writing the Ben Folds Five’s biggest hits (“Brick,” “Song for the Dumped”), Jessee responded to their dissolution by forming Hotel Lights and moving to the front of the stage, where he clearly belongs. Hotel Lights’ eponymous 2006 debut and 2008’s Firecracker People were minor masterpieces of quietly beautiful and achingly melancholy bedroom Pop, but Girl Graffiti finds Jessee and his crack band in brilliant form, bridging the distance between Wilco’s scuffed but epic Roots Rock and Baroque Pop head trips (“Headboards and Aspirin,” the title track) and eels’ twisted basement Pop explorations (“Through the Crowd,” “Dave Sharkey to the Dance Floor,” “All My Asshole Friends”).
With a delicately powerful sense of songcraft and a melodic gift as addictive as crack, Jessee and Hotel Lights seem prepared to match The Shins and New Pornographers in the unbroken-string-of-great-releases category
What if the Bangles had been more influenced by the Folk revival and the girl group scene of the ’60s than the British Invasion? That seems to be the answer to an unasked question on the debut release from The Bandana Splits, Mister Sam Presents the Bandana Splits.
Adapting their name from the live-action cartoon Pop group from the ’60s, the New York City-based trio (featuring Annie Nero, Lauren Balthrop and erstwhile Hem guitarist/vocalist Dawn Landes) takes a lo-fi Folk/Pop approach to their energetic originals and appropriate covers that suggest the Roches translating the Ronettes, with the Bangles’ irrepressible sense of melodicism and a ’60s Folk naivete lending an element of unvarnished charm.
“Desert Love” mixes a quasi-Middle Eastern melody with a typical ’60s Folk bongo-percussion treatment and atypical fuzz guitar accompaniment, while their spin on The Caravelles’ “You Don’t Have to Be a Baby to Cry” and their own “Sometimes” work a more recognizable ’60s Pop corner, the former with a Hawaiian surf motif (referenced on the a capella Bette Midler staple, “Hawaiian Love Song”), the latter tapping into Phil Spector’s musical ethic without the bombastic wall of reverb.
The Bandana Splits veer sweetly between these various directions to give Mister Sam Presents... a wonderfully fresh spin to some relatively well-worn musical paths, crafting a sound that manages to bridge the gap between retro cool and modern heat.