Catching Up: New Music Review Roundup

Sleepwalking_through_MekongDengue Fever: Sleepwalking through the Mekong (M80)

This is quite a set. The first disc is a DVD containing a fascinating and emotionally moving 2007 documentary of Dengue Fever's tour of its singer Chhom Nimol's native Cambodia, where the Los Angeles-based band gets to experience first-hand the music that inspired their garage-psych sound. They get to interact with native musicians and perform their own shows, but hanging over it all is the shadow of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, who killed many of the greats of '60s Cambodian rock, and the country's long, hard struggle to rebuild. Disc two is a CD with a mix of familiar Dengue Fever tracks, new material including collaborations with Tep Mary and Kong Nai and covers of Cambodian classics, and vintage records by icons Meas Samoun, Ros Serey Sothea, and Sinn Sisamouth. Dengue Fever is one of our favorite bands here at Sound Fix, and we have fond memories of their house-rocking performance in our lounge a few summers back. This package offers a thoughtful look at the cultural roots of their exuberant sound.

Akron_Family_Set_Em_WildAkron/Family: Set 'em Wild, Set 'em Free (Dead Oceans)

Everybody's favorite band-with-a-slash-in-its-name follows up the crazed masterpieces Meek Warrior and Love Is Simple with yet another spectacularly eclectic offering that careens from screaming brass (somewhere between Balkan marching band and avant-garde improv with an African feeling at times) to lo-fi piano-plus-vocals -- and that's just on one song, "Gravelly Mountains of the Moon." Elsewhere there's some harmonica so primal even Dylan might be taken aback, some chants so primal I expected spirits to appear, songs that sound finished and then kick in again, and so many bone-rattling crescendos that they could've named the album Thirteen Ways of Recycling Ravel's Bolero. Its ramshackle beauty is unparalleled by anything else in indie rock.

Naomi_SheltonNaomi Shelton & The Gospel Queens: What Have You Done, My Brother? (Daptone)

Besides being good music, this is a heartening story of perseverance finally rewarded. Shelton has been singing gospel and soul for over four-and-a-half decades, but this is her first album -- and hooray for Daptone for giving her the platform she so richly deserves. I'm not saying she's making anyone's Top Ten Gospel Singers list, but anyone who likes soul will appreciate her deft fulfillment of all the genre's expectations. Her husky voice isn't quite as gravelly as Betty LaVette's, but if you like Betty you'll like Naomi. And kudos as well to musical director Cliff Driver, whose piano playing -- along with Jim Hall's swirling organ work -- drives the music just as surely as Shelton's deeply soulful singing and the rich backing vocals of The Gospel Queens (including Daptone's star, Sharon Jones). In a time when most gospel music's slick production makes it sound like the rest of the crappy pop on the radio, What Have You Done, My Brother? delivers vastly more satisfaction by getting back to basics on six gospel classics and four penned by Daptone major domo Bosco Mann, plus a sprinkling of soul: Mann's socially conscious "Am I Asking Too Much?" and the concluding Sam Cooke cover, "A Change Is Gonna Come."

Around_the_WellIron and Wine: Around the Well (Sub Pop)

This two-CD/three-LP set compiles B-sides, rarities, and outtakes from one of the best songwriters and most charismatically intimate performers of the decade. Sam Beam's soft, highly distinctive voice and mostly acoustic, usually spare accompaniment combine for such a great sound that even his minor material is compelling. But everything he writes is superbly crafted, and there are some wonderfully transformative covers here as well: Postal Service's "Such Great Heights," of course, but also New Order's "Love Vigilantes," Flaming Lips' "Waitin' for a Superman," and Stereolab's "Peng! 33."

Melvin_GibbsMelvin Gibbs' Elevated Entity: Ancients Speak (LiveWired)

Gibbs has been an integral member of cult faves Power Tools, Ambitious Lovers, Eye & I, and Harriet Tubman. Over the past three decades he's been the bassist for Ronald Shannon Jackson & Decoding Society, Defunkt, John Zorn, Sonny Sharrock, Marc Ribot, Rollins Band, and more. So it was surprising, on receipt of this CD, to realize that it's the first released under his name. As his resume suggests, he's unconstrained by genre boundaries, and Ancients Speak is a hyphenator's paradise. There's a fair amount of rapping, all of it socially and culturally conscious. The predominant musical flavors are Brazilian, but there are no mellow sambas here; rather, funky Carnival rhythms with a hip-hop edge. Or drum-n-bass/African rhythm hybrids blended with atmospheric keyboards reminiscent of Bitches Brew. High points for me are the three tracks with squiggly, skronky guitar courtesy of the legendary Pete Cosey (Chess Records sessionman, guitarist in Miles Davis's densest '70s band), who shares space on one with P-Funk six-stringer Blackbyrd McKnight, who really cuts loose. I wish there were more of that; I wish I understood Portuguese. I wish Melvin Gibbs made albums more often.

Handsome_Family_Honey_MoonThe Handsome Family: Honey Moon (Carrot Top)

This is, surprisingly from this dark duo, an album of love songs. I was going to crack that finally they've given us an album where nobody gets murdered, but then I noticed that one of the love songs appears to be from a praying mantis to his mate as she devours him. Yes, even when the topic is love, Rennie Sparks's mordant wit can't be staunched. And as usual she twists mundane things into weirdly discomforting metaphors: chain link fence entwined by a thorn bush as an image of love; broken windshield glass as diamonds; "the loneliness of magnets." That these lyrics are sung in Brett Sparks's soothingly ordinary voice, accompanied by low-key country rock from Brett and a few sidemen, is an important aspect of the wit; it works simultaneously as sincerity and irony.

Bell_OrchestreBell Orchestre: As Seen through Windows (Arts & Crafts)

This group's frequently cited link to Arcade Fire (two members in common) might seem irrelevant considering it's an instrumental sextet including violin, French horn, and trumpet, and plays in a style related to Minimalism, but actually the majestic arc of their compositions and the grand swells of sound and emotion are on one level quite reminiscent of Arcade Fire's unabashedly anthemic songs. It's classical music with the textures and rhythms of rock (and electronica) mixed in, constructed on gradually evolving patterns. Colorful, hypnotic, and thrilling.

Six_Organs_RTZSix Organs of Admittance: RTZ (Drag City)

This two-disc set (for the price of one) reissues rare material: two splits, a subscription, a previously unreleased track, and a limited edition, ranging from 1998 to 2003. This is Ben Chasny at his most sprawling and ruminative, recording at home and often percussionless. The only track length in single figures (six minutes) is part of a 37-minute suite, "Night Trembling," which is the entirety of disc two. While not as tight and finely honed as his most recent albums, this stuff taps into primal feelings and ritualistic sensibilities that are equally rewarding, sort of an indie/low-tech Popol Vuh full of gorgeous guitar timbres, gorgeous and engrossing.

American_DollarThe American Dollar: A Memory Stream (Yesh)

The American Dollar's debut is strong -- stronger than the actual American economy is right now. As this duo of Richard Cupolo and John Emanuele makes post-rock instrumental music, comparisons to Explosions in the Sky and Godspeed You Black Emperor! are inevitable. But while similarities (anthemic riffs, the pounding intensity of EITS, the long crescendos of GYBE!) exist, there are important differences. There's a strong influence from electronica -- beats are very mechanical and often treated, and keyboards ranging from piano to synthesizers are equal to guitars in these swelling soundscapes. In a blind listening test, I could easily pick their muscular beauty out of the lineup.

Dungen_4Dungen: 4 (Kemado)

Fans of psychedelia will welcome this. It's as trippy as they've been -- some tracks belong on a Nuggets compilation! -- but often heavier than before. There are still pretty flower-power tracks such as "Ingenting Ar Sig Likt," which has a fine mix of piano and organ, but then there are songs such as "Samtidigt" (heard in two versions), featuring a monster guitar freakout from Reine Fiske. Some tracks even oscillate between these two extremes, including the instrumental "Fredag." It's a wilder ride than Tio Bitar and every bit as good as their now-classic Ta Det Lugnt.

Freak_of_ArabySir Richard Bishop: The Freak of Araby (Drag City)

Sun City Girls, yada yada, whatever. I've enjoyed every one of Bishop's solo albums a lot more than anything SCG ever did, not that he didn't make them plenty interesting at times. Though still quite eclectic, his albums are more focused and coherent; they never seem like "experiments," or a series of concepts throw at the wall to see what sticks, a feeling that SCG often exuded. The Freak of Araby is a lesser effort, a deliberately cheezy, playful pastiche of Middle Eastern exotica, seemingly a spoof. Bishop goes undercover here as Rasheed Al-Qahira, accompanied by bass guitar and two drummers; textures are spare and his electric guitar work is strongly highlighted. His twangy tone, unceasing melodic imagination, and some spiffy displays of dexterity will have guitar buffs drooling with envy. For a touch of variety at the end, he throws in a new timbre on what he calls "Moroccan Chanters," which sound like mizmars to me. Good fun.

James_Blackshaw_Glass_Bead_GameJames Blackshaw: The Glass Bead Game (Young God)

After garnering a reputation for beautiful, intricate 12-string guitar playing combining the best elements of John Fahey and Sandy Bull, English virtuoso James Blackshaw started branching out on last year's Litany of Echoes with a few short piano tracks. Here, on his first album for Young God, piano is even more prominent as he presents his densest music yet, not only because of the more resonant and wider-ranging instrument but also through more overdubbing and the contributions of Joolie Wood (violin, clarinet, flute) and John Contreras (cello). There are even some wordless vocals by Lavinia Blackwall. Blackshaw's style is moving closer to minimalism, but in a sort of thickly layered Brian Eno/Charlemagne Palestine hybrid rather than in the process-oriented Steve Reich/Phillip Glass sense. Deeply entrancing but with plenty of timbral variety, The Glass Bead Game shows Blackshaw continuing to evolve without abandoning the core of what makes his music so interesting and attractive. - Steve Holtje

Steve Holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who splits his time between editing Culturecatch.com, working at the Williamsburg record store Sound Fix, and editing cognitive neuroscience books for Oxford University Press. No prizes for guessing which pays best.

Catching up with new music

Thanks for these capsules, Steve. I have three from this list already, and reading your review of those three confirmed what I heard in them, and so, despite the death-throes of the recorded music industry, I will most likely go out and buy those others based on the fact that our tastes are scarily similar. And by that, I think it should probably scare you more than me!

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