Steve's July Rock Review Roundup

Asia: XXX (Frontiers)

That title's not triple-X as in porn, it's Roman numerals marking this supergroup's thirtieth anniversary (though I bet the confusion will increase this page's hits). Yup, three decades ago, "Heat of the Moment" was a massive hit. However, critics have tended to dislike Asia, either for dealing in pop rather than the glorious prog-rock of its members' previous bands -- Yes, ELP, and King Crimson -- or (if said critics are on the other side of the great divide) as dinosaurs still too proggy for naysayers in the post-punk era. Not this critic, through; I have always enjoyed John Wetton's voice, layered vocal harmonies, and melodic sense in every context, and never found Geoff Downes's keyboards and catchy songwriting/production the sacrilege that purist proggers did. 

While there are some slight production differences from thirty years ago, basically this third studio album since the original lineup (Wetton, Downes, guitarist Steve Howe, and drummer Carl Palmer) reunited in 2008 pretends nothing's changed musically from the band's heyday, and that's fine with me and probably other fans as well. However, Wetton's lyrics have changed; he's been facing down his own mortality since a 2007 heart operation. This leads to some of his best songs, ever, and it's always a pleasure to encounter heartfelt songs supporting atheism and conflict avoidance. If you still like their 1982 work, you'll thoroughly enjoy this; if not, it's your loss. (The deluxe version offers no additional songs, just a couple of song videos and a making-of doc.)

Love Camp 7: Love Camp VII (Bowlmor)

This is the most brilliantly conceived and executed concept album I've heard in a long time. All the song titles are of Beatles albums, and trace a life that frequently found inspiration, or refuge, in those albums. It also, in a sense, traces the progress of society across the years 1964-70. This could seem like just a gimmick, but even though comments about the Beatles and the albums slyly pop up, the main premise dominates. Ultimately, nothing that works as well as this album does can be called a gimmick. It launches, with "Meet the Beatles," in happy optimism, but also as a relief from something unspoken (the Kennedy assassination the previous year, of course); it ends in a metaphorical hangover with "Abbey Road." In between there is one amusing tangent -- "A Hard Day's Night" as inspiration for the Byrds -- but otherwise is quite true to its main premise. As the psychology darkens, so do the musical styles; this is not an album of Beatles pastiches, though certainly at times their style is evoked quite well -- there are even outbursts of hardcore punk in "Let It Be." This veteran Brooklyn band has made its masterpiece.

Ruby on the Vine: Along King's Highway (Gracious)

Here's another veteran: Ruby on the Vine is led by Myrna Marcarian of Human Switchboard fame (whose set Who's Landing In My Hangar? Anthology (1977-1984) was last year's most welcome reissue). If you haven't heard ROTV before, don't expect the sound of 25 years ago; Marcarian has mostly switched her focus from organ to guitar since then, though she does include keyboards on a few tracks here. Some of the early darkness still lingers in her melodies, which often remain bittersweet (the title of a song here), and her vocals are still compellingly tangy. This is ROTV's only album since its 2004 debut, but it's been well worth the wait for fans of tuneful power pop, who will especially dig the chiaroscuro opener "Walking on Water" and the rocking closer "A Little Bit of Luck." There's some variety as well, all of it welcome: the Stonesy "Drive," complete with horns; the quietly moody, hauntingly beautiful "Presby Gardens"; a couple touches of rootsier fare. Everything works; Along King's Highway is one of my favorite albums of the year so far. (Only available digitally at the moment.)

Jon Porras: Black Mesa (Thrill Jockey)

Multi-instrumentalist Porras is half of San Francisco drone band Barn Owl. Aside from some wordless, heavily treated vocals on three tracks by Alexa Hotz, Porras makes all the sounds here via electric and acoustic guitars, Fender Rhodes electric piano, harmonium, drum, cymbal, bells, and tapes. The results are beautifully dark and atmospheric. Starting with composed guitar tracks, he then improvises the rest of the sounds, citing Sandy Bull, Popol Vuh, and Neil Young as inspirations. There’s a program to the music – “an outlaw wanderer who ventures deep into the desert only to discover the Black Mesa, a bridge between worlds...the desert counterpart to David Lynch’s Black Lodge, an entrance into cavernous mystery.” There’s a certain moody similarity to Lanterna’s tremolo-heavy guitarscapes, also redolent of wide-open spaces of the West, but much more ambient , give or take the occasional coruscating electric guitar outburst. Of its type, which I’m rather fond of, it is top-notch.

Stevie Jackson: (I Can't Get No) Stevie Jackson (Banchory)

Jackson's a long-time (16 years) member of Belle & Sebastian. That's not a band I'm fond of; I find it enjoyable in small doses but cloying for the length of an album. Jackson's solo debut turns out to be far more charming than B&S, sporting wittier and less syrupy arrangements, more variety, and more light-hearted fun. Recorded in fits and starts since 2006 with a wide range of collaborators including members of not only B&S but also New Pornographers, Pastels, Trembling Bells, and The Company, it's eclectic with a retro feel that accentuates the sense of fun.

Larkin Grimm: Soul Retrieval (Bad Bitch)

One of the most interesting performers to come out of NYC’s freak-folk scene, Grimm sings with the sort of distinctively vibrant voice that used to be less surprising, a voice from an American past that’s been paved over with strip malls and obliterated by American Idol, the sort of voice that seemingly ought to be listened to on 78-RPM shellac records. With harp provided by Jesse Sparhawk, there’s an inevitable comparison to be made to Joanna Newsom, and I’d imagine that Newsom fans will enjoy Grimm, but there’s a level of folksiness here that Newsom was never that close to and has been moving further away from with every release. However, with Tony Visconti (Bowie, T.Rex, KrisTeen Young) producing, Grimm’s music has acquired a little more focus; it’s still plenty rootsy (with fiddle, mandolin, recorders, and clarinet), but less ramshackle. If I pay too much attention to the specifics of Grimm’s lyrics/liner notes/press bio, some of her New Age interests turn me off, but she can get by on sheer texture alone, and the occasional clever turn of phrase or bit of universal wisdom will shine through the words, especially when she’s being soulfully bluesy. Soul Retrieval isn’t for everyone, but don’t write it off, because it will appeal to a lot broader constituency now than just fellow freak-folkies.

Kim Richey: Little Record 1 & 2 (Lojinx)

Richey is one of the best singer-songwriters in Nashville, but not a prolific recording artist, with just six albums since her debut in 1995. I was delighted to learn of this new compilation of two EPs she made to sell on tour. Their physical (CD) versions are sold out, so the only way to hear these "acoustic versions of songs from records that are no longer available, a cover song or two, special musical guests, and some never before released material" is via download. Seven (one from Bitter Sweet, two from Rise, four from Chinese Boxes) of the ten tracks are familiar, but the arrangements here are very spare, mostly just her voice and quiet acoustic guitar, so they're different enough for fans to be happy to have them.

Dave Van Ronk: Songs for Ageing Children (Geffen)

I don't think there is a physical version of this reissue either, and if Geffen is really only reissuing it this way, that offers evidence that the major labels have finally figured out that there's money to be made in digital reissues aimed at specialists. This 1973 LP is even more eclectic than usual for Van Ronk, who for decades was a fixture of the Greenwich Village folk scene even as his repertoire transcended it. Here, for instance, though we get an impeccable if highly personalized rendition of Rev. Gary Davis's "Candy Man," an even older bit of traditional fare, "Duncan and Brady" (AKA "Been on the Job Too Long"), is played with rock-band backing, and "Work with Me Annie," a bit of proto-rock R&B, bridges that gap in a way. Then-modern songs -- Joni Mitchell's "River," Randy Newman's "Sail Away" -- rub up against such eccentric choices as "Teddy Bear's Picnic" and "My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua Hawaii." There's even a savage rendition of Brecht & Weill's "As You Make Your Bed," with Van Ronk's rough voice perfect for the material. There are two priceless Van Ronk originals, "Song for Joni" and "Last Call." Van Ronk fans will know to snatch this up; neophytes, this is an exceptionally good introduction to his warped genius. - Steve Holtje

steve-holtjeMr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer. His song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.

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