End of Summer Review Roundup

tricky_knowle_west_boyI suppose I should have a clever theme to tie all these together, but the best I can do is that with one exception they’re all recent and I like them all (and I stick to popular genres -- no classical, jazz, blues, etc.). First up are six new releases, followed by one that’s two years old, followed by five reissues.

Tricky: Knowle West Boy (Domino)

Tricky's first album in five years, and his best in ten, or maybe even since Pre-Millennium Tension in 1996, is occasionally a return to his Maxinquaye/PMT style and definitely their mood, though the first track is as drastic a departure from any of his previous styles as you could imagine: jazzy, cool, laid-back. Odder than that is his cover of Kylie Minogue's "Slow," which he mumbles and growls through in presumably ironic fashion. Otherwise, this is as overtly autobiographical as Tricky has been on record. On the break-up song "Past Mistake" this goes one step further: it’s sung with Lubna, the French Moroccan woman he's making ex. She is one of the female voices he uses here as counterpoint where he used to use Martina; most notable is Italian chanteuse Veronika Coassolo, who even gets a song titled with her first name. Bernard Butler co-produces (which he might be more famous for at this point than his tenure in Suede), and between whatever his input was and Tricky stepping up his game for the first time in a decade (and focusing less on American hip-hop), this is a small masterpiece.

patti_smith_coral_seaPatti Smith/Kevin Shields: The Coral Sea (Pask)

This meeting of punk icon Smith and My Bloody Valentine mastermind Shields is an epic celebration of Smith’s friend Robert Mapplethorpe, the controversial photographer who was her roommate in her early years in New York. After he died of AIDS in 1989, she eulogized him with a long poem cycle, The Coral Sea, by turns ecstatic and heart-rending. As she writes in the liner notes to this two-CD set, “I had tried to read it publicly, but could never sustain reading the entire piece. Performing with Kevin Shields gave me an all-encompassing landscape on which I could explore the emotions that drove me to write it.” Mostly she reads, occasionally she sings; sometimes she sounds like she’s about to cry. Shields accompanies her with sustained electric guitar tones, sounding at times like an organ. Some people might think that two CDs of an emotionally draining poetry reading lacking melodies or beats couldn’t rock, but believe me, even though you won’t dance to this, its utterly transfixing catharsis will rock your soul.

shearwater_rookShearwater: Rook (Matador)

For a project that started seven years ago as a one-off collaboration between Okkervil River's Will Sheff and Jonathan Meiburg (who soon joined Okkervil River), Shearwater has displayed not only much more staying power than expected, but also considerably more growth. With Sheff departed, it’s Meiburg’s baby now, this being the second album on which he’s written all the songs, and his songwriting, arranging, and producing have all stepped up, with much greater clarity in the sound. The chamber music arrangements here, which occasionally blossom into anthemic crescendos, include at various times brass, glockenspiel, strings, and clarinet. Quiet moments suggest a hybrid of Astral Weeks, Sufjan Stevens, and Rachel’s, while the droning, dissonant, scraping instrumental “South Col” suggesting more avant-garde modernists as well. Meiburg’s singing is frequently compared to Tim Buckley’s and son Jeff Buckley’s; while there’s certainly merit to that when he’s using his falsetto, his full-voice timbre (and parts of his higher range) reminds me of Dan Wilson (Trip Shakespeare, Semisonic), whose bands had a similar command of quirky arrangements and bold dynamics. That said, this is an emotionally rich, profoundly beautiful, mostly contemplative but occasionally rousing record that – despite all those comparisons I just flung about – sounds quite distinctive.

sam_phillips_dont_do_anythingSam Phillips: Don’t Do Anything (Nonesuch)

If anyone thought that Phillips’s divorce from T Bone Burnett, producer of all of her albums from 1987 through 2004, would result in an inferior record, this disc triumphantly nixes that misconception. But self-producing did slightly shift her sound into grittier and darker territory. There’s lots of fuzztone guitar and thudding drums, and even when there’s a string quartet, it’s not a shiny song along the lines of her classic '90s albums, but instead distorted (“Don’t Do Anything”) or stark (“Signal”). The sound fits the grim lyrics; this is clearly a breakup album -- the very first words we hear are, “I thought if he understood he wouldn’t treat me this way.” Later on she sings, “Everything used to make me smile / Then you went away / Did you ever love me?” There’s plenty more along those lines, but Phillips also reveals a deeper discontent later in the record that suggests a level of despair and dissatisfaction with this world that any relationship would be hard put to overcome. That said, when even the darkest lyrics are sung to such catchy melodies, and in Phillips’s eternally alluring voice, the effect is transcendent.

wovenhand_ten_stonesWovenhand: Ten Stones (Sounds Familyre)

This rocks a lot harder than the previous Wovenhand album. The presence of Serena Maneesh guitarist Emil Nikolaisen has a lot to do with that; some tracks are firestorms of electric guitar. But there are also some acoustic tracks, occasionally with that hint of the medieval that made Mosaic so special. Leader David Eugene Edwards is joined as usual by drummer Ordy Garrison, while Edwards’s 16 Horsepower bandmate Pascal Humbert pitches in with electric and acoustic bass. The co-production by Daniel Smith of Danielson is crystal clear; even the mysteriously murky moments are finely detailed in their textures. An imaginative arrangement of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” finds unexpectedly gothy shadows in the bossa nova classic. With no new studio albums in the past six years from 16 Horsepower, and five Wovenhand albums in that time, clearly Edwards is putting all of his creative energy into what seemed at first like a side project, but instead has turned into one of the most original bands on the indie landscape.

benga_afro_warriorBenga: Diary of an Afro Warrior (Tempa)

Unlike a lot of popular electronic genres, dubstep seems to allow lots of leeway for dark eccentricity, including more intricate and less steady beats. The three greats of Dubstep -- Burial, Skream, and Benga -- all regularly throw in moments of neck-snapping WTFness, syncopations so extreme that they nearly stop the rhythm dead, an effect that’s actually more propulsive than a steady 4/4. This means that dubstep albums work better than most underground electronica CDs because the tracks don’t all sound the same. (Oh, and unlike its brother genre grime, there’s no crappy annoying MCs). Benga’s 12" collaboration with Coki, “Night,” included here, was supposedly the first dubstep record played on BBC Radio 1 (another outstanding 2007 12”, “Crunked Up,” is also here). Benga uses far fewer vocals than Burial, mostly on the second half of the CD, but with a considerable amount of imagination and variety, the shiny darkness here holds up to frequent listening. The triple-vinyl version has five tracks not on the CD.

blue_eyed_black_hatter_madBlue Eyed Black: Hatter Mad (Bad Pressings)

Culture Catch’s own Rob Cochrane penned the lyrics for this 2006 self-release, with Steve Hywyn writing the music and singing breathily (his timbre in more forceful moments resembling early Peter Gabriel), accompanied by a shifting cast. Though lots of people play, it’s usually only a few at once, usually acoustic and frequently. Even most of the tracks with drums have a profoundly intimate impact. Cochrane’s lyrics focus most often on the attempt to find meaning in life and make connections, and for once rock lyrics really are poetry. His sensibility is deeply English and influenced by Nick Drake and others of his ilk who may be less remembered by the masses but are no less loved by devotees. Speaking of whom, English folk-rock legend Bill Fay selected the songs from Cochrane and Hywyn’s considerable repertoire and wrote liner notes. Fay mentions, “I’ve heard some of their newer songs which [it] seemed should be included also but the mastering had already been completed,” so I eagerly look forward to more gems from Blue Eyed Black.

mars_complete_studioMars: The Complete Studio Recordings NYC 1977-1978 (No More)

It’s hard to believe it’s 30 years since Brian Eno recorded No New York. It’s even more unbelievable how long that seminal collection has been out of print. But with No More Records doing for Mars what it did so splendidly for DNA four years ago, once again all the pieces of No New York have reappeared on CDs compiling the LP’s four bands’ work. Mars may be the least known of them, but was certainly not musically inferior, and has hardly been neglected. In fact, the 11 studio tracks here – the “3E”/“11000 Volts” seven-inch, the four tracks from No New York, and the Mars EP – have been reissued on several occasions, but even if you have an earlier compilation, this is a worthy investment. The master tape for the EP suffered water damage, but this time out a newly found cassette dub of the pre-damaged master has been used, offering much-improved sound. And where the Atavistic compilation last decade found Jim Thirlwell (Foetus) reprocessing most of the tracks, this disc returns to Mars’ preferred hands-off policy. It is somewhat short measure, so it’s easy to criticize this disc for not also including the live material on the Atavistic CD. But for 32 minutes of the purest No Wave ever released, look no further.

wizards_from_kansasWizards from Kansas: Wizards from Kansas (Phoenix)

This Midwestern group combined country-rock and West Coast psych-rock, obvious influences being Jefferson Airplane (even though the Wizards are all guys, somebody sounds like Grace Slick in the harmony vocals – presumably bassist Robert Joseph Menadier, whose credits include “Vocal Grace”), Quicksilver Messenger Service, and the Grateful Dead, but without these earlier groups’ failed experiments and extravagant indulgences. This excellent 1970 LP, originally on Mercury, was their only album, since the band broke up between the recording and its release. That doomed it commercially, since there was no band to promote it on the road, but lovers of psychedelia have treasured it ever since. "She Rides With Witches" can stand among the best psych ever, the cover of period folk-psych classic "High Flying Bird" has a calm grandeur, and the lengthy cover of Buffy Sainte-Marie's "Codine" is also excellent.

yellow_handYellow Hand: Yellow Hand (Fallout)

Another 1970 country-psych rarity (originally on Capitol), sounding quite different – much poppier and more upbeat. It’s distinguished by the presence of six songs written by Neil Young and Steven Stills during their Buffalo Springfield period. Only Young’s “Down to the Wire” is familiar. Stills’s “Neighbor Don’t You Worry,” “Come On,” “Hello I’ve Returned,” and “We’ll See” had been heard nowhere but here until demos were released in 2001’s Springfield box set. And Young’s “Sell Out” remains available only here (not counting bootlegs). Lead vocalist Jerry Tawney contributes the only originals; Delaney Bramlett and Mac Davis’s “God Knows I Love You” rounds out the program and is one of its highlights. Good vocal harmonies (four of the six members sing) and some nice period guitar from Pat Flynn provide pop/rock balance. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s quite enjoyable for fans of the genre.

victor_uwaifoSir Victor Uwaifo: Guitar-Boy Superstar 1970-76 (Soundway)

Uwaifo is one of the greats of Nigerian music. This 19-track compilation of album cuts and singles focuses on the highlife sub-genre he invented, Akwete, a rhythmic embodiment of his synesthesia, and his subsequent hybrid based on the Ekassa rhythm that he took from a traditional coronation dance. This is only a small portion of his career, which after some dues-paying found him first recording as a leader in 1963. It’s unfortunate that his early hits “Joromi” (1965, first gold record to come from Africa) and “Guitar Boy” (1967) are from before the period focused on by this disc (try tracking them down on the 2002 Premier compilation Greatest Hits vol. 1), but it’s impossible to complain about what is heard on this disc’s 75 minutes. Everything’s funky in a happy/mellow rather than hard-driven way; the occasional bit of psychedelic-influenced strangeness adds a frisson of culture-clash. The booklet includes an informative review of Uwaifo’s career and his own synopsis of each track. Besides the expected CD, there is also a limited edition two-LP version.

in_kraut_volume_3Various Artists: The In-Kraut Vol. 3 (Marina)

Who knew that a series of compilations of ‘60s/’70s German (and Austrian and Swiss) soul and psych, closing with this humdinger, would be so much fun? Sure, with the brassy arrangements and occasional bad accents (and more than occasional bad lyrics), not to mention a few tracks that sound like bad trips (Peter Thomas Sound Orchestra’s insane “The World Is Gone” prime among them) there’s enough kitsch here overwhelm even the most committed ironist. But once the listener’s done giggling, there are two big surprises: how awesome the grooves are (who knew German drummers were so funky?) and how good everything sounds (German engineering, ya gotta love it). Every Day-Glo drumbeat and Technicolor trumpet is crystal-clear. The covers range from gloriously goofy (“Whole Lotta Love”) to actually fairly straight (an effective “The Beat Goes On”) to amusingly lame (Katja Ebstein’s “A Hard Day’s Night” with the gender changed ridiculously, making the singer seem like a total heartless gold digger), but hard as it might be to imagine, the originals are even stranger. The Hazy Osterwald Sextet’s “The Call” is downright surreal, Adam & Eve’s “The Witch” is psychedelic. But it’s the grooves that make me take this whole thing seriously, and I keep coming back to the set-phaser-on-freaky instrumental “Hipguard” by the aptly named trio Acid, a 1972 funk workout that ANY deejay would be happy to play. Oh, and when a guy named Ingfried Hoffmann contributes a track titled “Stroke It” to a 1969 compilation called The Greatest Organ Players, that pretty much speaks for itself, right? This disc is so over the top, it’s irresistible. - 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.

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