Monday, August 31, 2009

Alla -- (digs)

Alla -- (digs)(Crammed): Although this is a Latino trio, this Chicago band doesn’t fit the classic rock en espanol mold. This is made quite evident on this cool EP, wherein the band kicks off with an original and then goes the esoteric cover route, before finishing with a Kanye West tune. In between, they interpret The Residents, Terry Riley & John Cale, Los Dug Dugs and Faust. With the slightly raspy vocals of Lupe Martinez (who reminds me a bit of Marianne Faithful, at times) leading the way, the core band members, Jorge and Angel Ledezma do some real musical exploring. The Riley & Cale composition “Church of Anthrax” is a chance for the musicians to stretch out, with the song sounding like a cross between kraut rock and free jazz. Logically, the Faust tune, “It’s a Rainy Day, Sunshine Girl”, is just plain ol’ kraut rock and the band gives it a good work out. Martinez gets in on the action on “Smog” (a Los Dug Dugs tune), which is a concise proggy rock tune in the vein of Phil Manzanera’s 801. Her rasp is insinuating on the Velvet Underground meets Wire strum-a-thon “Si Se Puede”, the original that kicks off the album. While she intones the title phrase over and over, she sings more angelically on top. Meanwhile, she gives West’s “Love Lockdown” the soulfulness and sexiness that he could never give it with his Autotuned mechanized vocals. This EP is alternately challenging and entertaining and never boring. [NOTE: I apologize that I don't have an accent on the last 'a' of Alla and no tilde on the 'n' in 'espanol.' I tried everything on Microsoft Word and couldn't get anything to work.]

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Kingsbury Manx -- Ascenseur Ouvert!

The Kingsbury Manx -- Ascenseur Ouvert! (Odessa): The Manx are a perfect Sunday morning with a cup of coffee band. They concoct mellow, melodic creations that manage to exude warmth even though the precise arrangements could lead to a more sterile sound. If I could pull out a comparison, they stake out a sound that is somewhere between the softer pop side of Pernice Brothers and the college radio perfection of Dumptruck. Or perhaps they are the J.J. Cale(s) of the 21st Century. Regardless, this is album full of subtle pleasures that unfold with repeat plays. The characteristically gentle “If You’re on the Mend, I’m on the Move” is a sublime slice of folk-pop that has roots in Simon & Garfunkel and The Kinks. In a similar vein, “The Whip & The World” has slightly strummed guitars, crisp drumming, a pillow of keyboards and a banjo making the most friendly sounds. “Minos Maze” is something else altogether, a delicate construction that features a breathtaking harmony vocal section, something the band should explore more often. And “Well Whatever” lopes along with some nifty lead guitar ornamentation and a wistful violin in the background. With the ascendancy of groups like Fleet Foxes and Blitzen Trapper, the Manx are probably more relevant now than ever. And this album is up to their high standard.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Duckworth Lewis Method -- The Duckworth Lewis Method

The Duckworth Lewis Method -- The Duckworth Lewis Method (Divine Comedy):

Roger Ebert often states in his movie reviews that it’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it. In other words, the subject matter isn’t as important as the treatment of the subject matter. Watching paint dry may be boring, but theoretically one could make a fascinating movie about watching paint dry.

With games that can take forever and a day, some have found cricket to be the sporting equivalent of watching paint dry. Yet The Duckworth Lewis Method have concocted a splendid album, with all of the songs centered around the sport loved throughout the British Empire, and nowhere else. How is this possible?

It starts with the talents involved. First, there is the ever-witty Neil Hannon of Divine Comedy. He is joined by Thomas Walsh, the man behind Pugwash. It is nearly impossible for these two to team up and not come up with clever and catchy pop songs. And the cleverness matters, since these guys have to dig cricket to make this album, but they also appreciate the absurdity of the enterprise. Thus, the two perform these songs in the most tongue-in-cheek manner possible.

Early on, the album simply espouses the joy of cricket for all people. On “The Age of Revolution”, Hannon and Walsh are speaking of people from all over taking up cricket: “kids in the valleys/bats bound together with string.” This call to bats rides over a looped horn part (that sounds like it’s from an old jazz record) and a mild funk-groove. It’s darned catchy.

But remember, this is an outdoor game and that comes through on the Village Green-ish “Gentlemen and Players”. Ray Davies would be proud of this paean to a Sunday spent playing cricket, and breaking for tea in an English garden. Hannon’s harpsichord (!) adds to the stately flavor, as he shows where he stands in this class war...or rather, match: “to enhance the gentry’s chances/they were granted the advantage of an extra stump/but they still couldn’t hit a barn door.”

Once the boys establish the democratic nature of their favorite sport, it’s time to get down to more arcane matters. Whether it’s the bouncy ‘70s rock vibe of “Test Match Special”, an ode to cricket matches between two countries (and only a handful can play test matches) that go on for days, or the Brit-pop perfection of “Meeting Mr. Miandad”, where they fantasize about meeting the Pakistani cricket legend (“it’s our historical phantasmagorical destiny”), they are spot on.

They are especially spot on with “Sweet Spot”. Over a cracking good glam rock drum beat, Hannon and Walsh concoct what is likely the best ever ‘cricket as a metaphor for performing oral sex on a woman’ song ever made. Or at least one of the top five: “I’m down on my knees just to please you all the time/when I hit the sweet spot I see it in your eyes.” Yes, it’s juvenile, but juvenile + cricket = fun!

These are just some of the highlights. There’s also veddy proper piano hi-jinx of “Jiggery Pokery” and appropriately pastoral “Flatten the Hay”. There’s not a googly in the bunch.

For some reason, this album has taken a beating in the British press. Yes, there are no musical breakthroughs here, but the popcraft is exceptional. Maybe they just don’t like cricket. So what. If love cricket, you should dig this. If you don’t care or can’t stand it, it is way more fun.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Wilco -- Wilco (the album)

Wilco -- Wilco (the album) (Nonesuch)

The follow up to Sky Blue Sky finds Wilco maturing into a comfortable sound, with Jeff Tweedy continuing to spin out excellent retro-‘70s FM rock and pop, played with expertise. A song here or there gives a nod to the band’s experimental bent, but more often, the muso tendency is subjugated to serve the songs.

While somewhat underwhelming on the first couple of spins, further plays reveal that Wilco has come up with a darned good album, a mix of whimsy, experimentation and heartfelt sentiments. It breaks no new ground, but has plenty of songs that are hard to shake.

One of those songs is a tune that requires careful listening to the lyrics. “I’ll Fight” is a mid-tempo acoustic driven song with a simple, passionate refrain, as Tweedy declares how he’ll go, fight, kill and die for someone. On the surface, the song sounds like a love song of extreme devotion. But listen more carefully, and you realize that Tweedy is literally fighting and killing -- he’s a soldier who is taking the place of someone else. He notes he “won’t regret the fairness of our trade....for you to live, I took your place.” This was a common practice back in the day, where someone with enough money could pay for someone else to go to war for them (President Grover Cleveland did so to avoid serving in the Civil War). This is a powerful track.

“Bull Black Nova” is equally powerful, but more direct, yet artier. This is prog Wilco, a song centering on a tense lockstep rhythm which periodically releases into some jazzy guitar riffing. The band plays with intensity and precision, building tension and releasing while Tweedy sings of a fugitive, with blood on his hands and everywhere else. The music perfectly fits the atmosphere and confusion of someone on the run. This is an instant classic.

Elsewhere, the band is more tender and playful. For a good example of the band’s playful side, just hit play and listen to “Wilco (the song)”. The song is driven by Mikael Jorgensen’s keyboards as Tweedy stretches a winsome melody over a tight and vibrant rhythm that bounces up and down. Meanwhile, Tweedy assures listeners that no matter how bad things get, that they can put on their headphones and “Wilco will love you baby.” This is a 21st Century update of Lou Reed’s “Turn to Me”.

Meanwhile, the band gets sly on what seems to be a romantic romp on “You And I”. With Leslie Feist providing supporting vocals, the acoustic music is aw-shucks ‘70s pop love. But Tweedy is effectively declaring intimacy unnecessary: “Oh, I don’t want you to know/and you don’t need to know/that much about me.” I don’t know if therapists will approve of this.

This stands in contrast to the powerful album closer, “Everlasting Everything”. Tweedy’s voice is front and center, backed by just a piano. Tweedy simply observes that everything must die or fall apart. But his love will last forever, “or nothing could mean anything at all.” The languid verses are offset by the quick rush of the chorus, which is extremely effective.

The worst that can be said about this album is that it doesn’t have any unifying musical or lyrical theme. Putting that aside, Tweedy is still writing exceptional songs and this band is by far the best vehicle to put them across. Wilco = essential.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Micachu -- Jewellery

Micachu -- Jewellery (Rough Trade)

For a youngster, Mica Levi has mastered both simplicity and complexity. Her debut album, featuring back up on some tracks from her band, The Shapes, is a terrific collection of post-punk pop. Her androgynous boyish vocals navigate through oddball rhythms, her own guitar scratchings and some surprisingly compelling melodies.

What I like most about this album is that I don’t think Mica ever slavishly rips off any particularly artist. It’s almost like she transfused Simon Reynolds’ Rip It Up And Start Again into her bloodstream and found a way to reconfigure a slew of old but not overused ideas.

Her quirky guitar playing and strong sense of rhythm drive most of her compositions. That sense of rhythm can be naughty or nice.

It’s quite nice on the single “Golden Phone”, which thrums along on a skipping beat with melodic harmony vocals and Casio beeps easing the groove along. This is a quirky summer song with a few wrinkles.

But the rhythms get a bit trickier on “Lips”, a full band effort which sounds like a twinkier version of The Fall’s psychobilly workouts. Mica plays some skittering guitar leads, while the Shapes pound out an infectious quirkbeat.

On “Just on Case”, the song is structured around a cacophony of strumming guitars, the ebb and flow of the rhythm giving the song a sense of rushing from out of nowhere. Mica uses dynamics effectively, with the music quieting down in spots for her to toss off some phrases like “I won’t have sex/’cos of STDs” that really grab the ear. There’s even a bit of a funk work out that crops up, sounding like a cuddlier Minutemen caught in a loop.

This is followed by perhaps the catchiest number on the album, “Calculator”. A Mica strum opens up into a playful tune. The simple melody is again enhanced by dynamics -- the band stops, the band kicks in, stops, kicks in and so forth. There’s a nifty middle eight where Mica’s guitar almost sounds like a ukelele.

Mica keeps the album moving, and the songs don’t overstay their welcome. In the tradition of Wire, every song has about all it needs and when the basic ideas have been exploited to maximum effect, the song ends.

This is simply a dazzling debut from an exciting new talent. I can hear bits of early XTC, The Cure, Scritti Politti, The Fall and others, but never to the point where the reference points overwhelm the tunes. This is because Mica, with her voice and guitar playing, keeps her personality front and center.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Peter Holsapple & Chris Stamey -- Here And Now

Peter Holsapple & Chris Stamey -- Here And Now (Bar None)

It was a few years ago that The dB’s reunited and played a smattering of shows, promising an album in the future. That promise has yet to be realized, but the appearance of this album from the band’s two songwriters, is a pretty nice stop gap.

The first Holsapple & Stamey album, 1990's Mavericks, is a minor pop classic, and this album can’t quite approach that standard. But with two pop masters like these guys, there are some real gems.

One of those gems is a cover. The duo takes on Family’s “My Friend the Sun” on the first track, and it sets the tone for the album. Holsapple’s reedy voice radiates optimism on an album that is distinguished by its general good cheer. The whole point of the song is that even though the sun is “well on the run/he’s there in the distance/if you care to see,” i.e., things will get better, just keep your head up.

The songs whipped up by Stamey and Holsapple generally follow this theme, celebrating the big and little things in life. For example, Holsapple sings an ode to the dynamics of a loving relationship on “Early in the Morning”. Over a gentle mid-tempo jangle, Holsapple expresses his devotion by promising to make coffee for his love, letting her sleep in. After all, he can’t sleep well, so why not? I’m not sure if Branford Marsalis’ saxophone accompaniment adds much, but this is a sweet (and perhaps, for some, too cute) love song.

Stamey goes even further with “Broken Record”, a song of incredible beauty. This song is a slow burner with Stamey providing jazz guitar undertones in spots. Stamey, in his signature warble, sings, “Let me be your broken record/let me be your favorite song/let me be your broken record/the one we play all night long.” This song is achingly romantic, with Stamey cataloging the different songs or artists who might provide that special song. It’s a simple metaphor, executed to perfection.

Devotion is one of the primary topics on this record, as further illustrated by “Broken Record”’s companion, “Santa Monica”. Here, Stamey expresses his desire to “hang around with you/until my life is through.” The music here has a real weight to it, as both Stamey and Holsapple are clearly emotionally connected to the sentiments expressed therein.

Holsapple’s take on true love is bouncier and more clever, though no less heartfelt. On “Some Other Part”, a strummy acoustic number with just a hint of twang, Holsapple tries to create a love equation: “Half of me/is also carbon based/then there is that other half/since I’m so good at math/that means you owed me/some other parts.” This song comes from the same place as dB’s classics like “Love Is For Lovers” with just a little bit more of a laid back vibe.

In addition to the unity of mood and theme, these songs are better suited for the duo format than The dB’s. To put it another way, this doesn’t rock or power pop too much. And I don’t have a problem with that.

This album is not quite as strong as Mavericks, as it simply isn’t quite as good song for song. There’s one clunker, Holsapple’s “Widescreen World”, a lightweight mix of power pop and The Rascals that is just a bit too trifling, and a few other songs that aren’t too memorable.

But the album ends really strong. “To Be Loved” is a lovely ballad, with Stamey and Holsapple harmonizing over spare backing, including a pedal steel guitar that provides just the right amount of color. Stamey takes the lead in the verses and the simple lyrics give this the sound of a standard from decades ago.

Meanwhile, Stamey’s “Tape Op Blues” is a chuckle-worthy account of a recording session. Stamey tells the familiar story of an up-and-coming band who blow their advance and confidence while getting their first album done: “The first few weeks went swimmingly/we fired the drummer/and drank coffee/the basic tracks went like a knife through butter.”

It’s a light note on which to end an album that radiates so many good vibrations.