Steve Wilson. On music.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Aloe Blacc - Good Things

(Stones Throw)

Panamanian born Aloe Blacc brings the skills he developed as a rapper
(a decade in the hip-hop duo Emanon) to his second record as a neo/retro
soul singer on the Stones Throw label, and the results are splendid. His
vocal influences range from Marvin Gaye to Gil Scott-Heron, but over the
course of Good Things Blacc asserts his own soul vision. He may not have
the chops of Marvin, but he’s a soulful, supple singer whose hip-hop informed
phrasing gives him a clear identity.

The production by the Stones Throw crew evokes old school, Seventies soul
music, but it’s fresh enough to sound totally contemporary. Leon
Michels, on keys, guitar and sax, knows his Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye
(What’s Goin’ On), and Charles Wright and the 103rd Street Rhythm band -
bringing the funk and enhancing the songs. Nick Movshon’s bass playing is an
encyclopedia of soul and funk bass, endlessly inventive, moving the songs,
sometimes stealing the show by not trying to steal the show.

Blacc’s songs honor his heritage while extending it. If the catchy, arresting
capitalist critique ‘I Need a Dollar’ isn’t an anthem for these times, I don’t
know what is. And “Life So Hard,” with its There’s a Riot Goin’ On vibe isn’t
far behind. Blacc shows his stylistic range with a knowing, nuanced take on
Lou Reed’s ‘Femme Fatale.’ His ‘Mama Hold My Hand’ echoes both Bill Withers and 2Pac, while standing confidently in their esteemed company.

There’s a not so quiet revolution going on in contemporary rhythm ‘n’ blues.
Singers as diverse as Raphael Saadiq and Eli ‘Paperboy’ Reed, or Mayer
Hawthorne and John Legend are going to the well of classic soul and drawing
waters of melody, invention and humanity that are bringing a genre thirsting for real human emotion back to life. Good Things absolutely lives up to its name; it’s a fresh, original collection of songs from a singer-songwriter who understands that modern black music has to look back in order to move ahead.

Reverberating: 9.0

Corin Tucker Band - 1,000 Years

Corin Tucker Band – 1,000 Years (KRS)

The shrieking axe strangler (I mean that in a good way) from
Sleater-Kinney emerges from the band’s indefinite hiatus with
her first solo record. Corin Tucker, the quintessence of Riot Grrrl,
is now a grown Riot Wmmmn. Yes, that means she’s toned it down, a little.

If mid-period Sleater-Kinney was Tucker as the Nineties/Noughties
embodiment of post-punk, as latter day Patti Smith circa Radio Ethiopia,
think of 1,000 Years as Tucker’s Dream of Life. The songs are concise,
even catchy. Tucker’s band is lean and muscular, and she keeps her wail
in check, aiming for something more intimate and smoldering.
Mission accomplished.

Tucker’s left of center pop adds a lot by taking a little away. And when
she unleashes the beast, as she does on “Riley” and “Doubt” it’s still
(and all the more) powerful.

Reverberating: 8.1

Demon's Claws/Eric Clapton/No Age reviews

Demon’s Claws – The Defrosting of * (In the Red Records)

“The Demon’s Claws scratch out weirdo folk tales
with garage-punk punch”

Demon’s Claws – The Defrosting of *

Montreal’s Demon’s Claws combine a perverse sense of country-folk absurdity with a spiky approach to classic two-guitar rock fireworks. A casual listen to The Defrosting of, their second record on the In the Red label, lends the impression that the Claws are another drunky-punk outfit cut from the same cloth as the Black Lips. And yeah, they have plenty in common. At closer inspection, there’s something distinctive going on here. The interlocked guitars of chief songwriter and singer Jeff Clarke and Pat Bourbonnais are either the product of terrific empathy or deceptive craft, probably both. Their work on the beer-stained “Mona’s Lunch” recalls the Michael Bruce-Glenn Buxton fireworks with Alice Cooper. “Last Time at the Pool” sounds like a party the Dead Boys threw for the Replacements. “Laser Beams” combines fierce Rocket from the Tombs style licks with a pretty repeated figure straight out of Johnny Marr.

A little more work on lyrics wouldn’t hurt some of these songs, several like “At the Disco” are rooted in the Ramones “second verse same as the first” school of notebook economy. On the other hand, songs like “All Three Eyes” and the 13th Floor Elevators influenced “Trip to the Clinic” are creepily evocative.

On some songs Clarke sings in an updated, marble-mouthed Mick Jagger fashion and the mix doesn’t always give him front and center. It works because many of these songs benefit from a certain murk of atmosphere. The mix is a little clearer on songs like “Fed From Her Hand” and “Catch Her by the Tail,” little morality plays and cautionary tales told at the intersection of modern junk culture and warped old Americana.

From the chilling charms of “All Three Eyes” to the surreal, fevered “Fucked on Ketamine” to the shit-kickerfied “Weird Ways” the Demon’s Claws are powered by the Tennessee Three meets Voidoids drumming of Brian Hildebrand. Sometimes he plays too much, sometimes he almost loses the groove, but without him the DC would be a different band, and probably not as interesting.

The wracked Woody Guthrie travelogue of ‘You’ll Always be my Friend” ends The Defrosting of on a sweetly cracked note, Clarke serenading friendship like some dork version of Stiv Bators. The Demon’s Claws are the sound of tall-boy Bohemian detritus, of boys picking their way through the slag heap of working class mythology and its confinements - and having more than few laughs along the way.

* The original title was The Defrosting of Walt Disney, as you can imagine there were issues.

Reverberating: 8.2

Eric Clapton – Clapton (Reprise Records)

“Spent icon delivers another tepid set”

Eric Clapton is a three-time initiate into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (with the Yardbirds and Cream, and as a solo artist). Is it too much to ask that he actually rock (and roll) once in a while? If Clapton is any indication the answer is yes. Sadly, that’s been the case for the majority of Clapton’s solo career. Oh, he has moments. When he appeared at the concert to celebrate Bob Dylan’s 30th anniversary as a recording artist in 1992 he delivered a smoldering version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” that blew the roof off the dump. That was a rare exception.

Always a product of his environment, Clapton’s playing has risen to the level of his inspirations and their provocation. The Derek and the Domino’s classic Layla (and other assorted love songs) was informed by his love for the Band, the songwriting influence of his friend George Harrison (can you imagine him writing a song with a tune like “Bell Bottom Blues” since) and the sparring of guitarist Duane Allman. Surrounded for decades by talented yes-men (and women), he hasn’t had any real fire for years.

Clapton starts promisingly enough with his take on Melvin Jackson’s “Travelin’ Alone.” Walt Richmond’s spectral Hammond organ playing complements Clapton’s guitar work, producing a sound reminiscent of Dylan’s Time Out of Mind record. The rest of the record, though, lays (sic) there, and stays there.

Clapton lacks the personality to negotiate Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rocking Chair.” The background vocals on “Judgment Day” are too perky and undercut the sentiment of Snooky Pryor’s original. Several tracks feature a who’s who of New Orleans musicians, including Wynton Marsalis, Trombone Shorty, Dr. Michael White and Allen Toussaint. But try as they might even their presence can’t cover for Clapton’s lackluster phrasing on “When Somebody Thinks You’re Wonderful,” or his bloated Nawlins version of “That’ s No Way to Get Along;” on the latter he employs the service of nineteen singers and players to emasculate Robert Wilkins’s simple guitar and vocal original.

I’m no stickler for consistency between the artist’s persona and real life, but when multi-millionaire Clapton sings about going “to the factory this morning” on his version of Lane Hardin’s “Hard Time Blues” you have a hard time, given his history as an artist, buying into his Bruce Springsteen makeover.

Clapton’s tepid set ends with a truly insipid rendition of the old chestnut “Autumn Leaves.” It’s an oft-essayed song, and rarely this poorly. It’s a perfect conclusion to a real dud of an album.

Reverberating: 5.5

No Age – Everything In Between (Sub Pop Records)

“Noise is the new silence to No Age’s generation of indie-punk”

No Age is a pure product of indie-rock culture, and part of a generation raised on noise. Sonic Youth may as well be the Beatles to a generation brought up to fear silence. But on their third and best record yet, Everything In Between, No Age have discovered dynamics. It’s not the loud-soft dichotomization of the Nirvana era, but a dynamic based on the epic swell of obligatory sonic overload, rising and falling with each song’s emotional nuances. Not space exactly, but an approximation.

It is a mammoth sound that guitarist Randy Randall and drummer Dean Spunt make. But it’s not without it’s light and shade, its drama and intimacy. “Life Prowler” is Joy Division meets Sonic Youth (w/touches of Suicide), Spunt repeating, “I don’t have time.” Randall’s Frippertronic guitar tempest and Spunt’s cheerleader stomp drumming propel “Glitter,” Spunt claiming “I don’t fear God, I don’t fear anything,” then pleading “I want you back underneath my skin,” as if the lack of love could stir fear that God can’t. “Fever Dreaming” is close to straight up Stooges/Ramones punk roar. “Depletion” is punk rebellion turned into style, the band blasting away like a distortion saturated version of the Vibrators.

No Age intersperses instrumental segues like “Katerpillar” and “Positive Amputation” into Everything In Between’s program like palate cleansers, lbreakdowns with roots in the sonics of Bowie-Eno material like “Warszawa.”

Part of No Age’s balancing act is to alternate the under mixed vocals, like the Dave Vanian meets Thurston Moore vocal persona of “Valley Hump Crash,” with more out front pop mixes like “Sorts,” the latter which starts out a trashed out La’s and evolves into a snotty pop snarl that reminds of bands like the Original Sins. “Shed and Transcend” has elements of both approaches, sounding like pop-punk under an avalanche of Randall’s guitar noise. “Chem Trails,” on the other hand, is a flat out catchy tune – all “Band on the Run” trills and “Pretty in Pink” chord changes.

No Age’s basic vision is of the alienated individual struggling in a stifling culture, it’s there in Spunt’s direct lyrics, and sometimes represented by the transcendent, overwhelming noises that Randall coaxes from his guitars. The photography of Zen Sekizawa, which pays homage to Robert Mapplethorpe’s evocation of aesthetic rebellion for Patti Smith’s Radio Ethiopia, and the constructivist/Factory Records graphic sensibilities of Brian Roettinger’s packaging are fine translations of No Age’s sensibility into visual language.

With Everything In Between No Age have become better songwriters and more versatile, dynamic arrangers. With just a touch of roll off on the distortion they aren’t too damned far from the Eighties angst-pop of Echo and the Bunnymen or the Psychedelic Furs. It will be fun to see where their development takes them.

Reverberating: 8.2

These reviews first appeared in the KC Free Press:

Manic Street Preachers/Fistful of Mercy reviews

Manic Street Preachers – Postcards From a Young Man (import)

“A great rock band from Wales, still virtually unknown in America”


Manic Street Preachers – Postcards From a Young Man

A popular and respected act around the world, especially in their native Britain, the Manic Street Preachers from Blackwood, Wales remain a cult band in the States. Their ambitions are too grand and their music too immodest for the tastemakers who set the boundaries of the American underground. Still, all but one of their nine previous albums has secured an American release (2004’s Lifeblood being an exception). The U.S. release of their tenth album Postcards From a Young Man isn’t imminent. Too bad, it’s among their best.

The central fact of the Manics’ career is the disappearance and presumed suicide of Richey Edwards after completing sessions for the band’s third album, The Holy Bible. Bible was a scabrous thing. The lyrics by Edwards and bassist Nicky Wire explored every manner of human folly, barbarism and degradation; they made Joy Division sound like Air Supply. The music was a curious mix of guilty (given the lyrics) pop pleasures and pulverizing rock, a sound that mixed punk and arena rock in a seamless, authoritative way.

Brutal thing it was, The Holy Bible was Edward’s last will and testament. After the album’s release and Edward’s disappearance the Manics soldiered on as a trio, becoming hit makers in the U.K with their fourth record Everything Must Go and its’ generational anthem “A Design for Life.” Everything Must Go combined rock with a grandiose pop sound. The latter has occasionally overwhelmed the Manics. On albums like This is My Truth, Tell Me Yours and especially Lifeblood the Manics’ forgot to rock and turned out schmaltz that even Wire’s situationist/Marxist lyrics couldn’t overcome.

The band’s eighth album Send Away the Tigers struck a fine balance between their classic rock and punk tendencies. Then came A Journal for Plague Lovers, an album of blistering pop brilliance that was more vital than anything one might have anticipated from an eighteen year old band, especially one set for early self-destruction (between Edward’s abuse issues and Wire’s statements about going out in a blaze of young glory). The songs for Journal were based on lyrics that Richey Edwards had left behind. Guitarist James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore (the band’s consistently powerful, musical drummer) came up with arresting tunes and arrangements and the band’s power was captured by Steve Albini’s verite production methods.

The Manic Street Preachers continue to ride the wave that Tigers began and Journal accelerated. Postcards from a Young Man is a big, swaggering record, full of strong melodies and some of Wire’s best lyrics. The band employs string arrangements on several tracks and a vocal chorus on four songs, but the performances on Postcards From a Young Man are never overwhelmed by such augmentation. The Manic Street Preachers are such a confident, cohesive unit by now that they rock with a punch that can withstand production that would be top-heavy for lesser bands.

Bradfield’s tenor is a remarkable instrument, capable of tremendous tenderness and venom alike, but ultimately too Freddie Mercury for Animal Collective fans. As a guitarist Bradfield is brilliant, but he’s an old school, flash guitar hero. His playing is a cross between Mick Jones, Mick Ronson, Slash, and Eric Clapton at his long gone, most rock incendiary. His solo on “The Descent (Pages 1 & 2) is beautifully composed. His Mick Ronson-esque licks drive “Auto-Intoxication.” He covers territory from Brian May to Thin Lizzy to Johnny Thunders, all in one song on “A Billion Balconies Facing the Sun,” and melds Lou Reed with Bruce Springsteen (“Badlands, particularly) on “All We Make is Entertainment,” which also features Wire’s brilliantly self-castigating lyrics – words that the song’s passionate performance only subverts.

The Manics’ diverse sensibilities are represented by their choice of musical guests on Postcards, incorporating contributions from a British post-punk icon, a Godfather of the punk underground and a strutting American rock star. “Some Kind of Nothingness” features guest vocals from Echo and the Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch and interpolates bits of Echo’s “Never Stop.” “Auto-Intoxication” includes keyboard and “noise” performances from John Cale. Duff McKagan (Guns n’Roses/Velvet Revolver) plays bass on “A Billion Balconies Facing the Sun.” Impressionable working class lads from a wee town in south Wales, the Manics embraced each of these disparate characters as heroes.

Wire still converses with Richey Edwards’ ghost on the title track and “The Descent.” The revolution he once believed in seems like a cruel joke on songs like “Auto-Intoxication,” “A Billion Balconies Facing the Sun,” and “Don’t Be Evil,” as Wire stares into the present’s black holes of consumerism and alienation. Weary and disenchanted, Wire nonetheless continues to rage against the dying of the light, rather like another great Welshman Dylan Thomas. According to Wire and the band Postcards From a Young Man is a final Manics assault on the charts – a last ditch attempt to inoculate the world with disillusionment (thanks, Henry Miller). Wire is prone to wild pronouncements, though, so who knows. One senses, however, from the passion that drives Postcards that Wire and the Manics won’t be going gentle into that good night.

Reverberating: 9.2

Fistful of Mercy – As I Call You Down (Hot Records)

“Promising trio fails to deliver the goods”


Fistful of Mercy

Fistful of Mercy is a curious trio. Ben Harper and Joseph Arthur have considerable solo catalogs. Harper's a soulful singer and songwriter. I've never been a big fan, but certainly an admirer. Arthur's erratic, but his last release Temporary People was a peak, full of good songs and performances in a slacker-Stones mode. The third player in this threesome is Dhani Harrison. If you aren't familiar with his recorded history it's because it's limited to one release with the group thenewno2. Dhani is better known as the offspring of George Harrison.

Harrison’s performance here is as strong as anyone’s. It doesn’t salvage what’s basically an uninspired session. Fistful of Mercy’s debut, titled As I Call You Down, opens with “In Vain or True. “ It’s an intimate, acoustic performance that suggests the back porch informality of the early Band and the balladic grace of Badfinger. Since the sound is persuasive, it’s easy to embrace the simplicity of the lyrics. A few songs into As I Call You Down, though, that simplicity begins to sound merely banal.

The relaxed, largely acoustic performance idiom, which at first charmed, begins to sound enervated. The close, intimate harmonies never get robust. In fact, some of the trio’s attempts at soulful blues based moans sound like cats mewling; the democratic approach Fistful of Mercy pursue never really allowing a strong lead vocal performance to emerge.

The program’s a little skimpy too, featuring only nine tracks. Among them, only “Father’s Son” combusts - a spare, blues stomp with stronger lyrics and rotating lead vocals, “Father’s Son” has an energy and authority that most of these performances simply lack. There’s enough talent here to suggest a missed opportunity. Perhaps a sympathetic, but strong willed producer might have coaxed less puny performances and demanded sharper lyrics from Fistful of Mercy. Unfortunately, their comfort zone on As I Call You Down results only in largely desultory work.

Reverberating: 5.9