Steve Wilson. On music.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Greenhornes ... Better late than ...

Greenhornes - **** (4 stars)/Third Man

Jack White is a talented man, a rather overwhelming presence. Even at his most contained he sounds as excitable as Barney Fife singing Robert Johnson. I mean, he’s great, but think about it; he’s wound pretty tight.

But this is a review of the Greenhornes latest release ****, right? What’s the connection? Well, basically White appropriated the Greenhornes’ rhythm section - first, for his production of Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose, then for two albums (and a few years) with the Raconteurs. Who could blame him? Jack Lawrence on bass and Patrick Keeler on drums are tremendous together. When the Greenhornes played the Scion Garage Festival in Lawrence this past October they put on a clinic in rock rhythm section performance. Hey, given their visibility in a prominent band like the Raconteurs, it takes a while to focus on the guy standing stage right – singer/guitarist Craig Fox.

Hell, he’s easy to overlook. He’s practically an anti-Jack. He doesn’t call attention to himself. On stage, he scarcely sways. His presence is purely an extension of the music. But he’s a supple, versatile singer, whose restraint is a good aesthetic call most of the time. Fox’s guitar playing is bluesy without reliance on tired clichés (In fact, his playing reminds me of that great line from Peter Laughner’s song “Cinderella Backstreet” - “play those blues, you learned from the English dudes” – as Yardbirds, Them, and Small Faces saturated as his playing is). Sonically, Fox uses distortion to power these songs, not overpower them. Finally, these tunes, while built on archetypal British invasion, freakbeat, and soul roots, are refreshing in their ability to embrace those archetypes without being consumed by them.

“Saying Goodbye” is a step-child of Who songs like “Armenia City in the Sky” and any number of Pretty Things ditties. “Underestimator” is based on the guitar syncopation that Dave Davies of the Kinks patented (and Pete Townshend leaned heavily on).

“Cave Drawings” goes in to Yardbirds (think ‘Happenings Ten Years Time Ago, especially the nifty guitar break) territory, It also flashes a little freakbeat style, as does “Jacob’s Ladder, a rebuke to a druggy debutante. “Song 13” pulls the Davies trick in the intro and breaks, but the remainder of the song could have been a Box Tops hit.

When their American inspirations show, they come from a variety of sources. “My Sparrow” could be a soul drippin’ rock take on the Louvin Brothers, while “Better Without It” and “Hard to Find” sound like something Dan Penn or Doug Sahm could have written.

American hard rock sounds permeate ‘Need Your Love,” a pounding, fuzz guitar propelled number that hits it and gets it in 2:33. While the band’s harmonies sweeten the attack, the sound is pure Detroit, somewhere between the MC5 and Frijid Pink (hey, the minor bands had their moments, too).

“Get Me Out of Here” sounds like something that would have fit snugly amid the rootsier songs on the Beatles “Abbey Road,” or something from Badfinger or Stealer’s Wheel.

Oh, and Jack White? He loves the Greenhornes. **** is on his label, Third Man Records. And he had a least a hand in producing the album. Given the band’s unassuming ways and the eight year (largely White precipitated) lag between records, **** demonstrates that sometimes slow and steady does win the race.

It’s an insinuating listen, varied stylistically, and the kind of record that wears very well after plenty of plays.

Reverberating: 8.7

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Witches - A Haunted Person's Guide to the Witches

The Witches - A Haunted Person's Guide to the Witches (Alive)

Curse these Witches! 

Okay, I’ve listened to their music in the past. Even have a disc or two in my library. But damn it, A Haunted Person’s Guide to the Witches is going to send me into collector’s hell to find their other (all out of print) releases. It’s that good.
Most reviews of the Witches, not like there are millions or anything, are about two-thirds background. So, here I will take a deep breath and try to successfully provide some, and keep it to the essentials. The Witches have a floating roster, guitarists and songwriters Troy Gregory and John Nash being the consistent presences. Gregory’s resume reads like a somewhat confused alternative who’s who. He’s played with Flotsam and Jetsam. And Spiritualized. And the Swans. Perhaps his longest gig was with Mick Collins and the Dirtbombs; he played guitar with them on records like Dangerous Magical Noise and We Have You Surrounded. Nash has been around, too, his credits including the Electric Six. Among their collaborators in the Witches is Matthew Smith, the mind behind the always entertaining, sometimes amazing Outrageous Cherry. The Witches are the Detroit super-group (most of these sessions were cut in Jim Diamond’s Ghetto Recorders studio between 1995 and 2007) that no one knows about.

The music they make together is an amalgam of every cool Sixties sound. The opening guitar figure on “Everyone the Greatest” borrows beautifully from the Byrd’s (Gene Clark’s) “Never Before,” and that’s a sound snatched from the George Harrison’s Rickenbacker 12-string on “Hard Day’s Night.” By the time the track is over you’ve name-checked influences from the Velvet Underground to the Monkees. But the Witches blend them seamlessly into a decidedly Witches identity.

They strike a John Lee Hooker meets T.Rex (maybe Norman Greenbaum) boogie groove on “Down on Ugly Street” and “Attack of the Misfit Toyz.”  “Ugly Street” pleads “wont you abduct me,” the band’s druggy stream of consciousness lyrics backed by a biting guitar part that’s a dead ringer for Barry Melton’s sound on Country Joe and the Fish’s “Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine.” Oh yeah, Gregory and his gang have tons of tricks –“Attack” is a paranoid Stones’ fantasia in which you are implored to “drink your own blood.” Sure, the Witches have something of a, shall we say, an alternative reality fixation (pick that up from these song titles?). If I was knucklehead and this was 1971 – hey, I could call it ACID ROCK.

The Witches sound merges with Outrageous Cherry on the latter day Flamin' Groovies sounding “Lost With the Real Gone,” while “Who Wants 2 Sleep with the Birthday Girl” acquires a little Urge Overkill crunch to add to the Shake Some Action vintage harmonies.

Nuggets informed lysergic emanations are all over this music. You can hear the influence of bands like the 13th Floor Elevators and the Seeds on songs like “People What’s Wrong with U" (on which the Witches take someone to task for their indifference to ‘the secrets of the universe’ – Well, yeah!), and “The Haunted Regulars,” which also has a Stone’s ‘Dandelion”-vintage lurch.

The Witches share with the Brian Jonestown Massacre (at their best) a knack for mixing Stones and Velvet Underground rhythms, noticeably on tracks like “Spirit World Rising,” so drenched in the rock underground marinade of cosmic revelation and cheap beer. You can feel yourself parting the beaded curtains into a smoke filled room on “Sleepin' on a Demon’s Tree” (Roky-style demon-fascination, plus a psychedelic vibe that shares something with the band War on Drugs.). “Creepin’ Thru Yer Galaxy” concludes the A Haunted Person’s Guide to the Witches with some 12-string chime that’s pure Younger Than Yesterday Byrds, with a touch of Love’s classic debut record, and vocal harmonies simultaneously chaste and robust, steeped in reverb. It’s a reverie of the sounds that made L.A. groovy (and man, that’s been a while).

Less drone-obsessed than Spaceman 3, more focused than Primal Scream, the Witches share record collections with those bands, and similar visions. But while there’s nothing about the Witches music that screams Detroit in any classic or generic sense, I think it’s the rhythm ‘n’ blues foundations of Detroit musicianship that keep the Witches songs and sound comparatively grounded, even as they explore the outer dimensions. A Haunted Person’s Guide to the Witches is a top-notch introduction to an underrated band.

Reverberating: 8.9

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Esperanza Spalding - Your read it here first (or before the Grammys), if you read it.

 This review ran in the KC Free Press a few months ago. I hit refresh when Ms. Spalding won the Grammy for Best New Artist and everyone started asking "who's Esperanza Spalding?"

This is who ...
Esperanza Spalding – Chamber Music Society (Heads Up)
“An accomplished, fully realized vision from a special young artist”

It sounds like hyperbole, but I’ll say it anyway; Esperanza Spalding is a special, perhaps a once in a generation, talent. A musical prodigy from a rough neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, Spalding has earned the attention of jazz mentors like Pat Metheny and Gary Burton and the respect of her peers. Her new release Chamber Music Society combines string quartet arrangements with jazz piano trio improvisations, Spalding anchoring both ensembles with her agile bass work. Her musicality on the upright bass reminds me of the great Ron Carter. There’s something of George Duvivier in her touch and her compositional approach to the instrument, as well. Spalding’s music blends jazz, classical and Brazilian elements in a personal, seamless and beautiful way.

Her musicianship alone would make her a formidable new figure in jazz, but Spalding is also an impressive singer. She has Ella’s articulation, and a timbre recalling the gossamer soprano of Blossom Dearie. Her lyrics are poetic and her “covers” (including a poem by William Blake, “I am the Fly,” Dimitri Tomkin’s “Wild is the Wind,” and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s ‘Inutil Paisagem”) are inspired - integrating beautifully with Spalding’s own works. Her themes are elemental, embracing a feminine (and feminist) perspective, but bypassing earth Mother clichés. “Apple Blossom” is a lovely evocation of the life cycle - of loss and rebirth sung as a duet with one of Spaulding’s inspirations, Milton Nascimento. On several songs Spalding sticks to scat singing and in such a purely expressive idiom her real identity and charm as a singer is clearer still.

Attempts to combine chamber string arrangements with the improvisatory basis of jazz musicianship have produced mixed results. Early versions of such fusion like Gunther Schulller’s “Third Stream Music” often sounded academic - well intentioned, but stiff. Spalding’ s music brings out the best in both. While less improvised, it even has a soul stirring sweetness that evokes Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. Her pianist Leo Genovese, while very much a singular talent, can recall Mc Coy Tyner one moment, Herbie Hancock or Horace Silver the next. Drummer Teri Lyne Carrington, a veteran of several Hancock ensembles, is an unusually sensitive drummer, approaching the kit compositionally, not unlike Jack DeJohnette.  Sometimes her sound reminds me of Connie Kay (Modern Jazz Quartet … and drummer on Van Morrison’s’ Tupelo Honey).

Gil Goldstein, who has worked with the likes of Gil Evans and Pat Martino, co-arranges the strings with Spalding. Together they’ve fashioned parts for cello, viola and violin that complement and converse with Spalding and her jazz trio.

Do find the opportunity to experience Chamber Music Society. Spalding’s music has a generous spirit that combines civilized grace and the sheer release of great jazz improvisation. 

Reverberating: 9.1

Monday, February 14, 2011

New York Dolls - 09 - I Sold My Heart To The Junkman

Just because. I will be reviewing their new album at length closer to the release date, March 15th.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Zola Jesus - Valusia

Zola Jesus - Valusia (Sacred Bones)

Nika Rosa Danilova haunts me. Maybe it's some lingering thing for Goth chicks. Hell, I'm as big a schlub for cultivated mystery, ethereal images, and soft focus photography as the next guy. But it has to be something else. Something more.

Oh, it's the voice. It has to be - because the lyrics, while they serve the melodies, and Danilova's angst and alienation, are unremarkable. The instrumental settings are affecting, but not extraordinary. Yeah, got to be the voice. The twenty-one year old Danilova (Zola Jesus the band includes others’ instrumental contributions, but its definitely Danilova’s show) is reputedly classical trained. Maybe so, she certainly has a powerful set of pipes and shows some range on Valusia (her latest recording, a 19-minute extended play). But she’s certainly shed the baggage that typically comes with such experience. Sure, her phrasing can be stentorian, and her tone chilly. But Danilova unmistakably gives in to the pop subtexts of the material and lets the ragged emotional edges emerge when the moment’s right.

And while everyone is quick to acknowledge influences like Siouxsie and Kate Bush, my hunch is that she’s also absorbed a little Bruce Springsteen and Christina Aguilera. Oh, get over it. It always kills me how reviewers try to cite inspirations that will impress one another, rather than actually telling it straight. Besides, I like Springsteen (even Christina ... some). Shoot me.

Valusia’s point of entry “Poor Animal” is about the shocks natural to the human animal; I’m pretty sure. While the electro-synth sounds suggest Eighties electro-pop, I can also hear something in Danilova’s phrasing that makes me think she’d do a bang-up job interpreting the Replacement’s “Can’t Hardly Wait.”

On “Tower” Danilova asserts that she’s “not alone in the tower,” yet the emotional release in the performance comes with the line “and it feels like I’m the only one” (onomatopoetically, it’s a cappella). But Goth-pop poetics needn’t be rationally consistent. Nope, not at all.

On the cryptically entitled “Sea Talk,” Danilova’s alto sheds the cold electro-chanteuse business and goes husky. The arc of the melody evokes the timeless teenage heartache of Dolores “La La” Brooks, immortalized with such Phil Spector produced hits as “Da Doo Ron Ron” and  “Then He Kissed Me” singing lead (along with Darlene Love) in the Crystals. Danilova pleads “I can’t afford you," and you get the feeling that it ain’t money she’s singing about. The rhythm is somewhere between Teutonic march and dance music. You can almost Madonna sounding like this if her voice was more prepossessing and her phrasing more elegant. Okay, it’s a stretch.

Valusia closes with the throbbing piano ballad “Lightsick.” When Danilova sings the words “starry end” there’s something in that emotional space – both sensual and chaste – that suggests Laura Nyro, especially the lyric resemblance to Nyro’s “Stony End.” As Danilova ponders what happens “when the lights go out on us” I flash on the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” and wonder if love’s just a kiss away or something foreboding awaits in the dark. Like much of Valusia, there's something both thrilling and chilling about it.

Producer Chris Coady keeps things simple and spacious, spotlighting Danilova’s extraordinary voice. The only performance other than hers that draws attention is Christiana Key’s violin playing on “Poor Animal’s” stirring coda.

I’m only marginally familiar with Danilova’s work prior to Valusia. I may have to get better acquainted with it. Or maybe not. Somehow, Valusia feels like the perfect introduction to Zola Jesus and the haunting, beautiful voice of Nika Rosa Danilova.

Reverberating: 8.5

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Glorious Pop Noise: Smith Westerns and Frankie Rose and the Outs

Smith Westerns – Dye It Blonde (Fat Possum)

Frankie Rose and the Outs – s/t (Slumberland)

In my recent review of No Age’s Everything in Between I suggested that the band was part of a generation “brought up to fear silence.” And that their sound embodied 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.” Well, okay – I can stick with that. Young bands can almost be divided between those who almost scrupulously avoid noise and distortion and those who soak in it.

Kids these days. For many young musicians less is nothing and more is never enough when it comes to noise. What’s an old fart to do? Well, when the old fart in question was a fan of everything from the Stooges to John Coltrane’s Ascension he reaps just what he’s sown. Because while I may quarrel with the apparent default setting for distortion that seems to have become the mien of young musicians, I can sure surrender the top end of my hearing with the best of them.

The inevitability of noise is central to the aesthetic of two distorto-pop outfits with recent records out. For the Smith Westerns and their second album Dye it Blonde distortion is the icing on a cake of musical influences that embraces everything from Cream’s “Badge” to the Smashing Pumpkins, but which seems tiered on the at once dour and ecstatic sound of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. Imagine, if you will, guitar leads that replace the mystical Beatles’ weeping slide with bruising, but beautiful single note lickery that sounds like Marc Bolan on Olympus. Max Kakacek plays with a gorgeous, distorted tone that for all its ferocity is unfailingly melodic, sounding like nothing so much as the string arrangement for John Lennon’s “Mind Games” – but on a single, loud ass guitar. He winds “Still New” down with a fantasia of phased, backward guitar sounds. The “Layla”-esque dueling leads on “End of the Night” are sweet and seductive; while the arpeggiated intro to “Only One” proffers the sound of the Flamin’ Groovies for a new over-driven generation. Kakacek can shift between folk-rock and “Heatwave” Motown rhythms on a dime, as he does on “Dance Away.” All of, I dunno – twenty years old (?), he makes a beautiful noise throughout Dye it Blonde

Cool as Kakacek’s playing is, the Omori Brothers, Cameron (bass) and Cullen (rhythm, lead vocals) are equal contributors. Their performances, plus the (unattributed) supersonic synthesizers and pumping rock piano are the bones on which Smith Westerns rock monster is built. And their songs are both naively fetching and altogether sophisticated for their age (they too are but twenty-ish). From the T.Rex acoustic jangle of “Still New” to the Hunky Dory vibe of “All Die Young,” with its queerly celebratory chorus; from the ELO interpreted by the Flaming Lips charms of “Fallen in Love” to the gorgeous coda of the title tune’s serenade to the sweet disorientations of love and youth, the Smith Westerns know how to rock out the monster pop moves. Producer Chris Coady superbly realizes the band’s fresh ideas. His considerable resume includes the recent Beach House record Teen Dream.

On the heels of their first album, a brash, punkier affair that reminded a little of the late, great (pretty great, anyway) Exploding Hearts, Dye It Blonde is that sound blown up into a kaleidoscopic pan-generational pop vision. It’s got smarts, heart and miles of youthful insouciance. If you’re into that kind of thing. Me, I think it’s pretty sweet.

Frankie Rose and the Outs, on the other hand, are at least superficially more in line with the aesthetic of the current crop of Girl-noise-pop bands, a sound derived from the synthesis of Sixties girl-group stylings and the post-punk racket of everyone from the Jesus and Mary Chain to immediate prototypes of the genre like the Shop Assistants and Dolly Mixture. This genre includes the lovely, but leaden pop swoon of Best Coast, as well as the Spector-punk concrete of the Dum Dum Girls. Rose played in the road version of the DDG. She also served time with another genre progenitor, the Vivian Girls. Frankie Rose and the Outs, on their debut album) are superior to anything the VG ever did and the equal of the Dum Dums. Where Kristen Gundred (Dee Dee of the Dum Dum Girls) uses sheer (literally) noise as a cubist element in her reconstruction of Spector’s Wall of Sound, Rose employs noise as though it were part of the chiaroscuro of her version of pop-punk impressionism. Impressionism? Allow me to explain. For music as saturated in noise as this is it’s also full of soft, blended edges. Nothing really jumps out of the mix. The band’s harmonies are lovely, but lead vocals and specific lyrics rarely engage you. The harmonies are part of the impressionistic (uh huh) blend, just like My Bloody Valentine’s guitar layering.

‘Hollow Life’s” dearly beloved style organ introduction is the perfect beginning for a song that sounds like a benediction - the ladies of Frankie Rose and the Outs (Frankie, Margot Bianca, Kate Ryan and Caroline Yes! … Get it, as in the Beach Boys’ “Caroline No?”) vocal blend beautifully, like a tattooed Chordettes or Paris Sisters. The Outs love guitar licks that reflect the love of both Dick Dale and the Cramps. Such voodoo-surf riffs saturate songs like “Candy” and “Don’t Tred,” often occurring as guitarcapella breaks.  Rose’s production exhibits all sorts of interesting subtleties, like “That’s What People Told Me’s” slow dissolve into single note guitar sustain and handclaps, or the way the angelic and aggressive are combined on ‘Must Be Nice” with its’ alluring mixture of “Gloria” chords and the atmosphere of the Mamas and Papas “12:30.” “Girlfriend Island” rocks to a Ramones beat with the vocals slightly forward in the mix, while there’s a Springsteen/Spector swoon to “Little Brown Haired Girls.”

It would be easy, and wrong, to lump the recent rash of noise-pop bands together. Frankie Rose and the Outs brings a singular vision to the idiom. Again, compared to the noisy, jagged, yup – Cubist qualities of the Dum Dum Girls (they’re good, too), Frankie Rose and the Outs create impressionist cathedrals of calm in the eye of their storm of distorted guitars. Theirs may be a late entry to the noise-pop girl genre, but it’s an individual and glorious statement.

Reverberating: 8.6 (yeah, both of them)