Phantogram, Eyelid Movies (Barsuk Records)
Odd that in the Information Age this New York boy-girl chill-techno duo tie themselves up in such pretzels trying to categorize their sound, babbling comparisons like “Kanye meets Radiohead” or slick-sounding non sequiturs like “street beat psych pop.” These kids offer trip-hop done the way Air might have interpreted it, doing it very nicely while we’re at it, not too commercially viable but not so weird-beard that you want to fling Conor Oberst CDs at them. After one EP and a few high-profile opening slots (Zero 7, Brazilian Girls, etc.) their enthusiasm toward their respective roles is pegged: she’s a little bit shoegaze, he’s a little bit indie-rock, and whattaya know, they’re on Death Cab’s label, nothing but blue sky. Worst case scenario is that these two are aware of the trip-hop designation but don’t want to mention it for fear that people will notice how much they’ve “learned” from Massive Attack and Portishead (“Running From the Cops” is a poor man’s “Inertia Creeps,” and bits and pieces of Portishead’s debut Dummy are like a trail of breadcrumbs through the whole album) (and good lord, don’t tell me the mid-90s happened so long ago that new bands are using bands like Portishead the way Zep bent Willie Dixon over!). I’m assuming that the brilliantly bizarre 60s horns and girl-group-scratch of “As Far As I Can See” constitute an original idea, and there are other things that appear off the beaten path, so I’ll recommend this as a buy, but not if you don’t yet own Dummy or Mezzanine.
Grade: C+ [street date: 2/9/10]
Celtic Woman, Songs From the Heart (EMI Records)
After establishing a Riverdance-associated weird-accented limey-chick mystique over the past few years, Celtic Woman has gone in a horrifically wrong direction for the 2010s and probably forever beyond. Their debut-LP cover of Enya’s “Orinoco Flow,” truly a seed of ho-hum bombast aimed at Vegas plebs, has finally grown into what the fivesome are now, strictly a sequined pandering to blue-haired ladies and the constipated husbands they drag along. Nothing here taps into the primal thumping power of 2008’s “DÃºlaman” or irresistible cleverness of “Spanish Lady”; no, this record is for the uncurious mob, people who’ll drop their jaws at an overproduced “Amazing Grace” and revel in visions of F-14s saving us from the Ay-rabs (the bloody tawdry “Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears”). Way too many sappy ballads, all from this record, dragged down the show at last year’s tour, but easily the worst moment is the cover of Phil Collins’ “You’ll Be in My Heart,” empty-brained Miss America kitsch gone nuclear.
Grade: D [street date: 1/26/10]
Hank Williams, Revealed (Time-Life Records)
In 2008, some faction of the Williams clan came out of nowhere with The Unreleased Recordings on Time-Life Records, an intimate, glad-handing collection of odds and ends Hank Williams and his band had played live on radio in the 50s for a morning commercial program for Mother’s Best Flour and Farm Feed. Revealed is that concept squared and quantified, as we hear Williams in less structured settings, sometimes actually shilling at length for the company (there’s a long strip of uninterrupted programming here that includes everything but the weather reports. That this is more intimate than Unreleased, then, should be apparent; sometimes scraping the bottom of the barrel can bring out the purest of essence. And pig-call yodeling, don’t forget the pig-call yodeling, absent from Unreleased but present and accounted for here in “Long Gone Lonesome Blues.” A perfect combination for both completists and wet-eyed nostalgia buffs.
Grade: A [street date: 10/20/09]
Hawke, +++ (Eighth Dimension Records)
The 4th artist LP from South African DJ Gavin Hardkiss isn’t a groundbreaker (nor is the fact that he’s using a nym — must everyone who indulges themselves in a genre bolt right to the cookie-cutter trappings?) but only if you’re familiar with curveball electronic artists like Winston Giles. This is MP3-only, a good plan being that it’s for an eclectic crowd that perks up whenever it catches a whiff of Klaxons-like falsetto and twee-ish laid-backness — I could picture dreamy fluff like “Monday Comes and Goes” being played in a velvet-rope dance club, but only during setup and soundcheck, not when the crowd’s filling the place, ie it’s musically pure stuff not really meant for getting feet moving. “On My Own” is similarly unclassifiable in its Donovan-with-phone-patch vocal effect and quasi-breakbeats, but it’s “Inside Job,” heavily soaked in noisy dub, that separates Hardkiss from product that might look familiar to you.
Grade: B+ [street date: 10/20/09]
Gabriel Riesco Project, Sculptures in Time (WUC Records)
It’d be horrifically clichÃ© to state that a jazz album “cooks,” but you’ll just have to kill me as I’m left no choice in the face of such a terrific record as this one from Miami guitarist Gabriel Riesco. The compositions are ostensibly inspired by sculptor Eduardo Chillida, but transparently more so by Pat Metheny and a few post-boppers. Chilled, gray-toned Metheny-style machinations are found throughout — the very image of the musical undercurrent of a dry spring day in Miami, come to think of it — but it’s more enthusiastic than what we’ve heard from Metheny in the last few years, a tribute both to Riesco’s youth and whatever new jack prog-jazz philosophies are abuzz in the great scholarly sewing circle these days (he’s a Magna cum Laude grad of Berklee in Boston). The spot-on performances (along with Riesco, Ray Assaf’s piano is simply stellar) are even more miraculous when taking into account the album’s mercurial origin: the whole complicated, gorgeous thing was recorded in one day.
Grade: A [street date: 11/30/09]
Antonio Ciacca Quintet with Steve Grossman, Lagos Blues (Texacali Records)
No matter what happens, there will never be too many post-bop albums made, so if you’re jonesing for something vaguely Thelonious Monk-ish, this will make you have a good day. Jazz pianist Ciacca (who’s actually into lesser-known post-boppers like Wynton Kelly and Bobby Timmons, so don’t come in looking for a big hit of Monkish whiz-pow) did a lot of time in Italy before doing a lot of time over here prior to putting out this watershed album of equal time shared between his piano and the sax of Steve Grossman (who replaced Wayne Shorter in Miles Davis’s 1969 fusion band). A lot goes on here, very busy, never linear, the band sounding a lot bigger than their 5 pieces on the swing passages, able to stop on a dime and become the world’s most unobtrusive bar-crew on the tinkly stuff. Ciacca is acutely aware that his generation is hard into Hancock and Corea, so for him to leave the techno-cheese, vocoder, crypto-hip-hop grooves, etc., out of this equation — and pull it off so well — he just, you know, really must love it.
Grade: A [release date: 1/12/10]
Gilded Palace of Sin, You Break Our Hearts We’ll Tear Yours Out (Central Control Records)
Such long rantings and ravings, but then again I should never trust art bands, particularly from the UK, where whatever knobs gather at GPOS’s shows must have to stand and feign rapture at the deconstructionist “The End”-like filibusters here that go on many minutes too long. Nick Cave would probably blush at the imitative compliments herein, much existential bloviation about nothing that peaks with the 8 minutes plus of “Mean Old Jack,” cool as it may be with its muddy Melvins bass and Steven Tyler sense of revelatory black-snake rhyme. Sticking with the Melvins thing for a second, I should and will thank heaven for Pete Phythian’s bass, because without that (and the very useful, near-aggro industrial stomper “Nautilus,” nothing wrong there at 3 or so minutes) we’d mostly be talking about an album revolving around, say, Tom Waits overseeing Broken Social Scene trying to get all Sigur Ros on us (hint: it couldn’t get a whole lot worse for rock n roll). There may be hope for the future, as “Nautilus” leads off the band’s MySpace playlist, a clear sign that the band is aware that the rest of their nonsense isn’t going to stop the world (aside from a short pause to shoot a collective annoyed glare).
Grade: C+ [street date 1/12/2010]
Dios, We Are Dios (Buddyhead Records)
We can all admit now that insider-hipster-rock pretty much sucked in the melody department for the couple of years prior to 2009, when all of a sudden bands started making music as if their livelihoods depended on it (they do) and they’d realized no more free passes were going to be handed out to any more smelly, pasty 98-pound-weaklings who developed serious drug habits without posting the high level of record sales that traditionally lead to such things. LA hopheads Dios are geared for war in the current melody-hungry market, fronting an album that allows the pretentiously overdone critical comparison to Spacemen 3/Floyd/Byrds/Low/Brian Jonestown Massacre/Zeppelin to be deployed and actually have it pretty much nailed. Takes a few listens for this stuff to stick, but does it ever: “Epileptic Tunnel Visions” opens with a long-ass Sunn(((O))) ringout, dabbles in some “Green Tambourine” 60s and finally lands on a monolith of a riff worthy of every rock-star pose ever struck by man. Given all the time in the world and unencumbered by a studio budget (all was done on a 4-track), the band beat every song until it worked, even up to the joke-psychedelic “Toss My Cookies,” a conjectural peek at an alternate-reality JG Thirlwell who’d discovered music at a Beat Happening concert. One to look for at the year-end best-ofs.
Grade: A [street date: 2/16/10]
Mark Stuart and The Bastard Sons, Bend in the Road (Texacali Records)
Beer bottle over the head anyone? As it was before, when Stuart’s backup band had a longer name (Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash), this is pure feel-good cowboy-bar-rock, aggression level a few notches below what’s typical for Hank Williams Jr. The usual suspects on board — bluegrass, blues-rock, hooks, etc., although there’s cause for consternation in the spooky quaver in Stuart’s voice, not a rasp or breathlessness but a hesitation on the part of his vocal chords, a sign that on the road to this LP he had to do some belting while sick as a dog. The band isn’t a household name, nor will they be after this paint-by-numbers submission (Tom Petty stylings in “When Love Comes a Callin’,” Rolling Stones for WWE fans in “Power of a Woman”) but the zydeco in “Lonestar Lovestruck Blues” does count as a changeup.
Grade: B [release date: 9/22/09]
Shurman, Still Waiting for the Sunset (Sustain Records/Universal)
Given the middleweight financial muscle behind this release, it’s apparent that this will be a logical next step in the evolution of this basic-rawk 4-piece. It won’t be stuffed into your ear by radio, is what I mean, and there are at this point one or two other loose ends, such as which slutty Los Angeles-based drummer dude will stick it out with them (they moved back to Austin from LA a little while back). Aside from all this “I’ve seen ‘em come and go” cynicism, which, trust me, is usually well-placed, this crew have a great shtick, that being a Creedence-flavored bend on the Everclear surf-rock sound, a formula that conjures images of a hophead Dave Matthews (or more interesting Train) on “Small Town Tragedy.” It’s a rather thin excuse for the band to insist they have a punk side, but they do, and why not, considering the Disney-fied lameness that’s passed off as punk nowadays — Shurman’s punk is simply a faster take on the post-David Lee Roth “punk”-ness Everclear made a few shekels off of back whenever that was, which wasn’t the worst thing ever to happen, let’s admit.
Grade: B- [street date: 1/26/10]
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