Various Artists, Sounds of Rhythm & Culture (ESL Music)
Washington DC-based electronica duo Thievery Corporation are the minds behind this compilation of varying degrees of chill, all of it advanced and terrific. It’s advertised as the sound of DC, but even though that’s a utopian wet dream, it’s a worthy one. I can’t imagine any city awash in the dreamy, laid-back Middle Eastern-inflected dubstep contributed by the mononymed Zeb — maybe Johannesburg on the last day of summer — but how nice would that be, and between waves of Zeb’s stuff are plenty of vibes that owe everything to Massive Attack and Zero 7, that sort, and not in some sad wannabe way but a real-deal way, with lots going on in the mix, none of it unpleasant. Matter of fact I’ll go so far as to say it goes down better than Massive Attack’s last album, not that that should really be much of a shock to anyone. The obvious quibble is that the contributors, such as world-class New York-bred experimentalist Nickodemus, aren’t DC locals, so as long as you’re not fancying yourself doing DC a local-fanboy solid you can bask with clear conscience in all the greatness here.
Grade: A [street date: 9/7/10]
Gregorian BC, Conquistadors of War (Gregorian BC Records LLC)
Except for the drums, every instrument on here is played by this fellow who calls himself Gregorian BC, an impossible, Flintstone-ish scenario if you think about it. He’s into Jesus and getting the most out of life, which can sometimes call for restraint, patience and multi-tracking. The chatter on this was “Gregorian chants and heavy metal,” which led me to believe that, worst case, I’d experience a Trans-Siberian clone band with neutered Mesa Boogie amps and, with any luck, actual Gregorian chanting. This was obviously a rush job with an eye toward chicks and some semblance of fame; it’s not a careful, methodical, well-learned attempt to dig into the real guts of monk-chanting and shock the planet with it. The vocals are one-takes, but worse than that is that they aren’t multi-dubbed (common sense would have this guy pulling an Enya on the vocal end, singing the same chant over and over on multiple tracks, but — you get the idea). The good that can come of the critical drubbing of this album (I’m being uncommonly nice about this, by the way) is that maybe Mister GBC will take it as direction, not personal attack. At least he’s got an angle that hasn’t been microwaved into dogmeat — maybe next time he surprises everyone, who knows.
Grade: C [street date: 5/26/10]
Cochemea Gastelum, The Electric Sound Of Johnny Arrow (MoWo Inc.)
Adam Dorn, aka Mocean worker, should by now be considered officially past the “someone to watch” stage. His marketing sense and overall cleverness in the jazz arena has resulted in wetworked cybernetics that appeal not just to wonks but fans who need a little in-your-face-ness in their intellectual music. A new signee to Dorn’s label, session guy Cochemea Gastelum (who’s played various horns for such big-timers as Amy Winehouse and Paul Simon) is essentially a Latin-flavored version of Mocean Worker, fusing intelligent samples and other electro frills to common barrio flora and fauna. “Carlito,” for example, sounds like what you’d imagine blasting from your average everyday Impala lowrider — Santana meets the Starsky & Hutch TV soundtrack — the twist being that it’s infused with Chemical Brothers non sequiturs. In non-great news, “You’re So Good to Me” invests heavily in Al Street’s futzing with wah-pedal guitar straight out of “Shaft” — a matching vibe for what colors most of Gastelum’s horn work on this album — and it’s patronizing when Street is simply keeping time rather than noodling (brilliantly). But occasional moments of so-so-ness are allowed in this case — these cats are without any doubt leaders, not followers.
Grade: B+ [street date: 7/20/10]
Rose’s Pawn Shop, Dancing on the Gallows (self-released)
In a punky turn of events, the most worthwhile stuff coming out of the LA scene recently has been bluegrass. Led by Paul Givant, this 5-piece will appease 4H-Fair-goers before they’ll get anywhere with big-time country radio, a good plan given the recent backlash to country’s stubborn adherence to Brooks & Dunn’s production-line approach to making hit albums. You can practically smell the horse nuggets when these guys settle in with their mandolins, fiddles, banjos and accordions; one could easily picture them getting 15 minutes of NPR fame as a living tribute to Hank Williams. Givant doesn’t shove phony twang up your nose; his simple tenor nestles into its assigned layers, mixed low enough not to overshadow anything else that’s going on but not hiding either, simply contributing in its own way to a fiercely tight band. In other words, were Williams alive and new today, this could seriously be what he’d sound like.
Grade: A [street date: 6/8/10]
Woven Hand, The Threshingfloor (Sounds Familyre Records)
Woven Hand, a Denver outfit led by David Eugene Edwards, were a hard thing for me to wrap my head around until I discovered that they won an opening act for Tool in the wake of this album, in fact, far as I know, that’s going on right now. I covered their last one, 2008’s Ten Stones, and upon encountering their vulnerable but more or less industrially heavy sound, I figured them for small cult success if that. But if there was ever a band built to tour with both Tool and Conor Oberst (the latter isn’t a reality yet, but who the hell knows), it’s these guys. As is my attitude toward Tool, I could survive this life without the po-faced drama that constitutes the bulk of these tunes, which mostly imbibe in a desperate view of Native Americans, a trick that’s as old as Billy Jack. An outward lack of electronics doesn’t help either, this sure ain’t Tomahawk, but don’t think silly 80s stuff like Badlands either — what they really sound like is Guess Who after a week in the peyote teepee with early Ministry in their earbuds. That’s enough to recommend it, sure, and they finally, at a point much overdue, reveal a sense of humor in the jacked-up oldschool closing rockout “Denver City.”
Grade: B [street date: 6/21/10]
Georg Levin, Everything Must Change (BBE Records)
There’s nothing inherently wrong with an album exhibiting a little ADD, I suppose, but that doesn’t mean anyone is going to run out and buy it, particularly if the set of whims is from a relatively new artist. If anything is consistent about the new artist LP from this songwriting Berliner DJ it’s that it’s all chilly, but past that it’s as unfocused as any Jazzanova compilation, and by the way Levin has appeared on one of those. You could pass this off as a set of just-for-fun Seal demos and leave it at that, but the CSI really tells the tale, to wit: “Runaway” borrows its torpid staccato rhythm from Thompson Twins; “The Better Life” is Klaxons-ized jazz for the Weather Channel; “Falling Masonry” visits apocalyptic winds upon a James Bond soundtrack item; “Time To Reenact” executes some early Jamie Liddell basics; “The Scent of Hay” whites up some basic reggae; and “Colour of the Day” welds Gorillaz to Steely Dan. The songs aren’t dogs, but I can’t seem to get excited over artists evincing a lack of courage toward picking one vibe and sticking with it.
Grade: C+ [street date: 4/20/10]
Walter Trout, Common Ground (Provogue Records)
59-year-old Trout’s guitar has a rare Clapton-like fluidity to it, but he doesn’t advertise his age in any way, either with his Bon Jovi-ish voice (he’s a Jersey-ite) or his breed of blues-rock, which has a Muddy Waters tinge to it that Kings of Leon wouldn’t necessarily throw out of bed. He’s done time with everyone, too, from John Lee Hooker to John Mayall to Percy Mayfield — impeccable credentials that aren’t just empty badges of honor but the wages of real talent. I like how this album was done in a technical sense, eschewing throwback Ampex tape recorders and other unnecessary hindrances; the mix is crystal-clear, not zapped with high end, just a simple capturing of greatness. Harmonica-driven mud-blues hard-charger “Maybe A Fool” leads off, followed by the balladic “Open Book,” a real pleasure to listen to if only because of its lack of Clapton-style mawkishness. Full of slide, country-burner “Her Other Man” would have easily fit on any recent Bon Jovi record, while “Hudson Had Help” settles into some genial hony-tonk that, again, benefits greatly from a full-budget sound.
Grade: A [street date: 7/6/10]
Red Line Chemistry, Dying For A Living (Bulldog Productions)
This Kansas City grunge-throwback foursome may have to work a little to overcome the Layne Staley soundalikeness of singer Brett Ditgen, not that having a sound like that is a bad thing, but considering that the band’s guitarist is on par with — if not better versed in blues scales than — Jerry Cantrell, your typical mean-guy critic with something to prove will dismiss them with a summary “Alice in Chains clone band” insult or three. There’s some Skid Row to this as well, though (“Johnny Come Alive”) as well as some fairly competitive nu-metal (“Fire Rising”) and even an old-jack hard-radio-popper whose chorus gets its tensile strength from Blue Oyster Cult voices ( “Deja Vu”), so there’s more than a little hope. But any hope does hinge directly on this generation tossing aside HIM and all the other plastic-coated punk-infused, blues-ignorant bands of the right-now and taking a backward step, ie the best route for this crew is through Japan, Germany, etc.
Grade: B+ [street date: 8/10/10]
Glass Graves, Architecture (self-released)
It’s one thing to wait until the last track of your album to be artistically revelatory and quite another to have the entire track order reversed. A common mistake for new artists, and Oakland’s Gaby Graves is as DIY as they come, having invented this 9-songer in one shot during an appropriately snowstormy day and taking the admirable approach of offering the whole thing free for the cost of your email address (through www.glassgraves.com). This one-chick bedroom operation does have a decent enough Versus-like voice, in need of a little training going by the first couple of tracks, which, as I alluded to, are the weak things about this. Soundwise it’s your basic Bauhaus-tee-shirted outcast dorm-sister doing her spaghetti-western-guitar best to praise her totally fave band through dank, eerie, indecipherable goth-ambience. Closer track “Lila Lov” sees her cutting loose, rolling everything into one final burst of “White Rabbit”-infused spookiness while showing that she isn’t just a nut who sings made-up ballads to an imaginary Trent Reznor in the shower but is indeed a real-deal artist, though her best singing is in next-to-last track “Quarantined.” One to watch for the cut-and-piercers.
Grade: B- [street date: 8/10/10]
The Fractals, Heavy Rotation (Kevinski Music)
There are probably a few tired-looking reviewers slumming in the Philadelphia press corps who never want to hear about these guys again, being that The Fractals probably soundtrack annoying jock bars when they weren’t contributing their various talents to Usher albums and the Aqua Teen soundtrack. Every state has a crew like that, doesn’t it? There’s nothing screamingly wrong with what bands like this do — a little dishwasher-safe punkishness, some fake-jazz-chill, some joke-band stuff, the odd Joe Jackson nick — but singer Kevin Hanson sounds like a James Taylor karaoke winner, safe, white, fat, dumb, happy and fresh from entertaining legions of well-guarded sixer-pounding dweebs. That isn’t to say that “Take Your Clothes Off Please” isn’t possessed of a big-ass hook that could take home the pot at a songwriting contest, nor that the band’s technical aptitude is anything to sneeze at, there’s just something — I dunno, loserly about the overall sound, like when you hear a 4-piece organic band trying to sound like all 24 tracks of an ELO song from 1976. For this they are forever doomed to hack for spare major-label change, but things could always be worse.
Grade: B+ [street date: 7/20/10]
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