Ben Kono, Crossing (Nineteen Eight Records)
Nu-jazz, purportedly Asian influenced owing to multi-instrumentalist Kono’s (Japanese, I believe) heritage, however my immediate overall impression was of a fairly straightforward Western blend. “Castles and Daffodils” opens the record to rambling effect; originally a paean to a downcast Stanley Kunitz poem, the originally effect was scrapped and re-engineered as an upbeat, light bit of proggy puttering with Zawinul influences all over it. This arguably obligato achievement accomplished, we move to the goods, traditional bop sax on “Common Ground”; Weather Channel background cooking on “Rice.” Lots of Mingus threatening as with any newschooler, but it never rushes the gates; infinitely inspiring coffee-time stuff here. Unless I’m nuts, I’m starting to see the names of these New York session guys more and more on jewel cases, for instance Pete McCann, whose John McLaughlin depth complements Henry Hey’s keyboards, in particularly the — you should know by now I’m a sucker for the sound — Fender Rhodes.
Grade: A- [Release Date: 2/22/11]
Runner Runner, Runner Runner (Capitol Records)
More depleted pop soil for the grind from the latest entry in the endless procession of SoCal mall-punk bands, a resource more abundant in nature than carbon emissions from cow farts. I don’t spend a lot of time smoking joints in the back seat of mom’s Toyota these days, but I’m sure this generation of near-dropouts has many guys who can actually tell this band from Hoobastank and All Time Low, maybe through the identification of a subtle nuance like juuust a little more compression on the guitar, making it sound like something out of an old Barney Dinosaur skit, or maybe the singer is a little more like Green Day, you know, the “real” stuff. For me, there’s only one thing separating these guys from the rest of the pack: they had the self-destructive impulse to rip off The Outfield and Toto — Toto — in opening song “So Obvious.” This not only jacks irony to new levels, it points to a defect in man’s evolutionary process, in which one would prefer hearing a baboon bonking a stick on a rock for hours on end over this.
Grade: C [Release Date: 2/15/2011]
David Lowery, The Palace Guards (429 Records)
The long and short here is Tom Petty after a total Eels bender, some rockabilly, some Pavement chill, overall a very cohesive affair that has some serious high points. Lowery was a co-founder of Camper van Beethoven, a trivia nugget that never fails to impress a few punk history buffs, but this ain’t no beer-smelly day-glo fire-trap, it’s a Texas saloon invaded by Ringo Starr on closeout track “Submarine,” tambourines and everything. In other words, as I mentioned, it’s Eels, sort of, with commercially viable caveats, never mind the honky messy harmonica on the picket-fence-toothed opener “Raise Em Up On Honey.” What Lowery’s really on about here is trying to teach money-hungry alt-country wannabes a thing or three, and so he reminds everyone about the way-the-hell-faraway guitars Chris Isaak once shoved up the planet’s nose (“Deep Oblivion”) and why Collective Soul loudness shouldn’t be left completely out of the equation (“Baby All Those Girls Meant Nothing To Me”).
Grade: A [Release Date: 2/1/11]
Carrie Rodriguez and Ben Kyle, We Still Love Our Country (Ninth Street Opus Records)
Attention to hayseed detail helped place this one-off in the Top 10 of the Americana Music Association charts, where Decembrists and Gregg Allman are also holding court at this writing. The EP’s title was an unfortunate choice, as some people might run screaming from anything threatening to be NASCAR-ified “Let the Eagle Soar” chest-thumping celebrating our rapidly failing state; but I suppose people expect everything nowadays to be a Tin Pan Alley play on words and will correctly expect John Prine-style tearjerking and oldschool honky-tonk. 20somethings still love them their hipsterisms, so the LP begins with “Your Lonely Heart,” written by (Romantica frontman) Kyle most likely while coming down from a Cowboy Jumkies bender. From there, though, it’s throwback city — solemn renderings of “Love Hurts,” Luke McDaniel’s “You’re Still On My Mind” and Prine’s “Unwed Fathers” broken up at one point by the Dwight Yoakam-ish honky-tonk original “Fire Alarm.”
Grade: A [Release Date: 2/1/11]
Todd Clouser, A Love Electric (Ropeadope Records)
Oft-noisy guitar-jazz for the Touch of Gray set. Berklee-trained Clouser is a Minneapolis native based out of Baja, Mexico, his tastes partial to Monk and 70s rock —
Curtis Mayfield, too — in equal measure. This LP isn’t the smoothest of listens nor does it want to be; in “Meet Me at the Polo Grounds” Clouster’s guitar touches on Dicky Betts, Blue Oyster Cult, Santana and Clapton, settling on John McLaughlin here and there more as a reality check than any sort of desire to chill a bit. It’s loosey-goosey in the vein of old Blue Note stuff, and I mean that, with all due reverence, in an engineering sense; no banks were broken to accomplish this recording, this obvious from the amateurish honking dissonance of the twin trumpets (courtesy Steven Bernstein and Kelly Rossum) at album opener “Serenity Now.” Monster licks aside, when viewed as a jazz wellspring Clouser’s spirit is refreshingly playful, almost to the point of self-deprecation, and by mixing innovation and pride he leverages the studio’s lo-fi capabilities to create something more authentically 70s than anything I’ve heard recently.
Grade: A [Release Date: 2/1/11]
Bronx Casket Co., Antihero (E1 Records)
BCC is headed up by DD Verni, bassist and founding member of New York thrash metal crew Overkill, which of course spells depleted punk soil and a little bit of kidding around in this band’s first LP in 5 years. The kidding-around part this time — they did a version of “Free Bird” once — is a rip of Queen’s “Death On Two Legs,” which, as is wont to happen with bands like this, is a welcome curveball, not that their bread and butter sound (power metal with a Frank Zappa-sounding singer) is as annoying as what the main body of Dimebag ripoffs are doing nowadays. They’ve got a sense of humor, is what I’m saying, to go with things like the Rammstein-ish “I Never Loved You Anyway,” which jibes with their claim that they’re into goth, at least in the areas of industrial-metal grind (the creepy organ is a bonus), growled vocals and being mean to chicks.
Grade: B [Release Date: 1/25/10]
Donny McCaslin, Perpetual Motion (Greenleaf Records)
Given that he’s as comfortable with standards and fusion-workouts as he is with modern experimentation, it’d be correct to tag jazz saxplayer McCaslin as a firebrand voice of the current New Yawk pack. In this 9th solo record he’s free as a bird, his flights accelerated by the whiz-bang keyboards (mainly Rhodes, a slam-dunkedly agreeable choice) of Adam Benjamin and Uri Caine. Quiet, simmering urban fusion kicks things off (“Five Hands Down”), and right away McCaslin sets to making the thing a clinic, walking modal high-wires that at one point involve his sax making like a xylophone. His legend will certainly grow after wonks get a load of the million-notes-a-minute moves that shower the title track, new-jack wailing meeting the old-school notion of a serious, very serious jazz album in every respect.
Grade: A+ [Release Date: 1/25/11]
Vusi Mahlasela, Say Africa (ATO Records)
Mahlasela, a David Ortiz-lookalike African singer-songwriter and inspirational anti-apartheid voice, has become a cause celebre among the ATO crowd and beyond to Josh Groban and others who’ve recorded with him with the aim of spreading his messages. Say Africa, Mahlasela’s 7th album since 1992, finds him parked comfortably in Dave Mathews’s ATO studio, purposefully doling out a breed of folk that’s only mildly ethnic in sound for the most part and in fact very American at times (he’s a dead-ringer for Gordon Lightfoot in “Conjecture of the Hour”). This isn’t to hate, on any level, of course — anyone who isn’t keen on fixing those hilariously exploited countries has to have some seriously messed-up wiring — just stating that I would have liked to hear less Americanization and more Hugh Masekela-like vibe, not that tunes like “Ro Yo Tshela Kae” don’t do the trick or that there’s a massive void of authenticity.
Grade: B [Release Date: 1/18/11]
Ben Ottewell, Shapes & Shadows (ATO Records)
Of the three main singers in the Guster-style folk-infused Brit-alt band Gomez, Ottewell is the one who sounds like Eddie Vedder (Ottewell sang “See the World” and most of their other sellable stuff, thus it’s awful white of him to downplay his importance to the band in the press release for this LP). Here he teams with childhood friend Will Golden of Tunng in a series of songwriting moves probably intended to make him more comparable to James Blunt, such as on the dreary but vocally vibrant slow-dancer “All Brand New.” The title track opener finds Ottewell’s pinchy tenor playing up its more Peabo Bryson characteristics in the hope of parlaying the caricature into pop irresistibility, but man, we’ve been here before, not that that should stop you if you’re game for that sound (which a lot of critics aren’t, as Blunt recently admitted, and I’ll personally drink to that). The songwriting is very good if not Billboard-centric, riding repetitious melodies into sunsets rather than focusing on delayed delivery of in-your-face hookage.
Grade: B- [Release Date: 2/15/11]
Shaolin Temple of Boom, Duel (self-released)
You’ll note a dusty old street date for this release — I just received it, but all that’s really indicative of (I stifled the “late to the ball” insults to my ego I first felt) is the pitfalls of DIY. David Alvarez is a one-man operation, pretty much (your little brother could have handled the obligato drums held down by Adam Farley here), obviously a man enthralled by things like Front Line Assembly and Assemblage 23, both of which he apes quite effectively throughout this 6-songer. He’s an LA guy with connections to so-and-so dude from Marilyn Manson/NIN, but don’t let that stop you if you’re a goth-clubber, because this stuff is solid, serious and stompy, cleanly engineered, very urban. And not particularly adventurous — you’ve been here before if you’ve ever heard the aforementioned FLA or A23. But Alvarez is smart enough to recognize the soundtrack opportunities to which his angle could appeal, and that’s one thing he’s pursuing; else-wise you’re looking at typical, if top-drawer, Metropolis/Dancing Ferret cannon-fodder.
Grade: B- [Release Date: 7/8/10]
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