Mark Wonder, True Stories of Mark Wonder (Groove Attack Records)
This to-date retrospective of the Jamaica-born reggae guy begins with the not-really-representatively-poppy “So Long” as guested by Luciano, whose turn is more unplugged-Big Mountain-like than anything else on here, which, in the main, sticks to the roots, ganja-puff skank to rasta-babbling hard stuff to tourist-trap what-me-worry one-drop adventurousness.   Ziggy Recado’s trumpet-like voice makes “Ganjah Station” a lot more interesting than it might have been, while other standouts include the anti-Apartheid-tasting “Only the Strong,” Daddy Rings’ cameo on the sunny tent-revival “Thank You Jah” and a commercially minded “Oh Woman (Don’t Cry).”
Grade: A- [Release Date: 4/1/11]

If By Yes, Salt On Sea Glass (Chimera Music)
Zero 7-style chill in unrequited search of a hook.   Part-time Decembrist Petra Haden and her violin have experimented with a lot of things, perhaps too many; after hearing this — which should have been titled “Variations on ‘Girl From Ipanema’ For Overeducated Soccer Moms” — I can state without reservation that her mission in life is that of the perennial sideperson, not someone who should be the marquee front of a tenuously avant garde project that does nothing to move things forward.   This pretty but pretty worthless album kicks off with Haden throwing on a spaceshot Cardigans mask for the ditzy Rhodes-driven “You Feel Right,” leading one to expect some dated late-90s pop, but the rest of this thing is all about barbecue chill, though without the modernity and listenability Zero 7 comes up with at will.   Curveball track “Shadow Blind” is a seriously annoying listen that would have been best left off this collection of toss-off designer interior decorating.
Grade: C+ [Release Date: 3/22/11]

Honey Ear Trio, Steampunk Serenade (Foxhaven Records)
Caveat emptor if you’re looking for a primer on the steampunk genre; this is actually a mildly experimental jazz quartet.   I was drawn more to this by the promise of some modicum of electro (from the laptop of most-of-the-time bassist Rene Hart), however the bulk of this, to further shy away from getting wonkish, is dense post-Mingus beatnik noise.   This was somewhat of a rush job, with just a month of truly open rehearsing, and the thickness of the dissonance is testament to that, much of it the sort of ugly-ass pretty-much-improv stuff you might subject yourself to if you’re trashing your own living room.   Grooves both boppy (“Six Nettes”) and cacophonous (almost everywhere else) are found and lost as these folks ponder time off from their day jobs, most prominent of which is Allison Miller’s session-drumming commitments.
Grade: C [Release Date: 3/22/11]

Sway Machinery, The House of Friendly Ghosts Vol. 1 (JDub Records)
Timbuktu-born singer — actually a superstar in his country — Khaira Arby joins the Brooklyn-based Jewish world-beaters in this outing, the inspiration for which sprang from the band’s journey to play a festival in Mali.   The result is an infectious, intricate mixture held together coherently by Arby, who, aside from his sedate crooning in the bizarrely “Lay Down Sally”-like “Women Singing in Timbuktu” and a few other spots, is a frenetic, pious, yodeling spaz evoking calls to prayer in the devout tribal patter of “Serigou,” the big-beat stomp of “Hey Ha Youmba,” the Middle-Eastern-tinged Afrobeat of “Skin to Skin” and the pretty-much-ska of “Gawad Teriamou.”   The band, meanwhile, is positively New York, tight as thieves whether going off on horn tangents or futzing with jazz-prog lines (“Golden Wings”).
Grade: A [Release Date: 3/22/11]

Assaulter, Boundless (Metal Blade Records)
One can always count on Australians to deliver camp with their serious-ass whatever-they’re-doing, in this case a Savatage-meets-Bathory take on death-extreme metal.   In normal human talk, that means cutesy exorcist-shriek vocals over nods to early Misfits by way of Anthrax, but what makes this so Australian is the no-budget production, a rite of passage, it seems, for Aussie bands — it makes you wonder what the guys who run Aussie studios charge per hour — I mean, give a brother a break on the cost of doing a vanity release already.   But back to the Australian-ness, the unique, half-cocked, half-invisible sense of humor you get from that country’s bands, here personified by a real appreciation for what Danzig does.   The record even ends with a drawn-out scream like Bon Scott’s signature growl at the end of “Dirty Deeds.”   No new worlds conquered here whatsoever, but purists who actually used to read Maximum Rock n Roll for its content could possibly get tearfully nostalgic.
Grade: B [Release Date: 3/15/11]

Deathface, Fall of Man (Trouble & Bass Records)
Chop-screwed drum n bass for metalheads.   Johnny Love was half of Guns N’ Bombs and is now all of Deathface, aside from a few random screeches from psycho-posturing chick singer Adri Law on “Sick of It.”   “Gift of Fury” is desolate and hard-ass at turns, what you’d expect if Acumen Nation tried their hand at gabber, the balance forward is a grab-bag of what you think it sounds like inside Courtney Love’s brain, loud relentless pounding.   Going by the constant name-checking thrown Atari Teenage Riot’s way in the press blurbs for this thing, I was expecting something a lot less anti-everything than what turned up, which would have been mighty fricking lame, but instead this is a truly furious combination of Rob Gee, Salem and your basic rage-aholic DJ, say Terrorfakt.
Grade: B- [Release Date: 3/8/11]

Banjo Or Freakout, Banjo Or Freakout (Rare Book Room Records)
Campfire-ready bedroom-pop strummed and crooned by hipster-fringe-pandering Alessio Natalizia, who dazzled the Pitchfork-arazzi with his distortion-washed previous “single” “Upside Down.”   Aside from possessing a gift for hook (catchy music is back in fashion now?), Natalizia glugs down the usual Kool-Aid, wallowing too long in a pool of nonsensical psyche-chill repetition at the end of “Dear Me,” for instance — the Spacemen 3 crap just never gets old, does it?   But he’s more-or-less serious about this whole “writing songs” thing, from the sound of it; there are things here that sound like Bread on drugs and Simon and Garfunkel on drugs, leaving the overall impression of substance over style.
Grade: B- [Release Date: 3/8/11]

Steven Lugerner Septet, Narratives/These Are the Words (self-released)
It’s probably quite fitting that this was the first album I listened to for review purposes in 2011, a year that promises more long-term unemployment and a brand spanking new Wall Street-driven oil bubble (to end with a “shocking” stock crash, be assured), meaning lots more destroyed people.   Of this double LP (that’s really what it is, regardless of the separated titles of the 2 disks included), I started with These Are The Words, which opens with Lugerner focusing on wary, eerie, slo-mo dissonance that, were it not for the coordinated tandem effort of his clarinets and such, sounds improvisational, drummer Matt Wilson’s military snare seemingly trying to find footing. And so it goes, things getting Minguser and Minguser by the minute, melodic themes inspired by math lifted from the cabalistic practice of Gematria, which assigns numerical values to the Hebrew alphabet. Drooling yet?   Well, you should, actually, as disk 2, aka Narratives, is a tour de force of straight-ahead, New York-drenched modern stuff, the yin to the other CD’s yan.   So if this is all a sign of what’s to become of 2011, my question to the gods is whether the crashing dissonance marks the end of the year or the beginning.
Grade: B   [Release Date: 3/8/11]

Yellowjackets, Timeline (Mack Avenue Records)
Considering the space Yellowjackets fill in the jazz continuum, one would expect them to be more of a household name than they actually are in the real world, meaning outside the realm of people with rudimentary knowledge of the genre.   Loping, slick as hell, and often gorgeous, what these guys do isn’t quite fusion and not quite WeatherScan background either, it’s highly evolved stuff that eschews the sometimes-too-quirky knuckleballs of Weather Report in favor of post-bop reverence and blow-doors melody, as in the root riff of this album’s title track, which, in a different, less overpopulated music world, could become as much a staple of pop culture as Brubeck’s “Take Five,” if you’ll allow me an excited moment.   Just a peach, this record.   The baseball-card stuff: it’s their 21st album celebrating 30 years, and longtime drummer Will Kennedy is back.
Grade: A+ [Release Date: 3/15/11]

Gaby Moreno, Illustrated Songs (Paisley Records)
I’m all for a little diversity, and multi-lingual chill-folk singer Gaby Moreno has enough eclectic interests that her constant gear-switching is coherent, at least to overeducated NPR liberals.   Basically this is ripe for soundtracking a snobby coming-of-age-again-for-the-5th-time Baby Boomer movie, music that’s slow, flabby, and randomly old-sounding, in other words annoying to people who aren’t neurotic wine-snuffing upper-management cube-droids.   She’s personally into 1940s songbirds and plays that card early, conjuring Edith Piaf fronting a mariachi band in opener “Intento.”   Things get shaken up right away, though, with “Mess a Good Thing,” a sluggish Bonnie Raitt-like blues-rocker that clearly demonstrates her playfulness and lungs but doesn’t stand up in context, as we’re on to bossa nova balladry in “Y tu Sombra” and then back to clarinet cabaret in “Garrick,” at which point the whole thing begins to feel like a demo for Hollywood consideration — a good one, sure, but when the soft-focused Hawaiian-slash-Merle Haggard guitar of “Fin” kicks in, any sane person would be all “jeez, lady, do a brother a favor and pick a locale.”    
Grade: B- [Release Date: 4/5/11]

Outraged ranting, indie label release news and spaghetti sauce recipes are always welcome.   Email esaeger@cyberontix.com

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