John Coal-train...haaaa...

Concept: The Rome, Italy trio take a stab at the Rite of Spring in their tenth (?) studio LP.

Sound: Typically very loose and unusual, the band has produced a much fuller and more structured album, with a strong rhythmic focus. That’s not to say any of it is radio material. Although there are episodes of gargling breakdowns, it is more accessible than any of their previous work, and perhaps more accessible than many bands associated with them: The Melvins, Mastodon, and Fantomas, for example. Between a bass (with occassional percussive, whammy-esque effects), a simple drum kit, and a wild baritone sax, the album combines hardcore with math rock and free jazz, providing variations on a sweltering and crumbling atmosphere, like a paralyzed rhinocerous being stripped alive by vultures. Although it’s offbeat and noisy, it’s never overwhelming, and to be honest it blows most gnarly metal bands out of the water. There are even smooth and soothing moments in between the guttural didgeridooish sax torrents and growling bass. It’s thick, gamey, and rich…a charcoal-grilled sirloin of experimental rock with a side of kidneys.

Lyrics: As might be expected, this is the weak point. There is nothing above Tool-caliber lyricism here. This album might be too far on the other side of the spectrum to throw out poppy ideas like “love/my kryptonite“. Luckily, there are few words on the album, and the vocals themselves are amazingly versatile: alternately beautiful or thrillingly bizarre. Again, as with Tool, this is enough of a distraction to keep the album entertaining.

Quick And Dirty: Hot, shuddering, and unpredictable, building off the Painkiller formula with the listener in mind this time. For what it’s worth, there is no other band quite like Zu. (♦♦♦♦½)

bjl

Concept: Retro fury, plain and simple.

Sound: The first half of the EP is rock and blues basics, with gleaming trumpet punctuations and a healthy dose of Hammond organ. Joe is young, but his voice is hard, harsh, and alarming, like his subject matter. With the conclusion of *****, I Love You, it’s hard not to be a little shocked. He’s cruel, but it’s only a more direct version of the misogyny so much rock and blues communicates, and his recklessness undoubtedly energizes the tracks. The second half makes the transition to folk music, opening with the highlight of the EP, Cousin Randy, an obscene and darkly comic story about the devil and holy laxatives, and the kind of ruckus that comes out of the combination of the two. The last track, Master Sold My Baby, confirms Joe’s versatility, his intuitive feel for early Americana, and his skill as an enfant terrible, both feet firmly and decisively planted in the dark side of the music he loves.

Lyrics: Straightforward and downright uncomfortable. You should expect to be scandalized.

Quick And Dirty: Hard to say. Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears have a lot of power as performers, but the charisma and rage in it might just take you somewhere you don’t want to go. (♦♦♦♦)

af2001

Concept: Why are you laughing? This is a collection of folk songs from around the world dealing with the stages of romance. Some of them depart from their original instrumentation, but there’s only one original piece. Okay..there are six, but they’re all based on mythology.

Sound: There’s actually a lot of good solo work in this album. Let’s see, it’s from Ancient Future records…so Matthew Montfort will have arranged, written, and featured in everything. To be fair, he is a good guitarist, and none of these traditional songs suffer when represented through guitar. There’s also a lot of variety in the mood of the songs, which is pretty surprising since it’s all about romance. Even some of the original pieces are well done: the musicians are all locked in to each others’ sounds, and there are lots of interesting transitions and chord changes throughout most of them. If your typical rock band were to crank out these songs, with some hip lyrics thrown in, it would be very well received. Two exceptions on this album are Ocean of Love and Ne Po Pogrebu Bochonochek. Ocean of Love is good enough of a song, but it crosses that thin line between soft post-rock and the stuff you can preview on a little machine nailed to a shelf in a crafts store, if only slightly. Ne Po Pogrebu Bochonochek is a different story. You have a perfectly good folk song about seduction, and the vocals by Irina Mikhailova (referred to in the liner notes as the ‘Ancient Future Song Goddess’) are suitable, although my existence as a U.S. male prohibits me from outright loving it. The guitar and fretless bass are fine..they’re actually good. The synthesizer comes in and you get a little worried, but a minute goes by and it’s not getting flamboyant or trippy on you. Then comes that mullet-inducing, braindead eighties drum beat, like a knife in the eye. And one and two and one and two. I am instantly transported to the age of seven. I am in a Goodwill with my Mom. It’s the middle of the day, and even though I’m basically wasting my life anyway at this stage I’ve never felt like it before now. I look to my left. A dumpy middle-aged woman in sweatpants with smoker’s jowels and a bad dye job is bobbing her head while rummaging through coats. She looks at me, then my mother, then back at me. She examines me, and I, unconcerned with her reasons, examine her. How could she have ended up that way? If I pull off her head, will I find she is full of sponges, lint-coated twinkies and Kenny G mixtapes? The sun is amplified through the window, my migraine intensifying. The synth howls like a cat trapped in my shirt, scarring my tender little belly. I am suffocating. I am dying. That was not alright. It will never be alright.

Quick And Dirty: Really a decent album. Just make sure you dispose of the case so you don’t get teased. (♦♦♦½)

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Concept: As the album’s ridiculous artwork (not pictured) suggests, X Clan has a penchant for satirizing their own genre. Although it’s been done, it’s hard to imagine it being done better than this. The group waxes philosophical and conscientiously objects to distilled and perverted hip-hop imagery while defending the culture itself as uplifting, and in the meantime their display of common sense and passion for the process gives them real dignity beneath all the jokes. If there’s an underlying theme, it’s that “only real love can survive in these jungles / … / universes in the flesh / you breathe out the life, I’ll protect it to the death. / … / stack my chips and become the dream.

Sound: X Clan isn’t afraid to have a quirky swing to some of their tracks, and they can handle it and make something worthwhile from the risk. The beats are diverse, and the R & B samples and original recordings are arresting. They aren’t just laying something behind their rhymes. There’s plenty of texture in the album: dissonant orchestra strings, clunky saloon piano, flashes of choirs, bouncy bass, static buzz, peppy flutes, blazing electric organ…corny bossa nova. Furthermore, the speakers aren’t content to just follow the music. They make sure their rhythms compliment the tune. The result’s a tightly knit atmosphere for every track, and if they don’t start with a good hook, they find it.

Lyrics: Although the album has a slower start, X Clan gets to be thoughtful and incredibly funny, keeping it all up-tempo, and the best part is that it keeps going and going. There’s all the nuance of good conversation, with humor and invocations diverse enough to get anybody’s attention, offbeat enough to make Daniel Dumille shed a tear. Saul Williams isn’t the only rapper with love songs, spiritual concerns, and offbeat historical montages. Did I mention that they managed to do all this while keeping it completely clean for the kids?

Quick And Dirty: Unless a distaste for hip-hop is woven into the fabric of your being, I don’t know how you couldn’t find something to like here. I can’t emphasize enough how pleasantly surprised I am by this album. (♦♦♦♦)

The members involved.

Concept: Combination of Indian meter with Latin rhythm and jazz stylings.

Sound: ‘World music’ is a cringe-inducing phrase, but the concept of this album is ambitious, and at some times it succeeds. The big name is Paul McCandless, a member of Oregon who has worked with popular groups like The Flecktones and The String Cheese Incident. However, his involvement in the album is low: he is on two tracks, and keeps to the background. Kash Killion, on bass, cello, and sarangi, is a more distinct voice through the album, along with Matthew Montfort and his scalloped fretboard guitar. They fuel the two more worthwhile tracks on the album, Sangria and Between The Lines, both of which incorporate flamenco. The letdown, strangely, is Mariah Parker herself. Although she may be responsible for the composition, her own part in it is surprisingly stiff and bland, lacking flexibility in tone or dynamic. She plods through the chord progressions without adding anything. For some reason, these problems do not arise as much when she is playing her secondary instrument on the album, the santur; it would have been much better if she had stuck to that for most of the tracks instead. The most obvious and poignant disappointment is on the second to last track, Tenth Journey. Everything unfolds well, with decent solos and nice melody from everyone, except Mariah tries to go for diminishing rolls on the santur, and it comes off choppy, upsetting the rhythm just slightly. As the song reaches its peak, Anuradha Pal attempts a vigorous recitation of bol, a mnemonic vocal percussion that couples with the tabla. Either the production blocks her more rapid enunciations, or she falls flat on her face three times in a row. Either way, the recording sounds dreadful when it’s supposed to be at its best. So, despite its strong points and general professionalism, the album bears the sleepy moments and awkwardness of a high school recital, which is more unfortunate when there is so much potential from both the pieces and the performers.

Quick And Dirty: If you want Latin or Latin jazz, you might as well skip this and thumb through Al di Meola or Larry Harlow. If you want good Indian music, Sandip Burman is a prodigious present-day talent on the tabla, or else I highly recommend Shivkumar Sharma’s brilliant 1967 album Call of the Valley. Sangria may be attempting a worthwhile synthesis of both styles, but it’s not a strong example of either. (♦♦♦)

Artist: Bill & Kate Isles
Album: Matching Baggage
Released: Little House Records, 2009
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I was able to meet Bill and Kate when they came by St. John’s last year for the Swayed Pines Folk Festival, and they are very nice people. Kind-hearted, easy to talk to, really decent folks. This album really reflects that about them. Mellow acoustic folk, with nice, open lyrics that tend every once in a while to poetry, this is an album one can easily relax to.

Most of the songs are written by Bill, and lyrically fairly plain. Which in of itself is not a bad thing! Bill does really well at being open with the listener. There is no pretension to grand concept artistry here, and that is refreshing. In this album Bill and Kate sing about the simple pleasures of life: traveling, meeting a new love, and enjoying their company. And as those are simple, so are the lyrics: “All I wanna do is love you, and in your arms is where I wanna be, All I wanna do is love you, ’cause darlin’ your love has set me free.” If you’re looking for cynicism and apathy, don’t listen to this. These lyrics may just reaffirm your belief that people can have true, deep, and meaningful relationships with one another. Singing-wise, Kate and Bill work really well together. The duets are nice, and the lyrics work with two voices.

Musically, again it’s not too exciting. Bill plays the acoustic guitar fairly well, and the musicians brought in with each track play well with him. Bill backs up his playing with piano, accordion, upright bass, and harmonica, among others. “September Sun” has a nice harmonica solo which bumps the song up from average to good. Bill knows what each song requires to capture the feeling he wants to get across.

All in all, a good acoustic folk album, very light-hearted in content. It is plain and open, and easily accessible. Each song stands alone, but they all tap into the theme of love, new or old, that sustains the album. Check it out for a solid outing from this Minnesota duo.

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Concept: If the innuendo didn’t hit you, it’s mostly about marijuana. Oh, and girls. Also, they take a stab at preaching positivism and a respectful can-do attitude. No, really.

Sound: One sample per track, perhaps two. It’s mostly synth and electric guitar, although occasionally some vocals and piano are inserted. At least they know to switch up the beats and tempo. Funny S**t and The Struggle actually have good variety. You’re not likely to get any ideas listening to the tunes overall.

Lyrics: If there’s good news, it’s that sometimes their rhymes are funny, mostly unintentionally. There is one stab at Mike Jones I had to smile at. It’s not as though there isn’t some creativity with the rhymes once in a while, like spotting bigfoot with a pair of 40s. There was a glimmer of skill in delivery during The Struggle. Anyway, somebody should have told these guys that if you’re going to put out a hip-hop album, the lyricism is pretty essential. A lot of people complain that it’s all posturing anyway, but being out of the loop on this kind of music I can give guys the benefit of the doubt. Except for these guys. I’m not even going to get into how they contradict themselves every twenty seconds for twenty-one goddamn tracks, or the song about looking for a girlfriend on the internet, so here’s some of the most hilariously confounding and desperate lines to impress upon you how serious the problem is:
*”So if you hot box hit it hard until it hurts / so I can get to the other side like lesbians trying to convert.
*”I never thought that it would end like this. / I never thought that you could pack your s**t. / … / leaving me lost, feeling the cost of being a boss. / … / I thought she was the one but I was so wrong. / Glad I don’t have a gun, I’d be so gone.
*”Drugs are bad they told us all. / We rolling like a bowling ball, / but it don’t matter, f*** them all. / Let’s get f****d up until we fall.
*”Every time I getta date, get h**h and show up late. / Baby I don’t need no r*****s cause I just shoot blanks. / I look like Jackie Chan or like I was from Japan. / I roll fat b****s, like me, cause I’m the man.
*”Ay yo battle y’all swagger frost from digital to analog. / My catalogue is deadlier than Portuguese Man-o’-wars. / You swimming with a killer shark I’m known for ripping s**t apart, / so get involved at TRISTATE.COM.

Quick And Dirty: If you actually like Kottonmouth Kings and Insane Clown Posse, congratulations, this is for you. (♦½)

Weaving rocks.

Concept: Fate bobs between merry pining for the past and bitter dread, while rushing through mottled pop-rock styles of the highest order.

Sound: To be crass, these are songs the Beatles forgot to write. The Philadelphia troupe has set up a rousing and almost perfectly balanced album, cycling its vocalists and instrumentation with each track to preserve and emphasize the value of each for the listener. Likewise, every song is composed of ideas that quickly speak their piece and faithfully transform.

Lyrics: Dr. Dog’s lyricism has the same kind of headstrong melancholy charm that has been so good to The Strokes. The words are simple but deceptively self-aware; listen long enough, and a stronger statement emerges. “Man, you ain’t like anybody else / As night becomes the sun to rise / As dirt becomes the butterflies / As sure as though it always seems to stay the same / And I’ll be waiting anxiously / And I’ll be falling fast asleep / And I’ll be dreaming of the day the dream died.

Quick And Dirty: Fate is too steady, clever, and accessible to disappoint. Go ahead. (♦♦♦♦½)

Artist: Murder By Death

Album: Red of Tooth and Claw

Released: Vagrant Records, 2008

Reviewer: Robert Lennon

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A dark Americana version of “The Odyssey”, “Red of Tooth and Claw” showcases the strengths of Murder By Death, even if the songs are not particularly intricate. With the loss of original keyboardist Vincent Edwards, the band has had to musically pull back in some respects, but in return they have branched into new territory, heavily influenced by the darker side of country music.

Adam Turla’s voice has shifted once again in this album, taking a lot from Johnny Cash. Listening to the the first song “Comin’ Home”, one can be excused thinking at first the album is a Cash release. But the writing has slipped a little in this album. There are some fine lyrics, but most of the songs follow the same formula of verse-chorus-verse-chorus ad terminum. The theme of the album, as Turla described it, is “The Odyssey” without the sympathetic character at the center, and the songs reflect that. Revenge, lust, wanton violence, all of these are present in the album, they just don’t seem to hold as much strength as in the last album “In Bocca Al Lupo.”

In terms of music, cellist Sarah Balliet steals the album. Her skill is manifested throughout the album, almost too much, but not quite. The band does well by balancing her with other instrumentation. Perhaps the best show of this is the instrumental track in the middle “Theme (For Ennio Morricone)”. The band really shows off how far they’ve come from their early work. It’s just a shame they didn’t extend that to every song.

All together, this is a solid album. Murder By Death tried something new and made a leap musically, and while they didn’t quite land on both feet, they made a good show of it. Reprising themes about the dark side of human nature, Turla’s writing has some fine images interspersed with a few clichés, but holds up well. Check it out for a good country-alternative mix.

Stand Out Tracks: Fuego!, Theme (For Ennio Morricone), Spring Break 1899

Murder By Death is:

  • Adam Turla – lead vocals, guitars, keyboards
  • Sarah Balliet – cello
  • Dagan Thogerson – drums, percussion
  • Matt Armstrong – bass

Artist: Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Album: Slow Riot for New Zerø Kanada
Released: Constellation Records, 1999
Reviewer: Robert Lennon
slow-riot-for-new-zero-kanada

“I beheld the earth,
And, lo, it was waste and void;
And the heavens, and they had no light.” – Jeremiah 4:23
“Tohu va vohu” is the Hebrew phrase on the album cover, and can be translated as “waste and void.” And that is the themes of this album, the second release by the Montreal-based post rock collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The atmosphere of this album is dark and foreboding, and eventually explodes in a climax of unparalleled force.

There are two tracks in the album, “Moya” and “Blaise Bailey Finnegan III”, although the album is really a single song of about 30 minutes split into two movements. You can listen to either one on its’ own, but together their emotional strength is much greater. “Moya” begins with subdued strings, a cello and violin. They slowly build together for a few minutes as the guitars add a high wail to the background. Then the band begins the main section of the song, where the entire band comes to create a wall of sound that envelops the listener in the sound of loss. When I first heard the song, I thought that whoever Moya was must have died, the band cries out for their own personal loss so powerfully. After eight minutes or so, the drums pick up speed until the band climaxes. Then the strings cut back in, and the album moves straight into “Blaise Bailey Finnegan III”.

BBF3 is the heart of the album. It starts off slow, again, but this time with the interview of a man the band calls “Blaise Bailey Finnegan III” in the foreground, with the band providing a musical counterpart to Blaise’s sincere yet misguided rant. He rants against the government, he rants against society, he rants against other people, but never thinks he might be part of the problem. His poem, which provides the set-up for the climax of the album (and is also taken mostly from the song “Virus” by Iron Maiden), decries the apathy of man, but just before he recites it he says that there’s nothing for us to do, “we’re just basically in a hopeless situation as it stands.” As he gets more and more into his speech, the band plays with him, presenting the musical version of the world Blaise inhabits. It is not a happy world. As Blaise begins to count the myriad of firearms he owns, the track continues the music gets more and more lonely. A piano underlies Blaise as he says that the world will continue to go down and down with no hope of recovery. After his poem, the song seems to lull for a moment, but it is just a time for the listener to prepare for the finale of the album, one of the finest I have ever heard. The climax of the album is emotionally draining in its’ strength. It is so powerful, fast, and sincere, that the listener is blown away by the combination of roaring guitars, drums being smashed, and strings attacking the listener through their music. One might wonder if this is what the world Blaise lives in sounds like. Whatever the meaning of the music, it is a wonder to marvel at. The entire band is at full force, and at the end of the climax, you are left gasping for breath. But the band provides a few minutes of denouement, with ghost-like strings laid over the sound of some creature crying out. The band ends the release as it began, contemplating the “waste and void”, not just of personal life but also of societal interaction, from the beginning.

Possibly the most accessible release from Godspeed You! Black Emperor, this EP showcases all the marks that made the group so good and influential: musical dynamism, a focus not just on personal issues but cultural ones (exemplified by BBF3), and bone-breaking climaxes. If you haven’t yet, check this one out, I guarantee it will not disappoint.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor was:
Efrim Menuck — guitar, keyboards
David Bryant — guitar, tapes
Mauro Pezzente — bass guitar
Thierry Amar — bass guitar
Aidan Girt — drums, percussion
Bruce Cawdron — drums, percussion, keyboards
Sophie Trudeau — violin
Norsola Johnson — cello
Mike Moya — guitar