Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Scattered World--Unpublished Reviews 2015--2016

After 30 years, it's harder to find an outlet for much of my writing than ever. Material conditions have created a strange gulf between national and local presses and what they're editorially prone to cover. I'm old school and want to write about what I want to write about, whether it's a struggling local band or a struggling national act or an act that's somehow doing well on the mainstage while inspiring me to get through my ordinary struggles.

Anyway, I believe everything here is previously unpublished, most of it 2016 and a handful extending back into 2015. While I think Victor & Penny's new Electricity may be the duo's finest album, I dearly loved this live set and wanted to be sure and publish this old review here if nowhere else. All of which is to say, I believe I'll be spending more time in 2017 right here on the blog, where I can take em as they come like nowhere else. DA

Raised by WolvesJenny Ritter (Fiddle Head)--This Vancouver songwriter's first album, 2012's Bright Mainland, is a beautiful acoustic tapestry with an unforgettable anthem, "We Must Sing" and even a radio-ready country-rocker, "Resolute." On the new album, "Museum Song" is a banjo and fiddle-accompanied reverie about how "the young and hopeful heart" finds a place in the world, past and present. Ritter focuses on using the high, lonesome delicacy of her soprano to underscore her contradiction to the size and sensibility of the world around her. The song that spawned the title, "Wolf Wife," is a shifting and complex celebration of power where it's not generally perceived.  

Scattered World, Nalani & Sarina (N&S Records) With funky anthems like “We’ll Be Free,” “Love Who You Want” and the rapped “Get Away,” these twin singers and musicians come on Nona-Hendryx-powerful. Such bravado all by itself, with the talent to back it up, makes them something special. But the delicacy of the lost teen ballad “Runaway” and the dreamy textures of “Shadows in the Shade,” reveal a more vulnerable side, and “Scattered Girl” splits the difference, a portrait of confusion that finds its triumph in a hard rocking groove.

Big Car Town, Chris Buhalis ( the title track, Buhalis sings, “Man on the TV wants my vote/If truth was singing, babe, he couldn’t hold a note,” capturing the way this singer consistently braids the personal, the political and the musical into straightforward declarations of truth. The haunting imagery and soulful performances on this album offer new levels of meaning with every listen, but the hook is the fight in the work. You hear a rocker like “Daddy Worked the High Steel,” and you want to blast it from every rooftop—“So forgive me Mr. Banker if I don’t hear you when you’re crying/Daddy worked the highsteel/His daddy worked the line.”

Everybody's Got One, Terry "Buffalo" Ware and Gregg Standridge (Okiemotion) "Big Man (Watching Worlds Collide)" starts things off with an ominous implacable rhythm plunging the  listener into a future shaped by the calloused and powerful. As its title suggests, this duo's album fights hard against such conceit, the very next song, "Don't Believe a Word I Say," embracing the delicacy of every caressed note. There's a wizened down-to-Earth quality in both Standridge's and Ware's lead vocals, which is important to the album's unifying appeal, but what makes it really work is a musical fearlessness that sometimes contradicts that voice. "Hey Rachael" is a musical road trip to Memphis, punching horns celebrating a lost sense of invulnerability, singing "I could always shake my blues when I jammed that pedal down, but that magic I once knew is a mystery to me now." The words read like defeat, but the sound embraces a new reality. Immense acoustic string, echo, reverb and funereal martial drums deliver the final "Sparrow (The Story of Emmett Till)" with every bit of the weight that story deserves. That's the right place to end, and it might just be the album's most haunting moment if it weren't for the delicate two guitar memoir, "Beauty of the Day," about a lover lost to those colliding worlds.

En El Mass Alla, Nosotros ( Cumbia and salsa rhythms anchor and propel this fifty-minute explosion of soulful light and color. Like the New Mexican desert that gave birth to this 9-piece, there’s a stunning mix of traditions at play here, allowing the band to move from near-hip hop percussive builds on “Aqui y Alla,” to the pop rock of “Cada Dia,” to the epic folk grandeur of “Erase Una Vez” and the fiery guitar closer “Las Brasas.” 

Code Red, Monica (RCA) Barely 15 when she stormed the charts in the mid-90s, mid-30s Monica stands as a survivor who has turned out eight impressively solid albums, each with stunning moments. Toward the close this time she sings “I Miss Music,” about the loss of pop radio as she knew it, listing her favorites—not just Aaliyah and Biggie but folks living and dead—including Kurt Cobain, Stevie Wonder and Sting—who would not share the same airwaves today. She follows that with “Anchor,” a fiery promise to remain “right by your side,” her determination the only answer she has to the desperate situation she describes in the title track’s wailing soundscape of scratches and samples—“It’s like we got nowhere to land/It’s like we’re scared to take a chance.”

Emily’s D+Evolution, Esperanza Spalding (Concord) After working with Janelle Monae and Bruno Mars, the extraordinary jazz bassist and vocalist teams up with Tony Visconti for a 21st century version of jazz fusion, endlessly experimental yet reaching for a pop audience. The whole of this exotic tapestry is intoxicating, but the Black Rock drive of “Funk the Fear,” the psychedelic soul of “Change Us” and the shimmering explosiveness of “Unconditional Love” (both original and alternate version) promise to, as she sings, “change the whole story.”

One of the Lonely Ones, Roy Orbison (Universal) Unreleased in 1969 after the death of Orbison’s two oldest sons, this is certainly a grief-stricken record. You can hear it in the way he claims Carousel’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as his own personal challenge or in the eye-to-eye clarity of the declaration, “Don’t try to tell me it’s all right” at the start of “Leaving Makes the Rain Come Down” or the haunted perfection of his cover of Mickey Newbury’s “Sweet Memories.” But what’s remarkable about this record is its range of material. There are elements of doo wop and boardwalk rock in the darkly funny “Laurie,” while, “Child Woman, Woman Child” makes plain the connections between Elvis Presley and Iggy Pop. There’s a giddy fun to the Southwestern rock of “Give Up,” right down to the psychedelic come-on at its bridge. And then, most importantly, there’s the reach—from the long barroom nights on the title track to the Vietnam Vet’s homesickness and homelessness on “The Defector.”

Let the Good Times Roll, J.D. McPherson (Rounder) Broken Arrow, Oklahoma native McPherson credits Buddy Holly with igniting a passion for the kinds of sounds he chases, and that’s evident in the vivid mid-range textures and ecstatic bounce of this record. But there’s also more than a little Jackie Wilson in his voice, another invitation to rediscover rock and roll thrills all but forgotten in the jaded world of today’s music. The best track starts as the most controlled, the Sam Cooke-like “Bridgebuilder,” a prayerful statement of purpose that eventually explodes into massive waves of guitar reverb and drums with enough space in the mix for sparkling chimes and piano.

Wondaland Presents the Eephus, Various Artists (Epic) This Atlanta-based collective surrounding Janelle Monae may not have produced the game-changer the title claims, but they’ve taken five songs and a Kendrick Lamar feature remix and made one helluva play. Deep Cotton’s “Let’s Get Caught” recalls the dangerous sexiness of the Time, while the haunting ballad by female duo St. Beauty, “Going Nowhere,” sounds like it may well have been crafted in that bedroom in Purple Rain. None of which is to say this is a throwback so much as a return to music, at once, synthesizing all that’s coming before and pushing for a pop future that sounds utterly new. Roman Gianarthur’s “iKnow” may be the catchiest thing here, and it sounds like nothing else. Jidenna’s “Classic Man” is a crooner’s boast about being a “young OG” working with an army of women generals, and Monae’s “Yoga” is, conceptually, the calculus version of “Tightrope.” 

A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Sturgill Simpson (Atlantic) Simpson’s first two albums called up comparisons to Waylon Jennings, but working with the Dap Kings’ horns this time around, he draws a bold line between that influence and Van Morrison. Particularly unforgettable is the ending, which moves from “Oh Sarah,” a love song about the limits of one’s dreams to the anti-war Southern rocker “Call to Arms.” Every line’s worth reprinting here, but it’s hard to beat the artless summation, “Turn off the TV/Turn off the news….The bullshit’s got to go.”

Introducing Darlene Love, Darlene Love (Columbia) Produced by Steve Van Zandt (and featuring three of his finest songs, one new) as well as two Elvis Costello songs, two Bruce Springsteen songs, a Joan Jett, a Linda Perry, a Walter Hawkins, a Mann and Weill, a call to change the world by Jimmy Webb, and a remake of “River Deep, Mountain High,” this record is, simply put, epic. Perhaps the moment that makes the point most vividly is a duet with Bill Medley on Costello’s “Still Too Soon to Know.”  Two of the greatest voices in pop music history contemplate the fault lines that cause relationships to teeter, and then linger after they’ve fallen. The results are so emotionally devastating the logical follow is the Webb-penned track, a record that stands shoulder-shoulder with “MacArthur Park” for musical ambition.
 Ride Out, Bob Seger (Hideout) Seger owns a wonderful series of covers here from Steve Earle, Kasey Chambers, Woody Guthrie via Jeff Tweedy and John Hiatt, kicking things off with Hiatt’s “Detroit Made” roaring like the Buick Elektra it celebrates. But the Seger-penned cuts are just as strong, especially bold with the call for straight talk about the environment, “It’s Your World.”

Live at the Living Room Theatre, Victor & Penny and Their Loose Change Orchestra ( Kansas City’s jazz age guitar and ukulele combo wears its novelty like a badge of honor, and, indeed, everything about them is an argument against rock and pop prejudices, starting with the notion that a novelty act can’t be great. Part of that greatness is their love of forgotten, lost and little known songs. Two Scatman Crothers songs make this mix as well as some Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and even John Williams’s Star Wars “Cantina Band.” Two stand-out originals include fellow songwriters Theo Bishop and Benny Chadwick’s haunting “Salt” and Howard Iceberg’s playful “Indiscreet.” Throughout, the live setting emphasizes the improvisation in this jazz age music, nowhere better illustrated than in the head-spinning guitar-clarinet duel at the heart of the Iceberg song.

Freedom, Ariana Gillis ( Prior to this six-song EP, Gillis has released two multi-colored, elaborately textured albums that build a new universe of sound out of familiar folk and pop elements. This demo-of-an-album is comparatively stark, a bright spotlight on Gillis’s voice and acoustic guitar. That said, these six songs are still multi-colored and elaborately textured because those qualities start with Gillis’s Shakira-sized voice. Featuring the most complex arrangement—heartbeat thumps on an acoustic guitar under banjo and fiery guitar, yearning horn, rumbling tom-toms, and high lonesome, wordless vocals—“Jeremy Woodstock” delivers the story of a disembodied heart in passionate magic realism. Throughout, Gillis writes about the most personal risks in the context of a world at war, crying out “guns and soldiers, bullets, patrollers, freedom never felt so wrong” on the opening cut and later taking on the perspective of a soldier, stating matter-of-factly “I’m going off to war/I know I’m never coming home.” But perhaps the strongest blend of form and content here is “White Blush,” as vulnerable a song about the spotlight as anyone ever wrote that somehow manages to never sound weak—in fact, it rings triumphant. 

Cama Incendiada, Mana (Warner) Kicking off the Guadalajara band’s third decade, this ninth studio album has all the vitality of a great debut. A single cut may be wall-of-sound techno one moment, then acoustically delicate before storming into a guitar and drum build. What matters is the way it all works together, the political silencing suggested by the gorgeous ballad with Shakira, “Mi Verdad” echoed later by the explosive Los Tigres del Norte cover “Somos Mas Americanos.”

Leave No Bridge Unburned, Whitehorse (Six Shooter Records) Canadians Melissa McClelland and Luke Doucet get called a folk duo, but that hardly describes this third album. The record starts off with an unrequited love song staged in an Ennio Morricone dreamscape before a spooky portrait of small-town yearning, “Tame as the Wild Ones,” goes epic in a whole different way, snare drum against crashes of guitar. “Downtown” brings Hammond organ and a Bo Diddley beat. “Sweet Disaster” offers garage rock Drifters. And those songs are followed by rockabilly, stark minimalism, 21st Century delta blues and more than a hint of Roy Orbison. As much as anything, this album winds up being about rock and roll as a force of nature. As if to drive home the point, the most Dylanesque number, closer “The Walls Have Drunken Ears” sounds like a rumbling train about to jump the next bend.
Drive All Night, Sky Smeed ( This Chanute, Kansas-based singer-songwriter reaches a few miles south to embrace Woody Guthrie, for “Talkin’ Medical Marijuana Blues” (yes, filtered through Dylan) and “This Land,” a dark rocker that rages against the betrayal of Guthrie’s most famous song. Produced by Katrina transplant Mike West, Smeed’s fifth album revolves around such comfort and pain, searching for a way out of the vividly familiar national malaise of isolation and helplessness.

Guitar in Hand, Kasey Rausch (Mudstomp) and The Musical, Mikal Shapiro ( Dave Marsh’s Kansas City area fans have reason to struggle on Sunday mornings when his Kick Out the Jams program airs opposite the local music show River Trade Radio, much of it live performances in the studio hosted by fine KC musicians Rausch and Shapiro. The diversity of what these women have to offer is well represented by each of their recent releases, fourth generation musician Rausch with a set of rocking bluegrass and country as humble as it is moving and Shapiro with a jazz cabaret that swings from punk to honkytonk to gospel.

Something More Than Free, Jason Isbell (Southeastern Records) Isbell hasn’t made a weak record yet, and these eleven songs synthesize most of the best of what’s come before. Musically, Isbell continues with the restraint that has characterized his approach since Here We Rest, but the stream-of-consciousness surprise of the hook-laden “24 Frames” and the fiery “Palmetto Rose” as well as the deceptively light touch of “How to Forget” and the arena-rocking “Hudson Commodore” call to mind his dazzling 400 Unit. Beginning with the confessional “If It Takes a Lifetime” and ending with the heart-on-sleeve tribute to comrades in arms, “To a Band That I Loved,” Isbell’s never shown more cards, and in so doing, made such plain and simple magic.


Electric Church: Atlanta Pop Music Festival, July 4, 1970, The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Experience Hendrix) Filmed two months before Hendrix’s death, this document of the Southern rock music festival showcases the artist at the height of his powers. At this moment, the band is actually a cross between Experience and Band of Gypsies, with Mitch Mitchell on drums and Billy Cox on bass, and the set list blends the worlds of each studio album. Playing before the largest audience in his career, his fireworks backed “Star Spangled Banner” sounds both more realized and more irreverent than ever. Notably, it’s just a segue between the still unreleased “Stone Free” and “Straight Ahead.”