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KRCC’s Delvin Neugebauer reviews new releases from Blue Sky Black Death, Fleet Foxes, Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside, Booker T. Jones, The Kills, Shannon & the Clams and Poly Styrene, as well as the Positively Pikes Peak compilation. All the albums reviewed are recent additions to KRCC’s music library. Tune in to any of the Music Mix programs on KRCC to hear selections from these new releases.
Blue Sky Black Death
(Fake Four Inc.)
Kingston Maguire and Ian Taggart (who works under the pseudonym Young God whad’ya mean it’s not a pseudonym? Come on, get serious) both have been producing and mixing for hip-hop artists for at least ten years now. The pair began working together as Blue Sky Black Death in 2005. The title of the duo’s fourth album, Noir, actually isn’t accurate: very little about it feels dark or foreboding. The music is warm, rich and colorful throughout. Even in its most twilit moments (most of which show up in the second half), the album’s sound reflects the first part of the duo’s name far more than the second. The two musicians build each of the disc’s tracks on a simple chord progression and then change the instrumentation subtly, varying the mood several times in each song. A graceful keyboard intro opens the first cut, “Our Hearts of Ruin”; a hint of fuzzy static comes in, then bells and choral voices, and then a stately keyboard carries the song before dropping out to a string quartet over finger snaps. “Sleeping Children Are Still Flying” starts with an echoey Clapton-style guitar lead over a laid-back funky groove with handclaps; then plucked violin strings carry the tune before it builds to a surge of organ, trumpet and tympani all of which drops out, leaving only a children’s choir and sampled conversation between two young boys. The group builds its moods gradually and gracefully, seldom letting the shifts get overdramatic or heavy-handed. The song “In the Quiet Absence of God” (I guess Maguire recorded this one while Taggart was out of the building or something) is an exception, opening with an operatic soprano over piano and orchestra and layering the sound from there. Only a few of the disc’s samples are readily identifiable, such as Dusty Springfield’s voice singing “The Windmills of Your Mind” in “Farewell to the Former World” or a snippet of Solomon Burke singing “Don’t Give Up on Me” in “Falling Short.” Overall, Noir is an inviting, rich album that flows beautifully. It’s perfect for a blissful late-evening mood … or for an alluring continuation of that evening with the right company.
Two years in the making, the second studio album from Fleet Foxes continues in the lush folk-based vein of the Seattle-based sextet’s debut. And, as on the debut, singer/songwriter Robin Pecknold delivers a clutch of literate, finely detailed songs. The lyrics of “Montezuma” allude to someone looking back from the end of his life: “In dearth or in excess/Both the slave and the empress/Will return to the dirt, I guess/Naked as when they came/I wonder if I’ll see/Any faces above me/Or just cracks in the ceiling/Nobody else to blame.” Pecknold exercises his eye for detail to the fullest in “Sim Sala Bim”: “He was so kind, such a gentleman/Tied to the oceanside/Lighting a match on the suitcase’s latch in the fading light/Ruffled the fur of the collie ‘neath the table/Ran out the door through the dark/Carved out his initials in the bark.” Over the bouncy rhythm of “Bedouin Dress,” the singer references both the Odyssey and a poem by William Butler Yeats in the chorus: “Everything I took, I’d soon return/Just to be at Innisfree again/All of the Sirens are driving me over the stern.” “The Shrine/An Argument” develops as a suite: over a brisk guitar opening, the protagonist sings, “I’m not one to ever pray for mercy/Or to wish on pennies in the fountain of the shrine/But that day, you know, I left my money/And I thought of you only/All that copper glowing fine.” From there, the song billows into a full band arrangement, with strummed guitar over accordion, as he shares just how the person he was thinking about left him on “that day”: “In the doorway, holding every letter that I wrote/In the driveway, pulling away/Putting on your coat/In the ocean, washing off my name from your throat.” Then it all reaches its dramatic peak before dropping back into quiet, as he pleads for release with a familiar image: “The waves break ever closer, ever nearer to me … Carry me to Innisfree like pollen on the breeze.” Perhaps “Blue Spotted Tail” serves as a sequel, showing where the lost lover ended up: “In the city only for a while/Here to face the fortune and the bile/I heard you on the radio/I couldn’t help but smile.” Helplessness Blues is full of slow-building intros and enormous sweeping crescendoes. At some points on the disc, Pecknold’s reedy voice is supported only by a barely audible strum of guitar; at other times, his bandmates guitarist Skyler Skjelset, bassist Christian Wargo, keyboardist Casey Wescott, drummer Joshua Tillman and multi-instrumentalist Morgan Henderson layer the arrangements to near-orchestral levels and blend their voices into lush, Beach Boys-worthy harmonies. For all the richly detailed arrangements, the music on Helplessness Blues doesn’t offer many hooks. The melodies are what draw the listener in. Give this album a listen from start to finish just once, and guaranteed, you’ll find yourself humming at least one tune from it two weeks later. That melodic excellence, together with Pecknold’s songs and the group’s vivid music, makes Helplessness Blues a superb sophomore effort.
Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside
Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside play a loose blend of rockabilly, blues and country swing, topped by Ford’s raw, unfettered voice. On its debut album, Dirty Radio, the Portland, Oregon-based quartet comes through with a set of good songs, but manages to bring its sound together only about half the time. Over the fast country-rockabilly groove of “This Crew,” Ford offers a charming tribute to her town and her bandmates: “Don’t know how I got here/But I know I like it here/Guess I came on a whim/It’s just what I do/For the first time in my life/I think I really fit in/Really fit in with this crew.” “Against the Law” is a slow, haunting blues number whose rhythm track includes rattling chains, like a prisoner’s manacles dragging the floor, and hollow, clanking percussion like a tin cup being hit against the cell bars. The mid-tempo number “Where Did You Go?” is directed toward an abandoning lover: “Does the thought of me ever catch your thoughts?/Who are you screwing now?/Do you love them lots?/Or are you still a mess?/Don’t you think of me living in this place?/Don’t you miss my body or miss my face/In jealousy or regrets?” “Thirteen Years Old” is another bluesy selection with a woozy fiddle weaving through; the protagonist in this one mourns her father: “They always say that life will go on/But all I got is my house and my lawn/My dog, my brother, my school and my friends/And now daddy’s gone/Does it mean it all ends?” Guitarist Jeffrey Munger, bassist Tyler Tornfelt and drummer Ford Tennis make a versatile, energetic combo, but they often have a tenuous grip on the groove, either playing it too slack or too static. At times, Ford’s singing sounds a bit like Grace Slick’s without the stentorian tone. She slips off-key on a lot of the high notes, though, and when she tries to scat or tosses in a rockabilly-style hiccup, she mostly sounds affected. When the group does hit it right, the results are good, frisky fun, even when the lyrics are downcast. Dirty Radio shows what Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside are capable of; here’s hoping a year or so of live performances helps this crew tighten it up in time for its next album.
Booker T. Jones
The Road from Memphis
Booker T. Jones may not be as well-known as, say, Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Neil Young, Willie Nelson or Elton John. But no list of the most important musicians in American history is complete without his name. A child prodigy who scored his first Number One hit while still in high school (the 1962 single “Green Onions,” written and recorded with his band The M.G.’s), Jones has defined the sound of the organ in R&B and soul ever since. (Oh, and he’s recorded with all the artists mentioned above.) Members of The Roots provide the backup for Jones on The Road from Memphis; Roots drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson co-produces the disc. Dennis Coffey, formerly a member of Motown’s house band The Funk Brothers, brings his hard-edged guitar playing to the party too. Jim James of My Morning Jacket sings about the optimistic faith in “Progress”: “If not today, maybe tomorrow/If not tomorrow, maybe in a week/No matter how far off, I’m pushin’.” Matt Berninger of The National duets with the Dap-Kings’ Sharon Jones (who’s no relation to Booker T.) in the lush soul number “Representing Memphis”: “I grew up there, so don’t talk about my city/From the hood to the ‘burbs, we all stay busy.” Jones himself takes the mic on the strutting “Down in Memphis,” reminiscing about his efforts to make a name for himself in his youthful days: “Doin’ it in the evening/Learnin’ how to walk the beat/Layin’ it down again/Takin’ it on the chin/Headin’ for the darkest club/Down on Beale Street/Playin’ that funky music … Gotta be a pistol/Gotta be a gun/Gotta be one strange phenomenon/Down in Memphis.” Even Lou Reed sounds soulful in this company, as he trots out his ragged tonsils over the slow, moody closing number, “The Bronx” although why Jones would let the road from Memphis lead him to the Bronx is a mystery. Throughout the album, Jones plays the Hammond B-3 organ with that rich, sinuous, purring sound that he perfected a half-century ago. It would be inaccurate, though, to call Jones the star of the album. Sure, his Hammond B-3 is nearly always front and center (at least on the instrumentals); its sound is always irresistible and his playing always assured. But he isn’t here to show off. From start to finish, Jones and his band keep the emphasis on the songs. “Walking Papers” and “The Hive” both are reminiscent of classic New Orleans funk; “Rent Party” has an enticing, laid-back walking feel; “The Vamp” and “Harlem House” offer some strutting, itchy funk grooves. And on his covers of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” and Lauryn Hill’s “Everything Is Everything,” Jones never loses focus on the melodies. The Road from Memphis is a warm, inviting album that delivers classic-sounding Memphis soul, yet still sounds up-to-the-minute fresh proof, as if it were needed, that music and playing like Booker T.’s never goes out of fashion.
The duo of American singer Alison Mosshart and British guitarist Jamie Hince offer more of their trademark stripped-down blues and grimy garage rock on their fourth album, Blood Pressures. As always, Mosshart’s voice is the center of attention here. Her singing is pure method acting, whether she’s expressing anger, bereavement, lust or fear. (She always has been able to take charge of a song, but since her last album with The Kills, she’s marked up two albums and tours with The Dead Weather. That experience really seems to have increased her confidence.) “Future Starts Slow” opens the album with sharp, harsh guitars leading into a whomping beat. “You Don’t Own the Road” moves to a faster, funkier groove, and “Satellite” changes things up with a rhythm best described as mutant reggae. (Okay, so maybe someone else can describe it better.) “Nail in My Coffin” is more urgent and driving, as Mosshart sings over Hince’s electronically distorted guitar, “What you are to me is far too unclear/Could be a nail in my coffin/And I don’t need another one.” Over the hard, dry beat and snarling guitar of “Damned If She Do,” the singer details a depraved love affair, dropping a depth-charge line that suggests just who in the arrangement is getting what they need: “I am no stranger/To the strange and all his ways/But what could be stranger than to be stuck outside your cage?” Hince takes the mic on “Wild Charms,” singing over saloon piano and a slow, dry beat. A different piano sound, this one more ghostly, opens “The Last Goodbye”; then the Mellotron strings come in, along with a drum beat like a distant funeral march, as Mosshart sings, “It’s the last goodbye, I swear/I can’t rely on a dime-a-day love that don’t go anywhere.” In the album-closing “Pots and Pans,” a forlorn woman expresses her weariness over acoustic slide guitar and a slow, steady beat: “I can’t find enough pots and pans/Let alone love in my kitchen/To keep you cookin’/I can’t find enough love in my heart/Let alone in my bones/To keep you standin’.” It all adds up to an album full of passion, strong grooves and attitude to spare. Fans of The Kills will find plenty on this disc to keep them rockin’.
Positively Pikes Peak
The Pikes Peak Region Sings Bob Dylan
(Eleven Mile Records)
(Full disclosure: Sales of this CD benefit COPPeR — Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region — of which the reviewer’s wife is a board member.)
Bob Dylan’s upcoming 70th birthday already is generating new interest in his music. (Indeed, people at Columbia Records are working overtime to ensure this.) When faced with such hype, it’s always worthwhile to consider the less obvious choices out there. On Positively Pikes Peak, thirteen musical artists from the Pikes Peak region cover a selection of Bob Dylan’s songs. (Its title is a take-off on Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street.”) The result is not only an enjoyable showcase for local talent, but a good sampler of the songwriter’s less high-profile efforts: only one of the 13 songs here was a Top Forty single for Dylan. Most of the artists perform in a simple, folk-based style, but nearly all of them bring their own touch to the songs. Lindsay Weidmann opens the disc with a lovely performance of “Boots of Spanish Leather,” singing in an airy soprano over acoustic guitars and spare keyboards. Ted Shinn brings just a hint of a Celtic feel to “Time Passes Slowly.” Andrew de Naray adds eerie, theremin-like atmospherics to “Tomorrow Is a Long Time.” “Baby, You’ve Been on My Mind” and “Tell Ol’ Bill” both get the approach most commonly associated with Dylan — just acoustic guitar, harmonica and vocals — from Jeff Moats and Jeremy Hodges, respectively. Randy Ruebsamen lays some spare electric guitar and slide guitar over a dry snare drum’s tattoo on “Not Dark Yet.” Rick Stahl performs “Lay Lady Lay” with a mixture of strummed and picked acoustic guitars, steel guitar (courtesy of Rich Currier) and bongos, until a solid rhythm section kicks in after the first chorus. That’s the first full-fledged band arrangement to show up on the album; Steele Diamond Louis & Hall follow it with the fullest, as they trade off lead vocals line by line on “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” Heather Gunn sings “Meet Me in the Morning” with a little bit of blues inflection over acoustic and slide guitar and a strutting rhythm. Barry Beard strips “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You” to just voice and guitar; Ryan Kulp takes the same approach to “I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine,” until he adds a whistling solo on the bridge. Bill Wallbaum and Misti Walker sing a fine duet on “Make You Feel My Love” over piano, guitar and synthesizer. Jason Bennett closes the album with the only explicitly political song on the disc, “Let Me Die in My Footsteps.” This one shows how Dylan’s best work still speaks to the present time: “There’s always been people who have to cause fear/They’ve been talking about wars for many long years/And I’ve read all their statements/And I’ve not said a word/But now, Lord God, let my poor voice be heard.” Positively Pikes Peak is an excellent disc that’s sure to please any Dylan fan, and probably make a few new ones.
Shannon & the Clams
Fans still mourning the death of singer Lux Interior and how it brought an end to The Cramps (the band, not the symptom) should check out Shannon & the Clams. On their second album, Sleep Talk, bassist/singer Shannon Shaw and her bandmates guitarist Cody Blanchard and drummer Ian Amberson perform with plenty of rockabilly spirit and abandon, all drenched in echoey, swampy production that hints at The Cramps’ voodoo-rock classics. And the group delivers some pretty cool tunes. “The Cult Song” is Cramps-worthy mania, with Blanchard adding a growling background chant like a witch-doctor ready to jump some bones. “Baby Don’t Do It” and “You Will Always Bring Me Flowers” add more than a touch of the Shangri-Las to the rockabilly sound. “Toxic Revenge” and “King of the Sea” are revved-up, harder punk-style numbers; a caterwauling saxophone courses through the bridge on the former, and on the latter, Shaw and Blanchard let loose with a variety of guttural squeals and yowls, like a couple of Rock Lobsters responding to the King of the Sea’s call. On songs like “Done with You,” “Tired of Being Bad” and “Oh Louie” (“We were two peas in a pod/But now the pod has been ripped from the peas”), Shaw brings a lot of raw emotion, desperation and weariness to her vocals, and juices the songs by throwing in some very authentic-sounding rockabilly hiccups and squeals. In “The Woodsman,” the singer compares a heartless lover to the Tin Woodsman from The Wizard of Oz; in “Half Rat,” she compares him to an escaping rodent. Sleep Talk is a fun, rollicking album. Shaw isn’t the next Lux Interior come on, who could be? but she’s a one-of-a-kind performer.
(Future Noise Music Ltd.)
Poly Styrene’s recorded output was small (especially considering the time span it covers), but far from predictable. From her teenage stint fronting X-Ray Spex, one of the original British punk bands, to the jazz-lite and New Age sounds of her solo work, the singer born Marianne Elliott-Said covered a surprising amount of ground. Sadly, her exploration has been cut short: Styrene died of cancer last month, at age 53, the day before Generation Indigo’s Stateside release. For her final solo effort, Styrene focused on dance-pop, heavy on the beats and synthesizers, with a few hard-edged guitar riffs and a couple of songs that veer into dub-reggae territory. Several of the songs also feature some wailing saxophone, hinting at the old X-Ray Spex days. The album is lively and energetic, but to be honest, there isn’t much going on here musically that plenty of other dance divas aren’t delivering, from Lady GaGa on down … or from Lady GaGa on up, depending on your attitude. What sets Generation Indigo apart is Styrene’s point of view. The singer lampooned consumer culture in her work with X-Ray Spex, and retreated from it after that band’s split even becoming a Hare Krishna. The opening track, “I Luv Ur Sneakers,” reflects that experience, as the singer aims a playful jab or two at a fashionista: “The canvas, the color/The rubber toe/No animal died/Or lost its soul/In the production of/Your beautiful sneakers.” On several tracks, Styrene sings about finding serenity and illumination, along with a few solutions (albeit utopian ones) to the world’s problems. “White Gold” (whose title refers to the polar ice caps) presents a message of hope amidst global warming fears: “Floods are coming, the world is changing/But I don’t believe we are doomed/Call it an opportunity, baby/I’m rising above all the gloom.” In the reggae number “Colour Blind,” the artist rejoices over the colors all around her and commits herself to racial harmony: “I can see the rainbow high in the sky/The beauty of the colors as the clouds flow by … I can see graffiti and day-glo spray/The color of the sun, the moon and Milky Way … I can see diamonds and emeralds too/The infrared light and my silver shoes … But when it comes to my brethren, I and I/Just simply choose to remain colorblind.” The album isn’t all about messages, though. Styrene may have turned her back on the material world, but she never relinquished her sense of humor. Over the dance beat of “Kitsch,” she teases her detractors with, “You can call me a bitch/Or a bit of a witch/But I would say/I’m just a little bit kitsch.” She inventories a goth-boy’s makeup and clothes in “Ghoulish” and ends up assuring him, “I can see through your disguise/I can see you’re quite a nice guy/Baby, you’re so ghoulish/But I’m not so foolish to be scared.” The closing track, “Electric Blue Monsoon,” is a nearly a cappella hymn, with finger snaps and spare keyboard backing; Styrene’s multi-tracked voice echoes as if she’d come full-circle in her musical life, singing to commuters in a subway tunnel. Throughout the album, Styrene never offers protest without encouragement, or taunts without reassurance. And she never comes off as preachy, mainly because she knew that even the most enlightened human needs levity and fun. Generation Indigo is the swan song of an artist who devoted nearly her entire adult life to peace, love and understanding, without ever losing her youthful recognition of everything that’s funny in this world.
Contact the reviewer at firstname.lastname@example.org.