Monthly Archives: November 2008

Her Space Holiday – XOXO, Panda And The New Kid Revival

January 01, 1970

(Mush)

 

www.mushrecords.com

 

A sharp departure from the lush,
electronically-derived sounds of Her Space Holiday’s earlier work, this seventh
full-length recalls the laid-back pop of Beulah. Serene in tone, arranged with
tambourines, banjos, acoustic guitar, toy xylophones and found sounds (sirens,
tea kettles, crotchety old voices), the disc has, nevertheless, a melancholy
underbelly.  “Two Tin Cans and a Length
of String” may sound like a shout-along celebration, but it’s about the
preciousness of connection in the face of illness. (“I remember the day
the spot was found/the kids moved back just to help us out/You held yourself
with such dignity”). This and other songs on the album make it clear that
Marc Bianchi has lost someone recently, a parent or grandparent. They are warm,
wonderful songs about loving and saying goodbye. 

 

Not that there aren’t a few silly
love songs to lighten things up. “Sleepy Tigers” rattles along on a
handclap beat, jangly guitar chords punctuating infatuated couplets like
“You’ll make biscuits and I’ll make tea/And curl up close and then fall
asleep/To the sound of no one else, no one else around.”  “Boys and Girls” is even more upbeat,
erupting into gentle burbles of “tra la la la” at the chorus, as
buoyant as a pop soap bubble.  Yet even
love songs have their darker shadings. In “The World Will Deem Us
Dangerous”, the besotted narrator slips a girl a flower. The problem? He
gets it from his father’s open casket. By the time, it gets to the girl’s desk
it is brown, faded and smells of rot, and the girl asks for it to be removed.
You could consider the flower a metaphor for this very appealing album, sweet,
pretty and well-intentioned, but shadowed by close proximity to death.

 

And still, while XOXO plays, it has a drawling ease, a light-as-air touch that reminds you of
Beulah’s When Your Heartstrings Break. Nonchalantly, Bianchi connects
sex and death, transience and memory, art and friendship, and his wispy pop
songs bear the weight without the slightest strain.

 

Standout Tracks: “Sleepy Tigers”, “Two Tin Cans and a Length of String”
JENNIFER KELLY

 

Various Artists – Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia

January 01, 1970

(Sony Legacy/PRI)

 

www.legacyrecordings.com

 

Unfairly relegated to third place behind Motown and Memphis
in the Seminal Soul Sound Sweepstakes, and too often waved-off as the fount of
Disco’s excesses, the Philly soul sound of the early ‘70s has undergone a
welcome makeover in recent years, on display in this handsome, fully annotated
four-disc box set.

 

The 71 songs that make up Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia feature ubiquitous hits from
the likes of the O’Jays, Billy Paul, the Spinners, the Delfonics, Harold Melvin
& the Blue Notes, Teddy Pendergrass, and a host of lesser lights, as well
as collaborations with fellow travelers like Dusty Springfield, Wilson Pickett
and the Jacksons. Mixing gossamer pop and fiery gospel, Delta blues and
street-corner doo-wop, smooth strings and swinging horn sections, the Philly
Sound came to dominate soul music – especially commercially — in the early and
mid-70s, and was synonymous with Philadelphia International Records, the
taste-maker label of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees Kenny Gamble and
Leon Huff.

 

PIR wasn’t the only name in the sound some referred to as
Sweet Philly, but it was the movement’s lynchpin: in one nine-month stretch
during 1972-73, PIR sold a mind-boggling 10 million records as Paul’s “Me &
Mrs. Jones,” the O’Jays’ “Back Stabbers” and “Love Train,” Melvin & the
Blue Notes’ “If You Don’t Love Me By Now” and the Intruders’ “I’ll Always Love
My Mama,” all charted at the same time (all are included here amid the 48
PIR-released cuts). With the MSFB (Mother Father Sister Brother) house band,
and Tommy Bell’s plush arrangements, the label’s aesthetic remained remarkably
intact over this span as one new twist after another got the Philly Soul
treatment. The box set covers territory from 1967 (Gamble and Huff’s own Soul
Survivors) to 1983 (Patti LaBelle), and is split between the lushly
orchestrated fare that was (unfortunately) later watered down into smooth jazz
and adult contemporary, and the grittier, blues-based material whose
connections to R&B’s roots were still unmistakable. (Note that there is a
significant amount of overlap with 1997’s three-CD The Philly Sound 1966-1976, currently out of print, so consumers
would be advised to compare track listings prior to purchase if they already
own the earlier set.)

 

Context is significant here because while the string
sections didn’t remove all the grit from the music (as they arguably did in
C&W’s slickly orchestrated – and simultaneous — Countrypolitan movement),
it did reflect a more internal-looking African-American community after the
tumultuous Black Power movement, inner city riots, and Martin Luther King’s
assassination of the 60s. It is, after all, a long way from Marvin Gaye’s
“What’s Goin’ On?” to the Stylistics’ syrupy 1972 hit “I’m Stone In Love With
You,” even though their release dates were separated by only a year. But such
was the speed of the contraction after the expansive experimentalism and
cultural convulsions of the 60s.

 

That’s not to say that Sweet Philly lacked a social
conscience – “There’s a message in the music” was one of the label’s mantras.
Cuts like the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money” and “Give the People What They Want,”
Melvin & the Blue Notes’ “Wake Up Everybody,” Jerry Butler’s “Only the
Strong Survive” and McFadden & Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now”
didn’t flinch when it came to reflecting what was an increasingly decaying
urban landscape, drug plagues, and a dream still deferred. But self-awareness
and everyday life, more than politics, were at the core of the Philly Soul
narratives. As Lynell George’s essay – one of nine included in the expansive
liner notes – suggests, what made the music so special was “how closely
connected and representative of its landscape it was.”

 

Activism and sentimentality were no longer thought of as
mutually exclusive, and when the Blue Notes’ titanic “I Miss You,” complete
with its talking-address middle-eight, unfurls into nearly nine minutes of
soulful pleading, the line between the two gets erased, the personal and public
united as one. And the real strength of this box set can be found in these
longer numbers from the early-70s, where the Blue Notes and O’Jays (primarily) stretch
out and create what are, essentially, urban panoramas reflecting the City of Brotherly Love better than
any Rocky film.

 

But by the fourth disc the box’s imperfections emerge.
Without such generous contributions from the O’Jays (11 cuts) and Blue Notes (8
tracks), this would quickly become a three-disc set. And by the Spring of ‘76,
to put a specific time on it, the inner-city observations and blues-based roots
get overshadowed by the repetitive rhythms, layered synths, and overt sexuality
of the disco craze. Dee Dee Sharp’s “I’m Not In Love” may have inspired Soft
Cell’s massive remake, and The Spinners’ “The Rubberband Man” may still feature
that group’s fine harmonies, but together with the Jacksons’ “Enjoy Yourself” –
which might as well have been PRI’s new mantra — these tracks are indicative
of the shift toward disco’s decadence and self-obsession. You can practically
see the mirror balls, platform shoes and polyester collars, and get a contact
high from the copious cocaine.

 

Luckily, by then Philly Soul’s rightful legacy was set in
stone, and the resurgence of Neo-soul and the sampling debts owed by Kanye,
Jay-Z and OutKast, among others, attest to the enduring quality of the movement
and the strengths of this box set. JOHN SCHACHT

 

 

Kanye West – 808s and Heartbreak

January 01, 1970

(Roc-A-Fella)

 

www.rocafella.com

 

Even
in an industry known for its massive egos, West stands out- crashing award
shows and throwing fits about not winning top honors at the Grammies is par for
the course with him.  You have to wonder
what’s going to obsess him after he finally does win that award someday.

 

You
also have to wonder if that obsession is driving his latest concept.  Just as Outkast moved away from rap to
R&B/pop, West seems ready to take that leap too, making use of not just the
808 drum sounds from his latest title but another, more unfortunate electronic device:
the Auto-Tuner, aka the device that made many non-vocals sound like singers by
correcting their mistakes (which was popularized on Cher’s
“Believe”).  A cute gimmick at
first, it’s becoming the most overused gimmick this year, especially used and
abused by singer T-Pain (who helped to coach West on its use).

 

Where
West had a streak of three extraordinary albums preceding this, his concept of
R&B Auto-Tuning comes as something of a let-down.  What about the cult-rock samples (Can!) and
the alien themes (“Spaceship”) and a hit about his savior
(“Jesus Walks”) and the rap he did with his jaw wired (“Through
the Wire”), the Ray Charles revival (“Gold Digger”) and the
James Bond theme tied to modern African slavery (“Diamonds from Sierra Leone”)?  Now he’s just fascinated by a singing trick.

 

Even
if you don’t care about his ambitions, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he
can’t at least still make good music, at least in theory.  While his songs are serviceable pieces
of R&B, that’s all they are usually, and for an artist who keeps striving
and pushing himself like West, that’s a disappointment.

 

But
if you can forget that it’s West singing here through that voice contraption,
the songs are decent enough.  If you
heard “Love Lockdown” (with its funky piano and percussion stomps) on
the radio otherwise (maybe from John Legend – or Usher, because that’s who
Kanye really wants to be now), you’d
probably enjoy it, if not fall in love with it yourself.  Coupled with the catchy and Philly
Soul-influence “Paranoid,” the industry-beats meets soaring strings
of “RoboCop,” the middle of the album hits a good groove but that
leaves the front side and back side of the record a little saggy with
tune-starved material (“Street Light,” “Coldest Winter”),
overly simplistic ballads (“Say You Will,” “Welcome to
Heartbreak,” “Bad News”) and chopped/screwed fantasies
(“See You In My Nightmares”) that probably wouldn’t even stand up in
Prince’s or Stevie’s reject pile. 
Otherwise, it’s telling that some the strongest moments here come up
when he remembers that he’s a rapper (“Heartless”), which he’ll
hopefully remember the next time he hits the studio.

 

Most
of all, it sounds like this album could use a creative producer who would push
the artist into edgier territory. 
Someone like… Kanye West.

 

Standout Tracks: “Love Lockdown,”
“Heartless” JASON GROSS

 

 

 

Blurt – The Factory Recordings

January 01, 1970

(LTM)

 

 

www.ltmrecordings.com

 

 

Led by the honking sax and face contortions of erstwhile
performance artist Ted Milton, Blurt was one of the strangest bands to ever
have records released under the imprimatur of Factory Records.

 

Yet, the legendary label head Tony Wilson took as shine to
this manic trio after hearing a demo tape, and immediately asked the band to
contribute to the now-seminal 1980 compilation A Factory Quartet. The four songs the group recorded for the double
10″ are collected on this reissue, appended with a live recording intended
for release on Factory until Milton’s snide comments on the label got them
booted (it eventually came out on Armageddon Records).

 

The British press affixed Blurt with comparison to other
sax-welding wild men of the era – James White, Captain Beefheart – but other
than the choice of lead instrument the trio were – to put it perhaps too
bluntly – too white and too English to sound anything like those other artists.
Like fellow Factory band A Certain Ratio, they gamely tried blues, jazz and
funk, but it came off as dry and strained. The rhythms rigid and martial and
Milton’s bleating almost mannered.

 

Take those dull comparisons out of the equation though, and
the band is suddenly a top-notch post punk combo. Milton’s aggrieved vocals and
political ranting (see the vicious “My Mother Was A Friend of an Enemy of
the People”) combined with the glassine guitar work of Paul Creese makes
for art rock of the highest order. They shine in spite of their pigment and
geographic deficiencies, playing to their contorted strengths.

 

This reissue is really a footnote in the Factory catalog –
significantly, no Blurt tracks are included on the forthcoming four-CD A Factory Box Set – considering both the
label and the band soldiered on long after their association came to an end
(Milton still performs under the name Blurt today). But it stands as a welcome
reminder of the forward thinking of both entities in a time when it was it was
so sorely needed. 

 

Standout Tracks: “Dyslexia,”
“Puppeteers of the World Unite” ROBERT HAM

 

Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell

January 01, 1970

(Plexifilm)

 

www.plexifilm.com

 

It is at long last that we are finally able to grasp the
magnitude of Arthur Russell’s music, albeit sixteen years after his death.  Mostly forgotten except to a scant few music
aficionados and close personal friends, Russell’s forays into folk, folk rock,
avant-garde, and disco-at times separate and at times intermixed-are remarkable
to behold.

 

For those who have never heard of Russell-and we are minions
to be sure-Plexifilm’s new film Wild
Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell
can act as a kind of primer on
the man’s life and music.  The film is a
broad-brush stroke biography, beautifully shot and edited by Matt Wolf.  The outlines of Russell’s life are here, from
his childhood in Iowa, his immersion in New York’s avant-garde, new wave, and
disco scenes, all peppered with plenty of interview material with former band
mates, friends, and associates (among them Phillip Glass and Allen Ginsburg).

 

It is strange, then, to note that amidst what is ultimately
a very enjoyable documentary, Wild
Combination
also manifests a strange lack of depth.  We know little about what Russell thought or
felt and how that manifested itself in his music, a strange omission
considering the staggering amount of material he left behind to explore.  This is a biography, and so it should be, but
in limiting its approach it leaves the viewer wondering what Russell’s music
was all about.

 

One option for the curious: Love Is Overtaking Me, the fifth posthumous Russell release from
Audika Records (reviewed HERE on the BLURT site). CHRISTIAN KIEFER

 

 

 

Arthur Russell – Love Is Overtaking Me

January 01, 1970

(Audika)

 

www.audikarecords.com

 

 

On the recent, well-intentioned, but ultimately
unsatisfying, Plexifilm documentary Wild
Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell
(reviewed HERE), viewers were perhaps left
wondering what the late cellist and composer’s music was all about and why he
inspires such devotion among music aficionados.

 

Cutting to the chase of that question is Love Is Overtaking Me, the fifth
posthumous Russell release from Audika Records. 
Here we find Russell’s most accessible music, a collection of songs that
mostly tilt in the direction of folk and folk rock.  The songs here are memorable and melodic and
as straightforward as any of his contemporaries, much of it so straightforward
that it evokes James Taylor and Harry Chapin on the one hand and David Byrne on
the other. 

 

At twenty-one tracks, Love
Is Overtaking Me
is a weighty collection and answers the questions that the
film does not.  Perhaps that’s how it
should work: the film offering up Russell’s life and the music left on its own,
without the distraction of talking heads, music critics, and unwelcome
interpreters.  It’s hard to ignore the
beauty of Russell’s voice as he sings: “Is it so different now or is it just
the way I feel….  Love is overtaking
me.”  It’s basic and it’s beautiful and
if there’s anything we really need to know about his music it’s that Russell
was capable of achieving a deep connection to the human heart.  One wishes his own was not stopped so soon.

 

Standout Tracks: “Close
My Eyes,” “Love Is Overtaking Me” CHRISTIAN KIEFER

 

 

 

Pirate Radio – Welcome Home

January 01, 1970

(self-released)

 

www.pirateradiotheband.com

 

Imitation may be
the finest form of flattery, but in the Digital Age of music, where
distribution is handled in kbit/s, it’s the modus operandi. That’s why it’s so
refreshing when you find a band like San
Francisco quartet Pirate Radio who are so comfortable
in their own skin.

 

Welcome Home marks a significant evolution from the
band’s 2005 self-titled debut as Oren Williams has replaced Brian Stein on
drums and talented multi-instrumentalist Ian Shual has joined the fray. The
result is a fuller, warmer sounding record. “Stealing Hours” gallops out of the
gate, and “Lodestar” and “Give” provide a nice, one-two punch. “Catching Leaves”
lives up to its name in the breezy simplicity of the melody and “Ocean Beach”
serves as a plaintive epilogue. Some call it alt-country, some call it Americana, others claim
it’s country rock: whatever your chosen epithet is, Pirate Radio’s got it in
spades.

 

Standout Tracks: “Lodestar,” “Catching Leaves” ANDY
TENNILLE

 

Guns N’ Roses – Chinese Democracy

January 01, 1970

(Black Frog / Geffen)

 

 

www.geffen.com

 

 

It has been 17 years since Guns N’ Roses released original
music, but now Axl Rose’s rebuilt GNR has finally unveiled the long-awaited Chinese Democracy. The record that most
people never believed would ever see the light of day actually does exist, and
while it hardly reinvents rock & roll as we know it, nor provides the cure
for cancer, it is arguably the record the of the year – but that isn’t saying
much, considering the state of rock in 2008.

 

While die-hards will argue this isn’t the second coming of Appetite for Destruction, it does
actually sound like what you’d expect as the follow up to the chart-topping Use Your Illusion two-disc set, even if
it did take a decade and a half to arrive.

 

Mired in the middle of one of the greatest soap operas in
rock history, the tale of GNR is that of a little badass band from the Sunset
Strip that conquered the world and then self-imploded. Unabashed with its
stories of excess and addictions, the band held a firm middle finger to the
music industry and to the world watching. Whether singer Axl Rose was three
hours late for concerts or igniting riots at shows or breaking up the band
onstage, he, more so than anyone else in the group, personified the last true
rock star that just didn’t give a fuck. Yet, perhaps because of his iron fist,
band member after band member eventually departed until he remained the lone original
Gunner. So with that famous backstory firmly fixed in everyone’s mind,
expectations run the gamut for Chinese
Democracy
. And if Axl thought the longer he’d wait the less people would
anticipate his record, boy, was he wrong!

 

Since the deconstruction of Guns N’ Roses we’ve see two
president Bushes in office (and nearly two Clintons); we’ve seen the country go
to war; we’ve seen our economy crumble; we’ve seen gas prices skyrocket; we’ve
seen one-time counterpart Metallica release record after record and cease to be
relevant; we’ve seen second-rate rock bands like Buckcherry and Avenged
Sevenfold be viewed as a return to dangerous rock & roll; we’ve seen the
rise of limp wrested rock in “emo” and the equally silly genre “screamo”; we’ve
seen former band mates Slash, Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum form Velvet Revolver
only to lose their singer after two records; we’ve seen the music industry fall
apart; and we’ve seen the creation of iTunes give way to a world where bands
hardly make complete records anymore, where filler is the norm and a catchy
single more paramount that ever. So it seems Axl didn’t’ really miss much while
he was in his self-imposed exile working, and re-working, on Chinese Democracy.

 

To Axl’s credit, and perhaps his own detriment, he held true
to his guns as it were and released the record he wanted. While a return to
form with the second coming of Appetite would
have pleased many, can we really expect a 46-year-old man to sing about heroin
overdoses, cocaine addition, drinking and driving, and being the new kid in
town, when he immediately became the king of Hollywood (if we’re to continue
with The Eagles motif)?

 

As Appetite was
also consumed with sex, Chinese Democracy seems to find Axl still obsessed with relationships run afoul. But probably
the question most fans care about is, does
it rock?
Well, the rockers rock hard, and the other ones help make the
record one for the ages.

 

Reviews have been glowing for the fast numbers like “Chinese
Democracy” and “Shackler’s Revenge” as well as “Riad N’ The Bedouins” and
“I.R.S.,” but it’s the epic songs “There Was A Time,” “Catcher In The Rye,”
“Madagascar” and “Prostitute” that help the record rise above the rock “genre,”
so to speak. Those tracks help power a release that is simply better than what
most bands, with perhaps the exception of U2, are doing today.

 

And while Axl is singing about the Falun Gong (a spiritual
practice banned by the Chinese government) in the title track, and a besieged
Middle Eastern state in “Riad N’ The Bedouins,” it’s still pretty easy to get
swept away by the sheer magnitude of the disc.

 

BLURT previously reviewed a track-by-track account of all
the leaked GNR songs posted over the years on the Internet, and while those
versions, for the most part, are almost the same as the final tracks (“Silk
Worms” being the lone leaked song that didn’t make Chinese Democracy), the 14 new songs do sound superior to anything
heard before. Pouring $13 million on a record will tend to have that effect.

 

Hopefully now the payoff will be hearing all – and I do mean
all, with perhaps the exception of “This I Love,” which is more Broadway
musical than rock & roll – of these songs live when the band tours next
year. Now if only Axl’s next record will come out before we start collecting
social security, we’ll all be happy campers.

 

Standout Tracks: “Better,”
“There Was A Time,” “Catcher In The Rye,” “Madagascar” JOSE MARTINEZ

 

Wilderness – (K)no(w)here

January 01, 1970

(Jagjaguwar)

 

www.jagjaguwar.com

 Baltimore’s
Wilderness quietly staked their claim as one of the most interesting new
art-rock bands around with their 2005 self-titled debut. Singer James Johnson’s
hypnotically brusque chant-sing vocals propelled the reverb-laden guitars and
tribal drums and bass, a thin yet powerful skeleton that continues to make up
the structure of their entire catalogue. Their second release was a
disappointment, not exactly a “sophomore slump,” but not far from the cliché
either. Their new effort, however, annoyingly punctuated as the title may be,
is a glorious return to form and an expansion upon the band’s original driving
creativity.

 

(K)no(where) is
really more of a single 40-minute song than an album divided up into tracks.
Its eight separations can be considered more as movements than individual songs
with unique ideas. The effect is powerful and emotional, ranging from dour lows
in tone and sound to exuberant passages of epic song craft. Beginning with the
ambient feedback of “High Nero,” the band often lets the music set up the story
before Johnson’s mournful howl takes over. “Strand the Test of Time” kicks off
with a simple bassline over pounding, panned drums as he chants, “Here comes
the new law merchant” over and over again. There always seems to be a political
or social discourse hidden deep within Johnson’s lyrics, but it’s often
obscured just enough to remain interestingly questionable. Colin McCann’s
excellent guitar-playing spirals around the songs, rarely stopping to provide
backing chords. Instead, he allows his patterns to repeat enough to create the
same anchoring effect. The result is songs that are much more interesting, as
the 8-minute long “Chinese Whisperers” proves with its twittering guitar licks.

 

There is something raw and basic about Wilderness’ music.
The formula remains the same as far as song construction and guitar tone is
concerned. But on their latest, the band has pushed its musical imagination to
an astounding new level. Hopefully, this often-overlooked band will get some
more attention this year.

 

 Standout Tracks: “Strand the Test of
Time,” “Chinese Whisperers” JONAH FLICKER

 

Crooked Fingers – Forfeit/Fortune

January 01, 1970

(Red Pig)

 

www.crookedfingers.com

 

 

Eric Bachmann’s eclecticism has
always been part of his music’s appeal. 
From fronting the seminal postpunk outfit Archers of Loaf and writing
film scores to recording a minimalist solo album and guiding the rough-hewed
Americana of Crooked Fingers, the guy has been a veritable musical
chameleon.   But whereas Bachmann’s sonic
shifts on past Crooked Fingers records were subtle, adding stylistic nuance
from one disc to the next, Forfeit/Fortune,
the band’s fifth LP, finds him in the throes of musical schizophrenia.  Peppered with an array of styles, the album
offers an interesting listening experience but falls short of the bar Bachmann
has set for himself as a songwriter.

 

Employing the services of a number
of guest musicians, Bachmann creates the fullest sound of any Crooked Fingers
album.  Opener “What Never Comes,” a wall
of sound girded by muscular, E Street Band-influenced saxophones, barges out of
the speakers.  The album shifts gears
quickly with the haunting “Luisa’s Bones,” which juxtaposes Miranda Brown’s
ethereal vocals and a tortuous Spanish guitar figure with caterwauling electric
guitar and strings.  The Spanish
influence continues on the “Phony Revolutions,” with a Latin horn section
adding punch to the sultry melody.

 

Too many of the remaining songs are
just varying degrees of duds, particularly the deadweight trio of the
quasi-spoken-word sludge “Sinisteria,” “No Me Lo Des!” and “Run, Lieutenant,
Run,” which moves from a schmaltzy ballad to what sounds like a staggered,
drunken rendition of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” in Spanish.

 

A few songs, though, save the rest
of the album from being a continuous reach for the skip button.  “Let’s Not Pretend (To Be New Men)” begins as
somber waltz matching Bachmann’s distorted vocal with classical guitar and
thudding drums before a screaming violin and bellowing cello tear into the
mix.  “Cannibals,” a straight-ahead indie
rock nugget bursting with energy, and the propulsive “Your Control,” a New
Order-esque duet with Neko Case, are reminders of the visceral quality Bachmann
can create in his songs when he doesn’t get too enamored with experimentation.

 

Standout
Tracks: 
“Cannibals”
“Luisa’s Bones” JASON MIDDLEKAUFF