Monthly Archives: May 2009

James Blackshaw – The Glass Bead Game

January 01, 1970



phenomenon James Blackshaw has long been known for conjuring luxuriant,
symphonic sounds out of his guitar. Indeed, even on pure solo guitar
recordings, like “River
of Heaven” from the first
Imaginational Anthem compilation, it is hard to believe that one person,
playing one instrument could be responsible for all that cascading, shimmering,
iridescent beauty. But however expressive, however versatile Blackshaw can make
his acoustic instrument, it is apparently not quite enough. Here in his eighth
full-length (and first for Michael Gira’s Young God imprint), he extends that
palette even further, adding guest vocals, violin, cello and flute to the
toolset – and even switching from guitar to piano for two tracks. It is bold
move, but it pays off. The Glass Bead Game is a dizzying achievement,
showcasing not just Blackshaw’s musical skills, but his vision and spiritual
depth as a composer.


The album
begins with its densest and most elaborately orchestrated piece, the long,
lovely “Cross.”  Here pastoral patterns of 12-string guitar cascade over
one another like running water in sunlight, the texture of the piece gradually
thickened with cello (that’s John Contreras from Current 93) and violin (Joolie
Wood, also a Current 93 alum). Round the middle, we begin to hear Lavinia
Blackwall’s vocals, looping in hypnotic counterpoints, blossoming in wordless
joy. It’s lush, sensual, disorienting and overwhelming. That the track just manages to skirt new age-y excess does not take away from its power to


cuts back to just his own guitar in two tracks. “Bled” is all measured
melancholy, little figures that flourish and fade away. “Key”, later on, is
more what you expect from Blackwell, rapid-picked flurries of sun-speckled
guitar notes, technically difficult, surely, yet played with a light-fingered,
light-hearted fleetness. Somewhat surprisingly, the guitar prodigy turns toward
the piano in two tracks. In “Fix” a simple, slow-paced pattern of three or four
chords repeats in meditative simplicity, as cello and violin weave around it.
“Arc”, the disc’s other long piece, is more anthemic and full of drama, a bit of
Copeland in its opening salvo. This last track is particularly good, perhaps,
after “Cross” the best on the album – and like “Cross” the most successful in
incorporating multiple textures. Near the middle of “Arc”, Blackwell shifts
from a strong, simple melody on the piano to lusher cascades of arpeggios
blurred together in a sustained mesh of overtones. It’s piano, but played just
like he plays the guitar, and with the same transcendent grace.


Standout Tracks: “Cross”, “Arc” JENNIFER KELLY





Sweet – Action: The Sweet Anthology [reissue]

January 01, 1970

(Shout! Factory)


This 32-song, two-CD collection plays out like a cautionary
tale, the moral being, “Don’t let would-be hipsters con you into thinking
ambition is somehow inherently better than being the best little bubblegum gum
band you can be.” For a while there, these guys were untouchable, topping
insidious pop hooks with some of the sillier lyrics the ‘70s ever knew (which
is saying a lot), a swagger that slotted in nicely with glam-rock and some of
the kitschier harmonies this side of ELO.


The first song worth a damn is track four, “Alexander Graham
Bell,” which sounds like the Move dipping into the Bee Gees’ “Odessa” for
lyrical hooks. But once they’ve come into their own on “Little Willy,” the rest
of that first disc is an embarrassment of riches, from the pre-Decemberists
history-rock of “Wig-Wam Bam” to “Blockbuster,” “Ballroom Blitz,” “Teenage
Rampage,” “The Six Teens” and “Fox on the Run.” All but that last one had come
from the songwriting team of Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn.


But once they sold a million copies in the States with a
single they’d actually written, that was it for Chinnichap, who only earn one
writing credit on the second disc (appropriately titled “No You Don’t”). You
can hear ambition creeping in from the opening riff of the opening track on
disc two, “Action,” with its pompous prog-rock keyboards (although thankfully
the hooks and pacing place it much closer to “Fox on the Run”).  “Sweet F.A.” is decidedly tougher than
previous tracks and nearly twice as long, with yet another shot of proggy
keyboards, which combined to make the Sweet’s transition to the FM dial both
quick and painless.


But it’s all down-hill from there, with the notable
exception of their final U.S. pop hit, the bombastic yet loveable “Love is Like
Oxygen” (or maybe I just like it because it’s the first riff I learned on
electric guitar).


Standout Tracks: “Ballroom Blitz,” “Fox on the Run.” A. WATT


Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career

January 01, 1970



Camera Obscura may have started as a charming younger cousin
to their fellow Glaswegians Belle and Sebastian-bookishly twee, sensitive,
self-reflexive and self-deprecating with a retro pop sensibility (and with
Stuart Murdoch himself helping out as producer). They called their second album
Underachievers Please Try Harder, and
they did, with their third: on 2006’s Let’s
Get Out of the Country
, they came into their own. With the help of Swedish
producer Jari Haapalainen, they cloaked their songs in strings and horns and
generally upped any available pleasure factor, and the instant classic single
“Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken” was only the gateway hook to an album full
of joys.


Make that two albums full of joys, since My Maudlin Career continues where Let’s Get Out of the Country left off.
Haapalainen returns, as do the echoes of girl group teenage symphonies,
countrypolitan swooning and Dusty in
melodrama. The trappings that seemed shiny and new on Country seem comfortable and natural on Career, and in some ways that makes this
one the better album (it’s a difficult call, though). Tracyanne Campbell’s
voice reverberates with ache and resignation-Jenny Lewis fans, take note-and
she dwells on heartbreak and regret, although you’d rarely guess that from the
glorious sounds of songs like “French Navy” and “You Told a Lie.” It’s an
oxymoronic friction, like a sad Motown song (say, “Tears of a Clown”): the sheer
power of the hooks and the densely melodic production trumps any hint of
sadness in the lyrics, but the tension and contrast is part of the lasting
rewards. And My Maudlin Career has
plenty of those. 


No need to try harder now: this one’s just fine.


Standout Tracks: “French Navy,” “My Maudlin Career,” “Careless Love” STEVE KLINGE




Green Pajamas – Poison in the Russian Room

January 01, 1970



Over the course of a twenty year career, the Green Pajamas
remain a rather unusual entity, a band whose commitment to psychedelic
suggestion and nocturnal soundscapes has redefined the stereotypical view of
the so-called Seattle
sound.  Poison in the Russian Room provides the latest in a lengthy list of
captivating albums, EPs and occasional offshoots, imbued as always with
celestial trappings, dense textures and an unerring hypnotic drift. 


Part concept album, part collection of individually inspired
songs (the album is essentially divided into two parts like opposite sides of
an LP), it varies in tone from riveting to repose, as drastic a divide as
anything in their back catalogue.  “The
Lonesome End of the Lake” provides a jarring
intro, but the best tracks are those like “Any Way the Wind Blows,” “Queen of
Broken Hears” and the title track, where the mood is mellow but the hooks are
sumptuous.  Likewise, the surging,
insistent refrains of “This Angel’s On Fire,” the surprisingly sunny “Suicide
Subways” and the hypnotic seduction of “Who’s That Calling” all attest to the
band’s ability to provide a mesmerizing motif. 


Admittedly, there’s a lot to absorb, and with the ambiance
often so obtrusive, it sometimes takes a second listen before the allure
becomes all the more apparent. 
Nevertheless, Poison in the
Russian Room
is an ideal primer for the uninitiated and another trippy
treat for the band’s faithful following.


Standout Tracks: “This Angel’s on
Fire,” “Poison in the Russian Room,” “Suicide Subways” LEE ZIMMERMAN


Slaid Cleaves – Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away

January 01, 1970

(Music Road)


Slaid Cleaves is an especially incisive singer/songwriter,
and while far too few people may be aware of his talents, his new album provides
all the proof needed.  Cleaves has been
responsible for several fine efforts over the course of the past ten years, his
more recent releases in collaboration with erstwhile mentor and producer Gurf
Morlix.  Yet despite the fact he calls Austin home, he’s never coexisted all that comfortably
with a standard Americana
vibe.  Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away remedies that disparity to a
certain extent, nodding towards tradition with rootsy, rustic, sepia-tinted
sensibilities.  Infused with fiddles,
pedal steel and mandolin, these songs find Cleaves in a somewhat melancholy
mood, but his bittersweet melodies manage to soar triumphantly on the strength
of rousing, resilient refrains.  “Cry” is
a perfect case in point; mellow and subdued at first, it’s escalated
emotionally by an irrepressible, compelling chorus:


for your mama,
Cry for your dad,
                 Cry for everything you
They never had”


That song sets the standard for the ten tracks that follow,
and remarkably, Cleaves keeps the bar equally as high thereafter.  Deliberate and determined, the music
resonates with ringing blue collar anthems like “Hard to Believe,” “Beautiful
Thing” and “Tumbleweed Stew.”  In the
desperate, downtrodden lament “Black T-Shirt” Cleaves conveys a tortuous tale
about a young rebel sinking deeper in the abyss.  “Twistin'” ventures into equally dark terrain
via a harrowing portrait of “Graveyard sons and daughters, passing through an
unfriendly world” while watching as an executioner goes through his paces.  Cleaves’ talent for etching dark descriptive
scenarios from his first-person perspective has him maintaining a quiet,
understated authority, coupled with a world-weary view filled with both
restlessness and resolve. 


With his gift for narrative, it’s no wonder Cleaves inspired
Stephen King to pen the album’s liner notes. 
He’s entitled to the endorsement, because while the title may denote
defeat, Everything You Love Will Be Taken
proves nothing less than a triumph.


“Cry,” “Green Mountains
and Me,” “Twistin'” LEE ZIMMERMAN



Life and Times – Tragic Boogie

January 01, 1970



Life and Times might seem a wordy band. Not only did the Kansas City indie-rock
trio name its new album Tragic Boogie — a description sure to tempt reviewers — but it also provided a subtitle:
“12 Songs About the Sun and Love and Death.” What these midtempo
stompers are really about, though, is sound. Fat thunder-clouds of it, charged
with reverberation and moist with overtones.


album’s second half is less stormy, allowing guitarist Allen Epley’s vocals
more prominence. “Waterboard myself to sleep” is one line that pokes
out from “The Lucid Dream,” whose drowsy vibe is typical of the later
tracks. But the highlights are such earlier songs as “Fall of the Angry
Clowns” (yup, wordy) and “Dull Knives.” They’re characterized by
impressive depth of field, dizzying changes in sonic emphasis and a bracing
disregard for hierarchal arrangements. Instruments switch roles, rhythm takes
the lead, everything bleeds into everything else and the downshifts are just as
thrilling as the crescendos.


course, this has been done before — is it time for the My Bloody Valentine
reference yet? — and the album trails off disappointingly in its second half.
The squall ends too soon, but Tragic
is invigorating while it rages.


Standout Tracks: “Fall of the Angry Clowns,” “Dull Knives” MARK JENKINS


Pete Berwick – Just Another Day In Hell

January 01, 1970



The first thing you hear is a classic slide riff –
significantly, like a cross between Jimmy Page’s intros for Zep’s “In My Time
of Dying” and “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” but filthier – followed by an evil
chuckle from the vocalist. “Ahhh, here we go,” he leers, then, after a blurted “ONE-TWO-THREE-FOUR-ONE!”
the band catapults headlong into a hi-nrg blowout. One part George Thorogood
boogie, one part Ramones riffarama, several parts Jason & the Scorchers
cowpunk raveup, “Vacancy In My Heart” wears its mojo on its sleeve,
gravel-voiced belter Pete Berwick spitting out bon mots to the gal who left him
high and dry (“Looks as if it’s finished now before I could even start,” he
grunts, charting lingering feelings of psychic impotence), but the tune never
once loses its mojo.


Nor does the Berwick band, not even across 18 songs and 61
minutes. Berwick’s a battle-scarred veteran of Music City USA,
an atavistic twang-rocker in the tradition of Steve Earle and the
aforementioned Mr. Ringenberg, with clear roots in the extended outlaw
tradition of Waylon and Willie. “Equal parts juke-joint soul and honky-tonk
energy,” writes liner notesman Rev. Keith A. Gordon (full disclosure: Gordon’s a
BLURT contributor) of Berwick. “[He] still rocks too hard for Nashville, but isn’t that why God and Gram
Parsons created alt-country music?”


Boy howdy to that. There’s enough here to sink your teeth
into to leave you stuffed and satisfied like a five-course meal. From steel
guit/piano weepers (“Junk”) and desperado desert rock (“While I Die”) to
lonesome harmonica blooze-twang (“I Ain’t Goin’ Back There Anymore”) and Social
Distortion-styled roots-punk (“Cold Wind (Baby Come Home)”), Berwick & Co.
have all the bases covered, and then some. And let us not underestimate that
Berwick voice, weathered ‘n’ torn from tequila and cocaine, imbued with a deep
southern twang that drips authenticity. Hell, he can even make a novelty song
about onanism (“Hello Hand” – here, another gal has left him, although this
time, rather than succumb to sorrow and rage, he reaches for his “prize
collection of Playboy/ and half a bar
of soap”) sound like a professorial dissertation. And when he serves up a
Commander Codyesque yarn about a memorable run-in with the law (“Busted In
Kentucky”), you don’t even worry whether Berwick is, er, embellishing his account – you’re too busy hanging onto his words
to see how the whole deal plays out.


Yeah, this is exactly why God ‘n’ Gram put their heads together all those years ago. And folks like
Berwick are exactly the ones who are still ramming the “alt” into “country.”
Methinks Hank would’ve done it this way.


Standout Tracks: “Sometimes,” “While I Die,” “Vacancy In My Heart” FRED MILLS


Sir Lord Von Raven – Please Throw Me Back in the Ocean

January 01, 1970



goofy band name could easily throw you off but this Oakland, California bunch,
led by the wild guitar playing of one Greg Ashley (you know him from Gris
Gris), the vocals of Eric Von Raven (of the Time Flys and the Cuts – who
occasionally sounds like a witch) and the caveman thump of Bronzo on drums and
Josh Miller on bass are the real deal. These guys didn’t decide to do garage
rock because it was the cool thing at the time; no, these guys have studied
their Sonics records and Nuggets comps over and over again because it’s
in their blood (like Russell Quan).


“The Glass Castle” begins like a Brian Jonestown Massacre lost classic but then
rumbles into a full-fledged massacre after the middle break grinds down and it
really starts to swing, which leads right into the jaggedy “I Do!” (some of
Ashley’s best guitar playing is on here) which then slides right into the
mid-tempo scorch of “I Keep on Tryin.”  Later comes a pure frat rock cover
of Fats Domino’s “I’m Ready” and even more brilliance from Ashley on “Take it
or Leave It” (which tosses in  some frenzied MC5-isms).  I honestly
don’t  think there’s a bad song to be found on here and when Von Raven
howls “Maybe I’ll jump in the river, maybe I’ll cut out my liver”  (on “I
Keep on Tryin'”) you have no doubt he absolutely means it.


:  “I Keep on Tryin'”, “Take it or Leave It”, “I Do!”, “The
Glass Castle” TIM HINELY




Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women – Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women

January 01, 1970

(Yep Roc)


Dave Alvin’s latest aggregation, and this album, were born
out of grief; the death of his compadre and long-time Guilty Man Chris Gaffney
a year ago led Alvin to take a break from making music with a backing band in
which Gaffney’s absence was still fresh. Instead, he seized the opportunity to
make music with a distaff outfit that offered an array of vocal and
instrumental talents, including Cindy Cashdollar, Laurie Lewis, and Christy


The result is this set of predominantly acoustic
country/folk featuring a handful of new, quasi-autobiographical Alvin tunes
(the gorgeous, Celtic-tinged “Downey Girl,” the juke joint swing of “Boss of
the Blues,” the wide-eyed discovery of “Nana and Jimi”), contributions from
various Guilty Women (McWilson’s mournful “Potter’s Field” is a particular
highlight), a Cajun remake of the Blasters’ “Marie Marie,” and a couple of
covers, including a left-field, boogie woogie version of “Que Sera Sera”
(powered by the piano of guest Guilty Woman Marcia Ball). Sometimes loss can
produce beautiful consolations.


Standout Tracks: “Marie Marie,” “Downey Girl” STUART MUNRO



Warlocks – The Mirror Explodes

January 01, 1970

(Tee Pee)

The Warlocks lay it on pretty damn thick. Their intentionally hazy retro-rock
references ‘70s psychedelic music and shoegaze, similar to Black Mountain’s
methodology, but with a whole lot more attitude about it all. The problem is,
there’s not always a whole lot of substance to back up this posturing.


Bobby Hecksher sounds like he’s singing with a half-opened
mouth, the words just barely escaping the threshold of his teeth, an
indecipherable mush of presumably heady lyrics. The music is pretty much what
one would expect from a band that gets described as “druggy” – mid-tempo rock
awash in a mist of distortion, reverb, and mumbling, forced out through a My
Bloody Valentine template of slow screeching. Sure, the atmosphere is ripe, but
these songs feel like empty calories.


It would be interesting to resurrect the late DJ Screw to
work his magic on some of these tracks, playing them at half speed while
chugging some cough sizzurup. Then, the desired effect might result. For now,
The Warlocks don’t quite create the magic their name would imply.


Standout Tracks: “Red
Camera” “Slowly Disappearing” JONAH