Monthly Archives: December 2013

PEARL JAM – Lightning Bolt

Album: Lightning Bolt

Artist: Pearl Jam

Label: Monkeywrench/Republic

Release Date: October 15, 2013

Pearl Jam


 Remember the Eddie Vedder who used to swing like Tarzan from festival scaffolding and don George Bush masks at shows in the middle of the Panhandles? The early Pearl Jam albums that would echo op-eds about dissidents and high school massacre-ists? The ballsy five-man army who aired the dirty laundry of the Grammy Awards and Ticketmaster—and got away with it? Yeah… how about we have them back, please.

 On their tenth album, the former Seattle grunge mongers have come a long way from Ten, the debut that changed everything (if you believe Time Magazine)—but that’s not necessarily a good thing. All that “vitalogy” is seemingly gone from these latest 12 tracks, the passion replaced by an internal comfortability of old bandmates who, like graying married couples, feel they don’t have to really try to impress each other anymore. One little problem: What about the rest of us?

 We waited four years for the much anticipated album Lightning Bolt—quelled only by Cameron Crowe’s 2011 documentary celebrating the band’s 20th anniversary—but finding anything electric about this material is as likely as being hit by one. The problem is that Pearl Jam at this point is just repeating itself—or others. Formulaic opener “Getaway” is just a “Worldwide Suicide” redux; it’s followed by the pogoing “Mind Your Manners,” which has the same Ramones/Fugazi punk split of “Do the Evolution.” Third track “My Father’s Son” shows Vedder is still getting over daddy issues (hi, “Alive”). Later, the rambling guitar work of “Swallowed Whole” sounds like the road work of classic rock bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd or the Allman Brothers while “Sleeping By Myself,” while more contemporary, sounds like it could be a drowsy Band of Horses or Wilco B-side.

 There are a few standouts on the album, though mostly for the unchained guitar work of Mike McCready who continues to be the band’s phoenix. The title track benefits from his hard rock pedagogy while emotional ballads “Sirens” and “Yellow Moon,” clearly influenced by Vedder’s solo work on Into the Wild, further bleed with the guitarist’s deep cuts. Moody narrative “Pendulum” is by far Lightning Bolt’s pinnacle track and most sensitive, a tribunal of tambourines and congas casting shadows over guilt-heavy strumming patterns.

 Shifting styles have never disavowed the interest or loyalty for the band—one of the only that still has an active fan club who stood by when they tuned it down on No Code and Yield and even stayed the course bewildered by Binaural. But with the advent of change should not come the death of risk, especially for a band that started out by providing a musical “alternative.” Should there be an eleventh album, let’s just hope the band finds its rebirth instead of being the midwives to a new status quo.

DOWNLOAD: “Yellow Moon,” “Pendulum”

MATH AND PHYSICS CLUB – Our Hearts Beat Out Loud

Album: Our Hearts Beat Out Loud

Artist: Math And Physics Club

Label: Matinee

Release Date: November 19, 2013

Math Physics 12-19


A lot of friends of mine who like this band had issues with their second record, 2010’s I Shouldn’t Look As Good As I Do. As if they felt that this Seattle jangle pop band fell off the wagon or something. I liked said sophomore effort very much and I think they have made a just-as-strong third record here. The trio, Charles Burt, Ethan Jones and James Werle still sound like they are drinking from the same potion that sprung bands from the C-86 scene as well as Scotland’s Postcard Records (Sarah Records, too). You never get the impression that they’re slavish imitators, though, the songs are too good.

Recorded in Analog at Olympia’s Dub Narcotic Sound Studios, the band wanted to get away from the cold sounds of digital into the warmer analog sound and it worked (bassist Jones co-produced the record with Bob Schwenkler).  The songs are catchy and direct (and lyrically usually deal with hearts breaking). Opener “We Won’t Keep Secrets” is a perfect, simple pop song as is “Tied to a Stone.”  The first single, “Long Drag” kicks it up a notch into nearly rock territory (a damn good rock song) while on “We Didn’t Run from Anyone’ has an almost country vibe to it as does the gorgeous “I Know It’s Over” (harmonica in da’ house).

The band took a chance, expanded and it paid off for them. At times I worry that this band is almost too anonymous for its own good. I guess what I’m trying to say is that they’re too damn good to be so unknown. In a perfect world these guys would be knocking out radio hits, one after another.

DOWNLOAD: “We Won’t Keep Secrets,” “Tied to a Stone,” “I Know It’s Over,” “Thank God I Met You”


Album: Arizona

Artist: Tracy Shedd

Label: New Granada

Release Date: December 10, 2013

Tracy Shedd 12-12


 First a word of caution. When making up a playlist for that upcoming New Years Eve bash, don’t even think about adding Arizona to the mix. Unless, of course, it’s added for the specific purpose of assuaging those suffering the effects of a difficult morning after, when some soothing sounds might prove appropriate to nurse the hangers-ons languishing in hangover hell.

 Truth is, Shedd is an unassuming navel-gazer — quiet, contemplative and not one to raise her volume for a delicate and dainty refrain. Possessing a certain doe-eyed charm, she delivers with scarcely more than a whisper, using acoustic guitars and well-mined harmonies to fill in the bare patches found in her fragile tapestries. And while that slo-core sound pervades overall, the occasional duet — particularly “Broken Arrows” (which sounds like Lee Hazlewood pitted against Francoise Hardy) and Sonic Youth’s surprising “Teenage Riot” (featuring Howe Gelb in a stunningly sublime performance) — adds that much-needed jolt to the proceedings.

 Yet, for all its dearth of cheeriness, Arizona is a remarkably thoughtful endeavor, given that Shedd ruminates on subjects near and dear with earnest indulgence and wispy, winsome suggestion. Magnetic Fields’ “Candy” and her own “Control” fare best, if for no other reason, than they allow her unguarded innocence to gently shine through.

 DOWNLOAD: “Control,” “Candy,” “Broken Arrows”


LIMINANAS – Costa Blanca

Album: Costa Blanca

Artist: Liminanas

Label: Trouble In Mind

Release Date: November 19, 2013

Liminanas 11-18


 On their third album Costa Blanca, a return to Chicago’s Trouble In Mind label that released their debut, the Liminanas bring the noise (a new penchant for slabs of guitar distortion) and an expanded cinematic sensibility to their Gallic garage-pop vision. 

 When discussing the Liminanas, reviewers invariably mention Yé-yé

(a frothy variant on French pop music, dating from the late Fifties), as well as the Velvet Underground, Serge Gainsbourg (himself an auteur descendant of Yé-yé), and more recently, the film music of Ennio Morricone. Increasingly, the Yé-yé citations are marginal. Yeah, the band sings in French (and Italian, and English, and …), and there are Franco melodic intervals their music shares with the style, but if you watch a few Sylvie Vartan videos you won’t be thinking, “Damn, this is so Liminanas!”

 So, dig a bit deeper and what distinguishes the Liminanas is the way they develop a fairly limited set of influences into a surprisingly eclectic and personal aesthetic. The songs on Costa Blanca are longer and more grooved infused than those on their second album, Crystal Anis (on Chicago’s Hozac label). Costa Blanca (named for a coastal Spanish region, including the city Valencia) is a dark, subversive pleasure, part consumer fodder, and part steely-eyed critique, part rock ‘n’ roll memoir.

 Recorded in their home studio in the south of France, Costa Blanca finds Lionel and Maria (the Liminanas), combining Cale-era Velvets and Gallic pop elements, yet they do so with the fellow traveler vibe of latter day Velvets adherents like Mazzy Star (the beats – against the enormously distorted fuzz guitar on “La Mercedes de couleur gris metallise”) and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, on the instrumental “Alicante” (the driving rhythm guitar, tambourine, and Farfisa organ) and with “La Melancolie,” Marie’s kinder, gentler Velvets nod, with its echoes of Miranda Richards’ work with BJM. 

 Lionel Liminana’s genius isn’t limited to absorbing cool influences. What really makes the Liminanas tick is arrangement, and in particular their deft way of making the most out of the simplest materials – New Order bass lines, strummed acoustics, washes of guitar distortion, counterpoint lines played on everything from cheap electric organs to bouzouki to banjo. The production on tracks like “Alicante,” “Cold was the Ground (a Holly Golightly-like dirge, stately and driven), and “Rosas” are characterized by a dub-like approach, borrowed from reggae studio wizardry – arrangements build, instruments drop out, then return, sometimes calling attention to a particular vocal passage, often in recitative. 

 Costa Blanca is a more complex, layered production than Crystal Anis. While the latter had a direct, minimal, rocking appeal, Costa feels like soundtrack as lifestyle statement. The Terry Reid “Super Lungs” bounce of “Votre Cote Yé-yé M’ennerde,” with its Franco-Nuggets sound, contrasts with “BB’s” menacing seduction and incantation (built on a melody borrowed from “Jesus Christ Superstar”). Meanwhile, “Liverpool” takes ostrich guitar tuning a la Lou Reed, combining it with Indian drone for a pumping danceable variation on “Black Angel’s Death Song.” 

 The more the Liminanas develop their vision, the more its origins stand firm. As French provincials, hailing from Perpignan, not Paris, they maintain an outsider’s combination of critical ear and romantic attachment. Trading on the seductive sounds of the cultural capitals (New York and Paris, principally) the Liminanas craft a universal soundtrack of chic cool, but a cool with menace (the dirty romanticism of “BB”), and flippant disdain (the dismissive Yé-yé “fuck you” of “Votre’s “universal garage-rock groove). For while Costa Blanca superficially suggests a trip to some Euro-trash mall outlet, listen closer and you hear a dark, subversive critique.

DOWNLOAD: “La Mercedes de couleur gris metallise,” “Liverpool”




VARIOUS ARTISTS – The Road to Jajouka: A Benefit Album

Album: The Road to Jajouka: A Benefit Album

Artist: Various Artists

Label: Howe Records

Release Date: September 03, 2013

Jajouka 9-3


 Morocco’s Master Musicians of Jajouka are revered for their timelessness and organic “realness.” Their uncluttered, pre-technology Berber Sufi trance music stands as testament that some things – such as the human need for cosmic consciousness – survive untouched by contemporary changes.

 Odd then, that this benefit/tribute album to the Master Musicians of Jajouka led by Bachir Attar (proceeds go to the preservationist Jajouka Foundation) should be cutting-edge modern in its approach to the ancient ceremonial music. Produced by drummer Billy Martin of Medeski Martin and Wood, it features Western musicians and mix masters adding their new parts to Master Musician tracks that mostly come from the 1996 release Jajouka Between the Mountains. Very 21st (or at least 20th) Century.

 But then, change must come to every tradition. And change already has affected the Master Musicians. Awhile back, they split into two groups – Attar’s (whose father led the group in the 1960s, when they were first discovered by Western world-music seekers like Brian Jones and Ornette Coleman), and another, which spells its name as “Joujouka,” led by Mohammed Hamri, an elder involved since the 1950s when the Beat writers living in Tangiers discovered them.

 In general, this album’s approach works well because the Western musicians are simpatico to rhythmic trance music but also know how and when to take it one step beyond. 

 “Hand of Fatima,” where the music surrounds and plays over Attar’s spoken-word passage, matches Marc Ribot’s bluesy, sinewy guitar and banjo with Attar’s lira, an ancient bamboo flute. “Djebala Hills” combines East Indian singer Falu’s mysteriously serpentine vocals, John Zorn’s explosive alto sax and interplay between Martin’s drums and Aiyb Dieng’s talking drum. Layered into it all is Flea playing electric bass with the Master Musicians at a performance in England. It’s cathartic.

 There is a track or two that doesn’t do much new – on “Baraka,” Mickey Hart’s drums and DJ Logic’s turntable manipulation just overplay dull repetitious beats to the lovely flute.

 “Jnuin” brings in one of America’s greatest master musicians, Ornette Coleman, for blistering alto-sax explorations while Attar provides support on ghaita, a wooden oboe that has a strange joyously sad sound. This comes from a private home recording that Coleman made in 2009 with the Master Musicians.

 The album also includes a track by composer Howard Shore from the 2000 soundtrack to the film The Cell, on which the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Attar’s Master Musicians balance discordant, ominous classical music with the quietude and inner peace of this deeply felt world music.

 DOWNLOAD: “Jnuin”


Album: The Pitcher

Artist: Christian Kjellvander

Label: Tapete

Release Date: November 12, 2013

Christian Kjellvander 11-12


Given his quiet musical demeanor, preference for acoustic instruments and understated baritone, you can be forgiven for mistaking Christian Kjellvander for a folk singer. The Swedish singer and songwriter could certainly carve out a niche for himself amongst fans of Bill Callahan and Will Oldham. But Kjellvander is a more ambitious arranger than his peers, preferring a lush backdrop of strings and horns to adorn his heart-on-sleeve compositions, which take a turn towards an obsession with natural destinations. “The Crow,” “The Woods” and “The Valley” unfold luxuriously without bogging down, taking their time to let their gorgeous atmosphere sink in. “The Bloodline” caps the record off with an air of hymnlike resolution – “There’s nothing wrong with love,” Kjellvander matter-of-factly croons, and it’s impossible to disagree.

DOWNLOAD: “The Bloodline” “The Crow,” “The Woods”


Album: Outer Face EP

Artist: Matthew E. White

Label: Spacebomb/Domino

Release Date: October 22, 2013

Matthew White 10-22


 The 2012 debut from this Richmond, VA, songwriter/multiinstrumentalist/producer was appropriately titled Big Inner, its collective-tilting aspirations earning points equally for White’s undeniable skills as a young soul rebel and for the estimable abilities of all involved to craft a uniquely identifiable sound. There’s a reason White & Co., hunkering down in their Spacebomb Records/Studio enclave, brought to mind the classic emanations of the Stax/Volt and Muscle Shoals crews, even though White (and most of the artists who have found their way to Spacebomb; Ivan Howard of The Rosebuds recently hooked up with white, and Megafaun drummer Joe Westerlund is set to release a record cut at there under the side project name of Grandma Sparrow) remain identifiably indie rock. The DIY spirit evidenced on that record and this new one are the very antithesis of modern pop produced with the commercial marketplace in mind, which makes it even more reason to cheer that White’s projects have rapidly caught the ear of the music consuming public.

 Sporting a likeminded sonic ambience to Big Inner, the Outer Face five-song EP makes for a solid companion piece to its sibling. Roughly chronicling White’s 2013 summer, a steamy season that found him sweating out the songwriting goods, it commences with the blue-lensed soul of “Eyes Like the Rest,” awash in gently swaying strings and doo-woppy girl group harmonies, and closes with the appropriately titled “Hot Hot Hot,” a moody, rumbling kind of neo-funk shuffle that finds White slipping between a falsetto and a croon while the music behinds him swells and crests and twists and mutates like a classic Blaxploitation film score (check the chase scene electric guitars) compressed into 7 ½ minutes. The other three songs are no less evocative, ensuring that the EP will never be deemed a stopgap, unlike most artists’ between-albums projects.

 Incidentally, Outer Face is out on 180gm vinyl—which is how it should be heard, if you have the opportunity—or as part of an expanded CD edition of Big Inner. Owning both is essential, so for those who never picked up the long-player in the first place, here’s a good chance to scoop up both in one purchase.

 DOWNLOAD: “In The Valley,” “Hot Hot Hot”

XIU XIU — Nina

Album: Nina

Artist: Xiu Xiu

Label: Graveface

Release Date: December 03, 2013

Xiu Xiu 12-3


 Ummmm… Objective opinion gives way to descriptive metaphors when it comes to commenting on the seemingly random cacophony that inhabits this thoroughly bizarre opus from Xiu Xiu. Ostensibly a tribute to Nina Simone, it offers no hint or forewarning when it comes to mandating its purpose, no songs or suggestion that would lead the listener to note any ready identification with either the singer or her songs.

 Squawks, honks and bleeping horns, interspersed with intermediate shuffling percussion, all compete with Jamie Stewart’s odd attempts at vocalising, a sound akin to either a drunken warble or a terrorised gasp, and the realisation that all that’s left, and, indeed, all that’s called for, is a forced session of electroshock therapy. Imagine Tiny Tim undergoing a frontal lobotomy or Captain Beefheart midway through a nightmarish acid trip to get a better sense of this loopy imbroglio. When there is a rare moment of lucidity — the tenuous strains of acoustic guitar on “Wild is the Wind,” the discordant wail of freeform jazz on “Four Women” — it still doesn’t mitigate other unlikely comparisons (Ian Dury covering “The Monster Mash” via “Where Can I Go,” Tom Waits entering the gates of Hell practically throughout), all in all natural cause for the easily intimidated to quickly retreat.

 Brazen and breathless all at the same time, Nina comes across as the weirdest record of the entire year, and might even be the strangest album most people might encounter in a lifetime. Then again, one person’s adventure is another person’s lunacy. Proceed with caution. You have been warned.

 DOWNLOAD: “Four Women,” “Wild is the Wind”



DESTROYER — Five Spanish Songs

Album: Five Spanish Songs

Artist: Destroyer

Label: Merge

Release Date: November 29, 2013

Destroyer 11-29


 On Five Spanish Songs, Daniel Bejar pulls off the rare trick of covering five songs by a single author – the Spaniard Antonio Luque, who records as Sr. Chinarro – while sounding precisely like Daniel Bejar.

 That’s a feat for any performer, but more so for Bejar, who is, by nature, slippery and hard to define. He is a midi-mastering solo symphonist one minute (Your Blues), a full-band rocker the next (Destroyer’s Rubies), and most recently a lite-fm Gerry Rafferty devotee (Kaputt, which is a good name for it). The main connector, for me, has always been his skill as a writer. His words have a sinuous-ness that glide effortlessly until they land in a tangle, dense, elegant, impacted with inference. He’s just too good at the oblique image, the tossed off bon mot, the line-drawn portraits of strangers in a crowd to be considered apart from the words. The music just wraps around them.

 And yet, here, though he wrote none of these songs, not glancing, caressing “Bye, Bye,” not breeze-y, lounge sophisticated “Babieca,” not blistery, guitar-riffing “El Rito” (the one they’ll slip you on soundcloud as a teaser, even though it sounds nothing like the rest), they sound very much like knowing, teasing, too-smart-to-pin-down Destroyer. They are beautifully sung, sparely filled out in diverse ways and charged with cerebral tension. I went back to Spotify to hear these tunes in their original version and found that, really, none of them sounded a bit like Destroyer. He did all that by himself.

 So if you listen to Destroyer primarily for his fey touch with lyrics, his ways of weaving mystery into elliptical images, his slicked-back auteur vision of post-modern gender interactions, you might give Five Spanish Songs a miss. Or you might not. He’s brought the whole Destroyer vibe to an entirely non-Destroyer set of material, and you can feel the waves of cool detachment, of stylish artifice wafting off these tunes just the same as always.

  DOWNLOAD: “El Rito” “Bye Bye”


Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

Title: Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

Director: Drew DeNicola

Release Date: November 26, 2013

Big Star DVD


 Big Star, a longtime crush of just about every current music nerd (myself included), is almost the literal definition of underrated. From 1971 – ’74, the Memphis rockers were one of America’s best power pop bands going, always on the verge of making it big. But as chronicled in Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, a combination of bad timing, label problems and eventual group defections always kept them from achieving mainstream success.

 Through archival interview footage with the deceased band members as well as current interviews with a slew of musicians influenced by the band (including Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies, who became members of a semi-reunited version of Big Star), the documentary is a touching, often sad look at a talented group that were not exactly shy about their career ambitions (just consider their moniker and the name of their debut #1 Record).

 Because the core band was only around for a few years, half of the film is devoted to the lives of the members post-Big Star, with front man Alex Chilton continuing the struggle to make it out of musical purgatory where he was adored by critics and fellow musicians, but ignored by just about everybody else.

 Particularly emotional are the interviews with fellow musicians from SXSW in 2010, where Big Star was to play a show at the popular Austin music fest.  Chilton died just three days before that show.     

Go here to read the BLURT interview with director DeNicola and Big Star drummer Jody Stephens.