Monthly Archives: January 2015

BEAT SPACEK — Modern Streets

Album: Modern Streets

Artist: Beat Spacek

Label: Ninja Tune

Release Date: January 27, 2015

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Modern Streets is a curious amalgamation of low-tech electronics and high style classic soul. Made, reportedly, with iPhone apps, its buzzing, squawking beats feel woozy and pared back, like a video game soundtrack running on in the background. Yet over these minimalist cadences, the auteur Steve Spacek sings in a transcendent, fluttery falsetto that recalls psychedelic Marvin Gaye or tripped-out Curtis Mayfield.

Steve Spacek is one-half of Africa Hitech, and a one-time collaborator with hip hop visionary J. Dilla. Those are futuristic touchstones, and Modern Streets certainly has a technological sheen. Yet it’s also retro, in its way, repurposing discarded electronics for sleek soul revivalism. “Modern Streets” twitches with unease, pulses with skittery tetchiness, yet soothes with lush, whispery vocals. A recording of Spacek’s kid, kicks off “Gotta Get Some Music On” a playful touch in an album that dips freely into past and future. “If You Are My Chalice” stutter-steps on a knife-edge of tension, yet sports the most beautifully fluid falsetto of the disc. It feels as lush as classic Earth Wind and Fire, as uneasy as the most cerebral electronic dubstep.

Modern Streets brings the eerie emotional heft of psychedelic soul into the age of the personal electronic device, working on a small scale towards mind-expanding ends. Nicely done.

DOWNLOAD: “If You Are My Chalice”, “’Alone in Da Sun” .

WILLIE NELSON AND SISTER BOBBIE – December Day: Willie’s Stash Vol. 1

Album: December Day: Willie’s Stash Vol. 1

Artist: Willie Nelson &

Label: Legacy Recordings

Release Date: December 01, 2015

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Willie Nelson, the Patron Saint of “Screw it, I’ll do it my own way, then,” is more prolific in his 80s than just about any other musician half his age (Ryan Adams, being the possible only exception). December Days, marks his second release this year and seventh since 2010. And much like the weather in New England, if you don’t like, just stick around. A change is coming along any minute now.

December Days is a duet of sorts with his older sister– and bandmate – Bobbie joining along on piano and because of that, the two instruments, Willie on his nylon-stringed acoustic and Bobbie on the keys, the music plays a much more prominent role than the lyrics on this outing. The 18 songs here are a collection of old covers (including Irving Berlin’s “Alexander Ragtime Band,” which opens the record and Al Jolson’s ‘Anniversary Song”) as well as a number of Nelson-penned classics like “Who Will Buy My Memories” and “Sad Songs and Waltzes.” The common thread being that all of these songs are longtime favorites of the Nelson siblings.

The arrangements are laid back, subtle and beautiful, a combination that is hard to come up with unless you spend decades playing alongside each other. Several members of their longtime band, including Mickey Raphael, Paul English and Bee Spears, join the Nelson from song to song, but this is clearly an album that puts the siblings up front. Gone are the raucous “Whiskey River”-style jams, but in its place are an albums worth of lazy afternoon porch songs that you can’t help but love.

DOWNLOAD: “Permanently Lonely,” “Walkin’” and “Sad Songs and Waltzes”




Album: Spark of Life

Artist: Marcin Wasilewski Trio

Label: ECM

Release Date: October 07, 2014

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Critics of ECM Records often complain of a seemingly label-wide aesthetic for its jazz, one that prefers mellow melodics over intense improvisation, sweet over savory – a sound that anticipated and inspired the deadly “new age” music of the ‘80s. While it’s grossly unfair to paint every ECM artist with that hue (cf. Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, John Abercrombie, Steve Tibbetts), there’s some truth to the accusation, especially when pondering the catalogs of many of the label’s European sons and daughters.

Poland’s Marcin Wasilewski Trio, with guest saxophonist Joakim Milder, stands accused on Spark of Life Taking pages from the books of Vince Guaraldi and the lighter side of Dave Brubeck, pianist Wasilewski emphasizes major chord melodies and a late evening/candlelight dinner vibe rather than fiery improv. That’s not to say the musicians don’t know when to move. “Still” actually belies its title with a busy rhythm section, while frisky covers of Herbie Hancock’s“Actual Proof” and the Police’s “Message in a Bottle” throw sparks. But most tracks work a much more romantic and mellifluent vibe a la opener “Austin,” the appropriately named “Sleep Safe and Warm” (taken from the Rosemary’s Baby soundtrack) and the ultra amorous cover of Polish pop group Hey’s “Do rycerzy, do szlachty, do mieszczan” (“For knights, for gentry, for townsmen”).

At nearly 75 minutes, that’s a lot of sugar in your spiced wine, and mileage may vary depending on your tolerance for being in a consistently mellow mood. But if you’re looking for background music to entice your sweety in front of the fireplace, Spark of Life will serve quite nicely.

DOWNLOAD: “Message in a Bottle,” “Still,” “Do rycerzy, do szlachty, do mieszczan”



Album: At Sea

Artist: Mappa Mundi

Label: self-released

Release Date: January 27, 2015

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Helmed by singer, composer and multi-instrumentalist Adam Levine, NYC’s Mappa Mundi is as unconventional as their name implies. A mix of chamber pop and the occasional robust revelry, the six songs on this sophomore EP At Sea offer a remarkable collision of tone and texture that casts its foothold in Levine’s generally downtrodden perspective.

Somber at times, but rarely sedate, it unfolds as a series of intensely personal love songs detailing the trials and travails that accompany most romantic relationships. Levine sounds despondent throughout these circumstances, as indicated on the forlorn “Lost” in particular. Yet even though he’s given to despair, his sentiments seem to be in the right place. “If he loves you like I love you, it’s alright by me,” he insists, offering more than a hint of magnanimity on the aching break-up ballad “Right.” Nevertheless, it’s the sweeping melodies — courtesy of the nine piece ensemble that incorporates trumpet, violin, cello, harmonium and more — that take precedent here, from the emotional incantations of “A Blunt Object, Oh Robert” to the suddenly frenzy and flashpoint of “So Obscure.”

A sumptuous set of songs, At Sea is, in a word, sublime.

DOWNLOAD: “Right,” “”A Blunt Object, Oh Robert”


ROWLAND S. HOWARD – Six Strings That Drew Blood

Album: Six Strings That Drew Blood

Artist: Rowland S. Howard

Label: Liberation

Release Date: November 04, 2014

Rowland Howard


Five years after his untimely death, Rowland S. Howard still commands respect. Though never a household name, the Australian rock pioneer’s dark romantic songwriting and distinctive twangnoise guitar hugely influenced the downunderground and, by proxy, the world of alternative rock & roll. The two-CD (or four-LP) Six Strings That Drew Blood pays tribute to the power his work still commands, drawing tracks from nearly every project in which he had a hand.

The album kicks off square in the middle of Howard’s career with “Shivers” – though written when Howard was only 16 and first recorded by Birthday Party predecessor The Boys Next Door, the version included here is a winning live take from 1999. The Boys themselves represent with “After a Fashion,” a tuneful postpunk confection that almost seems like it came from someone else’s catalog (and proves that Nick Cave could sing well before The Good Son). The Birthday Party, the band for which Howard is probably most known and celebrated, weighs in with eight cuts, and not just the obvious. While “The Friend Catcher” (the group’s second single) and “Jennifer’s Veil” (arguably its masterpiece) are here, the rest come from deeper in the band’s catalog – “Say a Spell,” “The Dim Locator” and “Several Sins” not only represent Howard’s songwriting contributions, but also a more seething, menacing side to the band outside of the frenzied explosions.

After the BP, Howard joined Crime & the City Solution in the years when it was still essentially a Party acolyte, and “Six Bells Chime” and “Her Room of Lights” take full advantage of the talents Howard brought to the Berlin/Australian band’s inspiration. The disk also includes a take on the Lee Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra oddity “Some Velvet Morning,” which retains its bizarre mesmer in the hands of Howard and his duet partner Lydia Lunch, and the almost lush “Wedding Hotel,” the highlight of Howard’s collaboration with British rock avatar Nikki Sudden. But the disk concludes with four tracks from These Immortal Souls, the first major band in which Howard was fully in charge. “I Ate the Knife” and “Marry Me (Lie! Lie!),” from the quartet’s ridiculously rare 1987 debut Get Lost (Don’t Lie), stand in for the striking debut, though one wonders why only two tunes were included, given the near-impossibility of finding a copy of the album. (The inclusion of the monstrous “‘Blood and Sand,’ She Said” would’ve been nice.) “So the Story Goes” and the epic masterpiece “Crowned,” both from the equally OOP 1992 follow-up I’m Never Gonna Die Again, close out part 1 by demonstrating that, while TIS’s craft may have gotten more polished, the band’s shivering energy and clouded power remained intact.

Disk two picks up where the first one left off with a more generous selection of tunes from I’m Never Gonna Die Again, including the menacing “Black Milk,” the rocking single “The King of Kalifornia” and the instrumental “Insomnicide,” which gives Howard a chance to shred his Jaguar to bits. Part two undergoes bifurcation via “Summer High,” a noise pop collaboration with Australian alt.rock quartet Magic Dirt that has Howard duetting with singer Adalita Srsen. Then the main course is served via several songs from his two solo LPs. 1999’s Teenage Snuff Film gets showcased by some fierce rockers (“Exit Everything,” “Dead Radio,” “Undone”), a piece of roiling scree (“Sleep Alone”) and a brilliant pop song (“Autoluminescent”). 2009’s Pop Crimes contributes more sedate performances, including the smart pop cuts “(A Girl Called) Jonny” and “Pop Crime” and the ballads “Shut Me Down” (brooding) and “Ave Maria” (lovely). The disk – and album – ends with the steely “The Golden Age of Bloodshed,” one of Howard’s finest tracks and as fitting an ending for his recorded career as anything in his catalog. Teenage Snuff Film and Pop Crimes feature Howard at his best, writing great tunes and playing with all the skronk, sensitivity and fire you could want, and the compilers deserve kudos for featuring them so heavily.

Track information for every song is included and the graphics are pretty cool, which make up for the lack of biographical text. Longtime Howard followers may complain about their favorite tracks being left out (see “‘Blood and Sand,’ She Said” above), but overall the setlist is carefully and lovingly chosen, and gives newcomers and fanatics alike a broad view of  Howard’s prodigious talents. Six Strings That Drew Blood isn’t a one-stop shop – indeed, it will likely only fuel an obsessive appetite for the man’s work. But it’s an excellent summary of one of non-mainstream rock’s most underrated and singular artists.

DOWNLOAD: “Undone,” “Crowned,” “Autoluminescent,” “The Golden Age of Bloodshed,” “After a Fashion”

Read the Blurt review of Howard’s final album, Pop Crimes, right HERE.

CULPEPER’S ORCHARD – Culpeper’s Orchard

Album: Culpeper's Orchard

Artist: Culpeper's Orchard

Label: Shadoks/Normal

Release Date: November 25, 2014

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Though saddled with an unfortunate name – let’s face it, the pastoral/agrarian implications of “culpeper’s orchard,” abetted by some truly atrocious, inscrutable sleeve art depicting a hobbit/gnome-like individual tending a garden (why not an orchard?), aren’t exactly inspiring – this Danish folk/prog/psych outfit from the early ‘70s has certainly stood the test of time. No less an arch Druid than Julian Cope enthused over Culpeper’s Orchard, citing the “catchy songs, fiery guitar solos, euphoric vocal harmonies” and “intricate and furiously hard-edged arrangements.”

Indeed. The quartet – Nils Henriksen, Cy Nicklin, Rodger Barker, Michael Friis – knew its way around an intricate arrangement or two. Originally calling themselves Monsoon (for my money a far more timeless-sounding moniker, but what do I know) and forming in 1970, they changed names and cut their self-titled debut a year later to positive reviews, the press likening them to both the prevailing West Coast folk-rock sound (Byrds, CSN&Y) and the new boom of British heavy rock (Jethro Tull, Led Zep). It opens up on a deceptively backwoods note, the brief (42 sec.) banjo salutation “Banjocul,” then it’s straight into a blazing swirl of Tull-styled tuneage via “Mountain Music, Part 1.” From there one encounters moments both bombastic (the Tolkienesque “Teaparty for an Orchard,” with its huffing organ and convulsing percussion) and mellow (the midtempo piano reverie of “Gideon’s Trap”) en route to the complex, suite-like Part 2 of “Mountain Music” (which indulges a plethora of stylistic flourishes, including a blooze-boogie passage and a Hendrixian solo) running nearly 7 ½ minutes.

Those were the days, eh? Culpeper’s Orchard, in its original form, only lasted another year until the usual arguments over musical direction prompted a split, the group soldiering on through a series of lineup shuffles until 1979. But one solid artifact to leave behind is better than none, and the archivists at Shadoks should be commended for resurrecting this one. Rounding the package out is a 16 page booklet loaded with rare photos, reproductions of concert posters and all the original LP art and lyrics, plus in-depth liner notes by Claus Rasmussen (who interviewed both Nicklin and Friis). Hooray!

DOWNLOAD: “Your Song & Mine,” “Mountain Music, Part 2”

TRIP SHAKESPEARE – Applehead Man + Are You Shakespearienced?

Album: Applehead Man + Are You Shakespearienced?

Artist: Trip Shakespeare

Release Date: December 16, 2014

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One of the many never-was stories of the late ‘80s college rock underground, Trip Shakespeare may be best known these days as the launching pad for Dan Wilson and John Munson of Semisonic. As with so many of these cases, though, the Minneapolis band deserves more than footnote status to an alt.rock one-hit-wonder, as these reissues of the band’s first two albums prove.

Originally released in 1986, Applehead Man debuts a fresh, exciting young trio playing power pop with enough distinctive personality to keep it from sounding like the millions of other popsters invading the record racks. Leader Matt Wilson (brother Dan was not yet a member) is an irrepressibly melodic tunesmith, with a seemingly bottomless bag of appealing songs that boast quirky lyrics that wander far from the usual clichés. The band weaves Wilson’s skillful but unflashy guitar figures and mellifluous tenor into a glistening web with Munson’s fretless bass and fruity harmonies and Elaine Harris’ rock-solid kit work, stumbling on its unique sound immediately. Trip Shakespeare scatters tuneful gems with seemingly little effort, including the gleaming “Rose” and “Pearle” (the world’s most upbeat murder ballad, later remade for the band’s major label debut Across the Universe), the moodier but still ultra-melodic “Stop the Winter” and “Highway in the Sun” and the psychedelic pastiche “Beatle.” The Omnivore edition adds seven bonus tracks of equal instant appeal – only the limitations of vinyl sides could account for the omission of “Fall,” “Patricia” (later included on the band’s swansong Lulu) and “Freedom Bird.”

1988’s Are You Shakespearienced? saw the addition of Matt’s brother Dan as co-writer, guitarist and pianist, and an expansion of the combo’s already-trademarked style. For example, the band expands its reach with more sophisticated and rock-oriented arrangements in “Thief” and “The Lake,” essays a Talking Heads-like groove and some jazzy instrumental work in “Vines” and successfully incorporates funk into “Swing.” The fan favorite “Toolmaster of Brainerd” pays cheeky tribute to a fictional rock god (“He played guitar like a master, but faster”), while “Spirit” digs into metaphysical passion in the form of a moving ballad. The Tripsters make good use of their musicianly prowess with close interplay that avoids showboating, while Dan’s addition gives the band extra vocal power – Munson and the Wilson brothers intertwine and bounce off each other in a veritable orgy of playful harmonies. While not as instantly winning as Applehead Man, Are You Shakespearienced? is an ambitious effort that serves notice that Trip Shakespeare wouldn’t simply rely on its easy appeal. This edition includes a full nine bonus tracks, from tunes that made onto later records (“Bachelorette,” “Snow Days”) to a passel of quality outtakes that range all over the map – cf. the pretty “Look at the Lady,” the soulful “10,000 Watt Searching Light,” the folk-rocking “Stories End” and the weirdly War-like “Car.”

The band would go on to record a pair of well-liked but poor-selling major label records and one covers EP before disbanding. Munson and Dan Wilson went on to form the briefly popular Semisonic, before Dan moved to co-writing bestselling records for the Dixie Chicks and Adele. Munson and Matt Wilson, one of the most underappreciated talents in alternative rock, formed the Twilight Hours. As these records prove, Trip Shakespeare owns a proud legacy.

DOWNLOAD: “Rose,” “Highway in the Sun,” “Toolmaster of Brainerd,” “Spirit”


ELVIS PRESLEY Showroom Internationale [2 LP RSD]

Album: Showroom Internationale

Artist: Elvis Presley

Label: RCA/Legacy

Release Date: November 29, 2014



The folks at RCA, cheered on by Legacy Records, continue their massive Elvis Presley scavenger hunt, cleaning out every company vault and looking under every old rug for any left treasures to re-release. Showroom Internationale, the latest offering pressed on 180G vinyl in time for 2014’s Black Friday Record Store Day, is one of the best offerings so far. This show was recorded at 1970 concert pulled together when Presley was filming the documentary That’s the Way It Is. Recorded two years into Presley’s triumphant comeback, at this point he had shed the bad ass black leather in favor of the white bedazzled jumpsuit (Vegas Elvis is in the building!).

A bulk of the songs on this 17-track album, recorded at one of the dinner shows set up to collect footage and music for the concert film, were never released before, making this another must-have for Elvis collectors.

The sound quality is as stellar as is the selection here with Presley starting the set off strong with “That’s All Right,” “Hound Hog,” “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Love Me Tender” all coming within the first 30 minutes. Despite songs that are decades old to Presley and his band at this point, he shows no sign of growing bored with the catalog.

As is his routine at this point in his career, he tosses in a handful of contemporary covers like “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin,’” capping the album off with a panty-dropping version of “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Presley in his prime, this may not be the Holy Grail for Presley diehards, but it’s still a fantastic live record.

DOWNLOAD: “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Can’t Help Falling In Love”

AUSMUTEANTS – Order of Operation

Album: Order of Operation

Artist: Ausmuteants

Label: Goner

Release Date: September 30, 2014

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 A Facebook friend was raving about this Aussie bunch recently and hey, she’s got good taste in music so I knew I had to listen. And hey, if you want to know everything about the making of this record it’s right there on the sleeve (with the drawing of an old photocopying machine). Expenses (i.e., recording fee – $600, etc.) so yeah, these guys are an economical bunch and we can all get behind that (cheap bastards that we are).

I believe this is their sophomore effort and right from the get-go the band is all in your face. Guitars and keyboards intermingle while Jake and Shaun trade off vocals and they even talk the percussionist, William, into playing some sax. The songs are herky and jerky and will bring to mind early Devo as well as Portland’s late, great Epoxies (LA’s Screamers, too). Oh they can write songs, too. Check out “We’re Cops,” “Felix Tried To Kill Himself,” “Looney Bin” (my favorite) and “1982.” Though I don’t think I’m wrong in saying there’s not a band cut on here. If I had been listening to THIS kind of new wave back in the early ‘80s (as opposed to , say, Duran Duran) it wouldn’t have taken me so long to get into the good stuff.  Oh I eventually got it, it just took a while to sink in. Meanwhile, Order of Operation sunk in immediately.

DOWNLOAD: “We’re Cops,” “Felix Tried to Kill Himself,” “Looney Bin,” “1982”




Album: The Night Waits

Artist: Temperance League

Label: Like, Wow!

Release Date: January 20, 2015

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In 2013 Charlotte’s Temperance League dropped their sophomore album, aptly titled Rock and Roll Dreams, and quickly ensured that their reputation as a charismatic, compelling live band would now include the notion of them also being studio savants. Equal parts Byrds-esque psych and Springsteenian anthemism, the Mitch Easter-helmed platter was marked by vocalist Bruce Hazel’s inspired urgency at the mic and the 12-string flourishes of guitarist Shawn Lynch, plus the assured backing of their fellow Leaguers. That it wound up on numerous regional publications’ and critics’ best-of lists was no surprise when the year’s end arrived.

The Night Waits should be the one to extend the group’s reputation across the country and beyond. (It’s available on either beautiful color vinyl or as a digital download.) Returning to the well with Easter for engineering and mixing duties, the guys in Temperance League don’t significantly alter their musical trademarks—the basic sound remains gutsy, melodic, heartland rock—but they have clearly upped their songwriting and arranging games. It kicks off with the title track, a blazing, brawny thumper about the eternal allure of the looming nighttime: “The night waits at the end of the day/ Tonight will be different/ Tonight you’ll be magnificent,” promises Hazel, and with such swagger that you have no choice but to believe him. Baby, we’re born to run.

From there you get sinewy rockers (“Land of Opportunity,” boasting a steely guitar solo from Lynch) and edgy, slashing anthems (“The Gap,” which is pure Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers) alongside moody meditations (“The City is Mine,” wherein Hazel’s swagger is tempered by the realization that sometimes there are forces out there larger than us – “tomorrow I’ll be just another number”) and aching midtempo balladry (“Lonely Time,” a jangly chronicle of heartbreak). Despite each song’s singular power, the album has a subtle conceptual vibe, a unity fostered by the presence of certain recurring words (such as “night” and “city”) and themes (confidence collides with self-doubt, dreams get muted by reality). Throughout the band consistently delivers, with its surging keyboard lines (courtesy Jay Garrigan), arena-worthy percussion (David Kim) and propulsive basswork (Eric Scott) providing plenty of room for Lynch and fellow guitarist Chad Wilson to maneuver and provide an array of the kind of inventive flourishes you’d expect of an ensemble that had been together for decades and not just a few years.

For his part, Hazel remains an astute and passionate student of the human spirit in all its myriad emotional dimensions; in another era, he might’ve been an existential philosopher poet instead of a musician. “Sometimes the words can get the best of me,” he sings near the end of the album, adding, “my head fills with doubt and jealousy – I turn to you to put my mind at ease.” And while he’s probably thinking about a girl (isn’t that what rock ‘n’ roll’s supposed to be about anyway?), it’s not hard to extrapolate towards the universal, in which that “you” is all of us.

Pure poetry, indeed.

DOWNLOAD: “The Night Waits,” “The Gap,” “”Land of Opportunity”

Read our 2013 interview with Temperance League HERE.