Albums of the Week

July 19-July 25, 2010

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In this edition: Big High, Dweezil Zappa, Tea Leaf Green, Crowded House, Aaron Dugan, Hoodoo Gurus, Harlan T. Bobo, Sabbath Assembly and Grasscut.

Dennis’ Pick of the Week:Big High: Big High (Big High Music)

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A feral moan, the stir of angry guitar and low, persistent drums begin this rowdy incantation. While bands are busy working on their indie, metal or other sub-genre cred, Seattle’s Big High plants their heels in firm classic rock soil and then show that there’s still plenty a resourceful band can do with the basic satisfying ingredients that keep us spinning Zeppelin, Stones, etc. With a small hurricane of a lead singer in Mesa, mouthwatering guitarist Ari Joshua, and a thick, squirming low end anchored by bassist Sandy and superb drummer Barrett Martin (Screaming Trees, Tuatara), there’s just so much right about this debut, which harnesses the fireworks of 70s greats and the band’s 90s Seattle forebears to fine effect, not unlike kindred spirits Clutch. A big high, one assumes, is one that exceeds the buzz you usually get, a kick of another order, and there’s a cumulative energy that seeps into one as this moves from raucous opening into some of the finest mid-tempo balladry since the Black Crowes were young men. And this last point is salient: Sabbath heads are gonna love this but so are the little baby girls, and any hard rock unit that can woo women AND head-banging boys is lethal good news. Martin’s Tuatara bandmate Peter Buck (R.E.M.) plays guitar on four standout cuts, including Whispers and Could She Be, two of the prettiest numbers any rock band has hoisted on the world this year. To call Big High and their debut promising sells them a touch short. Gut instinct says this is a great band on the way to even more great things, though this is a grand start. (Dennis Cook)

Ron’s Pick of the Week:Dweezil Zappa: Return of the Son Of… (Razor & Tie)

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One of the most enjoyable acts making the jam band rounds over the last couple of years is Zappa Plays Zappa, guitarist Dweezil Zappa’s traveling homage to late father Frank, presently rounded out by Aaron Arntz (keyboards, trumpet, vocals), Sheila Gonzalez (saxophone, flute, keyboards, vocals), Pete Griffin (bass), Billy Hulting (marimba, mallets, percussion), Jamie Kime (guitar) and drummer and Zappa Family Trust archivist Joe Travers, who also helps the young Z on guitar and vocals. Return of the Son Of… (released June 21) is the second ZPZ live album, this one being a double disc compiling 14 performances that find the ensemble digging incredibly deep into the late FZ’s seemingly bottomless repertoire for some serious nuggets undoubtedly included to wow scrutinizing superfans. It is also designed, according to Dweezil in the album’s liner notes, to provide the most accurate snapshot of the band in action. Inspired by Shut Up And Play Yer Guitar, his old man’s mammoth three-volume anthology of lengthy guitar solos, Return (whose title is a nod to the third set of the series) is an axe-centric set thick with prime material from Frank’s robust 70s/80s period for the younger Zappa to unleash his own formidable chops upon, including The Deathless Horsie from 1981′s Shut Up And Play Yer Guitar Some More, the 1975 One Size Fits All epic and longtime FZ concert staple Inca Roads, the Tina Turner-sampling Montana from 1973′s Over-Nite Sensation, and Magic Fingers from the soundtrack to the 1971 Zappa-directed cult film classic 200 Motels. Most of the songs selected for Return also feature guest vocalist Ray White, a seasoned blues guitarist whose soulful croon and harmonious interplay with Ike Willis can be heard on such underrated FZ albums as Zappa in New York, Tinsel Town Rebellion and You Are What You Is. White was a prominent member of Zappa Plays Zappa from 2007 until early 2009, and his golden larynx certainly takes center stage during the two of FZ’s most challenging epics performed here: a 21-minute version of King Kong, the side four suite to 1969′s double album Uncle Meat, and the beloved Flo ‘n’ Eddie-era rock opera parody Billy The Mountain from 1972′s Just Another Band From L.A. However, the epicenter of this compilation is Dweezil and his outstanding guitar playing, which, with the solid fluidity of this latest lineup of Zappa Plays Zappa, helps to make Return of the Son Of… a worthy tribute to the genius of his father’s six-string prowess and an album as indispensible to any FZ fan’s collection as the most recent spate of Zappa Family Trust reissues. (Ron Hart)

Tea Leaf Green: Looking West (Tea Leaf Green Music)

Looking West

Looking West

Tea Leaf Green

San Francisco’s TLG have long exhibited serious live chemistry but until Looking West (released June 16) their studio work has only partially captured the abundant creativity, sheer chops and continually strong songcraft they exhibit onstage. Produced by bandmates Reed Mathis (bass, vocals) and Trevor Garrod (keys, vocals), Looking West manages the neat trick of being both comfortingly familiar and imaginative and studio-wise in striking new ways. Here the mixing board, effects, etc. play a larger role than in the past, and it’s all to the band’s betterment. A number of tracks are already live staples but as configured here, they breathe with fresh, full lungs. In a nutshell, Tea Leaf Green’s sound mingles warm, West Coast rock that touches on Leon Russell and Little Feat (i.e. rockers that know how to boogie righteously) and modern touchstones Elliott Smith and Beck. It’s an appealing assemblage that’s made more so by the heavier, darker strains on Looking West, including one of the bloodiest numbers in their catalogue (My Bastard Brother) and the full emergence of guitarist-singer Josh Clark as a songwriting force on record. What’s apparent upon careful listen is something intense and explosive is germinating inside today’s TLG and it’s freakin’ exciting to see where this one leads them. (DC)

Crowded House: Intriguer (Vanguard)

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On their second album following their celebrated 2007 reunion, New Zealand dream-pop greats Crowded House throw a few new spices into their age-old sound and turn out their finest album since Temple of Low Men. Some might even call this their best one yet. Taking full advantage of frontman Neil Finn’s highly respected status as rock elder statesman in the 21st century, Intriguer (released July 13) gathers together a host of incredibly talented friends, including Lisa Germano, Jon Brion, Neil’s son Liam Finn and Wilco producer Jim Scott, to help the House break new ground with their time-tested sound by adding elements of McCartney-esque melodicism (Amsterdam), tremolo-soaked, hard-driving guitar fury (Isolation), and plaintive alt-country (Inside Out), in addition to a gang of tracks that do the atmospheric anthemia thing with a panache that should leave both modern day U2 and Coldplay quite humbled. Intriguer definitely lives up to its adjectival title with 10 brilliant new songs that will certainly surprise both longtime fans and those who wrote the band off in their 80s heyday as snoozy Top 40 fodder. (RH)

Aaron Dugan: Theory of Everything (Jungulous)

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If all you know about Dugan is he plays guitar in Matisyahu’s band then you know only a tiny fraction of this relatively fearless, always inquisitive musician. Dugan has recorded scads of CDRs and other limited release material that ranges from ambient drift to space funk to dub to solo experimentalism. Theory of Everything (released February 7) accomplishes a pulsating, pleasant mélange of his many interests, anchored to an intuitive core ensemble of Amy Carrigan (vocals), Jason Fraticelli (bass) and Mark Guiliana (drums). What emerges most vividly on Theory is the huge scope and textural beauty of Dugan’s guitar work and his growing skill as a composer of genre slipping fare. Rock is probably the best umbrella descriptor but meant in the way it once did when it had the power to fire up Sly Stone, Miles Davis and Eric Clapton simultaneously. Theory of Everything is jubilantly alive, reaching into new spaces and scooping the listener up as they slip slide away. (DC)

Hoodoo Gurus: Purity of Essence (Hoodoo Gurus Records)

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On their first album in 7 years, the Hoodoo Gurus return most triumphantly with their loudest LP to date and finest since Mars Needs Guitars. Even though frontman Dave Faulkner pens lyrics might not exactly earn him any comparisons to fellow Aussie Nick Cave in terms of depth and finesse, you cannot deny the raw power of Purity(released May 11) or the cleverness in its cheeky-yet-direct songwriting aimed squarely at the decaying factor of American junk culture. Culled from an impromptu jam session of the band’s current line-up earlier this year, the group’s ninth album is a rough and tumble set that contains amplified stabs at barstool country, brassy soul, Clash City rock and a closing number as shimmering as any ballad crafted by Fountains of Wayne (The Stars Look Down). Produced by the band alongside longtime Hoodoos cohort Charles Fisher and mixed by the legendary Ed Stasium, Purity of Essence goes to show that after nearly thirty years in the game, the Gurus are still one of the finest, most underrated pure rock bands the globe has to offer. (RH)

Harlan T. Bobo: Sucker (Goner)

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While his name suggests a kissin’ cousin to Minnie Pearl or Grandpa Moses, Harlan T. Bobo is actually a sly, deft singer-songwriter who sings with a sweeter version of the deep river croon of Nick Cave or The Tindersticks working tunes that pops like a new generational Nick Lowe. Sucker (released April 13) was “mostly written while courting an adventurous woman.” Bobo says, “The first time she broke my nose with a rum bottle I knew it was love.” That chemistry – romance with a dash of real violence and smiling masochism – infuses a dozen tunes that move from flowers-in-hand tenderness to Modern Lovers chomp to Lou Reed sauciness to Surprise Me Mr. Davis-esque pop (the first time any artist has so strongly echoed the kind of music SMMD makes for this writer) and elsewhere besides. When this spins to a stop you’ll be shocked it’s only been 30 minutes given all the ground covered. And you’ll want to hear this track and that one again, and then that’ll get to spin that other one. And so it goes with this wonderful sleeper. (DC)

Sabbath Assembly: Restored to One (Sound at One.)

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Who ever thought church music could sound so sinister? Sabbath Assembly is a band led by the super sexy Jex Toth on lead vocals, NoNeck Blues Band drummer Dave “Xtian” Nuss and Southern Lord producer Randall Dunn. Together, they bring forth Restored to One (released June 21), a collection of psychedelic goth-spell songs originally recorded by the controversial and fascinating Process Church of the Final Judgment, a cultish offshoot of Scientology that started in the mid-60s, who worshipped both Christ and Satan with equal aplomb and whose philosophy was said to have been a source of inspiration for Charles Manson. These days they are best known for their killer publishing house Process Media/Feral House Press, which has released some of the best rock books in the last 20 years, including scholarly dissertations on the MC5, The 13th Floor Elevators, Moondog and Ya Ho Wa 13. And now they can add their association and influence to this wildly cosmic collection of mesmerizing songs of faith, which Sabbath Assembly perform with the freaky flair of The Breeders running through the songbook of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. While some of the hymnals covered here might be a little scary for some tastes, the way Toth, Dunn and Nuss deliver the Process Church’s theology in song is nothing short of fascinating. (RH)

Grasscut: 1 Inch/1/2 Mile (Ninja Tune)

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There’s no better way to celebrate an anniversary than with a bold look ahead. And in the throes of Ninja Tune’s 20th year on the forefront of abstract groove comes the enigmatic debut from recent signings Grasscut, a UK-based duo who harbors a sound that will most certainly have fans of both The Books and Thom Yorke’s solo material wanting to keep an ear out. 1 Inch/1/2 Mile (released July 13) employs a combination of spoken word samples, found sounds, skittering laptop grooves, acoustic instrumentation, and Tubeway Army-esque keyboards to propel a collection of nine well-crafted pop songs that dispel a warmth that goes far beyond the mechanics of their sound. (RH)

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