Albums of the Week

November 23-November 30

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The Moondoggies, Elvis Costello, Junip, Bryan Ferry, Nada Surf, The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, American Babies, The Jazz Passengers, The Black and Travel By Sea

Dennis’ Pick of the Week: The Moondoggies: Tidelands (Hardly Art)

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Some music instantly registers as more than an amusement or distraction. It doesn’t require familiarity for a ping to sound inside us. Something in the melody, vibe and even the first falling of the lyrics on our ears signals that one is in the presence of folks who treat music as a way to kneel and kiss the ground or simply to make sense of it all. Seattle’s The Moondoggies grasp at big things in a bold way on their sophomore slab, Tidelands (released October 12). The slow turning of days into years is measured and weighed in this song cycle, which rushes forth like a massive wave hitting the shore before easing into the quietude of low tide, rising & falling as it moves towards to the moonlit finale. The pacing of Tidelands is crucial. Where their absolutely amazing 2008 debut, Don’t Be A Stranger, knocked one around with intrinsic power and rib-sticking songwriting, Tidelands moves more gracefully as a whole, a true album whose journey one takes in its entirety if they’re to really grok what The Moondoggies are putting down. Crying, “Wake up, wake up, let me drink from your cup,” they capture what it is to yearn, to brush the hem of dreams but not grasp them entirely and still live to see another morning, another sunset, another long night. With a sound that wonderfully echoes the incredibly solid musicianship, harmonies and serious song craft of early Eagles, David Crosby & Graham Nash, Dan Fogelberg and later imparters of West Coast dappled broadminded rock with country accents like Son Volt, Beachwood Sparks and Neal Casal, Tidelands swells and dips in a wholly organic way, music so natural and perfect it just needed to come into being. And like nature, it’s a work whose mysteries will be long in solving but never less than a beautiful experience each time one engages with it. (Dennis Cook)

Ron’s Pick of the Week: Elvis Costello: National Ransom (HEAR Music-Concord)

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The last 20 years have easily been the most diversified in the already broad-stroked career of Elvis Costello, seeing the New Wave icon dabble in everything from vaudeville to experimental art rock to baroque classical to sentimental chamber pop to post-punk to incidental film music. Yet beyond the unique organ-driven skinny tie pub jive he made entirely his own with The Attractions on such late 70s milestones as This Year’s Model and Armed Forces, Costello’s songs seems to fit most comfortably within the scopes of two purely American forms of music: country – a style with which he found great critical acclaim during the 1980s with albums like Almost Blue and King of America and again last year with his debut foray into the realm of bluegrass on Secret, Profane and Sugarcane – and jazz – a genre he camped up to such great heights of cheeky creativity on 1989’s entertainingly beloved Spike (not to mention the guy married into the craft, having tied the knot to modern bop beauty Diana Krall). And on National Ransom (released November 2), the artist formerly known as Declan Patrick MacManus reunites once again with producer T-Bone Burnett, who helmed King, Spike and Sugarcane, to create an album that brings together all three of his strongest methods of song composition to deliver one of the best pound-for-pound albums of his recording career. This 16-track set, once again set to tape in Nashville, is born of a series of historical vignettes that find Elvis and a large band comprised of members of his two most recent groups, The Sugarcanes and Attractions spin-off The Imposters, delivering a poignant song cycle that time travels across the last century of American darkness to bring light to the ills of our present day and age, be they financial, social or otherwise. Stations of the Cross, for instance, is based in an undisclosed location circa 2005 that sounds strangely similar to Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, while the story in Five Small Words may take place in the Tuscon, Arizona of 1978, but if you listen to the lyrics you can hear the seeds of the controversial immigration laws plaguing the state being sown. And then you have My Lovely Jezebel, co-written by the suddenly ubiquitous Leon Russell and featuring Marc Ribot on lead guitar, which poses a cautionary female tale set “everywhere until either 1938 or 1951” that could just as easily be about a girl the heartbroken hero of the story met on Facebook or Plenty of Fish. “I think it may be the best record I’ve made in terms of the latter part of my career,” Costello recently proclaimed to Vanity Fair in regards to National Ransom. And from the fruitful quintessence of its unified flavors, who’s to argue with the old man? That is, of course, unless you still hold out on your dogged loyalty to Brutal Youth. (Ron Hart)

Junip: Fields (Mute)

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I don’t know José González from Speedy but this motorik, befuzzed delight really hits the spot. In all seriousness, the Swede has always struck me as too mopey, too emotive, too a bunch of things, but throw a crushing, undulating groove under him – courtesy of Elias Araya (drums) and Tobias Winterkorn (organ, moog) – push his guitar into the red and bevel his voice with pleasing effects and whammy, you’ve got a glowing, modern killer like Fields (released September 14), which seems like what the characters in Blade Runner might listen to in their flying cars or on rain soaked trench coat walks. Fields is the lovely byproduct of contemporary life as it moves into a future where most of us will be “faded to the grain” and unable to hear “the mumbling complaints” that thrive in every corner of our networked lives. What González and Co. have done is make discontent swoon and skip. Neat. (DC)

Bryan Ferry: Olympia (Astralwerks)

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In the three decades since the breakup of Roxy Music, former frontman Bryan Ferry has delivered a string of arguably unremarkable solo albums that hardly captured the spark of his former band’s inventive romanticism. With Olympia (released October 25), however, that streak of indifference comes to a screeching halt as Ferry makes his Astralwerks debut the best album of his post-Roxy career. And with a never-lovelier Kate Moss gracing the cover and guest turns from former bandmates Brian Eno, Phil Manzanera and Andy Mackay (who join an eye-popping legion of cameos from David Gilmour, Flea, Mani of the Stone Roses, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and Nile Rodgers, among others), these ten tracks are also the closest thing to a Roxy Music reunion album we have yet to see. (RH)

Nada Surf: If I Had A Hi-Fi (Mardev)

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A gutsier, less predictable cover tune collection you will not find. This laying bare of inspirational ancestors is a curious assortment, to say the least, stretching between Depeche Mode (Enjoy The Silence), The Go-Betweens (Love Goes On!), Kate Bush (Love and Anger), The Moody Blues (Question), Spoon (The Agony of Laffitte), Arthur Russell (Janine) and more. In their hands, these wildly disparate artists coalesce into a chiming, charged picture that works together. The obvious is avoided at all times, and they’ve unearthed some real gems in Bill Fox’s Electrocution and Dwight Twilley’s You Were So Warm. Added points for having the balls to tackle not one but two non-English language cuts, too. Curiously, the band they most resemble here – The Church – isn’t tapped, but one gets the sense that Nada Surf may enjoy the long lived, consistently excellent career the Ausssies have enjoyed based the evidence of If I Had A Hi-Fi (released June 8), which definitely makes one curious about their own work that lay before this set. (DC)

The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger: Acoustic Sessions (Chimera Music)

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No disrespect to mama Yoko, but if she and John Lennon were as vocally compatible as son Sean Lennon and girlfriend Charlotte Kemp Muhl, the Ono parts of both Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey would have been a lot more appealing to hardnosed Beatles fans, many of whom still use the avant garde queen’s name as a verb for someone breaking up a band. On the couple’s first full-length under the name Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, they deliver a pretty collection of acoustic pop songs in the vein of Simon & Garfunkel and The Kings of Convenience. Apparently the next album, already recorded and said to feature the duo messing around with everything from prog to psych to French hip-hop, will be a more kinetic affair for those who might find Acoustic Sessions (released October 26) too sleepy. But if you can deal with the mellow gold of these nine tracks, you are in for a quiet, whimsical treat from the unstoppable talent that is the youngest Lennon child. (RH)

American Babies: Weight of the World (Shoots and Boots/Reapandsow)

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The mark of a truly great EP is how many times you have to listen to it each time you press play. Thus far I’ve never made it out with less than three spins of Weight of the World (released April 13). Launching with the couplet, “I know you’re scared/ But you know right from wrong,” this 4-track taste of the Babies’ forthcoming second album, Flawed Logic, directly addresses the way the world seems to crush individuals these days. But instead of throwing up its hands in formless discontent and fear, this EP uses melodic rock and a lyrical and vocal acumen akin to prime Ryan Adams to carve out a hopeful hollow, a space where faith can be cobbled together from the scraps blowing by in the strong breeze. The production from Philly mainstay Bill Moriarty (Dr. Dog, Man Man) is ever-engaging without getting in the way of the songwriting or Tom Hamilton’s resilient, open-hearted delivery. Anyone missing The Cardinals or sweet on the quieter side of Tom Petty or the easy flowing dexterity of 70s Paul Simon will find much to love here, though you may become as impatient as myself about hearing the rest of these sessions in 2011. (DC)

The Jazz Passengers: Reunited (Justin Time)

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To call NYC downtown greats The Jazz Passengers merely “just some jazz act” would be to discount their whole thing completely. Since spinning off of John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards in 1987, these cats have been sporadically delivering a unique interplay of hard bop and art rock as steeped in melody as it is in skronk. Following a 12 year absence, band members Roy Nathanson (sax), Curtis Fowlkes (trombone), Brad Jones (bass), Bill Ware (vibes), Sam Bardfeld (violin) and EJ Rodriguez (drums) return with an energetic new studio album loaded with returning guests, namely Marc Ribot (who plays on the first six cuts), Elvis Costello and Debbie Harry (who joins the band on a cover of her Blondie hit One Way or Another) and inventive cover tunes, particularly a positively Dolphy-esque revisioning of Radiohead’s The National Anthem and a cheeky take on the 1979 Peaches & Herb hit that serves as the album’s title. Reunited (released October 12) is a great comeback from one of New York City’s most treasured outfits – jazz or otherwise. (RH)

The Black: Sun in the Day Moon at Night (self-released)

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Did somebody put Brylcreem in the water in Austin, TX, or something? It seems that way given the heavy Roulette Records vibe coming from the famous college town’s music scene, a trend highly evident in the sounds of its most promising export, The Black. Formed in 2002 by former …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead guitarist David Longoria, former Voxtrot rhythm section Jason Chronis on bass and drummer Matt Simon and Schaefer guitar heir Alan Schaefer on lead axe, this quartet plays a purely vintage blend of rockabilly swagger and early British Invasion sensibilities that comes across on its latest album better than anything the band has done in the past, creating music that would feel just as at home on an old Alan Freed broadcast as it would the indie rock showcase on the local campus bandwidth. (RH)

Travel By Sea: Two States and the Blindness That Follows (self-released)

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Travel By Sea is a long distance band. Circumstantially split into two states, and divided by a thousand miles of desolation, singer-songwriter Kyle Kersten and his musical cohort, producer and multi-instrumentalist Brian Kraft bridge the gap over the high wires, using the internet to convene and collaborate on their shared artistic oeuvre – a sparse, detached form of country that wallows in the Western themes of vast, empty nature, distant dreams and the loneliness that haunts the forsaken.

Their third self-produced record, Two States and the Blindness That Follows (released October 19), is a cleanly produced, lyrically powerful desert driver that was created in much the same fashion as the prior two records – by way of Kersten and Kraft’s innovative method of sharing song parts with one another (the two have only actually met face to face a handful of times, with Kersten family-settled in Southern California and Kraft happy to pursue side careers in photography, urban farming and goat husbandry in Colorado) and sending tracks digitally for developing and mixing.

But Two States represents a new, definitive direction for Travel By Sea, as Kersten, eager to share his music with an audience wider than what can be summoned by digitalia alone, has formed a live, touring band based in Orange County, employing former 5 Foot Tuesday frontman Dan Moore, who may just be the mellowest dude you’d ever hope to meet in a morning surf lineup. Moore provided his distinctly Californian vocal harmonies and a particularly contemplative bass style, while John Phinney delivered the signature pedal steel atmosphere, as well as banjo and 12-string guitar. Mick Cusick applies a steady, understated drumming, and a guitarist named Andrew Morrison rounds out the quintet, sans Kraft, who is supportive in a digital way at present. To honor his contributions, a cardboard cutout of the co-founder has been considered for live performances.

Kersten’s vocal style is calm and collected, measured for effect, and fairly unique in tone and timbre, but if pressed might evoke a few different Tupelonians. The songs here are similar in theme, though not working necessarily for or with one another. Rather, there is a common gone-ness to each, a stripped down, immune dispassion for the dashed dreams and unrealized hopes of the Bailout Generation. Two States is a unhurried record meant to be heard while rambling on a deserted road in the middle of nowhere. Even if that road is exists only on a dog-eared map of your mind. (Corby Anderson)