Albums of the Week

December 29, 2010-January 5, 2011

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In this edition: Hiss Golden Messenger, Steve Wynn & The Miracle 3, Martina Topley Bird, Surf City, The Nucleus, Earth, Pernice Brothers, Sun City Girls, Wyatt/Atzmon/Stephen and Stereolab.

Dennis’ Pick of the Week: Hiss Golden Messenger: Bad Debt (Blackmaps)

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Facing one’s God isn’t something done lightly, or in many instances, maybe at all. Hiss mastermind Jai Lil ‘Slim’ Diamond marches into this ontological minefield with an exposed heart and laid bare mind on Bad Debt (released November 30) to create spare, beautiful ponderings on mortality, deity, hope and ultimately what is real and what endures. While this subject matter can be dreary and too earnest to bear without a snicker, Bad Debt, in its overt nakedness, makes for a harrowing, insightful, hard to pin down experience that ultimately resolves that “eventually I will be set free and that will be fine.” It’s Diamond’s willingness to share observations most folks keep locked up with a big privacy sign on the door that makes this music shine, a dark illumination that shows just how much we all straddle a chasm between life and death. Titles like Jesus Shot Me In The Head, The Serpent Is Kind (Compared To Man) and No Lord Is Free speak of a brave toe-to-toe with spirituality and a lack of sugarcoating that infects so many approaches to God. Few churches would allow an admission as starkly bleak as, “I hated myself and I hoped that I would die,” but keep listening and a flicker of something like hope emerges: “I hated myself until someone caught my eye/ It was a pretty child with eyes like flame/ He called my name/ Something broke my mind.” Bad Debt wrestles with the nihilism, mythology, and self-recrimination that lay in the path of anyone seeking a sliver of greater understanding of this world and their place in it. These ideas paired with fat-free, largely solo acoustic musical settings that resonate with the starkest parts of the Iron & Wine and Bonnie Prince Billy catalogs – and further back to 78 rpm blues and folk sides – produce one of the deepest albums this year, something beyond the grasp of casual listeners but ideal for those willing to plant their own steps in Diamond’s footprints. You will be surprised and perhaps even a touch delighted at where you find yourself at journey’s end, realizing the littlest laugh finds a way despite the brambles and burrs ensnaring our steps. (Dennis Cook)

Ron’s Pick of the Week: Steve Wynn & The Miracle 3: Northern Aggression (Yep Roc)

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Whether it’s for the ground he broke in the West Coast paisley underground as the leader of The Dream Syndicate or the myriad styles he’s managed to infuse into the gothic twang of his long-running solo career, Steve Wynn’s 30 year run as one of the true icons of college radio definitely merits him a spot on the next Rock & Roll Hall of Fame candidate list. Whether Wenner and his buds are aware of that fact or not is another story, but in any case, Wynn continues to successfully build upon his legacy with his new band The Miracle 3 with guitarist Jason Victor, wife Linda Pitmon on drums and Dave DeCastro on bass guitar, accurately listed on their MySpace page as “Garage/Indie/Psychedelic.” Building off the creative spark ignited on the 3’s 2008 debut …tick…tick…tick, Northern Aggression (released November 30) finds the New York-based Wynn in city mode and delivering his loudest set of songs since he put that John Coltrane on the stereo. Songs like album opener Resolution and the swirling On the Mend are accented by vintage washes of feedback, E-bow guitar colorations, heavy organs and driving cave stomp rhythms, while the heart of the LP lies within a trippy cover of The Death of Donny B, the theme to an obscure 1969 anti-drug propaganda film made for The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Three decades into a career already punctuated by such classics as The Days of Wine and Roses, The Medicine Show, Kerosene Man and Fluorescent, Northern Aggression ranks among the very best from one of rock’s great unsung heroes. (Ron Hart)

Martina Topley Bird: Some Place Simple (Ipecac)

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It’s really starting to look like the best and most enduring part of Tricky’s landmark first two albums, Maxinquayte & Pre-Millennium Tension, is Martina Topley Bird, whose voice entranced instantly and whose subsequent work beyond the Tricky Kid has surpassed any of his efforts since her departure. While her earlier solo releases have followed an arc not dissimilar to her time with Tricky, Some Place Simple (released October 19) strips things down to bare essentials to explore Bird’s songbook in a more exposed light. What we find is a modern singer with the phrasing and individual character of Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, a darkly drawn worldview and a distinctive style that incorporates minimalist electronica, big band and New Orleans beats, folk textures and more. Prodded by Blur’s Damon Albarn to revisit her catalog (while adding a few new numbers) at his home studio, Bird reveals what a quietly excellent lyricist she is and how well her tunes hold up without all the bells & whistles. If you’re unfamiliar with her earlier releases this is the place to start, and if you do know them there’s still myriad pleasures to be had. (DC)

Surf City: Kudos (Fire Records)

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Step aside Flight of the Conchords, there’s a new band repping New Zealand these days. Kudos (arriving January 11, 2011) is the proper full-length debut from Surf City, a killer young Kiwi quartet who delivers on the promise of its Jesus and Mary Chain-quoting name. Taking cues from not only the Reid Bros. but from the Flying Nun era of their homeland as well, this 11-song set is a masterful cache of noise pop nuggets that sounds as though it could have been vying for space on the CMJ charts 25 years ago, while maintaining an experimental edge steeped in the sweet drone of Animal Collective at its best that keeps them firmly planted in the 21st century. If you have Spacemen 3, The Chills and The Verlaines on heavy rotation in your hi-fi, Surf City is the perfect new band to turn yourself onto. (RH)

The Nucleus: Quicksand (Nucleus Music)

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“I sold my soul but it wasn’t cheap/ The Devil’s gonna lose/ The stock ain’t what it used to be.” An earthier, edgier Nucleus emerges on Quicksand (released December 7), which completes this formerly jammy instrumental group from Arcata, CA’s transformation into one of the more promising classic rock-minded young groups today. There’s something of early Black Crowes and Gov’t Mule as well as more modern touchstones like Weezer and Ween to the sound of Quicksand, which varies its flavors but always with rib-sticking construction. There’s a hairy manliness to 4 Star Junkie and Truckstop that’d tickle a Widespread Panic fan, but The Nucleus also shows off pop hooks on No More Anything and King of the World that could score them a younger mainstream audience if placed in the right TV or film soundtrack. Where The Nucleus betters these shorthands is in extending many pieces right where other bands stop, sussing out a good corridor to the left of center and rushing down it hard. If Quicksand is where this band is heading, I’ll be glad to follow them for a good long time. (DC)

Earth: A Bureaucratic Desire for Extra-Capsular Extraction (Southern Lord)

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Seattle out-metal icon Dylan Carlson’s long-running Americana drone-doom outfit is slated to drop an epic two-part album series entitled Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light in 2011. But in the meantime, dig into Southern Lord’s excellent compilation of what was intended to be Earth’s first album (released October 25), comprised of seven tracks recorded in the fall of 1990, including the whole of the band’s 1991 debut EP Extra-Capsular Extraction and four other cuts from those incubatory Smegma Studios sessions originally featured on the live album Sunn Amps and Smashed Guitars, including the brooding Divine and Bright, which features lead vocals from a pre-Nevermind Kurt Cobain at his soul-scraping best. (RH)

Pernice Brothers: Goodbye, Killer (Ashmont)

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A prime example of what I call “If The Beatles Really Won” pop-rock. For more than 15 years Joe Pernice has been embarrassing his songwriting competition by being ceaselessly smarter, cleverer and more melodically adept than the vast majority of folks chasing what Paul, John and George wrought. Pernice and his “brothers” – James Walbourne, Bob Pernice and ever-tasty drummer Ric Menck (The Velvet Crush) – 10 pretty much flawless tunes on Goodbye, Killer (released June 15) filled with gently cynical turns of phrase and wonderful small touches – the broken falsetto on The Great Depression or George Harrison-esque guitar work driving the title cut – that add up to an addictive listen for folks who like brains with their bubblegum. The rockers snarl and the pretty ones are his loveliest offerings since Chappaquiddick Skyline. (DC)

Sun City Girls: Funeral Mariachi (Abduction)

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The tragic passing of Sun City Girls drummer Charles Gocher abruptly marked the end of the 27 year career of one of avant-garde rock’s most treasured acts. But the surviving brothers Bishop have hardly allowed their collective legacy to fade out quietly. The Arizona trio’s unintended swan song is quintessential SCG, a cinematic cacophony of beautiful noise infiltrated by elements of folk, psych, Arabic, Indonesian and Italian song craft that blend into some of their most accomplished material ever. Funeral Mariachi (released October 26) is a most fitting last word on the Girls’ three decades of innovation. (RH)

Wyatt/Atzmon/Stephen: From The Ghosts Within (Domino)

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Since signing to Domino, Robert Wyatt has delivered some of the best music of his career as one of modern music’s true masters of the art. This trend continues with the release of this collaboration with saxophonist Gilad Atzmon and violinist Ros Stephen. From The Ghosts Within (released November 9) finds Wyatt and his partners working in tandem to deliver an arresting collection of selections from the Great American Songbook partially inspired by Charlie Parker’s Bird With Strings. The chamber hall modality they bring to such standards as Round Midnight, In A Sentimental Mood and What a Wonderful World is nothing short of a minor miracle. (RH)

Stereolab: Not Music (Drag City)

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Though technically still on the self-imposed hiatus they instated upon themselves in the spring of 2009, Stereolab has released a new album. Well, not entirely new, mind you, but rather a collection of 11 pop compositions stemming from group mastermind Tim Gane’s experimental science of sound study sessions for 2008’s Chemical Chords, and augmented by a pair of lengthy, hypnotic remixes of two key Chemical cuts – Silver Sands, courtesy of Chicken Lips DJ Andy Meecham’s space disco side project Emperor Machine, and a deliciously multihued re-envisioning of Neon Beanbag by the always-reliable Atlas Sound. If Not Music (released November 16) proves to be Stereolab’s last stand, one cannot think of a more perfect way for these groundbreaking purveyors of Master’s level art pop to go out. (RH)

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