Albums of the Week

February 13-February 19

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In this edition: North Mississippi Allstars, Gregg Allman, Ben + Vesper, The Beets, Dolorean, Anika, Heavy Winged and Tennis

Dennis’ Pick of the Week: North Mississippi Allstars: Keys To The Kingdom (Songs of the South)

If there’s one subject matter that has obsessed songwriters besides love, it’s death. When the two are combined the results can be thought provoking and moving but the NMAS manage to make this mixture joyously resonant and even a bit fun. “Produced for Jim Dickinson,” Keys To The Kingdom (released February 1) wrestles with mortality, the afterlife and what we do with our time here. Clearly inspired in major part by the recent passing of their father, Luther and Cody Dickinson, with bassist Chris Chew, throw a hell of a wake for the grand old musician, producer and quality human being that Jim surely was. There’s newfangled gospel (The Meeting), a necrophiliac stomper (New Orleans Walkin’ Dead), an artful reworking of Dylan (Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again), second line flavored fare (Jellyrollin’ All Over Heaven), stripper strut (Ain’t None O’ Mine) and the most potent mini-epic the Allstars have yet mustered (Hear The Hills). Their tangling with the grave and its implications rattles and rolls, fulfilling Jim’s battle cry of “World Boogie Is Coming!” which appears in the album credits. Keys gets that “it’s a struggle to stay alive,” and mean that on several levels. Instead of sinking into sadness or being paralyzed by the loss they’ve faced, NMAS have dug in and produced their richest, liveliest record, a spinning, earthy reminder that God exists and he made us with a profound instinct for connection, be it physical, spiritual or otherwise. Keys To The Kingdom stands tall and unafraid as it walks through the Valley of Death, and in doing so bolsters our own stamina for life’s long haul and inevitable end. (Dennis Cook)

Ron’s Pick of the Week: Gregg Allman: Low Country Blues (Rounder)

There’s a great historical anecdote that coincides with the release of the long-awaited new album from Gregg Allman, one that reveals the roots behind what many are considering to be the Southern rock icon’s greatest work to date. In writer Robert Gordon’s expertly penned liner notes he recalls a tale of the time when a ten-year-old Gregg and older brother Duane snuck into a Nashville juke joint to catch B.B. King in concert. “We gotta get into some of this,” the future guitar legend proclaimed to his little brother that afternoon in 1959, awestruck by the raw, unbridled passion and energy exchanged between the artist and his audience through the language of the blues. Over a half-century later, the younger Allman pays homage to that pivotal moment in his life with this rootsy, soulful love letter to his craft. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, Gregg’s first solo set since 1997 is comprised almost entirely of vintage covers that provide a scrapbook tracing the many textures that have helped to shape the blues for the past 40-odd years, from the brassy big band boogie of Chess Records to the dirty Delta dirge of pre-hipster Fat Possum and everything in between, all with the singer’s Confederate biker soul at the storm’s eye. With T-Bone at the controls and flanked by a wicked support band featuring the longtime Burnett rhythm section of drummer Jay Bellerose and bassist Dennis Crouch, modern day guitar lion Doyle Bramhall II and most poignantly, longtime brother-in-arms Dr. John on piano, Allman pays homage to his blues heroes by channeling their spirits with his own distinctive flair, so much so that you can literally hear him evoke the sense of life-affirming salvation in Sleepy John Estes’ “Floating Bridge”, the heartsick weariness of Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman”, the yearning in B.B.’s 1970 gem “Please Accept My Love” and the scornful worry in Otis Rush’s “Checking On My Baby”, all of which not only showcase his great chops on the old Hammond B-3, but even more so his uncanny voice, which has never sounded purer or more vital than it does here. Even the sole original on the album, “One More Rider” (co-written by current Allman Brothers guitarist Warren Haynes), evokes a deep sense of the drifter’s heart, an indelible theme as old as the bar chords the song was built upon. Low Country Blues (released January 18) is not only a fitting testament to that 10-year-old boy who bore witness to the power of the blues at such a young age, but also to the grizzled rock veteran entering the golden years of his mighty career at the apex of his art. (Ron Hart)

Ben + Vesper: Honors (Sounds Familyre)

Listening to Ben + Vesper has long felt like eavesdropping on folks speaking their own language. One picks up on familiar snippets and it’s very appealing on a purely sonic level but clearly quite personal and singular. However, Honors (released January 25) offers their finest translation yet, an addictive grower that kicks out more sparks each spin. There’s a cool sophistication mingled with an acute pop facility at work here, echoes of early Brian Eno and John Cale kicking pinging around. Lyrically, they’re a bit quirky in the same great way that Robyn Hitchcock and Prefab Sprout manage, often revealing a talent for peculiar yet perfect opening lines (“If a bird of prey ever lands on your head, don’t freak out.”). The full band sound also suits this husband-wife team, adding just the right heft to these already smart, conscious musicians. (DC)

The Beets: Stay Home (Captured Tracks)

It seems that any band can claim to represent Brooklyn these days, but it takes a special act to hold it down for Queens. The Beets, a trio of young savages from the Jackson Heights district led by an ex-pat from Uruguay, fit the borough as perfectly as a side of well-done home fries at the Georgia Diner in Elmhurst. Whilst keeping within the parameters of the lo-fi aesthetic of the intrepid Captured Tracks label, The Beets’ brand of crusty power pop is perfectly captured on their second album, evoking a primitive earworm that lovingly recalls End of The Century-era Ramones transmitted through the blown VOX amps The Beatles used at Shea Stadium in ’65. And if that ain’t evocative of the Q Borough, I don’t know what is. (RH)

Dolorean: The Unfazed (Partisan)

Portland, OR’s Dolorean make a really inviting sound reminiscent of the best 70s Topanga/Laurel Canyon killers like Jackson Browne and Neil Young, infused with all the same working week weary and muscle deep melancholy as their forebears, along with resilient couplets for getting through all the shit life throws at us. The Unfazed (released January 18) gives a boost to everyday fools with dreams who sometimes understand that the best course of action is to grab a handful of quarters, hit the corner bar with no cover charge and pack the jukebox as we drink away the day’s damage. The Unfazed vibes well with recent work from Dawes and The Moondoggies but infused with a greater classic singer-songwriter feel and a lush, unique guitar sound. Good stuff that’s likely to grow into great stuff as one really sinks into these moody grooves. (DC)

Anika: Anika (Invada-Stones Throw)

At only 23-years-old, Anika has a voice that belies her young age. A conversation about punk, dub and girl groups between the budding Berlin-by-way-of-Bristol political journalist and Portishead mastermind Geoff Barrow led to this insanely cool collaborative debut (released December 7, 2010). The eponymous nine-cut set sees the combination of Anika and Barrow’s shoegazing side project Beak> transform such staples as Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War”, Skeeter Davis’s “The End of the World” and Yoko Ono’s “Yang Yang” into unintended No-Wave throwbacks that conjure a music geek fantasia where Nico secretly cut an album with Public Image Limited at 99 Records in New York City. So cool. (RH)

Heavy Winged: Sunspotted (Type)

Heavy Winged are a trio of bearded, bespectacled, beer swilling youngsters whose respectable smattering of sonic mayhem has been delivered in just about every format still available to musicians over the last few years, from CD-Rs to MP3s to cassette tapes to good, old fashioned acetate. It’s an accumulation of cacophony that reaches its fever pitch on Sunspotted (released December 7, 2010), the group’s auspicious debut on the always reliable experimental label Type Records. Over the course of two twenty-minute epics, drummer Jed Binderman, bassist Brady Sansone and guitarist Ryan Herbert build upon their foundation of pure sub-harmonic sheets of noise to craft something that will completely envelop you in its beautiful ugliness, which falls somewhere between the bottom-end rumble of Swans and electronically enhanced drone of Yellow Swans. Pure magic! (RH)

Tennis: Cape Dory (Fat Possum)

Now here’s a keen concept: Rather than merely blogging about it, musically inclined seafaring spouses Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley write and record an album of songs chronicling the seven months they spent on the Atlantic Ocean on their small Cape Dory yacht. Hence the name of this beguiling debut, 10 tunes that fuse doo-wop, Brill Building pop and nautically themed adventure as effectively as anything we’ve heard since Billy Joel’s Storm Front. (RH)