Albums of the Week

May 6-May 12

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In this edition: Ivan Julian, Tab Benoit, Fleet Foxes and Dennis Coffey

Dennis’ Pick of the Week:
Ivan Julian: The Naked Flame (00:02:59 Records)

This is rock that looks good in just a t-shirt and jeans – nothing fancy but perfect in its purity and simplicity. Except The Naked Flame (released March 29) isn’t really simple. It’s the sticky fruit grown during a lifetime inside some of rock’s most interesting corridors, a bright flare across the sky from a musician that was part of the great early 70s New York City rock explosion as a founding member of Richard Hell and the Voidoids, an in-the-trenches shredder in The Outsets and Lovelies, and sparring partner to Matthew Sweet, The Clash and Shriekback. But even if one didn’t know Julian’s bona fides, the sheer raw rightness of The Naked Flame makes one sit bolt upright.

This is rock ‘n’ fucking roll, not some hybrid, new millennial thing – a hardwired sound to piss a day away to, an ogle at a fine frame in a tight sweater and skirt, bedrock punk and blues transmogrified into a good beat you can dance or make out to. Drop this album in the CD changer with Jim Carroll’s Catholic Boy, Patti Smith Group’s Horses and The Replacements’ Let It Be and it’ll holds its own (and even come out on top in a few track by track comparisons). It’s a touch mind-boggling that this is Julian’s solo debut but his patience has produced a relentlessly great work. Besides the varied, crazy good originals, Julian covers two way tasty picks: The Nuns’ “The Beat,” made into a reverb rich shuffle filled with barroom piano, and Lucinda Williams’ “Broken Butterflies,” which he mutates into a Tom Waits at his sweetly clanging best style meditation that closes the album.

The Naked Flame is a bracing reminder that often the best things in life take time to gestate. But don’t take so long with the follow-up, please. You’ve left us hungry for more, Mr. Julian. (Dennis Cook)

Dennis’ Runner-Up of the Week:
Tab Benoit: Medicine (Telarc)

This Louisiana bluesman has been knocking out solid albums since the early 90s but he’s never made a record as all-together terrific as Medicine (released April 26), where his gutbucket voice and guitar have never been more potent or immediate. Teaming up with fellow New Orleans region powerhouse Anders Osborne has produced boffo results akin to Chuck Prophet’s impact on Alejandro Escovedo’s recent work; i.e. career bests from guys that were already pretty damn good. Osborne co-wrote Medicine’s seven originals and B.B. King even loaned him Lucille to pick on for half the album. Producer David Z (Prince, Jonny Lang, Buddy Guy) keeps everything clean and direct, capturing most cuts in first takes live in the studio. The rest of the band is absolutely killer, too, with Dumpstaphunk’s Ivan Neville particularly shining here, a subtle, coiled bit of alright on every cut. From the mean-blues title track to the Stevie Ray Vaughan worthy Sunrise to a sighing, perfect cover of Toussaint McCall’s classic Nothing Takes The Place of You to playful closers Next To Me and Mudboat Melissa, every element of Medicine just works. (DC)

Ron’s Pick of the Week:
Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)

Here’s the thing about some of these bands that the likes of such hipster-than-thou publications like Pitchfork and Tiny Mix Tapes incessantly spooge their critical seed upon: it also has proven to be a bit of a deterrent to those who do not deem such fountains of underground hype as the preeminent voices of their generation. And right behind the likes of Panda Bear, Odd Future and the Arcade Fire on the jizz list are Seattle’s Fleet Foxes, whose revival of the pastoral West Coast folk-rock of the late 60s/early 70s has gained them universal accolades in just about every music publication worldwide.

However, in the case of the Foxes, the overabundance of kudos is undoubtedly justified, especially in the context of the stellar new LP, Helplessness Blues (released May 3). These dozen songs are the labor of a good year-and-a-half’s time in a variety of famous studios, including the place where Nirvana recorded Bleach, legendary alt-rock mainstay Dreamland Recording in West Hurley, NY and Avast! in Seattle, the place where the band recorded their eponymous 2008 debut LP as well as being the birthplace to Northwest classics like Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, Bikini Kill’s Pussy Whipped and Earth’s Earth 2. And the group apparently trudged through a number of barriers to reach this record’s fruition, including post-tour exhaustion, some kind of mysterious illness and creative self-doubt. But the good fight proves unabashedly worth the battle, as Helplessness Blues is a gargantuan creative leap from anything they have done prior – a darker, more sonically expansive set that seems to utilize the setbacks that hindered its creation to deliver a performance that expresses a wisdom beyond their collective youth.

In addition to the songs that smack of the FF sound we’ve all come to know and love (Someone You’d Admire and Montezuma), the album also finds this full-fledged version of the Foxes venturing more into the realms of Bookends-era Simon & Garfunkel than vintage CSNY, a shift evident on the epic title track and the gorgeously spare Blue Spotted Tail. But most intriguing aspects of Helplessness Blues are the moments when the band steps out of its comfort zone, namely in the waves of guitar reverb on Grown Ocean and the Sun Ra-meets-George Harrison skronk that caps the eight-minute-long The Shrine/An Argument.

“If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore,” frontman Robin Pecknold sings on the title track before admitting, “I’d rather be a functioning cog in some great machinery, serving something beyond me.”

As Helplessness Blues so duly signifies, Pecknold and his pals are working overtime to help bring a sense of authenticity and gravitas to an American music landscape quickly losing its self-reflection and humility. (Ron Hart)

Ron’s Runner-Up of the Week:
Dennis Coffey: Dennis Coffey (Strut)

As a member of Motown’s intrepid studio band The Funk Brothers, Dennis Coffey has played a key role in some of the most beloved soul classics ever recorded, including The Spinners’ It’s A Shame, Edwin Starr’s War and Marvin Gaye’s babymaking anthem I Want You, among countless others. He was also paramount in bringing the legendary Detroit label into the psychedelic rock era with his fuzz-and-wah-drenched electric guitar licks that permeated such hits as The Temptations’ Cloud 9. Additionally, he worked with Funkadelic on their eponymous 1970 debut masterpiece, scored the disgustingly funky soundtrack to the 1974 blaxploitation favorite Black Belt Jones and co-produced Rodriguez’s cult soul classic Cold Fact, in addition to releasing a stinging string of solo albums that remain out-of-print to this day.

This self-titled effort (released April 26), Coffey’s first for the Strut imprint, sees him revisiting a variety of vintage material from his past with some of today’s most contemporary figures in left field groove music. Among the highlights are a revision of Wilson Pickett’s 1971 smash Don’t Knock My Love featuring Fanny Franklin of the L.A.-based outfit Orgone, a spiritual interpretation of Rodriguez’s Only Good For Conversation featuring Scottish singer/songwriter Paolo Nutini, and a powerful, faithful take on the indelible Funkadelic relic I Bet You with fellow Motor City mainstays Mick Collins of The Dirtbombs and Rachel Nagy of The Detroit Cobras at the fore. But it is the instrumentals here that prove to be the most fertile ground for Coffey to do his guitar thang, echoing the greatness of his Scorpio era on such heady, break-driven workouts as Knockabout and Space Traveler.

For a further appreciation of Dennis Coffey, check out the outstanding megamix compiled by Detroit musical ambassador DJ House Shoes that encapsulates all of the axe man’s five decades of greatness into one seamless 47 minute blend. Find it here (RH)