Albums of the Week

January 31-February 6

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In this edition: Jay Gonzalez, Wino & Conny Oches, Spielgusher, Cardinal and John K. Samson.

Dennis’ Pick of the Week:
Jay Gonzalez: Mess of Happiness (Middle Brow Record)

This solo debut from the Drive-By Truckers’ keyboardist is a pure pop delight, a descendent of prime Todd Rundgren, Nick Lowe, Squeeze and The Kinks that holds its own against the established masters. An easy lilt informs Mess of Happiness (released January 17), but like the best pop craftsmen, Gonzalez is all about neat details, well chosen instrumentation (most of it handled by himself), effervescent harmonies, and wonderfully sculpted bridges and hooks. Put another way, it’s only after closer inspection that one catches ALL the good stuff going on in these concisely drawn pieces. Like contemporaries ALO and Dr. Dog, Gonzalez’s work here offers a refreshing reminder of what constituted worthy radio fare in the 60s & 70s. Oh, it’s not as if he’s out to recreate anything, he’s just shooting for a better benchmark of populist ditties than the bunk on today’s charts, and good fucking luck getting the likes of Short Leash, Punch of Love, the Roy Orbison-esque I Urge You and especially Turning Me On – a salute to sharing great songs that should inspire one to share it around – out of your head. As perfectly suited as Gonzalez is to the Truckers, this feels like his real calling. More, please, and soon, sir. [Pick up Mess of Happiness here] (Dennis Cook)

Dennis’ Runner-Up of the Week:
Wino & Conny Ochs: Heavy Kingdom (Exile On Mainstream)

Encountered under the right circumstances – say alone on a starless, insomniac night or after one too many bust-ups with your lover – Heavy Kingdom (released January 30) could be the medicine you reach for along with the trusty whiskey bottle. The album is actually sort of hopeful but in an unvarnished way, coughing up dust and inspecting wounds in an intimate conversation between German singer-songwriter Ochs and St. Vitus/Premonition 13 hard rock icon Wino, who continues his recent evolution into a pretty fantastic acoustic troubadour. Not much polish is used with most cuts made up of just their intertwining voices and acoustic guitars bouncing between the speakers with smartly placed bursts of electricity in the background from time to time. The hushed but powerful acoustic work of Jerry Joseph and Slaid Cleaves comes to mind, while the title cut has a Widespread Panic feel, and Vultures By The Vines and Here Comes The Siren could be outtakes from Nirvana’s Unplugged. There’s a spot-on cover of Townes Van Zandt’s Highway Kind, and enough straight forward sincerity to sell lines like, “Our love will make us whole again.” And anyone with a weakness for Johnny Cash’s American series, or just quiet outlaw country in general, may also take a shine to Heavy Kingdom, which has a heft worthy of its title. [Physical CD not out until March 13th but you can score a download now for just $5.99 at Amazon] (DC)

Ron’s Pick of the Week:
Spielgusher: Spielgusher (Clenchedwrench)

Forget Robert Christgau. If you are looking for the true dean of American rock critics, look no further than Mr. Richard Meltzer. Long considered one of the earliest rock critics, his contributions to the likes of CREEM, Crawdaddy! and Rolling Stone are the stuff of legend, full of venom, wit and fearless prose that made you feel the intensity with which he eviscerated all that he hated about the record business and inspired you to immediately go to out and pick up anything he recommended. His 2000 anthology of music writing, A Whore Just Like The Rest, is essential reading for any would-be journo looking to truly mine the depths of what it means to become a rock critic. Meltzer was also one of the rare scribes who was able to live an equally inspired parallel life in the realm of music performance as well, writing lyrics for Blue Öyster Cult (including their epic hit Burnin’ For You), forming a band called VOM at the height of the punk era, and contributing vocals for the long-running California experimental rock group Smegma. His latest sonic endeavor is Spielgusher, a collaboration with punk bass icon Mike Watt, a self-professed “Richard Meltzer student” who wears the tag of “scientist rock” that Meltzer hailed The Minutemen in his review of the band’s Bean Spill EP for CREEM like a badge of honor. Flanked by the rhythmic assistance of drummer Yuko Araki and guitarist Hirotaka “Shimmy” Shimizu of the Japanese avant-pop act Cornelius, Watt conjures up some of his most exploratory and artful jazz punk since D. Boon left this earth as Meltzer literally “spiels” poetic ramblings about everything from his younger days trying to hook up with neighborhood girls in the attic, recounting the ways he would want to be killed (death by concrete seems to be the method of choice for him) and paying homage to the late L.A. outsider artist Larry “Wild Man” Fischer. As boys, Meltzer and Watt go way back, and this 63-track project was originally mapped out as a Minutemen collaboration before Boon’s untimely passing. But with the help of Yuko and Shimmy, Spielgusher lives on, and this crazy and unstable world is a far better place for it. (Ron Hart)

Ron’s Runner-Up of the Week:
Cardinal: Hymns (Fire Records)

1994 was hardly a time in rock history that called for crafted, orchestral pop in the vein of Van Dyke Parks and Odessa¬-¬era Bee Gees. But the intercontinental chamber pop outfit Cardinal sliced through the eardrum buzz of such classics of that year as Nirvana’s In Utero, Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral and Pantera’s Far Beyond Driven with a beguiling one-off record that favored strings over screams. The duo of Richard Davies and Eric Matthews parted ways shortly after the release of Cardinal’s eponymous debut and went on to spend their subsequent artistic years forging their own paths as solo acts. However, 18 years later, to the surprise of many, the pair has reconvened to deliver Hymns (released January 24), Cardinal’s long-awaited follow-up for the veteran UK indie Fire Records. And the pair picks right up where they left off in ’94, delivering ten new songs of metaphysical Anglo-pop teeming with layered string arrangements and imaginative songwriting that gives props to soap operas (General Hospital), Australian garage rock icons Radio Birdman, and the first law case read by Davies (Carbolic Smoke Ball). Hymns is a most welcome return to the game for one of indie pop’s most talented partnerships. (RH)

Ron’s Bonus Review:
John K. Samson: Provincial (Anti-)

Weakerthans frontman John K. Samson leaves his Canuck punk roots in the rear view mirror on his beautifully crafted solo debut (released January 24). Comprised of new versions of songs featured on his previous pair of EPs, City Route 85 and Provincial Road 222, along with a handful of fresh material, Samson paints a poetic and atmospheric portrait of his native Winnipeg, Manitoba in the same way that Ray Davies sang of England at the height of the Kinks’ Reprise years, utilizing a No Depression-style alt-country vibe and a voice evocative of Clem Snide’s Eef Barzalay to tell tales about grad school woes, intra-office romances, teenage lust and Grand Theft Auto. There’s even a song titled after the URL of a site the singer launched on iPetition.com as an online campaign to honor local hockey legend Reggie “The Riverton Rifle” Leach, who helped lead the Philadelphia Flyers to Stanley Cup gold in 1975. Provincial is Nebraska for the North of the Border set, an album that takes great pride in the rolls and waves of its geography, as calming and expansive as the open roads from which these songs have sprung. (RH)