In this edition: Chuck Prophet, Big Sir, Van Halen, Black Bananas and Cloud Nothings.
Dennis’ Pick of the Week:
Chuck Prophet: Temple Beautiful (Yep Roc)
“Someday there’s gonna be a revolution/ Until then you need an iron constitution.” Well observed, but that’s how Chuck Prophet rolls. Few artists have had a better creative run in the 2000s than this San Francisco rocker, whose output in the past decade and change is on par with Paul Weller, Todd Snider and The Mother Hips – worthy benchmarks all. Well, Prophet has knocked another one out of the park with Temple Beautiful (released February 7), a loosely thematic salute to his home base by the Bay that artfully ensnares SF’s bittersweet soul and gently hopping energy. Ideally, one’s first listen to this new album should be in stocking feet in a space with lots of open wooden or smooth linoleum floors because this is mover, nodding with a knowing smile towards old time rock ‘n’ roll while maintaining Chuck’s usual man-out-of-time vibe – his stuff just isn’t stuck in any decade. While Temple Beautiful is peppered with San Fran icons – Willie Mays, Carol Doda, Harvey Milk, Jim Jones, Emperor Norton – he’s savvy enough to observe, “That was all so long ago/ There’s always something else to be against.” SF’s natural inclination towards objection and social progress rides in the subtext but couched in tunes that grab one like almost nothing else in Prophet’s long, rich catalogue. He and his crack band are ready to get down with you in this set, and you’d be a fool to resist the gum snapping title tune, bouncing opener Play That Song Again or Prophet’s duet with talented spouse Stephanie Finch on Little Girl, Little Boy. When things slow down, particularly on the aching Museum Of Broken Hearts, the tunes are just as effective, and this song cycle in general has a wider storytelling sweep than some of the “I” voiced, personal numbers on other recent albums. Like San Francisco itself, Temple Beautiful is somewhere almost anyone can find a little bit of space for themselves, surrounded by rich sensations, lovers and dragons curling close in the fog. Throughout Prophet just purrs, his always unique voice moving fluidly and lovely-strange, making verses swing that no other tongue could. Temple Beautiful is Dirty Impound’s first sure-lock on our Best of 2012 list, a charmer that only grows more seductive the longer one spends wandering its hilly avenues. (Dennis Cook)
Dennis’ Runner-Up of the Week:
Big Sir: Before Gardens After Gardens (Rodriguez Lopez Productions/Sargent House)
Just lovely, haunting, too, and thought provoking like an itch that wakes one in the night, suddenly aware of some sore spot stirred up that now must be attended. The latest work from this 12-year-and-counting collaboration between bassist-composer Juan Alderete (The Mars Volta) and sublime singer-composer Lisa Papineau (Air, M83) cements their place as one of the coolest, adamantly modern duos of past few decades – think a much less depressive Suicide, a grittier Yaz, or early Eurythmics with less constrictions and you’re part way there – with Before Gardens After Gardens (released February 7). This is the kind of soundtrack one would want in their ear buds walking through the grimy streets of Blade Runner looking for love beneath the blimp billboards offering exciting lives in the off-world colonies. Okay, it’s maybe not that futuristic, but Big Sir does reach into our collective metal chest and squeeze a few fresh beats from our buried ticker, a gently shocking touch for infidels awash in wanton pride, raising heads from the ground, encouragement to be brave even as we’re falling down. There’s some beautiful beat science here, and Papineau’s willingness to use her voice like an instrument and not just a lyric delivery system keeps the colors splashing. Tying it all together is Alderete’s extraordinary bass work, a conversational, very alive presence snaking into every crevice, a thing of feel and instinct that could steal the show if he were less careful or deft. Taken together with well-chosen, musically appropriate guest turns from bassist Joanthan Hischke (Broken Bells), violist Heather Lockie (Mike Watt, Listing Ship), drummer Deantoni Parks (Mars Volta), Money Mark, David Sims (Jesus Lizard) and others, Gardens is a testament to longing and dreaming out loud, yearning given melody and rhythm for modern times and beyond. (DC)
Ron’s Pick of the Week:
Van Halen: A Different Kind of Truth (Interscope)
After 28 long years of questioning whether or not there would ever be another Van Halen album with David Lee Roth, fans finally got what they so wantonly desired for three decades on February 7th, 2012 in the form of A Different Kind of Truth. It’s the band’s first set of new material since 1998′s disastrous trial run with Extreme frontman Gary Cherone on the microphone that signaled the creative rock bottom for one of the West Coast’s most beloved, groundbreaking AOR acts. Yet from the hemming and hawing coming from the group’s most nebbish acolytes, you’d think some of these critics never wanted this reunion to happen in the first place. Yes, this record is primarily comprised of unused demos from VH’s pre-Warner Bros. salad days, including material from their mythical sessions produced by Gene Simmons of Kiss. Yes, there is no Michael Anthony and his essential backing vocals. Yes, Roth’s yowl is not as mighty as it was back in 1984.
But you know what, who gives a Flying V? Unless you are some weird sentimentalist for such dreck as Balance or worse yet, Van Halen III, the fact that Truth even exists is cause for applause. Sure, the songs are reworks, but the roots of tracks like Tattoo and She’s The Woman stem from the same brainstorming sessions that brought us the likes of Runnin’ With The Devil, Somebody Get Me A Doctor and House of Pain, even though they may not be nearly as good. And of course, Truth would have been made all the better had Anthony been included in the mix. But the fact of the matter is that, though his voice might not hit those same notes the way Mike’s did, Wolfgang Van Halen is arguably a better bassist. And in spite of his lack of pitch, the band employs something of a gang-style vocal approach more in line with The Misfits than Led Zeppelin on several occasions here, particularly the driving As Is. And what can be said about hearing DLR back in VH? Yeah, his pipes may be a little rustier from smoking so much Washington Square Park dirt weed, but the man can still deliver the goods. Here, he sounds more vital than he has since Eat ‘Em and Smile, especially on You and Your Blues and the cheeky Ice Cream Man sequel Stay Frosty.
However, as always, the real stars of this show remain the Brothers Van Halen. Alex even at 58 years young, destroys drummers a third his age, playing with the same centrifugal force that has placed him alongside Peart and Bonham in the All-Timer Top 3 for as long as he’s been in the spotlight. And Eddie, in spite of being inactive in the studio for over 14 years, is an absolute Velociraptor on his Frankenstrat, whether he’s finger-tapping at lightning speed on Chinatown and Beats Workin’ or going in an entirely new direction that brings his unique style of playing into the 21st century, seeming to take cues from such modern-day heroes as Tom Morello and Jonny Greenwood on the intro to Honeysweetiebabydoll.
To call this record one of the best Van Halen LPs ever is without question a major stretch. But to consider it the Pasadena party slammers’ most impressive outing since their finest set from the Sammy Hagar-era, OU812, is indeed a kind of truth that no true fan could construe as different. (Ron Hart)
Ron’s Runner-Up of the Week:
Black Bananas: Rad Times Xpress IV (Drag City)
Neil Michael Hagerty might have gone all NPR on us with his audiobooks and rockist tendencies. But his former partner in Royal Trux, Jennifer Herrema, still keeps herself knee deep in the DIY sleaze of her old band with the debut album (released January 31) from her latest project Black Bananas. Flanked by the same musicians who comprised her previous post-Trux outfit RTX (hence the “IV” in the title of the album), Jen and co. continue to mine the proto-’78 Stones boogie they introduced themselves with on this wild, Kurt Vile-assisted cover of the Some Girls deep cut Before They Make Me Run by slathering the group’s junkie blooze rock with funk guitar, electro shock synths and pulsing quasi-house rhythms that bridge the gap between That Metal Show and 120 Minutes. (RH)
Ron’s Bonus Review:
Cloud Nothings: Attack On Memory (Carpark)
What had originally began as the lo-fi brainchild of a young Dylan Baldi in the basement of his parents’ house in Cleveland Rock City has coalesced into a full-blown blast of old school indie rock bombast on the songwriter’s sophomore LP under the Cloud Nothings moniker. Recorded by Steve Albini with Baldi’s live touring band in tow, Attack On Memory (released January 24) smacks of indie rock’s golden age, as songs like Wasted Days, Fall In and No Sentiment recall such old college radio favorites as Bitch Magnet, Mercyland and late-period Naked Raygun. This is how the underground ought to sound: lean, mean and extreme. (RH)