Albums of the Week

February 29-March 6

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In this edition: Otis Taylor, Field Music, The Dirty Three, Barry Adamson and Band of Skulls.

Dennis’ Pick of the Week:
Otis Taylor: Otis Taylor’s Contraband (Telarc)

No artist has done more to keep the blues interesting in the past decade than Otis Taylor. The Colorado-based multi-instrumentalist has a tectonic deep voice – all earthy volatility and chest rattling growl – with which he lingers over seemingly simple lines, often murmured over & over & over with shifting emotion, the repetition and clarity of his lyrics designed to skirt obfuscation, never wandering into flowery syllables when he can more effectively accomplish his ends with direct call for compassion or a barked, “Wake up, children, wake up!” It’s never business as usual with Taylor, but Otis Taylor’s Contraband (released February 13) is a more subtle evolutionary step than recent curveballs like Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs and Recapturing the Banjo. What’s perhaps most significant about his 12th album is how Taylor now integrates percussion and a pointedly utilized choir into his unique sound, which is redolent of the blues’ roots in Africa as well as its Appalachian and Chicago manifestations. Banjo, fiddle and particularly The Campbell Brothers’ Chuck Campbell’s pedal steel weave in and out of Taylor’s sometimes one-chord explorations, a conversation that speaks to history – as Taylor always does, often holding up an unflinching mirror to folks who think slavery and racism are settled matters – but ultimately make some fresh history by re-contextualizing elements we thought familiar. Contraband’s characters include a black soldier in World War I, a blind piano teacher and lovers of many stripes. His stories continue to gain nuance, even as Taylor uses less words to accomplish more than most lyricists out there. As with all things Otis Taylor, his latest requires focus and patience to unravel, open-ended ruminations punctuated by occasional raw outbursts – closer I Can See You’re Lying could be a primo 70s Buddy Guy classic. Take the time with it though and one comes away impressed at the invention and sure hand at work. (Dennis Cook)

Dennis’ Runner-Up of the Week:
Field Music: Plumb (Memphis Industries)

It begins wondering if they are dreaming and then seamlessly glides through the next 35 minutes with the incongruous dexterity of quality REM storytelling. Four albums in, England’s Field Music have hit the sweet spot where sophisticated art and pop culture forms meet in a fireworks spraying embrace. Wonderfully arranged strings, majestic backing vocals, quicksilver slide guitar and much more carry one along like a steady current, which befits an album crafted in Peter and David Brewis’ new studio set along the banks of the Weir River in Sunderland. Touchstones include Mummer/Skylarking-era XTC, 70s Beach Boys (Surf’s Up & Holland), and especially 10cc’s How Dare You! (further observations on this unsung classic here), but Field Music possesses a modern rhythm sense that’s electronica aware and a sharp observational eye that avoids any romanticizing notions. Fiercely melodic but never courting of any radio-ready formulas, Plumb is – as the final refrain here states – thinking about a new thing. Based on this shining example, this “thing” is beautiful, complex, pleasantly cynical, and imminently worthy of one’s attentions. (DC)

Ron’s Pick of the Week:
The Dirty Three: Toward the Low Sun (Drag City)

The recent dissolution of the mighty Grinderman via Nick Cave’s unceremonious announcement at the Meredith Music Festival in Victoria is undoubtedly one of the biggest disappointments to emerge from a still-young 2012 thus far. And while still very much an active member of his fellow Aussie primary outfit The Bad Seeds, the proto-punk blues project’s grinding halt has given Warren Ellis inspiration to start playing his violin more like a violin again and not a miniature electric guitar by reconvening his celebrated instrumental trio The Dirty Three. Toward the Low Sun (released February 28) is the eighth LP and first for the Drag City label for Ellis, guitarist Mick Turner and drummer Jim White, who picked up the threesome after their longtime vessel, Touch & Go Records, sadly went tits up four years after the release of their 2005 effort Cinder. Yet in spite of this change in their industry environment, the band picks up right where they left off in their furthering of the boundaries pushed within the confines of their unique arrangements without compromising the tonal perimeters of their trademark sound. With Sun, the trio’s fiery elegance hasn’t seemed this urgent since the heyday of Horse Stories. It will indeed be most curious to see if Ellis brings any of this avant-chamber magic to the next Bad Seeds album. (Ron Hart)

Ron’s Runner-Up of the Week:
Barry Adamson: I Will Set You Free (Central Control International)

When it comes to Bad Seeds alumni, however, it doesn’t get more prolific than Barry Adamson, whose pedigree prior to joining the ranks of the first incarnation of Nick Cave’s all-star team in the mid-80s was his heavy hand in pioneering English post-punk as a member of The Buzzcocks offshoot group Magazine, and later establishing himself as a solo tour de force throughout the 90s and 00s. But nothing under the din of his recorded output brings together the accumulation of his 35 years as a creative entity in modern pop quite like I Will Set You Free (released February 14). Across the divide of these ten new songs, Adamson revisits his Brixton Academy salad days on proto-propulsive jams like Turnaround and Destination, the nuanced noir of his soundtrack work on The Trigger City Blues, his gothic lounge act with Black Holes In My Brain and the Scott Walker-cum-Seal soul power of his recent recorded output on The Power of Suggestion and the lush If You Love Her. When it comes to the confines of your expectations from this musical mammoth from Manchester, I Will Set You Free does exactly what its title suggests. (RH)

Ron’s Bonus Review:
Band of Skulls: Sweet Sour (Electric Blues-Vagrant)

Like their American counterparts The Black Keys, UK power trio Band of Skulls has one foot deep in the thick of the Zep Cream. But where that other hoof is burrowed completely sets them apart from their competition in the new wave of AOR. As their sophomore set Sweet Sour (released February 14) signifies, the Skulls line every crunchy Page-inspired blues scale with a wash of shoegaze dissonance that is more Kevin Shields than Howlin’ Wolf, while the boy-girl vocalizing of frontman Russell Marsden and bassist Emma Richardson recalls The Pixies if Black Francis harmonized more with Kim Deal like she does with her sister in The Breeders. If you can appreciate Ride’s Nowhere and “Hots On For Nowhere” in the same light, Sweet Sour is definitely for you. (RH)