Albums of the Week

March 17-March 23

Comments Off on Albums of the Week | March 17-March 23

In this edition: Theo Bleckmann, I See Hawks In L.A., The Phantom Halo Band, Bruce Springsteen, Isidore and Earth.

Dennis’ Pick of the Week:
Theo Bleckmann: Hello Earth! (Winter & Winter)

To make another’s work one’s own is a challenge. Many will try their hand at Strange Fruit but it will always belong to Billy Holiday. And while a good cover can help us to see the familiar in a fresh light, rare is the interpreter who possesses material in a way that’s as gripping as the original version. Not only do Theo Bleckmann and his supremely intuitive, hyper-gifted collaborators achieve this end on Hello Earth! (released March 13) but they do so with one of music’s great platypuses, Kate Bush. Swinging between the iconic (Running Up That Hill) and obscure (Suspended In Gaffa), these 14 selections fully inhabit Bush’s strange world in a manner that’s positively native, as if these men had lived their whole lives inside her busted clouds and icy prisons. The arrangements breathe and swing, exhibiting a dancer’s grace to each aspect, where flash and feel function in sly ways, the fullness of the instrumentation and Bleckmann’s ridunkulous range used to maximum positive effect throughout. Known primarily in the jazz world, Bleckmann is actually one of the finest, most creative singers today – no genre tags needed. He understands Kate’s bizarro phrasing and penchant for warping her natural voice, but Bleckmann injects a massive dose of romance, echoes of Anita O’Day’s West Coast warmth and Annie Ross’ wicked invention redolent in his sometimes androgynous, sometimes manly croon. He’s joined here by sublime sidemen John Hollenbeck (drums, crotales, percussion), Henry Hey (piano, prepared harpsichord, Fender Rhodes piano), Caleb Burhans (electric five-string violin, electric guitar) and Skuli Sverrisson (electric bass). Together they use Bush’s catalog as a springboard for some majorly inventive, sonically satisfying excursions. Their command of these pieces and willingness to venture into hitherto unimagined spaces – the punk-ish stab at Violin stands out in this regard – makes this more than a satisfying curio. A wild passion infuses this set, the musicians as high end and emotionally rich as one could ever want, though Hollenbeck’s original, crazily diverse percussion work takes second star behind Bleckmann’s bravura performance. Like Rufus Wainwright’s – Bleckmann’s closest counterpart in the rock world – 2007 grappling with Judy At Carnegie Hall, this album makes one both fall in love anew with the source material and kindles a fresh flame for the beautifully brazen musicians willing to inhabit these songs so wonderfully. (Dennis Cook)

Dennis’ Runner-Up of the Week:
I See Hawks In L.A.: New Kind of Lonely (Western Seeds Records)

Now, this is some quality country music, the kind from when Goodtime Charlie had the blues and Garcia and his pals dug into the workingman’s pain. New Kind of Lonely (released March 6) takes country out of its slick Nashville ghetto and puts it back on the equal footing it had in the days when Glen Campbell, Hoyt Axton and Jonathan Edwards played on the same charts as Al Green, Bob Marley and Seals & Crofts – i.e. just plain good music worth listening to and integrating into one’s life. Lead singer-guitarist Rob Waller has a deeply burnished voice that’s unlike what’s on radio now these days but oozes classic rootsiness, and his compatriots Paul Lacques (guitar, dobro, vocals) and Paul Marshall (acoustic & electric bass, vocals) gather around a few mics with him to pick and harmonize California dappled country that does their forebears proud. The guest turns here include the Punch Brothers’ violinist Gabe Witcher and banjoist Cliff Wagner (Old #7), but it’s the core symmetry and cohesion of the trio that stands out track after track on this bohemian highway. (DC)

Dennis’ Bonus Review:
The Phantom Family Halo: When I Fall Out (Knitting Factory Records)

Apparently inspired by record store clerk concept classics SF Sorrow by The Pretty Things and Wire’s 154, When I Fall Out (released February 21) possesses a purposeful haze, an engulfing sound one wanders around in, emerging a touch dizzy and basted to a high glow. The atmosphere is dense and the words shimmer on a watery surface, there plain to see until one tries to touch them and they scatter in concentric circles. You might call this psychedelic but not in a cliché Nuggets way – one just feels a touch different being near this Halo. Julian Cope, high priest of pagan rockitude that he is, observed about this band, “This stuff is useful and should be available by the vat on prescription, because it’s good for the mental health.” True dat, and the body gets to wiggle in on the goodness on corkers Light Year Girl which struts and pouts like T Rex, or the wormy squirm of Suicide-esque Lightning On Your Face – movement comes in many forms. With angels’ wings gliding through golden rings, When I Fall Out is a focused burst of cleansing, rejuvenating light. Bathe in it shamelessly, children. (DC)

Ron’s Pick of the Week:
Bruce Springsteen: Wrecking Ball (Columbia)

Bruce Springsteen has always made his most challenging work while in transition. Whether its Nebraska in 1982, Tunnel of Love in 1987 or The Ghost of Tom Joad in 1995, it’s the moments between his stints with the E Street Band that tend to find The Boss pushing the envelope of his musical terrain in new and intriguing ways. And on Wrecking Ball (released March 6), he brings the pain of the last year of his life to the forefront with his angriest and most direct album to date. For his 17th studio endeavor, all that promise and resilience that bolstered the post-9/11 trilogy of The Rising, Magic and Working On A Dream gives way to frustration and sorrow in the wake of recent events in American history, as well as the passing of his longtime bandmate and cohort saxophonist Clarence Clemons, whose golden lungs were silenced last year following complications from a stroke and whose death is touchingly addressed by the singer in the liner notes of Ball. The Big Man, as he was so lovingly referred by Bruce, makes his final appearance on record alongside his friend on two tracks here, as do other key members of the E Street Band, including Max Weinberg, Little Steven, Soozy Tyrell and wife Patti Scialfa in addition to a small army of auxiliary session players, most notably acclaimed drummers Steve Jordan and Matt Chamberlain as well as Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello. However, much of the work here is the product of Springsteen and producer Ron Aniello (Barenaked Ladies, Jars of Clay), both of whom handle much of the instrumentation and loops across these 11 tracks (13 if you make the wise choice to pick up the deluxe edition of the record). Yes, you read correctly: loops. There is indeed an electric current that runs through much of Wrecking Ball, something entirely new to the Springsteen sound. Sure, synths have played a prominent role on such works as Tunnel and Human Touch, but here The Boss ventures into territory normally reserved for the likes of Radiohead and Wilco, evident on the Zoo TV-esque opening strains of lead single We Take Care of Our Own, a tune that begs for some GOP nitwit on the campaign trail in 2012 to adopt it as his anthem at the expense of getting even more egg on his face than Reagan did when he tried to hijack Born in the U.S.A. back in 1984. Jack of All Trades, meanwhile, as beautiful a love song can get in a post-apocalyptic setting, kicks off with the faintest snatch of Eno-like ambience that leads into a melody that’s as starkly beautiful as anything he’s done since Devils and Dust. Springsteen even brings a little hip-hop flavor to the fore on Rocky Ground, a funky slow burning gospel groover highlighted by a soulful rap by singer Michelle Moore. Another major element that drives the direction of Wrecking Ball is Springsteen’s immersion into his Irish roots, as songs like Death to My Hometown and American Land are full-on Celtic rockers that will give fans a good understanding as to why Bruce has been hanging out with the likes of the Dropkick Murphys so much lately. Yet in lieu of all this experimentation with different sonic textures, beams of old school Boss bombast blast through the cracks on tracks like the beloved title cut, originally penned in homage to the old Giants Stadium in his home state of New Jersey, and The Land of Hope and Dreams, the album’s most uplifting number and one that might also bait a witless Republican to try and make it their own before they realize it’s a sympathetic narrative about the plight of Mexican immigrants. And though, like most of Springsteen’s transitional recordings, it might take a little more time to grow on you, in the end Wrecking Ball will prove itself worthy of its accolades as one of the high watermarks of a career that reached flood stage decades ago. (Ron Hart)

Ron’s Runner-Up of the Week:
Isidore: Life Somewhere Else (Communicating Vessels)

Back in 2004, onetime Remy Zero guitarist Jeffrey Cain, a longtime fan of Australian alt-rock legends The Church, handed its frontman Steve Kilbey a CD of instrumental tracks he had been working on under the name Isidore. Shortly thereafter, Kilbey delivered to Cain a disc of those same instrumentals with his own lyrics and melodies draped atop them, thus cementing the union of two of college radio’s most intriguing veterans. Seven years later, Isidore follow up their eponymous debut with Life Somewhere Else (released February 21), a more well-rounded and versatile affair made possible with the addition of Cain’s former Remy bandmates Cedric LeMoyne, Leslie Van Trease and the late Gregory Scott Slay, who passed away in 2010 after a valiant battle with cystic fibrosis but appears posthumously via samples of his unique drum work. The result is a meatier, beatier version of The Church had they signed to 4AD way back when and aligned themselves with the likes of This Mortal Coil and Dead Can Dance. In other words, if late nights with 120 Minutes on the television set was your order of business back in the day, this is something you will most definitely want to check out. (RH)

Ron’s Bonus Review:
Earth: Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light II (Southern Lord)

Seattle’s Earth continues to move away from the turgid drone metal they helped pioneer almost 25 years ago with the second volume of their double album opus Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light. Culled from the same two week recording session that gave us Part I, these five songs showcase founding guitarist Dylan Carlson‘s strongest lineup to date – rounded out by drummer Adrienne Davis, bassist Karl Blau and cellist Lori Goldston – at the peak of their collective powers as they dive further down the rabbit hole of English folk ambiance that takes the group’s distinct dustbowl doom metal into a new realm of elegance and, dare I say, beauty as perpetuated on such lengthy tonal meditations as His Teeth Did Brightly Shine and The Corascene Dog. Fans of both Pentangle and Pentagram should find something to love about AODDOL II (released February 14). (RH)