Albums of the Week

June 23-June 29

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In this edition: Jessica Lurie, Kelly Hogan, Through The Sparks, Patti Smith, Grass Widow, Marriages and Evans The Death.

Dennis’ Pick of the Week:
Jessica Lurie Ensemble: Megaphone Heart (Zipa! Music)

Genuine diversity is easier talked about than achieved. That is if you’re not NYC-based Jessica Lurie, a saxophone playing super pro well regarded in the jazz and jam worlds, whose latest offering with her ridiculously talented ensemble, Megaphone Heart (release April 24), is a shimmering, simmering testament to the virtues of following one’s creative impulses to the fullest. Less well known as a vocalist, Lurie shines as a singer here, a voice edged in brightness, an earthy thing, full, rich and pleasing to the ear. Until one hears a voice like this they forget how homogenous the landscape for female singers has become, and Lurie takes one back to the character filled pipes of Carole King and Laura Nyro. Better still, she’s using her many gifts (and those of her collaborators) in service of songs ripe with melody and interesting mixtures of style, a place where classic pop, modern jazz, klezmer and more dance artfully. It’s a pleasure to sink into this album, the sheer musicality of it enfolding the listener, the curiosity and quiet fearlessness of the players rewarding one’s attention to detail. It’s on close inspection where the inspired banjo accents of Brandon Seabrook (also guitar, tape recorder) emerge, one of the curious, compelling touches that make Megaphone Heart beat so beautifully. Like fellow New York genre-straddlers Theo Bleckmann and Marco Benevento, Lurie sees the lines of connections between seemingly disparate elements and brings them together with a finesse that is, at times, quite stirring (Same Moon is instrumental storytelling at its finest, and cooler still that it tumbles into wistful, blues dappled road hymn Maps, a number Norah Jones would give her eye teeth to have written). Aided by Seabrook, Erik Deutsch (piano, electric piano, organ), Todd Sickafoose (acoustic bass), Allison Miller (drums, percussion) and special guest Marika Hughes (cello), Lurie (saxophones, flute, voice, and, of course, megaphones) makes all the constricting categories applied to music, especially in the iTunes era, seem meaningless. This is simply great, original music full of smarts and seductive ways. (Dennis Cook)

Dennis’ Runner-Up of the Week:
Kelly Hogan: I Like To Keep Myself In Pain (Anti-)

Not everyone can get Robyn Hitchcock, M. Ward, Robbie Fulks, Handsome Family, Magnetic Fields and John Wesley Harding to write original tunes for them, but Kelly Hogan ain’t just another so & so. A collaborator with the likes of Neko Case, Drive-By Truckers, Mavis Staples and many others, Hogan’s voice has often been relegated to support roles, where she shines brightly, but with I Like To Keep Myself In Pain (released June 5) Hogan finally has the showcase her talents deserve. Without hyperbole, this wonderful set measures up nicely to iconic interpreter jewels like Dusty Springfield’s Dusty In Memphis and Linda Ronstadt’s Prisoner In Disguise, where one realizes what a truly gifted vocalist can do with stellar material. Hogan’s many years in the biz – DI has been a big fan since her 90s days with The Jody Grind and Rock*A*Teens – have made her a bunch of really talented pals, a number of whom penned some of their best numbers ever for this album. Jack Pendarvis/Andrew Bird’s We Can’t Have Nice Things would have been a chart topper in the more open environment of 70s AM programming, as would the country-inflected title cut by Robyn Hitchcock, surely a tune Charlie Rich would have sung the shit out of. There’s nary a dud in the bunch and the arrangements and playing throughout are classy and cool, just the right amount of everything and always putting the spotlight where it belongs – right on this emotive, wonderful singer who long ago should have moved beyond her status as a “noble sideman.” Hogan says she’s “just trying to make the world a smaller place, bring people closer together” with this self-described “make out music.” With punchy, perfect pieces like the Hogan-penned Golden and Haunted, a Jon Langford (The Mekons) tune, screaming for airplay and lots of it, the time for Hogan to fully shine may have arrived. If nothing else, you’re unlikely to find a better classic pop song cycle in 2012. (DC)

Dennis’ Bonus Review:
Through The Sparks: Alamalibu (Skybucket)

This five-song EP makes other rock bands seem lazy. There’s so much going on here, and never in an inaccessible or overly cerebral way even as smart and cleverly assembled as everything is on Alamalibu (released June 19). Named after the band’s basement studio in Birmingham, Alabama, this sharp 20 minute collection mingles riffs, brains and dry humor in ways that demand one hit “repeat” as soon as closer Preacher Pink’s finishes charming, a shuffling, head-bobbing ditty about willing girls that creep into one’s sleep and can’t be un-dreamed. You’re not going to catch everything in a single pass, and the more one ruminates on these songs the better they get. Like kindred, under-sung contemporaries The Mother Hips and The Mommyheads, Through The Sparks show us what rock would sound like if The Beatles had truly won the pop culture wars. From lightly loping opener Brion Monchus straight through, each lyric is ripe with overtones, each passage decorated with small, well thought out touches that make good tunes great. It’s a treat to find rock so fun that’s not also stupid or obvious, and the live feel of its inception further increases the immediacy of this EP, which makes one anxious to hear their next full-length sooner than later. (DC)

Pick up the EP for a few bucks right over here, and while you’re there poke around the Skybucket catalog, one of DI’s favorite indie labels.

Ron’s Pick of the Week:
Patti Smith: Banga (Columbia)

The Godmother of punk returns with her strongest work in years on her third effort for Columbia
Records. In classic Patti Smith fashion, the album’s title is well worth the extra couple of minutes to look into as it references the dog owned by Pontius Pilate, said to be the only living thing the notorious Roman judge who sent Jesus to the cross ever loved. Smith had read about the hound in a copy Mikel Bulgakov’s The Master and Marguerita given to her by a friend wrapped in a coverlet for her exhibition in Paris celebrating the centennial of poet Rene Daumal. “The dog of dogs,” she calls the canine in her eloquently written liner notes, citing her choice to call the LP Banga (released June 5) was in regards to “the camraderie I have experienced with my band and our people”. And with that, Smith and her longtime brothers-in-arms Lenny Kaye (guitar), Jay Dee Daughrety (drums) and Tony Shanahan (bass, keyboards) embark upon a sonic journey largely written on the high seas during Patti and guitarist Lenny Kaye’s involvement in the filming of director Jean Luc Godard’s upcoming film Socialism, and serves as a musical companion to her critically acclaimed and award-winning memoir Just Kids. It’s a complete throwback to her most fertile creative period during the height of the punk rock movement, where she brought a sense of poetic beauty and feminine viscera to the new wave, arguably more so than any other woman on the scene at the time.

These twelve songs cover the sort of ground that only a true master could pull off without looking foolish. Smith aims right for the emotional and abstract pressure points of all that appear as her muse, be it props to America’s true discoverer (Amerigo), eulogies for Amy Winehouse (This Is The Girl) and French actress Maria Schneider (Maria), an improvised variation on a Sun Ra theme that serves as a response to Andrey Tarkovsky’s 1962 Soviet film Ivan’s Childhood (Tarkovsky), or a thoughtful birthday gift for Johnny Depp (Nine – named after the actor’s June 9th birthday on the Sabbath), which features guitar and drums from the actor himself along with some incredible licks by fellow CBGB alumni Tom Verlaine, who also lends his axe to lead single April Fool.

The Bible plays a role beyond Banga here as well. Constantine’s Dream, in particular, recounts a pilgrimage Smith and Kaye embarked on through the stations of the life of St. Francis of Assisi, where they left a memorial card for the late urban poet laureate and lifelong Francis disciple Jim Carroll. The adherence to human kindness displayed on the elegy for the victims of the Fukushima disaster on the tender Fuji-san is certainly an example of the aspects of goodness and concern presented in the lighter moments of The Good Book. The choice to end the record with a straight cover of her longtime hero Neil Young’s signature ballad After the Gold Rush – accompanied by her daughter Jesse and son Jackson – is as elegant a communion song to close out an album as anything in recent memory.

Make no mistake, Banga is the best thing Patti Smith has done since coming out of semi-retirement in the late 80s. It is a recording on par with Horses and Easter. And if you are skeptical of that viewpoint, I encourage you to judge for yourselves. (Ron Hart)

Ron’s Runner-Up of the Week:
Grass Widow: Internal Logic (HLR)

For those of you still holding out hope of a Sleater-Kinney reunion in the near future, forget about it. The closest thing you’re gonna come to such an event came and went when Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss made concurrent cameos on Carrie Brownstein’s ingenious sketch comedy show Portlandia. But if you watched the second season closely, particularly Episode 7 where Carrie and Fred Armisen try to give Joanna Newsom and her massive harp a lift in their tiny car, you will catch a glimpse of the trio of ladies who are gamely picking up where the Sleater legacy left off. San Francisco’s Grass Widow third full-length and first for the HLR imprint finds singer/bassist Hannah Lew, guitar queen Raven Mahon and drummer Lillian Marling finally coming into their own on their finest work together yet. Though the adroit angularity of their post-punk leanings can be directly traced to such iconic acts as The Raincoats and LiLiPUT, the way by which these young ladies harmonize together skips past the whole 60s girl group hype and goes straight to the 120 Minutes melodies of such 90s alt-rock acts as Throwing Muses and The Breeders. Mahon conjures up wave after wave of proto-surf guitar trickery like the reckless granddaughter of Nokie Edwards. Grass Widow sound like no other group out there at the moment, and Internal Logic (released May 29) is their Dig Me Out. (RH)

Ron’s Bonus Review:
Marriages: Kitsune (Sargent House)

For their debut endeavor under the name Marriages, Red Sparowes members Emma Ruth Rundle, Greg Burns and David Clifford take a bold left turn from the parameters of their primary outfit to reveal an affinity for dream pop beyond the core of their instru-metal roots. And on Kitsune (released May 1), the incorporation of vocals into the mix adds somewhat of an old school 4AD element to these six compositions that owe as much to Dead Can Dance as they do to Neurosis. Definitely one to keep an eye out for next time you are at your local record shoppe. (RH)

Ron’s Other Bonus Review:
Evans The Death: self-titled (Slumberland)

Even after 20 years in the business Black Tambourine’s Mike Schulman continues to excel in his proficiency as one of indie rock’s greatest ears, evident in the onslaught of talent he continues to sign to his influential imprint Slumberland Records. His latest prospect is England’s Evans the Death, the most recent export from the UK’s revitalized art punk scene. Nicking its name after the undertaker character in Dylan Thomas’s 1954 radio drama Under Milk Wood, this London quintet led by chief songwriter/guitarist Dan Moss and singing keyboardist Katherine Whitaker pulls together a distinctly British sound that puts the askew romanticism of The Ocean Blue through the wood chipper of Beggars Banquet-era The Fall. What makes it work so well across tracks like Bo Diddley, Letter of Complaint and Threads is Whitaker’s feminine touch to the formula, giving Evans the Death a stamp on the noise pop tackboard that is all their own. (RH)