Albums of the Week

September 19-September 25

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In this edition: Bob Mould, The Darkness, Goodnight Texas, Delicate Cutters, Drivin’ N’ Cryin’, Bob Dylan, Willis Earl Beal, Bill Fay and Richard Hawley.

Dennis’ Pick of the Week:
Bob Mould: Silver Age (Merge)

Flocking with silly birds for whom revelation means nothing, Mould’s 12th solo album is as sharply drawn (if not more so) than anything in his thick catalogue, a blending of astute observation, major hook-heavy riff rock, and thumb-in-the-eye punk honesty that confirms his place amongst the upper class. “I started out so starry-eyed/ Full of hope and wonder/ And I wore flowers in my hair/ Not aware I’d been defiled,” he laments on The Descent, one of many looks back at a life lived hard and fast but not unconsciously. Much of Silver Age (released September 4) is infused with the kind of wisdom one hopes they’ll garner by the time all the youthful color has left their hair but served up with the sort of punchy, pop smart delivery that built Mould’s initial cult with certified classics like Hüsker Dü’s Candy Apple Grey and Sugar’s Copper Blue. Nary a breathe sighs between tracks, the whole song cycle begging to be absorbed and enjoyed as one headlong stream of thoughts. Mould shreds mightily but tastefully (as usual), a benchmark of ideal brevity and poetic distortion, and the rhythm section of Jason Narducy (bass) and Jon Wurster (drums) shape themselves like Silly Putty around Mould’s tunes, Bob’s voice purr-growling with clarity and conviction above the carefully carved din. Like early 80s peers Bad Religion, Mould is offering some of his best stuff ever right now. It’s not as if the world doesn’t offer plenty of reasons to be pissed off – both at others and at how we’ve behaved – but these days it seems there’s a stronger wind at his back and maybe ours too to carry us through the storms to where we can sweep away our transgressions and mistakes and maybe find some things to believe in. (Dennis Cook)

Dennis’ Runner-Up of the Week:
The Darkness: Hot Cakes (Wind-Up)

Truth be told, I’d never paid more than passing attention to new fangled glam outfit The Darkness in their initial early 2000s media explosion. From the distance of the Atlantic Ocean the U.K. band seemed downright silly and not far removed from the nostalgia pandering of Steel Panther and their ilk. However, this third album, arriving a full seven years after their sophomore effort, reveals a combo eagerly and largely successfully attempting to stride in the big footprints of Queen, Slade and T. Rex. No one listening to Hot Cakes (released August 21) is going to accuse them of sophistication – the first verse of opener Every Inch Of You announces, “Queues around the block/ And every man, woman and chile/ Wants to…suck my cock!” – but a boisterous, populist energy and attitude infuses everything in a way that requires a seriously grumpy constitution to resist. The Darkness are just so bloody eager to make you (and themselves…they never forget about themselves) happy, and the sincerity of this urge combined with the not inconsiderable talents of Justin Hawkins (lead vocals, guitar), brother Dan Hawkins (guitar), Frankie Poullain (bass) and Ed Graham (drums) and songs that legitimately get one off and you’ve got a bang-up example of high gloss strut rock built for illicit kicks and good cries. Bouncing between white boy boogies and unashamed power balladry – with a nifty detour for a fast, scuffed up cover of Radiohead’s Street Spirit – The Darkness’ third outing is a winner, plain and simple. If you dig their touchstones it’s hard to imagine this slab not connecting with authority. (DC)

Dennis’ Bonus Review:
Goodnight, Texas: A Long Life Of Living (self-released)

“I’ve sung to myself in the darkest of nights/ Of freedom above me where all is alright/ But I wake up so cold on a cracked wooden floor/ And I have to admit I’m not sure anymore.” Not exactly cheerful stuff but throughout this captivating debut (arriving October 2) from San Francisco’s Avi Vinocur and North Carolina’s Patrick Dyer Wolf even the heaviest stuff has pluck and muscle. Goodnight, Texas takes old timey ways and swirls them with modern touches – romping Levon Helm-esque drums on some tracks, an Elliott Smith worthy ache on others. Titles like Jesse Got Trapped In A Coal Mine, Meet Me By The Smokestack and I’m Going To Work On Maggie’s Farm Forever lay bare their influences, but like the best disciples they write their own scripture with the same hard, bloody life lessons. The duo’s harmonies recall early Seals & Crofts well before they started hanging with Diamond Girls, and overall this feels both pleasantly ancient and contemporarily relevant – a neat trick and one that makes one want to see what else they’ve got in their knapsacks amongst the weathered, dog-earred Baedekers and salt pork rations. (DC)

Dennis’ Other Bonus Review:
Delicate Cutters: Ring (Skybucket)

It takes just a few seconds for the arching, bird’s wing lilt of lead singer-songwriter Janet Elizabeth Simpson and the authoritative grip of fiddler Kevin Nicholson to capture one, and then a few moments later when monster rhythm team Chance Shirley (drums) and Brian C. Moon (bass) jump in, well, you’re done – in the best way. It seems a disservice to describe Delicate Cutters as “rootsy” or “Americana,” though they do embody the better aspects of both, since those terms often denote premeditation, a scheming to sound like something that’s come before, and Ring (released August 14) just feels natural, a flowering from a compost of their own. If one must dip into the past for precedent, there’s something of prime Pentangle and June Tabor & The Oyster Band to them, though accented with the American South instead of the English countryside, preferring to glide on a Tilt-A-Whirl and hang their feet in the black waters where cottonmouths dwell. While at times living up to a title like Warm Day In April, Ring – co-produced with Lester Nuby III (Verbena, Wooden Wand) – there are shadows aplenty, though they sneak up on one, filled with tangled truths beneath the Resurrection Ferns one may miss on their first stumbling through. Double back, slow down, and be happily surprised what awaits you as your senses adjust to the path Delicate Cutters have laid out before us. (DC)

Dennis’ Final Bonus Review:
Drivin’ N’ Cryin’: Songs From The Laundromat (New! Records)

Georgia has produced few knock-your-dick-in-the-dirt real rockers as good and gritty as Drivin’ N’ Cryin’, and if there’s any naysayers that wanna argue with that notion this snarling 5-track EP – the first of four scheduled for release in the next year – will ably pop them in the snout and shut them the hell up right quick. If anything, middle-aged Kevn Kinney and more ornery, more horny, and more ready to rumble than the whippersnapper that made Fly Me Courageous (1991) and Whisper Tames The Lion (1988). Here, Kinney is ever-ready to get his hands into all sorts of things, intoning, “Baby, I love the way you look right now, the way God made you…dirty,” at the start, and later puffing, “I ain’t waitin’ on tomorrow ‘cause tomorrow never came!” There’s also a most sincere, excellent tribute to fellow Georgia elder statesmen R.E.M., a punk hiccup worthy of OFF! and a closer that’s Kinney and his crew at their wistful finest. The second EP, Songs About Cars, Space and The Ramones ships this week (pre-order it here), and DI will be listening enthusiastically to it and the rest of these fresh morsels D n’ C dish up in the coming months. (DC)

Ron’s Pick of the Week:
Bob Dylan: Tempest (Columbia)

“Out September 11, 2001” reads the postcard I picked up one Indian Summer afternoon at the late, great Music Arcade record shop in Westbury on Long Island promoting Love and Theft, the then-forthcoming follow-up to Bob Dylan’s 1997 comeback masterpiece Time Out of Mind. I’m not sure why I kept it, perhaps it was due to the fact that it had remained enclosed in the plastic store bag along with the used vinyl copies of the Black Flag’s My War and Sun Goddess by the Ramsey Lewis Trio I found in their “As-Is” dollar bin that day. Then, the unthinkable happened on that lovely Tuesday morning, and when I finally broke out the wax I copped those few weeks prior to 9/11 I didn’t realize something that would have wound up in my recycle bin had turned into a strange memento of the most horrid event to ever take place on American soil.

Eleven years later, Dylan – be it by coincidence or conscience – has released his 35th studio LP and greatest studio achievement since Theft on yet another gorgeous Tuesday morning dated September 11th. And again, it coincided with a day that teemed with tragedy as some stupid with a film studio at his disposal and a major beef against Islam set off a chain reaction of violent protests and terrorist retaliation after the amateurish and poorly conspired indie film he directed that depicted the honorable Muslim prophet Mohammed as a polygamous, child-raping huckster went viral across the globe like wildfire. But unlike its cosmic predecessor, which beamed with an upbeat vibe of a spry 61-year-old in love, Tempest captures the darkness of these tumultuous and challenging times as effectively as anything he has accomplished in his literal half-century of recording for Columbia Records.

If Love and Theft was the sound of a man sowing his wild oats and basking in the pheromones of a lady’s wiles, Tempest is the after effects of his being unleashed back into the wilds of bachelorhood. Produced by himself under his Jack Frost moniker and featuring much of the same group he used for both 2006’s Modern Times and 2009’s Together Through Life minus Mike Campbell, who is replaced here with the returning Stu Kimball on lead guitar after sitting out on the Life sessions, these ten new songs don’t veer too far off from the rhythm of his current methodology on a sonic level, though this record is by far superior to its most recent predecessors. In a way, it actually has more in common with Time Out of Mind in terms of its mood, albeit retrofitted in the fashion of his current lineup of bassist Tony Garnier, drummer George G. Receli, multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron, guitarist Charlie Sexton, and Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo on guitar, accordion and violin.

But what sets Tempest apart from anything else Bob has brought forth to his buying audience is the sense of menace in his lyrics. Maybe it’s the fact that his grandson is a rapper, or perhaps all the abuse he must have taken from Sam Peckinpah during the shooting of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, but Zimmerman gets downright killing floor up in this set. But much of the bloodshed is allegorical, such as the premise of Narrow Way, a dogmatic look at the recurring nature of what could be construed as a commentary on conservatism (at least in my read of it), where he laments, “Ever since the British burned the White House down/ There’s a bleeding wound in the heart of town/ I saw you drinking from an empty cup/ I saw you buried and I saw you dug up/ It’s a long road/ It’s a long and narrow way/ If I can’t work up to you, you’ll surely have to work down to me someday.”

Pay In Blood sees Dylan veering into Nick Cave-cum-Cannibal Corpse territory with a scornful warning assumingly for the barbarians at the gate who fleeced the nation and got away scott free. “I got something in my pocket to make your eyeballs swim/ I got dogs that could tear you limb from limb,” he growls before decreeing at the end of the song, “Our nation must be saved and freed/ You’ve been accused of murder/ How do you plead?”

Elsewhere, he pens perhaps his most brutal murder ballad since Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues with Tin Angel and recounts his umpteenth-hundred dream of the sinking of the Titanic on the near-fourteen minute title track. He also gets together with longtime Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter for opening cut Duquense Whistle, a jubilant homage to the old Pennsylvania Railroad passenger train.

However, Tempest also finds the 71-year-old bard fondly reflecting back on his old friend John Lennon on closing number Roll On John, where he references two of his favorite Beatles songs (A Day in the Life and Come Together) to pay his respects to the man he once shared a joint with in a limo as depicted in the still-unreleased 1966 D.A. Pennebaker tour film Eat the Document. It is also a song that leaves you with a heavy heart as you are left to wonder what madcap magic those two would have made had Dylan been as collaboratively active with John and he was with George Harrison.

These are indeed some of the most trying times we modern-day Americans have ever had to face. Thank the lord we still have a national treasure like Bob Dylan to help us see through the fog of insanity. (Ron Hart)

Ron’s Runner-Up of the Week:
Willis Earl Beal: Acousmatic Sorcery (Hot Charity-XL Recordings)

Originally I was going to use this space to write up the new Ariel Pink album. But then I listened to it, and sad to say his strange metamorphosis from 21st century lo-fi rock hero to some kind of vapid hipster grab at Ween-esque humor pop barely inspired me to sit through the entirety of Mature Themes in a single sitting. Then I broke out the other title that came packaged with it, Acousmatic Sorcery (released April 3) by 27-year-old Chicago street busker Willis Earl Beal, and was justly blown away. Here is a young, black American from a generation raised on empty confidence and digital brainwashing who has lived the kind of life that hardly makes him a candidate for Pitchfork pinup boy, having grown up on the Windy City’s savage South Side district, did a stint in the Army, resided with his grandma for a spell, and auditioned for Simon Cowell’s new reality singing show The X Factor before getting booted off for swearing in front of the judges. But when you listen to Beal’s outstanding debut LP, there is no way the likes of Cowell and L.A. Reid could truly appreciate the rawness of this kid’s steez, a strange stew of Gil-Scott Heron, Daniel Johnston, OK Calculator-era TV On the Radio and Sam Cooke that is so soulful its mojo pierces right through the thick haze of lo fidelity encapsulating nearly every song. A most arresting debut from a man who is mere months removed from being broke off his ass singing songs to random strangers who called him on the telephone with requests, and one that undoubtedly merits more repeated listens than that wack-ass Ariel Pink record. (RH)

Ron’s Bonus Review:
Bill Fay: Life is People (Dead Oceans)

If you truly want to get to the brass tacks of Wilco’s epic sound, look no further than the brief but bountiful discography of Bill Fay, one of the truly unsung heroes of the British folk-rock movement of the late 60s/early 70s. Bolstered by a darkness that makes Nick Drake sound like a member of Monty Python, Fay’s two previous titles – his eponymous 1970 debut and its masterful 1971 follow-up Time of the Last Persecution – are the corner where John Wesley Harding-era Dylan and Fairport Convention at their most electrified meet – i.e. the spot that sprouted the soul of Jeff Tweedy’s songwriting more or less. Definitely a key indicator behind the former Uncle Tupelo member’s involvement in Fay’s long-awaited comeback album, where he guests on the plaintive TK and gives his blessing for one of his heroes to gorgeously reconstruct one of the best Tweedy songs out there, “Jesus, Etc.” from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. But it is Fay’s originals that truly sends Life Is People (released August 21) into orbit, from the rural route rock of There Is A Valley to hazy Pink Floyd folk of The Big Painter to the lush, Nick Drake-like whimsy of Garden Song. Life Is People is a most welcome comeback from one of England’s most unsung heroes of songcraft. (RH)

Ron’s Other Bonus Review:
Richard Hawley: Standing at the Sky’s Edge (Mute)

One of the UK’s resident rock laureates Richard Hawley follows up the high watermark of his 2009 MOJO Album of the Year winner Truelove’s Gutter with his heaviest recording to date. But where Gutter found the guitarist mining the dark chamber pop of the Walker Brothers and Jacques Brel through the use of Spanish guitars, glockenspiels, mandolins, wind chimes, zithers, singing bowls, sleigh bells and harpsichords, Standing at the Sky’s Edge (released August 28) replaces English elegance for electric fury, Creation-flavored overdrive, and droning distortion. And wouldn’t you know it, the fuzz fits well on the man, making this not only his toughest LP but also one of his best. (RH)