Albums of the Week

October 18-October 24

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In this edition: Tame Impala, Will Johnson, Billy Joe Shaver, Rangda, Steve Forbert, and Firewater.

Dennis’ Pick of the Week:
Tame Impala: Lonerism (Modular)

The second full-length offering from Perth, Australia’s Tame Impala reaffirms and validates the psychedelic mindset in music. Without directly mimicking any forebear, Lonerism (released October 9) sweeps in across the universe via Blue Jay Way, the wide-winged offspring of a great, varied psych lineage that includes the Beta Band, The Zombies, early Blur, 10cc, Galaxie 500, and especially the cosmic parts of The Beatles. Tame Impala’s approach – like the best of what precedes them – is to write really good songs in the first place, sing them sweetly, and then beginning layering and stretching them until hitherto unseen facets explode into being. There’s a pair of photos that neatly encapsulate the vibe – one on the back cover and the full scene revealed in the booklet – where the bassist laying close-eyed on the floor, headphones on, Rickenbacher in hand, surrounded by a 4-track recorder, vintage keyboards, drums, effects pedals galore and more – the tools of sound making and manipulating encircling him in the focused, softly smiling act of creation. Possibilities abound on Lonerism but always in service of material worth the care in the first place. If there’s a lyrical thread that runs through the album it’s the challenge of keeping one’s head in a positive space even when it feels like just another day where we wait for others to talk to us as we struggle to appear calm and together. If you can’t relate to that, well, you may want to speak to the Tyrell Corporation about an upgrade. Fully commit to what Tame Impala is laying down here and you’re likely to find yourself uplifted, warmed by sonic pleasures too numerous to list and a pervasive sense of empathetic understanding – and all without coming off like sandalwood oiled hippie douchebags. Lonerism ventures into the stratosphere at times but usually chugging along to a motorik rhythm Can would have loved, and always a very human heart and spirit humming within the reverb and echo. Being honest, there’s been no more baldly enjoyable, addictive slab for me this year. Once encountered it’s hard to pull one’s self away from the breezy, mind-tickling spaces Tame Impala carves with such ingenious aptitude. (Dennis Cook)

Dennis’ Runner-Up of the Week:
Will Johnson: Scorpion (Undertow Music)

Will Johnson is one of the most steadfastly excellent rock musicians of the past 20 years. It’s important to get that out of the way in any new discussion of him because his is still not a household name despite vocal championing from and long friendships with the likes of Jim James, Patterson Hood, Bright Eyes, Jay Farrar and more along with one of the finest catalogues of any musician who began putting out releases in the mid-90s (in fact, better than most critic’s darlings and more consistent, too). If Johnson and his main project (Centro-matic) aren’t already on your radar you’ve got a treasure trove of amazing music to discover. But why don’t you start with Johnson’s first solo album in eight years, Scorpion (released September 11), a thorny, supremely subtle experience – not just another album but a song cycle that requires chill room headphone focus to truly unlock. Like much of Johnson’s work, this feels like a conversation that will take a long time to fully resolve, but the hours will be spent in intimate musical settings that compare favorably with the breath-against-your-neck best of Nick Drake, Fred Neil and John Martyn. Sentences and concepts are as open-ended as they come on Scorpion, a poet’s intuition at work that offers enough to be evocative but leaves the ultimate conclusions to the listener. In this way Johnson’s music, especially on his solo pieces, is resoundingly personal for all parties, the artist and the audience experiencing their own unique take at every turn. Johnson’s previous solo effort, 2004’s Vultures Await – one of the unsung jewels of the previous decade – haunted me for years, and there’s little doubt Scorpion will do the same. In whispers and cries, Johnson lays bare something truthful yet utterly free of the usual dogma and delusion such honest divining brings. Beautiful work, but I’ve come to expect nothing less from this great musician. (DC)

Dennis’ Bonus Review:
Billy Joe Shaver: Live At Billy Bob’s Texas (Smith Music)

“The original honky tonk hero” is a ballsy thing to call one’s self (or allow others to term you) but Billy Joe Shaver can feel pretty comfortable holding that title. His music has been forged in clubs and holes-in-the-walls for 40-plus years, banged out to crowds of wildly varying size and interest levels, a real world songbook hammered out with the better part of two fingers missing from one hand, thrown into the world as a way to deal with his own joy and confusion as it seized him. Shaver says, “When you write songs, and you write good songs, people will always remember you. Words will always outlive us. And if your name is attached to those words, you’re gonna live forever.” No doubt Shaver’s words will remain on singer’s tongues and in listener’s lives long after he shuffles off, but thankfully we don’t have to think about that now since the man is still on stages knocking folks flat on a regular basis. If you’ve never taken in a Billy Joe concert (or if you need a fix from the comfort of your own home), Live At Billy Bob’s Texas (released July 17) is Shaver at his cantankerous, storytelling, boot scootin’, heart string plucking best. This is the work of a seasoned pro, and the shifts in mood and injections of humor keep things traveling along at a most appealing lope. The CD is accompanied by a DVD so you can enjoy the performance two ways, and it’s a blast to see this Texas proud son tear through classics like You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ, Honky Tonk Heroes and Old Five and Dimers. The band is right in sync with Shaver, and the whole thing feels like a party where it’s okay to cry in your beer but not for long before your legs commence to shuffling again. (DC)

Ron’s Pick of the Week:
Rangda: Formerly Extinct (Drag City)

The true soul of the modern rock guitar idiom might be many things to many people: from the player to the way one plays, from the past forward or the future backward, from the electric fury of Thurston Moore to the quiet calm of Bert Jansch. But few can capture the essence of the craft in its purest, un-concentrated form like the men who comprise two-thirds of the band Rangda. With the multi-tentacled master improviser Chris Corsano on the backbeat (though slightly underutilized here), Six Organs of Admittance’s Ben Chasny and Sir Richard Bishop formerly of out-rock legends Sun City Girls cut heads like muthafuckin’ Game of Thrones when they are in the same room with their multi-culti style of six-string virtuosity. And just when it was believed this power trio had only a single one-off LP in them with 2010’s False Flag, Rangda – who get their name after the demon queen of Balinese mythology – return in 2012 with a second Drag City full-length. And boy does this cat cook. Taking a little more time than they did with the rush-released Flag, Formerly Extinct (released September 18) is more cohesive in its presence than its predecessor, seeing Bishop and Chasny feed off their likeminded incorporations of Middle Eastern and Northern African influences and pour into a math rock setting with exciting results from the outset of tracks like Plugged Nickel and Idol’s Eye. Formerly Extinct is the thinking man’s guitar clinic, and you couldn’t have two better professors at the podium. (Ron Hart)

Ron’s Runner-Up of the Week:
Steve Forbert: Over With You (Blue Corn Music)

His first new album in three years, Over With You (released September 11), proves this is indeed not your cool older uncle’s Steve Forbert. Working alongside Grammy-winning producer Chris Goldsmith, the Mississippi-born pop songwriter forgoes the AOR Americana of such late-70s classics as Alive On Arrival and Jackrabbit Slim in favor a sparser, more intimate feel more in line with Bon Iver than Keith Urban. Working in conjunction with a crack team of alt-rock session pros, including bassist/cellist Ben Sollee, keyboardist Jason Yates (who has worked with everyone from Macy Gray to Mazzy Star), bassist Sheldon Gomberg, one-time Richard Thompson and John Cale drummer Michael Jerome, and, on three tracks, the mighty Ben Harper on lead guitar, Over signifies a different side of Forbert that takes his Triple A sound in a deeply personal direction as it focuses on the litany of rolls and waves that come with being in a long-term relationship, evidenced on such key tracks as All I Asked of You and Sugarcane Plum Fairy. This is Steve Forbert’s Time Out of Mind, a game changing record in an all-too-underrated career teeming with great songs worth discovering. (RH)

Ron’s Bonus Review:
Firewater: International Orange! (Bloodshot)

Former Cop Shoot Cop frontman Tod A rekindles the flames of his celebrated world punk outfit Firewater for the first time since 2008’s The Golden Hour with the funky-as-frig International Orange! (released September 11). Working once again with Tamir Muskat of Balkan Beat Box, the album was recorded in Istanbul, Turkey and Tel Aviv, Israel in the thick of the 2011 Arab Spring that turned the international community on its ear, inhabiting the perfect storm of rage, triumph and fear felt both in the Middle East and here in America, where thousands of ordinary citizens took to the nation’s city streets in an kindred gesture of protest and demand for change. “I like the fact that, during the so-called ‘flotilla crisis’ between Turkey and Israel, Turkish and Israeli musicians were collaborating on this record,” Tod explains in reference to the nature of teamwork on hand during these sessions for Orange despite the confrontational climate outside the door. “It’s a step in the right direction. Even when governments can’t seem to get along, there can still be hope for the rest of us.” And the expansion of the Firewater sound here incorporates healthy elements of King Tubby-esque dub, early Jamaican ska, 60s Bollywood, Turkish maqsoum, Greek rebetiko and Combat Rock-era Clash, and you arguably have Tod A’s most fearsome call to arms since CSC’s Consumer Revolt. (RH)