In this edition: Tea Leaf Green, Ceramic Dog, The Lions, Colesium, and Still Corners.
Dennis’ Pick of the Week #1 (tie for top honors):
Tea Leaf Green: In The Wake (Greenhouse Records)
Evolution is what separates a good band from a great one. You can either shift massively, embracing the changes that come with experience and increased skill level, or you can retreat into cowed safety and super serve the existing audience. This is the difference between The Who and The Beatles and lurching county fair mainstays like Foreigner and Styx, and trust me, art gets lost in the mix when the latter decision is made. With this dynamic in mind, SF’s enduring Tea Leaf Green have made the leap from good to great with their new studio joint, In The Wake (released May 14). Whatever jam band musk they once possessed is scrubbed away to reveal some fairly serious artistry descended from the likes of the Fab Four and George Martin, i.e. believers in the idea that attention to detail, sonic daring and well carved songcraft can elevate the seemingly ephemeral teen dream of rock ‘n’ roll to greater heights.
Fans holding onto the “Sex In the 70s” incarnation of TLG are, in a phrase, shit out of luck. Adeptly co-produced by Jeremy Black – a name that always signals smarts and quality – In The Wake is what adulthood and all its inherent heartaches, disappointments and battle-won revelations sounds like in the Tea Leaf world. Beginning by asking, “Someday gonna catch a break, they say, but is it true?” the album moves with the varied-but-cohesive feel of Side 2 of Abbey Road, a journey inward that reverberates outward to the listener, survivor’s tales embedded in intricately appointed soundscapes. However, the embellishment is organic, feeding the songs instead of distracting from them, and spotlighting how brave the band is to embrace what can happen in the studio without worrying over much about how the core quintet would execute the pieces onstage. The smart placement of lush harmonies, gorgeous accenting strings – courtesy of Graham (violin) and Lewis Patzner (cello), punctuating horns from Mike Olmos (trumpet) and Adam Theis (trombone), and creamy studio effects all serve to elevate the experience, even as all the singers excel above past efforts and the songwriting efforts of Reed Mathis (bass, vocals) and Josh Clark (guitar, vocals) come into sharp detail.
Numerous times throughout this album even longtime listeners may find themselves forgetting this is Tea Leaf Green, so different are parts from their concert-focused earlier catalog. Sure, the swooping-pop-friendly pipes of Trevor Garrod (keys, vocals) provide comforting familiarity – as does first single “Give Me One More Chance,” which would have slotted in well on Taught To Be Proud – but even in Garrod’s case there are new wrinkles and a pronounced willingness to stretch into fresh terrain. The ever-interesting pulse of the album is the percussion interplay of Cochrane Mcmillan and Scott Rager, one of the finest combos in rock right now, who form the near-subliminal glue that holds all the disparate parts of In The Wake together so the enterprise moves steadily forward in a way that makes one shuffle eyes closed as the story unfolds.
While there’s kinship with past classics – besides the aforementioned examples, Bowie’s early 70s output also springs to mind – it’s a spiritual connection not an stylistic one. In The Wake is the most modern album TLG have forged to date, a creative effort that moves them much closer to contemporaries like My Morning Jacket, The Decemberists, and Everest than backwards to their influences. It also happens to be their most emotionally revealing, honest and exciting studio work to date. (Dennis Cook)
Tea Leaf Green will celebrate the release of In The Wake this Saturday, May 18th, at The Independent in San Francisco, where they will perform the album in its entirety. Pick up tickets here.
Dennis’ Pick of the Week #2 (tie for top honors):
Ceramic Dog: Your Turn (Northern Spy)
Yeah, Iggy and the Stooges may have a new record but Ceramic Dog better embodies and updates the punk addled, electrified jazz friendly, balls-to-the-wall energy that marked the Stooges’ iconic early years – this feels dangerous and untamed, and doesn’t need to spit on folks or smear peanut butter on its chest to prove it. The trio is comprised of Marc Ribot [guitar, vocals, banjo, trumpet & more) (Cubanos Postizos, John Zorn, Tom Waits, and many more)] and underground improv/experimental rock killers Shahzad Ismaily [bass, electronics (Will Oldham, Secret Chiefs 3, Jolie Holland, Yoko Ono)] and Ches Smith [drums (Xiu Xiu, Good for Cows, Secret Chiefs 3)], and their sophomore album, Your Turn (released April 30) is sublime, unabashedly hard rock weirdness of the best kind.
Your Turn exists in the same wonderful other-realm as recent work from Mike Keneally, where all limits are gleefully tested but a shreddy, riff-heavy, baldly funky bounce infuses the wicked shifts in tone. Ribot could score himself a spot on a future G3 tour with some of the guitar pyrotechnics here, and the rhythm team is never less than breathtaking. Bundled together, they roam freely and boldly, music informed by years of experience snatching one up, sometimes roughly but with a bit o’ finesse, too. From the primo Crazy Horse-esque opener “Lies My Body Told Me” through the methodical, highly timely grind of “Masters of the Internet” into the endearing shuffle of “Ain’t Gonna Let Them Turn Us Around” into parts unknown like the blistering invention of “Prayer” and a whacked interpretation of “Take 5,” Your Turn, produced and mixed by Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier, remains ever-present, moments given life that lives beyond a moment, sips of musical freedom that refresh if sometimes tasting a touch metallic and mineral
If one feels compelled to talk “around” the music on Your Turn it’s because it is so immediate, unique and ready to shake off expectations that it has to be experienced to be understood, if it can be understood at all, but this band is more about tactile vibe than intellectual exercise – and god bless them for it. For my own part, it made me howl out loud more than once as well as laugh and blurt out, “Fuck yeah!” as different bits rattled my skull. Rarely is something so resolutely experimental also so tuneful and engaging. Not much rock has flipped my wig so swiftly in a long time – I’m reminded of my teenage reaction to The Minutemen actually – and it’s great to be reminded how music can pleasantly skin and eviscerate culture sometimes. Fingers crossed this trio has a long, strange road ahead of it. (DC)
Ron’s Pick of the Week:
The Lions: This Generation (Stones Throw)
The cover art for the latest album of the Los Angeles reggae collective The Lions features an ice cream truck that has been transformed into a rolling record shop. If that isn’t the coolest concept to come to the world of the Mom and Pop since neon tube signs, I don’t know what is. Shit, if I win the lottery tomorrow, I might just purchase myself an old Circus Man van and tour the Tri-State university circuit with crates of used wax occupying the space where bomb pops and chipwiches once were. And if there is one group who could perfectly embody the vibes emanating from this awesome truck’s massive sound system, it is this 12-person band, comprised of members of such West Coast outfits as Hepcat and Breakestra as well as dudes who have played on the records of hip-hop icons like De La Soul and Big Daddy Kane, and who deliver the kind of dirt floor roots reggae worthy of their majestic nomenclature with guest turns from talented toasters such as Malik Moore, Leroy Sibbles and Black Shakespeare (the cousin of the great Robbie Shakespeare of Sly and Robbie fame). This Generation (released February 26) marks the Stones Throw label’s first foray into the potent waters of reggae music, and I’m sure they have one hell of a dub version of this outstanding platter cooking up in the kitchen for later this year. (Ron Hart)
Ron’s Runner-Up of the Week:
Colesium: Sister Faith (Temporary Residence)
For the last decade, Louisville, Kentucky’s Colesium has single handedly kept the jagged tooth bite of their city’s legendary post-hardcore scene as shrapnel sharp as ever. And on their incredible fourth album, Sister Faith (released April 30), they officially earn their place amongst such local luminaries as Slint, Squirrel Bait, Rodan and Crain with 13 songs of unabashed melodic aggression that both chugs and challenges. Produced by Jawbox’s J. Robbins, Sister Faith might bolster some prolific buddies to sit in on these sessions – namely Boris guitarist Wata, Sebadoh bassist Jason Loewenstein and Bluetip’s Jason Farrell – but if you ask me, all these guys needed were the three of them to deliver the kind of king-making fury they bring forth here – the guests are just gravy. Sister Faith is progressive hardcore at its apex. (RH)
Ron’s Bonus Review:
Still Corners: Strange Pleasures (Sub Pop)
A Texas guy and an English gal comprise Still Corners, one of the most talented acts currently in the ranks of the Sub Pop roster. The duo’s sophomore turn sees them relying less on the shimmering sheets of guitar fuzz that rumbled across their 2010 debut Creatures of an Hour and more on the glissando synth-pop of MTV’s toddler years, evidenced in multi-instrumentalist Greg Hughes accepting the finality of the broken relationship that lorded over the band’s earlier material and the promise of a new beginning as conveyed in singer Tessa Murray’s breathy croon. If you ever wondered what a collaboration between Julee Cruise and early OMD would sound like, pick up Strange Pleasures (released May 7). (RH)