In this edition: Hiss Golden Messenger, ASG, Ocean Blue, Young Galaxy, Kid Congo Powers, and Deadstring Brothers.
Dennis’ Pick of the Week:
Hiss Golden Messenger: Haw (Paradise of Bachelors)
Faith is no trivial matter, but it’s also a remarkably simple thing at times. The opening prayer of, “Oh, Lord, just be happy” on HGM’s new album, Haw (released April 2), gets right at the heart’s desire of many, a childlike reach skyward drenched in the hope for simple happiness. And lo and behold, the way this prayer is offered up in a way that induces happiness, skipping surely on a mixture of country strains, Americana rock and some perfectly measured scoops of roots reggae and cool jazz, singing out loud about loss, love and the other fundamentals that drive us. If Hiss Golden Messenger’s earlier releases reflect an articulate path through dark nights of the soul, Haw is the cool, refreshing evening when the rain stops and the dove we sent out in the morning returns with an olive branch in its beak.
Haw is a modern – though utterly ancient-aware – approach to workingman’s spirituality, a descendent of Van Morrison’s underrated 80s work like No Guru, No Teacher, No Method and Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, though bandleader-singer-songwriter Mike Taylor is never as ephemeral or obtuse, letting Christian and other potent symbols strut into the foreground, conversation points to be sure but never preachy in the slightest. The feeling of the unseen world and the way its tumblers turn in the passage of time permeates this set, the presence of more-than-meets-the-eye everywhere making one aware of their own small place in the cosmic scheme of things. Rock and spirituality are rarely good bedfellows – film doesn’t fare much better (I’m looking at you, Martin Scorcese) – but Taylor and his intuitive cohorts, including longtime creative foil Scott Hirsch, feel like they’re passing us a jug of holy brandy-wine that goes down easy and seeps into our limbs and thoughts with a stealthy smile. These tunes remind us how spirit lives in the land of fathers tilled by sons, but also in nights of drunken camaraderie, where one recalls how a liquored up Noah canoodled with his own kin his first night on dry land, our mortal failings ever intertwined with our virtues, the thorn ever nearby the bloom.
In more terrestrial terms, Haw is the most defined and refined incarnation of Hiss Golden Messenger to date, delivering music that’s sure to excite Wilco and Bon Iver fans as well as enthusiasts of Fairport Convention and Chris Darrow but still distinctly their own. The melding of elements this time out is all-together organic, clearly spoken but always marinated in subtleties, lyrical and musical. It is the sound of musicians kneeling and kissing the ground, grateful for what life has given them and their ability to shape it into songs, the work of penitent hearts and calloused hands reaching out towards everyday mysteries embedded in eternal questions even as the here and now continually pokes its head up – potent stuff for pointing one’s self towards a positive arc. (Dennis Cook)
Pick up the album here!
Dennis’ Runner-Up of the Week:
ASG: Blood Drive (Relapse)
Announcing early, “All the gods are crazy, can’t you see?” Wilmington, North Carolina’s ASG aren’t shy about going big on their fifth album, Blood Drive (released May 28), which hums and rattles with the same harnessed power and gutbucket grandeur as prime Soundgarden and King’s X, a show of force that’s undeniable, exceedingly melodic and pretty much what you want from song-centered hard rock. This is music of revival and resistance, anthems for folks with “a long list of foes and a shorter list of friends.” No punches are pulled, no goopy ballads offered, though there are pockets of acoustic dabbling and downright pretty interludes but none overstay their welcome before the whomp and crush return. What’s cool is how they’ve really worked on their lyrics and sing them in clear, soaring voices. Where too many heavy rockers bury their words and ideas in growls and distortion, ASG proudly stands up with something to say on Blood Drive, which also wisely exercises what DI calls “The Sabbath Rule,” which states that being heavy has nothing to do with playing fast and being unnecessarily brutal. The melodies are engaging, the solos choice, and every element overlaps satisfyingly. The longer this record plays the deeper one’s engagement grows; a creeper of the best kind in keeping with contemporaries like Red Fang and Valient Thorr as well as Ozzy’s old pioneers and the aforementioned Seattle classics. 12 years in, ASG are serious fuckin’ business. (DC)
Ron’s Picks of the Week:
The Ocean Blue: Ultramarine (Korda)
Young Galaxy: Ultramarine (Paper Bag Records)
The Beatles and The Replacements had Let It Be. Spearhead and Delaney & Bonnie shared Home. Megadeth, Teenage Fanclub, Blur and now Black Sabbath have records named after the number thirteen. Henceforth, the sharing of album titles between artists is nothing new.
But the coincidence of two acts releasing same-named LPs almost simultaneously is, however, something you don’t hear about every day. And so goes the conundrum encountered by two talented groups in Montreal dance pop upstarts Young Galaxy and American dream pop icons The Ocean Blue.
But as luck would have it the nominal coincidence between these two like-titled LPs is overlapped only by the way which both Ultramarines contain some of the best material either act has made public yet, with Young Galaxy channeling No Shooz and Bananarama to deliver perhaps the most genuine retro 80s album you are going to find this summer, while The Ocean Blue hark back to their halcyon days on Sire with a beautiful barrel of electric melancholy the Hershey, PA outfit hails as the spiritual sequel to their 1989 debut masterpiece Cerulean.
Surely nobody besides myself will pay any mind to the fact these two bands put out same named records dangerously close to their respective street dates – The Ocean Blue’s Ultramarine arrived March 19 and Young Galaxy’s arrived April 23 – but at least neither will have to worry about anyone mixing one up with the other. (Ron Hart)
Ron’s Runner-Up of the Week:
Kid Congo Powers and the Pink Monkey Birds: Haunted Head (In The Red)
Recorded in a rural schoolhouse-turned-creative retreat in Harveyville, Kansas, legendary guitarist Kid Congo Powers has cut an album with his oddly christened outfit the Pink Monkey Birds that ranks up there with his best work as a member of such groundbreaking bands as The Gun Club, The Bad Seeds and The Cramps. Haunted Head (released May 28) is the sound of proto-punk with its tongue firmly implanted in the sonic cheekbone as it downs shots of Wild Turkey at the Brown Derby. Excellent stuff. (RH)
Ron’s Bonus Review:
Deadstring Brothers: Cannery Row (Bloodshot)
Kurt Marschke and JD Mack build up one motherfucker of a country group, employing the likes of Brad Pemberton (Ryan Adams & the Cardinals) on drums, Mike Webb (Poco) on organ, piano and mandolin, Pete Finney (Dixie Chicks, Hank Jr.) on steel and dobro, Kim Collins (Smoking Flowers) on backing vocals and the great Mickey Raphael (Willie Nelson’s longtime harp player) to craft an LP of pure AOR Americana warmth that falls somewhere between Gene Clark’s White Light and Cahoots by The Band. Cannery Row is their masterpiece [released April 9]. (RH)