Anyone acquainted with the Canadian collective’s rootsy approximation of rural American soundscapes—true rust-bucket takes on folk, blues, R&B, country, gospel, rockabilly and brass band music rolled into one funky, hunky, forlorn vocal blend—knows that the Band’s original vinyl and CD pressings didn’t have oomph. The hillbilly curl of Levon Helm, Richard Manuel and Rich Danko’s smoked voices (all deceased), their Biblical texts, the rhythmic kink—even Garth Hudson’s bittersweet organ swells and accordion wheezes—were muffled.
Thankfully, what this newly remastered collection does is maintain that the Band’s mystery murk—the ambiance of Appalachian hills, the mossy lushness of Kentucky greenery, the honk of everything New Orleans—is still in place. That’s the group’s thing. Yet, a greater clarity to the Band’s rickety bass/drum partnership and its overall vocal mix gives Music From Big Pink, The Band, Stage Fright, Cahoots, Rock Of Ages, Moondog Matinee and latter-day, often-ignored gems such as Northern Lights: Southern Cross and Islands a necessary shineup; like gold glinting through the dust of the Sierra Madres.
The late Bert Jansch was a master of the acoustic guitar, a Scotsman renowned within the British folk scene of the 1960s, a founding member of legendary group Pentangle, and a notable influence on Jimmy Page, Neil Young, Donovan and many others. Live At The 12 Bar is a neglected recording from 1995 that showcases Jansch’s strengths as a singer, instrumentalist and songwriter.
This intimate solo LP features songs from studio album When The Circus Comes To Town, including an ode to slain revolutionary singer Victor Jara entitled “Let Me Sing” and other haunting originals like “Walk Quietly By” and “Just A Dream.” Jansch’s precise picking drives these performances and o sets his pinched, dry vocal style. Standouts include traditionals like “Blackwater Side” and “Lily Of The West,” as well as songwriter Jackson C. Frank’s favored composition, “Blues Run The Game.” This is a sterling document well worth revisiting.
If you frequent the Hopscotch Festival, which takes place in Raleigh, N.C., at the end of each summer, you should already know that Three Lobed Recordings puts on the best party in a town full of parties. The label curates inspired, daylong combinations of performers that span genres, but are united in their individualistic quality—rather like Parallelogram. Parallelogram’s five LPs are each split between two performers, who get a side to use as they will. It’s not strictly a compilation, but a subscription series, with all five volumes happening to come out at the same time. This understanding of the project explains why it transcends the “not bad, it almost made the album” criterion that so many bands exercise when they donate tracks to a compilation. Only Hiss Golden Messenger’s slick pastiche of late ’70s and early ’80s r&b stylings feels like a dip in the leftover drawer. The rest of Parallelogram’s contributors have used their LP side to either push themselves in some fashion or reassert what makes them good.
Take Bardo Pond’s side-long eff ort, “Screens For A Catch (Fur Bearing Eyes).” The Philadelphia-based psychedelic quintet’s ability to fill a side with hot, slow-motion jamming is well-documented, but here it aims higher. The music feels illusory, yet heavy as a falling mountain; the drums and guitars seem to tread water, and yet, they are never static. Rather, they surge like a maelstrom of molten minerals around the empty core defined by Isobel Sollenberger’s languid voice and flute. Ben Chasny of Six Organs Of Admittance likewise contributes a single piece, “Lsha.” Its layers of churning electronics and acoustic guitar bring to mind the epic unrest of early Popol Vuh, but his falsetto singing bridges the blues of delta denizens and lonesome sailors. Other performers provide reminders of their reliable virtues. William Tyler’s instrumentals stack one reverberant guitar lick atop another like a landscape painter layering oils, first painting a broad bright valley and then showing you the most scenic path through it. Englishman Michael Chapman’s side showcases the state of his voice, reveling in the weathered roughness of 74 years and framing it with little besides his gamboling finger-picking. Thurston Moore and John Moloney’s Caught On Tape illustrates the connections between Moore’s appreciation for song and his freakout tendencies on a revival of 20-year-old song “Ono Soul.” And speaking of freakouts, Yo La Tengo merges feedback surfi ng with an implacable jungle beat on “Electric Eye.”
Kurt Vile and Steve Gunn, who are old mates, sit in on each other’s sides, huddling around a tape machine with banjo, guitars and drum machine. Both sides impress with unexpected cover choices by the likes of Nico and Randy Newman. But most startling—and thrilling—is the live fi rst meeting of Alan Bishop (Sun City Girls), Bill Orcutt (Harry Pussy) and Chris Corsano (Björk, Joe McPhee). Enacted before a Hopscotch audience, it’s a limb-threatening collision of rusty-edged guitar flailing, hurricane drumming and beyond-parodic punk babble by a singer who was never a punk.
Over the course of close to 50 albums, Richard Thompson has set the bar extraordinarily high, so high that even if Still falls short of his best, there’s more than enough awesome to go around. The album title is pure Thompson self-mockery: There’s no stillness here, especially with Jeff Tweedy producing, and though Thompson hammers away at some old themes—he remains pro-knavery (“Long John Silver”) and anti-chastity (“All Buttoned Up” and “Patty Don’t You Put Me Down”)—he sounds fresh, pushing hard at 66 to keep refining his craft, both as a guitarist and a songwriter.
At its strongest, there’s “Dungeons For Eyes,” about shaking the hand of a politician with a bloody past; “Josephine,” where a woman paces the room, waiting for her lover to show; and “Where’s Your Heart,” about a misguided romance with woman who’s like “a puzzle to me with pieces missing.” On guitar, there are too many highlights to name, with an astonishing emotional complexity to the electric solos, set against a stunning collection of ever-shifting acoustic rhythms that draw from British folk-trad, Middle Eastern classical and American rock ‘n’ roll.
From behind the console, Tweedy serves as a first-class enabler, subtly tightening these songs, adding small touches on marxophone and guitorgan, and using three members of Tweedy to fill the spaces between Thompson’s rhythm section. Put them all together and you’ve got a drink that goes down hard, with a potent bittersweetness distilled by a master.
Four vinyl reissues from the Fall cast a critical eye on Thatcher-era England
They were named for a Camus novel; their biggest influences include Can, the Velvets, Captain Beefheart and horror-fiction writers such as H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe; their only constant member once said, “If it’s me and your granny on bongos, then it’s the Fall!” If there is an illustration of “difficult” in the universal dictionary, it is of notorious Mancunian crank Mark E. Smith, a guy whose prolific band (in whichever guise over its four-decade-plus run) has released more than 30 proper studio albums.
Two of these—plus flotsam and jetsam from the group’s fertile 1984-’85 period—have now been reissued on vinyl, and serve as a terrific reminder of a collective at the very top of its (admittedly jagged) form. The Wonderful And Frightening World Of The Fall and its companion piece, The Wonderful And Frightening Escape Route To The Fall (adding a contemporaneous EP), mark the group’s leap to Beggars back in the day, and signal a huge step forward creatively. Tracks like “c.r.e.e.p.” pierce pop with a poison arrow; “Disney’s Dream Debased” is a dissonant cousin of early Psych Furs; “Elves” is essentially a piss-take on the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” Smith met his then-wife Brix touring the U.S. around this time, and the two began a songwriting collaboration that pushed them further toward the pop wars’ Eastern Front.
This Nation’s Saving Grace stands as the group’s high-water mark, both critically and creatively. It’s a snarling, socialist beast of an album that—along with its sidekick Schtick: Yarbles Revisited—zigs between classic Fall ragers (“Gut Of The Quantifier,” “Barmy”), singles majoring in sarcasm (“Cruiser’s Creek,” “Couldn’t Get Ahead”) and some experiments (“Paintwork,” which features a section accidentally erased on tape by Smith), yet nonetheless streets ahead of most contemporaries. Smith never met a British character he couldn’t assassinate; these four releases place the lacerated remains of 1980s Middle England out in the middle of the road, right where he originally ran them down.