What manner of madness is this, combining reviews of leather-jacket brooders Black Rebel Motorcycle Club with nice-guy indie-rock journeymen Buffalo Tom? Stay with us here. There are many bands—Dinosaur Jr and Green Day come to mind—that have honed and perfected their sound, such that with each successive record, decades in, you know exactly what you’re getting. J Mascis isn’t going to suddenly have clarinet on an album and Billie Joe ain’t going Broadway. (Oh, wait … ) Are they stuck in a rut? We prefer to call it quality control. Which brings us to Wrong Creatures and Quiet And Peace. In addition to sticking to their signature sounds, both bands grapple with mortality and the grim specter of death on their latest offerings. As you would expect, BRMC and Buffalo Tom take drastically different sonic tacks with such dark subject matter.
With BRMC, the curtains match the drapes in terms of words and music, typified by “Haunt,” a reverb-heavy spaghetti Western with skeleton cowboys, where the narrator has “buried every living thing deeper than the ground.” Similarly, “King Of Bones” grabs the gold for most menacing guitar hook of the year, offering cheery bon mots like “You’re gonna skin it all down to the ground.”
Meanwhile, Buffalo Tom provides a warm blanket on a cold, dark night of the soul. The opening “All Be Gone” is on-brand, head-nodding, toe-tapping guitar strum, frontman Bill Janovitz providing comfort with heartfelt vocals and a soaring guitar solo that would make Mike McCready blush (a compliment). The amiable music is a delivery system for bleaker sentiments, however. “Now my time behind is greater than my time ahead,” sings the 51-year-old Janovitz, “save up the minutes like flowers before they’re all dead and gone.” If these guys are about to face Saint Peter, they can at least take solace in the fact that they’re doing so at the peak of their craft.
Because everyone loves lists, especially fans of their Uncle Bob
Not counting 1995’s King Shit And The Golden Boys (a rarities/outtakes collection) and 1996’s Tonics And Twisted Chasers (a Robert Pollard/Tobin Sprout “postal rock” effort released under the Guided By Voices name), Space Gun is GBV’s 25th proper album. To honor that arbitrary milestone, here’s a nonbinding ranking of them all. Disclaimer: A low spot on the list doesn’t mean the LP isn’t good. And remember: We are with you in your anger. —Matt Hickey
1. Bee Thousand
2. Under The Bushes Under The Stars
3. Alien Lanes
4. Same Place The Fly Got Smashed
5. Universal Truths And Cycles
6. Mag Earwhig!
8. Vampire On Titus
9. Space Gun
10. Devil Between My Toes
11. How Do You Spell Heaven
12. August By Cake
13. Earthquake Glue
14. Isolation Drills
15. Half Smiles Of The Decomposed
16. Self-Inficted Aerial Nostalgia
17. Do The Collapse
18. Class Clown Spots A UFO
20. The Bears For Lunch
21. Cool Planet
22. Let’s Go Eat The Factory
23. English Little League
24. Motivational Jumpsuit
25. Please Be Honest
Here we are contemplating Space Gun, Guided By Voices’ 25th album. Not just its specifics—though we’ll get to a few of those—but, rather, the concept of one Robert Ellsworth Pollard Jr. Ignore the voluminous solo efforts and side projects; through numerous incarnations and 25 records—plus many EPs and singles—how is Pollard still able to conjure a GBV LP as good as Space Gun? How do you explain the unexplainable? The answer: You don’t. You can’t. Love him or loathe him—naysayers do exist for some reason—Pollard is a singular figure in rock ’n’ roll history.
So the record: Space Gun’s title track is an anthem with a vocal melody that’ll rattle around your brain for days. “That’s Good” undersells itself; it’s a ballad possibly unmatched in Pollard’s wide-ranging canon. “Liars’ Box” concludes with an out-of-nowhere, emotional refrain: “Summons of a glass to a sad, sad heaven.” Even second-tier tunes (by comparison)—like the silly “I Love Kangaroos” (“It’s funny what they do”)—are indelible. And we’d be remiss in acknowledging how well this version of GBV—guitarist Bobby Bare Jr., drummer Kevin March, bassist Mark Shue and, especially, axe virtuoso Doug Gillard—complements Pollard’s considerable strengths. Done.
Space Gun is the only GBV full-length slated for 2018, though the live, low-quantity/high-quality Ogre’s Trumpet (also on Guided By Voices Inc.)—and whatever number of non-album releases—will fill the gap until what’s next. Stop asking questions, because Pollard’s going to continue firing away.
Call it cocaine country or “western expanse music,” but that lonesome quiver traded by Carrie Keith and Dylan Sharp is cutting beyond description as the minimalist melodies are inviting and imbibing in a background-music-to-Easy Rider sort of vein. There’s a strong urge to shut it down, but the uneasiness doesn’t allow for it. It’s as deliciously weird as operatic. Are they tuned in to something we’re not? Ballads for the dead they may aim to be, but vibes for the living is the underlying product—uneven propulsions in rhythm, offset by weary riders filled with death dirges of mythological proportions, like a reverse yin and yang representing nothing at all. Out Of Range is just that, but being able to tell which end is coming or going is the real question at hand. It’s every bit as special as it sounds.
Music comes naturally to Laura Baird’s clan. She’s half of a sister act with Meg Baird, whom you probably know from Espers, her solo records for Drag City or her drumming with Heron Oblivion. Their great-great uncle I.G. Greer cut a side for Paramount and compiled a collection of folk songs that you can access at Appalachian State University. If you’ve heard Glenn Jones’ recent LPs, you’re already familiar with Laura’s transparent production skills and elegant banjo playing. She pulls it all together on I Wish I Were A Sparrow, her first solo LP. Her clear voice and brisk plucking adapt well to traditional material, melding British mythos and Appalachian pathos on cheater’s lament “Cuckoo” and murder ballads “Pretty Polly” and “Dreadful Wind And Rain.” The natural imagery and haunting melodies of her own songs stand right up to the classics.
Two decades after bootstrapping the insanely successful Bella Union label in the wake of Cocteau Twins’ 1997 split, that band’s Simon Raymonde has emerged from self-imposed musical purgatory in partnership with drummer Richie Thomas (Dif Juz) as Lost Horizons, and the results are nothing short of stunning. If you can imagine the Twins or perhaps mid-period Golden Palominos fronted by an endlessly rotating cast of vocalists—ranging from Innocence Mission’s Karen Peris to Duke Spirit’s Leila Moss to Sharon Van Etten, and a host of other distinct voices in between—all obsessing over mid-’70s David Gilmour-fronted Floyd, you’re nearly there. Deeply melancholic in a manner that requires both life experience and the optimism required to overcome those episodes to appreciate, Ojala (meaning “hopefully” in Spanish) instantly emerges as an emotional and musical touchstone for 2017, with “The Places We’ve Been” as its thematic, sad-eyed anthem.
Since the release of Dopethrone in 2000, Electric Wizard has remained the ruler of an overpopulated sub-genre of metal without a signifying term that isn’t cringe-inducingly stupid. (Most call it “stoner metal.”) Every three to four years, the Wizard releases a full-length that erases any relevance from hordes of boring acts still trying to milk something interesting out of metal’s fundamental Genesis moment: Black Sabbath. Sadly, with Wizard Bloody Wizard, the quartet backs away a bit from 2014’s Time To Die, which was the noisiest, nastiest, most chaotic and heaviest album Electric Wizard had released. In some respect, a subtle turn toward friendlier pre-Sabbath butt-rock waters might’ve been the only feasible direction. While another updating of Bloodrock/Blue Cheer/proto-metal is exactly what the world doesn’t need, it’s a different story when Electric Wizard puts such source material in the crosshairs to show the saturated margins how it’s done.
When last heard from, Blake Hazard was, in her own words, “adrift.” 2013’s The Eleanor Islands was a breakup album, an exploration of the aftermath of the dissolution of her musical and romantic relationship with John Dragonetti, also known as Jack Drag and Hazard’s partner in L.A. band the Submarines. But now, rather than look at the world from an isolated island, Hazard allows herself some guarded hope. Thus Possibilities At Sea. Produced by indie-rock vet Thom Monahan, the album is full of light, breezy, slightly off-kilter pop, occasionally glossed with horns, like a softer version of Sam Phillips, a more earnest the Bird And The Bee or, to reach way back, a less cloying Frente!. Hazard’s bright voice has a charming crack in it, which tempers the lilt of songs like “How To Love Halfway” and “Oh Anatolia” and is central to the melancholy of “Living It Up” and “Some Quiet No Scene Town.” “This heart’s going to love you, it keeps carrying on,” Hazard sings, expressing the resilience at the heart of Possibilities At Sea.
For years, sitarist Neel Murgai dreamed of recording Terry Riley’s In C. And why not? Besides being an avant-classical composer and pianist, Riley spent decades singing, playing and studying with Hindustani vocalist Pandit Pran Nath, who’s remained his greatest influence. So after tackling Prince’s “Purple Rain,” which is astonishingly good, Alice Coltrane’s “Blue Nile” (ditto) and John Coltrane’s “Alabama” (ditto), Murgai and Brooklyn Raga Massive decided they were ready for something suitably massive. BRM’s In C stretches out for a full 74 minutes, with 18 musicians—on a cross-cultural mix of cajón, oud, sitar, tabla and more—cycling through these 53 cells of short, repetitive fragments and coming together in a perfect picture of heterophony. That’s the genius of Riley’s composition, and in the same way that Africa Express’ In C sounds like Bamako and the Ukrainian Improvisers Orchestra’s In C sounds like Kiev, BRM’s In C sounds just like Brooklyn. It’s a pulsing polyglot swirl that’s deeply studious and wildly adventurous, full of form and freedom. A stunning reimagining of Riley’s masterpiece.
In 1969 Nick Garrie recorded The Nightmare Of J.B. Stanisla, a lush folk/pop album. When collectors discovered it in the ’80s, it began fetching astronomical sums, and it was eventually reissued on CD in 2005. Garrie’s life in obscurity has too many twists to recount, but includes two albums as Nick Hamilton and an opening spot on a Leonard Cohen tour in 1984. The Moon And The Village, Garrie’s first release in 23 years, is another subtle charmer. His mellow vocals are supported by arrangements that let his stories glow with a warm inner light. “Bacardi Samuel” sums up the life of a loveable, melancholy drunk in four perceptive verses. “Got You On My Mind” conveys the longing for a lost love with Garrie’s singing augmented by spare notes from a classical harp, and “Ma Petite Catherine” describes the end of an affair (in French), while a muted trombone adds a melancholy tone to the wry lyric.