Como, Miss.’s R.L. Boyce delivers in droves with “the most important, honest to God Hill Country blues record made since R.L. Burnside’s A Ass Pocket Of Whiskey,” to quote the great Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars). If anyone is fit to tell us what is or isn’t a Mississippi Hill Country record, it’s Mr. Dickinson, who wore the producer hat for this gem of a record. Roll And Tumble is a lesson in bona fide boogie, straight from the source where R.L. learned his chops from Fred McDowell, the aforementioned Burnside, the whimsical Otha Turner and, perhaps most important, the perpetual thump of the great Jessie Mae Hemphill, the original She-Wolf. If you can’t smell and taste the corn whiskey, feel the ever-humid heat and get your ass to moving, check your pulse. R.L. Boyce is bad, a living time capsule of endless one-chord perfection. Consider this a lesson of the purest form of music in our great American sonic landscape.
To not hear King Khan belting witty lyrics over perfectly trashy R&B, either with nine-piece gang the Shrines or laying it out with longtime compadre Mark Sultan as the BBQ Show, is at first a bit shocking. Khan channels his inner Merle Haggard on a twangy number that’s fantastic, plays his hand at sugar-pop ditties and, of course, grinds copious smatterings of still-mooing rock ’n’ roll to form these mouthwatering Murder Burgers. Tapping his favorite band (Oakland’s the Gris Gris) to back him provides a suitable condiment to sit atop this greasy patty of greatness, way better than any “special sauce.” Khan’s first solo effort is ideal, clearly stepping outside the lines that we’re so used to hearing him in. Murder Burgers was made in a week’s time and toured only the killing capitals of our great nation, thus the genius album title. File with the rest of your King Khan records under “readily accessible.”
Cosmic Troubles, the 2015 debut from this Edmonton two-piece, charmed and arrested with its airy, ’60s-indebted jangle, casually perfect guitar tone and, especially, the hypnotically blank aura of Jessica Jalbert’s vocals. While much of the same can be found on this second foray, things feel somehow more complex and unsettled, as the duo branches out to explore further pockets of psychedelia—from crushed-Velvets noise grooves (“Light Of Love”) to dreamy drone pop (“Sterling Silver”)—while navigating nebulous sonic and psychic terrain between lightness and dark, cool detachment and enveloping warmth. Is the emoticon in the album’s title winking in mockery or encouragement? It’s difficult to say, although lyrics like “Nothing is as good as the feeling of waiting” and an array of artifacts scattered across the album (a busy signal; a conspicuously meta spoken “conversation” consisting almost entirely of mishearings; even a barrelhouse-style piano solo that sits oddly with the snarling guitar rock of “Might As Well”) suggest a preoccupation with the often fraught process of attempting to connect. In this case, it’s generally worth the effort.
—K. Ross Hoffman
For a prolific musical project with nearly as many compilations as official releases, it makes sense that the Jazz Butcher—a.k.a. Pat Fish and whoever was sprinkled about his orbit over the years—would break a five-year silence with a four-disc set reassembling the group’s earliest releases. The Wasted Years is anything but—Fish and Co. were marvelously out of step with contemporary pop chart tastes back in the early 1980s, spinning British eccentricity into fool’s gold with albums that veered wildly from a stylistic standpoint. 1983 debut In Bath Of Bacon was essentially a Pat Fish solo album in Jonathan Richman mode; later efforts such as 1984’s A Scandal In Bohemia leaned faux-folk, while 1985’s terrific Sex And Travel included a lineup featuring Bauhaus’ David J. that traded in story/songs Ray Davies might’ve recognized. Stylishly repackaged with lovingly crafted liner notes to match, The Wasted Years finds Fish polishing his legacy with work resembling what Syd Barrett might’ve sounded like if his vice was closer to cross-tops than sugar cubes. Revisiting these years is the sound of some of our undergraduate degrees.
Attempting to pin down the last decade of peerless music of ineffable inspiration and sound that has arrived behind the Circuit des Yeux moniker (Haley Fohr, though often with primary collaborator/engineer Cooper Crain of Bitchin Bajas) is folly. Raising a bar she herself set, Fohr’s reshaping of untouchable influences (Scott Walker, Gastr del Sol, John Fahey/Jack Rose, to name a tiny percentage) into something that sounds absolutely unlike anything out there is now presented in master-class form with Circuit des Yeux’s fifth full-length since 2008. This is the type of sublime, maximalist treasure that should kick positive inspiration downstairs into the emperor-in-his-birthday-suit, for-the-sake-of-it, substance-free charlatan safe room that the experimental/abstract realm of contemporary underground music can sometimes seem like. Or rather, Reaching For Indigo is the perfect course correction when we just got an unfortunate double-album comeback by John Maus. Why add nothing to your life with two albums when you can change it and rearrange your brain with one?
Although it fit in with woozy, beloved contemporaries such as Grandaddy’s Sumday and Sparklehorse’s It’s A Wonderful Life, Flotation Toy Warning’s Bluffer’s Guide To The Flight Deck managed to slip through the cracks when it came out Stateside in 2005 (after being released the year before in the London quintet’s homeland). But those of us who loved it really loved its deeply layered mix of carnivalesque instrumentation, gradually shape-shifting tempos and multiple voices—from singsong, filtered melodies to operatic soloists wafting in the background. Long-awaited (by a few) second album The Machine That Made Us is a worthy sequel. The band has retained its gift for creating grandeur by weaving together small, distinct elements. Something’s always burbling in the background of Paul Carter’s subdued, declamatory rhymes, which are sometimes sweet, often bitter. “I don’t have much time/None of us really do/So I’m fucked if I’ll be spending it with you,” Carter sings liltingly on “Everything That Is Difficult Will Come To An End.” Here’s hoping people spend some time with Flotation Toy Warning this time.
There are bands with a bit of history, and then there’s Antietam. Tara Key and Tim Harris founded the band in 1984 and named it for the American Civil War’s bloodiest one-day battle; it’s been more than a quarter-century since the addition of drummer Josh Madell solidified their lineup. But there’s nothing static or stale about Intimations Of Immortality, their first album in six years. Known strengths—Key’s explosive guitar and pithy melodies, her partners’ propulsive rhythms—mix it up with previously untapped resources. Turns out they know some pretty strong string and brass players, and despite deep Kentucky roots, they’ve never let bluegrass into their music until now. But Key’s voice, ragged and unabashed, remains the emotive heart of Antietam’s music. It’s the ideal vehicle for songs that express immortal yearnings in the face of irrefutable evidence that the reaper comes for everyone and everything you know.
When it was released on the ESP-Disk label in 1967 (on the same day as Sgt. Pepper no less), One Nation Underground struck an immediate chord with lovers of uncategorizable music. The album cover was a detail from the Hieronymus Bosch painting Garden Of Earthly Delights. The back cover featured a warthog-like logo but no band photograph. The songwriters were unknown and, in pre-Google days, it was hard to find any information about them. (An early review suggested it was a secret session of experimental folk created by Bob Dylan and the Beatles.)
Underground’s expansive psychedelia became ESP’s most successful release, selling around 200,000 copies. It was the debut of singer/songwriter/guitarist Tom Rapp, who created it with three high-school chums, and it still produces a lysergic buzz. Opening ballad “Another Time” is a dreamy assessment of heartache and loss, wherein restrained fingerpicking, minimal bass and Rapp’s whispered vocal weave an inescapable spell. “Playmate” is a children’s song from the ’30s, but in Rapp’s slowed-down rock arrangement, the words (“Slide down my cellar door”) take on a sinister tone. The cheeky “(Oh Dear) Miss Morse” is a banjo-driven folk rocker whose chorus spells out “fuck” in Morse code.
The centerpiece is “I Shall Not Care,” a three-part, five-minute, psychedelic masterpiece that follows the protagonist into the grave, down into a shrieking swirl of non-existence and up again for a muted resurrection. In its own way, it’s as jarring as “A Day In The Life” and just as groundbreaking.
Lucinda Williams has recently done some of the greatest work of her long career. Both 2016’s The Ghosts Of Highway 20 and 2014’s Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone are among the best of her dozen studio albums (and they’re both double sets). At the top of the list, though, would be 1998’s Car Wheels On A Gravel Road and her 1988 self-titled album. Sandwiched between them was her fourth record, 1992’s also excellent Sweet Old World, and that’s the one Williams has chosen to remake and remodel as This Sweet Old World.
Recorded quickly with her touring band plus steel-guitar wiz Greg Leisz (who was involved in the initial sessions for the original album), This Sweet Old World resequences, stretches out and, in one case, rewrites the early versions, and it adds several songs that Williams covered in that period. The biggest difference, though, is her voice. Although the Louisiana-bred Williams started her career doing blues covers, her pipes had more (alt-)country in them: They were wistful and sometimes sweet. As she aged, her voice took on darker tones, and what had been a drawl turned into a cracked and bluesy slur that’s more menacing, more bitter, more complex. Sweet Old World was a sad album haunted by suicides of friends, but the ache of loss now has the weight of resigned wisdom. Even songs that aren’t radically reimagined—like “Something About What Happens When We Talk,” Nick Drake cover “Which Will” and the title track—take on new layers of meaning.
Williams is competing with listeners’ ingrained memories of these songs, and that can be a challenge. But the rock songs rock harder (“Six Blocks Away,” “Hot Blood”), the swampy blues songs groove more deeply (“Prove My Love,” “Lines Around Your Eyes”), and the “He Never Got Enough Love” rewrite (now with original title “Drivin’ Down A Dead End Street”) tells a better story. It’s enough to make you willing to forget the past.
Considering the results of the last presidential election and its attendant fallout, the times are ripe for a revitalization of punk’s insurrectionist spirit. You’d think there’d be a homegrown Clash or Dead Kennedys in every garage right now, screaming for a counterrevolution against this right-wing administration. With the young seemingly more disgusted with business-as-usual partisan politics than ever, there’s surprisingly little new rock ‘n’ roll dissent out there. Were the youth waiting for Anti-Flag to speak up? If so, they have a fine flag to rally ’round: 11 sticks of rhetorical dynamite lobbed at the New Trump Order. Singer Justin Sane nails it in the second verse of stop/start chugger “American Attraction”: ”The clock tick-tick-tick-ticking down to a disaster/Your insecurity is all they’re gunning after.” The rejection rocks throughout, skillfully updating the Clash/Stiff Little Fingers blueprint within ’90s pop/punk production. While not on par with the best from those two bands, American Fall is still potent.