Essential New Music: Steve Gunn’s “The Unseen In Between”

Great music often comes from the effort to contain contradictory impulses, and so it is with The Unseen In Between. It aims higher and sounds bigger and bolder than anything else in Steve Gunn’s discography. The production is full, the melodies direct, the rhythms crisp and the gorgeous strings and subtle steel-guitar flourishes can sweep you up without you even noticing. This album strives to make an impact right away. 

But Gunn’s singing is tinged with a reserve that filters this impact, letting The Unseen In Between’s principal themes of connecting with people and carrying on when you lose them soak in rather than hit you head-on. This slow-growing emotional effect gives listeners reasons to keep coming back for more after they’ve grown accustomed to the hooks and start to take the alternately lilting and growling guitars for granted. 

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Michael Hurley’s “Living Ljubljana”

It’s a bit daunting to pick an entry point into a career that spans more than half a century. It’s a little easier when the subject of inquiry is Michael Hurley, since the virtues of his music have been very consistent throughout that time. His honest appraisal of life as viewed from the sidelines, his skewed humor and his winningly wobbly warble have all been in place since his 1964 debut LP for Folkways.

What makes Living Ljubljana, a mid-’90s live recording from Slovenia, a good starting point is the extra half-dose of pep in Hurley’s step, which manifests in some gleefully loony high notes on “I Paint A Design” and uncharacteristically loquacious guitar picking on “The Portland Water.” Hurley’s a master of the affective turnaround; here he ponders the undeniability of equine flatulence at length on “Horse’s Ass,” then goes straight to waxing romantic on “O My Stars.” True to the spirit of a man who was once the best eight-track tape repairman in Virginia (he lives in Oregon now), this is an analog-only release. Not only does it sound right on vinyl, you can enjoy the details of his wolfish cover painting.

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Zaïmph’s “Rhizomatic Gaze”

You shouldn’t make a double LP if you aren’t ready to stretch a bit. Marcia Bassett of Zaïmph (ex-Un, Hototogisu, Double Leopards) not only stretches, she puts her arms around a multitude of sonic spaces that do not sound the same but have complementary effects when drawn together. Rhizomatic Gaze includes zonked drones, claustrophobic collages, anxiety-laden repetition studies and haunting synthscapes.

Individually they generate vivid sensate experiences that point attention away from her tools (squelching electronics, curdled guitars, effects-fried vocals) and toward states of altered consciousness. “Two In One,” for example, sinks into a near-paralyzed dream state, while “Inside The Space” floats like a hot-air balloon over the misty imaginary jungle vistas. Bassett’s other projects have often portrayed or induced abandon, but not Rhizomatic Gaze. She’s in absolute control throughout, navigating through the music’s moods like the shaman-in-chief of a vision quest.

—Bill Meyer 

Essential New Music: Bobbie Gentry’s “The Girl From Chickasaw County: The Complete Capitol Masters”

Way beyond the sultry, snaky and truly signature hit she made with the mysterious “Ode To Billie Joe,” there has long been a secrecy to Bobbie Lee Gentry that’s set within the hidden (in plain sight) and idiosyncratic treasures of her shockingly large catalog, all found on The Girl From Chickasaw County: The Complete Capitol Masters. One of the first American female artists to compose and produce her own material, Gentry drew on her Mississippi roots and Southern-gothic crust to tell not-so-tall tales of love, lust and revenge worthy of a Carson McCullers or a Tennessee Williams in a voice as husky and soulful as Dusty Springfield. For all of Gentry’s immediate success—1968 Grammy awards for best new artist and best female pop vocal performance, her own TV show, her own self-made clothes and even control of her covers (having painted her own album art)—and lasting influence, she ceased in the early ’80s and currently lives very privately in a gated community outside Memphis.

All of the eight albums that make up this package justify Gentry’s mysterioso image (is it an image, though, if it’s real?) and reveal, in a fashion, that she was hardly country, or rather, solely country. The Girl From Chickasaw County presents the wealth of weird diversity usually discussed with the likes of Lee Hazlewood, Marvin Gaye, Brian Wilson, Scott Walker and Randy Newman. Vegas schmaltz. Elegant chamber pop. Atmospheric soundscapes with wordy sing-spoken elements. Creepy freak folk. It’s all here. 

You want odd rhythmic meters applied to avant-garde soul? Check out “Reunion.” Want a strangely smoky take on (then) contemporaries such as Webb and Bacharach? Her Touch ‘Em With Love album. Need some moody blues touched by Mexicali mariachi brass? Find her cover of “Tobacco Road.” Looking for the Beatles influence in her album-making largesse? Listen to the entirety of Local Gentry. Think she missed performing in a jazzy tone? Dig the demo of “Morning To Midnight.”

For all that character-driven, mixed-up country pop is at present—the Kaceys and the Mirandas and the Lucindas—no one exists as such without Bobbie Gentry. The Girl From Chickasaw County is living proof. 

—A.D. Amorosi

Essential New Music: Elvis Presley’s “’68 Comeback Special” (50th Anniversary Edition)

Though released at the tail end of 2018, this feels like a more appropriate totem in which to hail Elvis Presley today—on what would have been his 84th birthday. No matter when and why, Elvis’ first-ever television special was and is a raucous party worth celebrating and reliving in living color.

It is no secret now (or then) that Presley’s hit-making abilities and daring cultural markings had been on the decline by the time the absolute youth quake of 1967 (the Summer Of Love, Sgt. Pepper, etc.) struck. 1968, then, would be pivotal—not only because Presley’s only child, Lisa Marie, was born, but because Elvis and his manager, Colonel Parker, had already started moving into television—with NBC—beginning with what would be a Christmastime special to air Dec. 3, 1968. Recorded in June in Burbank that year before an intimate audience, and simply called Elvis, this would be no run-of-the-mill holiday spectacular. Santa never dressed in tight black leather and swung a guitar like a cat. 

Presley’s first live performances since 1961 were boldly audacious and uninhibited. They were stripped down and salty, even when accompanied by a larger band, and found the dancer in Elvis gloriously unencumbered and free. Then-journalist (now Springsteen manager) Jon Landau wrote at the time that Presley “moved his body with a lack of pretension and effort that must have made Jim Morrison green with envy.” With that, his next single of January 1969, “If I Can Dream” (written for the special), and the Elvis soundtrack leaped into Billboard’s top slots. The king was back. 

This seven-disc boxed set is the whole shebang in one place, on CD and Blu-ray, warts and all, and including a seated reunion with his original 1950s combo, and once juxtaposed with performances from his larger, hornier ensemble, it paints a full picture of a man hungry for a comeback. Funnier, too, when you consider (from the written oral history in the box) how the Colonel wanted Elvis to run (more sacred, less hip-swiveling). It is, however, the sound of Presley and of Elvis, then seeking appeal to a younger audience, that is most pertinent. From the rocking (duh) roar of “Tiger Man” and the slow, horny “Trouble” to the bluesy run of “Nothingville,” “Big Boss Man” and the neo-doo wop of “Little Egypt,” there’s a guile and gutsiness—a daunting primal sexuality—to Presley’s vocals unheard since the days of Sun Studio. With this new-vibe-alive Elvis, even the holy-rolling likes of “Where Could I Go But To The Lord?” and “Up Above My Head,” as well as the holiday likes of “Blue Christmas” and “One Night,” sounded salty. 

Without this Comeback Special, there would’ve been no From Elvis in Memphis (1969), his rawest and most soulful album since ’56. Christmas would never have seemed so naughty without Presley’s hips swaying and loose warbling vocals. No matter what else, this is a primer on what true rock-star attitude could be at its flashiest.

Happy birthday, Elvis.

—A.D. Amorosi

Essential New Music: Scott Hirsch’s “Lost Time Behind The Moon”

Rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t have to be new. An inspired what-if notion might all that it takes to instigate some great music. Take Lost Behind The Moon, the second solo LP by Scott Hirsch. The former producer and bassist for Hiss Golden Messenger is a devoted, deep-roots kind of guy; he could not have brought this record’s loosely funky country-rock to life without closely studying J.J. Cale and his antecedents. But he’s no slave; why be in bondage to one example when you’ve got the skills to put some unlikely elements together?

Opening track “When You Were Old” sounds like a mash-up of Cale and Al Green with a little of Lee Perry’s magic smoke blown on the mixdown tape. And “Spirits” answers the question of what we might have gotten if Lou Reed had headed for Tulsa instead of Long Island when he bolted from the Velvet Underground. Besides liquid guitar licks and just stiff enough drum machine programs, Hirsch has a voice that differentiates him from his inspirations. Guileless and sweet, it’s an apt vehicle for sparely told tales of love and wonder.

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Bob Dylan’s “More Blood, More Tracks: The Bootleg Series Vol. 14” (Deluxe Edition)

Bob Dylan at the tail end of 2018 was a fascinating, irascible concept. Dylan at the circus selling his Heaven’s Door whiskey with Jimmy Fallon by his side. Dylan making clear melodic sense of his catalog during the November/December leg of his Never Ending Tour with a date opening the grand old Met Philadelphia in MAGNET’s hometown. The six-disc re-release/reconsideration of 1975’s Blood On The Tracks, a troubled epic within said catalog and the very best of his albums of the 1970s.

As far as thematic concept albums on the overdone topic of ruined romance go, they started with crooner Frank Sinatra’s Only The Lonely (a slowly danced, bourbon-soaked illustration of frustration and despair over an affair’s finale) and end with irked songwriter Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks (itself a meditation on love’s loss, but geared more toward anger and resentment). Only Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear (1978), Richard And Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out The Lights (1982), Willie Nelson’s Phases And Stages (1974) and, of course, Tammy Wynette’s D-I-V-O-R-C-E (1968) show as must disgust, fear, anxiety and loathing at having to separate love’s bonds.

Each of these stately recordings, Sinatra’s torch songs of 1958, Dylan’s blues and reds of 1975, were re-released at the end of 2018 with additional songs and missed-opportunity rarities, particularly in the case of Dylan’s deluxe-edition More Blood, More Tracks in accordance with his long-running Bootleg series. This refreshed collection features unheard alternative versions of searing songs from the moody masterpiece such as raw, emotional, solo, acoustic renditions of “Tangled Up In Blue,” “Simple Twist Of Fate” and “If You See Her, Say Hello” as well as the standard-bearing “Spanish Is The Loving Tongue.”

Other Dylan Bootleg collections have found their majesty in their rarities. With Dylan, in the case of Blood, there’s a quiet intensity to the original recordings (here, merely enhanced by new fidelity) that thin 1975 production missed, an immense sense of sonic stewing that has grown as we, the listeners, have grown up with its author and remastered sound.

The take after take of “Idiot Wind” and “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” the solo addresses of “You’re A Big Girl Now,” a rubbed-raw rehearsal version of “Up To Me,” a test pressing’s take on “Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts”—these versions make Blood more earnest and yearning in its completeness.

The version of Blood On The Tracks recorded in NYC before the famed Minneapolis sessions—the holy grail of Dylan tapes—finds his band racing to catch up with the songwriter’s solo demos, and you can sense the rush best on the takes of “Call Letter Blues” and “Meet Me In The Morning.” Anyone who remembers the hushed first takes of “Idiot Wind” and “Tangled Up In Blue,” available on The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3, will recall how his anger was magnified the quieter he got.

One thing that doesn’t change or alter, no matter the version, take or ensemble, is Dylan’s lyrics and melodies. Regretful and bitter with the life he’s leaving behind, this album is Dylan’s bloodiest shot at wearing his heart and soul on his sleeve.

—A.D. Amorosi

Essential New Music: The Kinks’ “The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society” (Super Deluxe Edition)

To call an 11-to-17 disc dissection of Ray Davies’ flowery, lit-witty masterpiece “forensic” doesn’t quite say enough about how the quintessentially British outfit’s transformation from frizzled garage rock to vignette-focused art pop is handled. Under the magnifying glass, the first of the Kinks’ albums not produced by Who knob twiddler Shel Talmy—and writer Ray’s first full-length foray into pastoral storytelling about the niceties (and not-so-niceties) of English life and aging—is given new breadth and vigor. It almost can’t help but do so with all that’s remixed and reproduced within the box. The decline of the British Empire and its rich culture, the decline of the body and the mind and the mix of English reserve, stewing anger, regret and nostalgia that follows—all this makes Village Green a haunted, yet lush and charming place to nestle.

Consider first that much of Davies’ initial ire stemmed from who the Kinks were the year previous to 1968. After a handful of early heated hits such as “You Really Got Me” and “All Day And All Of The Night” and the calmer likes of “Lazy Afternoon” and “Waterloo Sunset,” they were among the princes of the British Invasion of the mid-1960s. Prior to Village Green’s release, however, they’d been forbidden from touring in the United States after making trouble for musicians’ union bosses on their first American trek four years earlier. Combine that with Davies falling out of step from the harder, psychedelic sounds that his fellow Brits were making (the Who and the Rolling Stones, mainly) at the time, and Village Green (upon release) was viewed as merely quaint—an extension of that which Noel Coward and George Bernard Shaw had penned before him. “This world is big and wild and half insane,” wrote Davies on “Animal Farm,” produced here in glorious original mono, as well as explosive 2018 stereo mixes. He didn’t mean it with glee. 

Wistful for the England of his teen-hood (pre-Absolute Beginners, Colin McInnes’ tome to Britain’s youth quake of the ’50s) and that of his brother Dave (replacing his guttural electric guitars for gentle acoustics here), the two harmonize beautifully, rhapsodizing about the lord above (“Big Sky”), a youth of innocence (“Village Green”) and bucolic spirit (“Sitting By The Riverside”) and the arch characters who surrounded them, such as “Johnny Thunder” and “Wicked Annabella.” Even modes of travel that may or may not speak (“Last Of The Steam-Powered Trains”) get a winsome wink, nod and soulful melodicism in accordance with Davies’ new old outlook.
What happens here, then, with the various Village Green packages, is contextual. The addition of non-LP songs as “Days,” “Berkeley Mews” and “Till Death Us Do Part” extend Davies’ sonic and lyrical sensation of yearning melancholy without forgetting that he’s a pop songwriter in the broadest manner. An alternate all-country “Days” is warmer and cozier than a cup of freshly-brewed tea. “Where Did The Spring Go?” is given a vibrancy through its multitude of takes you hadn’t witnessed before. 

Along with mono and stereo versions of the original album, there’s a 12-track Swedish edition that somehow was released before the U.K. version, BBC sessions and countless demos and alternate versions that shed new light on the 1968 studio’s proceedings—such as a take on “Village Green” that’s so psychedelic and swirly, you’re not entirely certain that Davies didn’t try to get with the in crowd at some point in recording the album. 

While the Village Green mega collection sticks to its root recording with everything from facsimile seven-inch singles and vintage promo/concert poster and ticket reproductions, the box goes ever-so-slightly awry with the inclusion of a 2010-era Ray revisiting his classic with a full choir and orchestra. Luckily, essayist Pete Townshend and several smart Kinks theorists wrap everything influential and inspirational about Village Green into one delicious bow of an accompanying hardcover book. 

With its insight and intrigue concerning life’s minutiae and the passage of time, this Village Green set the bar—and pace—to where concept-driven Ray Davies would go from this album forward. It’s a gorgeous reality to have the road map expanded in full. 

—A.D. Amorosi

Essential New Music: Jon Porras’ “Voices Of The Air”

On his own and as half of Barn Owl, Jon Porras has tended to make instrumental music that’s expansive and visually evocative. The cinematic sense of pacing he achieves on Voices Of The Air derives from low-pitched electronic pulses that carry the listener from one still scene to the next. But while his guitar-based sounds of yore conveyed a sense of reach, the synthetic textures on Voices Of The Air feel like they’ve been stacked up into massive, looming walls.

Check the title; he isn’t just portraying the wind that blows around his ears, but also the layers of meteorological activity that extend up through the atmosphere. This music exerts a pressure that’s only amplified by the album’s half-hour running time. Simultaneously airy and heavy, it’s a trip well worth taking.

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Neneh Cherry’s “Broken Politics”

Nearly 30 years (!?) after the ping-ponging pop-hop of Raw Like Sushi and its global hit, “Buffalo Stance,” Neneh Chery has found a fashion in which to maintain the ebullience of that youthful debut—and aging that torrid pop tone gracefully—while honing in on the socio-political now with deeply personal lyrics and a pulsing, spacey score provided by producer Kieran Hebden (Four Tet).

With that, Broken Politics is no easy listen by half. Between Hebden’s fussy jeepy beats and aggressive collage tones and Cherry’s tossed-in-the-air wordplay landing on all things socio-rhetorical (“Deep Vein Thrombosis” lines such as “how fragile is a life that can have everything now, too”), there’s a tension behind a great portion of the new album, a friction in sound and Cherry’s vision of an uneasy world. On “Kong,” Massive Attack’s 3D brings the low bass-y grumble of his one-time syn-sub ensemble to bear on Cherry’s icy arrangements while she hoots and scowls about “ guns and guts and history.”

That doesn’t mean or make the rapper/singer into Kafka, and Broken Politics into an existential mess. With its joyful noisy Ornette Coleman plastic-sax sample and its Jamaican steel-drum loop, “Natural Skin Deep,” gives Cherry a big bouncy way into a stray, gleeful hook, one where she intones, “My love goes on and on,” as a release. Like someone winning a tug of war, exhausted by the push-and-pull, Broken Politics feels like a deep breath after a long, tense struggle.

—A.D. Amorosi