Essential New Music: The Fall’s “The Wonderful And Frightening World Of The Fall,” “The Wonderful And Frightening Escape Route To The Fall,” “This Nation’s Saving Grace” And “Schtick: Yarbles Revisited”

Fall

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.

—Corey duBrowa

Essential New Music: Yonder Mountain String Band’s “Black Sheep”

YMSB

Combining punk and bluegrass seems like a harebrained idea, but maybe not so far-fetched for a band that started performing 17 years back as the Bluegrassholes. The boys and girl in Yonder Mountain grew up on punk and metal, and found that the faster-than-light shredding of traditional bluegrass wasn’t that far from the adrenalized rush of punk. On Black Sheep, Buzzcocks hit “Ever Fallen In Love” is taken at a blazing tempo that honors both traditions, although the harmonies and solos are more bluegrass than punk.

The album combines the band’s rowdy acoustic picking with a rock feel that will appeal to folks who wouldn’t dream of attending a bluegrass show. Other standouts include the soulful R&B of “Love Before You Can’t,” the slow bluesy “Annalee” and extended jams like “Around You” and “Drawing A Melody,” tunes that let the band members show off their considerable chops.

—j. poet

Essential New Music: Sasha Siem’s “Most Of The Boys”

SashaSiem

What a voice Sasha Siem has, and what a sense of melody. That’s easy to miss the first few times you spin Most Of The Boys, her long-form debut, since the instrumentation and song structure are so striking—which makes sense, since Siem, who’s still only in her early 30s, is an award-winning (and classically trained) orchestral composer.

But Most Of The Boys is first and foremost a collection of songs, and a damn fine one, spiritual cousin to cultural mash-up albums like Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs and Cocorosie’s The Adventures Of Ghosthorse And Stillborn. Siem’s less tongue-in-cheek than either artist, so she’s able to tackle more nakedly emotive terrain, which brings us back to her vocals: Siem’s voice is the centerpiece of the album, and rightly so. The middle of the record begins to flag just a bit, as Siem hangs in similar sonic territory on a few songs. But on the whole it’s a wildly impressive debut, the better for how she adapts her compositional talent to compact forms.

—Eric Waggoner

Essential New Music: The Old Ceremony’s “Sprinter”

OldCeremony

When you christen yourself after a revered Leonard Cohen classic, much is expected, and the Old Ceremony has met and exceeded those expectations over the course of 11 years and five albums. On Sprinter, guitars shimmer and shriek, keyboards swirl, rhythms thump and roll, and tendrils of Karl Wallinger (the title track), Bruce Springsteen (“Go Dark”), My Morning Jacket (“Mission Bells”) and Chris Whitley (“Hard Times”) are woven into the proceedings; there are even Spoon-esque references to “Louie Louie” on “Over Greenland.”

Although Sprinter exhibits the Old Ceremony’s trademark lyrical richness and musical complexity, the band’s new pop diversity is linked to frontman Django Haskins’ involvement in the concert series presentation of Big Star’s Sister Lovers/Third where he collaborated with Ray Davies, Robyn Hitchcock and members of the Posies, Yo La Tengo and Teenage Fanclub, among others. That experience led to the direct input of three hugely influential individuals: producer Mitch Easter, arranger/dB’s sparkplug Chris Stamey and former R.E.M. bassist/vocalist Mike Mills, all of whom contribute substantially to Sprinter’s vibe and direction.

—Brian Baker

Essential New Music: The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience’s “I Like Rain”

JeanPaulSartreExperience

Some folks tell us that we’re in the last days of the CD. If that’s the case, let me tell you: You will miss your water when the well runs dry, because I doubt that the experience of reissue, rediscovery and immersion facilitated by a nicely appointed CD boxed set will ever be matched by a virtual bucket-load of files. Case in point: I Like Rain.

This three-CD (or three LPs plus bonus downloads—or just the virtual bucket-load if you prefer to live ephemerally) set collects everything JPSE released, including some naked baby-quality early tracks from the band’s dawn. The accompanying oral history tells the story of a group that ran afoul of market changes, indie-label fumbles and mistreatment from the buy-out suits so stupid (example: being forced to change your band’s justly notorious name on your third record, just because) that it could hold its own in a support group with Eleventh Dream Day and Big Dipper.

But the real pleasure is the instigation to sit through and hear JPSE go through the good, the bad and the near misses of a career that took the band from a light-hearted party outfit with an ingratiating delicate side in Christchurch, New Zealand, to game, but stressed-out grunts trying to flog big, catchy hooks that should have caught on with the Yo La Tengo and My Bloody Valentine crowds (yet never did).

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Black Mountain’s “Black Mountain (10 Year Anniversary Deluxe Edition)”

BlackMountain

Black Mountain’s debut ring true a decade later

When we say that Black Mountain’s debut is a perfect summer album, please understand this Vancouver space-boogie concoction was the soundtrack to our perfect summer. We were young. We were angry. We were getting really good weed. Like, really, really good weed. We were broke as hell, but we were spent our nights restoring an antebellum church, turning it into a record store that would prove too weird to survive. We were blissfully oblivious to the coming collapse of the music industry. We would have barbecues at our bandmate’s side project’s practice space every Sunday, rocking to Stephen McBean’s groovy riffs and singing along with Amber Webber’s cosmic voicings until the early hours of the morning.

And then, at the end of the summer, right as the ill-fated record store was about to open its doors, the whole gang took a five-hour drive to see Black Mountain play one of the most transcendent sets of rock ‘n’ roll we’ve ever seen. Perfect. Fucking. Summer. Ten years on, as our doughy gut squishes out of the concert tee we bought 10 years and 10 billion cheeseburgers ago, Black Mountain is still perfect. From the opening skronk-pop of “Modern Music” to the scuzz-fuzz sex-throb of “Druganaut” (found here in a gloriously egregious eight-minute extended version), Black Mountain is a flawless collection of shimmering pop conjured from deep, dank psych grooves.

—Sean L. Maloney

Essential New Music: The Orb’s “Moonbuilding 2703 AD”

Orb

The Orb—basically founding member Alex Paterson and longtime associate Thomas Fehlmann—are the goddamn godfathers of EDM, unapologetic pioneers of psychedelic samples ‘n’ synth who’ve thrived through the multiple eras of techno, chill-out, ambient-dub, drum ‘n’ bass, progressive house, modern electronica, etc. Inhabiting a solipsistic sonic omniverse of its own creation since the late ’80s, the Orb has again created a collection of drifting studio wizardry replete with languid loops, sci-fi themes and lysergic remnants from days of future past.

Consisting of four lengthy tracks that cruise along at a relaxed-yet-pulsating pace, Moonbuilding 2703 AD is predictably ideal for late-night listening. The isolated sounds can be examined and dissected, or simply enjoyed as an unobtrusive backdrop allowing for an internal voyage of the eternal now. The Orb’s relentless, yet somehow unaggressive dance beats have a timeless quality that endures beyond any specific electronic trends, and its muse remains undamaged by time and space.

—Mitch Myers

Essential New Music: Iron & Wine/Ben Bridwell’s “Sing Into My Mouth”

Iron&Ben

Band Of Horses’ Ben Bridwell and Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam both have roots in South Carolina, and Band Of Horses’ origin story includes a Seattle date opening for Iron & Wine, which caught the eye of Sub Pop, which led to its first album, Everything All The Time. Iron & Wine and Band Of Horses occupy a similar space in the musical spectrum: rootsy indie rock, or Americana, or wherever you file Calexico and Neko Case and Andrew Bird these days. So, a collaboration between Ben Bridwell and Sam Beam (who is the sole permanent member of I&W) makes sense, and this collection of covers, although full of eclectic choices, sounds like you probably expect it would. Beam and Bridwell love reverb and echo, they love a somber mid-tempo ballad, they love the trappings of country music and they love beards (although Bridwell hasn’t been as wedded to his as Beam has).

Sing Into My Mouth takes its name from a line in “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody),” which opens the record. There, Beam takes the lead vocal—the two alternate leads on the album’s 12 tracks while the other sings harmonies; these aren’t duets—and the arrangement turns Talking Heads’ gently syncopated classic into a loping, carefully articulated acoustic ballad, kinda like what Beam did for the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” way back when, although with pedal steel and accordion.

Beam, who produced the record, assembled a band of regulars from recent Iron & Wine projects: Paul Niehaus on steel, Rob Burger on various keys, Jim Becker on guitars, Matt Lux on bass and Joe Adamik on drums—Beam and Bridwell left their own guitars at home. There’s a Gram Parsons vibe here, on Bonnie Raitt’s “Any Day Woman” (Beam) and Spiritualized’s “The Straight And Narrow” (Bridwell) especially, and Niehaus’ pedal steel is the third prominent voice throughout the record.

Beam and Bridwell like songs with repetitive incantations, such as “There’s No Way Out Of Here” (originally by Unicorn, but then covered by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour) and “God Knows (You Gotta Give To Get)” (from El Perro Del Mar). And they love lots and lots of echo, so much that it threatens to drown Beam’s take on J.J. Cale’s “Magnolia” and Bridwell’s on Pete Seeger’s “Coyote, My Little Brother.”

Both Beam and Bridwell sing with a moody, melancholy thoughtfulness, although Bridwell tends to be more forceful and insistent while Beam is introspective and tender; you can feel Bridwell’s effort, while Beam’s casual understatement is entrancing. That’s the crucial distinction: Bridwell’s version of John Cale’s “You Know Me More Than I Know” has an accusatory edge, while Beam’s take on Sade’s “Bulletproof Soul” is eerie and atmospheric. Sing Into My Mouth is a collaboration, but Beam wins best in show.

—Steve Klinge

Essential New Music: Smokey’s “How Far Will You Go: The S&M Recordings 1973-’81”

Smokey

Smokey’s story is as ridiculous as it is inspiring. It involves two music-loving L.A. transplants who showcased their same-sex pride throughout the ’70s with indie releases and a residency at Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco. There they were backed by a live band featuring future Quiet Riot/Ozzy Osbourne members, the then-14-year-old duo of Kelly Garni and Randy Rhodes. John “Smokey” Condon and E.J. Emmons’ lo-fi, honky-tonk disco/funky cabaret mélange was shunned by the industry, so the “gay Steely Dan” issued a series of singles on its own S&M imprint, which is presented here in its rainbow-flag-waving entirety.

The stylistic range is surprisingly broad and definitely campy, and while these particular songs about drag queens, leather daddies and water sports may be de rigueur on today’s Pride Parade floats, turn your mind back to 1973. Something like the “I wanna be your toilet/I need to feel your piss running down my throat” refrain of “Piss Slave” makes it easy to imagine the Village People being considered saints in comparison.

—Kevin Stewart-Panko

Essential New Music: Freedy Johnston’s “Neon Repairman”

FreedyJohnston

Freedy Johnston has a keen eye for the small details that illuminate the shadows that haunt life’s darker corners. His mellow tenor has a careworn quality that seems balanced between wistful grief and graceful resignation, although his fluid melodies and ironic lyrics always bring a touch of light to the darkness—this always keeps things from getting too grim.

His method shines on “The First To Leave The World, Is The First To See The World,” the reflections of a Russian cosmonaut who looks down on the planet from his space capsule to feel the blossoming of a deep connection to all life at the same time he’s becoming aware of the distance between himself and everything else in creation. The woman on “Summer Clothes” and the worker profiled on the title track join the cosmonaut in the precarious dance between connection and alienation that Johnston is so good at describing.

—j. poet