Essential New Music: Bert Jansch’s “Live At The 12 Bar”

Bert

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.

—Mitch Myers

Essential New Music: Various Artists “Parallelogram”

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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.

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Richard Thompson’s “Still”

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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.

—Kenny Berkowitz

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”

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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”

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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”

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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)”

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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