To help commemorate the 100th anniversary of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, Merge is re-releasing Richard Buckner’s 2000 album The Hill, which used Masters’ work as source material. Masters wrote more than 250 poems that were graveyard monologues, small-town Midwesterners revealing, after death, their grievances and recriminations with angry honesty. Buckner took a handful of them to use as lyrics—or inspirations for instrumentals—and the result was one of his best records.
Backed by Joey Burns and John Convertino of Calexico—who also worked with Buckner on 1997’s Devotion + Doubt (another Buckner highlight)—the album is full of unsettling, empathetic and poignant portraits. “Child, death is better than life,” claims one character, and Buckner resurrects Masters’ words and makes them persuasive. As always, Buckner’s voice has an inconsistent relationship with pitch, and here he sounds ancient, as if he himself could be singing from beyond the grave.
Old indie-rock bands don’t fade away anymore—they merely fester and split, then inevitably reunite for a lucrative run through the internet-fueled nostalgia circuit. More often than not, they then turn to the tried-and-true formula of touring their “classic” album in its entirety. And really, who can blame them? It’s a win/win situation for both band and audience—the musicians get to revel in crowd adoration and are handsomely compensated, while the fans get to relive their dim and distant youth. And thus, we have erstwhile East Kilbride art-pop terrorists the Jesus And Mary Chain currently touring their unhinged masterpiece and bona fide game-changer, Psychocandy, in all its febrile, demented glory, 30 years on.
And for the most part, they still sound astoundingly good, despite the dubious value of live albums in general. With typical perversity, they play their encore first, and so the set begins with a seven-song run through sundry classics, an especially bruised and gorgeous “Some Candy Talking,” being a standout. That said, JAMC do sound relatively restrained until they hit “Reverence,” where they suddenly shift up a gear—howling squalls of feedback begin to grow in intensity, the sound of the impending apocalypse is upon us, and all is right with the world.
While Jim Reid comes on like Leonard Cohen’s surly reprobate nephew, as Psychocandy unfurls in full, brother William revels in his role as one-man guitar army. Their heady blend of industrial white noise mixed with the pop suss of the Shangri-Las reminds you of just how genuinely incendiary they sounded first time around back in the shiny, glossy vapid mid-’80s. Cheap nostalgia and cynicism be damned. They still sound—on this evidence at least—utterly majestic.
Anyone acquainted with the Canadian collective’s rootsy approximation of rural American soundscapes—true rust-bucket takes on folk, blues, R&B, country, gospel, rockabilly and brass band music rolled into one funky, hunky, forlorn vocal blend—knows that the Band’s original vinyl and CD pressings didn’t have oomph. The hillbilly curl of Levon Helm, Richard Manuel and Rich Danko’s smoked voices (all deceased), their Biblical texts, the rhythmic kink—even Garth Hudson’s bittersweet organ swells and accordion wheezes—were muffled.
Thankfully, what this newly remastered collection does is maintain that the Band’s mystery murk—the ambiance of Appalachian hills, the mossy lushness of Kentucky greenery, the honk of everything New Orleans—is still in place. That’s the group’s thing. Yet, a greater clarity to the Band’s rickety bass/drum partnership and its overall vocal mix gives Music From Big Pink, The Band, Stage Fright, Cahoots, Rock Of Ages, Moondog Matinee and latter-day, often-ignored gems such as Northern Lights: Southern Cross and Islands a necessary shineup; like gold glinting through the dust of the Sierra Madres.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.