After a long period of self-released soundscapes and studio leftovers, Guy Blakeslee returned last fall with his first official Entrance EP in nearly a decade, the four-song Vistavision expanse of Promises, a lush but all-too-brief rumination on the nature of time. For Book Of Changes, his subsequent first full-length, Blakeslee takes the same tack, creating a gorgeously melancholy sonic tapestry by spinning psychedelic folk gold from the mundane straw of daily existence and the universal search for tranquility and resolution. Blakeslee’s quavering vibrato and copious use of orchestration place him squarely in the Lee Hazlewood/Scott Walker/Jeff Buckley camp (“The Avenue”), but it also nods toward the sense of being mesmerized by the Mamas & The Papas’ folk/pop brilliance when it transformed the musical landscape of the ’60s (“I’d Be A Fool,” the epic “Revolution Eyes”) and the baroque-pop balladry of the Beatles from the same era (“Summer’s Child”). Book Of Changes signals an extraordinary new chapter in Blakeslee’s already storied creative evolution.
Every 10 years, another generation discovers the Creation, via periodic reissues such as this. Beginning as another ’60s beat group gone aggressively R&B, the band stole the Who’s aggro-mod mantle and turbo-boosted it: more fuzz, more feedback, guitarist Eddie Phillips viciously attacking his Gibson with a violin bow, spray-can paintings burned onstage, etc. Under the production aegis of Shel Talmy, who was already supervising sessions for Britain’s hardest rockers (the Kinks, the aforementioned Who), the Creation turned out spectacular singles that essentially became the gold standard for what came to be known as freakbeat: “Making Time,” “Painter Man,” “Through My Eyes,” molten classic “How Does It Feel To Feel?” Pete Townshend reportedly wanted to bring Phillips to the Who; the Sex Pistols would cover “Through My Eyes”; Johnny Rotten would spin “Life Is Just Beginning” on the radio; the Jam would sneak a Creation 45 label into the All Mod Cons inner sleeve collage; and Alan McGee would name his record label in the band’s honor. Like many of rock’s best, the members of the Creation were never stars, but their influence outstripped their sales. Action Painting sees the band’s entire ’60s back catalog, including its pre-Creation beat recordings as the Mark Four, given loving remastering from the original sources, under Talmy’s supervision. Several classics also finally receive true stereo mixes from Talmy for the first time, with unadorned backing tracks finally receiving airing as well. They remain a signpost for all who feel smart pop shouldn’t be devoid of guitaristic and rhythmic brutality.
After a 25-year career that began with a Mercury Prize shortlisting and a Brit Award nod for best new band, and continued with Mercury and Brit wins (not to mention a couple of Ivor Novellos, an NME and various other accolades), composing the theme for the BBC’s 2012 Olympic coverage and generally becoming one of the U.K.’s most beloved rock bands, it might seem logical to assume that Elbow is due for a stretch of laurel resting. Nothing could be further from the truth; the group’s last album, 2014’s stunning The Take Off And Landing Of Everything, deservedly became the band’s first U.K. number one when it debuted. Coming into Elbow’s seventh studio album, paradise rumbled slightly when Richard Jupp opted out of the band, marking the first lineup change in the group’s history. Soldiering on with session drummer Alex Reeves, the remaining foursome produced Little Fictions, quite possibly the pinnacle of its storied catalog. Frontman Guy Garvey shows that he and the band have a sense of perspective about it all when he intones “What does it prove if you die for a tune?/It’s really all disco” on the psychedelically majestic “All Disco,” a laser beam among Little Fictions’ highlights. The album’s first single, “Magnificent (She Says),” begins as a quietly propulsive pop song but swells to near epic proportions with the help of the Hallé Orchestra; “Trust The Sun” finds the band gliding along on a percolating jazz riff that suggests a marriage of late-period Police and the hushed power of Talk Talk in its prime, and “K2” pulses with a gorgeous Tropicália rhythm. Elbow’s greatest gifts have always been the ability to create a dynamic and fluid atmosphere applied to songs that are simultaneously expansive and intimate, and Little Fictions may be the best example of the band’s talents in action.
Scott H. Biram has got kind of a corny shtick on paper: the old one-man band, all grizzly and gruff, just him and a guitar singing into a collection of battered vintage microphones duct-taped together. But he more than makes up for these limitations by dint of his hard-ass love for American folk roots. This is the kind of guy as likely to yodel his way through an old country song as he is to grind his teeth on some electric blues. He swears like a motherfucker, too. Thing is, this is what the blues probably sounded like back in the day. Early recording technology sanitized American roots music, making it seem quaint today. But at the time, artists were grinding out these sweaty, dirty songs in smoky bars and dancehalls and trying like hell to make something meaningful in this fucked-up world. Biram gets that. He’s one of the few members of the new roots revival who does.
Though some things change, others stay the same. Across 22 years and multiple incarnations, Douglas McCombs (also of Tortoise, Eleventh Dream Day and Pullman) has remained the sole consistent member of Brokeback. Early on, the sound was focused on melodies he composed for six-string electric bass. Accompanists, recording and rhythmic approaches, and instruments have come and gone. In its current four-piece incarnation, Brokeback is a beat combo with a fairly live sound, and McCombs plays electric and baritone guitar. But if the string tone has changed, the intent to instrumentally evoke spaces and places remains. The guitars twang enough to get you thinking of Calexico or Duane Eddy, but the tunes are named for places in rural Illinois, which makes plenty of sense when you consider that flat cornfield views and desert vistas give you equally unimpeded views of the wide-open road and the empty land around it.