Is it selfish to wish misery upon Harlan T. Bobo? Because clearly, that’s when the Memphis troubadour’s best music gets made. Brandishing a creaky acoustic guitar and a broken baritone on his 2005 debut Too Much Love, Bobo turned his own hellish agony into high art. The intoxicating country-noir album lamented a lost love—namely, ex-wife Yvonne—with a weary-eyed vibe that evoked Joe Cocker and Nick Cave shooting the shit at midnight over tumblers and weed. Now Bobo is back with this similarly themed follow-up, and like the embattled relationships that still populate his songs, it’s hot and heavy at the beginning and end while souring somewhat in the middle. I’m Your Man boasts the same blend of unhinged, up-tempo rockers and genuinely affecting ballads. But with Bobo seeming more third-party documentarian than dejected protagonist, it’s sad to say the stakes here don’t feel as high. (The bland trio of “Tick Tock,” “Pragmatic Woman” and “So Bad,” a bloated midsection of colorless waltzes, doesn’t help.) I’m Your Man regains its footing before the finish, though. “One Of These Days,” a half-lovely/half-spooky late bloomer, reverts to old, resentful ways; “You’re gonna pay for killing our romance,” Bobo groans slowly. It’s good news for people who love bad news for Bobo. [www.goner-records.com]
—Noah Bonaparte Pais
After 11 years fronting Swedish popsters the Concretes, Victoria Bergsman has pared everything down to allow her delicate, charmingly accented voice to stand on its own. Her solo pursuit is named for her fascination with all things coniferous and deciduous, and Open Field has the same ethereal, quietly beautiful quality as a wintry forest wonderland. Bergsman’s voice is enchanting: lightly dancing and uplifting at times (“Lost And Found”), melancholic and wandering at others (“Tell Me”). Think Audrey Hepburn’s rendition of “Moon River” in Breakfast At Tiffany’s or Camera Obscura’s Tracyanne Campbell if she was sent off to contemplate cedar trees and grassy plains. But really, Bergsman’s voice is like no other. True to their organic conception, the songs were built from the vocal melody up, and instrumentation was added only when absolutely necessary. Providing the lightly swelling, drifting score are fellow Swedes Bjorn Yttling (strings) and John Eriksson (percussion) of Peter Bjorn And John, a collaboration that occurred following Bergsman’s appearance on their ubiquitous “Young Folks.” The result is serene, breathtaking and transportive. Whether she’s singing about love, loss or solitude, it’s all filtered through a kaleidoscope of natural, haiku-like simplicity. Stark but not empty, Open Field could induce you to take a secluded stroll through the woods. [www.roughtraderecords.com]
Every spook-rock kid worth his superstitious salt should unearth the first three albums from Leonard Cohen, the veritable grandfather of goth. It’s hard to believe it’s been 40 years since this Canadian poet/novelist began setting his Baudelairean rhymes to music with The Songs Of Leonard Cohen. It’s even more difficult to fathom the bass-dramatic depths to which his once-angelic voice would sink in later years, almost as if he were crooning from the musty catacombs. But the tentative, almost boyish softness of Cohen’s first folksinging forays only underscores his grim lyrics.
Decadence is part of the secret allure of Cohen, whose 1967 debut is easily the most enduring effort of the triumvirate. When he murmurs odes to “Suzanne” and “Winter Lady,” then counters his “So Long, Marianne” with the rejoinder “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye,” you get the impression that this smooth-talking guy has loved and left more exotic women than Casanova. Dig deeper, and the religious issues with which he has eternally wrestled begin to surface. Delve deeper still, and an urban, almost-beatnik edginess appears, as on “Stories Of The Street”: “I lean from my window sill in this old hotel I chose/One hand on my suicide, one hand on the rose.”
Cohen’s schematics are always startling; some songs follow a verse/chorus pattern, a la the classic “Bird On A Wire” (from 1969’s Room), but many just tumble by in a Thurber-ish stream of consciousness. Cohen makes it sound school-room simple, although he would later admit to struggling for a full year to perfect just one track. As he wends his way through these three albums, you can feel his skies clouding over, his outlook dimming, that lilting voice sinking into its eventual 1,000-cigarette quagmire, dragging the listener right down into the hallowed haze along with him. Bonus Material: Room adds a bass-heavy version of “Bird” and a reworked “You Know Who I Am” titled “Nothing To One”; Love And Hate features an early take of “Dress Rehearsal Rag”; and Leonard Cohen boasts the most intriguing outtakes (the loping “Store Room” and an organ-buttressed “Blessed Is The Memory”). [www.legacyrecordings.com]
Most commonly associated with suggestively attired classical crossover artists and that tall dude from Dave Matthews Band, the electric violin doesn’t have the hippest of reputations. But add a host of mysterious effects pedals and high-profile guests Nels Cline, Mike Watt, Tim Rutili (Califone) and Tom Waits’ rhythm section, and Chris Murphy is clearly looking to redefine expectations for his instrument. You might be expecting a collection of moody, avant-garde instrumentals, but instead Murphy fills Luminous with song-oriented blues, folk and world-music structures. When taken with the violinist’s considerable bag of tricks, the results are frequently remarkable. Anchored by Watt’s big-bottomed thump, “Blues For Bukowski” gives Murphy’s sandpapered strings plenty of room to cut a menacing figure. Despite the presence of Cline (who contributes tastefully unobtrusive overdubs) on the title track, it’s Murphy who sounds most like a guitar hero, courtesy of some unholy blend of electronics and savvy bow work. But for all its sawblade-styled growl and occasional delicate textures, Luminous spreads itself too thin at 76 minutes, at times lapsing into a prosaic lyricism that leaves some songs better suited for background music. Whether best remedied through more dissonant explorations or even some lyrics, a little more darkness here would’ve been welcome. [www.kufala.com]