In 1997, Paris-based multi-instrumentalist Naim Amor moved to Tucson, Ariz., where he quickly found his way inside the orbit of Giant Sand and Friends Of Dean Martinez. Soon enough, he formed a band with FODM/Calexico’s Joey Burns and John Convertino, and even though their debut failed to take off, the collaboration has kept going, one way or another. On The Western Suite And Siesta Songs, Amor (Arizona) and Convertino (Ohio) are writing and recording separately, completing the tracks long-distance, and somehow making these 12 pieces work as a cohesive whole.
The flavor is spaghetti-Southwestern, with an occasional touch of Left Bank accordion. The playing—on delicately layered guitars, keyboards and percussion—is beautifully sympathetic, and the feeling as languorous as a long, straight line of asphalt baking under the desert sun, the heat rising in waves to conjure memories of roads not taken.
Since the dissolution of indie-pop darlings the Anniversary in 2004, Josh Berwanger has recorded two roots-rock records with the Only Children and a solo album in 2013. His newest eponymously named band finds the Kansas native as a skilled purveyor of breezy guitar pop—which is to say, aside from revving the tempos and cranking the amps, Exorcism Rock is not a drastic departure from Berwanger’s solo LP.
As always, the man knows how to bait a hook, although in the lyrical department, he’s no Dylan. Case in point, “Rats & Cats” will make you want to break into dance like the Christmas episode Peanuts gang, but the chorus “Girl, I want you so bad” earns zero points for originality. Later, Berwanger delivers an entire song called “I Want You Bad.” Let’s hope she finally returns his calls so the man can move on to weightier sentiments.
It’s long past the band’s supposed feud with Portland’s Dandy Warhols. (Although how great is it that the opening track on this record is called “Good Mourning,” à la the Dandys circa 1997, sounding nothing like them whatsoever?) In fact, it’s Brian Jonestown Massacre’s 15th full-length release, an almost incomprehensible fact when you consider how consistently fine its output has been over two decades. And the band is absolutely none the worse for wear.
Leader Anton Newcombe lives and works in Berlin these days, and Third World Pyramid, like its recent predecessors, is yet another gorgeous, quasi-psychedelic slice of the band’s kaleidoscope-eyes popcraft, with Newcombe and longtime associates Ricky Maymi, Joel Gion, Collin Hegna, Dan Allaire and some new faces (Emil Nikolaisen of Norway’s Serena-Maneesh, Tess Parks and Katy Lane) bringing to near 20 the number of folks past and present who’ve comprised the BJM at any point in time. This matters not a jot—Newcombe’s beautifully woolly creation has always been his baby, and jams such as “Like Describing Colors To A Blind Man On Acid” are the perfect representation of what these guys have always majored in: setting a hall of mirrors on fire, then playing while it burns.
From rebellious 2005 breakout hit “Kerosene” to the deliciously cocky title track of 2014’s Platinum, Miranda Lambert has long presented herself as a spitfire: brash, outspoken, unapologetic and usually packing the blistering guitars to match. The picture painted by her hefty, sweeping sixth album, however, is something else entirely. This is, by and large, an introspective affair—lyrically if not always musically—that finds the songwriter taking a hard look at her life (including those well-documented wild-living impulses), emerging seemingly wiser but a good deal less self-assured.
Or at least, about half of it is. As with most double albums, there’s a tendency to want to cherry-pick and whittle down the tracklist to a more potent and digestible form. But it’s especially tempting in this case, given that roughly 50 percent of these two dozen songs come across as deeply felt, personal, nuanced and truthful without being overly confessional, whereas most of the remainder—including, notably, the four songs not written or co-written by Lambert—tend toward formula and cliché (the cutesy-dopey “For The Birds,” blandly anthemic “Keeper Of The Flame”), stock situations and stereotypes (grossly regressive empowerment-attempt “Tomboy”) and/or hokey, pandering country-fantasy tropes (are-you-serious throwback fluff “Covered Wagon.”)
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with these songs, per se (well, “Pink Sunglasses” is pretty insufferable)—they just seem like they belong to an entirely different album from the poignant and tremulous “Use My Heart,” deftly sketched, bleary-eyed self-appraisal “Vice,” the witty, winking self-portrait-by-proxy “We Should Be Friends” or even the deceptively jaunty “Ugly Lights” (an AA testimonial in all but name). If the first decade of Lambert’s career was an exuberantly reckless, hell-raising party, Weight is the inexorable comedown: a graceful and timely maturation that might just take a little editing to come through clearly.
—K. Ross Hoffman
As it happens, there are many pop-savvier moves than opening your first solo-project album in seven years with a nine-minute meditation on a single, hypnotic organ chord while heartbrokenly repeating “I miss you” no fewer than 33 times. But there are probably none that are more Hope Sandoval. By now, whether fronting Mazzy Star, her Warm Inventions project or guesting on a particularly downcast Massive Attack or Psychic Ills track, you know what you’re getting from the Los Angeles chanteuse: an overflowing cup of hushed, sultry melancholy, which perfectly describes Until The Hunter, her third release with My Bloody Valentine’s Colm Ó Cíosóig as the Warm Inventions.
But it’s not all songs in the key of sad; “Let Me Get There” is a beautiful little bit of loping ’70s radio pop created in collaboration with Kurt Vile, “Treasure” invents a new codeine-country subgenre, and “Liquid Lady” weaves its black-magic woman-y vibe in a manner not entirely dissimilar from Janis’ finest moments with Big Brother (if sung at a totally different octave). It’s not all successful—I could do without Ren Faire sung/spoken-word tropes like “A Wonderful Seed” again—but as mood music for a particularly rainy series of months, it’s a perfectly bummed-out comedown.
Word is Peter Doherty, one-time headline-grabbing Libertines and Babyshambles head who taught Britain’s oughties youth the joys of electric guitars, natty suits and trilbies, had long desired recording in Hamburg for its associations with the Beatles’ legend. Interesting, then, his second solo disc having more to do with “Eleanor Rigby” and post-moptops-and-collarless-suits finery than with greasy quiffs, leather jackets and sweaty amphetamine-stoked versions of “Hippy Hippy Shake.”
Mind you, Doherty’s always been as comfortable with acoustic troubadour excursions as with shambolic garage punk. The acoustic guitar, in fact, seems closer to his heart. Hence, on music-hall-flavored post-Paris-attacks lament “Hell To Pay At The Gates Of Heaven,” the now-30-something narcotized dandy taunts modern 20-somethings, “C’mon, boys: Choose your weapon/J-45 or AK-47.” (The Gibson J-45 was John Lennon’s acoustic of choice.) Elsewhere, he mourns former soulmate Amy Winehouse on “Flags Of The Old Regime,” references both Graham Greene (“Kolly Kibber,” named for the newspaper man whose murder ignites Brighton Rock) and Anais Nin (“A Spy In The House Of Love”) and further sails the good ship Albion to Arcadia while only once directly referring to his life’s mission in the lyrics to “Oily Boker.”
Hearing how Doherty appeared in Hamburg following the most recent Libertines dates promoting last year’s Anthems For Doomed Youth comeback record and materialized at Clouds Hill Recordings unannounced after inquiring about a suitable studio, it’s obvious he still values spontaneity. Yet Hamburg Demonstrations is the most carefully produced and executed music of his career.
There could’ve been no greater, sadder or blunter advertisement for Leonard Cohen’s final album than what he told The New Yorker back in October: “I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.” Louder than say, David Bowie, who kept his end quiet save for the lyrical contents of his last record, Cohen here talks the talk of being at death’s door from the outset. “I’m ready my Lord,” he fireside chats through the hum of a church organ on the album’s titular opener, a song whose pace is reminiscent of his classic “First, We Take Manhattan.” During the country lilt of “Leaving The Table,” with its f-hole guitar twang worthy of Gene Pitney, Cohen sing-stings about a life where he’s out of the game: “I don’t even know the people in your picture frame.”
Yet, the poet (pop’s best, apologies to the recent Nobel Prize winner for literature) most possessed of gravel and silt for a voice, and a gypsy in his heart, wasn’t quite so ready—in song, at least—to throw in all his towels. Through the dark, Cohen smartly questions everything from the prickly possibilities of future romance (a nearly pastoral “Treaty” and its secular screed “between your love and mine”) to, quite possibly, the sacred Zen Buddhist religion where he once solidly and stoically placed his faith. From the violin-and-Gyuto monk intro of “It Seemed A Better Way” to Cohen’s whispered searing line, “It sounded like the truth, but it’s not the truth today,” this tower of song seems ready for Biblical justice. With that, Cohen’s au revoir kiss off through the blue bouncing electric piano of “Traveling Light” (the song with its singer crooning at his heartiest) could be to a woman, a god or life itself. The same is true of the chamber-stringed hootenanny of “Steer Your Way” where Cohen drives past the “fables of creation and the fall” to what becomes his final mea culpa. To paraphrase one of Cohen’s best, that’s no way to say goodbye. But, then, well, safe travels, Mr. Cohen.
Dismiss New Zealand’s Crowded House as a mere politely polished ’80s relic at your own peril. Sure, frontman/songwriter Neil Finn can knock out winsome McCartney-esque pop like nobody’s business, but he’s every bit as idiosyncratic a ’60s-influenced songwriter as Robyn Hitchcock or XTC’s Andy Partridge. Finn sinks his melodic hooks in deeply and lyrically; he’s often ruminative and even death-obsessed.
So this reissue series with deluxe packaging and extra CDs of bonus tracks is well overdue. The 1986 self-titled album contains their only U.S. hits (“Don’t Dream It’s Over” and “Something So Strong”) amid occasionally overbearing production touches. 1988’s Temple Of Low Men puts more focus on Finn’s brooding side, while 1991’s Woodface adds older brother Tim Finn to the lineup and emphasizes their fraternal vocal blend. 1993’s Together Alone is Crowded House’s finest album, with textured production and eclectic arrangements spotlighting the mysteries in songs like “In My Command,” “Nails In My Feet” and “Distant Sun.”
The band broke up a few years later (1999’s Afterglow is a pleasant if inessential collection of outtakes), but it reformed after the 2005 suicide of drummer Paul Hester. 2007’s Time On Earth is an especially somber reunion album, which largely plays to Finn’s strengths. But 2010’s Intriguer is a curiously bland and inert affair.
The copious demos and live versions that fill out these reissues are probably for fans only. Nevertheless, they give plenty of insight into both Finn’s craft and the band’s Hard Day’s Night-like sense of humor.
Last year, the Sword issued High Country, its fifth album of ’70s-inspired, five-o’clock-shadow stoner metal. After nine solid months of touring said record, the subsequent and inevitable ear ringing led the band’s members to wanting to tone it down a smidge without going all sappy and syrupy like Zakk Wylde when he steps away from Black Label Society. So, electrics were swapped out for acoustics, and High Country was arranged for a fireside strum-fest. The moments where added bongos/hand drums, backing vocals, percussion and effects (title track, “Mist & Shadow”) and especially the gospel/R&B edge provided by horns on “Early Snow” demonstrate an understanding that simply playing the songs acoustically is the easy way out while making up for the subtraction of their customary swagger and boogie. In spite of these alterations, however, Low Country’s appeal will definitely be mostly embraced by those already familiar with the tunes in their original guise.
Per its title, The Deaner Album is a chummy, accessible record, its occasional forays into lyrical wigginess leavened by straight-up arrangements and song structures. Mickey Melchiondo’s first record as titular frontman is a wild assortment of styles and forms, from Southern prog rock (“Dickie Betts”) to country (“Tammy”) to metal (several) to funk. It’ll be no surprise to longtime fans that the quality of the guitar playing is first-rate—the album-closing cover of Funkadelic’s “The Doo Doo Chasers” is a particularly virtuosic moment. But the record’s original compositions are eminently rewarding on their own terms. As Ween so often did, Melchiondo wraps some of the best, wittiest elements of the music inside the most insistently lunkheaded ones: “Bundle Of Joy” or “Charlie Brown,” laddish as they sound at first pass, contain lyrical turns and melodic syncopation that’ll crack you up when you catch them. Worth a listen, for Ween fans and armchair guitar heroes alike.