June 11, 2008

Music Reviews

Evil Urges

My Morning Jacket

(ATO)

<funked-up higher plane>

Exploiting the elasticity of music? Alluding to the circle of life? You could go crazy digging into reasons that MMJ was so determined to dick around with musical styles after their big live album. The more important question is how in the hell they did it so well. Mostly comprising short songs (this is light years away from It Still Moves), the album holds together beautifully. Tracks build upon or play off each other — and not just obvious cases like the wistful “Librarian” galvanizing into the hopeful “Look at You,” then exploding into the cautionary rocker “Aluminum Park.”

It hasn’t been so long since MMJ was lumped in with the jamband community, but you can’t reconcile that categorization with the minute attention (such as the drop-offs that double-up the yearning of both “Librarian” and “Touch Me, I’m Going to Scream, Part 1”). Faithful hometown listeners may have had some idea they could issue work like this: contemplative but still open-ended, with funk/disco-beats sidling up next to fuzzy explosions.

But it’s a leap to hear “Highly Suspicious,” a three-minute blast that splashes its Prince worship like a barely-controlled cannonball dive. James is in falsetto, the other members responding with hilarious character. As a follow-up to keep traditionalists clued in, “I’m Amazed” is the most conventional MMJ song here, with a classic light guitar tagline and some anthemic incredulity. Then it’s over to “Thank You Too” — and they’re successfully updating a very conventional Philly soul sound. And what to make of “Two Halves”? The lyric’s textbook-perfect as pop-song philosophy-lite — but oh, that arrangement! Riff transcribed from Badfinger, and the backing vocals a little like … The Four Seasons?

Right from Patrick Hallahan’s commanding snap to attention, the title track is a great statement of purpose about facing up to parts of yourself that aren’t serving a higher purpose. So, when Jim James sings, I made a nasty decision, is he recounting the moment when he knew where the band was going?

Surprise, Jim: A disc like this has gotta be serving for the good of anyone with ears. —T.E. Lyons


Diamond Hoo Ha

Supergrass

(ASTRALWERKS)

<hoodie-hoo>

OK, first there’s the title. I don’t want to say “hoo ha” in front of my mother, even though she has one. It’s certainly not something that 30-something men who wear suits should be sporting on their business cards.

Next, there’s the cover photo. I mean, just look at this: Supergrass look like Hanson, for goodness’ sake, and I don’t mean Hanson today, I mean, that’s right, “Mmm Bop”-era Hanson. By all rights, this record should be called Diamond Airbrushing. These guys now look like creatures that that interchangeable Kate Hudson/Kate Moss/Liv Tyler monster would sleep with.

So why is it actually a good record?

I shouldn’t be too surprised — Supergrass has always been a decent Britpop band. And poppy they remain, more Blur than T. Rex, but they still retain their dignity, even while making a damn fine pop album that wouldn’t sound out of place in the background in an episode of “I Got Crabs with Tila Tequila” or some such MTV hit.

While they’re no Radiohead, they even manage to throw in a somewhat avante garde horn in “The Return of …” and an entire circus groove in “Whiskey & Green Tea” that made my morning. I think one of the songs was about war being bad and even referenced Dylan, but that’s why one shouldn’t listen too closely to pop lyrics. Everybody cut footloose. —Peter Berkowitz


Songs in A&E

Spiritualized

(SANCTUARY)

<post-traumatic lullabies>

Jason (J. Spaceman) Pierce has led his band into some classic progressive-shoegazer-stoner-folkrock.

But unless that precise subgenre is your perfect cuppa, it’s been easy to pass over everything since 1997’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. Not that Spiritualized has been spiraling downward in terminal repetition, exactly. But the band subsequently seemed preoccupied with tweaking its orchestration until now, and Spaceman’s back from his own terminal downward spiral (featuring double pneumonia).

Some of the new songs were hammered out during a rousing acoustic tour featuring a small gospel chorus. Several gentle interludes share the title “Harmony,” which is the name of a film director who helped the recovering Spaceman by asking for a score for her indie film (the recent “Mr. Lonely”).

Think these oddities and coincidences are too cute-weird? Deal with it. Spiritualized now tunefully delivers like a roughened middle ground between Karl (World Party) Wallinger and Glen (Frames, the “Once” movie) Hansard. And check out “Death Take Your Fiddle,” where Spacemen ambivalently takes account of his feelings from intensive care, breathing through machines. —T.E. Lyons


Loverly

Cassandra Wilson

(BLUE NOTE)

<singer X 2>

One thing Cassandra Wilson can do is sing the shit out of a song. She has the unique ability to take a standard that is dangerously close to wearing out its welcome (“Caravan” or “St. James Infirmary” to name but two) and make it sound like something more than the musical equivalent of “The Thing That Wouldn’t Leave.”

Her band is tight and polite. They swing when they need to and deferentially allow Wilson’s superb, seductive voice to do what it does best. “Dust My Broom” is a big winner. She’s got that Robert Johnson thing down pat. It’s not as hot as her rendition of “Come On In My Kitchen,” from 1993’s Blue Light ’Till Dawn, but then again, precious little is.

“Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” one of my longtime favorite chestnuts anyway, is the charmer of the disc. My only complaint is that the “Caravan” is the Ellington tune, not the Van Morrison song. I really wanted to hear her sing the “La La La’s.” —Michael Steiger


Big Drop

George Stanford

(MERCURY)

<dropout>

When I first laid eyes on George Stanford’s album cover, his neatly trimmed five o’clock shadow and his dreamy, pensive gaze caught my eye. I thought, “Oh George, you look so dark and mysterious, and I bet your music is exotic and romantic. Serenade me, darling. Let’s see what you’ve got.”

By the end of the first few tracks, I was anything but wooed.

The Americana pop album Big Drop is an 11-track collection of noncreative lyrics, sloppy chords and a voice that doesn’t match the face. The songs are semi-catchy but absolutely nothing you haven’t heard a few too many times. 

The album opens with a track appropriately titled “My Own Worst Enemy,” about some bitch who just isn’t putting out anymore and even his friends are telling him to break it off, but oh dear, he just cannot seem to let go. The chorus goes something like this:

My own, my own worst enemy-eeee/I can't get enough when you sing to me-eeee/The people wouldn't understa-aaaaand/I'll never be an independent ma-aaaaaan.

He loves dragging out the last word in each line. In fact, he does so at least once on nearly every track. 

George Stanford grew up in Pennsylvania and began his music career as a trombone player, later learning bass, guitar and piano. He attended the University of Arts in Philadelphia briefly, but then decided that college just wasn’t for him, and began schooling himself by playing shows, first with a band called Townhall and now, solo.

I guess he is pretty cute, though, and sometimes, one needs a pop music guilty pleasure. Not so sure about the pleasure part, though. —Jane Mattingly


Learning to Bend

Ben Sollee

(SELF-RELEASED)

<stomper>

Louisville’s own cello-toting troubadour, Ben Sollee, has finally arrived with his melancholy debut Learning to Bend. Throughout these 11 tracks he delineates himself from the herd by showcasing a firm foundation in classical and bluegrass music, while tossing in the sorrowful lament of some of Motown’s best soul singers.

“A Few Honest Words” is a few honest moments of lucidity, as a jaded young man searches for truth in an increasingly dishonest world. And Sollee’s reworking of the Sam Cooke classic “A Change Is Gonna Come” feels like a stroke of brilliance that should have seemed all but obvious by now. He gently changes it from a beautiful Civil Rights anthem to a narrative about brave soldiers serving in a cowardly war. However, amid the tension that accompanies the more palpable tracks, it’s hard to ignore that Sollee also has a fun side, especially with the stomping, rousing good time on the vehicular ode, “Bury Me with My Car.”

Sollee’s cello and Bela Fleck’s banjo are fine flourishes to the sparse but effective arrangements, while his despondent voice makes it all too clear that he is the loneliest boy in the room. —Brent Owen