Friday, October 23, 2009

OOIOO - Armonico Hewa

What if you could open your mouth and instead of words in a sentence all the sounds of modern life would come pouring out in a torrent of brilliant ideas? It would sound like OOIOO. This all female band from Japan has gone about making one astounding record after another for the last decade or so, and Armonico Hewa is no exception. Led by former Boredoms drummer Yoshimi (P-We) it is almost impossible to describe OOIOO’s music. It is largely based on improvisation, but always maintains a consistent groove or feel that gives the songs consistency. It is not chaos, in fact it is often quite beautiful. The only way to describe it is to compare it to other bands. It is equal parts trance drum guitar workouts similar to Can, squealy/skronky sound collages like early Sonic Youth and ultra modern Japano-syntho sheen like Cornelius, with a little of Yoko Ono’s understanding of the Avant Garde thrown in for good measure. Of course it doesn’t really resemble any of these, because it is its own unique flower. If you like modern music that challenges your expectations yet consistently rewards with unforgettably melodic experimentation, you owe yourself a visit to the rare world of OOIOO.

--Paul Epstein

Leonard Cohen - At The Isle Of Wight 1970

This past year has seen Mr. Cohen return to the stage after a long absence in order to heal the financial wounds caused by an unscrupulous manager, and caused a minor sensation by proving himself not only the consummate songwriter we fans have always known him to be, but also showing that he is one of the great performers left of his generation. A more unlikely rock star there has never been. Cohen is a poet as much as a singer/songwriter, and his shows are always peppered with spoken word interludes. His manner of addressing the audience is also an act of poetry; he is calming, thought provoking and unforgettable - a true gentleman. This release, which contains both the entire concert on CD and a DVD documentary of the event by filmmaker Murray Lerner, is like manna from heaven for Cohen fans - really. The audio portion is exciting to have; it is a concert of Cohen in his prime, focusing largely on his first two albums with a hand-selected band that is just perfect for the occasion. Acoustic guitars, soft keyboards, female backing vocals and Charlie Daniels (yes, that Charlie Daniels) on bass and fiddle supplying beautifully sympathetic backing to Cohen’s somber yet expressive intoning. The real treasure here is the DVD however. Director Murray Lerner is now responsible for four of the best movies about the classic era of rock (Festival, The Who At The Isle of Wight, Message To Love and now this Leonard Cohen film). He seems to have had a knack for being at the right place and capturing the underlying emotional subtext of events. For instance, in Festival, he really gets to the core of the controversy about Dylan going electric, and there exists no better footage of The Who in their prime than that in Lerner’s movie.

In the Cohen film, the back-story is that the festival itself was something of a battleground. Throughout the five days of the festival a large portion of the 600,000 people present were crashing gates, protesting “the man,” booing artists off stage, starting fires, and generally making an English spectacle of themselves. There are interviews included with Kris Kristofferson (who was booed off stage) and Joan Baez, who discuss what a bummer the proceedings were. This is all in contrast to the miracle that was Leonard Cohen’s set. Coming on stage at 4 a.m. on the final night he literally mesmerized the audience with his hypnotic, beatific presence and beautiful music. Watching him work his magic over this toughest of audiences is really quite extraordinary. It is truly through the power of his personality and the greatness of his art that he wins them over. It was the only point in the weekend where the crowd actually shut up and appreciated the music. This film is an essential piece of the puzzle to both understanding the mixed bag that was the festival scene in the late 60’s and early 70’s, but also it offers some of the most compelling evidence of Leonard Cohen’s lasting greatness.

--Paul Epstein

Me'Shell Ndegeocello at Boulder Theater

Meshell Ndegeocello played to an eager crowd at the Boulder Theater on October 21st. This beautiful old school venue bustled as the openers Sonneblume rocked out. Sonneblume is a local band that provided a good contrast to the bass-playing diva; they rocked pretty heavy with a lot of distorted electric guitar flourishes. But they did share a common thread in that the lead vocalist was also a female bass player. Ndegeocello’s set was a serious hit to the senses. Her band was comprised of some serious players that are all on her latest album Devil’s Halo. The new album ventures forth, just like her music always does, into new planes and new dimensions. Ndegeocello is known as one of the all time top R&B bass players (of either gender), an experimental pioneer mixing genres to always create something new. But there has been little mainstream acknowledgment of the super creative spirit who lies behind the music. With Devil’s Halo she has branched into some extremely straightforward rock/pop territory but her sensual soul tendencies are all still as vibrant as ever. The album contains heavy lyrics that give you goose bumps like “I hope you all die young,” but within her songs and within the serious vibe you get a transcendent feeling through the truth that she lays down. Don’t let this album or this artist pass you by.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Let Your Freak Flag Fly

These guys are on my wife's list. You know, that list married couples have of theoretical celebrity get-out-of-jail-free one night stands? All married couples have these lists and I'm pretty sure Bret and Jemaine are on my wife's list. Obviously she likes pale nerdy foreign guys because after all, she married me. Actually these boys are so adorable they might be on my list too right in between Jenny Agutter and Naomi Watts. I digress.

We all fell in love with Flight of the Conchords when their (probably award winning) programme (sic) appeared on HBO. The show and accompanying songs were charming, quirky and of course, very funny. They were also very musically savvy, with spot-on homages/parodies of French pop, Marvin Gaye, Kraftwerk and white boy rap in general, taking things to another level. They were intoxicating. And now, they're back with more.

The soundtrack to season 2 is called I Told You I Was Freaky and really, this is more of the same from the lads. We aren't treated to a Plastic Ono Band-esque peeling of the onion here but a continuation of the vulnerable, lovable, side-splitting stuff from season 1. But isn't that what we wanted?

FOTC are at their best when they are in faux-seduction mode (like “Ladies of the World” from season 1), and here we have several romantic beauties - “We're Both in Love With a Sexy Lady," "You Don't Have to Be a Prostitute" and the fab title track. Probable Pet Shop Boys take-off “Fashion Is Danger” is a winner and I'm fairly sure that "Sugalumps" is about nuts. My “jam” (sic) on the set is "Too Many Dicks (On the Dance Floor)," a close-to-genius ode to poor male/female ratio in the clubs. Gorgeous.

Overall, this is another terrific album which you need to own if you're a fan. If you're not a fan, then watch the show (it's on DVD), become a fan and then buy the album. Seriously, these guys are the best thing out there since they canceled Yacht Rock on channel 101.

--Ben Sumner

Friday, October 16, 2009

Bob Dylan-Christmas In The Heart

This was initially a difficult review for me. Every prejudice, preconceived notion and bad feeling about the commercialism of Christmas and the patent absurdity of Dylan doing a Christmas album prevented me from thinking about it clearly. Now, after listening to it three or four times I’m starting to have an inkling about what the man is up to. Similar to the albums of traditional folksongs he has done (“Good As I Been To You” and “World Gone Wrong”) he has embraced the genre of Christmas songs as the folkloric Americana that they are. When he put out versions of songs like “Froggy Went-a Courtin” I had to question why the greatest songwriter of his generation felt compelled to do such a thing. After living with it for a while, and living with the all-encompassing rootsiness of his last few albums, and reading his illuminating autobiography, I began to understand that all the things that influenced him were equal in his mind. All the things that have made him who he is are of similar weightiness in his appreciation of what makes up his own art. I have certainly noticed this with my own taste. Things from my childhood are given the same value in my heart (if not my head). For instance, I have children’s albums that I adore with the same fervor as I do The Beatles first albums because to my untrained palette they were equal-it was all just songs I liked to sing. No understanding of production value, or poetic intent or any of that shit -- just B.I.N.G.O. and bingo was his name-o.

Now, I am not suggesting that Dylan has no critical faculties left, and that all songs are the same to him. I am suggesting that he has made the intellectual decision that Christmas music is part of the American experience, and was part of his experience growing up and well, why not? With that said, how is it? It’s pretty interesting. Similar to his last few albums, Dylan has blurred the lines between corny nostalgia and humble reverence. He certainly gets that these songs (“Here Comes Santa Claus,” Winter Wonderland” “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” etc.) are as hackneyed as a Lawrence Welk TV special, but they also have a sincere resonance for most Americans who are honest with themselves. If “I'll Be Home For Christmas” doesn’t choke you up at some level, you might want to check your pulse. If not for the sentimentality expressed in the lyrics and melody, than for the realization that our own lives never have and never will resemble the homespun edifice that our society has built up around the idea of Christmas. Suicides increase around Christmas every year because the thing we really have in common on that day is that our lives are not what the songs say they should be. So, whether you are a Christmas true-believer, or a sad Christmas non-believer, the stuff of the holiday-songs, images, foods, family gatherings-are a real part of all of our emotional lives. Dylan’s take on it is to embrace the sounds of his own experience and the result is a production and performance style that sounds like a lost session of the “Firestone Presents Family Christmas Songs” series that so many Americans are familiar with. Until he opens his mouth that is: and then it is the raunchin’ phlegmy wheeze we know as Dylan’s modern voice. There is a moment of disbelief, then hilarity, then a little more hilarity, and then it settles in to a kind of hallucinogenic mash-up of old world sounds and other-worldly vocalizations. It is almost like listening to a Salvation Army band playing down the block, but right below your window is some toothless geezer singing along with them. They float up together like so many wisps of smoke to your window and then, in spite of the incongruities and just plain weirdness of it all, you find yourself transported to some sacred, private place where you are alone with your hopes and failures-all on Christmas morning. Christmas In The Heart is a strange, complicated, piece of the Dylan canon. It is hard to fully grasp what he is doing, but the feeling it leaves you with ultimately is bittersweet poignance.
Paul Epstein

Friday, October 9, 2009

Paperbird - Live at Twist and Shout

Is it the bad state of our economy that has brought about the resurgence of depression era music? Perhaps we have all needed a little blues, mixed with gospel to express the hardships of our own times. Paperbird performed for the second time at Twist and Shout on June 26th 2009. This local band has made a quick rise to national recognition with the pleasant sounds of an old folk band from the 40’s. Three wonderful female voices singing with a warm honey harmony make this band soft and sweet. The lilting banjo, accompanied by trombone with wild spurts of harmonica, give this band a distinctive sound. They will make you feel giddy with all of the wonderful raw energy. You get the feeling for the performance in our large space filled with lots of adoring fans. Many of these beautiful songs have a sad bluesy undertone, like many old folk tunes. These young people have old souls and make you feel like you are listening to sounds captured on a gramophone. You can hear the jovial mood as they tell jokes and play favorites like “Blue Sparks”. Playing all the right chords with the perfect amount of tension building each song makes your heart flutter just a little. I think this will be known as a local masterpiece because it has all the auditory delights of a good recording. Recorded at our store by our friends at the Helmet Room and mixed at Absinthe Studios it gave this live performance a clean and crisp sound. With a patchwork cover done by Esme Patterson herself it adds that personal charm that just encapsulates what Paperbird is all about.

Gov’t Mule - By A Thread (Released October 27th)

Warren Haynes' place in modern music is secure through the prodigious and tasteful hired-gun services he has offered The Allman Brothers Band and The Dead as well as his own substantial body of work as the leader of Gov’t Mule and as a solo artist. His pedigree as a live guitar hero and soulful singer of rare ability are only brought into question when one considers his history of less than satisfying albums. Most of his albums have fallen short either by failing to capture the fire of his live performance, or by being over-produced and not sounding like the real Warren. By A Thread remedies this problem when Haynes brings to the table the strongest, ballsiest album of guitar-driven blues-rock of his career. Beginning with the contribution of new bass player Jorgen Carlsson, the music is propelled by a fat, meaty tone, and the heaviest bottom end since the days when original bass player Allen Woody shook the plaster off every ceiling of every club across the country. The band performs like fist in glove throughout, but, as always, the real star of the show is Warren’s impeccable guitar soloing and honey and ash voice. On the first track, “Broke Down On The Brazos” he leads a guitar duet with ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons that will immediately make you prick up your ears. Following is “Steppin’ Lightly” which ends with some truly great soloing. Next up is the traditional “Railroad Boy” which he takes into the stratosphere with a boiling arrangement that showcases keyboard player Danny Louis and drumming powerhouse Matt Abts’ supreme chops. Each selection shows great care in both the arranging and execution as the Mule offers up the strongest album of their career. Every song is a killer, with the highlight possibly being the mid-album barn-burner “Any Open Window” which sounds like a classic track from some long lost Led Zeppelin album and features Warren playing the shit out of that sunburst guitar. It will make you stand up and cheer. In fact this entire album will make you rejoice that Gov’t Mule has finally produced the album that should solidify their reputation as one of the best bands out there today.
Paul Epstein

Richmond Fontaine-plays We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River-14 songs written around and about the Pacific Northwest

Aside from having the longest title in the history of popular music, the title also gives you some early warning about how poetic this group is. Each of their songs is like the great American novel in five minutes or less. Poignant, knowing details mix with an ineffable eye for the realities of the human heart-so hard to describe, but when done correctly, they stay with you forever. Musically they mix Wilco’s strong delivery and dead-on sense of melody and Calexico’s exotic take on modern rock through a prism of country tradition (thanks in large part to Paul Brainard’s evocative pedal steel and trumpet work.) The overall theme of the album is loss, lonliness and yearning for an unsure past-best expressed in the title track which describes beautifully how things that were once comforting can become emotionally empty with the events of one night. This is an album (and a band) that will stay with you long after you’ve counted the millionth sheep on some sleepless night.
Paul Epstein

Kris Kristofferson - Closer To The Bone

Kris Kristofferson occupies a completely unique place in popular music. He wrote classics (“Sunday Morning Comin’ Down” and Me and Bobby Mcgee” to name just two big examples), he has made several great albums (The Silver Tongued Devil and I is one fine example) and he has squandered the love of his fans by not making albums at all, or by making crappy movies. A couple of years ago, he seemed to wake up to this fact, and started to produce good music again. His new album is the most substantive release he has unleashed in years, playing on all his strengths as a poet, a cultural icon and a singer of rare emotion. Like Johnny Cash or Tom Waits, Kristofferson’s voice is an acquired taste; rough, shaky and just barely hanging on to the tune. That said, once you have made the leap and embraced that craggy piece of driftwood, it is a Mount Rushmore type of love - it becomes one of the most expressive and true compasses your emotional boat uses to navigate the byways of life. On this album he addresses the loss of dear friend singer/songwriter Stephen Bruton on several songs, the love of family (“From Here To Forever” and “Holy Woman”), the travails of fame (“Sister Sinead”) and offers up the kind of personal insight that so few writer’s can pull off convincingly. When he is doing it well, Kristofferson writes songs that go straight to the true heart of the human condition and make some sense of it with words and feelings we can all relate to.
Paul Epstein

Friday, October 2, 2009

Patty Loveless - Mountain Soul II

Rather than view modern Country music as a creepy commercialized excuse for bad videos and depersonalized stadium tours, Patty Loveless is one of those artists who recognizes the priceless legacy she has been entrusted with. Country music is truly an American commodity. It is uniquely of this country, but it’s rich roots are easily traced to Blues, Irish and many other musical traditions. On Mountain Soul II Loveless surrounds herself with the cream of Country, Folk and Bluegrass players (Vince Gill, Del McCoury Band, Mike Auldridge, Rob Ickes, etc) and takes on a program of well-known standards as well as a few more personal selections to stunning result. Loveless is possessed of one of the great voices in modern music. She is a master of all the twang and pathos traditional country demands, but like her peer Emmylou Harris she also has a gift that defies categorization. On ballads like “Prisoner’s Tears” or the chilling duet with Vince Gill and Rebecca Lynn Howard “Friends In Gloryland/ Children Of Abraham,” she sends chills, while on traditional uptempo numbers like Harlan Howards’ “Busted” or the McCoury family aided “Working On A Building,” she is back-porch relaxed and injects just the right notes of reverence and fun into her performances. Mountain Soul is exactly the right term for what Loveless accomplishes on the excellent album.

Paul Epstein

Frank Fairfield

Frank Fairfield is a man displaced in time. When one looks at his new CD (released on Tompkins Square Records) one sees a black and white photo of a guy in an old-fahioned suit with his banjo, guitar and fiddle at the ready. It could have been taken in the 20’s, or it could have been taken yesterday. This is appropriate, as he is a modern man playing music written and performed in the style of the 20’s and 30’s. It is without pretense or overt artifice that he renders this music, and it is in the craftsman-like seriousness of its original practitioners that he performs. His performances are so authentic that you will really find yourself staring at the picture of Fairfield over and over and saying, “This guy HAS to be old, he can’t be contemporary.” On a track like “The Blackberry Blossoms” he plays fiddle and sings while keeping the rhythm by stomping his foot. There is nothing else. How, in 2009, could a release like this come out? The answer is simple: as the world turns more rapidly toward instantaneous absorption and homogenization of all things artistic and regional, it is novel and comforting to hear something that sounds like it belongs someplace and sometime other than right now. This is deep-rooted music played with clarity and reverence not an over-produced product tie-in meant to last just today. If you like real songs about actual people played in the way they were first played with no modernization or concession to commercial demands, Frank Fairfield is your guy. I can’t get enough of it myself.

Paul Epstein

The Avett Brothers- I and Love and You

Breaking down one of the most over and mis-used phrases in the English language and turning it into a distillation of its parts and examining it from all angles is an appropriate exercise for this great American band. The Avett Brothers have, over the course of about a half-dozen albums, built a reputation for breaking down the basics of popular music-songwriting, performing and recording and making them all unpredictable and potentially explosive parts of their particular alchemy. As songwriters they have become more and more adept at writing sly, tender assessments of the modern condition that cause you to scratch your heads in acknowledgement and marvel at their poetic phrasing. Their recordings have been maddeningly inconsistent traditionally, but with I and Love and You they have found their production muse in the mysterious Rick Rubin, who, as he has done for many other artists, seems to have found the perfect formula for The Avett Brothers. It is obvious to outsiders, he keeps his eye on the songwriting and vocals and otherwise keeps it simple. He doesn’t let them get weird or too low-fi, but facilitates their best-produced group of songs presented in basic gem-like roots-rock settings. In many ways it hearkens back to what was great about The Band on their first couple of albums-Robbie Robertson wrote great songs that were presented in deceptively simple arrangements. It was the craft of songwriting, not the art of album making - a fine but important distinction. As producers and studio engineers become better and better at making anyone “sound” good, it is an increasing trick to allow great musicians to just sound as good as they are. Seeing the Avett’s live is very much like watching a kid play with matches near a gas pump - it is a giddy excitement as you wait for the explosion, and when it does come it is as thrilling to watch the orange ball of flame as it is disconcerting to feel the heat on your face. That is the way it is with most great live bands - you are as excited by their music as you are scared by their intensity. Finally, the Avetts have translated this phenomenon to album.

Paul Epstein