Hundred-word Reviews: New Releases

There’s quite a massive stack of new (or at least new-when-I got-’em) releases here at Musoscribe World HQ. Time to review them.

6-String Drag – Top of the World (Schoolkids Records)
This Raleigh-based group was at the forefront of the Americana scene, back when it didn’t even have a name (some called it alt-country). After a long hiatus, they’ve returned with Top of the World, which if anything is even better than their ’90s debut. Solid midtempo rock that will delight fans of the Silos, the Blasters, Rockpile, Alejandro Escovedo, the Saides and the like. Rootsy, authentic and heartfelt tunes with great harmonies and just enough of an Americana vibe to draw in those who claim not to dig rock. Vocal reminscent of early Elvis Costello, and more jangle than twang.

A Hawk and a Hacksaw – Forest Bathing (LM Duplication)
This aggregation features Heather Trost, an artist whose work I find endlessly intriguing. Using mostly acoustic instruments, A Hawk and a Hacksaw makes music that sounds very Eastern European (and/or Middle Eastern). It’s exotic and carnivalesque, and strangely alluring. Gypsy violins, ouds and other vaguely foreign instrumentation abounds; the tunes have the feel of traditional folk songs, but subtle use of modern machines like the Mellotron make the music even harder to place. And as it happens, the group is from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Play it for your guests and have fun watching them try to pin it down musically.

Pete Astor – One for the Ghost (Tapete Records)
Guitar pop of the shimmering and straightforward variety is the order of the day here. Astor is primary a lyricist, but he knows his way around creating ear-candy melodic lines. Think of a more direct, less self-consciously clever Squeeze. There’s a distinct Englishness to Astor’s songwriting, and that’s all to the good. I can’t quite put my finger on why it is, but his songs remind me of a timeless rethink of the musical approach used ever-so-briefly by Bram Tchaikovsky. Subtle hints of psychedelia and an American country influence place Pete Astor very neatly between Nick Lowe and Robyn Hitchcock.

Tony Banks – Five (BMG)
It’s important that you approach this album knowing what it is and is not. What it is not is a Genesis spinoff project. You won’t find anything like Banks’ “Firth of Fifth” piano solo here, or anything at all in the way of synthesizers. You will instead hear what Tony Banks can do writing for an orchestra, and occasionally adding his own acoustic piano to the proceedings. The melodies lean in an accessible direction, more memorable than a film score and with very little avant-garde character. There’s a grandeur and majesty of Banks’ arrangements,and this CD is best played loud.

Tania Chen et. al. – John Cage: Electronic Music for Piano (Omnivore Recordings)
Just seeing the name John Cage will be enough to alert potential listeners to the avant-garde nature of this recording. That Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore is involved will give even more of a hint as to what you might expect. Some will call it noise; its’ certainly noisy. Attacking instruments in a way not intended by their creators is part of the approach here. If your tastes include Edgard Varése and Glenn Branca, then you’re in for a real treat. Otherwise, well, not so much. Long passages of near silence punctuated by odd bursts of sound characterize this left-field effort.

The Claudettes – Dance Scandal at the Gymnasium! (Yellow Dog Records)
I liked these guys when they started out, and I think I love them now. I can’t think of another group that combines barrelhouse piano and female chanteuse vocals with heavily-effected electric guitar and slamming drums. The band’s sound is quite difficult to describe, as it seems to draw as much form hard and psychedelic rock as it does from N’awlins piano boogie. If you’re ready for something that’s at once unlike anything else you’ve heard and melodically accessible, you must listen to the Claudettes. They look like a jazz trio and vocalist; they sound not at all like that.

Dirty Sidewalks – Bring Down the House Lights (No-Count Records)
Rock ‘n’ roll isn’t dead; it’s just gone on extended holiday. Dirty Sidewalks might sound like they’re from Manchester (I hear a lot of Stone Roses vibe in their songs) but in fact they’re from Seattle. With a perfect mix of fuzz, distortion and grunge, the trio brings a mastery of hooky pop songcraft to this collection of twelve tunes. I reviewed their debut single nearly two years ago; they’ve built successfully on their early approach, and now that I’ve heard an entire album of their music, I stand by all of my enthusiastic observations made way back in 2016.

Colin Edwin & Robert Jurjendal – Another World (Hard World)
Colin Edwin was the bassist in my favorite 1990s-and-beyond band, Porcupine Tree. Once Steven Wilson set out on his own and ended that band, Edwin found himself in high demand as a sideman and collaborator. This nine-track instrumental set is built around his fretless and ebow- bass prowess, Jurjendal on touch guitar and assorted proggy string instruments. Keyboard and trumpet and worked into the mix as well; the result is highly melodic, atmospheric and cinematic in its character. The impressionistic tunes occasionally have the feel and texture – though definitely not the sound – of Pink Floyd’s early instrumental excursions.

The Incredible Vickers Brothers – Torch Songs for Swingers (Mystery Lawn Music)
I’ve made the observation before: certain record labels are in themselves a trademark of quality. Mystery Lawn Music is such a label. The Incredible Vickers Brothers are, unsurprisingly, purveyors of a chiming, irrepressibly catchy kind of pop rock. But the brothers rock a bit harder than many of their label mates. And that quality provides a nice tension for their sometimes angsty – and most always clever – lyrical turns. Imagine Spongetones with a less overt Beatles foundation and you’ll have an idea of what these 11 tunes sounds and feel like. Short-listed as a contender for 2018’s best albums.

Janiva Magness – Love is an Army (Blue Élan Records)
I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Janiva Magness twice, as well as spending time with her previous material. So I”m well-acquainted with her compelling back story. And that story informs this uplifting set of modern blues. With a strong foundation in gospel and soul, Love is an Army is not your standard, rote I-IV-V bar blooze. The band cooks, the music offers plenty of variety, and Magness is in typically fine voice. In her reluctantly-written liner notes, Magness describes the album as a collection of “songs of empowerment, protest, hope and sweet regret.” That says it all; now go listen.

The Monochrome Set – Maisieworld (Tapete Records)
In one sense, the songs on Maisieworld would be right at home on an Austin Powers soundtrack album; there’s a swinging sixties vibe to the catchy tunes; tinkling harpsichord, chirping female backing vocals and darkly minor-key melodies about. But this collection of ten songs isn’t really retro. It’s a bit of a mystery why the Monochrome Set hasn’t ever broken through in a big way to American audiences. The music is compelling, and this is one band that doesn’t do the same thing over and over; early records were post-punk/new wave; what they’re doing today is much more timeless. Superb.

The Nick Moss Band – The High Cost of Low Living (Alligator Records)
Sure, the title has more than a whiff of blooze-cliché, but that goes with the territory. Get past that and you’ll discover some fiery blues with the right amount of instrumental grit, happily free of the polish that renders so much latter-day blues completely forgettable. If you like you some distorted blues hap and hollowbody guitar fronting a straight-ahead band, you’ll find much to enjoy in this set. Happily, Moss and his band don’t fall back on well-worn classics; instead they write sturdy tunes in a classic style. There’s a reason Moss is recipient of countless awards; listen and learn.

Pseudonym – Pack of Lies (Kool Kat Musik)
The continued existence of labels like Kool Kat shows that a market – albeit a smallish one – remains for power pop and its variants. Pseudonym doesn’t quite fit in with what most think of as power pop: the Raspberries / Knack / Badfinger style of rock. Instead this San Francisco group led by singer/songwriter Paul Desjarlais crafts a textured, winning sound closer to the shimmering style of Orgone Box, with the pop facility of Sloan. A winning combination, that. The band’s rhythm section pummels along like The Jam or early Who. And the songs are a really good, varied lot.

Amy Rigby – The Old Guys (Southern Domestic)
I just discovered that Rigby and label mate Wreckless Eric are married couple. That makes a kind of sense; though their backgrounds are quite different (she’s from Pittsburgh; he’s British), musically they’re kindred spirits. On this, Rigby’s eighth solo album, she plays a stomping, anthemic kind of indie rock that suggests Patti Smith with the lyrical acuity yet a more conventional pop sensibility. The guitar jangle is backed up with a musical rhythm section that provides the weight the words deserve. And as tracks like “Are We Still There Yet” vividly illustrate, she does the gentle folk thing equally well.

Sonar with David Torn – Vortex (Rare Noise Records)
I had the rare pleasure of interviewing David Torn a few years ago, and saw him perform in an intimate house concert setting. But the solo guitar-and-electronics music he played was deeply abstract, and not what I’d call widely accessible (though I dug it). Here Torn collaborates with a relatively conventional four-piece rock band, and the results are an intriguing blend of progressive rock and a soundscape approach. Fans of Discipline era King Crimson (especially cuts like “The Sheltering Sky”) will likely appreciate this album. In places it’s reminiscent of early Porcupine Tree (Steven Wilson); that’s never a bad thing.

The Stephen Stanley Band – Jimmy & the Moon (Wolfe Island Records)
Count me among those who had never heard of Canadian band The Lowest of the Low. Apparently they had a measure of success in their home country. That band’s founder Stephen Stanley is now a solo artist, and his catchy rock is free of filigree and artifice. His chord progressions, vocal harmonies and appreciation for handclaps in songs all suggest he grew up on a steady diet of John, Paul George and Ringo. But them, who didn’t? To his credit, Stanley channels his influences (Beatles, Dylan etc.) though his own personal approach; the result has a character of its own.

Strawbs – The Ferryman’s Curse (Esoteric)
If you know of the Strawbs at all, it’s likely you’re familiar with their output from the very late 1960s into the mid 1970s. Rick Wakeman was an early member, before embarking on a career as a session player and then an on and off (and on and off etc.) member of Yes. (Fun fact: Wakeman’s sons Oliver and Adam subsequently served time in the band.) But founding member Dave Cousins has kept the fires burning; the band’s British folk roots remain strong, with a melodic prog sheen and well-worn vocals. Synth pads, acoustic guitars and a melancholy air predominate.

Super 8 – T-T-T-Technicolour Melodies (Futureman Records)
This album has an obscure yet interesting back story: apparently “TRiP” (leader of a band called Super 8) has chosen to remake a 2003 album he did with that band, recasting it in a manner one suspects closer to his original vision. Without the original to compare, all I have to go on is this disc, which is pretty ace all on its own. Hints of Love, Byrds and Kinks shine through on the tunes, and the decidedly lo-fi, lo (or no) budget character doesn’t diminish the quality of the music. Apparently TRiP thinks himself a modern-day Mike Oldfield. Okayyyy.

Third of Never – Austerity (Jam Records)
Third of Never is a kind of underground powerpop act, in the mold of Cheap Trick crossed with Smithereens. That they sound a bit like Grip Weeds is no surprise; Kurt Reil is a frequent collaborator. For this disc they’re joined by John “Rabbit” Bundrick of the prime-era Who touring band. These tunes rock as hard as The ‘Oo, and a devastatingly hard rhythm section backs crunchy guitars and tight vocal harmonies. Vince Grogan’s bass work on this album is especially lively and rock-solid, but the whole thing is recommended to rock fans who like some muscle with their melody.

Wreckless Eric – Construction Time & Demolition (Southern Domestic)
Wreckless Eric is Eric Goulding (and, as noted above, Mr. Amy Rigby). He’s also veddy English: his 1970s classic “Whole Wide World” was an exemplar of the Stiff Records aesthetic. With a British voice and sensibility to rival Raymond Douglas Davies, Eric makes music that deserves to be considered alongside the Kinks’ work. The arrangement approach on this album evokes warm memories of Preservation and Everybody’s in Showbiz era Kinks, when they added multiple voices, brass and more to their sound. But there’s a welcome, ramshackle and low-budget air to the whole album, one that only adds to its charm.