New Music Review Roundup, Part 2

Here’s the second of three collections of reviews.

The Hangabouts – Kits & Cats and Saxon Wives
Good-timing, cleverly-written melodic pop is what’s on offer on the latest album from the Hangabouts. It rocks a bit harder than their last outing, and there are hints of some of the more adventurous end of early 70s pop on the album’s thirteen tunes. The infectious “Cricket Time” stands the Music Explosion’s “Little Bit O’ Soul on its head. There’s lots to like here for fans of classic pop done with style and verve; for me the bass guitar work is the standout quality, with a very Revolver/Rubber Soul vibe. (The vocals are close second, and in fact it’s all pretty damn wonderful.) But the songs aren’t retro-minded; sometimes the Hangabouts may remind a bit of Ben Folds, but at the end of the day, this trio is a true original.

Richard X Heyman – Incognito
This reliably intriguing power pop artist from New York City has made a solid string of essential albums, from 1988’s Living Room!! onward. And though one supposes an artist must always follow his or her muse wherever it leads, arguably Heyman made a serious misstep with the genre-shift of 2011’s Tiers and Other Stories, a singer-songwriterly double album of uncharacteristically non-rocking material. No matter; with Incognito, he’s made another rocking album of original material that sounds like no one else. It’s a bit iffy to include a liner note essay that attempts to sell the music – the music achieves that quite well on its own, thanks – but if one simply focuses on the chiming melodies and Heyman’s glorious self-harmonizing, Incognito reveals a myriad of charms.

Jamie & Steve – Sub Textural EP
After releasing a 2009 debut album (English Afterthoughts), half of North Carolina’s beloved Spongetones made the decision that going forward they’d instead release their collections of songs on EPS. The thinking was (and remains) that the shorter format means new material more often. The duo has released four EPs to date; Sub Textural is the latest, and perhaps the best. Both Steve Stoeckel and Jamie Hoover know their way around a hook and a melody, and they make sure to include both prominently on all six tunes on this latest release. Freed from the (admittedly wonderful) conceptual format of the Spongetones (who still reunite for the occasional gig), Jamie and Steve take the opportunity to be more musically varied and eclectic. And in the process, everybody wins!

King Crimson – “Heroes” EP
King Crimson is nobody’s idea of a pop group. Even in the rarefied world of progressive rock, they’re out-there and ambitious, never once making commercial concessions. Heck, even to consider such a thing would be heresy in Crim World. That said, Robert Fripp did indeed play guitar on a bunch of late 1970s David Bowie album, and Bowie did leave this planet last year. So why not pay a kind of tribute to him, especially when you have one of this plant’s most terrifyingly accomplished bands to do it? The surprise here is that they play it straight. The EP includes a full version and a radio edit of “Heroes,” but the other three tracks are nigh on impressive as well: reaching far back into the group’s catalog, the current beat that is King Crimson presents current-day readings of “Easy Money” and the transcendent bliss of “Starless” (sadly without the crazy second half) as well as a new-ish track, the all-drummers-all-the-time “The Hellhounds of Krim.”

Mumpbeak – Tooth
Yep, more prog. This European outfit (by way of Norway and Italy) makes jazz-inflected instrumental music. The intensity of rock is married successful with the innovation and exploratory nature of jazz. What there isn’t is guitars. It’s bass, drums and keyboards. But what Roy Powell does with those keys (Moogs, Clavinet, organ, tubular bells etc.) is quite astonishing. And it’s not for show; the tunes are sturdy and never meandering. Lorenzo Feliciati’s fretless bass may make some listeners think of Jaco Pastorius, and Torstein Lofthus reminds my ears of Bill Bruford. With all that, who needs guitars anyway?

Willie Nile – Positively Bob
I’m not sure that the music of Bob Dylan has been covered more than any other single composer, but if not, it’s close. For whatever reason, Dylan’s songs lend themselves remarkably well to reinvention and interpretation by others; its almost unnatural how easily his songs can be bent into the style of other artists. Willie Nile’s been around for years (hell, I saw him open for the Who in 1980!) and he’s a fine songwriter in his own right. But what he does with ten Dylan songs – not just the most obvious titles, either – is quite impressive. That said, the first track – a rousing reading of “The Times They Are A-Changin’” – is probably the best thing here.

Still more to come!