Hundred Word Reviews for February 2020

Time for some more quick reviews. All good stuff, all worthy of deeper coverage. And all worth your time if you’re in the mood for some new sounds.

Previte / Saft / Cline – Music from the Early 21st Century
Bobby Previte is a drummer whose work falls into the avant garde/no wave box. Nels Cline is (among other things) in Wilco. Keyboardist Jamie Saft is also works in the avant end of the pool. This collaborative project is sort of heavy prog, with elements of psychedelia and krautrock-like drone and motorik. Part of its organic vibe comes from Saft’s use of traditional instruments like Hammond, Rhodes and Moog. Things often evolve (or devolve, depending on one’s point of view) into noise, but that’s part and parcel of the improvisational nature of this set. Heavy, angular, intriguing and resolutely uncompromising.

Anton Barbeau – Kenny vs. Thrust
Anton Barbeau’s work has always been delightfully idiosyncratic. His foundation in pop melodicism keeps his stuff from getting too out-there weird, but the music always remains adventurous enough to move beyond what passes for modern psych, powerpop or what-have-you. This set alternates between tracks cut with two different musical aggregations. The sonic aesthetics of Kenny and Thurst differ form one another – one’s a bit more jangly – but Barbeau’s songwriting and voice are the glue that hold the project together. I give the slight edge to Kenny, but why choose one over another? In this “battle,” the listener wins.

Various Artists – For the Record: A Tribute to John Wicks
The Records’ John Wicks passed away in 2018, leaving behind an underappreciated (at least outside the powerpop scene) body of work that continued long after the Records’ major-label era. Produced by Spongetones’ Jamie Hoover, this tribute is a fitting memorial that shines a light on Wicks’ later writing. Ray Paul, Peter Case and Don Dixon turn in superb recordings, as do the other acts involved. And it’s a delight to hear the unmistakable voice of Al Stewart in this context. Tribute albums are rarely as enjoyable as this one. Don’t miss Bill Berry’s “1-800-Colonoscopy,” the highlight of a near-perfect album.

Emperor Penguin – Soak Up the Gravy
Having reviewed a previous release from this outfit, I expected good things from Soak Up the Gravy. But I wasn’t prepared for just how much of an earworm songs like the opening track “Hello Picasso” would be. This music has all of the energy and sassiness of prime ’70s-era rock crossed with ’90s alternarock. It’s nominally in the powerpop idiom, but honestly, Emperor Penguin has about as much to do with that subgenre as, say, Cheap Trick. In other words, yeah…but more. I don’t expect major commercial breakthrough for these guys, but I’ll look forward to more music from ’em.

The Greek Theatre – When Seasons Change
Okay, so they’re not Greek; this band is from Scandinavia, a region that seems to soak up the best from other musical traditions and serve it back to listeners in a way that feels new and traditional all at once. The production values on this record are extraordinary, and the sophisticated and subtle music is simply delightful. The group executes its mastery of many styles, but the 12-string jangle of “Lawrence of Laurel Canyon” may be what sticks with listeners most indelibly. As varied an album as you’re likely to encounter in 2020. And quite possibly among the year’s best.

The Third Mind – s/t
When artists from different projects get together for a busman’s holiday, the results can be unpredictable. But this nearly all-cover collection is jawdropping in its effectiveness. You’ve likely never heard the Blasters’ Dave Alvin sound anything like this. Joined by Victor Krummenacher and others, he tears through improvisational (yet structured) readings of tunes by the Butterfield Blues Band (“East West”), Roky Erickson (“Reverberation”), Alice Coltrane (“Journey in Satchidananada”) and more. In turns heavy, ethereal, searing and contemplative (and mostly instrumental), The Third Mind is psychedelia for the 21st century. And their cover of “Morning Dew” slays the Grateful Dead’s version.

Supersuckers – Play That Rock-n-Roll
Things change. But some things – thankfully – stay pretty much the same. One of the latter is Supersuckers, that irrepressible trio of rockers lead by Eddie Spaghetti. Their high-octane rock is equal parts cock-rock and, well, parody of the form. Are they kidding or serious? Does it really matter? Writing intentionally dumb lyrics like “I Ain’t Gonna Stop (Until I Stop It)” requires a kind of sophistication all its own. Every one of the tunes on this set swings for the fences, anthem-style. Don’t miss “Getting Into Each Other’s Pants,” with its lyrical nod to … disco. No, really.

Terry Draper – Sunset on Mars
Inveterate liner note readers may recognize the name: Draper was a member of that inscrutable Canadian band Klaatu, they of the “are they the Beatles” hype. On his own and living in Florida, Draper remains prolific. Sunset on Mars will sound warmly familiar to those who dug Hope and Sir Army Suit; Draper’s approach leans in the soothing and melodic direction, and away from harder-rocking textures. I hear bits that remind me of 10cc, Andrew Gold, Supertramp and Alan Parsons Project. Songs are new and old (some written in the Klaatu days) but they’re all good. Timeless and highly recommended.

Alex Dixon – The Real McCoy
There’s something about the blues that encourages legacy. Sons and daughter of famous bluesmen continue to carry the torch, and some do it supremely well. Alex Dixon is the grandson of one of the greatest, Willie Dixon. And while he doesn’t sing – he leaves that task in the quite capable hands of Lewis “Big Lew” Powell – Dixon plays upright bass (like Grandpa) as well as electric bass and piano. The title of the opening cut (“There’s Nothing New Under the Sun”) underscores the fact that traditional blues isn’t about innovation. But with performances like these, it needn’t be.

Yuval Ron – Somewhere in This Universe, Somebody Hits a Drum
Instrumental ambition and a value on structured complexity are qualities that define progressive rock at its best. This album has those in great supply, and Yuval Ron takes things in some unexpected directions as well. The near-yodeling vocals of the opening/title track may remind some of Focus. The skittering instrumental runs call to mind Gentle Giant and early Genesis. Elsewhere – though it’s a guitar-focused album – one may detect the influence of Emerson, Lake and Palmer in Matt Paull’s keys. Roberto Badoglio’s fretless and fretted bass work is thrilling, and Marco Minnemann is predictably fantastic. Prog’s alive and well.