Reviews: Bardo Pond, Calhoun, Alasdair Roberts

Anthony Mark Happel

Alasdair Roberts

Hello, everyone. It’s been a while. The last several months have delivered some things to my door that had to be addressed and I’ve been concentrating on those matters, so some of the music stuff has had to take a backseat. I won’t bore you with all the details, but my wife has had some complications in her ongoing fight against cancer and we’ve been focused on healing and getting stronger. There were many days/weeks when I just couldn’t muster the mental clarity to write about music, or even listen to it. We’re finally coming out of the fog again, and it’s time to catch up. My wife is superwoman and she graduates from Marquette Law School on December 15, and my birthday is three days later, so I’m anticipating an enormous celebration. She’s earned it.

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I also directed an experimental film in Milwaukee back in April that is still in post-production, and I’ve been busy with other writing projects. So many great records have been piling up that I can’t possibly cover everything and do justice to it all in a couple pages of bullet reviews here. I’ve decided to devote the next few installments of Black Orchid to reviewing everything that’s worthy of coverage from the past six months, and then doing a year-end wrap-up of anything else that arrives in the interim. Thanks to the good folks at Impose magazine, all the bands, labels and other music-related friends for your patience and understanding while we beat cancer. Thanks, as always, to everyone in our amazing support system. And thanks for reading. TBC…

Bardo Pond, Peace On Venus (Fire)

Bardo Pond’s history dates back to 1989 when Philly brothers Michael and John Gibbons picked up guitars and shared a hallucinogenic musical vision. By ‘91 vocalist/flutist Isobel Sollenbeger joined and they were really learning to fly. They eventually became a central fixture of the 90s neo-psych/ space- rock movement that was all the rage on college radio and in the underground music press for a while. After records on Drunken Fish and Compulsiv, they released a string of five on Matador that put them on the edge of being indie rock darlings, before finally succumbing to the mega-tidal wave that overtook the indie scene by the 2000s. Many were enamored of them during the Matador run, but I never heard much that really set them apart. They were never drugged-out or insane enough for me. Never broke the rules or even bent them very much. Never shot off in some crazy direction with no map. Never unleashed the afterburners like a rogue rocket. Guitars, flute, and violin combine to create a mildly freaky amalgam on all of their records, but the tendency toward anti-melody in the vocals colors everything and puts it all in one place. When people mention how wildly “psychedelic” they are it is mostly hyperbole. They’re really not all that “psychedelic” in the broadest sense of the term, more like moderately stoned. They’ve seen the entire arc of the last 20 years from inside the machine, and they’ve released more than 20 albums since the mid 90s, but their sound hasn’t evolved much in that time. This five-song disc is somber and lonely, with guitar flourishes that only occasionally enhance the pain, and the vocal dissonance eventually dominates on every song, as is their usual m.o.. “Kali Yuga Blues” gets the bowels moving, but they lost me right away on “Taste.” The tuneless vocals just don’t work. Isobel going around in circles trying to s-t-r-i-n-g four notes together that actually sound like a tune is exhausting to listen to, and it must get tiresome for her. Every song’s promising melody is ruined by dissonance and detuning. They need to listen to some Mercury Rev or Spacemen 3 or Flying Saucer Attack or Ghost or Nebula. Those bands all have ways of concealing melodies within all kinds of “psychedelic” sounds. Fire Records roster is super-phat with talent and this is another heavy hitter in the catalog, but this time the record doesn’t live up to the hype. There’s only so much wallowing in the land of miserable vocalizing one can be expected to take.

Calhoun, Paperweights (Self-released)

This six-song EP is the fourth release by this Dallas band who formed in 2006, fronted by songwriter Tim Locke, following three LPs; among them 2010’s well-titled Heavy Sugar. They’ve opened for Elf Power, Phantom Planet, Helio Sequence and Explosions In The Sky, and a song from their second record somehow wound up on the hit NBC-TV series, Chuck, so they do apparently get around town a little bit. My first impression is that of a synth-poppy good time in the vein of the TV On The Radio, with some Vampire Weekend tossed in for the heck of it. Not that it’s as uniquely pronounced as either of those two bands, but it does have some strong appeal on “Fatal Flaws,” with a nifty, shifty break and some tight-ass marching band rhythms. There are some cool subtle hooks throughout the album, and the vocal arrangements are not overly affected or manipulated. They hold back just enough to pull you in further as you roll along. On “Reap/Sow” they maybe rely a little too much on the same repetitive keyboard riff over and over again, and that tendency can be an issue for them at other times as well, but, overall, every song here is sturdy and definitely makes a case for being heard.

Elf Power, Sunlight On The Moon (Darla/Orange Twin)

Who doesn’t like Elf Power? I’ve never spoken to anyone who knew their music and didn’t have some degree of appreciation for some of it. No one has ever said to me, “I don’t like Elf Power.” And, mostly, with good reason. These Athens, Georgians have been at it since 1994 and they have released 12 albums in that span; and central fixture/songwriter Andrew Rieger deserves to be talked about in that conversation involving Colin Meloy, Jeff Tweedy, Win Butler, Connor Oberst, etc. Along with his primary compatriot, Laura Carter, alongside James Huggins (Of Montreal) and Peter Alvanos, this was recorded at Rieger’s home, as well as at Gypsy Farm Studios in Livonia, GA. Gypsy Farm is an old music theatre that hosted the likes of Dolly Parton, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and George Jones. There’s the usual relaxed/unhurried presence on this album, but also a fidgety restlessness. Some songs are the by-product of the longtime Elf Power method of writing and recording simultaneously in the studio, so that is certainly part of it, and some of the songs were the work of Rieger alone in their raw form, fleshed out by the band later and maybe that accounts for the restlessness found here and there. Among the 13 tracks, standouts are the title track which has a bit of a Guided By Voices vibe, the oddly tuneful “Grotesquely Born Anew,” the dreamy and mildly trippy “Things Lost,” and the jangly “Total Annihilation.” On the last song, “Slow Change,” there’s even a little bit of the slippery southern psych- blues that the Grifters used to traffic in, albeit a more controlled version. The word “harmonious” has been used to describe them in a general musical sense, and that’s pretty much on the nose. There’s a professional, workmanlike, harmonious efficiency on everything they do, and what they do they do very well, but sometimes things are just too restrained and comfortable. The overall energy level of this album never really rises above calm and hum-drum. A few noisy, disgruntled outbursts wouldn’t hurt, and they might even feel sort of cathartic.

Clay Harper, Old Airport Road (Terminus)

Clay Harper was a founding member and frontman for The Coolies, and he has worked with Wreckless Eric, Ian Dury, Moe Tucker and Cindy Wilson, among others, and has performed with The Kinks, World Party and K.C. & the Sunshine Band over the course of his two decade plus career. This is his first solo album in more than ten years, and you can file this one in the “I did not expect this to sound like that” category. He’s literally all the over the damn map, obviously tossing in every single idea that hung around through the past decade or so. Starting with “Ole Ray,” he throws out the rule book. The very first sounds you hear on the album are Sandra Hall saying the words, “Hey, motherfucker.” That phrase is repeated a dozen more times before the rest of the song actually begins. Then Harper finally shows up sounding like a slightly drunk and pioughed John Vanderslice, and it takes on an odd slinky soul groove. The cocktail lounge-jazzy “Roly Poly,”a song partially about transvestites, shifts gears and goes all MMJ doing a sleepy cover of a Prince song. Nice vocals, especially considering the difficulty in pulling this kind of thing off without sounding dumb. Then there’s the superb piano-laden “Crazy” with Hamid Mohajir singing in what I believe is in Turkish (???), in a simultaneously disturbing and reassuring avuncular tone, with another great vocal turn by Harper. This dude can sing his ass off without really trying. The hip-hoppy “Get That Money” is another jarring left turn with a simple drum-machine beat, and punchy lead guitar solo and a straight-up 80s-style female vocal part where the singer intones lines like, “All I wanna do is go to Red Lobster, I enjoy that place” and the socially aware, “All I really want is a chance to be happy, and I deserve respect.” Indeed. The touching ballad “Fuck Who You Want” kind of sums up the philosophy of the record as a whole, and the amazing sultry, smoky cover of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” takes us all the way home. Guests include Duane Trucks and Col. Bruce Hampton. There is some twisted genius lurking around these parts, and Harper nails every song to the wall. Very impressive, and worth the wait. One of my favorite albums of 2013.

The Leisure Society, Alone Aboard The Ark (Full Time Hobby)

Metacritic only gave this album a 66 out of a possible score of 100!? When I saw that, I thought to myself, “I have no idea what that person was listening to, but it sure wasn’t this album.” This paradoxically humble little platter knocked me on my ass from the starting line. Then it dawned on me. It’s Mumford & Sons/Lumineers backlash. Some people are apparently grumbling that this album may be more “commercial” than the previous work of this band, and therefore it’s not as “authentic” as previous incarnations. I suppose some people expect them to record with a jambox inside an outhouse. Led by shooting star Nick Hemming, the Leisure Society has a here-we-are-matter-of-factness and an instant likability that is not dissimilar to Band Of Horses. “Another Sunday Psalm” is so damn good that I replayed it almost a dozen times upon first hearing it before even listening to the rest of the album. It’s a smarty pants, post-post-modern chamber-roots tune with so many different facets roiling underneath and so many points of light it can’t be classified as any one particular sub-genre. It’s a song for the ages, a gift to the Gods. It sets the bar so high you almost find yourself asking, “Where can they possibly go from here”? Dialing it down a tick from that point with “A Softer Voice Takes Longer Hearing” (which one writer compared to Bell and Sebastian) only primes the gears for what comes next, because then they bust out with their would-be alt-pop super-smash entitled, “Fight For Everyone,” a spine-tingling and transcendent song that almost reaches the Heavens, and sums up the nexus of human existence in thirteen words. “…in order to get what you want done, you must fight for everyone…” It sort of becomes the core sentiment of the record. And it screams “song of the year.” As close to perfect as a song gets. The songwriting of Hemming and Christian Hardy is impeccable and their use of vintage instruments and horns serves the songs in a way that feels far less forced than some of the more popular bands of this type. It just feels like there’s no other form in which these songs could exist. Like they fell out of the sky perfectly formed, as if they descended from Plato’s universe to touch the earth momentarily and shine a light before ascending back to the realm of the Gods. It sounds like Hemming and Hardy could roll out of bed, strum a chord and sing the first thing that comes to mind and it would be a keeper. Yeah, I’ll shut up now. This will be on my list of best albums of the year.

John Nagle, John Nagle’s Distractions (Self-released)

As you might have guessed from the title, all the songs on this record were written and performed by John Nagle, but producer Nahneen Kula evidently plays a vital role because he also gets co-billing. Opening track, “1222443 (I am so in love with you),” shows real promise with a breathy and floaty vocal hook. Then “Bo-ring” shows up, and it’s too cute for its own good, setting the entire album off course, and those soft-spoken vocals that suddenly make it sound like a John Mayer song… ouch! Maybe that’s the point (?) and it’s supposed to be ironic. Don’t know, for sure. Nagle has a fine melodic sense, and his quirky pop has loping rhythms that dance with early 90s players like Toad The Wet Sprocket, although not as pristine. I can’t tell if this is tongue-in-cheek, or what the heck its tone is supposed to represent. It’s like that kind of atmospheric adult alternative lite-rock that you would hear in a clever indie film. The trouble with this album is that the vocals are not only wimpy, which is not always bad, but they sound like they were recorded from a block away with a really bad microphone wrapped in tinfoil, and the negative sonic result drags it all down. Near the end it seems to gets lost in some odd navel gazing of its own design and the songs tend to lose some of their sense of direction. The quietude on these songs is pleasant at certain points, but it doesn’t really ever go anywhere particularly interesting, and that makes the entire ride seem largely uneventful.

Alasdair Roberts, A Wonder Working Stone (Drag City)

Alasdair Roberts pens wondrous, epic Scottish folk-story songs that are not only densely-packed lyrically, but have been labeled “metaphysical, cosmological, phantasmagorical…” Songs that are 7, 8, 9 minutes long because they have a lot to say. The playing is pretty damn impeccable, no matter what tone they’re going for, and the arrangements are busy and tight but do allow for some light and air to slip in. The songs all have the feel of ancient Scottish classics, and I don’t know of another songwriter in the folk idiom who displays this very esoteric skill as well. Roberts incorporates the traditional scordatura finger-style guitar playing technique, which helps with the authenticity factor, and the band is made up of musicians from Glasgow on guitar, bass, drums and fiddle, with some much welcomed female vocals by Olivia Chaney. They kick it all off with the paradoxical “The Merry Wake” and you’re swept up immediately, and if you’re fully engaged for the entire album you should be completely wiped out by the time it’s all over.

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