Reviews: Bottle Rockets, Mandolin Orange, Savaging Spires

Anthony Mark Happel

Bottle Rockets – Not So Loud: An Acoustic Evening With (Bloodshot)

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This “unplugged” Bottle Rockets set was recorded in a 19th century schoolhouse in their hometown of St. Louis. The only remaining original members are leader Brian Henneman and drummer Mark Ortmann, but Henneman is the heart and soul of the beast, and their best songs have a transcendent quality that hovers above the concept of the band itself, as long as Henneman’s singing. In some ways, it’s addition by subtraction, much like Kevn Kinney and Drivin N’ Cryin’. New guitarist John Horton and new bassist Keith Voegele have some shoes to fill and they do so here without a hitch. It’s got to be somewhat liberating for them to play these songs, unforced, and with minimal rearranging. With a history that dates back about 20-years they’ve got a lot to draw from, and they do a decent job of touching all the bases. Their best stuff, like “Gravity Fails” and “1000 Dollar Car,” and, yes, “Kit Kat Clock” still grab hold and won’t let go, with a weird timelessness that belies their trademark sound. Quality songwriting. They were big fans of the late Doug Sahm (Sir Douglas Quintet, Texas Tornados), and they wrestled with and eventually released a Sahm covers album, despite a great big yawn from the music world while they were shopping the idea around. Here they include a version of his song, “I Don’t Want To Go Home.” A valuable addition to the discography. Makes you want to get out their early records, smoke some herb and reminisce a while.

Mandolin Orange – Haste Make/Hard Hearted Stranger (Self-released)

This is a Chapel Hill, NC duo, made up of songwriter Andrew Martin and instrumentalist Emily Frantz, which has already found a solid fan in Ms. Rosanne Cash. This release consists of two LPs in one, and it's chock full of alt-country bric-a-brac that rumbles up from the ground right underneath our feet. The first album, recorded during the winter of 2010/11, seems like it has a decidedly slicker country- rock sound, maybe it’s the mastering, but that’s not really a knock, just an observation. Standouts include: “Haste Make” and “Runnin’ Red.” The second album, recorded during summer 2011, is even grittier and earthier, as heard in the 70s style dirt-folk of “Big Men in the Sky,” for example. “Never Die” and “Birds of A Feather” go for more grass, as in the new bluegrass, and they show off some nifty playing. “Clover” also utilizes some excellent vocal work by Andrew Martin. MO can undoubtedly hang with the big boys.

Orchestra Of Spheres – Nonagonic Now (Fire)

This band of outsiders uses homemade instruments to make their point with their wigged-out electro-psych-dance music. It’s loaded with some juicy pop hooks, and is quite universally appealing, overall. It might take a couple listens for some people to get past the production, but then its real persona starts to emerge. I could imagine fans of everything from Aphex Twin to FSA digging into this. A friend of mine called it dank. “Rotate” sports some great geeked-out vocals, and “Hypersphere” is a pretty cool 60s throwback of a moderately experimental flavor. “Toadstone” gets really busy and they can be kind of squirrelly at times, but they rein it in before it gets to be a distraction. “Ulululul” has some good psych guitar contained within it, and they could exploit that shit a lot more and add another option to what they already do. A dark horse for the best albums of the year list. Fire Records just keeps cranking out one queer orb after another. God bless ‘em.

Marco Panella – In The Age Of Batteries (Auger Down)

Philadelphia’s Marco Panella sings and plays guitar, drums and piano on this 7-song CD, and he gets some additional assistance from friends on bass and cello. “The Aquifer” is laconic and chilled out, sounding like the distant cousin of some trippy 90s head music that is not exactly Portishead, but leaning that way. The difficult proposition of the six-minute plus “Levi” gets a wee-willy too self-indulgent, maybe even, dare I say, kind of boring at a certain point, but on the other hand, “Hide, Hide, Hide” gets loose and really shakes its ass. “Bounty One” and “Bounty Two” are supposed to be the centerpieces, I guess, but they don’t come to the fore musically as they should. In the end, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to take away from this album. The entire world it creates is like a “simulacra” of something else, and it has a déjà vu quality. The door is hanging open, but no one's there.

Jesse Payne – Buffalo/Kettle & Crow (Capture Music)

This is an idiosyncratic four-song EP by a singer-songwriter who is not easy to pin down. Not having heard his previous EP (Beyond The Leaves) and full-length (Nesting) I can’t compare this, but, I will say if those records are probably worth checking into. This is a mélange of post-jangly roots rock that is way beyond mere Americana. It’s a paella of sounds, to use a loose metaphor. Subtle and sour on “Annual Weathering,” minimal and ethereal on “Colorado”, with a hazy 70s psych-lite effect taking over at times. Personal, quaint, cowboy-psych with tinges of Horse Feathers and Peasant and others bands, but the left-handed approach to each song sometimes pulls it away from the obvious hook. “Symphony” is really good, and it almost calls up John Vanderslice as it wends its way around your brain. “He nests on the scenic views of trees and mountains…”; the Sierra Club Orchestra is still alive and well. Roll on or roll out.

Savaging Spires – S/T (Critical Heights)

They come from the forestland of Central England, and apparently there’s some mystery surrounding the actual identities of the band members in this strangely named unit. Not sure what that’s all about. The first thing that jumps out musically is something that sounds like a children’s plastic recorder on “Bending the Rules of Time.” When the strings come in on top of that weird whistling sound it grows a new head and instantaneously transports itself to another plane. There’s also something resembling a toy piano that interposes itself early and then reappears later, becoming a mainstay of the album. A starting point for their journey would be the freak-folk scene, as in the Vashti Bunyan/Devendra Banhart community, but there’s also an unpredictable chamber-pop free radical component mixed with the formless soundscapes (“When the Devil Says You’re Dead”). There’s naked, lo-fi guitar strumming as they cut across the same woodsy, pastoral lawn as Akron/Family, and maybe a tinge of the Japanese psych-folk band, Ghost, creeps in as well. The disembodied female vox on “Trust,” coupled with the feedback, takes this to a place of darker shadows. Like a kudzu vine it wraps itself around you over the course of a couple encounters.

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