Greetings, everyone. Looks like we’re finally emerging from the most brutal Wisco winter in living memory, and I’m finally getting out from under some personal matters. Thankfully, we were able to spend a week in sunny Costa Rica recently where it was in the 90s every day (it’s their summer right now), and when we returned we did a 21-day vegan/juice cleanse which just concluded. And the Packers signed Julius Peppers. (Hope he’s got something left in the tank.) We’re ready for the spring renewal. Still playing catch up with the mail around here, but I’m finally able to deliver some reviews. I’ll try to squeeze in a few more in the next installment of Black Orchid. Also, working on a few features that should appear in the next couple months. Thanks for reading. Peace.
Broken Gold, Residency at Hundo Beach (End Sounds)
This is a groovy six-song EP by a Riverboat Gamblers “side project,” driven by Gamblers guitarist Ian MacDougall on vocals, and former Gambler Patrick Lillard on bass, along with Ben Lance on guitar and Rich Cali on drums. The impetus for it, more or less, lies in the material MacDougall writes that isn’t suited for the Gamblers. BG released their first single in ’08, but MacDougall was in a near-fatal bicycling accident shortly thereafter when struck by a truck, which put him out of commission for four months, and obviously sidelined the band for an extended period. The band remained viable and a debut album eventually appeared, and this year they re-convened with some new songs to drop this little bit o’ honey in our laps. The buzzy opener, “Teeth,” pulls some gauzy, glittery shoegazer glaze from the 90s and they’re off and running, and they’re harder to pin down than one might think at first blush. They drift around the ambient rock stratosphere doing a mash-up of various softer/louder dynamics that are mostly smooth around the edges, with vocals that are solid throughout, and yet the songs retain a lot of that original raw demo-like quality. Melodic and artful, but not overly polished, I could imagine these songs getting big airplay on some “hard rock” radio formats, if we lived in a different world. “Green Grass” is great, as is “Let Go,” a song The Church would definitely wish they had written if they were to hear it. And the blunt “Shoulder” flexes some louder, noisier muscles and, for a brief moment or two, comes close to the Undertones on meth. Well-rendered. Here’s to better days ahead for this band. They deserve it.
The Chills, Somewhere Beautiful (Fire)
Fire Records has done it again. Connecting with a living legend in the Chills’ Martin Phillips they’ve jointly released a “live” document which makes the world a better place by its mere presence. As an added bonus, New Zealand artist Shane Cotton has contributed cover art for the limited edition 3-LP vinyl release of the album, which will also include limited edition prints of Cotton’s work. The Chills’ history goes back to 1980 in Dunedin, NZ. They were among a stable of seminal, groundbreaking bands on Flying Nun Records: Bailter Space, The Bats, Straitjacket Fits. Their first official album was Brave Worlds released in ’87. In ‘88 they signed with WB/Slash Records, but they never made much of a splash in the U.S, other than a couple moderate college-radio hits/MTV videos. There have been 15 or 20 different line-ups over the years, one of which even included The Clean’s David Kilgour, but the band’s art-pop mission has stayed true to Phillips’ vision, albeit without a lot of recorded output to show for it. This set is from New Year’s Eve ‘11 with a line-up consisting of Erica Stichbury on keys, violin and guitar, Oli Wilson on keys, James Dickson on bass and Todd Knodson on drums. At 20 tracks it’s a tad long, particularly with its low-key performance, especially considering it was New Year’s Eve. One might get the impression they’re going through the motions as if it was the tail end of an exhausting tour. Many of their most notable songs are here, “Night of Chill Blue”, “Submarine Bells”, “Lost In Space”, “Soft Bomb”, “Heavenly Pop Hit”, “I Love My Leather Jacket”, but not always with the excited verve one might expect. There’s a version of “Male Monster from the Id”, one of their best songs, that definitely could have brought more energy; but, the melodies make up for whatever’s lacking elsewhere. As time goes by Phillips becomes more of a kindred spirit with David Gedge, Paul Kelly, Mark E. Smith, and others who have never seen the kind of commercial success in the U.S. their talent warrants. This is a non-essential addition to the catalog of a survivor, sometimes that’s just got to be enough.
King of Prussia, Zonian Girls…And The Echoes That Surround Us All (Minty Fresh)
King of Prussia’s Brandon Hanick spent three years overseas and eventually landed in Barcelona. When he returned to the U.S. and began work on this album he brought with him a new outlook as a songwriter. While claiming he didn’t set out to make a “concept album” he acknowledges that Zonian Girls… was split in two from the beginning with one album, or first half of the CD, representing the “lighter side of the human psyche (love, joy)” and the second album, or second half of the CD, representing “the other half.” The songs would be two sets of “cousins” with each song in part one having a counterpart in part two. While living in Spain, Hanick had hooked up with guitarist Vasco Batista and drummer Simon Mille. They practiced for five or six hours a day and laid down the foundation for the new album. The record was completed back home in Athens, GA when Hanick, singer Nathan Troutman and multi-instrumentalist Brian Smith convened for a series of 12-hour recording sessions where they were joined by other Athens friends, including REM’s Mike Mills, recorded at his home on piano. The results of all this activity are not at as scattershot as one might imagine. High concept, yes. Overly ambitious, yes. A self-indulgent bummer, no. The post-folk/psych whimsy is freeing and pulls you along right from the start. There is an Elephant 6 vibe that definitely harkens back to Olivia Tremor Control, and there’s a section here or there that had me proclaiming “Neutral Milk Hotel is alive and well.” “The Dean and The Photographer” is excellent, and “Anna Nordeen” is uber-catchy and totally fantastic. In fact, “Anna Nordeen” will rank among the best songs of the year when all is said and done. You can book that. This record represents a songwriter/band taking a big step. It may not be radical, but it’s a songwriter getting outside the comfort zone and pushing his/ her psyche a little further along.
My Education, 5 Popes (Beatimprint)
Texas-based instrumental post-rock band that’s been around for more than a decade, and they’ve stayed busy, releasing lots of stuff in different formats. Presently, they’re one of the more enjoyable bands employing that style, the one where they actually “rock” in a post-rock sense. This lengthy six- song EP, which was recorded in 2001, enables them to really stretch out and show off their skills in an unhurried way. It’s being re-issued now on CD and is available on vinyl for the first time ever, by popular demand. “Concentration Waltz” builds slowly toward an explosion in the sky at around the six-minute mark, then settles down and lands back on earth. “Lesson 3” takes almost nine minutes to make its point and never fully reaches orgasm, holding back and creating some serious tension by never letting go. Then, “Crime Story” shuffles around for nine minutes and also refuses to give up its secret. With the “muscular viola” and violin playing hide and seek on the album, and some songs using a lot of sustain to make their emotional mark, the record finds several sonic levels to explore within the larger sonic framework from which to operate. They may take their time getting a song to its destination, but what they do along the way is never dull, even when they’re seemingly trying to be dull. No mean feat, fellas.
Nashaz, S/T (Ziryab)
Nashaz is Brian Prunka and on this head scratcher of an album, recorded in Brooklyn, he plays the oud (a fretless eleven-stringed instrument akin to the lute) with a natural flair that most western listeners won’t fully comprehend when they first hear it. He wrote all the songs and in the process sort of invented a new sub-genre here as he filters “jazz music” and jazz sensibilities through his own particular eastern matrix incorporating sounds from various parts of the world. Each of the first five songs is inspired by traditional music from a different region, and the playing is impressive on all of them. I’m not familiar with a lot of modern oud players, but this guy clearly has something. The nine and a half minute long “Hijaz Nashaz”, inspired by classic Egyptian music of the 50s and 60s, has a hypnotic rhythmic flow and it sets the tone for the rest of the album. With eight tracks running over an hour it doesn’t ever feel overlong, and it never comes across like they’re just showing off on any given song. They just roll by like a freight train. “Andalus,” inspired by the music of Moorish Spain, for example, baffles you with its marriage of multiple musical worlds, while also sounding oddly accessible. Nashaz appears to be a young master of his instrument and a hell of an arranger, on top of it all. It’s not hard to imagine him creating film scores. If he keeps this up he might actually earn a living doing this.
Dhafer Youssef, Birds Requiem (Okeh)
Recorded in Istanbul and Sweden, this compelling and challenging effort by oud virtuoso Dhafer Youssef is made up of eleven “interconnected compositions” originally created for an “imagined” movie. The oud is the eleven-stringed Arabic “cousin” of the lute, and is played with a plectrum called a risha made from cowhorn. It draws from 5,000 years of history and tradition, and Youssef’s work with the instrument is certainly very advanced. Combined with a clarinetist, trumpeter, guitar player, kanun player, bassist and drummer, there is a genuine cinematic quality to this recording, and, yes, I agree that word is overused in music criticism, but in this case they do create an effective aural tapestry of sorts. The “Birds Requiem Suite” is the musical and narrative crux of the record, establishing a central theme to build other parts onto. The songs/parts all move thoughtfully and deliberately, with each step having a pronounced landing. The elusive “Sweet Blasphemy” and the instantly likable “39th Istanbul” are both exceptional, fulfilling the promise that this music constantly hints at. “Blending Souls & Shades” is also particularly notable, with a metaphysical sound that honors its title. The tone of the recording is hazy ethereal and the mood is somewhat lightly euphoric, and Youssef’s surprisingly strong vocals are suitably spooked–out and appropriately emotive for what the band is doing. Dhafer Youssef is a two-fisted wonder with talent to spare, and the oud continues to penetrate the consciousness of American audiences. Good for Okeh for having the vision to release this fine record, despite the apparent lack of commercial potential.