Reviews: Dave Cloud, Efren, Little Horn

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Hey yo! What’s happenin’ y’all? I’m working hard to keep up with the many new releases that have come my way this spring and summer, and doing my best to give everything a fair hearing. I’ve received some questionable electronica lately, so none of that is represented here. This is the stuff I felt really deserved exposure among all the detritus that regularly clogs the pipeline. More to come in the next installment. Be well. Enjoy. Thanks for reading.

Efren, Rise On Up And Melt (Slo Pro) Athens, GA. has been cranking out a slew of new bands in recent years, bearing a wide of range of sounds and styles, and these guys add another catalog number to the file. Efren is a band that originated with Scott Low, who created the first album (Thunder and Moan) in ’09. After enlisting friends to perform the stuff live, they went on to do almost a hundred shows and recorded and released an EP (Always Been A Bleeder). Despite jazz backgrounds they’ve opted for a version of roots rock that encompasses a lot of their apparent folk/alt-country influences. They recorded this album in their homemade studio at the drummer’s farmhouse and it has a bit of a claustrophobic feel. The first song, “Moonshine,” is very good; intricate and laced with a thread of 70s folk rock, but not folk and not really rocking all that much either. Actually, it’s not easy to lay a finger on exactly what this song is, but it’s got something that spans the decades, that’s for sure. They get ambitious and bound around the roots music landscape somewhat, and even toss in the obligatory solo acoustic number “Salt To Be Free,” but it doesn’t come across as forced or contrived. The press kit calls it all a “constant flux,” and that’s accurate both within each song and from song to song. Some of the rest of this struggles a little to find it’s place between the pillars of Will Oldham or Josh Rouse or Sam Beam or whomever, but nothing they do ever lands squarely in the laps of any of those guys. In fact, maybe they amble around too much when they could obviously just lock down and really nail a song to the wall.

Dave Cloud and the Gospel Of Power, Practice In The Milky Way (Fire)
The Fire Records label has expanded its vision considerably and cranked out a broad array of abstruse records recently, and this pleasant surprise is the cherry on top of them all. 2006 saw the release of Dave Cloud’s Napoleon of Temperance, which is likely the first contact many music writers had with him. This album should garner more press coverage. Cloud occupies his own niche even among the more abstract of his contemporaries, and his curmudgeonly sing-speak stylings on a lot of songs seems limiting at first, but it actually gives him a lot of room to expand. Some call what he does “alt-blues,” and I think you can mostly decipher what is meant by that, but the idea that he’s only altering the blues, per se, is a misnomer since he’s not really based in any kind of traditional blues milieu. This expansive album is proof of that. Featuring members of Lambchop and The Silver Jews, it’s a good introduction to his overall approach, but that’s not the half of it. It’s a twisted, sardonic journey through the dark recesses of his musical mind, and it takes on a number of faces along the way. This twenty-track disc is lumpy and gritty, grumpy and angry, crazy and coarse. On a song like “Eat Me Raw,” Cloud’s off-the-grid persona is beyond irreverent to the point of being genuinely radical. Something you rarely hear in popular music. He’s a revolutionary, an anarchist, a bomb thrower, and he’s got a twenty year catalog behind him to bolster his case. “The Nudist Camp” is in your face and a little creepy, and good at what it’s supposed to do. “School of Hard Knoxville” is akin to a loud and loaded Kevin Coyne. He covers The Stranglers, and does a good job of it, and the song he chooses is the salacious “Bring On The Nubiles.” And the rather odd “Guy De Maupassant” recalls some early John Cale. The press material contains the phrase “middle finger to classicism,” in describing his work, and that’s a good line with regard to Cloud’s music in general. And, like so many true musical outsiders, from Captain Beefheart to Mark E. Smith, Cloud is forcing us to look at things around us in a new way by forcing us to listen in a new way. While it takes some work to fully engage the music they make at times, in the end the pay-off is always there.

Kevin Kinsella, Great Design (ROIR)
Co-founder of John Brown’s Body and 10 Ft. Ganja Plant, Kevin Kinsella’s got an earthy vibe all his own going down on his third solo album, and if you can get past the vocals I suppose you might be able to embrace it over time when you’re completely sick of your Jack Johnson albums. It’s a laid-back reggae-rock/pop of the not-very-dubby kind that won’t offend anyone, with just enough studio effects to fill in some empty space. The tone of a lot of the vocal parts is an issue, unfortunately. They just don’t work and the songs don’t click, and some of the melodies don’t help either. I’m not exactly sure what audience he’s going for here. It’s middling slow to mid-tempo, a little dancey at times, with some cheesy keyboards and not much else going for it. There are few bright spots, but not enough to save the album. “All That I Have” is groovy, with some semblance of soulfulness hiding in there, somewhere, and the title track is like an undergraduate Taj Mahal-influenced number, but that’s about it. It’s not terrible, just not very adventurous.

Little Horn, Twelve (Whale Heart)
Keith Forrester is the eye of the tornado in this Atlanta-based band that does a nice job of spinning some tuneful, gothic folk-rock on this five-song EP. Not that the use of the term ‘gothic’ should denote overly glum, because that is not the case. Initially, Forrester had some issues with being out front and singing his songs, but during a jam session he found his voice singing a folk song “everyone else had forgotten the words to…” After some live shows Forrester ran a Craigslist ad and hooked up with a couple members, but that incarnation didn’t last. He then recruited the rhythm section from another band he was in and Little Horn became a viable entity. Subsequently, Daniel Bellury, a friend of the band, founded Whale Heart Records to release Little Horn’s debut album, Such Pretty Houses, as well as his own recordings. The very first notes of “Thief” foretell some of what’s to come here, and it’s quite promising as they wrap minimal guitar around Forrester’s excellent baritone. “Bridges Break” is smooth and relaxed but not without some sand in the joints, maybe like a less dusty Calexico. “All My Friends” starts as a modest, upright tribute to friends, pushes to a nice crescendo and lands with a big, loud finish. All the songs work their melodies out in unfolding layers and each song hides a surprise or two. This is a very good band, already, with some better than average material to work with, and if they get a break or two, and keep writing songs like “Thief,” they’ll be rolling on I-75N and playing shows all over this great big, backwards-ass country of ours.

The Nighty Night, Dimples (Graveface)
This is the offspring of Paper Chase co-founders John Congleton and Jason Garner along with some friends. It’s a four-song EP that works itself into a good, frothy mess on “Dimples In Their Dimples,” and “Meaningless” is quite suitably off-putting, in a good way, at high volume. Congleton’s lyrics are wry and colloquial enough to make you listen. They lost me a little on “In My Hospital Gown,” but their self-proclaimed attempt at hitching up John Cale with Scott Walker (of the Walker Bros., not the fascist governor of Wisconsin) is a worthwhile exercise, and the next record could be a real bang.

The Trophy Fire, Armor (Greyday)
What we have here is a six-song EP by a San Francisco trio that’s hard to figure. If I say they skirt around Toad The Wet Sprocket or The Push Stars at various points in time will that offend anyone? Will it mean anything to anyone? All it really means is that I’m grasping for something to identify this with. Their patented smooth-rock feels like it belongs on one of those commercial adult-alternative radio stations that also plays secular Amy Grant alongside Joan Armatrading and Josh Groban alongside John Hiatt. Okay, maybe not Josh Groban. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking. Sorry. At any rate, this is a bit lightweight overall, but the airy vocals and lofty melodies really work, for the most part, and they pull themselves up to a higher plane before it’s all over. “Lies” might be a little too pre-digested, but “Bend” and “The Last American Phonebooth” come off just fine. The throatier the vocals get the more depth they add to the songs, and when they turn the guitars and bass up on “Glow” or “Chasing The Ghost” they hit their stride. Stepping back somewhat from the earlier assessment, there is definite value in these songs. Sometimes a band just has to move beyond their comfort zone to find their real strengths.

That’s all for now. Back into the hole. Until next time, peace out.