Reviews: Mr. Gnome, Crock, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy

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Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, There Is No God/God Is Love 10” (Drag City)

Okay, now, I ask you, who else could get away with penning a song entitled, “There Is No God” and then completely contradict himself by writing “God Is Love” for the b-side? Only our intrepid anti-hero, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. The dirty-minded bastard uses all of his wiles in the loopy, country-fied strains of the former, “But that which surrounds the tongue/That which sees love in the chest/That which puts mouth on cock and vagina/THAT is the best…” Sounds like a Henry Miller character talking to us. And delivering it in his shaky down-home twang only makes it more sinister. Contrast that with the gentle quiet of the plucked guitar and resigned vocal on “God Is Love.” It’s Leonard Cohen-esque musical poetry, which is something Will/BPB usually does pretty well, and the same holds true here. Not sure if this musical theme will obtain a slot on the next BPB project, but it doesn’t matter because this man goes where he wants to go, period. The back of the lyric sheet has a large photo of our anti-hero with his head shaved and a wild, dripping wet, handlebar moustache. It was taken somewhere in the Gulf, I presume, since there is contact information for an organization called Save Our Gulf/Waterkeeper Alliance. Keep on keepin’ on…

Crock, Grok (Jackpot)

Crock is Sam Coomes of Quasi and Spencer Seim of Hella, and this is another among their many extracurricular activities beyond their day jobs. Some of it is relatively aimless noise-rock, like “Nutritional Beast” and “Olde Lady,” but “No More Dumb Fun” is a good example of the upside of their particular shtick. It’s generally not as freely exploratory and wildly insane as Lightning Bolt, and a few others of that bent, but it plays in the same sandbox with all those bands when it wants to. When they find their footing they dig in: “Where We Get Off” is really good – slow with heavy, thick bass pushing a deep, muddy bottom end. “Different Strokes” drops a lickety-split drum fill over some buzzing guitar sustain. And “Bad Moves” is excellent, the best song here, with some great echo-laden vocals. The guitar and bass tones can be a little samey, but when they’re on they’ve almost got the inner groove of a jazz combo. Easy to say, not easy to do.

The Drift, Blue Hour (Temporary Residence)

The Drift suffered a sad blow after their second album came out. One of the founding members, Jeff Jacobs, was diagnosed with cancer. Jeff later passed away, and with his blessing, the band has decided to carry on as a trio, instead of trying to replace him. With Blue Hour, Rich Douthit, Danny Grody and Trevor Montgomery have released an absorbing album that should help them work through some of what’s happened, and maintain a firm presence in the instrumental/new post-rock scene. “Dark Passage” rumbles in with a bottom heavy “how do you do?” and the first thing that came to mind was the great 90s band Djam Karet. (Whatever happened to them?) It reveals itself in layers that melt into some suggestions of dub without going all the way, a technique they are adept at using in a number of ways. They are also able to build on the percussive repetition, in most cases, and go wide with it, but “Horizon” just plods along, as do a few other parts. Then they roll out the 12-minute long “The Skull Hand Smiles/May You Fare Well” and it, along with the other 12-minute long song, “Fountain” does tax one’s patience, but they both attach themselves by the end. “Luminous Friend” really saves the day. Besides having a great title, it demonstrates the possibilities contained in this kind of music. It builds some anxious momentum and really takes off and flies toward the end. A contender for the “songs of the year” list, for sure. This band has endured the kind of thing that often breaks bands apart. They’ve survived and turned the bad energy of a huge personal loss into the energy of a creative project. Endeavor to persevere.

Mr. Gnome, Madness In Miniature (El Marko)

This Cleveland duo has become a critical favorite (Paste, Spin) despite existing, primarily, in the underground, and this album should help move them up the ladder another rung or two. Singer/guitarist Nicole Barille and drummer/pianist Sam Meister take what they do seriously and the whole package features high production values. Sometimes their songs are almost as meticulous and detailed as the fine cover art on this album. “Ate The Sun” is a decent pysch-pop song that comes thundering in after the first few bars, and is somehow able to sustain that energy all the way to the finish line. Some guitar mini-explosions keep things from getting too staid at any point. The songs often possess a certain kind of mutability, as the rhythms gallop and lunge forward. It’s never certain exactly where things might go with the changes coming at you. There are a few bands that share this atmospheric sound construct and overall tone, like the Jealous Girlfriends, for example, and you’ve got to do something special to really set yourself apart in that league. (Or have a great singer like the Jealous Girlfriends.) While much of this feels good as it glides over you, it’s rare that they do something unusual with the formula. On “Watch the City Sail Away” Nicole’s vocals finally take on a more coarse texture and the song stands out because of it. More of that would surely be better than, oh, say, slamming your fingers in the car door.

Soley, We Sink (Morr)

The vocal prowess on the opener, “I’ll Drown,” sets the (vocal) tone for this exceptional album. Soley Stefansdottir is an Icelandic singer with some of the clearest pipes I’ve heard in forever, and she can really belt it out when she wants to; a natural- born singer. She released a six-song EP entitled, Theater Island last year, and this is her debut full-length. “Smashed Birds” pulls back slightly from the vocal gymnastics of the opener, but not all that much, and not to a detrimental effect. Anything she tries to do works just fine. She knows when to whisper and when to scream on most of these songs. The minimalism of “Bad Dream’ illustrates that all she really needs is her voice, a cheap Casio keyboard sound and a drum track. She does the rest with pitch and phrasing and tone and color, but never really takes the easy way out. Even if the song isn’t all that profound she still sings her ass off. Case in point: “Dance,” which is an odd syncopated waltz of some sort, and it doesn’t offer a lot musically, but the depth in her voice carries it. “Blue Leaves” has a point/counterpoint thing going on with the piano and vocals, and more arrangements like that would be a-okay, as well. There’s no one else you can really compare her to, presently, and it’s well beyond the freak-folk of Joanna Newsom, or most of the other electro-folk stuff out there. This is going to have some critics falling all over themselves to be the first to rave about it. I’ll stop here.