Xiu Xiu, Nina (Graveface)
Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart is a fucking psychopath. Who else would/could brutalize the songs of the iconic Nina Simone like this and get away with it? Stewart is such a scary beast that no one around him will ever challenge or even question him on anything he does, or so it would appear. He opened a show for Swans and after thinking he bombed, he was compelled to make this album following a discussion with Swans’ Michael Gira about their mutual appreciation of Nina Simone, the artist and activist.
Stewart’s always been a squirmy character, mutilating songs in his own abstract way, with dissonance and discord playing significant roles. His quasi-experimental tone, which pulls from the most extreme elements of sounds that might be created by Pere Ubu or The Red Crayola and melts them in a microwave, is rubbery and loose fitting, with scarifying vocals sprawling over the top of arrhythmic guitar/noise dysfunction. In this gathering of deconstructed (Stewart calls it “reoriented”) Nina-related tunes he opens with “Don’t Smoke In Bed,” and pulls a bold and sassy move with vocals that are immediately off- putting, wasting no time alienating anyone who isn’t all in with his music already. “See Line Woman” works in this setting, with an odd guitar sound, along with the general noise, with the cranky sax on “Four Women” helpfully pulling attention away from the vocals. I’m hearing some Antony in the vocals when Stewart really tries, but sometimes he lets things get silly like the broken vocal pattern delivered with a badly intoned hoarse whisper that is barely audible (“Wild Is The Wind”).
He was likely completely absorbed “in the moment” when recording these songs, and he seems to have allowed the most decayed and decrepit versions to make final cut the album. Nothing wrong with that; this record is a dicey proposition anyway, and there are no fixed expectations, but I will say this will probably not be the album that garners a lot of new fans. If you’re already invested in Xiu Xiu you’re the target audience. If you’re a Nina Simone fan and you’re not familiar with Xiu Xiu, tread lightly, but don’t judge too quickly.
The Association, The Association (Cherry Red/Now Sounds/Rhino)
Known as “the Stonehenge album,” this was originally released in August, 1969. It was the Association’s fifth album and it’s probably their most musically diverse, and musically intriguing. It represents their first turn at co-producing, along with John Boylan, and it also goes a long way in enhancing the image of them as a band, and demonstrating that they were capable of much more than just their slightly spooky and slightly cloying melodious pop smash hits like “Cherish” and “Windy.”
For the first time since their second album they played the instruments on most of the songs, as opposed to vocally fronting a studio band; and the smart, skilled songwriting of band members Jules Alexander and Terry Kirkman is represented by several tracks. Alexander’s “Dubuque Blues,” pre-supposes a certain branch, or two, of the alt-country tree a couple decades early. “I Am Up For Europe,” a song Alexander co- wrote, is an active R&B/blues-rock tune with a great “rawk” vocal, and some syncopated female back-up vocals. And “Boy On The Mountain,” co-written by Kirkman, is a step into the mystic and calls up the spirit of Tim Buckley. This deluxe edition CD from the original master tapes contains ten bonus tracks, including several non-LP tracks (among them the excellent single, “Six Man Band”), and seven mono versions of songs from the original album. It’s really interesting to have the stereo and mono mixes together on one CD, and it’s worth noting that when you get the opportunity to hear them all side by side it’s readily apparent that the mono mixes are often sonically better than the stereo versions, case in point being “Are You Ready.”
Although it reached #32 on the album charts when it was released, this is an overlooked and somewhat forgotten record; for the band and also in the realm of 60s pop rock in general. Hats off to Rhino and Cherry Red for continuing to re-issue all these valuable artifacts, even when they know they may not rack up huge sales with a lot them, especially in the U.S.. The number of great records these two labels have rescued from total obscurity in the last twenty years is absolutely mind-boggling. Where the hell would we be without them? I shudder to think.
Dead Waves, Take Me Away (Self-released)
This Brooklyn noise-rock trio, consisting of brothers Nick and Teddy Panopoulos and drummer Franz Streit, come across as slightly schizoid on their second EP, but I don’t mean that as an insult. There’s a classic “heavy vs. noisy” dichotomy going on with their sound throughout the course of the record, and it’s quite clear that these guys could go either way on any given song and pull it off with ease. They have conquered both realms and they seem to write songs with one or the other in mind.
The core of a song either derives from heaviness or noise. The DIY sound of “Planet of Tribes” is a rip-snorting, throat-shredding example of screamy 90s noise-rock, pushing things well into overdrive and topping it off with some blaring vocals that are sheer fucking madness. At first, it reminded me a little bit of the underrated Modey Lemon, and maybe Falcon Crest (anybody heard of them?). They dial the noise way down with “Over Me,” and go slow and heavy, changing lanes completely and sounding like a different band. “Which Way” goes sci-fi psychobilly, and then they rev up the noise again on “Instead,” and end up resembling the great Steel Pole Bath Tub. The dank and grungy “Anomaly” is sort of Nirvana-esque as it rides in on a three-note bass line and lumbers around the room like a giant. They ultimately lean more in the direction of a noise band, but with no rulebook in hand, as opposed to, say, an actual heavy metal band going noisy. There’s a controlled chaos in their noisy moments (“Planet of Tribes”) that you just don’t get from heavy metal with its strict rhythms and structuralist tendencies. The binding is looser. When they’re bounding around the room really bashing out the noise it’s pretty damn groovy. There ain’t a plethora of bands that I can say that about right now. Refreshing. A dark horse contender for the best records of the year list.
Kissaway Trail, Breach (Yep Rock)
This is the third album by this clever Danish trio (formerly a five-piece on the two previous records), and it‘s hard to get a handle on what they’re doing, and where they’re going with this, at least initially. The first few bars of the opening song, “Telly The Truth (The Breach),” float in on a sweet, heady cloud of two chord guitar mist, and it sets the stage for an ethereal pop for which The Church would be an accurate point of reference. But from the first few bars it’s evident that their “sound” is somewhat amorphous, with miasmic washes of guitar suddenly building to spasms of shoegazer frenzy and then dropping it there and moving on.
“The Springsteen Implosion,” also released as a single, is an above average specimen, demonstrating an ability to meld about a dozen different influences into one song. It has a soulful pop quality, with a couple of big hooks, that suggests it could have been a hit in any of the last four decades. They touch on 90s alt-rock/alt-dance music with a lot of their moves but in keeping with their program they never end up staying in one place very long; sometimes finding themselves in the midst of some 60s pop-psych, like on the Wedding Present-esque “Beauty Still Rebels”. And “The Sinking” is equally as good in the same vein.
Soren Corneliussen, Thomas Fagerlund and Hasse Mydtskov seem to have a strong musical symbiosis, minus the departed members, and it results in a foggy mix of obtuse corners and vocal art-mospherics; with some blending of organic and electronic parts and dissonant guitar sounds that make the songs all feel mildly inebriated. This record is an idiosyncratic overachiever that grows on you.