erasing clouds

5 Music Reviews

by dave heaton, ben rubenstein

15.60.75 (The Numbers Band), Jimmy Bell's Still in Town (Hearpen Records)

The 1975 Cleveland, Ohio live performance recorded on the Numbers Band's debut release Jimmy Bell's Still in Town was apparently greeted unenthusiastically by the audience, who was anxiously awaiting headliners Bob Marley & the Wailers. But as historical records, live albums generally write the crowd out of the equation, giving you just the music. That's definitely the case here, and the performance itself is red-hot; it's easy to imagine a crowd completely swept away by the band's dark, edgy version of the blues, even if that wasn't really the case. Singer/guitarist Robert Kidney leads the band, filled with sharp players (guitars, bass, drums and 3 sax players) through rough but tightly compressed blues-rock romps with tales of heartbreak ("About Leaving Day"), crime ("Thief"), and distrust. The lyrics are in-the-street raw but also a bit surrealistic at times, though perhaps that side is amplified by Kidney's ragged vocal delivery, which puts him right on the edge of paranoia. With wild sax solos galore, the music often takes off in the direction of jazz, yet the basic foundation is the blues - albeit blues of a more gut-wrenching variety than the slick, cliché-ridden type of pop-rock that passes for blues in the minds of mainstream America these days, and thank god for that. --dave heaton

Kon and Amir, Present Uncle Junior's Friday Fish Fry: The Cleaning (Seven Heads)

It's logical that compulsive beatdiggers, who spend their lives searching through records for elements they can use in their own music, would love old records for what they are too...that they love records for the music that's on there, not just for how they can manipulate it. The Cleaning, the second release in the Uncle Junior's Fish Fry series (on the Uncle Junior Records imprint of 7 Heads), was put together by two such vinyl-heads. Instead of just giving us the best breaks and beats, Kon and Amir deliver 19 tracks taken from mostly rare records of the past. They leave the tracks alone, let them play as they would if you were listening to the original record. But they're also DJs with good ears for what flows together and what doesn't, so the CD works not just as a historical compilation, but as a damn good party jam. Generally speaking, the focus is on 1970s R&B and disco, and every track is rock-solid, with brilliant grooves and funky drums galore (not to mention seriously soulful singing all over the place). Nearly all of the songs are new to my ears, though Mighty Ryders' "Evil Vibrations" is instantly recognizable as the backbone De La Soul used for a certain roller skating jam back in the day. Apparently a few aren't especially obscure, but most of them are extremely so, taken from local releases, rare 12"s, or who knows what (one killer instrumental track, "Pistol," is so obscure they're not even sure who the artist was). The Cleaning therefore is a feast for lovers of rare vinyl, or soul music fans who have run through all of the available releases. But it must be stated again (and again and again...): you don't need to care about what was recorded when by whom to enjoy this. All you need are feet for dancing and the will to live, as this is the kind of music that will get anybody moving. - dave heaton

Mům, Summer Make Good (Fat Cat Records)

Mům's third album Summer Make Good opens casually but grows towards drama, sounding like a thunderstorm building to a breaking point. The first proper song, "Weeping Rock, Rock," is disarming at first even for fans of the Icelandic band's prior releases - with clouds of electronic atmosphere and delicate wisps of folk music, plus ghostly nursery-rhyme backing vocals, it moves gently but in an eerie way. Yet what takes you aback the most is how stripped-down and clear Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir's lead vocals are, considering how cloudy and hard-to-decipher they have been in the past. Her voice is, to be frank, really strange - pretty and delicate yet slightly twisted. The beauty and the strangeness are amplified by the way they're recorded throughout Summer Make Good. And those twin qualities run through the music as well, as does a lovely mix of childlike fascination and deep, abiding sadness. Mům play dreamy pop music that's created with both electronics and proper instruments (including horns, piano, strings, xylophone), in a way that makes it feel both futuristic and ancient, like centuries-old folk ballads that escaped into outer space and transformed into something else. It's modern yet organic, evoking natural phenomena like the wind and the ocean more than laptops or effects pedals. Their music is reminiscent of odd, trippy nursery rhymes as much now as ever, yet on Summer Make Good there's also an open-hearted melancholy, in the music, in the words (the album's title is a shortened version of the song title "Will the summer make good for all of our sins?"; that song is preceded by one called "Small Deaths Are the Saddest"), and in the way the words are sung: One of the moments filled with the most heartfelt, sad longing is the one where she's mysteriously asking someone to draw ghosts on her back. I loved Mům's last album, 2002's Finally We Are No One, yet it often floated past me without leaving much of a trace. Summer Make Good certainly doesn't do that; the deep impression its unusual, ghostly songs leave makes it my favorite Mům album yet. It's some of the prettiest sad music you're likely to find, yet it's also filled with mysterious pathways and spaces; it's rare for such openly emotional music to also be a maze of questions and riddles. - dave heaton

Organic Thoughts, The Purest Form (Blaze the World)

Although there has been a noticeable resurgence in quality hip-hop music over the past few years, as some truly distinctive voices have risen from the underground to claim new legions of fans, many still believe that the "golden age" of hip-hop was and always will be the early 1990's, when groups like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and Digable Planets ruled most stereo systems. Organic Thoughts is undoubtedly part of that school of thought, and they aim to bring as much of the energy and honesty from that period back to center stage. What's more, they attempt this goal with the help of a female MC, a rare thing in hip-hop's male-dominated world. So there were many reasons I was excited to hear the group's debut album, The Purest Form, as their success could mean a lot of great things for the direction of the genre. Of course, this anticipation set me up for a major disappointment. It's not that the album is awful; actually, it is far from it--the rapping is solid and full of confidence, and most of the beats are inventive and interesting (though muted at some points), but this is certainly not the second coming of Digable Planets. For starters, El Gambina tries too hard to emulate that group's Butterfly, with predictably flat results. Though she clearly has skills, her delivery sometimes lacks feeling and energy, especially on her solo cut, "No1 Can Rise Above Me". Tracks with the other MCs work better, as Diwrekt and Fraze come correct on tracks like "Higher Degree" and the piano-driven "Renaissance", maybe the best song on the album where all three rappers shine. Their rhymes are not too complex, and combine doses of braggadocio and positivity to stay true to the ethos of the Native Tongues, while not quite achieving the same level of quality. The production is solid throughout, as Fraze, Reason and Onpoynt create classic laid-back loops that flow well with the rapping. Unfortunately, there are many tracks that just do not remain interesting for more than a few minutes (the grating "Hypnotic Travelin", "Soul Movement", "Check the Flow") and the album suffers from excessive length (20 tracks, with too many interludes) and an overabundance of sampling and scratching that take away from the rapping at hand. One instance where a sample is used well is on "No Options" featuring Chan, which borrows part of Blackstar's "Respiration" for its chorus (note: I may only think this works well because I love that song). Chan submits one of the strongest verses on the album, and many other guest MC's contribute well, including Prince Poetry of Organized Konfusion ("Be Alright", which features a great string beat), Uniq (the smooth "All Too Easy") and Mush Mouf of Eyesoulated Mindz, who, along with Slo-Mo, helps to drive the soulful "Everything Must Change". One issue that I have with this album is the prevalence of sing-song, R&B choruses, which, in my humble opinion, threaten the very existence of hip-hop and should only be used sparingly by those who understand the consequences of their actions. In truth, there is a lot of promise here; I just think Organic Thoughts are a couple of albums away from coming close to the level of their influences. - ben rubenstein

Schooner, You Forget About Your Heart (Pox World Empire)

Schooner's You Forget About Your Heart has the sense of melancholy and emotional fullness you'd expect from an album with that title, not to mention yellowed-wedding-photo cover art that resonates with the album emotionally. Singer/guitarist Reid Johnson (who previously was in a band called The AM) imbues his melodies with a sense of real longing that pulls you in and makes you surrender your ears completely. Yet he doesn't have that heart-on-your-sleeve clarity (sentimentality, one might say) that would make critics bandy about the dreaded "emo" word. Instead there's an entrancing vagueness to the songs' sentiment which in its own way increases the songs' impact, giving you a reason to keep listening other than just the catchy melodies and stark arrangements of guitar, piano, bass, and drums (which, truth be told, is a good enough reason already). The bulk of the album lies in a calm yet on-edge emotional place, with tunes somehow reminiscent of musicians with ears hyper-tuned to pop melody (like Elvis Costello, say) and dreamy wanderers like Mark Kozelek, but the album's also reminiscent in places of pop-rock musicians that take a rougher approach, that like to mess around with loud guitars without overwhelming the hooks. This is especially true of the album's two flat-out rockers: "My Friend's Band," which opens the album with the velocity of a late-night train escaping across America, and "Stunts and Showmanship and Codes," where the regret and anxiety that run through the album come out as a burst of anger.- dave heaton

Issue 23, May 2004

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