erasing clouds

5 Music Reviews

by dave heaton

Jason Anderson, New England (K)

New England is where eccentric heart-on-sleeve pop-rock troubadour Jason Anderson (aka Wolf Colonel) holes up with his best friends in some warm and comfortable place to create home-made, tender folk songs about how beautiful the world is even in the hardest moments. These songs ache with joy and hurt and love, from the first track "For Kyle" (with Anderon's stark, shiver-inducing singing about opening you heart to the world) through to the closing "Christmas," a group singalong with the chorus, "Put your ear to the sky and listen my darling/everything whispers I love you." Anderson gently strums acoustic guitars, throws out bluesy riffs on an electric, gives shout-outs to his friends mid-song, duets on a beautiful pair of covers (The Microphones' "Thanksgiving" and Son, Ambulance's "A Book Laid On its Binding"), rides a lovely piano/guitar/gentle vocal pattern for nearly nine minutes, and slips into an 80s pop song at the apex of a melancholy memory. It's a gorgeous heartbreaker of an album, where a quiet and casual countenance hangs over songs that just tear right through all of the world's b.s. and get to the real heart of things.

El-p, High Water (Thirsty Ear)

For the surprisingly good experiment High Water, hip-hop producer El-p collaborates with some of NYC's top jazz musicians in an atypical way which avoids the a + b ordinariness of most cross-genre meetings and almost by happenstance becomes something truly special. It helps that El-p grew up the son of a jazz musician, and approached this recording with a certain level of knowledge and familiarity (not to mention perhaps a desire to connect on musical terms with his father). As such, instead of merely throwing hip-hop beats under jazz, El-P wrote jazz compositions of his own (generally traditional, melodic pieces), had six of the best jazz musicians of today improvise with them (Guillermo E. Brown, Roy Campbell, Daniel Carter, William Parker, Matthew Shipp and Steve Swell), added his own touches here and there, and then mixed the whole thing as an album. While the playing is brilliant and the original pieces solid enough to give the album its central spark, the final mixing is where El-p really shows his brilliance and carries the album to the next level. His fingerprint is at first almost invisible - this is still a hot jazz album first and foremost, not an awkward hybrid - yet the more you listen the more you hear how he's brought everything together in an intense, atmospheric way. The main aesthetic connection between High Water and El-P's previous releases lies with mood (that simultaneously beautiful/harsh vibe that NYC gives off shines through this music as powerfully as it did through his work with Company Flow and on his already-classic album Fantastic Damage) and approach. High Water could have been a vanity project or an unbalanced mess - instead it's a complicated work filled with emotion and surprises.

Mahjongg, Machinegong (Cold Crush Records)

Mahjongg's Machinegong EP may open with a wimpy casio beeping out a funky tune, but before you know it your speakers are overtaken by a fleshed-out, powered-up version of that same melody. Mahjongg keep themselves mysterious (they hail from the twin cities of Columbia, Missouri and Chicago, Illinois; like to dress up in costumes when they play live; and are interested in Africa as a concept and a region - or so says their Friendster profile), and channel through their music a forest-ful of funked-up ghosts playing messed-up guitars, percussion instruments and computers. In short they play some kind of bizarre but lovable dance music influenced by James Brown and flying saucers. Choppy guitar parts, unleashed drums, and the occasional spacey textures cover seven songs that are all about partying down in some weird, messed-up futuristic way. The party of tomorrow begins here.

Pipas, Bitter Club (Matinee)

Take intimate, pretty melodies, marry them to lightly electronic beats and rhythms, throw in some friendly spunk and a sense of style, and you have the London duo Pipas, whose new EP Bitter Club will bounce and pop its way into your life. Lupe Nunez-Fernandez and Mark Powell harmonize about disappointment and love over gentle guitars and dance-club beats, continually hitting on tunes that you'll carry with you for a while (even when the song's less than 40 seconds long, as on the lovely "Minilife"). The prettiest song on the album, "Jean C," is a melancholy step away from the city lights and spotlights. But whether Pipas are teasing you with a hint of a manic dance groove or calming you into a Sunday afternoon spent crying over old photos, they know the path to your heart. Bitter Club proves that just as well as their previous albums and singles did.

Tulsa Drone, No Wake (Dry County Records)

A black-and-white photo of the Aurora Borealis hanging above a cabin buried in a snow-covered forest? Yep, that's exactly the right cover art for No Wake, the haunting debut album from Tulsa Drone, an instrumental group from Richmond, Virginia. That's right, they're not from Tulsa, and no they don't drone as much as you might expect, either. Instead they create moody, beautiful-but-deadly soundscapes using guitars, bass, drums and - holding a distinct spot in the center of most songs - the hammer dulcimer. Tulsa Drone's songs glide along but they also have an intense energy to them. This isn't bliss-out music but something much more ominous yet still gorgeous and peaceful. The would-be soundtrack to a Spaghetti Western drained of any cheap thrills or humor, No Wake feels both like waking up and being murdered - it's lovely but in its own way quite scary.

Issue 21, March 2004

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