erasing clouds

10 Music Reviews

Dr. John, Right Place, Right Time: Live at Tipitina's, Mardi Gras '89 (Hyena Records)

New Orleans piano legend Dr. John begins this 1989 Mardi Gras live set with the classic "Junco Partner," him singing of going "down the road…loaded as can be," his band punctuating his words with horns. It's an appropriate way to kick off a show that has a drunken feeling to it, not the sort of rambunctious energy of the start of a party as much as the hazy, everybody's-feeling-good vibe of its end. And who better to conclude a late-night New Orleans party than "the Night Tripper" himself? Or that is, not just Dr. John, Mac Rebennack, himself, but Rebennack backed by a quite dazzling band? Together they run through a splendid set of originals and classics that exemplify the truly unique blend of jazz, soul, and blues that is New Orleans music. The set as recorded here (by Rebennack, who apparently owns quite a collection of recordings of his performances) includes 10 songs, all of them remarkable. There's "Let the Good Times Roll," "Traveling Mood," and "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying," and his own classics "I Walk on Guilded Splinters" and "Such a Night," which ends the set oh so appropriately. – dave heaton

Experience, Positive Karaoke With a Gun/Negative Karaoke With a Smile (Green UFOs)

The idea of a rock band opening their CD by playing Public Enemy's "Show Em Whatcha Got," as Experience does, might conjure up an immediate sour taste, with visions of Limp Bizkit dancing in your head. If so, know that Experience isn't coming from a heavy metal place, though they play the song with as much ferocity as you'd want. This French band is intense, but in the way that Gang of Four was intense, or a tight funk band is intense. Their music comes from a post-punk, funk, jazz place, yet with the force and groove of hip-hop no doubt an influence. On Positive Karaoke With a Gun, the CD half of this CD-DVD set, they roll through 15 cover songs in hard-hitting style, loud and ferocious. It takes courage to tackle such a variety of music: Old Dirty Bastard, Shellac, A Tribe Called Quest, Soul Coughing, Q and Not U, the theme music from an Akira Kurosawa film. They do a French-language version of Gil Scott Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." They do a medley of a Pussy Galore song and a Kool Keith song. They end with an explosive version of Public Image Limited's "This Is Not a Love Song." It's all very dramatic, but also very powerful. They have a sense for spectacle, but also for groove, and for the way that music is an international language. – dave heaton

I Am Robot and Proud, The Electricity in Your House Wants to Sing (Darla)

The Electricity in Your House Wants to Sing, the second album from electronic musician Shwn-Han Liem, aka I Am Robot and Proud, begins with a few random notes on a piano, as if the program is about to start and the musicians are getting ready. And then the electricity begins to sing…that is, a unique style of electronic pop music flows forth like a waterfall and takes us with it. The album title is a great one, as it forms the vision that this awe-inspiring music is emanating from our surroundings, that all of a sudden the world around you is singing. And the sound of it is spellbinding, as electronics and acoustic instruments seamlessly join together in an elaborate, exciting flow. Melodic keyboard tones are wrapped up with other bouncy, gently punching tones. Flutes and other instruments work their way in, making you listen closely to all the patterns and textures, even as you're being swept away. Beats push forward, giving everything positive energy, yet there's also a warm, enticing mood being created. This is atmosphere in motion: music you can sink into that also makes you feel like you're flying high. – dave heaton

Kind of Like Spitting, The Thrill of the Hunt (Redder Records)

The troubadour folk side of Kind of Like Spitting's music, showcased last year on the Phil Ochs cover CD Learn and seen in glimpses on the album In the Red, is at the forefront of this latest addition to the ever-lengthening Kind of Like Spitting discography. It's a 30-minute album called The Thrill of the Hunt, recorded at many of the same sessions as In the Red. It's a quieter, calmer album, but no less powerful. Rambling folk songs stand with sensitive ballads to form a stirring album of contemplation and emotional expression. KOLS mainstay Ben Barnett's collaborator David J takes the lead vocals on the slightly Wilco-esque title track, which opens the CD and leads way to a series of stripped-down songs from Barnett that are heart-baring though not overly sentimental, striking a place between raw emotion and clever, unconventional ways of looking at the world around us. "Hands" is a great example of Barnett taking a familiar starting place, the narrator admiring a would-be lover from afar, and taking it in a more interesting direction by containing within the serenade an expression of the complexity of two people interacting, along with a self-critique of the impotence of love songs. That unique slant on songs, and their powers, shines through in all of Barnett's work, whether he's striving to continue Phil Ochs' tradition in a contemporary context or interpreting other songwriters' songs. Thrill includes three excellent covers, chief among them a straightforward, and surprisingly effective, cover of Bad Religion's "You" (off No Control). The album closes with a take on Big Star's "Thirteen" which somehow makes me ignore how many times the song has been covered and just concentrate on what a great a song it is, and how good it sounds when Barnett sings it. – dave heaton

The Lucksmiths, A Hiccup in Your Happiness (Matinee)

Hearing the Lucksmiths' "Sunlight in a Jar" playing in a Gap store the other week instantly brightened my day, and made me realize how much I want the whole world to hear their catchy, human, truly remarkable songs. To me any Lucksmiths release is a newsworthy event, even if it's just a four-song single like this one, which is still quite special. Headlining track "A Hiccup in Your Happiness" is one more reminder of how fantastic their 2005 album Warmer Corners is. The album's second single, "Hiccup" is a spunky post-break-up reassurance, driven by horns and strings and choppy guitar. The other three songs on this EP are more ruminative: ballads which carry an acute sense of time and place, plus related feelings and stories. All three are stripped-down and lovely (and to my ear reminiscent in style of some earlier releases, like Staring at the Sky and parts of Why That Doesn't Surprise Me). There's the bittersweet, train-station scene "From Macaulay Station," the late-night-in-Paris tale "Rue Something", and, perhaps best of all, a poignant ode to dashed election-night hopes called "To Absent Votes." All four tracks offer vivid life snapshots within the framework of wonderfully composed and realized pop songs. – dave heaton

Pop the Question (Book Club Records)

Pop the Question is a unique animal: a thematic compilation where the theme involves not the music as much as the musicians' personal lives. It's a collection of 25 songs from bands where two of the band members are married, to each other. They're not all love songs necessarily, though many are – and several are about heartbreak, or the lack of love. The theme is less about the music than the bands, which really just means it's an excuse to showcase a bunch of really great pop bands, and hang them together. Which is fine, mainly because this is a highly listenable, truly enjoyable collection of well-crafted songs. There's no weak links here, it's 70 minutes of superb melodies and a whole lot of heart. It kicks off with Sprites' "I Want You Back," not the Jackson 5 song but a sweet, snazzy love letter. The CD's other highlights include The Triangles' super-joyous singalong "Applejack" (an 'everyone-sing-for-the-rafters' type of moment), the omnipresent Boyracer's bouncy "More Than Most," Las Puertas' angsty yet sweet "the Water," and Her Name in Lights' accurately named "1 Minute 20." But nothing's lackluster, it's all enjoyable. There's tracks from Kanda, The Crabs, The Shermans, Sun Hill (doing a Stephin Merritt song from the first Sixths album), The Charade, The Orchid Pool, Watoo Watoo, and many other groups that you've heard of, or haven't, but will enjoy singing along to once you've lived with this fetching collection for a while. – dave heaton

Postal Blue, Road to Happiness (Humblebee Recordings)

The Brazilian indie-pop group Postal Blue's 5-song EP Road to Happiness follows much in the tradition of their previous releases (two EPs and an LP)…which is to say that it's gorgeous pop music with an air of melancholy to it: gently sad but also overly hopeful. The EP starts off with "The World Doesn't Need You," which has an especially muscular, tight musical base over which singer Adriano Ribeiro's voice glides. His is a romantic, intensely sensitive voice which stays in the upper registers while conveying a bittersweet feeling. That first track cuts off sharply at the two and a half-minute mark, as a perfect pop single should, leading then into four more tracks with an equally full sound, an equally bright tenor, and an overriding air of longing. There's a Smiths-like tone to one track ("I Took the Love You Were Hiding") and a delightful bubblegum pop flavor to the whole affair. The songs are catchy, sharp, and exceedingly pleasant, even as they carry within their welcoming, sweet demeanor a feeling of heartbreak. It's another superb release from a group with its own distinct personality, playing music that relaxes you while conjuring up ineffable sense of longing. – dave heaton

Megan Reilly, Let Your Ghost Go (Carrot Top)

Megan Reilly's second album Let Your Ghost Go initially seems like it might be all about atmosphere. The first song "On a Plane" introduces the album's smokey, Southern vibe and Reilly's seductive signing voice, but it's at first hard to grab onto anything. But by the next track her voice breaks through the ghostliness and stops you dead in your tracks, completely shakes you up as she sings an arresting ballad that has eerie overtones. "You better keep praying / and watch out for night time," she warns. That haunted, gothic feeling impresses throughout the album, but so does Reilly's ability to stop time with her singing voice. A talented band, including Tim Foljahn of Two Dollar Guitar and Tony Maimone of so many great bands, builds a complete, compelling mood which is dreamy and sweat-soaked and takes you to haunted mansions and clouds of fog and the stages of backwoods bars at the same time. Dreams and ghosts seem to linger through the songs, bringing ambiguity with them. There's that sort of magic to this music, but there's also real grit. "Whatever made you so tired / we all get tired," Reilly sings on "Boy as a Bird," and the feelings she expresses run right through you. That song's a a real show-stopper, as is the stunning "Blackhearted", and the gentle but riveting Thin Lizzy cover "Little Girl in Bloom". These are moments where you can imagine a bar full of people held in one place as if a pause button was pressed. They're moments where everything stops and all that's there is the singer, the song, and a breathless feeling that's unmistakable. – dave heaton

Saturday Looks Good to Me, Sound on Sound (Redder Records)

Saturday Looks Good to Me's Fred Thomas is some kind of human song factory, with a knack for taking the history of rock and pop music and filtering through his own personality and idiosyncrasies, and winding up with song after classic song. Following up two great albums on Polyvinyl Records, the Redder Records-released Sound on Sound is basically a compilation of non-album tracks the band has released over the last handful of years. And they've released a ton; this CD is 30 tracks in just under 80 minutes. Track after track is catchy, full of feeling, and impeccable arranged, even within the confines of home-recording and self-producing. It also feels like a tour through music history. Thomas's love for Phil Spector is shown throughout, with many songs coming off like contemporary takes on the style of pop he produced way back when (one example is "This Time Every Year," recognizable as a Christmas tune before the first words are sung, due to its similarity to the Spector-produced Xmas songs). But there's also a Magnetic Fields feeling to many tracks, and at least one dead-on Rolling Stones allusion (the ballad "Love Will Find You"). There's a cute cover of the Ramones' "Listen to My Heart" as well. All of these musical touchpoints are strengths of SLGTM's music, not weaknesses. Their songs pleasurably evoke so much great music of the past, while maintaining their own personality, always feeling like this is music for today and tomorrow, not for yesteryear. The lyrical themes are timeless – basically love, infatuation, heartbreak – which means not just that they're present throughout time but they're still relavent, especially when sung with this much style and heart. All in all, Sound on Sound is a fantastic treasure chest of songs. – dave heaton

Two Gallants, What the Toll Tells (Saddle Creek)

The wind blows, dust clouds and tumbleweeds roll by, a ragged man plugs in his guitar, whistles a tune calmly to himself, and begins his tale: "Well I spent last night in Las Cruces jail…" San Francisco duo Two Gallants' second album What the Toll Tells is filled with tales: colorful tales, filled with blood and pain. They're American outlaw tales, old and new, set in motels and bars, beside rivers and highways and deserts. They're big, mythic tales, marked by the sweep of history. But as played and sung by Two Gallants, they're also physical tales, told through skin and bones, through scars, cuts, bullet wounds, and decaying flesh. The "toll" of the title is of course the death toll, and all of these nine songs could probably be fairly classified as murder ballads, albeit often played with the sort of raw energy that makes you feel like the story's happening right now, in the moment that each word is spit and yelped and cried, as guitars are strummed and drums are pounded. Death comes in these songs through random stabbings, the murder of a spouse, execution, murders carried out for the purposes of revenge…even a black man being lynched for the color of his skin. Two Gallants' give voice to these stories and characters in a vivid, visceral way, pounding out the circumstances and feelings in an over-dramatic style that's run through with feeling. Whether they're quickly sketching out a murder scene or delivering a 9-minute, harmonica- and guitar-led confessor's tale, they do it with intensity. – dave heaton

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