Rhapsody Streamnotes: September 27, 2009

This is a bit late coming, but I've been bouncing back and forth without much of a plan, not noticing how many of these notes have piled up.

These are short notes/reviews based on streaming records from Rhapsody. They are snap judgments based on one or two plays, accumulated since my last post along these lines, back on August 18. Past reviews and more information are available here.

Metric: Fantasies (2009, Metric International): Canadian rock band, first of three albums I've heard. Group is led (or fronted) by Emily Haines, daughter of poet Paul Haines, recalled primarily for his libretto to Carla Bley's Escalator Over the Hill. Haines also plays keybs, providing a little synth plastic over the guitar grind. Catchy, muscular, smart. What more do you want? A-

Heartless Bastards: The Mountain (2009, Fat Possum): AMG describes their first two albums as the work of a power trio -- indie rock, garage punk -- but this group has been retooled around guitarist-vocalist Erika Wennerstrom with a fair amount of spare fiddle, pedal steel, mandolin, and banjo. Gives it a dark country feel, which is striking for instrumental stretches. Wennerstrom's voice is presumably an acquired taste. I haven't gotten that far yet. B

Björk: Voltaic (2007 [2009], Nonesuch): Live record, presumably based on Volta which was new at the time. I never much cared for her, but she's developed some electro-industrial thrash that strikes me as inadvertently amusing, and it holds up most of the time here. Probably comes with a DVD. B+(*)

Mulatu Astatke/The Heliocentrics: Inspiration Information, Vol. 3 (2009, Strut): Ethiopian, b. 1943; studied in London, New York, and Boston (Berklee), learning to mix jazz and Latin into trad Ethiopian music. Not sure what he plays. Éthiopiques, Vol. 4 collected his 1969-74 "Ethio Jazz and Musique Instrumentale." This is a collaboration with a London "Psyche-Jazz" group, the Heliocentrics, taking some old music and adding new things to it. They have an album of their own, Out There (2007, Now Again) -- might be worth a spin. Here they remind me more of dub, but not much echo. A-

Alchemist: Chemical Warfare (2009, Koch): Alan Maman, producer, sometimes credited as The Alchemist, dates back to Soul Assassins, Cypress Hill, House of Pain, Mobb Deep, Dilated Peoples, a quasi-underground vibe. Not a rapper himself, he imports them by the boatload: Kool G Rap, Snoop Dogg, Jadakiss, Eminem, KRS-One, Talib Kweli, Juvenile, Three 6 Mafia, Prodigy, Fabolous, Oh No. It has its moments (e.g., KRS-One) and its underlying sound; also too many skits. B+(**)

Chris Knight: Heart of Stone (2008, Drifter's Church): Singer-songwriter from the mines of Kentucky, has all the tools for country but writes grittier songs, especially ones carrying a chip on his shoulder over class -- "Crooked Road" is one of his best, in part because he slows it down and lets the words hit home. Could use more songs like that, but producer Dan Baird (ex-Georgia Satellites) and/or Knight decided to rock the first half of the album harder. Evidently helped them sell some records, but took the edge of this one. B+(***)

Phoenix: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (2009, Glassnote): French rock group, several albums since 2000, sings in English, has a nice synthy beat and pop sense that that doesn't take their classical references -- album title, leadoff song called "Lisztomania" -- too seriously. B+(*)

Asher Roth: Asleep in the Bread Aisle (2009, SRC/Universal Motown): White rapper, makes no claim to street cred, other than admitting some people confuse his accent with Eminem. Includes his novelty hit "I Love College," which is meant to be funny but isn't funny enough. Seems to go serious toward the end, but it's not clear that works any better. B

UGK: UGK 4 Life (2009, Jive/Zomba): Below the logo, front cover also identifies them as Underground Kingz. Duo, from Port Arthur, TX, one guy Bun B, the other Pimp C. Presumably this was mostly in the can before 2007 when Pimp C died -- something about codeine syrup and sleep apnea. ("Sippin' on Some Syrup" was one of their signatures.) Beats are robust and samples catchy, lyrics a dirty south thang. I could see going up or down on it. B+(***)

Swamp Dogg: Give 'Em as Little as You Can . . . as Often as You Have to . . . or . . . a Tribute to Rock 'n' Roll (2009, S-Curve): Oldies covers: Fats Domino, Jimmy Reed, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley, Beatles, Temptations, Aretha Franklin, Rolling Stones, Swamp Dogg. This took virtually no conceptual effort, either to select the songs or to arrange them. Most are just thrashed. The only one where Jerry Williams' voice does something is Springsteen's "Hungry Heart," but even the extras detract. "Total Destruction to Your Mind" is worthy in this set, but also sloppy. C

Röyksopp: Junior (2009, Astralwerks): Norwegian synth-pop band, has a good beat, seems innocuous enough, fun even. Used to have a trip hop rep, but they seem to have gotten over it. B+(**)

Buraka Som Sistema: Black Diamond (2008 [2009], Fabric): DJ group from Portugal. I wound up filing them under Africa, since some or all of the group come from Angola where they're rooted in something called kuduro. They're fairly far removed from their roots -- comparable, say, to The Bug from reggae -- but I wouldn't be surprised to find similar things bouncing back from Africa, much like Nigeria's 1970s regurgitation of psychedelic rock. Besides, you can't keep a good beat down. B+(***)

Busdriver: Jhelli Beam (2009, Anti-): Motormouth rapper, claims that "conscious rap failed us" so now he's trying to drive home subliminally. Works best when you can follow him enough to catch the humor, or at least the cleverness, but sometimes you just have to settle for the helium. B+(**)

Busdriver: Fear of a Black Tangent (2005, Mush): Running out of things in my meta-ratings file that I particularly want to listen to, and this handy older record I had missed was easily accessible. Easier paced, less frenetic than the new one, which gives his beats a chance to develop some complex flavors, and gives you a chance to catch some of his wit and mystery and, most likely, bullshit. A-

Otis Taylor: Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs (2009, Telarc): A bluesman with moderate tastes, which keep him from digging deep but also keep him from exhibiting any flash. The only song that sounds like he's really got the blues has to do with losing his guitar. A couple of songs feature his daughter Cassie Taylor's vocals. She manages to hit his same vocal tone, only perhaps a bit less skillfully. B+(*)

Bruce Springsteen: Working on a Dream (2009, Columbia): A rather mixed bag, with simple pieces like the title song strong and eloquent, other stuff chilled out in the E Street cold locker, and a series of songs toward the end ("Life Itself," "Kingdom of Days," and especially "Surprise, Surprise") overripe and overorchestrated. B

Willie Nelson/Asleep at the Wheel: Willie and the Wheel (2009, Bismeaux): After all the weird and sometimes bizarre meet ups Lost Highway arranged for Nelson, this one is a natural, unforced, practically sublime. Asleep at the Wheel has been working on this for a long time. Their 1993 Bob Wills tribute was still rather anemic, but they figured it out for 1999's Ride With Bob, all except the part of who would sing. Needless to say, Nelson is perfect. A

Willie Nelson: American Classic (2009, Blue Note): Nominally a jazz standards album, given the label, the band, the guest stars, and Nelson's own masterful vocals. Nelson has done this sort of thing before, most notably on 1978's Stardust album, which had the advantage of being totally unexpected. He's often at his best on such occasions, but showing that he can do it doesn't prove that he can do it repeatedly. A lot of things seem to be good ideas here but don't quite work out. I'm confused about credits: looks like some cuts were made with Jeffs Clayton and Hamilton, but Christian McBride, Lewis Nash, Anthony Wilson, and Joe Sample also show up among the credits. Two guest duets, one with Norah Jones, the other with Diana Krall -- both first call singers, neither much help here. Of course, it doesn't fall flat. B+(*) [later: B+(**)]

Deer Tick: Born on Flag Day (2009, Partisan): Alias for someone named John Joseph McCauley III, not to be confused with all those other Deer-names. Claims his roots-rock credentials by the throat, although looking at the AMG review's comps, I'd say he leans more toward Tom Petty than John Prine. Rhapsody refused to play a song in the middle, which is one reason I'm sticking to my reservation. But they bury a good take of "Goodnight Irene" after a pause following the closer. B+(***)

The Bottle Rockets: Lean Forward (2009, Bloodshot): Simple, straightforward, neoclassic rock and roll group, moves along but nothing much stands out or sticks to the mind. B+(*)

Bobby Pinson: Songs for Somebody (2007, Cash Daddy): Country singer, cut one very good album for RCA (Man Like Me) who then dumped him. This has many of the same virtues -- detailed slice-of-life songs, a sense of self that's not overblown, lived-in country licks -- but not as many great songs. Happens a lot with sophomore albums, but this one is still pretty solid. A-

Wilco: Wilco (The Album) (2009, Nonesuch): A group (or is it singer-songwriter?) I've never cared enough about to figure out -- went with the hype on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot although I can't for the life of me tell you why. This is ill-served on Rhapsody, and not just because the song marked as the single won't play at all. Christgau thinks it's their best. I doubt that I'll ever find out, especially if it is. B+(**)

Dave Alvin: Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women (2008 [2009], Yep Roc): Another live album, good for recycling songs when as long as the old ones are better than the new ones, although as far as I can tell he goes both ways. He attributed a 2002 album, Out in California, to Dave Alvin & the Guilty Men. Gimmick this time is female backup singers -- possibly an all-female band. Works often enough. B+(**)

Hank Williams III: Damn Right, Rebel Proud (2008, Sidewalk): Seems to be going as Hank III these days. Still a determined lowlife, even if he doesn't sound like he lives the life he boasts about -- at least he gives it a cartoonish thrill. Voice seems less distinct than it used to, but still strong as anyone with his genes. B+(***)

Tanya Tucker: My Turn (2009, Saguaro Road): Teenage jailbait country singer, past 50 now, hasn't done much lately, turns in a covers album here. Threw me a first because I didn't recognize "Wine Me Up" from Faron Young, but none of the other songs slipped past me, and "I Love You a Thousand Ways" (Lefty Frizzell), "Walk Through This World With Me" (a George Jones hit we played at my mother's funeral), and "Oh, Lonesome Me" (Don Gibson) cinched it. Great songs ("Wine Me Up" included), she nails them all. A-

Kitty, Daisy & Lewis (2008 [2009], DH/Mercer Street): British rockabilly band, three siblings, mostly in the teenage range, whose mother is Raincoats drummer Ingrid Weiss -- their last name is Durham, after father-guitarist Graeme Durham. Sound is a little thin even by 1950s standards, but that may be their trademark. Reissue has 3 bonus cuts, the first with sax and xylophone (I think). B+(***)

Rodney Carrington: El Niño Loco (2009, Capitol Nashville): Nashville comic, previous albums include Morning Wood, Nut Sack, and King of the Mountains -- hint, check the covers. This one is reportedly the first all-song release, mostly along the lines of "Drink More Beer" and "Wish She Would Have Left Me Quicker," but the music is so solid you can sneak it on and wait for the reactions. B+(**)

John Anderson: Bigger Hands (2009, Country Crossing): His voice is one of the more dependable ones in country music, so the albums rise or fall on the songs. Beer songs are always solid filler, and there's three or four of them. But there's more here, including a Wall Street/Main Street contrast called "Shuttin' Detroit Down" that's the first song I've put on my Songs list this year. A-

Aaron Tippin: In Overdrive (2009, Country Crossing): The Working Man's PhD never met a trucker song he didn't like, covering Haggard and Loggins and John Anderson's "Chicken Truck" and Jay Huguely's "White Knight" as well as a big swath of the Dave Dudley songbook. He burns a lot of diesel along the way, so he chooses to end with "Drill Here, Drill Now." Think he knows that more dry holes have been drilled in the USA than in the rest of the world combined? Some day this will be great folk music, a paean to a world long lost. B+(**)

Zac Brown Band: The Foundation (2008, Home Grown/ROAR/Big Picture/Atlantic): A couple of obvious Jimmy Buffett rips tag Brown as a slight iconoclast, which in turn helps loosen up the more ordinary country ruts he is prone to stumble into. Fiddle helps, as do chickens -- check out the closer, "Sic 'em on a Chicken." B+(*)

Neko Case: Middle Cyclone (2009, Anti-): Seems like she should be better than she ever sounds, which makes me wonder if she's really that good. Second play showed the songs gaining force but didn't entice me into giving it a third. B

The Dead Weather: Horehound (2008-09 [2009], Third Man/Warner Brothers): Jack White group. He is almost unique in how loosely tethered is to his main meal ticket, the White Stripes, so he can indulge other musicians whenever the itch occurs. This is certainly better than the Raconteurs. Kills' Alison Mosshart's vocals are gloomy in a comfy way, Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Dean Fertita springs loose from heavy metal trappings. A-

Ian Hunter: Man Overboard (2009, New West): Always regarded as a Dylan-immitator, it's sobering to realize that he's actually older than Dylan, now 70. Also notable that the Dylan he echoes today is today is the Dylan of today, grizzled, satisfied with a sense of grace. Still, there are echoes of Mott the Hoople as well, not the young dudes band self-conscious decline, which also achieves a certain grace here. B+(**)

Arctic Monkeys: Humbug (2009, Domino): Third album. Thought they sounded fresh and punkish first time, fell off a bit the second. First half of this sounds anything but crisp, with its tricky time changes and neatly coiffed layering. Gets a bit better after that, with "Dance Little Liar" flashing some muscle. B [later: B-]


Records I looked for but didn't find on Rhapsody:

  • Tom Abbs & Frequency Response: Lost and Found (Engine)
  • Dee Alexander: Wild Is the Wind (Blujazz)
  • Michael Bates: Live in New York (Greenleaf Music)
  • The Clean: Mister Pop (Merge)
  • Tony DeSare: Radio Show (Telarc)
  • Manic Street Preachers: Joural for Plague Lovers (Columbia)
  • Maxïmo Park: Quicken the Heart (Warp)
  • Rancid: Let the Dominoes Fall (Epitaph/Hellcat)
  • Nate Wooley/Jason Roebke/Fred Lonberg-Holm: Throw Down Your Hammer (Porter)

Recycled Goods

The following were written during this period for Recycled Goods:

Mulatu Astatke: Éthiopiques, Vol. 4: Ethio Jazz and Musique Instrumentale (1969-74 [2004], Buda Musique): An Ethiopian jazz student in London, New York, and Boston, returns full circle with an exceptionally beguiling twist: rumbling rhythm, sly guitar, gently rolling horns; works as jazz, exotica, easy listening. A-

Jazz Prospecting

The following were written during this period for Jazz Prospecting:

Dee Alexander: Wondrous Fascination (2006-07 [2007], no label): She won Downbeat's Rising Star Female Vocalists poll, so I figured I should check her out. This is the only thing Rhapsody has: a pop gospel album with The Christ Community Worship Team. She's not an over-the-top gospel diva -- her voice only barely emerges above the crowd. Not a lick of jazz either. Sounds awful at first, but over the course develops a humdrum routine catchiness. The record I still want to find is Wild Is the Wind (Blujazz). C-

Mary Halvorson/Jessica Pavone/Devin Hoff/Ches Smith: Calling All Portraits (2008, Skycap): Starts on something of a false note with a title scream, a feint toward punk or antifolk followed by a hard left into something else. Halvorson's guitar has the least presence here. Hoff's bass, on the other hand, is amped up to the point where he's the evident leader, while Pavone's violin slices through everything without the slightest hint of sweetness. Mostly odd groove music with a lot of sharp edges. Hard to say what it all means, but the bass and drums provide balance and diversity that the duo lacks. Maybe humor too. B+(***)

Mary Halvorson Trio: Dragon's Head (2008, Firehouse 12): Away from Jessica Pavone, this finally provides some sense of what Halvorson's guitar sounds like, although the answer isn't simple. Trio includes John Hebert on bass and Ches Smith on drums. As much fun as Devin Hoff was on Calling All Portraits, Hebert is a relief here, totally engaged in whatever's happening, as supportive as a bassist can be. Halvorson does a number of interesting things here, including some surprising heavy metal crunch, but mostly a lot of poking and prodding, small figures that stay far clear from ye olde bebop lines. This got a lot of poll votes last year. Seems like it is the sort of record an artist can build a reputation on. A-

Christian Scott: Live at Newport (2008, Concord, CD+DVD): Cool young mainstream trumpet player, Downbeat's Rising Star, has two previous albums on Concord, neither made much of an impression on me. Sextet, with Walter Smith III on tenor, both piano and guitar as well as bass and drums. This starts out sounding funereal, and rarely picks up the place, although the rhythm is competently complex and Smith cuts a few strong solos. Can't see DVDs via Rhapsody, not that I'd want to. B