Reviews, March 2013

Published  March 2013

Books

Mark Laflaur: Elysian FieldsMARK LAFLAUR
ELYSIAN FIELDS

(MID-CITY)
Kicking off a book with a catastrophe-in-the-making is risky business. In the case of Mark LaFlaur’s Elysian Fields, it casts a pall over the massive flashback that is the tale of the Weems family. Simpson, the elder brother fed up with the behavior of his younger, fervently religious and touched-in-the-head sibling Bartholomew, seems intent on burning the man-child alive in a fishing camp shack. But will he follow through on his desire? A look at the interplay of the figures in this workingclass clan on Invalides street has shades of Tennessee Williams, Faulkner and John Kennedy Toole impressed in its pages, yet it transcends those influences to become an original vision all its own, exposing generational, behavioral and ideological rifts that can develop in even the closest of relationships. LaFlaur gently and expertly pulls readers along with his characters, never flinching in the face of their foibles, giving us reasons to care what happens to them even when their thoughts and actions may be richly undeserving of such care. Which, in the end, is Elysian Fields’ biggest triumph—and its near undoing. It becomes incredibly easy to get lost in Simpson’s uncertainties over his future beyond his family, Bartholomew’s bizarre orthodoxies and the strengths and weaknesses of the doomed matriarch Melba. Still and all, it is a stunning debut. –Leigh Checkman

 

Music

ATOMS FOR PEACE
AMOK

(XL)
antigravity_vol10_issue5_Page_28_Image_0003With so much secrecy, speculation and viral hype in front of AMOK, the debut release from the supergroup featuring Thom Yorke and Flea, I was cautiously optimistic. But when I finally got it in my hands and onto the turntable, I was like a kid in an ear candy store. The opening track, “Before Your Very Eyes,” sets the course for a deeply layered dance album that feels less about conventional songwriting and more about a syrupy production that will blur the lines between the analog, electronic and organic sounds of the band’s musical universe. Credit that to superproducer/ magician and band member Nigel Godrich, who likened the three-day recording session to that of a fusion-era jazz session—recording big blocks of music and then editing them together later. Only in a few rare instances does it actually feel that way, and at no point does it ever become a rudderless “jam session.” Despite the overall apocalyptic theme of the album, most tracks, like “Default” and “Ingenue,” are surprisingly upbeat and play out more like a dance-off than a death march. If AMOK is to be the soundtrack to our inevitable demise, then “Judge, Jury and Executioner” is your ticket to the after party for the musically enlightened. Another pleasant surprise finds Flea shedding the skin of a Chili Pepper and playing a more subdued role, which is not to say that his crisp contribution is any less important or thoughtful. He is the solid ground in an otherwise sprawling galaxy of sound. Skittering beats and Yorke’s ethereal cooing will undoubtedly draw immediate comparisons to Radiohead and Yorke’s first solo effort, The Eraser. But as you allow this new facet to grow on you, know that AMOK unfolds into a stand-alone piece that doubles as a complimentary chapter in an already grandiose body of work. –Kevin Comarda

 

ICEAGE
YOU’RE NOTHING

(MATADOR)
antigravity_vol10_issue5_Page_28_Image_0004The biggest stumbling block I’ve faced in fully accepting punk rock into my heart is the thinness of a lot of the music. I’m a sucker for a nice three-chord riff, but unless you’ve got some serious songwriting chops or a killer lead singer, that’s not going to keep me at the dance. Iceage solves this problem with elegant simplicity: they bludgeon it with a ball-peen hammer. Loud, vicious, a screaming cloud of sound, You’re Nothing is an industrialized assault that weaves classic punk riffing with a white noise squall capable of submerging Denmark. Iceage operates in a very distinct category: the brutally efficient rock song. You’re Nothing simultaneously adds nuance and color to the punk song while whittling its heart down to gut-punch perfection. From the opening barrage of “Ecstasy,” my brain was under attack. There’s a tremor you can hear in the voice and in the way the guitars strain against their amps that says Iceage isn’t holding anything back. There’s a fury in their playing that, above all the added noise, makes them sound fucking ferocious. The snarling twang of “In Haze” and its absolutely mental pace sounds positively upbeat next to the grueling thrash of “It Might Hit First,” which comes on like you’re dying of cardiac arrest on a thrill ride to hell, or something very close to that. If I’m driven to hyperbole it’s only because my mind has been assaulted by this record. It’s obvious that You’re Nothing was made by and for people who can’t imagine playing it quietly. –Mike Rodgers

 

MY BLOODY VALENTINE
MBV

(Self-Released)
antigravity_vol10_issue5_Page_28_Image_0005It’s been 21 years since the release of Loveless, and Kevin Shields is back to reclaim his crown as the king of lo-fi. After so many years, though, it seems a bit ironic that MBV came just days after it was announced. I welcomed it with open arms, but this new friend seemed destined to suffocate under the mythology of its iconic predecessor. At first look and listen, it appeared that Shields and company weren’t doing themselves any favors to make the distinction either. I was skeptical. But, the more I listened, the less it sounded like a half-cocked sequel and the more it felt like a brilliant transition that could stand on its own feet. The sonic dynamics are evolving, but the signature sound remains true. “She Found Now” opens up right where Loveless left off with all the hazy bliss and washed out guitars that veteran fans have come to expect and appreciate. It’s not until “Is This and Yes” that we really start to hear the musical parameters expanding into some of the most tender vocals and minimal songwriting to date. “New You” makes a quick shift into the dream pop arena and is sure to have anyone with a heartbeat bobbing their head uncontrollably. By the end of the album, we hear “Nothing Is” and “Wonder 2” climaxing into an all-out assault, sending the entire mix through a series of processors and what sounds like a jet engine. Like a good impressionist painting, a closer look will reward with all the subtlety and nuance of a carefully tailored experience. The patience of a casual listener might be tested in sparse instances of monotony or repetition, but I was so absorbed in a fuzzy cloud of sound that I barely noticed. As long as they were dishing it out, I was eating it up and I am confident most avid fans will be doing the same. –Kevin Comarda

 

NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS
PUSH THE SKY AWAY

(BAD SEEDS LTD)
antigravity_vol10_issue5_Page_28_Image_0006Like slowly exhaling a long held breath, Push the Sky Away is the sound of Nick Cave letting go. Letting go of Grinderman and all its loin-quaking fever. Letting go of original Bad Seed Mick Harvey. Letting go of the immense volume and orchestral majesty the Bad Seeds were capable of. Push the Sky Away is a whisper, a baroque ethereal thing that feels like a return to the beginning for Cave. The record is low and subtle, much of it built up from simple loops created by Cave’s partner in crime, Warren Ellis. Taut guitar strings repeat in a thumping heartbeat; piano and kettle drum dart between the breaks in Cave’s earnest delivery of “We Real Cool.” There’s a definite intimacy in this music, like a delicate touch in the title track’s strings and light-as-a-feather choir that recalls the momentum shift of Boatman’s Call. Push the Sky Away eschews the Southern gothicism of old Cave and the horndog sleaze of latter-day Cave, instead giving us the breathless cool of “Jubilee Street” Cave––a man who digs up some sympathy in his dark croak for a girl “with no past” while a pretty guitar melody slinks alongside him. The album is as breezy as the Bad Seeds have ever been. After an unusually prolific few years, they needed some time to gather their wits about them and find a new way to make incredible music sound fantastically simple. –Mike Rodgers

 

RED BARAAT
SHRUGGY JI

(SINJ)
antigravity_vol10_issue5_Page_29_Image_0001When the expert, New York-based jazzturned- party brass players of Red Baraat made their album debut in 2010 with Chaal Baby, it was a sound that seemed long overdue. Stirring bhangra rhythms straight out of northern India blended with a western-influenced brass band tradition of sound, I heard Sunny Jain and his bandmates playing away in Jackson Square as they walked to WWOZ one morning. They were throwing down a sound that was familiar and yet not, a feeling of New Orleans steeped in a massive sonic infusion from south Asia. Shruggy Ji takes a different tack, moving on to sounds resembling D.C. go-go that Chuck Brown would be comfortable with, yet characteristically building on the rototoms to keep the Punjabi party atmosphere alive. “Halla Bol” gets the fun started, tipping right into the slightly subtler processional of “Tenu Leke”—but the title track dares the listeners to get shoulders shrugging and shins shaking to their beat. Shruggy is a great second album, showing off how loose Red Baraat has become in their few years beyond straight concert jazz. If the album has a major flaw, it is that some of the songs go on a little too long, but, presumably, listeners will be dancing too much to care. –Leigh Checkman

 

ROGER KNOX AND THE PINE VALLEY COSMONAUTS
STRANGER IN MY LAND

(BLOODSHOT)
antigravity_vol10_issue5_Page_29_Image_0002In My Land is an extremely difficult record to write about, because it’s so tenaciously good. It’s absolutely flabbergasting. This is what’s happening: there is a stunningly long and underpublicized tradition of country music—steel guitars, fiddles, the whole bit—played by ethnic Aborigines in Australia. Some of the songs are about bar fights and lost love and all those standard classic country themes. But then some songs are about the government removing your parents and raising you on a mission in the Outback. These are songs that the American Indians would have written if the Trail of Tears happened 100 years later. The remarkable thing about the Aborigines’ story is not that it is different from that of any other ethnic group who has ever been oppressed, but that it occurred so recently. As late as the 1970s, children were still being removed from their families in certain parts of Australia. Roger Knox sings these songs with a dire hopefulness in his warm, honey bear voice. The 12 songs here were written by the pioneers and heroes of the Aboriginal country movement, none of whose names you know. Some of the tracks on this record are the only known recordings of these songs. Andre Williams, Bonnie Prince Billy, Charlie Louvin and others offer supporting vocals to Knox. The Pine Valley Cosmonauts is the name given to Jon Langford’s studio band, whose members rotate frequently. Here they are often joined or replaced by members of the Sadies, and the resultant sound is surging and weeping and swilling all at once. This might be the most important record that anybody makes this year. Utterly magnificent. –The Rev. Dr. Daniel P. Jackson

 

TEENA MARIE
BEAUTIFUL
(UME)

antigravity_vol10_issue5_Page_29_Image_0003Mary Christine Brockert, aka, Teena Marie (or Lady Tee, as Rick James called her) passed away in 2010, leaving behind a soul legacy that didn’t seem to need any burnishing. At least not until her daughter Alia Rose recently released the music Teena Marie was working on at the time of her death. Though Beautiful is not a finished work, it manages to avoid the disjointed feel many other artists’ posthumous releases can have. Marie never left the ‘80s completely behind, as evidenced on tracks like “Luv Letter.” Its sounds are full of the synthesizers and programmed drums of that era, but her singing was as strong as ever and, though the tools may have been dated, the music isn’t. When considering the critical acclaim afforded to Frank Ocean in the past year within the context of this album, it becomes clear that Marie was one of those who paved the way for the resurgence of this style of R&B, working away beyond her celebrated heyday on albums like Congo Square and songs like “Maria Bonita” on Beautiful that commemorated her heritage and that of her musical genre. Teena Marie was, as one of her songs on this latest and last of her works says, a “rare breed,” indeed—an Ivory Queen of Soul who kept making music that would carry her strength beyond her days on earth. Beautiful reigns as a fitting tribute. –Leigh Checkman

 

TOMAHAWK
ODDFELLOWS

(IPECAC)
antigravity_vol10_issue5_Page_29_Image_0004Of all the myriad Mike Patton projects that sprang up in the aftermath of the demise of both his mainstream funkmetal outfit Faith No More and the cult spazz-rock of Mr. Bungle, Tomahawk had the most potential to become something solid on its own. For several reasons, though, this project has always been the least interesting. Recorded quickly with little frills, Tomahawk albums are fairly straightforward affairs. If anything, they’ve always skewed too closely to the “rock band” formula and their songs have never been as interesting or as creative as they needed to be to make the albums anything more than slightly better, average rock. Oddfellows continues that trend by chugging through 15 tracks of mid-tempo guitar rock that rarely rises above the high water mark. Even the addition of former Bungle collaborator Trevor Dunn does little to bring any freshness to the record. His presence may have something to do with a few of the record’s more bizarre and exciting moments and there’s no denying that this is the most solid work the band has ever turned in. Even Patton himself is reigned in, letting his nasal outbursts stay scant, relying instead on the kind of crooning that held down the last Faith No More record Album of the Year. In fact, that’s the record that most resembles Oddfellows. It is solid, well produced and played, but with little of the insanity and creative force that makes the best Patton work so unusual. The best moments of the record feel more like callbacks to previous highs rather than any new territory. –Mike Rodgers

 

YO LA TENGO
FADE

(MATADOR)
antigravity_vol10_issue5_Page_29_Image_0005Don’t judge this album by its silver-toned, pastel-spotted cover. Though many of its sounds may seem ethereal and fuzzy, the longtime trio of Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew is still crafting some beautiful songs tinged with wistful, edgy and occasionally slightly humorous lyrics. Fade is right up there with I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One as one of the band’s best sets. Over the decades that Yo La Tengo has been making music, they have been taking more chances while still staying within their comfort zone of gently repetitive indie pop (perhaps in part because, these days, any definitions of “indie pop” have been effectively exploded). Teetering-towards-syrupy strings put the musing over mistakes in “Is That Enough” into sharper relief, but then the peppy drumming and keyboards of “Well You Better” bring Kaplan’s loving pleadings into more conventional pop territory. Fears that Yo La Tengo may have left their feedback effects behind are allayed in tracks such as “Paddle Forward,” “Ohm” and “Stupid Things,” which reveal that the band has mastered and melded the slight static expertly into the album’s fabric. What to listen for in Fade, however, is the guitar work: the beautiful acoustic in “I’ll Be Around,” the softly searing solo in “Ohm,” the atmosphere it brings to the longing of the Hubley-sung “Cornelia and Jane.” Like fine wine, the years continue to make Yo La Tengo better with age. –Leigh Checkman

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